Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Finnish Christmas was awesome.  Our good friend Elina and her family did us the honor of inviting us to their house for Christmas Dinner (which in Finland traditionally takes place on Christmas Eve, as does the opening of presents).  We felt very lucky and happy to be there, since usually it's a family-only affair.

Dinner was two courses.  First was a fish course, featuring approximately every single type of fish ever.  There was cold smoked fish, hot smoked fish, raw fish, horseradish fish, cinnamon and tomato fish, lemon fish, cream cheese and dill fish, and probably several other kinds of fish that I'm either forgetting or got lost in the shuffle.  There was even fish that was not yet fish, in the form of salmon roe that you eat mixed up with sour cream, diced onions, and dill.  They pop when you chew them.  It's amazing.  The main course was turkey and ham along with several casseroles made from root vegetables.  I wish I had taken notes because I'm having a hard time remembering what exactly was in the casseroles.

This may be partially due to the fact that at no point in the night was I allowed to see the bottom of a glass.  There was red wine, white wine, beer, whiskey, brandy, mintuu, and homemade spicy mango vodka.  Mintuu is an amazing liquor that manages to be 40% alcohol while tasting like a candy cane.  At night it's the best thing ever; in the morning it's the worst thing ever.

And the presents!  We were completely surprised to be presented with gifts from the family that were either homemade or that had very clearly been carefully thought out and were pretty much perfect bulls-eyes.  I won't bother to list them all but they included a pair of knitted socks with the Finnish flag on the foot, handwarmers for Lyndsey made from baby alpaca wool, and an awesome old-school Batman t-shirt for me.

We had been talking about how it didn't really feel like Christmas, but being with the Kosonens on Christmas Eve is pretty much as close as you can get to a perfect Christmas without being with your own family.  They should open a business providing the Christmas experience to foreigners.  This being Helsinki, they could charge an arm and a leg.  Unlike a lot of expensive stuff, this would totally be worth it.

Friday, December 16, 2011

I suppose living in near-total darkness has some advantages.  If I ever wanted to become a cat burglar I could do it pretty much around the clock.  Getting drunk at 3 in the afternoon seems much more socially acceptable.  But other than these two things, I don't believe I am exaggerating TOO much when I say that it is a non-stop battle against a soul-crushing dreariness that is constantly threatening to worm its way into your mind and eat your happiness.

The Helsingin Sanomat recently published an article on its English-language website that I assume is aimed at us foreigners who are having trouble adapting to the Mordor-like qualities of the Finnish winter.  Although I'm sure the writer has nothing but good intentions, reading that "unnecessary complaining only adds to the gloom" makes me want to bloody that person's stiff upper lip.  Last month the same newspaper advised us to shine lights into our ears for relief from seasonal depression. Basically what I'm gleaning is that there is nothing to be done and I should just let the Finnish winter wash over me like a gently lapping tide that is slowly eroding my will to live.

Haha!  Only joking.  It's really not that bad.  There's actually plenty to do, especially if you are into Christmas markets. (WARNING:  This link contains an offensive amount of Comic Sans.  Probably NSFW if you are a graphic designer.)  They've also opened the Railway Square Ice Park, which is not fenced off and for some reason I never see any drunk people on when I go to catch the late bus home.

On a completely different subject, Google Statistics tells me that someone reached my blog this week by googling the term "ambassadog," which you may remember from a previous blog post is the term that the American ambassador to Finland uses to refer to his giant poodle.  So, to whoever is out there looking for information about that dog, his name is Deckard.  You're welcome, and be sure to check out the the comments where Deckard gets solicited by a pair of weirdos intent on harvesting Deckard's genes to increase the population of Labradoodles in Helsinki.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The last 4th of July that we celebrated in the United States featured bicycle jousting with Roman Candles, people setting off bottle rockets while holding them in their teeth, an attempt to blow up a bottle of Mountain Dew with Black Cats, and at least one near-death experience when a mortar tube tipped over and one of the shells hit me in the shoulder and blew up all around my head.  There were also, of course, many cheeseburgers and hot dogs.

Yesterday was Finland's Independence Day and it was a study in stark contrast.  Finland has only been independent since 1917, and immediately after this achievement it plunged into World War I and World War II, which they consider (correctly) to be two parts of the same conflict.  There are still people alive in Finland who participated in the defense of the country against the Russian effort to re-annex Finland.  After the war the Soviets wound up with approximately 10% of Finland's territory and its second largest city, and there was severe economic depression because, like many other countries, Finland also had to pay war reparations to the country that defeated it.  Unlike any other country on earth, they actually paid them in full and five years early.  So one can understand why Finland celebrates their independence in a bit more somber, dignified manner than most in the US (including myself).

The typical way to celebrate independence in Finland is a dinner around the table with family or friends and the lighting of a blue and white candle, followed by gathering around the television to watch the official gala at the Presidential Palace.  Our friends Elina and Maija invited us to their house, where Elina made an awesome dinner of salmon, vegetables, and champagne.  At her suggestion Lyndsey brought a pumpkin pie, and also Chili Cheddar Pinwheels.  Then we retired to the television set to pass judgement on the fashion sense of Finland's rich and powerful.  Maybe the craziest dress was the Angry Birds-themed getup that the wife of the Angry Birds guy wore (thanks to Jacqui for the link).  Our friend Lyndsey Hoh also made an appearance on national TV when she performed with an orchestra in Espoo that was broadcast live all over the country.

Lyndsey and I realized the other day that we only have like 8 more weekends in Finland.  Then a quick stop in Paris, then back to the States.  I can't quite believe it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Usually I wouldn't blog again so soon after a recent post (creativity takes TIME people) but I thought I would follow up on last week's MMA cliffhanger.

Occasionally, I've been known to participate in backyard wrestling tournaments.  This usually happens after a night of boozing and watching a UFC pay-per-view and I get too wound up, like a seven-year-old who has just watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and has to burn off some extra energy by doing flying kicks onto the couch.  I've had some success against my equally boozed-up opponents, and I think that deep down, on some level, even though I knew it made no sense, this convinced me that I was still in something resembling shape.

MMA training rapidly disabused me of this notion.  It was 45 minutes of warm-up/cardio, followed by drills where we practiced blocking an opponent who is trying to kick you.  I summoned all the skills that I learned from the karate lessons I took in 5th grade and tried really hard not to look like a fool.  I only knocked myself down once, so I think I more or less succeeded.

Then the drills got a bit more realistic, and we were practicing takedowns (or something, I can't quite remember) and it involved a bit of light punching.  Everyone in the class was super nice and obviously recognized that I was a beginner, so they were very good about going my speed, but even when these dudes were playfully jabbing at me at about 5% punching power my brain had a really visceral reaction.  "WHAT IS HAPPENING.  THAT DUDE IS PUNCHING YOU IN YOUR FACE," it was saying.  Unless I'm not remembering something, I think that was the first time my face has ever been punched.  Guess I can cross that one off my bucket list.

Anyway after that there was full sparring, which I happily volunteered to sit out because there was an odd number of people and by this point I thought I was going to either have a heart attack or barf or possibly both and I thought that might make me look a bit silly.

So what did I learn from MMA training?  Keep your head up while trying to tackle a standing man, unless you want to get choked out.  Twist your hips when throwing a kick.  Getting punched in the face is by no means pleasant but is also not the end of the world.  And perhaps most importantly, unless I am prepared to do some serious exercising I should probably stick to wrestling people who are just as out of shape and drunk as I am.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

We went to St. Petersburg last week.  Russia is a very, very different place than Finland.  In Finland, the societal pressure to follow all rules is so strong that if you don't take a number at the cashier in line at the department store EVEN THOUGH you are the next and only person in line, some ruthless old lady will come up and cut in front of you and not feel sorry about it because you're the idiot who didn't follow the rules to the letter.  In Russia, the rules are either ignored or absent entirely.  People were crossing the street in the middle, taking photos right in front of "NO CAMERA" signs in museums, parking three deep on the sidewalk (not kidding), and generally behaving like they didn't give a shit.  Which makes sense because, as far as I could tell, Russians don't give a shit.

People were openly drinking duty-free vodka at the customs checkpoint at 9 o'clock in the morning.  There were four booths open but none had lines; everyone seemed to think it was a better idea to push forward in an amorphous blob.  Once we were through, we rode the shuttle bus (read:  van with a paper sign in the windshield) to St. Isaac's in the touristy area of town.  St. Petersburg is a beautiful place and I enjoyed being there, but it really gives Terre Haute and Lafayette a run for their money in the competition for World's Smelliest City.  And in contrast to these cities in Indiana, I don't think the smell in St. Petersburg is due to any industry or factory, unless it is a factory that produces raw sewage.  We'd be walking down the street and suddenly it was like everyone in the whole city farted at the same time.

Anyway, on a more cultural note, we went to The Hermitage (not to be confused with The Hermitage) and followed the crowd through an entrance that was marked "exit."  We walked through an incredibly ornate entrance hall and some dude was vacuuming the carpet, patiently waiting for groups of tourists to move on so he could get the carpet beneath their feet.  The art was amazing, the building itself was amazing (it's a palace, after all), but the museum seemed to run according to what I was beginning to think was the typical Russian style of having rules for the simple pleasure of ignoring them.

The next day we had an American Thanksgiving party where we tried to show our Finnish friends the finer points of this excellent holiday.  Only one of them got a stomach ache by the end of the party, so I guess we mostly failed.  It was still fun, though.  There was pumpkin pie, chicken and dumplings, glögi (Finnish mulled wine), and all kinds of other awesome things that I will leave to the reader's imagination.

Tonight I am going to a mixed martial arts training session with my friend Tommi, which I agreed to do while apparently drunk.  He assures me that I "most certainly will not get kicked in the face."  I mostly believe him, since I have yet to meet a Finn who would be impolite enough to do such a thing.  Either way, I haven't had a black eye in quite awhile and I think even if I get beat up it'll make me feel like a bit of a badass.  My goal is to either knock someone out or get a visible injury that I can show off.

HOW will I fare against the most fearsome fighters that show up to beginner's MMA lessons on Tuesday nights in Helsinki???  WHERE on my body will my visible injury be???  WHAT was I thinking agreeing to do this???  Tune in next week for the exciting answers to these questions and more.

Monday, November 21, 2011

It's finally getting cold here in Finland.  For awhile I was starting to think that maybe Finns exaggerate their winters for the sake of storytelling, but no, they're not kidding.  It's plenty cold.

The sun is setting by about 3:30 in the afternoon these days.  The effect of the lack of sunlight is also something I thought maybe people were exaggerating, but this is also no joke (I think the common thread here is that I should start believing what I'm told instead of just thinking I'm smarter than everyone else).  My brain is telling me it's dinnertime by about 4 and time for pajamas at around 6.  By 8 o'clock my brain thinks it's midnight and by midnight I'm expecting the sun to come up any minute.  It's very disorienting.  Also unless the sky is perfectly clear during the day (which is rare) it never gets truly light outside, so it's basically either twilight or deep night around the clock.  Lyndsey and I are going to have to be super careful not to go all The Shining on each other.

Apparently it has now become expected by my friends and family that if they come to visit me in Helsinki that I'm going to embarrass them on this blog.  Only partially true!  If you come to visit Helsinki and you embarrass YOURSELF, then you will be embarrassed on this blog.  I consider myself only a reporter of facts. Far be it from me to stand between the people and what they want, which is humorous anecdotes that they can read at work and have a chuckle, telling themselves that should they find themselves in a foreign country there is no WAY that they would do one of the foolish things my friends and family seem to do regularly.

So, Dustin and Sofia, your fate is in your own hands.  If you, for example, fail to grasp the complex bus pass system used in Helsinki and have to have a Finn help you use the machine even though young children regularly ride the bus by themselves with no trouble, then you have no one to blame but yourself.  Or if, for example, you tell me that you think salmiakki tastes like "an old man" and I relate it here, I cannot be held responsible.

Tonight we are going to see Gogol Bordello and on Thursday we're going to St. Petersburg.  I've heard many times that Helsinki is a crossroads of western and eastern European cultures, and I think it's high time we started exploring the eastern parts.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Normally, if I get invited to dinner anywhere and the host asks me if I have any food allergies or if there's anything I don't like, I'll respond with something like "I like everything but mushrooms."  This is far from true, but it conveys the fact that if there is one thing I would be fine with never putting in my mouth ever again, it's mushrooms.  They're slimy and mushy and they grow in nasty places.  Blech.

So imagine my surprise when, after a successful afternoon of hunting yellow foot mushrooms near Vantaa, I not only tried but enjoyed a soup made by our friend Elina and her mother Tarja that prominently featured mushrooms.  It also featured butter, onions, cheese, cream, pepper, and some other ingredients I didn't catch, but to eat anything that can legitimately be described as "mushroom soup" was a huge step for me.

I've also begun to be a coffee drinker for the first time since we moved to Finland.  I never used to see the point of trying to drink a scalding hot cup of bitter liquid first thing in the morning, but I think I'm starting to get it.  (It's the caffeine, right?)  When I started setting up meetings with people related to my research project, so many of them would ask if I wanted to meet up for coffee that pretty soon it was just easier to acquiesce than to come up with a reason why not.  Lyndsey tells me that Finnish coffee is bitter and a bit weak, so I'm looking forward to trying American coffee when we get back and comparing them.  I feel so sophisticated.

But please do not think my personality is coming completely unmoored.  I assure you that even though I have a new appreciation for coffee, I still consider mushrooms to be mostly gross.  I have also not become so sophisticated that products like the Arizona-ateria are still powerfully appealing to me.  There are posters for this thing in bus stops all over Helsinki right now and I am considering suing the advertiser because I cannot stop thinking about this specialty cheeseburger long enough to get any work done and I consider this to be a disability for which they are responsible.  Sooner or later some evil genius is going to bring either Hesburger or Schnitzel Planet to the United States and bring the country to its diabetic knees.  Oh man, I wish I were in a Schnitzel Planet right now...

No!  I have to focus.  The public library policy of Finland isn't going to research itself.

Monday, October 31, 2011

People seem to have a lot of assumptions about librarians.  Of course everyone thinks we're all spinstery old ladies who like nothing more than to shush teenagers and gyp people out of quarters, but I don't mind that one because my beard pretty much proves I'm not a crotchety spinster.  We're also assumed to be a giant pack of squares but again I'm not super worried about that one since I spent a bunch of money on tattoos and that seems to get me a little street cred.  (Why this is, I have no idea.  You don't have to pass any sort of Cool Guy Test to get tattoos, you just go make an appointment then spend a couple hours in pain.  It's pretty much like the dentist except you'll probably hear a few more swear words.)

One that kind of bugs me is that everyone assumes that because I'm a librarian I've not only heard of whatever book they're currently reading, but I've also read it and formed an opinion of it and my opinion is probably going to be the same as their opinion.  Most of the time it astonishes people when I tell them I've never read anything by whoever their favorite author is.  I suppose I should take it as a compliment that people think librarians read every single book that comes into the building, but I think at least sometimes people look at me askance when I don't have a working knowledge of every book in the library.  Like I haven't been doing my homework or something and they're considering telling on me.  There are a lot of books in libraries, people.  Can't read 'em all.

On a different subject, this past weekend we attempted to bring a bit of Americana to Finland and we convinced our friends to throw a Halloween party.  Our friend Lyndsey adapted one of my wife Lyndsey's (yes, two Lyndseys, it is very confusing) old costumes and dressed up as a gnome, complete with a peaked red hat made out of posterboard and a beard made out of a sheet of cotton.  Our friend Brad wrapped himself in an orange blanket and cut some pieces of felt into eyes and a mouth and went as a jack-o-lantern. I think they made quite an impression on the other bus passsengers, who were mostly dressed in what I am starting to think is the official Finnish chilly weather uniform of a black or grey jacket, a scarf thrown dashingly around the neck and an impossibly stylish haircut.

Our Finnish friends Elena and Maija hosted the Halloween party.  It was very American.  It included bobbing for apples, hot dogs (hot dog buns here come in packs of three with American flags on the wrapper) and Twister (which I won twice, NBD).  Then we went to a fashionable tiki bar called "Kokomo," which is of course a strange juxtaposition to anyone from Indiana since Kokomo is also the name of one of the more economically depressed cities in the state and was listed in 2008 by Forbes as America's third fastest-dying town.  However, the same magazine recently called Kokomo one of America's "best cities for jobs" and both unemployment and crime have fallen steeply in the last few years.  Hopeful signs of economic resurgence aside though, when someone at the party told me that "we're going to Kokomo" it took me several seconds to figure out why anyone would suggest such a thing.  The Wikipedia entry for Kokomo, Indiana tries hard to make the place seem fun but the section on "culture" stretches the meaning of that word to its absolute limits.

This week Lyndsey and I have plans to visit an island called Seurasaari where the birds and squirrels are tame enough to be hand fed.  There are also plans to go mushroom hunting this weekend in the forest with Elena's family.  Nature!

Friday, October 21, 2011

So the other night I went to the sauna.  I didn't, like I originally thought I would, end up going with two Irish dudes.  I ended up going with two Irish dudes, two Americans, a German, a pair of Russians, and the half-Finnish son of one of the Irish guys.  I have to say, being nude in a roomful of people that I barely know who are also nude was somehow not nearly as awkward as I thought it would be.  It was certainly less awkward than, say, one of those public restrooms where instead of urinals they have a big long trough.  (Putting ice in there doesn't make it better, Wrigley Field.)  For example, there were two or three lively conversations happening in the sauna at any given time whereas carrying on a conversation of any kind with the guy at the next urinal is a pretty good way to achieve weirdo status.

I was expecting it to be hot, of course, but it was next level hot.  When I first walked in they had just thrown some water onto the stones and the air was so intensely hot that it was a bit painful to inhale.  If you didn't drink your beer fast enough the lip of the can got so hot it was uncomfortable to drink from.  It. Was. Hot.  I could only take it for about 15 minutes at a time, at which point I had to take a shower to cool down.  I didn't look at the thermometer but apparently it's not unusual for the sauna to be between 170 and 230 degrees.  When it was over and I had a chance to cool down I definitely felt relaxed.  Overall:  I enjoyed the sauna very much and I at least have gained the knowledge that throwing beer on the sauna stones smells not unlike burning hair.

We also went to a really awesome hockey game featuring HIFK and Jokerit, which are both Helsinki teams so it's a big rivalry game.  We were instructed by our Finnish friends to root for HIFK, which I think I probably would have done anyway because Jokerit has possibly the goofiest logo I've ever seen, a cartoony jester who is smirking and winking in a less than intimidating manner.  HIFK, on the other hand, sports a dignified crest that notes that they were established in 1897 (by a 15-year-old).  There were several fights, some blood, a puck that flew into the stands (which Lyndsey recovered after the game and is now sitting on our dresser), and HIFK won 3-0.  Also at Finnish hockey games you can buy a cup of hot dogs.  Literally, it's just a paper cup with like four hot dogs stuck in there vertically.  I don't know about the rest of you, fellow Americans, but I can live with America's fall from economic, military, and diplomatic prominence.  However, I am extremely surprised and depressed that another country has arrived at hot-dogs-in-a-cup before us.  Some deep soul searching needs to be done, America.  If we aren't leading in the way in crazy snacks, I ask you, where are we leading?

Tomorrow:  Finnish brunch.  I'm not typically a breakfast food fan but Cup o' Weenies (which is what I'm going to call it when I import it to the States and make my first million) makes me think the Finns will have some good ideas.  I'm sure you'll see a picture of it on Lyndsey's Facebook at some point.

Monday, October 17, 2011

One of the great things about Helsinki is that even though it's become a hotspot of design and fashion and everything is that it's still got a fair amount of nature.  Helsinki Central Park covers almost 2500 acres and runs the length of the city and beyond.  This photo was taken a ten minute walk from my apartment.

I started feeding the birds that hang out in the tree outside our apartment balcony a few days ago.  Eventually I decided to try to figure out what kind of birds they are.  I was highly amused (almost embarrassingly so) to discover that they are called Great Tits.  (NOTE:  I have googled this for you so you don't have to.  I cannot be responsible for you googling "great tits" at work or anywhere else.)  Needless to say, there was a period of about ten minutes or so where much entertainment was had.  "Wow, look at all the Great Tits on the balcony," etc etc.  I was very surprised to learn though that these cute little yellow songbirds have been known to kill and eat bats.  They are, literally, killer tits.

Of course, this comes with drawbacks as well.  Our friend Lyndsey was on her way back from a conference in Turku via train when she suddenly felt a sizable bang and the whole train shuddered, then slowed to a stop.  They had hit a moose.  The force of the impact was fatal to the moose as well as the train's brakes, so they traveled to the next train station at some ridiculously slow speed.  Finns on the train helpfully explained to her that it is currently moose hunting season, so apparently the moose are plentiful right now and presumably eager to keep on the move so they don't wind up with two people congratulating each other over their corpses.

Speaking of animals in their natural state, I am going to the sauna with a couple of Irishmen on Wednesday.  Saunas in Finland are a big deal.  Lots of apartment buildings have them, there are public saunas downtown, the new main branch of the Helsinki City Library is even going to have one.  They're a way to relax and bond, which to my American sensibilities sounds fishy because according to tradition you have to be completely nude.  In the rural areas you're supposed to sit in the sauna for thirty minutes or so, go jump in the cold lake or roll around in the snow (again, nude) and then get back in the sauna.  I'm not quite sure what to expect, but I do enjoy a nice long, hot shower so maybe it will be similar.  Except for the two Irish dudes who will be in there with me.  But hey, when in Rome I guess.

Monday, October 10, 2011

This last week was pretty awesome.  My parents were in town and I got to show off how incredibly worldly and sophisticated I have become by taking them to many, many different places to have coffee.  I'm really glad they got to come and see Helsinki, meet my Finnish friends, and generally be assured that I am safe and sound even though I have decided for some reason to live on a different continent than them (for a while).

Since they appeared on this blog last time, my parents were trying really hard not be the next one to do something goofy enough to be recounted here.  Mom lost.  We were walking by the Presidential Palace when she noticed two figures standing motionless out front.  "Look at those fake people!  They look so real," she said.  "Mom those are absolutely real people," I said.  "What?  No they're not, I bet you a hundred dollars."  I stuck out my hand to shake on it, she immediately slapped it, grabbed the iron bars of the gate with both hands and shouted over the traffic noise to the guards who are maybe 30 yards away (so really loudly, in other words) to "HEY!  WINK IF YOU'RE REAL!"  Needless to say, they were real, but they were professional enough (and Finnish enough) not to laugh at us.  One of them was definitely smiling though.  I haven't seen a penny of that hundred dollars.

Someone asked me the other day why I only blog about mishaps and stuff that goes wrong.  I told them it's because stuff that goes right is tremendously boring to read about.  For example, the things that went right today:  I spent most of the day in a cafe working on a PowerPoint presentation for a meeting I have later.  After that, I went to a comic book shop.  After that, I came home and made chili for dinner.  It was pretty good, but not great.  Boring, right?  That's because 99% of life is boring.  If life were truly interesting, no one would come to read this blog, or watch television, or take naps, because they'd be too busy doing awesome crazy stuff all the time.

Anyway I would love to continue blogging but Lyndsey is watching Jersey Shore and it's really hard to write when a bunch of juiced up spraytanned harbingers of American cultural death are on TV.  Whenever you feel like you've got the world figured out, watch some Jersey Shore.  It keeps you intellectually humble.

Friday, September 30, 2011

My parents don't want me to tell embarrassing stories about them on the internet.  They also don't want me to have tattoos.  Can't always get what you want, mom and dad!  I remember being told this as a child approximately a billion times.  It really sunk in!  Good parenting!  Lesson learned.

Day one:  my parents arrived in Helsinki on Friday morning, and they were both a little wonky from getting practically zero sleep on the plane.  But, because they are good sports and because they are eager to spend time with their son, they insisted that we go out and about.

To their credit, they lasted almost a full three hours without doing anything that would be funny to describe on this blog.  If someone had been following me around after I got off the plane in Helsinki, waiting for me to do or say something stupid so they could put it on the internet, I don't think I would have made it so far.  Jet lag is no joke.  The sun is up, but your brain refuses to believe that it's time to be awake.  You look around and wonder how all these people are doing it, walking around and staying awake when CLEARLY it is time to be asleep and feeling like each passing minute you are inching closer to irreversible insanity.  Or maybe that's just how I experienced it.

Anyway, it was not even three hours before my dad was shoplifting.  Haha no, I kid.  In Helsinki, as in many European cities, you have to pay for your plastic grocery sacks individually.  You take them from the pile at the front of the register and put them on the conveyor belt with the rest of your purchases.  Dad didn't know this, so he put his Coke Zero and his Kleenex into a plastic bag and walked out of that store like he just didn't give a shit.  Which he didn't, because he didn't know that he was supposed to.  I like to think the store clerks watched him walk out and were like "Damn, I bet he also crosses the street when it says 'Don't Walk' but no cars are coming, which I as a Finnish person would never do.  That American in the Kansas City hat is truly bad ass."  What's even cooler is that he probably told them "Kiitoksia paljon!" before he raised up out of there with their property, because he learned several phrases in Finnish before he came, because that's how he rolls.

My mom didn't pull off anything quite so bold, but this is probably due at least in part to the head cold she came down with immediately before departing the United States.  The only thing she did that was funny was use her bus pass incorrectly.  It's a little RFID card that you hold up next to the scanner, and at the same time you push a number that says which zone you're trying to go to.  It was mildly humorous when mom waved the bus pass around way too far away from the scanner, like she was maybe trying to cast a spell on it.  ("You will TRANSPORT me, machine, for I COMMAND IT.")

But I can't really give either of them TOO much grief about either of these things.  The grocery store can be really tricky.  Once I brought a thing of broccoli up to the register without weighing it.  I thought I didn't need to, because it was individually wrapped and had a barcode on it.  The cashier just held it up and gave me a dead-eyed stare, as if to say "seriously dude?" then went and weighed it himself because it would clearly be faster than to have the idiot standing in front of him do it.  Also when I first got to college I rode the bus clear to the opposite side of campus without realizing that the reason it wasn't stopping was because you have to ring the bell, because the bus driver apparently can't read minds.  So those stories, plus the fact that last week on this blog I told about how I barfed in public, make me feel not so bad about putting their foibles on the internet.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

So last week Lindsy Serrano had a food related mishap.  This week it was apparently my turn.  We went down to the main market square because we had planned to take the ferry to the sea fortress.  We got there like 20 minutes before the ferry left, so we decided to grab some food.  There's a ton of food stalls around, everything looks really good, and we decide to share a bowl of something called "Reindeer Delight," which was basically fried potatoes, reindeer sausage, and some kind of spicy mayo-ish sauce.  I don't know if it was the food, or the disgusting sea gulls that were constantly trying to snatch it out of our hands, or the fact that we wolfed it standing up, but something made me feel a bit off.  I don't wanna get too graphic, but that was the most miserable ferry ride of all time.  Anyway I'm pretty sure puking reindeer meat off of a boat into the Gulf of Finland is some kind of rite of passage or something around here.

But then the ferry docked, my stomach was empty, and the rest of the day was great.  There's all kinds of stuff on the sea fortress island that you wouldn't necessarily associate with either the sea or a fortress, like a brewery, several cafes, a public library, a hostel, a grocery store, and an antique toy museum full of terrifying nightmare fuel.

Another interesting feature of this charming tourist island is the fact that it contains a functioning prison.  We were following the signposts toward something called an "open prison," assuming it was some kind of historical facility that you could tour, when I suddenly remembered reading the night before that it is actually a minimum-security detention facility where the inmates perform upkeep on the island as part of their sentence.  So we turned around.  Turns out not only do prisoners live on the island, but also employees of the city and approximately 900 other random people who apparently enjoy living in close proximity to an 18th century fortress that sees over 700,000 visitors per year.

Overall, I highly recommend visiting the sea fortress.  Just stay away from the Reindeer Delight and any detention facilities you might wander across.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Two weeks since my last post!  I kind of can't believe it.  Time is flying here.  Helsinki is like 3/4 the size of Indianapolis but it is approximately a billion times cooler.  Just walking down the street you can find super cool little cafes, restaurants, shops, and all kinds of surprises.  The other day we were just out wandering around and we came across a little shop selling wallets and belts and stuff made out of fish leather.  We also stumbled across a super cool knife shop called Marttiini right across from the infamous Big White Church (otherwise known as the Helsinki Cathedral, or Helsingin tuomiokirkko).  Walking down the street in Indianapolis is pretty much a waste of your time.

Today we had lunch at Bank Restaurant with our good friend Lindsy Serrano who is in town visiting.  Dining out can be confusing in Finland, even if everybody speaks English.  Lindsy found this out the hard way when she took a big scoop of what she thought was yogurt and jam into a bowl and got back to our table to discover that she had in fact served herself a huge bowl of butter.  The Finnish people at the table next to us were laughing at us a bit, because it is apparently obvious that this was meant as a topping for a flan-like substance that was in a dish on the next table.  But hey, live and learn.  I'd like to see those Finnish people try to navigate a White Castle.  ("It's a ring made out of chicken?")

Tomorrow we're heading outside the city to take in some Finnish reggae music.  I anticipate many white people with dreads, which is always a sign of people who are ready to have a good time.  Right now, I am off to meet my Fulbright "buddy," which I think is a really silly word to give use in reference to a grown person.  Me and my "buddy" (I refuse to dignify this word by taking the quotation marks away) are going to go get a beer at an Irish bar in Helsinki.  I have really high hopes for the beer there, as I have to confess that so far I find Finnish beer underwhelming.  I will be sure to let the Internet know when I figure that one out.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

I had my first meeting the other day with my contacts at the Helsinki City Library, and they were super helpful and nice.  I won't bore all the non-librarians who read this blog with too many details, but among the other mind-blowingly forward thinking aspects of the Finnish library system is that they have three (three!) people at the Ministry of Education whose job it is to do nothing but work on public library issues.  What's more, all of them are librarians by training, not the faceless European government bureaucrats I'm sure most American librarians would picture.  I have meetings set up with two of them already.

I am happy to report that I have managed to find some Finnish candy that doesn't taste like the hideous offspring of licorice and salt.  Fazer (not to be confused with Fazer) makes fine chocolates of all types, and they somehow resist the all-powerful Finnish urge to put star anise in it.  Our new friend Salla brought over several different types, and they ALL tasted good.  Maybe Finland is not the confectionery wasteland I thought it was.

I am constantly trying to think of things to blog about, but when I sit down at the computer they all seem to make boring writing.  Also we haven't been able to do a whole hell of a lot, since I've yet to be paid.  So we've been living the Poor Americans in Europe stereotype in our little studio apartment, cooking ourselves dinner on our tiny little stove, eating it on the balcony, and scraping together some spare change for a coffee or a beer at the cafe.  It's a tough life, I know.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My orientation is finally over!  Which means I should have much more time to regale you, dear readers, with my absurdly witty and incisive anecdotes.

Orientation has been a trip.  It was mostly PowerPoint presentations and such, so I won't bore you with many of the details, but we got to do some cool stuff too.  We got a guided tour of the Ateneum, which was the first art museum in the world to buy anything by van Gogh.   We also got to drink wine and eat food off little trays at the American ambassador to Finland's house.  The ambassador was not the stuffed shirt I half expected him to be.  He's well over six feet tall, shaved bald, wears an earring, refers to his enormous French poodle as the "ambassadog" and said two cusses in his welcome speech to us.

Last night we went to a Helsinki rock bar called Bar Loose with a couple of our new Finnish friends Elina and Maija.  There was a giant MC5 wall mural behind the bar and a giant Angus Young portrait downstairs, so while it wasn't quite Atlas Bar it was super cool.  Elina bought a round of shots that tasted exactly like the crazy candy Pauliina gave us.  Finnish people:  what in the hell is the deal with this stuff?  Everything else about Finland I can get behind.  Taking off shoes in other people's houses, salting fish, high taxes...but I do not understand how this taste has become the unoffical taste of Finland.  It is foul.  If you haven't tasted the stuff, here's a video of some Japanese kids trying it, helpfully soundtracked to T. Rex:

It's beginning to sink in that we live in Finland.  Live.  In Finland.  I have to repeat it to myself sometimes.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Today, at the request of many, I went to McDonald's in Helsinki to see what the difference is. (Mainly: price.) Lyndsey and I both got a burger called "The 1955" burger. According to burgerbusiness.com (a website I will be visiting regularly now that I know it exists) McDonald's made up some crazy backstory about how this particular burger was invented in 19050s Chicago.

The thing was pretty much like a quarter pounder with a weird orange sauce on it. It wasn't Big Mac sauce. Burgerbusiness.com calls it barbecue sauce, but I would like to pointedly disagree. I mean I'm not a doctor or anything, but I feel pretty comfortable diagnosing what is and what is not barbecue sauce. Readers, this was NOT barbecue sauce. And it costs approximately twice what you would pay in the US. From now on if I am in the mood for a quick burger I'll just stick with a plain ol' baconhamburger.

Another Finnish misadventure: we brought quad band phones with us with the idea of getting pay-as-you-go service for them. Problem is, the phones are "locked." (I thought only Apple locked their phones?) So we had to buy new cell phones. And, as you would expect from a Finnish cell phone store, the phones are in Finnish. C'est la vie.

We found some really cool stuff, too. A little cafe/bar that does whiskey tastings, four whiskeys for seven euro, directly across the street from an awesome indoor market which is exactly like what Americans think of when they think of a small, tightly packed European market selling everything from coffee to sweets to beef tongue to fish. There were those cool little stalls with four tiny tables crammed together serving what I am going to assume was some awesome Finnish homecooking. Unfortunately we had just dropped 14 euro at McDonald's and we were feeling neither hungry nor rich (Helsinki is expensive, y'all).

Tomorrow I start my orientation. I'm super excited, and only a little bit terrified. It's suddenly dawning on me what I've gotten myself into, I think.

Monday, August 22, 2011

We are now officially residents of Helsinki. It's about 11 a.m. here, and I've been awake since I left Chicago at 6:30 am yesterday. Because I'm a genius, I booked us seats right by the bathrooms in the middle of the plane where the lights are always on. This, plus the constant parade of knee-jostling and fart smells made it impossible to snooze or to enjoy my private screening of Thor, although that may not have been possible anyway. Paul and Miller's Crossing were much more diverting and I hardly even noticed when the fat lady stepped on my foot.

When we were in Chicago two nights ago we got to have dinner with the person who we are subletting our Helsinki apartment from, which was really cool. She's an English philology student studying abroad in the USA this semester, which means her vocabulary is probably better than mine and anyone else who is reading this blog. She also gave us some great tips about Finland, one of which was unintentional. If all Finnish candy tastes as terrible as the kind she gave us, I'm going to have a hard time understanding this country. The best I can describe the taste is that it was like eating a tablespoon of salt with a raisin in the middle. Pauliina, if you're reading this, it was a joy to meet you but if you want to make friends in America I'd be careful who you give that candy to.

I feel like writing more but I also feel like if I don't get some sleep that I may lose my grip on reality. I can picture myself hallucinating that I'm back on the plane, dodging elbows and watching terrible movies like some vision of a Sisyphean hell right out of Camus, or Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

First post!

I got my itinerary for the orientation from the Fulbright people today. It lasts a full four days, and for most of it I am expected to dress in a "business" or "business casual" manner. I've never had a job in the for-profit (ie "square") world, and I am not quite sure what either of these terms mean or how they are different from each other. I'm assuming that business casual is what you would wear to work on Casual Fridays, so I'm packing pleated khaki shorts and a Hawaiian shirt for that part. For the other part I guess I'll just wear a tuxedo.

The orientation also includes a field trip to an ATM and a grocery store, which are apparently so complicated that people who have been awarded international travel research grants need specific instructions on them. I hope I don't commit some crazy faux pas like I did in Prague, when I neglected to print out the weight of my own apple before bringing it to the register. If that cashier's eyes had rolled any harder she may have gone blind.

I will also be attending something called the "Fulbright Alumni Association Buddy Event," which sounds suspiciously like the thing in 5th grade where they send you to middle school with a "buddy" who is supposed to show you the ropes, except this time there is hopefully very little chance that my buddy will get into a fight at lunch time and leave me wandering the halls by myself for the first part of 4th period.

One part of the week that I'm genuinely nervous for is a reception at the "American Embassy Residence," for which I am to appear in "business" dress. It very well may be the classiest event I will have ever attended. Note to self: learn something about US-Finnish relations that can be deployed in conversation but is also not boring. Possibly something about Nokia? Oh god this is going to be terrible.