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!