Friday, November 9, 2012

Issues and Istanbul

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul 
It's been awhile since I've written, but it's not because of a lack of things to say! It has been an interesting few months, to say the least, and I have a new "understanding" of government bureaucracy.

My Finnish residence permit expired in August. I had applied for a renewal last June, which I was told was plenty of time to get the new one. I made fall travel plans back to the U.S. for September, in order to get a decent price. August came and went, no permit. Calls and emails were not successful. I was told there was a big back-up in permit processing. Another expat wife who was in the same situation as me flew to the U.S. -- through Brussels -- and had no problem. So I left Finland in late September and encountered a big problem -- Passport Control in Frankfurt, Germany! to make a long story short, I was detained for an hour and a half -- almost missed my flight to Charlotte -- and was extremely upset. I should be grateful, though --  a man from Houston living in Hamburg also was detained for a permit issue and he missed his flight home -- and his two dogs were on the plane without him! I hope he eventually got another flight and his dogs were safe.

Anyway, I was eventually let go after the Franfurt border control police called Finland to make sure I had indeed applied for a renewal permit, and I ran to make my flight. After more calls, my permit was finally processed, my husband picked it up at the local police station and sent it to me by Express Mail. Guess what? It then -- for some unfathomable reason -- got held up in U.S. Customs in New York! More calls and emails. The Post Office said they couldn't track it until it was released from Customs. The Customs office told me they get thousands of packages every day and can't track individual items until they have been held for 45 days.

So my two-week visit to the U.S. turned into four weeks. I'm not complaining about that, because the weather at home was a heck of a lot better than the weather in Rauma, Finland! But I had to cancel flights, re-book, lost money in the process and was extremely stressed out. The permit eventually was released by Customs, and I made it back to Finland barely in time to make a long-planned trip to Istanbul with two of my expat friends.

Sasha, our hotel's resident cat
Now, to the postive stuff! I have to admit I was a little wary of going to Turkey, especially with all of the violence going on in neighboring Syria. But Istanbul is on the northern coast, and Syria is on the southern border, so we figured it was far enough away. There have been protests in Istanbul -- we witnessed three busloads of riot police one day waiting for a protest to start -- but nothing too bad. Plus, we stayed in the tourist areas, so we felt safe. Safe except for over-aggressive shop owners, some who even follow you trying to get you to buy their goods. That is really annoying. But I have to say we also met some wonderful people -- the staff at our hotel, two entertaining tour guides, some shop owners who were respectful and entertaining. It definitely is an interesting city!

My friends and I had a wonderful trip, visiting the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Spice Market, Grand Bazaar, Dolmabahce Palace, Topkapi Palace, and enjoying the view from the Galata Tower. We took a boat ride on the Bosphorus Strait and visited the Asian side of Istanbul. We had great meals, lovely walks around Sultanhamet (the old town), fun shopping. My friends tried the famous Turkish bath (offered at our hotel).

Most fun, I think, was taking pictures of and feeding all the stray cats around Istanbul. Many hotels and shops "adopt" cats. Our hotel's resident cat was named Sasha, and she definitely ruled the front steps there. The Hagia Sophia even has a cat that lives inside the cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum. There are also stray dogs in Istanbul, and they are really sad-looking. The cats, however, mostly look well-fed and healthy. Perhaps they are just better at finding food (i.e., mice and scraps).
Inside the Hagia Sophia

We also couldn't get over just how big Istanbul really is. It's a city of 15 million people -- nine million live on the Asian, mostly residential side, and six million live on the European, more urban side. Traffic, of course, is horrendous, but the city is very beautiful, with so much history. I would definitely visit again.

Then, as we got to the airport to fly back to Finland, we were reminded once again of how volatile that part of the world is. Everyone who enters the airport immediately has to go through security, not just passengers. Then, after you check in, you have to go through passport control and security again. That didn't bother me one bit -- I definitely appreciate the safety measures.

And while I didn't appreciate being detained in Frankfurt for so long, and I didn't understand why it was a big deal since I was heading home to the U.S. -- where I am a citizen -- and I told the officers I would not try to re-enter Finland until my permit was sent to me -- I can certainly appreciate what the Passport Control agent told me: "I'm just doing my job." 

Living abroad is an adventure, and we can learn much from the negative as well as the positive experiences.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Berlin and Beyond

The Brandenburg Gate
This trip was very special, as I visited the small town that my father's ancestors came from. But more on that in a bit...

I went to Berlin with my co-expat friend Marion, who was born and raised in Germany, but has lived in the U.S. for many years and is married to a co-worker of Tom's here in Rauma. It is always great to visit a country with a "native," so to speak. For one thing, they know what to see and how to get around. And in small towns like we visited, the language skills are wonderful.
The Reichstag Dome

Fresh-baked and delicious!
I have always been a World War II buff, and Berlin has long been on my "must-see" list. I thought I was mainly interested in Hitler and the war, but I found that once there, I actually wanted to see and learn more about the after-effects of WWII -- the splitting up of Germany, the Cold War and the infamous Berlin Wall. This chapter in history was made even more interesting, since Marion was born in Leipzig (which at the time, was part of East Germany). Her family moved to West Germany a year after she was born, but they still had relatives in East Germany and East Berlin. I also bought a book on the Cold War and the Berlin Wall, so I could learn more about it, even though I also grew up during that time. Of course, I remember that Germany was divided, but at the time, I didn't know anyone who was personally affected by it.

We had wonderful weather, and we visited all the top sights: the Reichstag (where Parliament meets), the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and the nearby museum, Charlottenburg Palace, the Berlin Cathedral, the Pergamon Museum (the Ishtar Gate is amazing), the Memorial to Murdered Jews, the TV Tower, Potsdamer Platz, and of course, the remaining bits of the Berlin Wall. We took the Hop-on, Hop-off bus ride and a boat ride on the River Spree. We shopped at central Europe's largest department store, KaDeWe.

The famous sign at Checkpoint Charlie
I was actually surprised at how much of the Berlin Wall still exists.The wall started out as a line of soldiers and barbed wire in August 1961, then progressed over the years to tall cement structures, topped with more wire. The Checkpoint Charlie Museum was full of information about the Wall and the Cold War: escape methods and attempts, the political situation (the U.S. government initially approved of the Wall, since that meant the Communists had no intentions of invading and taking over West Berlin -- they just wanted to stop the massive exodus of East Berliners into the West), the protests, how the citizens coped, etc. It was very impressive.
Remnants of the Berlin Wall

After Berlin, we rented a car and drove south, stopping in Leipzig, then heading to the town of Erfurt, where we spent two nights. The next day, we drove to Bad Langensalza, home of my ancestors. I couldn't have asked for a more picturesque town! We went to the Rathaus (town hall), where Marion talked to the archivist, who spoke only German. The archivist is going to search the written records and try to find out more about the ancestors before Andreas Hildebrand, who was born in 1598. His three sons emigrated to America in 1690. By the way, the prefix, "bad," is used as an official designation for a spa town. Sulfur springs were discovered in Langensalza in 1811, and salt and mineral water springs in 1996.

Of course, we had good beer and food on the trip. All the German beers I tried were excellent; I ordered only pilsners, because I'm not a dark beer fan. I had sausages and sauerkraut, too. Marion had schnitzel, which I tried. Two weird things: Our bread in our hotel restaurant in Erfurt was served with a tiny pot of bacon lard to spread on it (I did not care for this at all!). The other thing that appalled me was at the Reichstag Restaurant, where we stopped for coffee and dessert after our night-time tour of the building. On the dinner menu was this item: marinated, braised horse. I know a lot of cultures eat horse meat, but this is the first time I have ever seen it on a menu. No, I did not try it, and I never will.

Bad Langensalza -- the town dates to 932 A.D.
Germany is a beautiful country, and Germans are some of the nicest, most helpful people you will ever meet. I've been to Frankfurt, Munich, many German small towns, and now Berlin, and I recommend any of them as a vacation destination. I hope all of you get the chance to visit sometime.

Here is the link to the pictures. I swear I tried to delete a lot of them, but I just couldn't get rid of too many!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Girona and Barcelona

The worst thing about taking weekend trips is that the weekend is never long enough! But I have to admit, the weekend trips we can take here are pretty amazing. This past weekend, we visited Girona and Barcelona, Spain, and I didn't want to leave!

Ryanair, the low-cost airline based in Dublin, flies from Turku (an hour south of where we live in Rauma) to Girona, which is an hour north of Barcelona. Since we arrived late Friday night, I decided to stay overnight in Girona. I'm really glad we did, because Girona is a beautiful medieval city with one of the most well-preserved Jewish quarters in Europe. Girona has a busy history, having been attacked 25 times and captured at least seven times. Today, Girona is a quiet oasis with a huge square filled with outdoor cafes, and a lovely river lined with pastel-colored homes reminiscent of similar landscapes in Lyon and Copenhagen.

La Boqueria Market
After spending the morning strolling around the Jewish quarter and the Old Town and exploring the magnificent cathedral, we took the train to Barcelona, which provided a nice look at the Catalan countryside. We were lucky that one of the train stops in Barcelona was a short walk from our hotel on the famous Passeig de Gracia street.

I like old hotels with lots of character, but I also like modern conveniences. Our choice, the Hotel SixtyTwo (named for its address at 62 Passeig de Gracia), wasn't spectacular on the outside, but the inside was definitely a 21st-century showpiece. Everything in the room operated with buttons, including the black-out shade. The bathroom was huge by European standards, with separate rooms for the toilet, shower and even a bathtub! Americans take bathtubs for granted, but they are luxuries in Europe! Plus, we had a small balcony with great views over the city.

Anyway, we walked around a bit, "ooh'ed and aah'ed" at everything we saw, and tried to get into the Picasso museum, but the line was too long. We were quite surprised at just how packed with people Barcelona was. I know summer is tourist season, but Barcelona seemed even more crowded than London or Paris. The weather was another jolt for us, even though we knew it would be hot, especially coming from chilly Finland. It was 32 degrees C. (about 90 degrees F.) and sunny the entire weekend. I loved it! We haven't had a real summer, and I have been craving sunshine and warmth.

We had  a "Cava and Tapas" walking tour scheduled at 5 p.m. I'm so glad we did this, because it was tons of fun and we met some great people from Houston, Honolulu, Toronto (by way of South Africa and Holland), and Australia. Our guide, Sophie, was excellent, and she took us to the famous Boqueria Market and to three restaurants to sample different tapas and Spanish wines. We had so much fun that we stayed at the last restaurant with our new friends way past the time the tour ended!
Inside La Sagrada Familia

The next day was devoted to seeing as much as possible as we could cram in. We had tickets on the Hop-on, Hop-Off bus tour, which I recommend taking in any new city. These bus tours provide recorded commentary and give you a great overview of a city. You can exit at any stop or just stay on for the ride.

Most people associate Barcelona and Catalonia with Picasso, Dali and Miro, but the most famous native son is Modernist architect/artist Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi lived from 1852 to 1926, and his work is seen all over Barcelona. Gaudi was a Modernist, very religious and very imaginative. His work reflects nature, light, use of non-traditional materials, mosaics, curves, and new techniques. His buildings are true works of art, and many are deservedly UNESCO World Heritage Sites. We visited his most famous projects: Casa Batllo, La Pedrera, Park Guell, and of course, La Sagrada Familia, the cathedral which is the most famous landmark in Barcelona, and which has been in construction since 1882. Gaudi worked on the project until his death in 1926, even living at the site the last year or so of his life. (Gaudi was struck by a tram, and because he was dressed like a beggar with no identification papers, he did not receive proper hospital care; by the time his identity was discovered, it was too late, and he died.)

Bench at Park Guell
La Sagrada Familia is fascinating, because it is being built entirely with donations and proceeds from ticket sales. That is why it is taking so long! Gaudi's detailed plans are being followed to this day, and latest estimates state that the cathedral will be completed between 2026 and 2028. Pope Benedict XVI consecrated the church in 2010. But as Gaudi once said, "My client is in no hurry," referring to God.

In the afternoon, while on the bus tour, we visited Gaudi's Park Guell, which is 50 acres on top of a mountain. There are magnificent views, more great Gaudi masterpieces and way too many hills to walk up and down! On the way back to the bus, though, we had a Coca Cola Light and a bowl of fresh fruit, which was refreshing. Later, we stopped at the coast to see the beach, and also to visit the casino. There was a European Poker Tour event going on at the casino, and we watched a bit of the goings-on.  we

Seafood Paella
Our last night in Barcelona, we had a nice dinner, and I finally got some seafood paella, which was wonderful. Tom had sea bass, which was also good. The next day, we took the airport bus back to Girona, during which our bus driver practiced his karaoke the entire trip, singing or whistling to every song on the radio.

And, naturally, when we got back to Rauma, it was 10 degrees C. (50 degrees F.), which was depressing. I think summer is over in Finland, although I don't think it was every really here! No worries, though -- there are more trips to plan! And I definitely want to return to Spain -- I sure wish Tom's employer would built a power plant there...

Here are the links to all the pictures:

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Stockholm -- City That I Love

Stockholm -- one of my favorite cities

This is my submission for the '3 Things in the City' I Love contest by Velvet Escape, Traveldudes and

 Ask people to name their favorite city -- or the city they would most like to visit -- and many likely will say New York, London, Paris or Rome. After all, the world's capitals have much to offer, and I agree that visits to those places are wonderful.

But after living as an expat American in Finland for almost a year, I have had the opportunity to visit lesser-known cities -- cities that are just as beautiful, historic and fun -- but maybe not on everyone's list of "must-sees." Places like Helsinki, Finland; Tallinn, Estonia; Stockholm, Sweden; Copenhagen, Denmark; Brussels, Belgium, and St. Petersburg, Russia.

One of my favorite places is Stockholm, a city I certainly never would have visited if I wasn't living in Finland. It's probably best-known as the setting for the late author Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy and the home of IKEA and the pop group ABBA, but Stockholm is much more. Stockholm is exotic, yet accessible. It has a rich history, but it also has developed into a 21st-century leader in culture, technology and environmental issues.

The city known as the "Venice of the North" lies on a range of islands connected by bridges and canals. The city's origins date at least to 1252, and it has survived sieges, famine, plague and recession. Today, Sweden is ruled by a democratic parliament headed by the prime minister and a ceremonial king, Gustav XIV.

While a trip to Stockholm deserves at least a week, there are three things every visitor should see:
Gamla Stan

1. Gamla Stan -- Narrow cobblestone streets and colorful medieval buildings are a photographer's dream in Stockholm's Old Town. Set on an island, Gamla Stan is home to the Royal Palace, the Alfred Nobel Museum, a pretty town square with a bloody history, and a 700-year-old cathedral. Wander along the streets, stopping for a rest at one of the many cafes and restaurants. Shop in stores specializing in Scandinavian crafts or any of the myriad of tacky souvenir stalls.

Walking tours are a good way to enjoy Gamla Stan; the tourist office at Vasagatan 14 or at Arlanda Airport can help. Also check the official tourist website at

The Nobel Museum looks fairly mundane on first glance, but take the free guided tour (tours are offered throughout the day in different languages), and it becomes an intriguing history lesson of the greatest achievements of our time. For more information, visit

Don't miss a visit to the Royal Palace, especially the State Apartments and Royal Treasury. There is also the always-popular Changing of the Guard ceremony. Check for times and information.

The Vasa

2. Vasa Museum -- I'll be honest -- if a friend hadn't told me to visit this 17th century warship, I probably would have skipped it. Thank goodness I listened to my friend, because the Vasa is one of the most fascinating sights I've ever encountered in years of travel!

The Vasa sank 20 minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628. It sat at the bottom of Stockholm's harbor until it was rediscovered in 1956. Raised in 1961, a museum was built around the remarkably-preserved wooden behemoth and has become one of Sweden's top tourist attractions.

There is an interesting free film (shown throughout the day in different languages) that helps the visitor appreciate the massive undertaking to salvage the ship and the exhaustive restoration work. The museum also offers guided tours in different languages that are included in the admission fee.

It is remarkable that 95 percent of the Vasa's wood is original. The intricate carvings along the ship are works of art. The ship was so well-preserved, because the water in which it sank does not contain the wood-destroying saltwater clam that is prevalent in the oceans.

The Vasa has an excellent website. Even if you don't get to visit this marvel, you can read all about it at


3. Skansen -- I was really torn between selecting Skansen, a boat tour of the harbor or the Nordic Museum for my third choice. If you have more time, I recommend all of them! But a trip to Skansen, Europe's first open-air museum, is a trip back in time and fun for the entire family.

Opened in 1891, Skansen is a huge park filled with 150 original buildings -- farmhouses, schools, windmills, homes, village halls, mills, etc. -- that have been transported there from all over Sweden. It is a wonderful mix of architectural styles and culture that truly embraces the term "living history." The best part of the park is the costumed employees who will tell you everything you want to know. I particularly enjoyed talking with the "school marms" in the 1910-era schoolhouse. One room of the house was devoted to the school, while the other half was set aside for the teacher's living quarters.

Besides the buildings, Skansen offers a variety of events, such as the opportunity to help out with farm chores, learn traditional dances, or watch glassblowers at work.
The lemurs at Skansen's Zoo

The other major component of Skansen is the zoo. There are bears, moose, elk, spiders (yuck!), snakes (double yuck!), boar, seals, you name it, in both indoor and outdoor enclosures. My absolute favorite animals were the lemurs, who hung out on the walkways, the little ones piled on top of their mothers, while a zoo employee stood nearby to make sure visitors didn't get too close. 

I spent over two hours at Skansen, and you could easily enjoy an entire day there. For information, visit the website at

Of course, there is much more to see and do in Stockholm. There are great restaurants, shops, food halls, museums, parks and more. Just writing this makes me want to go back (and fortunately, I am returning very soon!). I hope you get to visit soon, too!

Modern Stockholm


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Summer in Rauma

I just got back from a 2-1/2 hour bike ride, and I started thinking that after that gloomy blog post of a few weeks ago, I really should point out the positives of living here in rural Finland.

Naturally, after having a visitor from the U.S., going on the fun girls' trip to Tallinn, Estonia, and enjoying good times at the most recent expat dinner in town, my mood has improved, along with the weather. And I'm always hard at work planning the next trip: Tom and I are going to Barcelona in August, which we both are looking forward to.

Anyway, you probably didn't know that Heaven is right here in Rauma. Yes, Heaven. I have to give credit to my friend Sara, because she found Heaven first. And she told me how to get to Heaven (insert jokes here).

Heaven in Rauma actually turned out to be a restaurant and karaoke bar, but so what?!

There are tons of bike trails in Rauma, which is great:

We have beautiful scenery, everywhere you look:

I found the ducks' summer hangout, which made me very happy. I have been worried about them, because they haven't shown up at the canal in town after the long winter:


We have clay tennis courts (which Tom and I have played on) and a nice golf course (which we have not played on, but I keep talking about taking lessons):

We have wonderful cafes and a daily market in the Old Town Square:

And because of all the French expats living here, we have wonderful fresh French bread (crusty on the outside, soft on the inside) and croissants:

Which may totally negate all the calories I burned during that bike ride, but who can resist fresh bread?

Living here isn't so bad after all!

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Visitor, Tallinn, Helsinki and Rauma

The Wine  Library in Old Town Tallinn
I was very excited this past week, because one of my good friends, Kim Bost, visited me from the U.S.! I know it is very expensive to travel here, and that most people can't afford to visit, but luckily, Kim's husband is a United Airlines pilot, so she got here practically for free! Of course, she was flying standby, and she almost didn't get on a flight, but fortunately, she did, and we had a great visit.

My friends Sara, Allison and Marion, and I picked up Kim at the Helsinki airport, then took a quick drive through the city and boarded the ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. This was my second trip to Tallinn, which is a beautiful place with so much history, from its medieval beginnings to its struggles under Communist rule. The weather was absolutely beautiful, and we walked our legs off.

Crazy tourists
We saw the huge Old Town Square, took a tour of the KGB museum on top of the Hotel Viru, toured the Bastion Tunnels under Old Town, and went out to Kadriorg, the summer palace Peter the Great built for his wife, Catherine. One funny bit about that last place: We took the old-fashioned tram back into town, and there was no place to buy a ticket, so we just rode, hoping we wouldn't get fined. Needless to say, at the first stop in town, we hopped right off and walked the rest of the way.

We also enjoyed just wandering around Old Town, climbing the tower walls (which was better exercise than any Thighmaster), poking around the shops, having terrific dinners for unbelievably low prices, and in general, just having a great time. I bought a beautiful hand-blown vase, Sara got a lovely painting, and we all stocked up at the duty-free store on the ship. As a matter of fact, many Finlanders take the ferry just to buy cheap beer and liquor. You always see people dragging cartloads of alcohol off the ferry. Since we had five peopel in one car, we couldn't bring back cartloads, but we bought back a fair amount!

Expat dinner at the Kellari Restaurant in Rauma
I am way too old to go out bar-hopping, but that's exactly what we did one night. You may know of the popular 80s band, Depeche Mode. Welll, there's a bar in Tallinn devoted to Depeche Mode. Very cool. And later, we went to a nightclub, where we enjoyed watching Marion dance. The rest of us were too chicken.

Lace-making demonstration in Rauma
Back in Finland, we toured a litte in Helsinki, then drove back to Rauma, where Kim got to see our own lovely Old Town and meet a group of expats at dinner at our favorite restaurant, the Kellari. It's Lace Week in Rauma. Yes, you read that correctly -- Lace Week. We actually got to see a woman making a lace masterpiece, which takes lots of time and patience. It was very interesting! This week, many of the residents in Old Town open up their back yards to visitors. It's mainly a chance for them to have yard sales, but some of the gardens are quite lovely, in particular, the garden of famous local sculptor Kerttu Horila.

Today, the weather is back to chilly, rainy and all around dreary. I told Kim this is the REAL Finland weather! But I much preferred the unusual warmth of the past few days!

Here are links to all the pictures: 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

I am a Foreigner

I am a foreigner. A stranger in a strange land. 

Tom and I have been in Finland for 10 months. We have gotten used to living in a small apartment with no air conditioning, no TV, no clothes dryer. Our refrigerator and oven are very small. Despite my attempts at learning the language, Finnish is just too difficult for me. And I miss my family and friends back home very much.

On the other hand, a small apartment means less space to take care of. We haven't really needed air conditioning yet (and it's the middle of July). We DVR programs at home via the Slingbox and watch them the next day on the laptop or iPad (remember, there's a seven-hour time difference between us and home). With just two of us, we really don't need a large refrigerator or oven, except when we have friends over. There is a community dryer in our building, something most of my other expat friends don't have in their buildings. Many Finns speak at least passable English.

We have made lots of friends here, all other expats, of course. My appreciation of other cultures has increased significantly. I am proud to say I have friends from Latvia, Russia, Romania, Germany, France, Brazil, South Africa, Switzerland, Wales, England, and Spain. And I've made wonderful new friends from the U.S., people I have bonded with in this adventure we all share.

Does that look like a private drive? I don't think so.
But I don't feel at home here. Little things make me feel more foreign than ever. The Finnish people have a saying, "jokamiehenoikeus," which loosely translates to "every man's right." That basically means the general public has the right to access all public or private land, as long as you don't disturb the natural environment. Now, you don't want to traipse through someone's yard just to pick some wild berries you see growing on the other side. You have to use common sense. But what about walking across an apartment building parking lot? I got yelled at in Finnish recently by a man who apparently did not like me walking across his parking lot. He kept yelling and pointing toward the sidewalk. Buddy, I was heading to the sidewalk, just taking the parking lot to GET to the sidewalk.

Maybe it's my imagination, but I think we get stared at a lot because we are foreigners. Actually, I don't think it's because we are foreigners, it's because we aren't long-time residents of our small town.

I don't want to give the impression that all Finns are like this -- there are countless Finns who are friendly, welcoming and eager to help. There's an older man in my apartment building who is always doing little chores outside -- pulling weeds, putting out gravel when it's icy, etc. He has this white cat that I call the official mascot. This man doesn't speak a word of English, and I only know a few words of Finnish, but we always greet each other, and he always chats away in Finnish, even though I have no clue what he's saying. And he knows I have no clue. He opens doors for me. On several occasions, he has stopped his weed-pulling to run up and open the door to the bike storage room when he sees me coming up the hill on my bike.

The employees at our favorite cafes, restaurants and stores speak good English and are extremely friendly. Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, I found a hairstylist who is nice and does a good job. I feel safe walking anywhere in Rauma. 

I feel like a foreigner when a bill comes, and I have to use Google Translate to figure out what it says. Same with instructions on the back of packages. And if you've used Google Translate before, you know that the translations aren't often literal. Some of them are quite funny. And Tom and I still aren't sure exactly what the knobs mean on our stove and washing machine.
The Finnish washing machine settings and my translation note

I feel like a foreigner when I'm looking for an ingredient at the grocery store that I can't find, or they don't have, or there are so many possibilities that I can't figure out which to choose. I can't order things from my favorite stores at home without worrying about paying duty or the items getting stuck in Customs (which has happened). I have to rely on family to send Jif peanut butter and Hidden Valley Ranch salad dressing. Some things you can get used to doing without, but you still need a few of those favorites from home or you will get really depressed. I haven't had a Diet Sun-Drop in months, which is truly amazing.

I feel like a foreigner when I realize I can be sent home against my will. Last month, I waited in line at the local police station for an hour to turn in the paperwork and 148 Euros to renew my residence visa. My current visa expires in August, and I've heard it can take months to get a new visa approved. The clock is ticking. When we came back from a trip to London a few weeks ago, the Immigration officer noticed that my visa expires in August, and he mentioned it. I told him I had applied for a renewal and was hoping it arrives before the old one expires. Because if I don't have a new visa when I go home in late September for two weeks, Finland won't let me back in the country for 90 days. That would be a problem.

I used to complain about all the foreigners moving into the United States. Everything in our country now is both in English and Spanish. But the coin has flipped, and I am the foreigner in a new country. Just like those moving to the U.S. for jobs (although the situation has changed significantly in the past two years, hasn't it?), my husband moved here for a job opportunity. I will not begrudge those who travel in search of a better life.

But I also appreciate my own country much more than I did before. We had a Fourth of July cookout last week, and one of my friends sent me an email afterward, commenting that it was so refreshing to be a part of celebrating our homeland and the freedom we enjoy while so far away.

And that's the key to living in a foreign land -- accept and adapt to the new; appreciate and acknowledge what you left. Because you will return, and your experiences will educate others who have never traveled or lived abroad.

Monday, July 2, 2012

London, Wimbledon, Harry Potter, Shakespeare!

The beautiful Tower Bridge

London is a fabulous place to visit. Sure, it's crowded. Sure, you have to be careful -- Tom got his wallet stolen (more on that later). But there is so much to see and do, so many shops, so many restaurants, so many pubs -- sigh.

This trip wasn't without problems. At least for our daughter, Kristen. We were supposed to meet up at Heathrow on Saturday morning, June 23. Well, there were massive storms along the east coast of the U.S. Friday night, and her flight from D.C. to Philly ended up getting cancelled. So she missed her connecting flight to London. Lots of flights were cancelled; she waited over three hours trying to get a new flight, USAirways was VERY unhelpful. She ended up flying to Gatwick Sunday night, arriving Monday morning. Plus, she tried to bring us a jar of JIF peanut butter in her carry-on, but dang security took it! How dare they? Anyway, I met her at Gatwick, we dropped her luggage off at the hotel, and we headed straight to Wimbledon.

Centre Court at Wimbledon
We had bought a package deal, which included four nights at the Hilton Doubletree Tower Bridge, breakfast, a daily Travel Card for the Tube, reserved seats for Days 1 and 2 on Court 2 at Wimbledon, a program and best of all, 25 pound coupons to use at one of the Wimbledon shops! We each got a coupon both days, so that was 150 pounds to spend. And believe me, we spent it!

The tennis was fabulous. In addition to the matches on Court 2, we also saw some of our favorite players on other courts.We got to see Venus and Serena Williams, John Isner, Mardy Fish (my favorite player!), James Blake, Radwanska, Cilic, and Tomic, among others. Wimbledon also has a queue set up at 3 p.m. every day in which people leaving turn in their show court tickets (show courts are Centre Court, Court 1 and Court 2), and people can buy them for only 5 pounds each. On Day 2, most of the peole were  lined up to buy tickets to Andy Murray's match on Centre Court, but we wanted to see Andy Roddick on Court 1, and we only waited a short time and got fourth row seats! We also got to see top woman's player Victoria Azarenka's match, but her loud grunting is as unbearable as Maria Sharapova's.

The Globe Theatre
Besides the tennis, we saw as many tourist spots as we could -- we've been to London before, so the usual sightseeing wasn't as important, but we went by Buckingham Palace, toured Kensington Palace to see the new display of Princess Diana gowns, the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, Big Ben and Parliament, Trafalgar Square, and Picadilly Circus. Kristen and I saw the Christian Louboutin exhibit at the Design Museum and also toured Warner Brothers Studio in Leavesden, where all eight Harry Potter movies were filmed. That was a great experience, whether or not you are a fan of Harry Potter. Just seeing all the sets, props, drawings, hair and make-up, costumes, and visual effects was terrific.

One of our favorite things was attending a performance at the Globe Theatre. We saw "The Taming of the Shrew," and even though the seating isn't the most comfortable (and the woman behind me poured her juicy drink on my back), and the play clocked in at three hours, it was lots of fun. 

The Harry Potter studio tour
We also met up with one of my oldest friends, Dan Fitz, and his partner, Mario Cescutti for dinner our last evening in London. Dan and I were close friends in both high school and college, and he moved to London after graduating from UNC Law School. 

Now, about Tom's wallet. We consider ourselves to be seasoned travelers. We've been all over Europe, the Caribbean and the U.S. It was funny because Tom was always telling Kristen and me to zip up our purses. Then his wallet gets lifted, even though it was in an inside pocket, which was zipped up. He was carrying his jacket on his arm, and we figure it got swiped on the Tube. Fortunately, he carries cash in a pocket, so the thief got no money. And we cancelled the cards right away. I'm sure those crooks just steal wallets looking for cash and then throw the wallet and cards away. Still, it is such a violation and a pain in the rear.

And poor Kristen had more flight troubles. Her flight from Heathrow to Philly was delayed three hours (which she spent sitting on the plane on the tarmac), while workers were trying to repair the "back-up braking system." Of course, she missed her connection, but at least she got back to D.C. the same evening. She originally was scheduled to fly home Friday, but she changed her return flight to Saturday after the original flight issues. And it turns out it was probably better that she flew home on Saturday -- the Washington, D.C., area was hit with massive storms Friday night, with massive power outages, trees down and travel disruptions. Fortunately, the power as back on in her apartment when she got home.

We already are talking about returning next June to Wimbledon, because it was so much fun. And maybe next time, we'll bump into Wills and Kate.

As always, here's a link to the pictures, if you're interested and have time to waste! 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Lovely Lyon

Louis XIV guards Lyon
I'm used to traveling by myself on all these little jaunts around Europe, but it's also nice to go on a trip with a friend. Especially when it's to a place where the friend has lived, because you get an insider's knowledge and views.

I just got back from Lyon, France, with my friend Nicky, who is an expat spouse like me. Nicky is originally from Romania but has lived in France for a number of years, and she is married to a very nice Frenchman, Guillaume. We flew from Helsinki, and Guillaume was nice enough to drive us the three hours from Rauma to the Helsinki airport!

My dessert at Le Sud
I've seen quite a bit of France, but this was my first visit to Lyon. It's located in the southeastern part of the country, about an hour from the Alps. It's surrounded by wine country, mainly the Rhone and Beaujolais regions. Lyon has a rich 2,000-year-old history, and it's UNESCO World Heritage Site designation is well-deserved. From the Roman amphitheatre to the magnificent architecture to the amazing restaurants to the great shopping, Lyon is a great place to spend a few days.

Best of all, Nicky and Guillaume still have their flat (apartment) in one of the suburbs, so I had a free place to stay! Nicky warned me that they have a cemetery in their backyard, but that didn't faze me one bit. (I had a cemetery in my backyard behind my dorm my freshman year at UNC, and this one in Lyon was much prettier.) After all, you don't have to worry about noise from the neighbors!

It was a fun tram and metro ride into town. I always like observing people while taking the public transportation, so I don't mind it one bit. The weather was rainy the first day, but clear the next few days, and it was much warmer than Finland, which was a definite plus! We saw all the famous sites, went to a terrific museum of miniatures and movie props, the Musee des Beaux-Arts, cathedrals, and strolls through Old Town. Nicky likes to read as much as me, so we spent some quality time in local book stores, as well as the French department store chains Galeries Lafayette and Printemps, and lots of little boutiques. I think Nicky was amused at my obsession with purses, but she admitted that she has her own obsession with perfume.

We ate some fabulous meals and drank good French wine, of course. I loved our dinner at Le Sud, owned by the famous chef Paul Bocuse. Nicky cooked us a tasty dinner at her flat the next evening. And we certainly ate our fill of French croissants and baguettes. We justified it with all the walking we were doing, of course.

Nicky and me in wine country
The best thing we did was take a guided tour of the Beaujolais wine region  (the Rhone tour was booked, or that would have been my first choice, since I love Rhone blends). I was pleasantly surprised at how tasty the Beaujolais wines were, because the young Beaujolais wines get a bad rap. The quality ones, however, are pretty good -- not full-bodied, but definitely drinkable, especially on summer evenings. The countryside was gorgeous, and we took way too many photos! Our guide was very amiable, and we enjoyed our fellow travelers, who were from Australia and England. The highlight was a wonderful meal, in which I finally got Beef Bourguignon, which I have been craving for a long time.

One thing Tom and I like to do on our travels is go to the local grocery stores. Nicky took me to the largest Carrefour in France, and it was crazy. It was so crowded that we had to wait over a half hour just to check out! But I did get some things to bring back to Finland that are  way cheaper in France. Still more expensive than in the U.S., but cheaper than Finland. Things like contact lens solution, toothpaste, some food items, and wine, of course. They even had chocolate chips!

So maybe, I have to say that Lyon is my new favorite city. At least until the next trip!

Here's the link to the pictures: 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Stockholm -- Venice of the North

Stockholm often is called "The Venice of the North," and with good reason. The city is composed of many islands, most reachable by ferry or bridge. It is one of the most beautiful and interesting places I've visited. I know I say that every time I visit someplace new, but this time I really mean it!

There is an overnight ferry from Turku to Stockholm, which my friend Marion recently took. I wanted to get there quickly, however, and fortunately, there is a daily flight from Pori -- 40 minutes north of Rauma -- to Stockholm that takes only 45 minutes. So, in about the time it took me to drive from our apartment to the airport was about the same amount of time it took to fly to Stockholm!

Old homesteads in Skansen park

Public transportation is excellent in Stockholm. There is an airport express train to the central station, then you can take a bus or metro anywhere you need to go. I purchased the Stockholm Card, which gives you unlimited transportation and entrance to 80 museums and attractions, as well as discounts on a few other attractions. I probably visited more museums this way, since they were already included with the card. A one-day card costs 450 SEK (about $62); I bought a three-day card for 750 SEK (about $104). I definitely got my money's worth!

I walked a gazillion miles, of course, but I also saw lots of amazing things. From Gamla Stan, where the city was founded in 1252, to the warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 but wasn't raised until 1961, there is so much to see and do in Stockholm. I happened to be in Old Town (Gamla Stan) during the frenzy caused by the baptism of Princess Estelle, daughter of Princess Victoria and Prince Daniel. Royals and dignitaries from all over the world attended the event, which was covered live on TV. I saw lots of fancy outfits, but I had no idea who was wearing them!

Vasa sank in 1628
I also enjoyed the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum), which is devoted to Sweden's cultural history. The museum showcases everything from home furnishings to textiles to toys.

My other favorite place was Skansen, the oldest open-air museum in the world. More than 150 farms and dwellings from all over Sweden were disassembled, brought to the park, and put back together to create a fabulous history lesson. Employees and volunteers in traditional dress answer all questions. I also loved the zoo, which I never would have visited if I hadn't had the Stockholm Card. The lemurs, meerkats and baby moose were adorable.

Gamla Stan -- Old Town
I also took an hour-long sightseeing boat tour, which was included with the Stockholm Card. Again, this is something I might have skipped otherwise, and I am so glad I did this. It was relaxing, and I saw some incredible scenery. Except we did get "chased" by a cruise ferry coming into port! Our boat driver had to really speed up to get far enough ahead of the ship, probably to get out of danger of the big boat's wake. 

I enjoyed strolling around the narrow streets of Gamla Stan, going into the shops, both those selling traditional Swedish items and those shilling tacky souvenirs. I took a very interesting tour of the Nobel Museum, which was so informative thanks to a wonderful tour guide. And I toured the historical parts of the Royal Palace -- the main part of the palace was closed during my visit due to the baptism.

I didn't really partake of the traditional Smorgasbord, mainly because all those Swedish dishes are things I see every day in Finland. I'm ashamed to admit I ate at the U.S. chain restaurant, TGI Friday's! No, I take that back -- I'm not ashamed! I had a wonderful chicken quesadilla, which tasted just like those we get back home! The second night I had a very good pizza, and the third night I splurged on a nice French meal. So, three different cuisines in three nights, but none of them Swedish!

I'm so glad I visited Stockholm, and I can't wait to return. It won't be too long, as I have a one-night layover in Stockholm when I fly home to the U.S. in late September.

Here is a link to the photos from Stockholm. Off to Lyon, France, next!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Travel Mishaps and Oddities

I have traveled quite a bit since moving to Finland last September. I've had many adventures, some mishaps involving luggage, and spent countless hours trying to find the best flights, hotels and things to do. I've gotten lost when I exit subways. I've gotten confused with tipping rules in different countries. I've been approached with every scam in the books.

But something I never expected happened Sunday at the Stockholm airport before my flight back to Finland. Nobody checked my identification. At all.

Granted, since I was flying within Europe and not overseas, I didn't have to go through Passport Control. I had checked in online in my hotel before I left for the airport. At the airport, I used the automatic machine to confirm my seat assignment and check one piece of luggage. I proceeded to the counter, where the man scanned my luggage sticker but didn't even pick up my passport.

I proceeded to security, where the agent scanned my ticket but didn't open my passport. Same thing at the gate before I boarded my plane.

Have our systems become too automated? It's too easy to scan a ticket -- but aren't they supposed to match the name on the ticket with some I.D.?

It's the same with booking flights. Living in rural southwestern Finland, it takes creativity to get the best flights for the best price in the shortest amount of time. But it's even crazier when you have to book a flight in a different language just to get the best price.

Keep boarding passes until you get
credit for your  FF points

I am flying to Lyon, France, with a friend next week. She and her husband have a home in Lyon but live here in Finland. Our husbands work for the same company. She booked her flight on one of the many online travel websites and told me which one. And she used the French version of the site.

Almost all companies that do business in different countries have different sites in different languages. That's just good business.

When I went to the English website of the same company, my flight was listed at twice the price of my friend's ticket. Unbelievable, right? I next checked multiple travel sites, including Kayak and Skyscanner, but the prices were all high.

On a whim, I went to the French version of the site my friend used to book her ticket. Sure enough, there was the flight at the price she paid. Fortunately, I understand enough French that I could navigate the site, and I booked my ticket there. No problems.

I understand that companies buy blocks of fares, and that different sites will have different prices. I've booked legs of flights separately just to get the best price, or to get frequent flyer points on my preferred airline (especially when an airline in the Star Alliance doesn't give me credit on my preferred airline just because the class of fare isn't in the right category. But that's a whole other issue).

But for the same company to offer different prices just because they are in different languages? Very strange.

Then there are the luggage issues. In all our years of travel, we have never had our luggage lost. Until we moved abroad. We've had luggage lost three times in eight months. We've had luggage arrive soaking wet. We've had holes punctured in our luggage. Nothing stolen, yet, thank goodness.

The most ridiculous case of delayed luggage occurred when my husband flew from Charlotte to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to Helsinki in January. He had an hour before he had to catch the last bus from the Helsinki airport to the town where we live, which is a four-hour bus ride. Everyone stood around waiting, but the luggage never came out. Not just my husband's luggage, but everyone's luggage. They kept asking, but no one could give an adequate reason, other than it was weather-related.

Come on! They've been dealing with harsh weather at this airport for years! And they can't move luggage a short distance from the airplane to the terminal in a reasonable amount of time? My husband and his fellow passengers stood there for two hours before the luggage came out! Which meant he missed his bus and had to spend the night in Helsinki. The airline refused compensation, since they said it was weather-related, but they also told him to write the airline after he got home. So he sent them an email, and to their credit, they did mail him a check to cover the cost of his hotel.

The lessons from all this?

* If someone at the airport doesn't ask for your identification, politely ask them if they are going to check it.

* If you can't find an airfare at a good price and you can navigate in another language (or use a web translating site), try that angle.

* If your luggage is lost, and you believe you deserve compensation, keep trying, even if you don't get anything at the time of the incident.

Happy travels. I'll post a Stockholm trip report and photos soon.