Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Spring is Trying to Spring in Finland

City workers have been busy planting flowers 
It's only the end of April, and already, the sun rises about 5:30 a.m. and doesn't set until almost 9:30 p.m. It is so weird, much more so than in winter when it was dark most of the day. I can't imagine what it will be like in June.

The bathing beauties are back!
The good news about that is we have a black-out shade installed in our huge bedroom window. The bad news is now that it is pulled down, we can't get it to go back up without standing on a chair and manually trying to roll it up. So the bedroom is basically in almost total darkness all the time. I say almost, because the light manages to peek through around the edges of the shade. It's not enough to keep me awake at night or wake me up too early, but if it starts doing so, I'll just get some masking tape and tape it all around the wall. Hey, it doesn't matter since we're keeping the shade down anyway!

I rode my bike today for the first time in months, and I can tell my body is going to be complaining tomorrow, especially my still-hurting back. But it was so fun to be able to get out and enjoy the sun (getting my much-needed vitamin D!) and ride around town. The city workers have been very busy clearing the streets and sidewalks of all the snow remnants and trash, and have been planting flowers around town. I know at home the crocuses and daffodils are long gone, but here, they are just now blooming! Lots of pansies are being planted, too.

The pretty waterfront
I don't have a yard to plant flowers, but I do have a nice plant shelf on my balcony, so I plan to decorate with some flowers there. I'm just still a bit reticent to buy flowers, when I'm not convinced the cold weather is gone for good. Sure, today it was sunny and 50 degrees F., but tomorrow it's supposed to be cold and rainy again.

Along with spring comes another warm-weather nuisance. I'm not talking about bugs -- yet. I'm talking about noisy motor scooters, which really should be banned because of how loud and annoying they are. Probably 98% are driven by teenage boys, and while it's a great way for them to get around, the noise pollution is in the stratosphere. I thought that everyone rode bikes in Rauma, but apparently, those scooters are almost as popular. Other expats who have been here longer than us say that in summer, you can hear the scooters out at midnight, because it's still light out. I'm just glad we live in a relatively quiet area, away from the street. I feel bad for all those people who live next to busy roads.

Flowers for sale in Old Town Square 
My parents sent us the best anniversary present this year -- a box full of American goodies we can't get in Finland! They sent Jif peanut butter, ranch salad dressing, a box of Bisquick, a bag of chocolate chips, a bag of Kraft mini marshmallows (they do sell fake marshmallows here that are the nastiest things I've ever tasted), a bag of my favorite Ritz Main Street Original crackers, some taco shells and mix, and some chili mix. My mom said it was the most unusual gift she's sent someone, but it's definitely much appreciated!

Already planning my next adventure for late May. My wish list of places to visit includes those I haven't been to, including Krakow, Vienna, Amsterdam, Oslo and the fjords of Norway, Dubai, Berlin, Barcelona and Budapest. I'd also like to re-visit Rome, Prague, and anywhere in France. We're already going to meet up with our daughter in London the end of June to go to Wimbledon, which we are very excited about.

I basically started looking for the cheapest airfare to any of my wish list places. It turns out the cheapest flights were to Rome and Barcelona. The catch was the times and layovers were horrible. That's the thing about these websites like Kayak, Orbitz and Skyscanner (which covers European airlines). Don't get me wrong, these sites are great for planning trips, and I've used all three of these, as well as others. You just have to be very careful when booking flights, because you could end up flying to Barcelona, but you have to go through London Stansted, and you have a 12-hour layover, or you don't leave Finland until 11 p.m. at night.

I ended up booking a flight to Stockholm, leaving from Pori, which is only 30 minutes from Rauma. I am very excited about the trip, as Stockholm is supposed to be a beautiful coastal city with lots to see and do (and shop!). And Tom and I plan to cross another place off the list in August. I'm leaning toward Norway, to take a boat ride through the fjords when it's warm enough to enjoy it.

Here's hoping for warmer weather for everyone!


Thursday, April 12, 2012

Tsars, Pierogis and Vodka

In front of the Winter Palace/Hermitage  
I never thought in a million years that I would get the opportunity to visit Russia, but again, that is the biggest benefit of living in Finland on this expat adventure -- the ability to travel all over Europe so easily.

It turns out lots of other Areva expats from Rauma decided to visit St. Petersburg, Russia, over the long Easter weekend. Five other Americans and about 30 French also took the St. Peter Line ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg. The ship, a 1980s-era relic called the M/S Maria, left Helsinki Friday evening and arrived in St. Petersburg Saturday morning. There is a new way to get around the Russian visa requirement: If you arrive via a ship and book a guided tour, you can stay in St. Petersburg visa-free for up to 72 hours. This is a great and easy way to visit this beautiful and historic city. We stayed in a terrific hotel, the Sokos Palace Bridge for two nights, and spent three days in St. Petersburg, leaving for the overnight ferry ride back to Finland Monday evening.

The Church on Spilled Blood
When you've been on the nice, new cruise ships sailing in the Caribbean (like the Celebrity Eclipse we sailed on last year), boarding an older ship like the M/S Maria can be a shock. Our cabin was so tiny, we could barely move, let alone find a place to put our luggage. And don't get me started on the bathroom! The water from the shower sprayed all over the bathroom -- but at least it was warm water! The worst thing was the noise and vibration -- that and the fact that all night, you could hear the ship plowing through the ice in the Baltic. As everyone had been talking about the anniversary of the sinking of the TItanic, that made us all just a tiny bit nervous!

Arriving in St. Petersburg by boat is a little disappointing, because you enter through this huge industrial port area. Not very attractive. We had heard that it can be time-consuming to get through immigration, but we had no problems at all. Got that Russian stamp in our passports, and we were on our way. Took the "official" shuttle to the hotel, where our private guide and driver, Sasha and Sergei from Insider Tour, were waiting. We had a very busy tour of the city, visiting all the famous sights, then had a wonderful lunch at a traditional Russian tea room, and finished the afternoon with a tour of the Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum.

The next day, we wandered around, although the weather was really nasty. Tom didn't have a hat, so he was pretty miserable. It wouldn't have been so bad, but the snow was blowing sideways into our faces. Still, we saw as much as we could. We ended up at the Museum of Vodka, where we got to sample three vodkas from their collection of over 220 kinds! That's the way to warm up after walking around in the cold and snow! We later met up with some new Finnish friends we had met on the ship for dinner at a Russian restaurant recommended by the hotel, and it was lots of fun.

Lemon Pierogi
Monday was much better, still cold but gloriously sunny. I dragged Tom around to re-take photos of places we previously had  been to just to get better pictures! Did a little shopping, too.

Some things we noticed:

* English is not as widely-spoken in St. Petersburg as it is in other European countries. You can get by, of course, but the toughest part is reading signs.
* We felt totally safe walking around, even though we had read that you can get stopped by the police at any time. We saw lots of police and military walking around, but it was no big deal.
* The food was much better than we anticipated. Probably the best things we tried were the pies, or pierogis. I had a cabbage pierogi, and Tom had one with chicken. Then we shared a lemon one for dessert. Yummy! A pierogi is a yeasty dough baked around a filling. I also liked the Borscht soup, which is made with meat, beets, cabbage, carrots and seasonings. It is topped with a dollop of sour cream, which I could have done without.
Choose from 220 kinds at the Vodka Museum
* The vodka was very good, and we could taste the difference between the cheaper stuff and the good stuff. The duty-free prices on the ship actually were better than the prices in St. Petersburg, although we did buy a few mini bottles of brands that weren't available on the ship, such as Beluga and Imperia.
* The Church on Spilled Blood was my favorite place to see. This beautiful church was built on the spot where Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. The church was used as a morgue and then a warehouse during the Communist years. After 30 years of renovations, it was opened to the public in the late 1990s. A WWII-era bomb was actually found buried in the roof of the church not too long ago. It was carefully removed and detonated outside the city.
* The Winter Palace and Hermitage Museum on Palace Square are as magnificent as you would expect. I'm so glad we had a guide to lead us around there, or we could have been lost for days. We spent three hours there, but that wasn't enough. I would like to go back sometime.
* We also didn't get to the palaces outside the city, Peterhof and Tsarskoe Selo. Our guide said we should visit those in warmer weather, when the fountains are working and the grounds are in full bloom. She said late August/early September are good times to visit, as the weather is great but the crowds aren't as bad as June and July.

So, if any of you friends and/or family want to join me for a trip, let me know!

Here's a link to the pictures:


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Flying is not Fun

Hello, again!

I am pleased to report that we made it back to Rauma in one piece! Although at times, I wasn't sure if we -- or our luggage -- would make it!

I used to like flying, but after this last trip, I'm not as enthusiastic! Saturday afternoon, we flew from Charlotte to Washington Dulles. We rushed to our SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) gate, and we were told that the overnight flight to Copenhagen was going to be delayed FIVE hours due to "technical difficulties."

On the one hand, that was lousy. On the other hand, that meant that we had time for a last Mexican dinner at the pretty good Tex-Mex restaurant in Dulles, AND Tom would get to watch Kentucky beat Louisville in the Final Four. Okay.

We also were upgraded from Economy to Economy Plus. That means more space, unlimited alcohol, and a choice of entrees. Plus, when we boarded, we found out we were in the bulkhead seats, which meant even more leg room.

It's a good thing we ate dinner at Dulles, because the meal choices on our flight were horrible: Chicken Meatloaf (which should never, ever, be allowed as an entree combination) and Fish Stew. Can you imagine what pre-cooked and re-heated Fish Stew would taste like? Me, either. I ordered the meatloaf just for the dessert, which was a tasty cheesecake.

Because our flight was delayed, we missed our connection to Turku. SAS put us on a later flight to Helsinki, then another three-hour wait, then a 30-minute flight to Turku. When we got there, guess what? Our luggage didn't make it -- big surprise. Funny thing was, another lady didn't get her luggage, either. Turned out she had been on our same flights from Dulles, from Copenhagen and from Helsinki.

Then we had to scrape ice and snow off our car and drive an hour to Rauma. All in all, over 28 hours of travel time.

We fiilled out the paperwork, and we finally got our luggage delivered to Rauma on Tuesday.

I'm glad to report that it has been sunny here all week, and most of the nasty snow has melted! I have been out on nice walks and been preparing for our trip to St. Petersburg, Russia, this weekend.

The forecast is calling for snow showers both here and there, but by now, we are used to all these roadblocks to smooth travel. Will take plenty of pictures in St. Petersburg!