Monday, June 17, 2013

Spring, Northern Italy, Goto Restaurant

Flowers for sale at the Old Town square

Mother Nature keeps teasing us here in southwestern Finland. For a few days, it will be sunny -- and very warm! -- then, all of a sudden, it will be cold, windy and rainy. Midsummer is next Saturday, which is a two-day holiday here and a cause for big celebrations. Everything closes -- even the Alko (liquor store). You can bet there will be long lines there on Thursday! Hopefully, the weather will cooperate. I will admit that the long days and nights are much better than winter, when it's dark and depressing. The black-out shades have been in place for several months and taped to the wall, but sunlight still slips through. Officially, the sun "sets" right now around 11:15 p.m. and "rises" at 3:55 a.m. But it never gets totally dark.It usually wakes me up at 3 a.m.

Root vegetables for sale
It's already been warmer here this year than last summer, although we had some dreary weather this weekend. The only time I wore shorts last summer was when we went to Barcelona and London! This summer, we've actually had a few days where the temperature reached 80 degrees F.! That is unheard-of. The winter was milder this year as well. Even the locals comment on how much worse winter and summer were in 2012 compared to this year so far. We were at the company summer party this past weekend, and several of us were talking about how obsessed we are with the weather here. I think it's partly because the weather changes so quickly. One minute it's sunny and pleasant; the next, the wind blows in from the Sea of Bothnia and there's a 20-minute rain storm. Unlike the southern U.S., we rarely have thunderstorms here in Finland. But we have had a few in recent months.

The Doumo in Milan at night
I know the weather issues haven't been limited to Finland. I worry about everyone back home in the U.S. with all the severe weather. A tree fell on a friend's house during a recent storm -- thankfully, no one was hurt.

With better weather, more vendors are showing up in the Old Town square every day with fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables. The strawberries and blueberries finally have some taste, and you can get every root vegetable imaginable -- beets, carrots, turnips, onions, and many varieties of potatoes. The local tomatoes are still the hot-house variety, but we can get decent ones from Holland and Spain. I even got some peaches from Spain the other day that were edible. And of course, we've been getting some yummy asparagus, although most of it also comes from abroad, usually France. I've been steaming asparagus and putting it on salad almost every day.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan
Taking advantage of the season, my friend Marion and I visited northern Italy last week. We flew to Milan, toured the city, saw Da Vinci's breath-taking "Last Supper," visited the famous Doumo, ate some great food, drank just a little wine (!), and did a bit of shopping. We took a day trip to Lake Como, which included a boat ride to Bellagio. We saw lakeside homes belonging to Sophia Loren, George Clooney and Sir Richard Branson (his house is spectacular).

Next, we took the train from Milan to Santa Margherita Ligure. What a picturesque seaside town! We took the ferry to Portofino, which also is beautiful, although a bit touristy. I will say that Italians are some of my favorite people. Everyone seems to be happy all the time! And who wouldn't with all that good food, drink and scenery!

Milan train station
If you get the chance to travel in Europe, I highly recommend taking a train at least once. It is simple, affordable and stress-free. Also, I usually don't like organized tours, but a tour is such a good way to get acclimated to a new city. In the case of Milan and "The Last Supper," it's a perfect way to see a masterpiece that is very difficult to get tickets to. You have to book months in advance for a 15-minute visit with Da Vinci's second most famous painting (yes, the "Mona Lisa" is No. 1 -- although it is much smaller in person and is always crowded with camera-wielding tourists in front of it at the Louvre in Paris). You aren't allowed to take photos of "The Last Supper," which is probably a good thing, since it allows you to reflect more on the work, which Da VInci painted on the dining hall wall of the monastery of Santa Maria della Grazie church in Milan. "The Last Supper" depicts the reactions of the twelve Apostles when Jesus announces that one of them will betray him. The painting recently underwent a major renovation, and the colors are just as Da Vinci painted them in the late 15th century.
Santa Margherita Ligure

We also took an organized bus tour to Lake Como. Yes, we could have taken the train ourselves, then taken the ferry ride to Bellagio, but we would have missed all the great commentary by our enthusiastic guide. Plus, we never would have guessed which house was George's!

Back here in Finland, my husband and I are preparing to return home to the U.S. in a few weeks, as our time here comes to a close. I have met with the packing company, we sold our car, found buyers for our bicycles, and I have started clearing out the pantry. I'll have some more thoughts on the move in a future post. We also are planning to visit Rome and Tuscany before returning to the U.S., so I'm excited to return to Italy so soon.
The Mediterranean Coast



 One new thing here in Rauma is the opening of Goto, a restaurant run by the 2012 winner of Finland's version of "Top Chef." I have to admit that I love "Top Chef" in the U.S., and I was impressed when I heard the winner, Teemu Laurell, chose Rauma to open his restaurant. Well, it turns out that Teemu was born in Rauma, and "Goto" means "home" in Finnish. Former ice hockey champions Janne Niskala and Petri Vehasen, along with former coach Timo Elon co-own the restaurant.

The menu has a lot of the typical Finnish items -- salmon, whitefish, pork, herring, but Teemu's dishes are creative with lots of sauces and garnishes to make them stand out. They use local products whenever possible. My husband had the whitefish, which as seared and served along two different sauces. It was served with tasty roasted cauliflower. I got the marbled filet of beef, which had a "cafe de Paris" sauce comprised of butter, mustard, garlic, shallots, a variety of other herbs and spices, along with minced sardines, which I never would have guessed. The desserts are unbelievable. How about marinated strawberries with milk mousse and strawberry ice cream? Or my choice, chocolate mousse, bits of brownie, roasted white chocolate and coffee ice cream?

Friday, May 3, 2013

What's new

Okay, I admit it -- I have been very, very slack about updating the blog. I blame it on Facebook -- it is so much easier just to post little snippets instead of writing entire blog posts. I didn't even join Facebook until a year ago -- I resisted as long as I could. But I do appreciate the ability to reconnect with people I haven't heard from in years thanks to FB.

Kukenhof Gardens, Holland
I also have been negligent in updating the blog, because I spent 3-1/2 months at home in the U.S. from early December to the end of March -- all because I just couldn't face spending another winter in Finland. The cold temperatures and the snow didn't bother me so much -- it was the dark days and the icy sidewalks that were so depressing -- and dangerous for me, as I had a few bad falls!  A visit with my doctor revealed I also had a Vitamin D deficiency -- yes, we all need some sunlight every day. I know many people here in Finland buy the special lights to help with that during the long winter months, but I was not one of those people. While I appreciate
many things about living temporarily in Europe -- making wonderful friends from different places, the ability to travel so easily throughout Europe -- living abroad certainly does make you appreciate life in the U.S. much more.

It also turned out to be a good thing I was home during the winter, as my daughter accepted a job offer in Atlanta in January, and I was so glad I could help her move there from Washington, as well as spend time visiting with my son in Raleigh and my family in Hickory, N.C.

And now, our time in Finland is rapidly drawing to a close. I have mixed feelings, as I do love the friends I have made here; I like the healthier lifestyle -- walking and biking everywhere, eating less fast food and processed food, and, of course, the travel opportunities. But moving back to the U.S. this summer will just be a new chapter in our ongoing adventure, wherever it takes us. In the meantime, I plan to squeeze in a few more trips -- back to Stockholm, although this time by cruise through the popular Aland Islands; an early June visit to northern Italy, and a final trip to Rome and Tuscany.

Many other expats also are being sent home or to other locations. We have been to a number of farewell parties, and it really makes me sad. I think this is just a sign of the times. People travel more for work than ever before, and our more mobile society is rapidly becoming the norm.
One of Amsterdam's many beautiful canals

I recently went to Amsterdam with a friend, primarily to see the tulips and other flowers at the Kukenhof gardens in Lisse. It was everything I hoped for -- the gardens are only open two months every year, and draw visitors from around the world. While in Amsterdam, we saw Anne Frank's house, took a boat ride through Amsterdam's famous canals, visited a wooden shoe-making factory, a cheese factory and even saw a stand-up comedy performance by Seth Meyers from "Saturday Night Live." Amsterdam has a bit of a reputation because of its lax drug laws and the Red Light District, but there is much to appreciate about the city, especially the fabulous art at the newly-renovated Rijksmuseum. I also loved the Van Gogh paintings which were temporarily housed at the Hermitage museum while the Van Gogh Museum completed its own renovations. We did walk through the Red Light District one evening (after a bottle of wine and a nice Italian dinner), and seeing the women advertising their "assets" in the store-front windows actually was very sad to me. But at least they do get health care, regulation and assistance.

The weather here in southwestern Finland hasn't welcomed spring just yet, but the forecast looks promising. I returned here April 1 hoping for warmer temperatures, but the chill and especially, the wind, have been quite annoying. We travel home next week to attend our son's university graduation, and I hope when we return to Finland, it will at least be warm enough to put away the down parka, scarves and gloves!

 Here is the link to the Amsterdam pictures. The beautiful flowers will brighten your day!