A glorious, colourful reminder

Life in Finland. Years ago on a business trip to Amsterdam, after listening to me talk about life in Finland, the person to whom I was talking stated simply, ‘So, you’re on the tourism board of Finland then?’ His statement oozed with sarcasm.

There are so many great things about life in Finland. Incredibly efficient public transport. Health care. Top-notch education for all. High quality of life. Fresh air even in the capital city. And, one of the least corrupt places on the planet — if you drop your wallet on the street in Helsinki, you’re likely to get it back with its contents in tact. One of my favourite aspects of life here involves the insistence on giving each new member of Finnish society equal opportunity when born. Yes, it’s a great place to live.

And, then there’s the weather.

For all its loveliness, Finland is not a fair-weather haven. Quite the opposite. Summer is typically lovely, with its long, long days and abundant sunshine coupled with mild temperatures. Winter is dark even when it’s light. The oppressiveness of winter leads us to leave each year for the worst of it. It’s how we survive. But, the seasonal extremes are typically sandwiched between seasons of wet and wetter. When the autumn rains begin, you hope you make it through the worst. You learn to live with it, but it is anything but easy. Personally, I’ve never been quite so affected by a place’s weather. I never understood seasonal affective disorder. Until we moved here.

We have endured an unusual weather year thus far in Helsinki. (In truth, 2017 appears to be a year-long test for us all, weather simply another section of this multi-phase trial.) October has not been cold, but it has been insanely wet. This follows a rather wet and chilly summer, one which even Finns are less than thrilled with. Given that we typically get one glorious season, it’s cruel when we endure winter only to endure a less than sunny and chilly summer. On top of this, the first two weeks of October brought rain. Nearly. Every. Single. Day. Not just a light mist or drizzle, but rain. Heavy and soaking. And, utterly unrelenting.

For the last week, it’s been (mostly) glorious. Absolutely gorgeous and glorious and oh so welcome. Thankfully, this break in the autumn rains coincided with the most colourful period as well. And, again, it’s been glorious.

Thank you, Finland. Thank you for the reminder that you are quite lovely even if your weather generally sucks. It’s moments like these that we live for.

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In the blink of an eye

10 years_2

Arriving in Helsinki from Sheremyetyevo, 21 July 2007

Ten years.

Ten years ago today, we took our three suitcases and Che Fufu carrier (with Che Fufu less-than-pleased to be in it) and made our way to Sheremyetyevo with one-way tickets to a country next door and yet worlds away. Several security checkpoints and an hour-long flight later, we arrived in Helsinki’s very clean and quiet airport.

Ten years. It simultaneously feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago.

There’s still so much of this city and country that remains utterly foreign to us (Finnish language, perhaps?). And, yet, we’ve built a life here. I remember that first summer missing a bus whilst standing at the stop because we didn’t signal as it approached. I remember being in awe at how huge and well-stocked the supermarkets were and how cheap things like clothes were. I remember the novelty and delight of an online journey planner which would tell us how long it would take to walk to the bus stop and what time the bus would arrive at that stop. And, even better, how long to the minute the journey would take. Furthermore, it was typically correct!

After Moscow, this was utterly unbelievable. Much of our new life was. It all seems so normal now, but was completely surreal ten years ago.

Helsinki has been good to us, and it isn’t at all a bad place to live. It’s clean, it’s well-organised and safe. It’s quiet—so quiet that when we first arrived the quiet proved unsettling.

Since we’ve arrived, we’ve celebrated milestones (getting married counts, right?) and birthdays, endured unimaginable uncertainty (residence permit saga anyone?) and come through it all to enjoy a bit of calmness and serenity. The world beyond may be crumbling or chaotic, but our little life here is relatively peaceful and stress-free these days.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine living in Finland. But, here we are. I never imagined marrying a Cuban until I met mine. I’ve no idea how long this glorious-in-summer / abysmal-in-winter land will be home to us, but here’s to ten years and counting. It’s passed in the blink of an eye.

Day 23: Proekt 365 (The perfect lunch)

Day 23: Proekt 365 The perfect lunch

Day 23: Proekt 365
The perfect lunch

Apologies to the vegetarians in advance, I love burgers. And, bacon. Today, I am immensely grateful to have been introduced to the absolute best burger in Helsinki — Roslund Butchers did not disappoint.

Not only was the meat fresh and juicy and perfectly cooked, but the bun was light and flaky (not normal for Finnish bread), the salad was insanely gorgeous and big, and the fries were that perfect blend of crunchy outside / soft inside. Oh…and did I mention the bacon? Thick sliced, slightly smoky and perfectly cooked as well.

I’ve died and gone to burger heaven (nearly).

It wasn’t terribly cheap (~€15 for a burger and salad; fries are extra but worth it), but it wasn’t insanely expensive either. For taste, quality and freshness, it was more than worth it. Outside the market hall where this particular branch is located, you can smell the lovely deliciousness of Roslund burgers. Follow that scent — you won’t be disappointed.

As an American and a Texan in particular, I miss fresh, quality beef, burgers most of all. This was truly perfect. Not too much burger, not too many fries, and not too much bun.

I’ll be back to Roslund. Frequently, something tells me.

Day 5: Proekt 365

Day 5: Proekt 365 It's all about the light.

Day 5: Proekt 365
It’s all about the light.

Light is a precious commodity in Helsinki in winter. So, when LUX comes to town, you go. It’s all about the light.

My favourite installation this year was a gigantic blinking-light pinball machine with sound on the fascade of a building in downtown Helsinki. I didn’t get to play it, but I loved it all the same.

Thanks, LUX, for brightening the otherwise dark January evening when light is exceedingly rare.

Homage to the Annoying Bird of Spring

The first signs of spring in the far North are not green shoots peeping through on their way to becoming tulips or daffodils. Nor are they the green buds of new leaves popping out on the long-barren trees. Nope. We await the first calls of what we have come to know as the ‘annoying* bird of spring’.

When we lived in Moscow, some time in late February as the days grew noticeably longer and the sun finally peeped through the clouds after months of darkness and persistent snowfall, we would hear the call outside our flat. Our first reaction was invariably, ‘Was it…? Could it be’?! Then, we’d hear it loud and clear and know that all would once again be right in the world and the snow would eventually stop falling. The call was annoying in its repetition. And, annoying because we had no idea what the bloody bird looked like. Try as we might to find the annoying bird of spring upon hearing its signal of hope, we failed.

When we moved to Helsinki and landed our lovely flat in a wooded area with plenty of birds about, we were delighted to discover the call of the annoying bird of spring once again after one of the hardest winters we’d ever endured. It wasn’t so much that winter was colder than Moscow or that there was more snow; it is simply infinitely darker than anything we’d ever thought possible. The sound of our old friend delighted us no end, and told us we had survived. Spring was on its way finally and the darkness would give way to sunshine, green leaves and the long days of summer.

Yet, we still were unable to see the owner of that annoying, yet welcomed call year after year. ‘We hear you’, we would cry to our friend. ‘But, what do you look like?!’

My darling husband in particular has been obsessed with discovering the identity of that great signaler of spring. As his obsession was reaching epic proportions, I heard the most delighted shout, ‘I found it! The annoying bird of spring! Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee!’

Thanks to the a series by the BBC, Lolo’s Secret Life of Birds, and after close to five years, we’ve finally discovered the identity of our fowl, feathered friend.

We give you, the great tit.

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The incredible irony is that on any given day, many of these lovely little creatures can be found perched on our very own balcony greedily claiming their treats from our bird feeder. A few days ago, I looked out and there were no less than seven of the cheeky little buggers sat along the railing!

All this time, what we assumed were finches were in actuality our beloved annoying birds of spring! To us, the great tit will always be the annoying bird of spring. And, its song will always bring a smile to our faces. But, its nice to know its true identity.

*NB: We don’t actually think this bird is annoying in any way. In fact, we love this bird and its song in particular.

Where does all the snow go?

This picnic table was completely buried by Februrary. This photo was taken in mid-January 2010.

For those who have followed my Facebook updates, you know that this past winter in Helsinki brought maddening and never-ending amounts of snow. We haven’t yet heard how much snow ultimately fell over the course of the entire winter for 2009-10. Suffice it to say, it was buttloads.

Upon our return from our holiday in mid-January, we were greeted with about 20-30 cm of snow. The snow kept coming. For much of the winter, we had more than 70 cm of snow covering the ground, with mountains of snow lining the roads and sidewalks and well…everything. It made the snowpocalypse that hit the Eastern US look like a few flurries. Through the end of March and into April, the snow continued to fall.

It’s taken the snow several weeks if not a full month for the snow to melt. It’s now the second full week of May and remnants can still be found here and there. The piles that grew to mountains as roadways and sidewalks were cleared are now almost gone. We have one remaining pile behind our building that at one point was nearly level with our windows on the third floor.

This got a friend of mine and I thinking: where did all that snow go?

As saturated as the ground is, there isn’t too much standing water around. The Cuban and I have seen some swamp-like areas in the forest around our flat. Yet, it’s amazing how the snow just seems to disappear.

Winter this past year was enchanting if not a little intimidating. However, spring is most welcome and just as beautiful.