Wednesday, November 28, 2012

World traveler

Oddly, despite the fact that I've traveled quite a bit (or at least I'd like to think so), I've actually never been to a US Consulate/Embassy. Or at least if I have it's not been in conscious memory. Which perhaps is not saying so much, given how frequently I've taken to forgetting things recently.

Anyway, when recently I looked into my passport and realized that I was on the verge of running out of the appropriate pages one must have to keep traveling as a valid passport holder, it dawned on me that I should really do something about this, and soon. Multiple holiday trips were put on the books and oddly, it seemed I was going to run out of pages well before my passport is set to expire (which isn't until the middle of 2015).

So. It seems I've become a World Traveller (WT). One of those pretentious people who needs to apply for additional pages in order to correctly boast to the public how many places they've gone in their sumptuously filled and exotic lives. Yes, I'd earned my stars as at least a ruby member in that club. I have to admit I was rather surprised. Pleased, but surprised. 

This then put me in the awkward situation of having to reach out to my local consulate. As all of my upcoming travels made it impossible for me to take care of this additional pages business while I was abroad/in my home country, it seemed I would have to do it while I was here in Finland (in other words, stopped the longest in one location). Oddly this count is somewhat less than two weeks, if you can believe it. But it is what it is. (Yes, please do the math - from here until mid-January that is the longest time I or my passport will be in one place).

Armed with this pertinent information, I went on the interwebz and found out the contact info for the local embassy - luckily (and understandably) located here in Helsinki, near Kaivopuisto Park (where the drunken picnic of Labor Day was held several months back). The website, dreadfully lacking in detailed information, said that appointments were necessary to get anything done, and to call or email to make an appointment.

Okay. So I wrote the number down and then noticed that their open hours were Monday thru Friday 2-4pm. 

You have got to be kidding me. There's a consulate open for only two hours a day?!

Well, if that's what it is, that's what it is.

So I patiently waited the next day until 5 minutes after 2pm and faithfully called the number provided on the website for making appointments.

What was I greeted with? A pre-recorded message saying nothing but "Mailbox full."

And then I was hung up on.

Jesus Christ. I could see where this was gonna go.

There was one other number on the website, so I decided to call that one too, for good measure. This one was a little more hopeful; a pre-recorded male voice with a very American accent (which was strangely comforting) answered, saying it was the consulate line, etc etc, and to press 1 for English, 2 for Finnish, etc etc. So I pressed 1 and continued to go through the options.

I was on this line for about 2 minutes before I went through all the different options. They all led me to three different paths (I called the number about 6 different times to confirm all the different variations):
  1. Call the number that I had called before (which I did call again, still said "Mailbox full" before hanging up on you).
  2. Email them to set up an appointment.
  3. Hold for the operator (which then put you into a loop where you are redirected to another operator, which was really just the first operator, so it was continual ringing and then a message that said no one was attending such and such line so you were being transferred to a different operator...I think you get the point).
After a rather frustrating 25 minutes I decided I was going to write them a goddamn email.

So I did. It was...blunt.

About 2 days later I received a reply stating (not asking or requesting) that I had an appointment the following Monday at 9:30am sharp. It had extremely hilarious and specific instructions.

First, the address they provided was different than the normal embassy/consulate. But it said specifically that I needed to go to this address. It had 5 different steps for how to get there. This was going to get interesting, especially considering I'm considerably navigation-challenged.
Second, they made it extremely clear that you were to arrive at the exact time - early or late comers would not be permitted in. No exceptions.

Well, okay, at least I had an appointment. Improvement in the situation.

On the given day I left my apartment half an hour early to make sure I could find the place and still have enough time to potentially get lost and find my way back (just in case).

Luckily, having fabulous mobile technology at my disposal, I found the place with no problem. In fact I was 10 minutes early.

Knowing their instructions and having read them carefully, I waited the 10 minutes before making my presence known. But I'm skipping ahead of myself just a little bit.

First observations - this was no ordinary consulate. Not only was it not in the ordinary location (otherwise known as Embassy Row - next to the park, as I mentioned earlier), this "consulate" that I had been guided to was located between a coffee shop and a dry cleaners.

...that's not suspicious at all.

As per the instructions, there was a buzzer at the door, which looked extremely nondescript. In fact, it looked like the door of an apartment building. One of the doorbells there said, "CONSULATE." After waiting the 10 minutes outside, this was the button I pushed to get in. Someone answered on the loudspeaker and asked if I had an appointment, what my name was, and what time said appointment was at. After answering all of the questions appropriately, I was buzzed in past two doors and told to go to the second elevator down the hallway and go to the fifth floor.

As soon as I stepped through the door I was certain - this was definitely an apartment building. Normal people were living here and going in and out as part of their normal daily routine.

This was getting weirder by the minute.

I got to the elevator, safe and sound, and made my way to the fifth floor. As I stepped out I got out into a spiral staircase. There was a short landing with two doorways. One of them had a plastic plaque on it that said, "CONSULATE." Two people were already waiting there.

Now you have to understand that this was no real hallway - it was literally a stairwell. Like enough space for maybe three people to fit cross-wise. So we all stood there awkwardly, trying not to touch each other and to move out of the way of real people coming down the stairs going outside.

Eventually the door opened and a woman in full police uniform stepped out, motioning for one of the people waiting before me to step in. She noticed me and asked if I had an appointment. I said I did. She asked for my passport. I pulled it out and gave it to her. She took it and immediately went back in, closing the door behind her.

Oh, okay.

I asked the guy (now the only person in the stairwell with me) whether or not his passport had already been collected. He said yes. I felt a little better about the situation. A little. 

I then noticed the cameras all over the entrance. One point toward the door, one taking an entire view of the stairwell, one that very obviously would get more angles that I couldn't even imagine.

I also noticed some graffiti on the walls. I wondered to myself if that kid was immediately caught the next day and jailed, completely unaware that he was defacing something outside of the US Consulate. Poor sucker, probably had no idea what kind of hurt was coming to him.

Another guy arrives on the elevator and waits with me in the hallway. It's silent. He doesn't ask me anything and I don't feel like offering him any advice.

The door opens again and the guy next to me is motioned inside. Still no sign of my passport. The new guy is asked if he has an appointment and he explains that he went to the other address by accident and his appointment was 20 minutes before. The police officer frowns but still takes his passport. The door closes and locks again. Inside my head my Tiger Mother shakes her head about how this boy clearly didn't read the instruction email carefully enough and how he should be more diligent.

Finally it's my turn and I am ushered inside. Immediately I am asked if I have any electronics. I say yes and am asked to turn them off. I turn off my cell phone and have to prove that my ipod is indeed completely off. I'm then asked if I have any documents for my appointment - I take them out and they're placed in a clear plastic box. Do I need to pay for something in my appointment? Yes. My wallet is taken out and put in the clear box with my documents. Am I wearing a watch? Yes. I'm asked to take it off and put it in the box as well.

Then I'm asked to take off my coat and scarf and put them in a separate box with my purse and the electronics that were taken out and turned off. These are stored and I'm given a claim tag so I can pick them up after I'm done with my business.

I'm asked to walk through a walk-thru metal detector. Even though it beeps I'm pretty sure I have no metal on me except my earrings and another guard then metal-wands me, back and front, up and down. I'm asked to spread and every inch of my body is appropriately wanded. There are three policemen total in the room at the time. The room is as big as half of my apartment.

After this I'm allowed to take my documents, wallet, and watch and told that I can sit in the waiting room until I'm called by name for my appointment. A guard opens a locked door and I walk through. He shuts and locks it behind me.

The waiting room. A clear glass room where about 20 people sit. It's clear they didn't count how many appointments they would have at once and I get the last seat, located under a tv that is droning some sort of bad Finnish TV. The shelf that holds some sort of electronic is set too low and I have to duck under in order to sit all the way back in the seat. I decide to perch on the seat instead, making the people sitting around me slightly uncomfortable because the seats are so close to one another.

Since no one has their phones or bags they all sit there nervously, unsure what to do with themselves. Some try to watch the Finnish tv, but considering it's something boring and we're all Americans this is pretty useless.

That's when I spot the rack of magazines. I walk over to it. It's mostly Finnish publications, which again have no meaning to me. There are two Nat Geos (National Geographic magazines), one nondescript Sports magazine and one house decorating magazine of some kind. I decide to look at the Nat Geos.

I look at the dates for them and one is from February of this year. The other is from September 2011. I blink and look again. You've got to be f-ing kidding me. I think to myself that it's someone's idea of a really sick joke and decide to reach the Feb 2012 edition.

As I sit there with my Nat Geo I actually get fairly engrossed in it. I've been reading a lot lately (20 books to the count so far since I've moved to Helsinki) and I've always loved the photos in Nat Geo. I read about endangered fish species and the evolution of the human teenage brain. I wonder to myself how much Nat Geo subscriptions cost nowadays. I think to myself I should get myself a subscription when I'm grown up.

It's at this point that I notice that someone is calling my name. I throw my Nat Geo in the general direction of the magazine stand (it's entirely likely that I missed it altogether).

The reason I almost missed hearing my name is quite practical - as with many governmental functions interactions with people are limited to face-to-face conversations separated by glass with a magnified loudspeaker between. There is about a 10 foot hallway space between these windows and the door to the waiting room (which is propped open). The distortion alone should count for something. 

As I step to the glass that contains the man who called my name he starts talking to me, asking me for my extra passport pictures.

What extra passport pictures?

Oh sorry, you're here for extra passport pages.

Yes, sir.

I hand him my documents and my passport. He gives them a cursory glance before asking me if I brought a prepaid envelope to have them send it back to me.


Nothing about this on their stupidly nondescript and unhelpful website. He starts to tell me I can go to the post office a few blocks away and leave it with the guards before he realizes that I can pick it up two days later from them. I am relieved. I had already started to ask if I could just throw more money at the problem (this is sometimes a solution to many problems).

He asks me to follow him to the first window, where I go to pay.

The man there asks if I want to pay by credit card or cash. I say credit card. 

It's then he realizes that their system is down (not sure how he wouldn't have realized this before, considering every other window I can hear the conversation that the system is down and they have no access to anything) and that I need to pay in cash.

I ask him how much it is. He looks it up.


I have that in cash, so I pull out 70 and start handing it to him.

He said they can't open the cash drawers because the system is down so not only can he not give me a receipt he also can't give me change.

I stare at him blankly. Can this really be my country's consulate? My country? The one that is so anal about security and documentation that you need to include donation receipts if you're claiming anything as a tax write-off? Am I somehow being scammed?

The woman behind him asks how much change I need. I say that I could give her a euro more to make it 5euros if that makes it easier, and slip that through the window slot. She rushes away to get her purse.

Her purse.

And comes back with my change.

They then say that I'm done and can come back Wednesday morning to pick up my passport.

Against all reason I am thinking that this is probably the safest place I could leave my passport and expect to get it back. Because you wouldn't get scammed by your own consulate...right?

As I leave the guards are very friendly (instead of official and stone-faced, as they were when I came in) and ask me how things went. I tell them the systems are down and things are confused in there, that I'll be back on Wednesday. They wish me a good day.

And thus ended the strangest morning I've ever spent. 

I guess we'll see if I actually get anything back on Wednesday morning or if this strange apartment consulate has strangely disappeared by the time I go back...

And we're back!

Well, momentarily anyway.

Technically I'm back from my holidays. Work has begun again and the avalanche of emails I've accumulated during my short stint away has been dealt with. I'm still here in the States for another week or so, but alas, life must continue and work must go on.

Thanks for your patience while I was away. Lots of exciting things happened, some of which I'll chronicle here, others will remain a mystery. Either way, the posts will now resume.



Friday, November 16, 2012

Coming to America

Yes that's right, I'm coming to America for Thanksgiving. Finally getting in some much needed R&R after working over a year without a real vacation.

Yes, I've taken weekend trips to other countries, but I have not actually taken any vacation days. I've just used public holidays to my advantage and worked the rest. The last trip I took to the States was actually a business trip, if you can believe it.

So, I'm going to take a hiatus for about two and a half weeks, though I may decide to post a bit while I'm away, just so there's something going on here. I'm pretty decent with backlog, and it's not like life stops just because I go on vacation.

And so I leave you with this hilarious going away message: if you've not seen the movie "Coming to America" with Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, and a weird cameo by none other than Samuel L. Jackson (he plays a robber at a fast food joint, though officially he's credited as "hold-up man," lol), you should really check it out. It's a 1988 classic. Incredibly un-PC.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone. I'll see you on the other side.


Meat jelly

Yes, you read that right. Delicious meat jelly. Otherwise known as "terrine."

You've heard me talk about this type of food before - I had an amazing version at Kuurna for my birthday made out of pig's head meat (mmm) and a rather disgusting and unamazing version while on a business trip to London made out of grilled vegetables (remind me to not ever order that again).

In any case, my opinion on terrines is sort of split at the moment - apparently you can either make them really well or you can waste a lot of food by making rather nasty savory paste out of otherwise tasty ingredients. It's up to the chef. Only the tongue will know.

So when I was in Stockmann this past weekend, trying to find some buttery reindeer leather goods (it's a long story, and no, I don't plan on explaining), I went up to the appropriate floor where previously I'd found the Helsinki Design corner and instead found...Christmas Corner.

That's what I have decided to name it. Because that's what it should rightfully be called. Instead of finding a delightfully designed space with Designer goods (yes, you read that right) and Marimekko prints,  I found every single surface completely covered in ornaments, glitter, and holidays foods of every kind from every European country (of the gourmet variety...we were in Stockmann's...after all).

In my ever-working state I had failed to realize that after a certain date, Finns had no more holidays between now and Christmas, unlike the States. In the States, despite stores doing a similar thing and rushing to get their Christmas/holiday (if they're particularly PC/politically-correct about the season) goods out as soon as Halloween is over, most people slightly scoff at the notion. There is still Thanksgiving, thank you very much! But Finns don't have that. So I guess it's a full two-month rush towards Christmas, and nothing else.

Bit terrifying, that is. But I bet everyone actually finishes their shopping on time. Or if they don't they're definitely called lazy. There's no excuse when you have several months to finish the job.

Anyway, I digress. As I found myself surrounded by an overwhelming assortment of Santa-related items (one must remember that Finland also has the officious Santa's workshop location located in Rovaniemi, up in's near the Arctic Circle and is actually open year-round), I fought the disappointment of finding out I wouldn't be able to get my reindeer goods here. Damn. Well, guess the search will have to continue elsewhere.

In the meantime I figured I would have a look around. I was there already and quite a few of the people on my list love gourmet food, so...why the hell not?

As I looked around quite a few of the goods were familiar to me - we get a lot of international goods in California and I've traveled a decent amount, so nothing was too foreign.

...until I saw the terrines.

At first I mistakened them for foie gras, since they were in similar containers and as it happened, foie gras was right next to it. But then I looked a little harder, since the texture was off and it was in glass jars (well, some of them anyway). What the hell was this made out of, anyway?

The answer? Many animals of the delicious variety: hare, pheasant, duck...if it was fatty and in the wild, it was made into a delicious meat jelly paste with herbs and spices.

...and I was going to buy them.

I immediately thought about how this could be made into a gift item for my foodie friends, but then sadly remembered that crossing the borders into my country would see them swiftly confiscated or otherwise pounced on by the customs sniffer dogs.


Well, guess I was just going to have to sacrifice and eat them myself. Meat paste this gourmet should not go unexperienced.

So I bought all of the flavors. There are 6 in all. And yes, I do plan on documenting them in full detail unless I get comments stating otherwise.

Excited with my bounty (German K was slightly disgusted), I brought them all to the counter and purchased them all. I paid 25euros for 6 cans of meat jellies and paste. I was ecstatic.

The rest of the day was spent shopping a little more for holiday goods and eventually seeing a horror movie (Sinister...actually quite well done and freaky; but I'll not get into that), so I didn't end up experiencing my meat paste until later that night.

But I did.

Choosing which one to open first was like trying to decide which bon bon to eat first out of box of chocolates. They all looked so good! Oh which one?!?

The decision was very anxiety-ridden. But I made it, knowing that I would eventually experience them all.

I chose hare with Provencal herbs. Seemed like a pretty good choice.

Since I had nothing gourmet to go with it (an oversight, unfortunately), I decided toasted wheat bread as as good as it was going to get.

Ignore the fact that it looks like smashed Spam spread on bread and it actually looks decently appetizing. I was certainly excited about it. It smelled like how you could imagine (sort of like pate...but less like liver).

The taste? Very tasty. Like congealed soup with really savory chunks of meat in it. Jellied bits of stew.

In summary? Totally awesome. I don't know why meat pastes aren't made more often. Way more nutritious than butter on bread. Perhaps a little odd in concept, but I think it could catch on; someone with the appropriate marketing skills could really take this far. I've understood the Atkins diet is really taking off here in Scandinavia (not that Finland is considered part of Scandinavia, but it's close enough) and they should really take this terrine stuff seriously. Someone could make a fortune (and the wheels start turning...).

Anyway, in conclusion, I'm excited to try my other flavors of meat paste. Gourmet food, dazzle my tastebuds!

Thursday, November 15, 2012


At last a Friday, blessed Friday.

I know Fridays come at the end of the week, every week, but they seem to be a rarity. Every Friday I get to seems like a relief. Like the finish line at the end of a very long and sometimes tedious, arduous, and painful race. Like a race that you know you will definitely finish, but it's definitely a stretch making it to the end. You cross that finish line, but somehow you miss the fact that you finished it. That's what Fridays are like in Finland.

Somehow Fridays are always planned to the nines. Fridays are nights for going out for most people, especially the Finns. The logic is, if you get trashed on Friday, then you have all day Saturday to recover, go party again on Saturday, then all day Sunday to recover before making it back to work on Monday. Entire days are wasted doing nothing but sleeping, recuperating and otherwise not realizing that something is happening outside of your tiny apartment.

I will admit; most Fridays I do go out. Or at least I have in the past, since moving here. Saturdays I tend to take it easy. This is a complete and odd reversal from how I used to do it back in California. Fridays were for easy-going at the end of the week - the slow relaxing day where you let yourself take it easy and relax into the weekend. Saturdays were for going at it, since you've finally rested and have some strength and energy back, then Sunday was for recovery. Funny how it differs in different places.

Well this particular Friday me and the girls decided that we'd had enough of recovery Saturdays. We wanted our sanity back for Saturdays. So, we decided to take it easy.

Starting off with a relaxing sauna session we then sauntered over to Lupolo for dinner; a very highly-recommended, but somehow not overly expensive restaurant cleverly hidden among apartment buildings and not much else.

It's so well-hidden in fact, that both Hong Kong P and German K, who have both been there before (I'm the only noob) said that they'd both walked past the entrance before not realizing it was a restaurant. It's surrounded on both sides by nondescript concrete apartment buildings. Sexy, I know.

But the inside of the restaurant itself is actually quite nice. Dark lacquered floors, dim lighting, and wonderfully modern white ceilings with rounded wooden cut outs, where light barely peeks through to give you enough luminescence to read your menu by.

It's wonderful. And tiny.

German K made reservations for us ahead of time (being a necessary thing on a Friday night, for sure) and we waited for Hong Kong P to show up (a good half an hour late, to no one's surprise).

We scanned the menu and a wealth of strange but delicious concoctions swam before our eyes:

Fresh mozzarella with plums with ginger-raspberry vinaigrette. Marinated beets with goat cheese and salmiakki. Fried cauliflower with curry. And those were just the veggie dishes.

We ordered with relish; the dishes were rather small so ordering two per person was not a recommendation; it was a command.

I ordered the marinated beets with goat cheese and salmiakki and the gratinated green mussels. Both highly recommended by our waitress.

The beets, covered in a snow of goat cheese. Absolutely to die for. I've never been one for beets, until I realized they could be roasted and caramelized to sweet chewy perfection. But these weren't even that; they were simply marinated in some sort of vinegar concoction (though not overly pungent), sprinkled with a thoroughly justified amount of creamy luscious goat cheese, mixed with some sort of dried fruit (which sort of resembled something between a lesser plump golden raisin and maybe a dried current or cranberry...I could not tell in the low-light conditions), and very fine flakes of high-quality salmiakki.

There is no real saying why this flavor combination worked so well, but the resounding answer is that it did, and it was amazing. Sweet, salty, creamy, sour, tart, and a little bit weird. It's like all of the flavors came out to play and had an amazing time. I ate the thing as slowly as possible, but even for me this dish disappeared fast. I was not the slowest eater at the table for once. For this I am slightly appalled and ashamed.

Next, the gorgeous little dish of green mussels. This time, maybe foolishly, I trusted that the mussels would be as fresh as those I had had at Coma. I've come to expect that of Finland - extremely fresh seafood. Not sure why. Maybe it's because it's one of the few countries I know that is more obsessive about their food standards than maybe anyone else. That does seem to make a difference.

I was not disappointed. No grainy creepy sacks of organs here. Instead smooth with a touch of grace. I can't for the life of me remember what they were gratinated with...some sort of cheese like parmesan, but other than that...I don't recall. From the definition of gratinated that I've looked up (to cook, as macaroni, in a savory juice or sauce until the juice is absorbed and a crisp surface forms), this doesn't quite make sense. Not at all, in fact.

In any case, they were smooth, creamy, and were spiced with something green on top that tasted a lot like faint five spice. Aromatic and amazing. And despite the fact that I squeezed lime on top (something I'm loathe to do on top of any seafood...for some reason I feel like it cuts the taste of whatever it was cooked with, but I was willing to do it here because the flavor combinations had been so amazing), I couldn't really taste it. Perhaps it wasn't what I thought it was.

All of this washed down with a shared bottle of something I'd never heard of, and will likely not find again. The waitress recommended it, it was white, and she said it was like a riesling. I would heartily disagree that it tasted like a riesling and would argue it was a little more clear and less sweet, more herby and not at all cloying, but she did get the herby part right so I felt no reason to correct her. It was a nice wine so no hard feelings.

After all this flavor explosion in my mouf, I was in a good mood. A really nice relaxed mood. So when the question of dessert came up I said a hearty yes, which I find myself inclining to more and more, despite the fact that I'm still not a lover of sweet food. I blame it on relative lack of nutrition and an interest in sustenance. Or just an overall desire to experience as much as possible. It's in the wind, in any case.

The choices were mango mousse or roasted white chocolate something with chocolate shavings and chocolate something with chocolate something covered in chocolate.

Naturally I went with the mango mousse.

German K went with an espresso and Hong Kong P went with a latte. Typical.

Unfortunately the waitress heard me wrong, so when the chocolate monster was presented at our table I had to insist that it be sent back and said that I had ordered the mango mousse.

The chocolate monster was taken away.

And then reappeared at our table a few minutes later, with the kitchen saying that in their mistake we would get it for free.


So we ended up getting both desserts on the menu, and I got the one I really wanted.

My mango mousse.

Though it looks like a pile of bile, fear not - it was creamy, intensely smooth, and had the surprises of roasted cashews and lychee underneath. Relatively light and refreshing. A fine pairing with the rest of the white wine I had left.

The chocolate monster. I only tried the middle part - the roasted white chocolate something in the middle, but what I did try tasted good. Tasted like roasted white chocolate something. Also smooth. Despite what it looks like I don't think it was ice cream.

And after several hours of talking and laughing, we called it a night. Another successful dining experience in wondrous Helsinki. It did cost me an arm and a leg again - 47 euros at this place, since I split a bottle of wine with Hong Kong P...but once again worth the ridiculous price.

This is one I'll definitely keep in the books for hosting purposes. Great flavor combinations, though probably for the more foodie adventurous of my guests.

And so a relaxing Friday ended, instead of one filled with loud, odd music and drunken Finns. Well, at least the first part was out...the second part remained true, as it seems to be true no matter where you go on a Friday night in Helsinki.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The accidental concert

As I slid down the basement stairs of Arkadia, I saw the familiar little room where last I saw the minstrels of Arkadia play. It was set up in much the same way - wooden folding chairs set out in neat rows, same beautiful red shag rug thrown out to spotlight the musicians at the front of the room, and a little vintage tin can to faithfully collect any donations so concerts like these could continue. Free buns were even being offered on this particular night (a very excellent and cute luxury).

Not wanting to disturb those who had come devotedly early, I sat on the outskirts in the back...completely inverse of what I had done with my previous minstrels. Guess you can't be that dorky observer everytime.

And thus the music began. I was completely blown away.

I'd heard this style of guitar before, no problem. But this other instrument, this bandoneon? Of course I'd heard it before, I'd just never known what it looked like, or heard it live.

It was like hearing old memories being poured out in sepia. One by one, soulfully, for you to follow. There was nowhere else to go. You could only live in that exact moment with that music. It was pure sound imagery.

I may love minstrels to no end because I think they're entertaining, hilarious, dorky, and otherwise fantastic...but this music was something else. This music told stories.

In reality this music was actually telling stories. The musicians explained what kind of song it was and what the writer was meaning to express before they started each time, so you could imagine nothing but that. It was fantastic. It's been a little while since I've been so swept away by music. And I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Just to give you a little more idea, the guitar sounded a lot like a flamenco guitar and the bandoneon sounded like the type of accordion that gets played when you think of old Parisian soundtracks. Old music. Music of the people.

In case you want to actually hear what it sounds like, their music can be heard here:

Fueye Trinador

They were called Fueye Trinador. Fueye mean a bandoneon in lunfardo, the Buenos Aires slang and trinador means a guitar in replana, the Peruvian slang.

Afterward I thanked them for the concert and was told they'd be playing again next week for an impromptu tango lesson. Perhaps I will see them again.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Trading at Arkadia

It was that magical time again. I had amassed enough books to trade at Arkadia. My heart was sweeping with an unaccustomed joy.

I know this is a super dorky thing to get excited about, but it's one of the small things I take absolute pleasure in. Call it what you will, but I'll take it where I can get it.

Can you believe that since the last time I traded I'd read 8 books? Apparently I consume books like normal people consume...well, other things. I'm not even really sure what I would compare that to. Movies? Chocolate bars? The occasional illegal Cuban cigar? Readers, what do you consume for your personal enjoyment on a regular basis?

Anyway, I'd done my due diligence and it was now time to trade. How did I know? I'd run out of shelf space for the books I'd read. That's my gauge. I have a designated shelf for books that I've read, and it had become full. Which is sort of a mystery in it of itself because 1) I had had to leave one of the books I'd finished back in the States last time I was there because I finished it while on the plane 2) I recently had to place my scrimshaw materials on the same shelf because I was hosting a party at my place so there is in fact, less space on that shelf and 3) the very rare and momentous occasion has happened where I have actually wanted to keep one of the books I've read.

This only happens once, maybe twice, a year. As I think I've explained before, only maybe 5-10% of books I read make it to the permanent shelf. And one of the 8 I read this time, actually made it. What was it, you ask? What book might be named my, "Book of Year"? Well, the runner-up so far is my first ever Salman Rushdie book, The Enchantress of Florence.

I know I know, righteously easy pick, right?

Actually this one took me a bit by surprise. Having never read Rushdie until this moment (call it a flaw in selection), I kind of shun most authors that are otherwise known for their "powerful"/"masterful" writing. I find it pretentious. I like finding the undiscovered, strangely obscure writers. The ones that speak to me on their own, not because masses of people think they're great.

So it was with quite an effort that I agreed. But it's true; he is indeed a great writer. And I can respect something good when I see it.

This book was also difficult to get through. Not because it's hard to read (because it's deliciously smooth and coherent), more that, unlike the rest of the books I wasn't the right book at the right time. But I didn't care...I wanted to read this book so much that I forced myself through it. And that's not something I do almost ever.

And that's why it's being kept. My mind hasn't made itself up as to what I want to do with it. And so I'll wait to see.

Anyway, that was a long side tangent.

Back to trading.

Having noticed the abrupt change in weather by the pounding in my head and the nausea that gripped me steadily over several hours at work (my body doesn't like changes in weather - apparently it's something to do with the changes in atmospheric pressure...I'm not kidding, it's stupid sensitive like that, even on the daily medications I take), I left work early one day to find solace at my favorite place: Arkadia.

As I skipped past the gravel (the sidewalks out front were being redone) and stepped inside, I felt the rush of warmth of being in a place where time ceased to exist. Where I could lose myself and feel nothing but the peace of adventure and escape. I was home.

As has become my custom, I went directly to their alphabetized shelves and searched for a book I've been looking for for the past few months. You see; there is one particular book I am looking for, for someone in particular. And this time, unlike the other times I've looked and dejectedly turned away, not finding was there, sitting, waiting for me, as I knew it one day would be.

I know it's silly to think that inanimate objects come to you, but this is something I strongly believe in when it comes to books. I believe books find people. The right book will find you at the right time. You may not know it, but they have ways of finding people who are open to them. And I wanted to find this book. In a world where nothing in particular is certain, where everything could rely on chance (for example, someone bringing in that particular book into that particular store, in that particular language)...I knew it would happen.

And it did.

I held it up triumphantly and shouted to the owner that I had finally found it, that it had arrived, that it was here. I had told him about it weeks ago, and he took a picture of me with my prize. He was happy for me; he agrees with me that books have their ways of finding people, and he was happy mine had found me.

Someone very lucky will be getting their book very soon. I hope they appreciate what the universe has brought forth.

After the exhilaration of my find, I perused. I could only do so for about 35 minutes though, because unfortunately I was on a schedule. Three other books found me that day. Pretty decent I'd say.

At this point I put my books on hold and rushed back home to get my 6 (remember, one was left in the States and the other was confusingly being kept) to trade. Luckily the owners knew me well enough to wait for me; there was going to be a concert starting soon (their event for the night), so I tried to rush as fast as I could.

The trade was my 6 books for the 4 I had found plus 2euros. One hardback and three paperbacks. What a steal! These trades are getting monetarily better and better. Way better deals than what I could get back in San Diego.

As the trade was concluding (and I was smiling both on the inside and outside from the joy I felt, knowing how many new adventures I was getting myself into), the owner was telling me about the concert they were having that night. It was a Peruvian man and an Argentinian woman who play a trinador (guitar) and bandoneon (kind of concertina that resembles a smaller square accordion) respectively. I was instantly intrigued.

...and thus began another concert at Arkadia...

(to be concluded in the next entry)...

Monday, November 12, 2012

Between party lines

What do you do when you live in another country and your country is having their presidential elections?

Apparently you go to your country's consulate and you vote as an absentee. But being ig-nant I had no idea this existed, so unfortunately I missed the deadline for properly registering and missed my opportunity.

It is a disappointment, I won't lie. I've voted in every single election that I could since I turned 18 and this is something I'm very proud of. I've been taught that my voice counts and even though my lovely country doesn't necessarily count based on majority for everything, I should always toss my vote their way.

I got around my disappointment by reassuring myself that my state will vote for the presidential candidate I'd vote for anyway (in all likelihood...and if it doesn't, I'll be 1. supremely surprised and 2. extremely embarrassed), and reassuring myself that I wouldn't be properly knowledgeable on any of the propositions this year anyhow, so, it's probably okay. It's likely the prop on GMO food labeling will go the way most of my friends want it to go (yes, please follow the standard much of the world is already following about telling us when our food has been modified), so, I dunno, I think all is fairly safe.

[Note: this was written before the elections happened...there is a post later about post-election results.]

I've decided to take a neutral stance in order not to drive myself crazy with guilt.

Coincidentally, Finland was also holding its elections. It wasn't anything as big as a presidential election, as they had that last year when I was first meeting my team, but still, people were campaigning and gearing up to vote, so I got to experience my first political situation outside of my own country.

It was a lot different, I'd have to say.

First off, I don't have television. Nor can I read Finnish/I don't get Finnish newspapers or magazines. So that cut way down on the exposure I would have had of the candidates and their campaigning material.

But it seems either way that's not a big thing here. Because no one is supported by big companies or backed by big money in general (people actually pay for their materials themselves, heaven forbid), most people do pretty small-scale things - handing out leaflets at grocery stores, making little flyers they drop into people's mailboxes (either themselves or by close friends and families), or just doing meet and greets in public places, since there aren't huge security problems in this country.

As it turns out, also, I knew two people running in their local elections. O, of the wondrous couple J & O, was running in Helsinki, and my teammate, the illustrious JMK, was running in his community of Somero, where he's basically lived all of his life except for a brief stint (I believe when he left for university for about 10 years). Other than that, he's lived there his entire life (50 years).

Anyway, it was interesting knowing people who were actually running for real political positions. And their approaches to campaigning as compared to what I'd been exposed to in the States. They walked around like normal people, didn't even ask their friends or coworkers about their political views, and never really promoted themselves. The most I got asked is if I would pass out flyers in my building for O's campaign (since I'm in the Helsinki voting district). I did it, since I'm more than happy with supporting a friend, and I had the hilarious adventure of dropping things into my neighbors' mail slots for the first time ever (since it's not like I was inviting them every weekend to come over for that big "I'm the new neighbor" bash).

...most memorably after I dropped one into a slot on the 3rd floor I was then almost given a heart attack by the sounds of a tiny barking dog charging the door after the glossy card I'd just dropped into its premises. I quickly ran away, hoping my neighbor wouldn't open her door screaming bloody murder at me. Although I'd learned what "ei mainoksia" meant (no ads), I still had no idea what some of the other signs on people's doors meant (there were some located near their doorbells, which I assumed had nothing to do with their mail preferences...perhaps I was wrong).

Anyway, apparently their voting system is still done manually, as compared to our own. Like people literally handwrite their voting preferences onto a piece of paper, bring it someone at the voting polls, who then stamps it with an officious voting stamp, and it gets dropped into an official voting box. The votes are then hand-counted by official counters (the same counters, year after year) and the results are announced about 2 hours later the same day.

This is unheard of where I come from. Even when we just have city-wide or county-wide elections. Completely handwritten? Ridiculous. No standardized forms? Would never happen. Handcounted? I don't think so.

Also they have a pre-election day and a real election day. On pre-election day, which is the Wednesday before election day, you can go to the post office and vote like you would on election day. Get it over earlier. Or you can come on Sunday and vote then, like normal people. Or you can do an absentee ballot and send it in. So many choices!

And the voting requirements are pretty lax. If you've been residing in Finland for 2 years or more, you're allowed to vote. So both German K and Hong Kong P were allowed to vote in the Helsinki district this election. They both voted for O to show their support. I was still that noob with no voting rights.

I followed Hong Kong P to her voting session out of curiosity more than anything else; especially after hearing that everything was done by hand (literally). Also we happened to have come out of seeing a movie (Taken Liam Neeson) and I was basically following her around because I had nothing else to do.

Anyway, we went into the designated building for our neighborhood (one of the academic buildings about two blocks from our apartments) and after about 5 minutes of describing how she'd lost the voting card sent to her in the mail (hilarious), they found her on the check list and let her vote. Two seconds later, she was done.

Apparently you just write down the numbers of the candidates you want to vote for, and that's it. Since Helsinki is such a big city ("big city"), it had hundreds of candidates. Literally, hundreds:

This is a snapshot of what the candidate list looked like. The voting ballot is a blank half-sheet of paper. You are literally given a pencil and you handwrite the numbers of the candidates down. That's it.


Anyhoo, at the end of the day, unfortunately O didn't win his election but hilarious JMK did. Guess knowing your community really does make a difference (Somero has a population of 10,000 whereas Helsinki has 500,000).

I know a real politician now!

Stewing winter warmth

With the coming of the first snows, I decided it was probably time to start cooking on a decently regular basis again. It seemed likely that with my current diet of open-faced sandwiches and raw vegetables, I would likely not make it through the winter alive. Literally. Something was telling me my body needed more sustenance. Also, I was starting to get more hungry during the night times. Maybe it was my increased running, maybe it's just the lingering cold...I dunno. Whatever it was though, it was telling me to make hot food instead of cold. Okay, fair.

So this past weekend I decided it was high time to make something useful and hearty. What does that normally equate to? Stews. Delicious hearty, healthy stews. And what did I happen to ship over from the States? A multitude of couscous, whole grain rices, and oddly, lentils. My obsession with Fresh n Easy's grain aisle cannot really be explained. There was a time and a place where I would go there and simply stare at the selection, imagining all the wonderful things I could (and sometimes did) cook. Many great things were made. Others were simply fantasized about. In any case, that's how I have my current stock - the things I didn't use in San Diego were shipped with me in my container. Weird, I know, but hey, that's how it happens.

And since I'd been dutifully not cooking since I arrived, they were still in my cupboard, where I had unpacked them.

So, time to use those bad boys and make myself something good.

I found a fabulous recipe on (one of my favorites) for a great red lentil stew. I'll include the recipe at the end of this post.

I didn't have all of the ingredients (as is normal, in my rather still-limited pantry), so I substituted, but it turned out great.

Warm my heart and soul, winter stew! More of this to come, I'm sure...

Red Lentil Stew

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black
1/8 teaspoon chili powder, or to taste

1 (32 ounce) carton chicken broth
1 cup red lentils
1 large carrot, diced

2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil for
1 pinch chili powder

1. Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Stir in the onion and garlic, and cook until the onion has turned golden brown, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste, cumin, kosher salt, black pepper, and 1/8 teaspoon of chili powder. Cook and stir 2 minutes more until the spices are fragrant.
2. Stir in the chicken broth, lentils, and carrot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the lentils are soft, about 30 minutes.
3. Pour half of the soup into a blender, filling the pitcher no more than halfway full. Hold down the lid of the blender with a folded kitchen towel, and carefully start the blender, using a few quick pulses to get the soup moving before leaving it on to puree. Puree in batches until smooth and pour into a clean pot. Alternately, you can use a stick blender and puree the soup right in the cooking pot. Do not puree all of the soup, leave it a little chunky.
4. Stir in the lemon juice and cilantro, then season to taste with salt. Drizzle with olive oil and a sprinkle of chili powder to serve.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Song of the day

As I was getting ready for work this morning, a very specific song popped into my head. I kept hearing it, over and over again. Sometimes this happens to me. I hear a song in my head and I know it's the perfect one for that day, that time. So I put my earbuds in (the crappy ones that have temporarily replaced my real ones as I wait for Santa Claus to come) and put it on.

As my work day progressed I listened to it a few more times and then passed to other albums from the same era (it was a song from a certain time in high school, so quite old now). I was listening to a great old album I used to love (still do, really) when I stumbled upon one of my favorite songs of all time. I used to listen to it all the time, and over the passage of time, it was lost.

So today I am sharing it with you, dear readers. Since it just seemed so relevant. Enjoy.

Boa - Elephant

If I was to hold one hand over my face now
Would you know me?
Or would you see the other side of me?
And if you were to notice
There is a plan I've been devising
To go, to go now, far away from here
And I, gonna be so brave
And I, gonna go so far away

Where are the wise men?
Where have they all gone to
Did they follow the spirit children
Down the road that only they know?
And you and I know that the answer lies
Somewhere deep in the city of skies
We're gonna go there
We're gonna go there
We're gonna see the daylight
And I, gonna fly away now
And I, gonna go where the path runs high

Oh, I'm searching, Oh yeah.

I'm gonna go there, I'm gonna travel
I'm gonna see my through and
You can follow
We can go together
Trunk in hand we're gonna go

Isn't it touching the way the trees hold the leaves
Into the sky
And when the breeze blows
All you can see is the green and gold
You and I know that the city holds, the street night lights
And we're gonna find it
We're gonna find the gold that illuminates our lives
And I, gonna go so far away
And I, gonna see the stars up high

Hear me out, hear me out
I'm searching
Hear me out, yeah

We can go there, we can travel
Over the motorway, over the valley
All the way there with your gentle spirit
I am not afraid
With your gentle spirit
I am not afraid
I am not afraid
I am not afraid
I am not afraid

My first snow!

Sinister as that may sound, it's actually quite innocent.

Yes, it was snowing when I first moved here (well, more like it was still snowing when I first moved here), but I mean this was the first experience in my life where I actually went to sleep, woke up, and there was snow where there had previously been none.

This is a momentous occasion in my life.

I've never lived anywhere where there's been snow. Well, not consistently at least. In San Jose we do get the odd bit of snowfall every, say, 15 years or so. But it melts as soon as it hits the ground.

This snow had the audacity to stay for a good two days or so before melting.

No one had any idea what to think (other than, "ERMAHGERD, SNER!"). It's not supposed to snow in October, not even here. In the northern parts of Finland it's been snowing for weeks, sure...but we're in the southern, civilized part of Finland. Not out in the boonies or anything. No snow should linger here until at least November. Or December. (Yes, one can definitely imagine people with their noses upturned for that particular part of the conversation).

But snow there was, and snow there was for a few days. Because the temperatures actually dropped to a blood-warming -5C during the day. Yes, it was minus consistently during the day.

My friends started telling me horror stories about how when it gets cold enough during the winter, if you're retarded (like various foreigners who move to the country and have never experienced cold of this magnitude...i.e. me), and go outside with your hair still wet, it can actually instantly freeze and break off. Break off. Your hair. That would require a freeze so deep that your the walls of your proteins have literally burst and can no longer hold their structure. I was amazed and slightly terrified. As if it isn't bad enough going slightly blind from the cold and low-light conditions, you have to lose your hair as well!?!

Jeezus. What kind of place did I move to?

Apparently the kind of place that snows in October.

Still though, it was exciting to see it snowing. Because I happened to be working from home that day and didn't need to dip my toes outside until I was going out later that night (it was a Friday, so my girlfriends and I were very pleasantly warmed by alcohol by then).

I am happy to say I can check this one off the list now. I have lived in a place long enough to see the transition from one season to another, involving the coming of snow. Technically this is kind of a gimme, since it will only really count when the snow comes and really lasts (for like months and months), and it's possible I may miss this being away for several weeks in a row for either Thanksgiving or Christmas, but I'm going to pretend like this counts enough for me to check it off.

Helsinki, you are definitely full of life experiences. No doubt.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Night walking

Actually it's not so much that night walking occurred so much that whenever you're walking anytime after say, 5pm, you're bound to run into darkness, whether it's actually night time or not. Such is the life of living in Finland, where once it gets past midsummer, it gets darker by a horrifying 27 minutes a week, give or take. Just as it gets lighter by the same amount of time as we reach the zenith of the summer, so the light gets taken away as we reach into the depths of winter.

It's actually not so bad though, as long as it's dry and not raining. I'm starting to learn though that the clear and sunny days? Definitely the coldest. No cloud cover means no heat gets trapped for your warm-loving enjoyment. This mean a cold night. A very cold night.

A very wise and wonderfully contemplative friend asked me to go walking after work one day, and I happily accepted. Having not so many buddies who actually like to walk (most of my friends love to bike, something I'm horrifically accident-prone for), there aren't many opportunities for me to just walk and talk to someone. So I take them where I can.

Since I'm still a noob to the city and my friend knew this, he took me on his favorite walking path. It follows a very beautiful and scenic path down Ruoholahti (the western part of Helsinki) and basically curls around the shoreline until it hits Esplanadi, then turns back into town. We walked along this path, talking of life and other things, and watched as the very clear moon hit the water. Helsinki really is a beautiful city at night. And one of the quietest I've ever been in.

Eventually we got hungry, being out in the cold (it was probably just above freezing at this point), so we decided to head to dinner (which is against my normal plans, but well, when in Rome...or in this case, Helsinki...).

He decided to take me to one of his favorite eating holes; a place he used to frequent at least once a week before his eating buddy moved out of the country and oddly to nearby Poland. Since then he has only been to this place maybe once a month. I hate it when that happens.

This place sounded charming from his description - it was an order-it-and-they'll-make-it-in-front-of-you pasta, pizza, and salad place. Sounded lovely. So in we went. It's called Vapiano's, and apparently it's a German chain.

I'd actually passed this place several times before, commenting that they have garnishes growing right at the tables that you can pick yourself for your dining pleasure (we're talking basil, parsley, and something else I've forgotten...probably oregano). They also have wonderfully fresh bottles of olive oil and sweet balsamic vinegar.

They have a genius method of payment as well - you go and order what you want from the chef, watching him as he makes your meal in front of you in a pan. You can ask for extra ingredients (as I did) and when you're through ordering everything, they pass it to you over the glass divider (since you don't want to get cooking oils and ingredients splattered all over your nice self), you press a little magnetic card they gave you when you came in against a little reader and poof! You're done. No paying with your credit card right then and there - you're free to move to other stations and get other food and add it to the same card. At the end of your eating, you go to the cash register, give them this little magnetic card, and pay everything all at once. Wonderful, elegant, and simple. Why don't more places work like this?

Anyway, having basically walked 7 kilometers in the cold, I was actually decently hungry by this point. And what does my mind tell me whenever I have the chance to order pasta? Cream sauce. I'm definitely a cream sauce ho. Sauce boss.

So I ordered the funghi pasta - mushrooms with onions in cream sauce, with extra arugula (my favorite green).

And it was beautiful. The chef man even put in some extra garlic and chilies for me:

Did I mention you got to choose your shape of pasta as well? Corkscrews it is! My normal go-to is bowties, if given a choice if non-long pasta, but alas, it was not a choice this time, and this one tends to hold sauce a little better (like I said, Sauce Boss).

It was lovely. Surprisingly not heavy, considering it was cream-based. I was thinking it would be thick, creamy cheese sauce, as I'm used to from the States. Nope; thin, light, and surprisingly flavorful. I think it was the extra chicken broth that the chef threw in at the end, to make sure my arugula actually was wilted a little. Power to him.

Contrary to my normal non-dinner eating ways, I finished the entire thing. I felt a little overly full, to be honest, but well, I'm trying not to be such a failure at eating, and this is one way to do it. Plus it's been really cold out (and is only going to get colder, from what I understand), so might as well go into slight hibernation mode and start storing the fats.

Plus I ended up walking home from there, being properly dressed.

Another well-worth-it adventure in Helsinki. :) Checked off the list of life.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A gathering of design

So apparently twice a year our design department holds regional design gatherings. I'd seen announcements about this before, when I was still working in San Diego, but being part of a department where design was a mere 10% and budgets were unnecessarily tight, I was never allowed to travel north to LA to attend one of these gatherings, and so they were dismissed from my mind as something that real Designers got to do and I thought nothing more about it.

Having now been accepted as part of the design department, instead of only being a satellite to it, I got to experience my very first officious design gathering. And boy was it fabulous.

Basically the idea of these design gatherings is that all of the designers within a certain region (in this case, Finland...but our other design gatherings take place at our other studios, such as London, the Silicon Valley, LA, etc), gather and present what they've been working on. In this way we can all see the good work everyone has been doing, know what the future of design will look like, and feel good about ourselves. Yes, it's a very coordinated pat on the back and at the same time, push to inspire. We in design like that whole bit.

Plus it's a way for us to once again, alienate other departments. Since we get the free organic juice and fruit in the morning and free lunch once a week, there is already much grumbling and belly aching from the other departments about how we are treated unfairly well...why not seal the deal with more? Just kidding. We all know we are treated unfairly and awesomely. It's part of being part of design. I'm pretty sure this aspect of our lifestyle was insisted upon by Designers. It goes along with other things such as how our cafe has the most expensive coffee machine in it (it makes things like espresso and lattes and cappuccinos) and there is restricted badge access to get to it (i.e. other departments are locked out). Or how we get daylight lamps in our cafe during the winter months but no one else does. It's a strange world we designers live in...but I'm not going to deny that it's pretty amazing.

Anyway, the design gathering. Allotted for an entire day to maximize awesomeness, it started out with free lunch of eggplant parmesan (with meat in it!), salad, chocolates, coffee, juice, and fruit. We then had two hours of presentations on what everyone's been working on (needless to say, it's pretty awesome stuff), and then we were all treated to a day at a local art museum in Tapiola called WeeGee/EMMA.

Yes that's right, the museum is actually called WeeGee/EMMA. No, I don't know what it stands for. Yes, I did laugh at the name when I heard it the first time. Well, I giggled.

So we all loaded onto some posh buses and made the 10 minute ride to Tapiola (it's in Espoo). We were given more coffee and dessert there (berry and chocolate mousses, to be exact...quite tasty) before being set free in the museum. Complete free admission to the entire museum, to wander as we pleased for the next two hours before being shuttled back to the office and ending our day.

I took my time in the exhibits. The last time I'd been in an art museum was Kiasma for the opening of Camouflage (where I was a very excellent VIP).

Strolling slowly through, I saw some gorgeous art. The modern art section, as promoted by my manager, was indeed the most impressive section. I took some pictures, which I later found out was against the rules (though luckily no one saw me, I was not scolded for it). Consider these illegal bounty:

My favorite artist by far was one that no one else was interested in taking time to look at. He had an entire section to himself, which I took considerable time in. The majority of his works was shadow boxes full of found objects; a technique called "assemblage" (which makes sense). Lots of dusty collections of things, carefully assembled to make you feel a certain way. Aptly named as well. I think most people thought they were creepy.

A lot of people spent a lot of time looking at a particularly boring exhibit (in my opinion) that was a collection of painted BMW cars. Artists took varying amounts of time painting entire BMW cars and now they were on display at this museum. There were a total of 5 cars on display.

Perhaps one of the most well-known pieces at this museum wasn't even technically in the museum, and unfortunately we weren't allowed to approach it. It's one of the spaceship houses designed in the 60's that was supposed to revolutionize housing. Never made it. As I kindly said to someone who was visiting for the design gathering, "it would be like basting in your own juices."

Still cool to see though. I bet it would smell terrible inside. Plastic fantastic, as one of my Finnish girlfriends would say.

At the end of our visit we were given a really nice hardbound book of their art collection, to memorialize our gathering there. I thought it was a really nice gesture. As I flipped through the pages on the busride back to the office, it was interesting to me which pieces they'd decided to highlight. There was a different piece on each page, given in full color on glossy sheet, and the back 1/3 of the book was a catalog of all of the pieces the museum owned but did not necessarily print in the book or have on display. Unfortunately my favorite artist, despite having an entire exhibit to himself, only made it into the catalog section. And only maybe three of his pieces. Oh well, at least I have his name recorded for all time.

And thus ended our day of gathering for design. Wonderful day, and really nice to be taken out of the normal work context.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The balance of life

How important to you is work-life balance?

This is a question I've been asking myself more and more as the days get colder, darker, and greyer.

I've never had problems with rainy weather, dark skies. It's just another reason to curl up with a book and escape somewhere else. My only problem is that my body reacts badly to it. But that's just something that happens, and unfortunately something that cannot be helped.

But as time goes on and projects get busier, the earlier darkness has begun to weigh on me. The lack of sunlight does make a difference, and I notice the work-life balance tips ever so heavily in the work direction, rather than to life.

And those around me tip the same.

Because what else do you do when it's stormy outside and you're already at the office?

You work.

You work because you don't notice what time it is, because it's always dark outside.
You work because no one feels like talking anymore.
You work because it's cold and you're already tired enough.
You work because it distracts you from the winter, inside and out.

You work.

The question is, dear readers - do you just deal with it and continue to work, with your head down, waiting for it to pass, or do you fight it, knowing that your life is more important than just bearing the hard conditions?

As others, near and far, delve deeper into their work, I wonder this to myself.

How much do you love your work over everything else?

I read somewhere that you have to nurture the things you care about in your life. Without proper attention, even the best relationships wither and die.

And so, despite the cold, despite the dark, despite the feeling that all I should do is hunker down and bury myself...I will maintain those who are important to me.

Because I care about you.


Helsinki gods

So after the previous day of finding peace in the woods and lakes of Saimaa, I set myself up for a day of tourism in the city. Deciding that I'd not seen enough of Helsinki and I should get my butt moving before all of my opportunities slipped away to see what my beautiful city had to offer, I hit up what I always hit up whenever I go to a new city - the cathedrals.

In Helsinki there are three major cathedrals or churches that are always recommended. The White Church (located at Senaatintori, otherwise known as Senate Square), the Russian Orthodox Church (known for its decadence and onion tops), and the Rock Church (which happens to be a block from where I live...known for its burnished copper dome).

So I set myself a plan to hit all three. Why not be ambitious, right?

I woke up early, refreshed from the extreme amount of nature I'd just been in, ready to do more peace-seeking. I made myself a croissant with jam, and off I went!

...into the absolute raining freezing cold. Oye, Helsinki, you've really got to get some better weather.

But I braved through it anyway, because by jove I was going to get to these cathedrals, damnit! Even if it took me the whole day!

But it didn't, because I know my way around town now...and I got lazy from the cold, so I took the tram there.

First stop? The White Church.

It actually took me a long time to figure out this was a church. I thought it was a government building for the longest time. Guess the name, Senate Square, threw me off, plus the fact that it just doesn't look, well...religious. It looks parliamentary. Maybe it's the pillars or the fact that it is just so white...something about it just doesn't scream religious.

There are indeed crosses at the top though, and they are in gold, so eventually I made the connection. Plus people in my friend group kept saying "the White Church" and there aren't many buildings in town that fit that description so, well, the connection was made.

Hong Kong P has whispered to me she wonders how they keep it so white. It's unnaturally white. Especially in a city that gets so much annual rainfall. There is no exception this year - in September we got more rain this year than we have in over 150 years. Yeah, that kind of rainfall.

Anyway, I made my way up the steep steps and took a look at one of Helsinki's most famous churches. It's very modern - only built in the early 1900s. Not particularly historical. Seemed very...functional, for lack of a better word.

The inside did nothing to calm my feelings about its lack of religiosity. My immediate reaction? That it was sterile. Really, really...sterile.

Beautiful, nonetheless, in its simplicity and minimalism, maybe...but...well, completely lack of anything but the feeling of extreme clean.

Maybe I'm too much of a sucker for the ways of old and extremely decadent, but it felt sort of...lacking. Where was the praise? I understand that there is beauty in being elemental, on focusing on what is only important...but somehow it felt like the glory wasn't there.

At the same time it felt very Finnish. Like this was a very Finnish response to religion. Why bother getting all fancy when you could just go to the root of the function? Well, fair enough. It does what it needs to do, it's gorgeous and clean, and it expresses everything that it should. There's Jesus. And no one needs to talk. It was silent in this church, pure and simple. Even when the bells rang for service (I was there around 11:30am on Sunday, after all, it was the simple tolling of a large bell and that was it. No ceremonial anything, just function.

And so I left, because it wasn't where I was supposed to be.

And went to the Russian Orthodox Church a few blocks away. A much more ostentatious but familiar affair.

I will say the Russians do always like to go in the complete opposite direction than the Finns - if it has a surface, it will be decorated to the nines. Sometimes overembellished...overly ornate. But I kind of love them for it. They do love showing the riches.

And this church was no exception. It was a lot smaller than the White Church, but much more sumptuous. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take pictures inside, and service was just about to start (I got shooed out about 20 minutes after of their religious men was already starting to talk to people who were sitting down).

What struck me as the oddest thing about this church, and maybe it shouldn't have, because this is definitely not the first Russian orthodox church I've been in (not by far), is that they never have places for people to really sit. The pew structure is not one that they've adopted. They have steps always leading up to the front, the entire thing has little altars around the walls where various icons and items of value are set up so people can light candles and kiss them...but there are very few places to sit and listen to service. Invariably, because of the way the buildings are built, there are pillars cutting through the building (which do tend to be on the smaller side, in comparison to their Catholic or other counterparts), and it is around these pillars that they build benches. But other than that, and perhaps some fold out seats along the very back wall, there is no seating. I've always wondered about that. Perhaps their services are quite small and their worshipers come in on their own time. One of these days I'm sure I'll find out.

Anyway, this church was gorgeous on the inside, as I figured it would be. Small, smoky, and completely filled with detail. Gilded frames, thin beeswax candles, jeweled items everywhere...every surface that could be covered was, and everything was important. Even the floor was tiled in a pattern, which is standard as far as I've seen in other Russian orthodox churches. Bejeweled, gilded...a cache. An collection of art and religious pieces.

After I was shooed out I started walking back to the center of town to catch a tram back to my neighborhood to get to the Rock Church. By then it was drizzling again and the temperature was really starting to drop. I decided to walk though, having had my mind set to peace with the last religious experience, and by the time I reached Stockmann, I had reached the conclusion that I was hungry and it was time to go home and contemplate.

And so my day of Helsinki gods had come to an end. I'll seek out the Rock Church (ever so close, and I hear it's glorious during the holiday season because they fill the copper dome ceiling with stars and hold concerts there...something I intend to witness myself) some other day.

Thanks once again, Helsinki. I've seen yet another side of you. And I still want to see more.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Saimaa in pictures

Because so much can be said with images instead of words, I'll leave you with this quote and then let you see the pictures I took on that beautiful day in Saimaa:

"In the day's last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveler coming this way at sunset - this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road - might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests. And as big as the lake of gold was, it must be only a drop drawn from the sea of the larger fortune - the traveler's imagination could not begin to grasp the size of that mother-ocean!...But then the sun fell below the horizon, the gold sank beneath the water's surface, and was lost. Mermaids and serpents would guard it until the return of daylight. Until then, the water itself would be the only treasure on offer, a gift the thirsty traveler gratefully accepted."

tSH goes to Saimaa - part 2!

As we continued on our way, the day expanded into that of cold dry sunshine, which was lucky for us because it had been raining for the last several days previous. Unfortunately what this meant instead was mud. Something that I had miscalculated in my dress. Our driver and Hong Kong P had accounted for it though, and had smartly dressed in wellies/rainboots, gloves, and beanies. The most I could claim was waterproofed sneakers and my snowboarding jacket. At least I wasn't completely hopeless.

More stops for gorgeous photos before we reached another small town, this time to check out a cathedral we could see from the road. Unfortunately it wasn't open but we got to walk around it and see the grounds, which were beautiful themselves.

We could see from the outside that this cathedral had a gorgeous set of stained glass windows (which were hard to see from the outside), but there was a peek of a clear window that allowed us to see what one of them would look like from the inside.

As we walked around the whole thing we stumbled upon a mass memorial grave. Judging by the dates on all of them (which were all very similar - like within a year of each other), it seems to be all related to a similar set of battles from WWII. Reaching into our minds, our group guessed these were Finnish soldiers fallen in battle whose bodies were never recovered (the graves were quite close together). Our driver thought he remembered that Finland was part on the Russian side of the war until a certain point then switched to the Allied side. Quite to my embarrassment I hadn't remembered Finland being part of the war. Seems I need to go back to the books.

Beautiful and sad, either way. And I'm glad I know now.

We hopped back into the car for another excursion to beautiful places seeing beautiful things, before heading to our furthest destination, Mikkeli, for dinner.

Mikkeli, in comparison to many of the places we'd been to earlier in the day, is a fairly large town. Now, large town in the Finnish context means something like a population of maybe 50,000 people. It was big enough to warrant an entry in my Rough Guide to Finland though, so that's saying something. And according to Wikipedia it's the 20th biggest town in Finland. So, there you have it.

Since I had my guidebook with me, we decided to take its advice when seeking our dinner selection. First preference was an amazing-sounding highly recommended restaurant that was located on a 1870s triple-masted ship moored right in the harbor serving solid Finnish home-cooking. However when we called the number (which was the same on the internet, we checked), all we got was a disconnected message. Clearly not going to happen. We also went to the harbor once we got into town and though the boat was there, it was clearly closed. Damn you seasonal summer restaurants!

So we went back to the guidebook. Ah, here was another good one. This one boasted a good range of contemporary dishes such as bear-meat ravioli or oxtail soup. I was excited about this one because adding to my list of experienced exotic meats is always a plus. However when we drove to this one's location all we found was a Thai restaurant. Apparently out of business.

Considering this guidebook was printed less than a year and a half before, we were a bit surprised. Sure Europe had fallen on hard times, but this bad? Kind of shocking.

We gave our last selection in the guidebook one last chance. As luck would have it, I'd already spotted this one while we were driving past the harbor earlier. So we knew it was in existence, which is better than what we could say for the first two. This one was called Pruuvi and offered continental cuisine with a wide range of European dishes. Not that exciting, but it would do.

Once we got there, it was actually quite cute! And certainly warm. The temperature at this point had dropped to just about freezing, being so far inland.

There were decorations of flattened wine bottles everywhere and the lighting was wonderfully dim and romantic.

Along with our dinner orders there was access to a small but cute salad bar - which had weed salad mix, pickled red onions, sun dried tomatoes, toasted cashews, and the obligatory olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

I ordered the shrimp scampi (highly recommended by our waitress) with a glass of white, also recommended.

After a long cold day of taking photos and being out in the wilderness, this was wonderful. Huge shrimp on a bed of basil risotto (the presence of basil was not detectable, but that's okay, the risotto itself was still creamy, rich, and decadent), green beans sauteed with sun dried tomatoes, all next to a wonderfully rich cream sauce of sorts. Filling and satisfying. Oddly homey, despite it being fancier than anything I would ever make at home. Surprisingly nice.

And because it's me and because I can't resist, I ordered dessert. Naturally it was the dessert cheese plate (come on, it's me).

Strangely all of these cheeses were strong. Which is exactly what I always want. Which made it amazing. The bleu cheese on the top right was creamy and pungent, as it should be. The top wedge in the middle was salty and had slight crystalline properties (one of my absolute favorite styles), and the one on the bottom, though slightly softer, was still salty and slightly aged. All covered in some sort of fig sauce reduction and sprinkled in fresh basil leaves and dates. Fabulous, absolutely fabulous. I took my time and slowly ate the thing over 25 minutes. Maybe half an hour. Having just read a 350 page book or so in 3 days that described in endless detail about the wonders of dates (it took place in 16th century Iran), I especially enjoyed consuming these dates. And yes, they were heavenly. The entire experience was heavenly.

Feeling full and satisfied, we once again braved the cold (it had now dropped to -1C, below freezing) and made our way back to the car. We drove our way back to Helsinki, stopping only for gas and one hopeful stop to stargaze. Unfortunately we were stopped by a sky full of cloud and fog, so no stargazing for us, but that's okay; another time, another time.

Three to four hours later, we were back in our city. This time though, our minds were full of beautiful nature scenes and we were exhausted from an excursion out.

Thank you Finland.