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.