To Hel and Back :: Edit your Template To Hel and Back: April 2005

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Vappu Preparations

Today is the first official drinking holiday of Vappu or May Day. Historics behind this day will follow later, but right now there is much to be done.

Rumour has it that the state controlled liquor store, Alko, will close either at 2pm or 6pm. I have been here long enough on a holiday to know that without proper planning, this could be a tragedy. The whole nation will start, might already be, drinking this afternoon. I only hope there is stuff left on the shelves. As everyone here tends to drink local beer and pear cider, I should be safe to get some of the hard alcohol, like gin and wine.

Then there are clothes to be chosen. It needs to be warm (it's overcast today) and practical, as I will be standing in the streets. But girls in past years have favoured a skirt, despite the weather, as it's easier to squat in the streets wearing one. I'll stick to jeans and always keep an eye out for a discreet tree... I could wear something bright, which normally helps you stand out in a crowd but today everyone will be wearing bright overalls, so perhaps black is a safer option.

I considered an inflatable balloon tied to me as both a conversation starter and a means of finding myself if I get lost. First there was the deliberation, do I go Finnish and sport a Moomin, or be myself, perhaps a Piglet or Tigger. The Princess balloon caught my eye and would fit with conversation starter number 2... The balloon seller knew she was onto a good thing, I looked not much different from the three year olds tugging on their mother's sleeves. But despite her impassioned sales pitch at 13 Euro for a big Piglet, I would leave the purchasing to the mothers intent on getting a quick shop done, and willing to fork out anything to get themselves and toddler to the last of the Vappu beer.

In the supermarket, chaos reigned. Little old ladies vyed for the last of the perunat for salaati. Smashed beer bottles lined the checkout floor. It was not even 10 am. Hands snatched for spring onions and rolls of slinky fish in jars. I nearly caused a riot when I forgot to weigh my cucumber before reaching the checkout.

But back to conversation point number two. Sick of answering the "love or Nokia"question that everyone asks to determine why you're in Finland, I decided to invent a different story. Returning to the persona of the Iranian princess I adopted on a visit to Tallinn, last night, with some creative embellishing from friendly strangers, I decided on a Persian princess planning an attack on Sweden.

Anyway, this Persian princess has got to get into preparation. My back pack needs loading with alcohol and I need to get out before the streets are lined with vomit...


I have lost something and I can't find it.

I look every day, starting with the morning. When the sun's rays first penetrate my foggy mind and greet me "huomenta", I begin looking, under the pillows, in the blanket, it must be somewhere in the warmth of the bed.

I know it is not in the kitchen. That's a cold place, with the window always open and the smell of spices and too much sun. It's a place of stiff dish cloths and plates with filmy water soaking. No warmth, no comfort, and I never go there. Only friends cook. So I can't have lost it in there.

Perhaps it's in the bathroom. It's a small but cosy room. Animals dance on the shower curtain and tiles. If only they could raise their snouts from the painted surface, and tell me where to find what I am looking for.

Of course I search outside the flat. I look in earnest in the movement of the sea, in the new leaves on the branches, in the squirrels running past me, especially in brave sparrows that hop in front of me. They don't know the location, but it is as if they have clues to what I've lost.

I look deep into people's faces. Do they know, do they have, are they keeeping...? But they are the blank faces of strangers that don't stare back. They are expressionless. Eyes do not meet on trains, buses or the street. If they knew anything that could help, they would not tell me.

I return home, exhausted from the pursuit of nothing, from trying to catch a ghost. In bed, only there at the last minute before the sun rises again, my eyes dry from watching a computer screen, a silent phone. In bed, just before my eyes close a final time I remember to look one last time for what I have lost.

I have lost something.
Perhaps I never had it.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

The simple things

Like the Finns, I think I have discovered pleasure in simple things.

Having only recently aquired my full complement of furniture, I sat down at a table, for the first time in months, to eat Heinz baked beans (imported at 1.50Euro) and ate with the sun shining in my face and thought "what more is there to life?". Quite a lot, is the reply, but for that moment I became a simple Finn, getting enough from the simple things in life. It's a joke I heard that the Finns are the only nation whose dream holiday is two weeks without hot water and a toilet, with reference to the happiness they find in the summer cottage...

Of course this simple happines can stem from a Finnish characteristic which annoys the hell out of me so I will rant here. The Finns are happy about small things. How nice you say. Yes they can look at the bright side of minus temperatures. But this trait gets to me when it affects someone's ambition. I don't think I could work for a Finnish firm because people do their job, do as they are asked, and that's all. Working more, working harder and over achieving do not have their rewards here. As a hangover from socialism, salary rises related to performance don't exist in the way we know it in say Australia, UK and Australia.

You could see this as a nice way of ensuring that the rich don't get to rich and the poor don't exist. You could also see it as a way of encouraging people to be average and complacent.

I guess this annoys me most in personal situations and then this complacency is truly something I don't want to catch. My personal situation has been thrown into disarray here purely on complacency. Helping a foreigner to live overseas is an effort. It's a challenge. But I'd like to think it's rewarding. It's fun to watch someone settle in and laugh with them at their cultural faux pas. It's also rewarding to receive their gratitude and love for the efforts made to help them make it here. But for the Finns close to me, this has not been the case. The challenge and the difficulties are too much. Why spend hours analysing the feelings of a foreigner when a local friend or partner will be much easier. Why be a better communicator when it's easy to sit in silence with a fellow Finn.

Gggrrrr but I am opening a whole different can of worms here and a whole new post on inter cultural relationships. So I will end this rant here and go back to the baked beans in the sun on my very own table.

Finland Academy

You know those shows where they take people and try and turn them into a pop idol, beautiful model, better person, gay man etc... Life in Finland feels like that.

Iinitially you're in Relationship Academy, as the honeymoon is well and truly over once you get settled here. Every conversation feels like therapy and you berate yourself; "listen to the hoster's needs and not just talk about your own..." It's like having a tiny counsellor on your shoulder.

Then you have Career Academy. Must spend 12 hours a day looking for job. or must spend 12 hours a day working on business. Must must. Must be successful. Must have job. Must have money. Must have personal fulfilment. Must not be idle.

Then there's the Fat Academy where you feel compelled to do every exercise under the sun because 1) winter's over 2) you spend far more time at home 3) you'll meet friends. But instead of fun exercise it becomes regimental. Must swim. Must learn rugby. Must lose fat. Must not sit down. Must take stairs, must use bike. If idle, must be moving.

In addition there's The Financial Academy where you make all your savings last and find 101 creative things to do with corn and onions and kidney beans.

Of course there's Finland Academy where you must conjugate 10 verbs a day and expand your vocab by 30 words or remain talking to pot plants or people with the intellecual capacity of.

Then there's improving your social skills so you don't miss a single opportunity to meet friends. The whole cast of Queer Eye join in on this one. But the new friends you meet are either in Finland Academy too so you either combine "improve life" routines aka regiments, or they're in Therapy Academy permanently because they're really new, they have relationship problems etc.

And at the end of the day instead of Simon Cowell or snotty Tyra Banks, the worst judge is yourself asking snidely "did you do enough today? You could have gone swimming, you read a book and it wasn't Finnish for Foreigners, you went out for coffee but there's coffee in the house" etc etc. And worst of all, you can't get voted off the show.

I'm sure with time this wears off and you just end up in Finland Apathy but to encourage it a little I'm telling the Simon Cowell in me to f*ck off and I'm going to the zoo. I'll speak English all day to the bus drivers and makkara sellers etc and carry my Helsinki travel guide in my pocket and my camera round my neck. I'm turning my phone off, I'm not taking the stairs for exercise. And I just won't care.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Spring has sprung

The Finnish flags are flying. And there are a lot of them. There's a jolly big one outside my window in fact. Most flat groupings seem to have one. And every other business building.

There is also a squirrel outside the window, high atop the trees, so high I'm thinking that part of the tree won't hold him, but it does, while he shakes his little paws and removes his mittens and basks in the day's warmth. (Ok I lie about the mittens)

There are daffodils in the ground. They're not exactly budding; they've been shoved in overnight by some optimistic gardener, bulbs and leaves and petals and all as if to defy the snow and frost to come back.

The Koff tram is running. Koff is the name of one of the country's biggest selling beers. Koff is also good for curing one. The Koff tram is a bright red tram that takes you round the city and plies you with, wait for it, Koff beer. I'm not sure why this only happens in spring and summer as I thought the Finns more than anyone would realise you can drink Koff while going in circles on a tram at any season.

The fountains are running again. At the main fountain opposite the market square, where the ice has long melted away, the grit cleaned, the debris cleared from the seals mouths. I saw them today spouting at Amanda, the famous fountain maiden, who looked quite elegant and poised for a naked girl in the middle of town, until a seagull sat on her head.

The boats are pushing across the harbour like in children's books. They are shiny and coloured and pootle (there really is no other word!) from the market square to the zoo and other places.

Of course, the students are coming out to celebrate May Day, known here as Vappu. Dressed in boiler suits emblazoned with badges and white sailor type hats. There were two lounging on deck chairs drinking Koff in the Esplanati today aside a pile of beach like sand. Soon the city will be full of them, like the Doozers in Fraggle Rock...

It really is spring.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

The cat and I

I stare out the window.

I have 3.40 metres of window and a large window sill. I sit and stare in the sun, at the trees, at the snow on the ground when it was, and at the snow falling now.

Across from me, a cat in a flat. Also with 3.40 metres of window. We sit and watch the snow fall, the squirrels run, the birds make their nests.

Sometimes we just stare, first to the left at one small detail, perhaps a fluttering piece of litter. Then we move positions and stare to the right, eyes glazed over but every detail taken in. We are transfixed, trance like until a sudden movement, and we are upon it.

The cat and I stare out the window, sometimes so soft we see our own reflection staring back and are lost in the peculiarities of our faces. Sometimes we stare so far that our eyes water, strain to see beyond the sunset, which he sees in reality, and I see in reflected glory on the tinted windows of the uppermost floor of his flat.

The car and I stare. But never at each other.

Russia Retreats

As a younger naive person, I used to be thrilled by the USSR, eager to step behind the Iron Curtain and see the reality for myself. I didn't make it to Russia until 2000 and watched with the masses as Yelstin resigned and everyone flicked their fingers under their chin and raised an eyebrow over whether he was even sober in his resignation.

I knew that with the installation of Vladimar Putin as Chief of State, Russia would edge back to its former self but in a way so discrete that the mass public would not notice. Or more to the point, in a way so overtly not Communist that America would not scream at its evils. Communism and socialism being a far greater crime than human rights abuse, corruption, and ethnic wars to name a few.

And of course, this has happened. I wouldn't enter again with the words "media" anywhere near my visa application. People are still disappearing, and the world blinks and misses it.

The country is forming a new image of itself, illustrated with nouveau riche and a reinstated glorious history. St Petersburg's recent bicentennial celebrations were a successful international nod at Russia's pretty past. Now the country feels encouraged to rewrite and promote its more recent, albeit controversial, history.

The council in the western Russian city of Oryol has called for Stalin's name to be restored to streets and for monuments and statues to him to be re-erected to celebrate the end of the second world war.

This to me is major news. Can you imagine if a town in Germany wanted to have statues to Hilter or a Hitler Highway? There would be international furor. But want to commemorate someone just as evil without a mass of Jews pointing fingers behind him, and that's okay?

I can never understand how Stalin is tolerated by some as an acceptable dictator and mass murderer. Is it really the power of promotion? If movies were made about piano players smuggling people to safety under Stalin's regime would we all be a little more sentimental about the tens of millions that died?

Why is it that in the west we can use the word gulag without flinching, joke about salt mines in Siberia, but we would never do so about a concentration camp or we'd face social death (look at Mayor Ken Livingstone in London)

A BBC news article reports:

"The 60th anniversary of [Russian] victory obliges us to support widespread calls to restore historical justice with respect to the historical role played by the commander-in-chief Josef Stalin," a [Russian] resolution said.

One regional official was quoted by the newspaper Izvestia as denying that Stalin was behind the purges that killed and imprisoned millions.

"It is not a simple issue. Stalin was not really responsible for the repressions. In all official documents the orders are from the NKVD [the predecessor of the KGB], military tribunals. A system of repression existed and functioned by itself," she said.

There is also a movement in favour of restoring the name Stalingrad to the city where the German advance in the southern Soviet Union was halted. It was renamed Volgograd by Nikita Khrushchev, who led the anti-Stalin criticism after the dictator had died.

Veterans who fought there had hoped the old name would be restored in time for the anniversary of the German surrender in 2003, but accepted that the procedure would be "unpredictable" because Stalin was still a "controversial figure."

A contraversial figure indeed. On his CV, Stalin can add an estimated 1.5 million deported to Siberia and Central Asia (though some got to go back home, even if for groups like the Tatars, it was as late as 1991). Then there's an estimated one million that were shot and the millions in Gulag labour camps. In Georgia, he had 80,000 shot and 100,000 sent to the Gulags. The Katyn massacre, again under Stalin, saw about 25,000 Poles shot.

If a young man shaves his head, paints a swastika clumsily on a public building in his home country of France, the English papers for example, are quick to paint France as a racist nation on their front pages. I don't have access to English papers here, but I can tell you that no one's dinner party small talk is about the reinstating of Stalin and rewriting of his wrong doings.

Stalin himself said: "The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic."

He knew how easily we'd forget.

Friday, April 22, 2005

My favourite links

A lot of people ask me where I find the things I find on the internet. True I have a lot of search time now, but not always. Apparently the phrase is to be good at google fu. Apparently I am a black belt in the modern art of google fu. So here are a few of my favourite things, which will be added to over time.

Conde nast traveller
Glam Travel and excellent restaurant picks. Can download to a pda via Avantgo. Annoying pop up ads.
The gist of the guides free. Even better is its message board, below.
The thorntree message board
Ask a local or a traveller anything about anywhere.
Third party internet booking for travel
Checks who flies where. Varying results but good for low costs and seeing at a glance what dates are cheaper to fly.
World airport codes
For working out exactly where CDG and LAX are.
Orange pin
A virtual pin up board to show where you've been. Relies on cookies to remember where your pins are.
Know how safe it is where you are going with Australia's DFAT travel advisories.
Some back up advice from the English foreign and commonwealth office.
Tell mum where you are going
Online registration for Aussies heading away.
Tips for sleeping in airports
Because we've all had to do it.
Takes the mickey out of those dreadful airline safety cards. Over 18 only.
The man in seat61
This man is a god. Go anywhere in the world by train.
Climate Care
You've gone away, you've screwed up the environment. Now make up for it by donating money to charity to compensate for your carbon emissions. Just one of several sites.
A list of dangerous places
If you're worried about the blood transfusion you might need while away.

Inside the Snow Dome

Living in Finland can sometimes be like living inside on of those snow domes that tourists buy as souvenirs, usually of a place that doesn't have snow.

One moment, it's sunny with blue skies and you go to take your jacket off and then you start to feel a little wet on the nose, and something has just landed on your glasses and realise it's snowing.

I like this snow; it falls slowly, seductively, hypnotically like a scene in slow motion. The snowflakes dance on their way down, knowing it's not cold enough for them to settle and so making the most of their descent.

Yesterday evening however, many enjoyed a brief settling. They coated one side of the branches like a delicately iced cake. They powdered the leaves on the trees and floured the footpaths.

At times, the snow dome was turned upside down, and the snow fell in fury, before resuming its gentle fall. Gradually the flakes disappeared until you could point them out individually, "there's one - it's still snowing!" until these latecomers too ceased and the air was still, waiting for the dome to be turned over again.

What have I become?

From a message board I post on...

Posted: Fri Apr 22, 2005 12:12 am
Post subject: Addiction problem


Get me off the internet.

I work from home. I pretend to work from home. Actually I spend time looking at this forum and other forums and reading emails etc.

I need help.

Does anyone else work from home and do more than just pretend? What are your coping mechanisms? How do you not get distracted?

This never happened to me in England, is it because I lived with real people, I spoke English, or that this forum is just so much excitement? Hmmm.

I've tried unplugging the Lan cable, but then realise there are a hundred tiny little things I need the internet for to actually work so I waste a lot of time plugging and unplugging.

I've got plans for doing the get out of house stuff, enrolled in school, joined a rugger club, bought a bike, signed up for H5, dated weird men, hang out at bars and VPK flea markets but I still come back to this.... like a junkie pouncing on dirty discarded needles...

Is there something about Finnish life that we could, if not led safely away, end up here glued to the internet. I've even started a secret blog for gods sake. I mean, what if I lose my language skills? A friend commented that I now write emails as if I am on a message board. Soon I might even use a phrase like LOL. I had never used a smiley until I got here...

Must... stop... typing... must ... go...

Thursday, April 21, 2005

My house had its first real visitor

My house had its first real visitor today! Not someone passing through but a real, "please do come in" visitor.

I offered tea, and drinks and tried to act civilised. It was quite an occasion.

I think it's about time the flat met people, and with the advent of furniture, may come dinner invitations.

Tips for playing host in Finland.
  • Have coffee, real coffee available. Finns drink 9 cups a day, more than any other country.
  • Have cake. Traditionally it's 7 different kinds but that is a bit superfluous with a kitchen as little as mine. I always have cake in the house, just in case a neighbour wants to pop in.
  • Give your friends the door code so you don't have to go all the way downstairs to let them in. Unless they need to lock their bike up or can't find your house because of bizarre Finnish numbering.
  • If you're going to invite people to your sauna, make sure they are up for it first. Are they all Finnish? Will the one foreigner feel a bit awkard. If you are sauna-ing in "couples", will the single person feel left out?
  • If you're hosting dinner, Finns eat at about 6pm. So have snacks for your non Finnish visitors when they are still getting drunk with you some time later. And advise your foreign friends to have a light lunch!
Tips for visiting in Finland
  • Shoes off! You don't realise how much snow ice and mud is on your shoes until you trek it through the house!
So far, these are the only rules I have learned as I have not been to many houses. Apparently it is a great honour to be invited into someone's home. This makes sense, because you have to expose them to your socks, and that probably takes a bit of intimacy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

My shopping list dream

Food I miss - and other things...

Lots of fresh vegetables and chunky side salads
Lean beef (I haven't mastered the butchers here yet)
Aussie sausages (though I can buy three for 8 euro in Hakaniemi market)
Canned Heinz spagehtti
Canned Heinz baked beans, available but at 1.50 euro each
Chunky cut chips
Crunchie bars and Fry's Turkish delight
Coola cordial

Pre wash stain remover
Kleenex balsam tissues
Vitamins with more than 60mg of anything
Really soft toilet roll

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Where was I before?

Being a bit of a map geek, I found a website that startles me. Only 17% of the world explored and I turn 30 soon...

The big red over Mexico is somewhat misleading, and I didn't think New York counted for a red splodge on the States so I ignored it.

But note the tiny dot in the Indian Ocean...

Europewise, just have to get to Portugual now, it's an inch of grey just begging to be red. Then there's Georgia...

This is where I've been global
This is where I've been Europe

See where I've been: From Rowena and Adrian's photo galleries
Australia and Rottnest Island
France and Monaco
Spain and Madrid at Easter
Japan plus the press team and some Aussie in a kimono
Italy: Rome, Fair Verona, Olbia, Sardinia and Venice.
Slovenia: Llubjana
A couple of the Turkey trips plus service park and the media team
Misty days at Bostalsee
17 galleries of Finland!!! And one just of Easter. And another of Helsinki street scenes. And finally one of where I live.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Sad but strong

I would say, if I had a Barry White style voice, that this one goes out to all you foreign young folk out there in Finland. That this was for those transferred, those young and in love, those starting a long distance relationship. And then I would break out into a song with loads of sexy bass. And everything would be alright.

Only I am not Barry White, and I can't even write as well as he could croon. But this one is for all those who know who they are.

Finland. Yes it's Europe. Yes they speak English. Yes it's Western. But bugger me it's different, it's foreign and you feel a long way from home. If I had a Euro for every struggling soul who is trying to make it here for love or money, I would be able to afford a lot of iso olut by now.

I have met people who have been in contact with the Samaritans in their home country, who have been admitted, who have left kids, brought cats, talked to themselves and cried. Is this what love does to you, or what Finland does to you? Perhaps the latter. Some people I know are tranferred here, the first country they have been to outside of home. And when the light disappears or blinds you, depending on the season, and a native walks towards you, uncooked sausage in hand, a strange tongue from their lips, it's like Close Encounters all over again.

I think we're all doing swell. Sure we spend way too much time on the internet. Sure our necks ache from it and our fingers hurt; most of us don't have real desks. Sure we get so scared to go out that successful shopping trips seem like something to write home about. But we are here. Every day you stay longer your survive.

Well done you. Well done me. Hit it Barry.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

I live in a bachelor pad

Don't let my mum see
I have become a single, style-less, smelly man. My flat is littered with Turkish Delight wrappers, old socks, magazines, bag contents, pens, and power adaptors.

My jeans lie where I stepped out of them, as do my shoes, and shirt.

My table is dressed with the noodle soup of yesterday's lunch, fat forming solid islands round the bowl's egdes, centre warming nicely in the sun. Big jars of vitamins, headache pills, candles form a ring around it.

My kitchen is beyond description. A Jenga pile of dishes smeared with tomato sauce and washing up liquid. Milk cartons and juice cartons dance on the side board amongst wrappers of food long gone.

Footprints mark the floor, the bath mat, the rug - acts of defiance against Finland's practical but cumbersome unspoken 'shoes off' policy.

Have I become a bloke? Or are these the joys of single living?!

Tonight, I'll clean.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Iso Brother is watching you...

Yesterday's Helsingin Sanomat (Finnish broadsheet) reported "that foreign intelligence gathering in Finland last year continued more actively than in recent previous years." I found this quite exciting, like I am living in a spy novel.

I have always thought of Finland as strategically important for the small cute shaped landmass it is. Yet strangely, it never comes up in dinner party conversations. Sure we talk about Belgium when we talk about issues coming from Europe, we discuss whether Turkey is really Europe or if only every other perssn in Istanbul is European. We turn to Germany when big economic decisions are being made, and to the French when moral decisions need arguing. But Finland, well people know the capital city and that either the president or prime minister is a woman but they can't remember which.

Yet I think it's an important country. Look at it's neighbours. You don't live next door to Communism /The Mafia /The USSR for years and not learn something. Diplomacy if nothing else. I mean there's a reason the Finns are quiet, they've grown up with nasty neighbours that listened to everything they said.

During the Cold War, we should have all learned a lot more about Finland. They would have known what nervous felt like. It was only in the late 1980's that Russia stopped officially trying to interfere in Finland's domestic policy and that its neutrality was accepted.

Finland is the only Northern European (for want of a phrase to avoid the Scandic / Baltic / Nordic grouping argument) that has jumped into the EU and accepted the currency. Flying just down to Spain I had to have separate cash for a stop over in Sweden and in Denmark. It felt like playing with friends who didn't trust you enough to play with theirbest toys.

But back to foreign intellegence gathering. The report states that the methods used: "
bring back memories of the negative surveillance activities conducted in Finland in the past." It's a throw away line that only scratches the surface of what this country and people have had to endure in its role as Swedish playmate, Russian pawn and a forced host to a brief yet vicious German visit.

The good thing about travelling is that it forces you to understand the world around you. It's not all snow and reindeers and Santa Claus here. And as I learn more of Finland's stoic history, I'll blog with thoughts. I just hope no one mistakes me for foreign intelligence.

There's no place like your ruby red slippers

Anyone who has travelled a lot or spent much time on the road might relate when I say that home is where you are when you're not moving.

A hostel for the night, a friend's sofa, someone's parent's cabin. They quickly become home. They are where you sleep and where your bag waits for you. It's where you can relax again. It's where you have defined safety and comfort.

Sometimes, I make home so small it is only the space around me, the passport under layers of clothes, the photos in my wallet, the charm round my neck.

As a woman it's harder sometimes to initially extend comfort to places outside the home. There are countries where the cafes are a man's domain, not suitable for long coffee sipping, cat stroking, journal writing. Even my local pubs in suburban Helsinki are olut ravintolas with blinking neon barely hiding under-employed men in outdate tracksuits, drinking and pissing Upcider while shouting at TV's, each other, people passing by.

It has been hard this month to let my hair down in comfort. I have stayed home too much and my comfort zone has become an institution.

But today, I broke free of the shackles. I remembered the ruby red slippers.

Not quite sparkling like Dorothy's and more cheap hooker cherry than ruby red. But the power was the same. You can have your brand name Manalos and Jimmy Choos. After an era of wearing boots and an eternity that turned my home to a prison, a pair of cheap red kitten heels took me to another level.

The music went on, the volume went up, the laptop complained. I brushed my hair, put on lipstick, and even smiled.

My ruby red slippers and I danced and dreamed. We were sophisticated down Villefranche sur Mer's side streets, we were kicked off in Hyde Park one hot summer's day, we were arse kicking in business presentations, we were in hand along a Turkish beach, we were turning heads at dinner.

I may be an uncalculable length away from family, a time zone away from friends and 7 hours away from the lively Mediterranean lifestyle I love, but in my ruby red slippers, I'm home.

And we all know, there's no place like home.

Monday, April 11, 2005

And now here's the weather...

Look out the window

For all my British friends, today I am going to write about the weather. For those of you not British, the Brits can talk about the weather forever. Really.

Today's weather in Helsinki, is light grey skies, and a lot of wind with the occassional passing fit of light rain and possibly something that looked like sleet.

This is one of a few "bad weather" days since this trip to Finland. And I think it's important everyone knows that. Since March 8th, I can count on one hand the days where the sky has been grey. Most mornings I have been startled by blue skies and, while there was snow on the ground, piercing bright sunlight.

In the latter half of January in Rovaniemi and Sotkamo, I enjoyed blue skies and sunlight flickering through the pine trees. There were gorgeous sunsets and allegedly nice sunrises too! No I witnessed the morning sun streaking the Lapland sky orange and it was truly breathtaking.

I do hope that dispels everyone's notions that it's always so cold here. Sure, it's cold in winter and I wore clothing in ways I would have never anticipated (dead animals on head, shirts tucked into underwear) but it's a manageable, fairly constant, and beautiful cold. A cold for being outdoors in, snow for rolling around in and icicles who dangle in perilous beauty above your head. At least that's my Australian perspective. I'm sure for kids shovelling footpaths and dads scraping the ice off cars, it's not a lot of fun. But as a pedestrian I love it.

I also want to dispel the 24 hours of darkness myth. Not down here in Helsinki. True, I have only been here on the up side of the winter solstice, but it does not go totally dark this far south. I enjoyed light in January from 9 till 4 without looking at my watch. And it's definitely still light here at 8pm now. Don't think it is in London!

Finally, I love that Finland gets 4 seasons. And not in one day. The crispness of Winter gives way to a sloshy starting Spring. The ice cracks, smell comes back and all around is the sound of snow melting. The roads run like rivers. It's amazing how soon it all goes. As it goes, you realise you miss it; "I wanted to play, ski, make a snow thing"... but it's gone.

And as it goes it leaves behind well preserved dog turds from the Autumn, like tiny fossils or petrified elves, frozen in time, trapped in the Winter snows, until now, when they can resume life as a steaming animal mess. Or get back to whatever elves do.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Flea Markets and Finnish design

Designer Junk
Yesterday I managed to translate one of those cute fliers on notice boards for a local flea market. At least I hoped it was a flea market, it looked like the words for spring flea only with different verb endings, but for my level Finnish it was pretty spot on. It was such an event (both the flea market and my Finnish translation) that I put it in my Palm to remind me to go, so scared I was off missing it.

I love rummaging around other people's belongings. Guessing where people had been on holiday (Cyprus, Holland no Gran Canaries surprisingly!) by the tacky souvenirs hastily purchased with leftover local currency at the airport in pre-Euro days. I love seeing how long people keep wedding presents before deciding they can get rid of them. And I like discovering what clothes the average Finn would deem not suitable to wear, seeing they are a practical rather than fashionable lot of dressers.

Lots of lovely old ladies smiled at me. I think I was the first person to buy anything. A vase, and an Iittala candle holder. This made me feel really local, owning by first bit of Finnish designer glassware, snatched up for a bargain couple of Euros.

Ironically, the designer who started Iittala, Kaj Franck, designed against the concept of "throwawayism" (his words). He believed in carefully designed, well thought out adaptable pieces. He also believed that people should "blow up their tablewear" a quote he made during his "smash up your (dinner) services" campaign.

Personally, I'm quite glad not everyone did, so that I now posess my own bit of Finnish design.

A blog was born

Today I become a blogger. I'm not sure right now what this means. I am going to use it as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family around the world. And let them interact with what I am doing.

Of course, this lets the rest of the world do the same. If they would be so interested.

I have read some people's Blogs and got in touch because they are in similar situations to myself. So maybe there will be someone who finds me and gets in touch.

Either way... a blog this day is born.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

The plastic bag thing

Coming from wasteful UK and Australia, I'm trying to get the planning of the plastic bag thing right.
Is there some sort of policy for when I should expect a free bag and when to pay?

For example, at H&M, I get a free bag, I figure because it's impractical to walk around with clothes tucked under my arm.

In bookshops I go to, I pay for a bag, arguably books being easier to transport sans bag. But then I get free bags when I buy CD's, which I thought would be in the same category as books.

And then groceries, which you really need a bag for, you pay for. Alcohol, which you only need a small brown paper bag (and a park bench) is again a pay bag.

Now I have taken to keeping a plastic bag neatly folded in my hand bag but this makes me feel like a bag lady (especially with my new habit of talking to myself).

I could of course pay 10 - 13 c for a new bag, but I kind of resent this. Should I be taking my bottles back to the shop to recoup my bag expenditure? However, carrying bottles in my handbag also makes me feel a little like a bag lady.

Finally, is there any etiquette on bringing the bag of a competitor to carry your groceries home rather than buy a bag of that store?

Or should I just get a life?! Oh hang on, this is my life now...

Silly things I have done in Finland

JUST some that come to mind...

1. Waited for a tram to pass because I wasn’t sure if they stopped at traffic lights.

2. Put my milk cartons in the paper recycling bin and not the cardboard recycling bin which apparently is divided as such: “The first is for newspaper and egg cartons, junk mail and empty bags of flour/sugar. The middle one is for milk and juice cartons and boxes. The end one is for corrugated cardboard and washing powder boxes.”

3. Spoken to cats in Finnish hoping they would understand.

4. Looked the wrong way when crossing the road. A lot.

5. Walked into closed exit doors to shopping centres. A lot.

6. Talked to my plants. A real lot. Laughed at my plants. A bit scary that one.

7. Said “sorry I don’t speak English.”

8. Tried to drag doors between train compartments sideways because the word for pull in Swedish is ‘drag’.

9. Referred to my local shops as ‘downtown’ in an attempt to convey directions to confused locals.

10. Tried to pay bills into my own bank account rather than someone elses.

And just wait until I start to get on my new bike..!

The Real Spring

In the days before blog, an email home:

FINLAND gets four seasons. Spring started with a burst of sun, a crack of ice, and the next thing I knew, there were torrents of water in the streets, and the snow was disappearing fast, leaving tiny fossilised dog poos preserved from the Autumn.

I have started to find my feet a little, despite the photo opposite. Yesterday I learned that Solo machine meant internet banking and I no longer have to pay 6 euro each time I want to pay a bill. (If you think Barclays is bad, Finnish banking is expensive, though they don’t have security, you sit at a lounge with a table full of cash in front of you, and there’s no pushing things through plastic screens).

I went local for Easter, watched the huge bonfires at Seurasaari island, accompanied by small children dressed as witches.

Of course I still do a lof of silly stuff, as listed elsewhere. I’m just taking silly to a new level now.

I’ve found baked beans, which makes weekends more enjoyable and I now own a hoover called Max, which solves some of my companionship issues.

Other than that, I’m perfectly sane...

A word on words

PEOPLE have been asking how my attempts at Finnish have been going, knowing my interest and aptitude for languages. I hate to admit, but my report card would read “must try harder.” Here’s some gems I picked up while learning...

matalalattiaraitiovaunu = tram (I’ll just take a taxi )
käyttäjäystävällinen = user friendly (not this word )
pikkukaupunkilainen = small-town person (the word is bigger than the town)
Vieraspaikkakuntalainen = out-of-towner (easier to say ‘Englati’ )
maailmankatsomuksellinen = philosophical

“Rules for Stress: (stressing words that is, though this explanation also stressed me)

1) The primary stress is always on the first syllable. Exception: words that only have 1 syllable might or might not have stress. (It is = "se on", both words have stress) (Is it = "onko se?", only "onko" has primary stress -> actually this is pronounced like it would be just one word "onkse", so only the letter "o" has stress.

2) The 2ndary stress
a) Connected words: The first part of the word has always a primary stress on the first syllable. The first part of the connected word doesn't have 2ndary stress at all. The 2nd part of the word has a 2ndary stress on the first vowel, as a replacement of the lacking primary stress that this word would have if it wouldn't be a part of a connected word. The 2nd part of the connected word can have additional 2ndary stresses according to the same rules that "normal" words have them (either on 3rd, 5th syllable or on 4th, 6th syllable).

b) Normal Words. Can have 2ndary stress only if they have at least 4 syllables. Mainly they have 2ndary stress over 3rd, 5th, 7th... syllable. BUT if the third syllable ends with a short vowel, the stress is moved to the 4th, 6th, 8th... syllable. BUT remember: The last syllable never has a stress. E.g: "tulivat" (= they came) doesn't have stress over "vat", although it's the third syllable, because it's also the last one. On the other hand, "tulivatko?" (= did they come?) has stress over "vat", because it's not the last syllable.

c) Some exceptions: -"tulivatkin" (= they came, surprisingly) doesn't have a 2ndary stress, because derivates -kin, -pa and -han don't affect to the stressing at all. -kartoittaminen (=mapping) has a secondary stress on "mi", because derivates -minen, -soida and -teetti behave like they would form a connected word with the word body.

Anyone still with me?