We spent our last weekend in Finland checking out some new places, and revisiting some of our favorites in Helsinki. One of my favorites being Suomenlinna. Scott hadn't been able to visit the island yet and our last day in Finland proved to be the perfect time to remedy that.
We did nothing more than pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the sunny (yet still a little chilly) day. That night we ate at the most delicous restaurant to celebrate our two years in Finland. It may have been the best meal I've ever eaten. So although we were sad to leave, we left on a pretty great note.
Tomorrow we say goodbye to Joensuu. There are so many emotions that have come with the end of our time here. We’re excited to start our next adventure, but sad to leave this place because of all the ways it’s changed us, because of all the friends we’ve made, and the experiences that we’ll cherish forever.
Last night we were talking about our favorite things that we’ve done since we moved here. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to experience some amazing things, things that I never dreamed of doing - dog sledding in Finnish Lapland, ice swimming in a lake, watching the Northern Lights from our balcony, and so many other unforgettable experiences. But I think what’s made the biggest impact of all has been all the little things added up over the years. We made close friends from around the world and we just lived our day-to-day lives in Finland. It’s still unbelievable to me sometimes that we made this move. It hasn’t always been easy (lest we forget sleeping on the floor, resident permits, dragging our suitcases through ice, and 9 months of winter), but it’s all been worth it.
I can’t imagine my life without this piece of the puzzle. Years before we came here I longed to live abroad, but I had no idea the impact it would have on me. I now know and I crave it even more. The world may not have much to say about this Nordic country, but it’s carved out a very special, reindeer-size place in our hearts. Thank you, Finland, for opening our eyes and hearts to what we never knew we needed and now couldn’t live without. Kiitoksia!
I've been heads-down working to finish up school and prepare for our move at the end of the month, but here are some photos from the Vappu (May Day) celebrations last weekend!
Our time in Finland is sadly coming to an end, quicker than I care to admit. I find myself getting sentimental while I’m doing the most mundane things. Thinking of everything that I’m going to miss about this place has really made me pay attention to the little things. So today I’m going to give you a glimpse of one of the things that we have grown to love throughout our time here - our neighborhood.
The secret beach
We live in a neighborhood called Rantakyla, about 5 km from the center of Joensuu. It only takes us about twenty minutes to bike to the city center, but somehow it feels like a world away. If you drive through Rantakyla, you probably wouldn’t give it a second thought (or really even a first). There’s not much here. We’ve got the essentials, but nothing crazy like a restaurant or anything. (Full disclosure: There is a take-away pizza place that we discovered recently and have taken advantage of twice. It comes in handy when you, say, melt a plastic bowl in the oven.)
After living here for almost two years, this little neighborhood of ours has become a special part of our lives. All its little intricacies have made it endearing in a way. There’s our friendly neighborhood S Market cashiers (who we visit on a daily basis), the sweet old lady at the pharmacy, and the late night karaoke enthusiasts. Then there's our secret beach (which turned out to be not so secret after all), where you can picnic during the summer and walk on the frozen lake in the winter. And the horse barn just down the road. We have tennis courts that turn into ice skating and hockey rinks in the winter, and you'll always find someone out there playing as long as the lights are on. When you need to get out of the house, you can always find a new path to take through the woods. There's a whole little world here, just waiting to be discovered.
This little neighborhood is where Scott and I lived together for the first time. It's where we spent our first Christmas away from our families. It's where we saw a spectacular dance of the Northern Lights. And it's the home we have come back to over the last two years. Rantakyla may not be the most exciting place in Finland, but it will forever have a special place in our hearts.
The sun is out, plants are starting to bud, green is showing, water is dripping from the rooftops, and then BAM!, it’s snowing. It’s not just a couple flakes here and there, it’s a full on downpour that lasts for days. You got me again, Spring. I fall for your antics every time. April fools? No? You’re right, I should know you better than that.
It’s a really evil trick, but it happens over and over again. When we got back from Lapland, there were clear skies and rising temperatures all week. So I decided to put winter behind me. I had my fun with the snow, but it was time for a change. Time to welcome a new season, or so I thought. Since that week we’ve had grey skies and snow or rain or both almost everyday. I love Finland, really I do. But I can’t say that I’ve been too happy with it these past couple weeks. One day on my ride home from school, I yelled at the wind. Yep, that’s right. It was making my bike ride so miserable, that I finally gave it a piece of my mind.
You can't be too careful walking around this time of year. You never know if that ice you’re walking over will hold, or if it will give way to an ankle-deep puddle of water. It’s as if everywhere you go, nature is playing a big trick on you…that lasts for a month. Like when your brother takes your car keys, and hides in the closet, right before you need to leave. It’s a little funny the first time (ok, not really), but then the second and third time, the cuteness factor has really worn off, completely (hypothetically speaking).
I’m trying to be a good sport. I’m looking for the positive in all this. But it’s a two way street, Finland. You’ve got to give me something to work with. I’m doing my part, now the ball’s in your court.
I've gone back and forth about the title of this post. Magic just sounds so cheesy. I'm the one that scoffs at cheese balls and all their feelings. But I've decided to stick with it, because that's the only way that I can describe it adequately. This so-called magic is something difficult to put into words. You just have to experience it for yourself. It has something to do with being so far away from other people and so close to nature. One Finn told us that when foreigners visit Finland, and stay in her cottage out in the middle of the forest, far removed from civilization, they start getting uncomfortable. Often times they find the solitude of the forest too much and long to be close to people, stores and other conveniences again. But she said, “that’s where us Finns feel most at home, in the middle of the forest, with no one else around.” It can be strange if you’re not used to that feeling, especially for a prolonged period of time, but I think I’m starting to get it. There is something pretty cool about being engulfed by trees that tower over you, on all sides, and slowing down enough to appreciate nature in all seasons (yes, even you, bitterly cold winter). You kind of start to crave it.
The Arctic fox!
Even though Levi is pretty far north, it’s still a decent size town (you know, for being above the Arctic Circle). But our cottage was on the side of the mountain that is much less populated, so it felt pretty isolated. There were no street lights on our street, so when we pulled up at 9pm the car lights were the only way we could see where we were going. Just perfect for Northern Lights watching. Several times a night, one of us would step out on the porch to check the sky and report back. During our week stay, we were lucky enough to see them twice (three times, if you count the drive there). That in itself is pretty magical. The second night that we saw them, we stayed outside watching and taking pictures for probably two hours. They were faint, then bright, then waves, then swirls, changing rapidly right before our eyes. Mind-blowing. Even though we were all pretty frozen after 2 hours, I stayed outside for 20 minutes after everyone decided to go in. They started changing colors and I just couldn’t take my eyes away.
And then there’s the animals of Lapland. The huskies, the wolves, the arctic foxes (!) and the reindeer. The really make the whole experience so much better.
One of the things that I've come to realize, while living in Finland, is the sincere appreciation and respect Finns have for nature. It's apparent in so many aspects of life, but it becomes especially clear in Lapland. It's just a special place that keeps calling you back. Hopefully someday we'll get to experience it all again.
So there’s another thing you need to know about this mountain (fell) named Levi. It’s also the name of the town. But technically it’s not. It's so confusing. It’s actually Kittilä, which is the region or something, but everyone just calls it Levi. I was super confused too the first time I typed “Levi, Finland” into Google Maps and nothing came up. But everyone in Finland knows exactly what you’re talking about when you say you're going to Levi. So now that’s all cleared up, let’s talk about all the fun we had there.
Where do I begin? The weather? Yes. Mother Nature really cooked up a spectacular weather week for us. The first couple days when the sun really shows up again, after the long winter months in Finland, feel like the best days of your life. I always forget how wonderful the sun is. And it is, really extra wonderful. So every morning as we sat around the table eating breakfast and looking out the window, someone always said, “Wow, we really have been so lucky with this weather.” (In Finland you’re always surprised when it’s sunny for more than one day in a row).
One of the best things about Lapland is all the animals that live there. I would travel there just to see the reindeer and the huskies. I love them that much. But more on them later because right now I’ve got to tell you about the snowmobiles. Snowmobiling has been on my list of things to do in Finland for a while. The last full day we were in Levi we took some out for a two hour spin in celebration of our friend and travel partner’s birthday. The day before, our friends had told us a horror story about two girls that had driven straight into a tree. So I was a tad anxious. Turns out I was a natural. Well, maybe not a natural per se, but I did it and didn’t run into anyone or anything. And it was so fun! We drove around a big loop through the forest and over the frozen lake, making a couple stops to enjoy the scenery. I think Scott’s favorite part was his helmet. I have to admit, he kind of looked like a bad a**. I was only slightly jealous.
On our way back to the cabin we stopped at this reindeer farm. We watched while a man, dressed in traditional Sami costume, fed the reindeer and then we cooed over the cute little reindeer for a good while. I’ll never get tired of them.
Next up: The magic of Lapland
These pictures are from our first trip up the mountain. Ok, it’s technically a fell, but that’s a mountain by Finnish standards. So we’re going to call it a mountain. Anyway, we drove nearly to the top to take in the view and check out the slopes one afternoon. As soon as we opened the car doors we were blasted with some seriously cold and incredibly strong wind. The wind was blowing so hard that the packed snow was wildly swirling through the air pummeling anything and everything around it. There was a café not too far away from where we parked, so we all turned around, backs facing the flying snow, and walked backwards all the way there. You could barely see anything but a cloud of white. Our initial intention was just to hang out outside for a while looking out over the town, but the wind was so unbelievably crazy that we cut our viewing time short. We only went into the café to rest for minute and thaw our frozen hands (from taking pictures) before walking right back through the storm.
But it was worth it, don’t you think? I’ll take a good beating from the wind for that kind of view any day.
The day that we went skiing on the mountain I met that ruthless wind again. It was on our last run, just when the sun was setting. Everything was so stinking beautiful. But the wind was blowing harder than ever. I couldn’t help but make a couple of pit stops for photo opts even though my hands suffered more and more each time. By the time we made it down the mountain we were all out of breath and frozen. But it was such a perfect ending. Exhausted and in awe of it all. That’s pretty much how I felt everyday of this trip.
Next up: More on what we did in Levi.
A quick double check that we packed everything - gloves, sweat pants and snacks (ya know, the essentials) - and we were out the door. With the addition of our bags, we filled the car to the brim (Scott cleverly using plastic grocery bags for maximum squish-ability). It was 6:30 am and we had almost 14 hours ahead of us before we would get to our cottage in Levi. I was lucky enough to sit in the most coveted seat in the car, back middle, where any move you make you’re almost guarenteed to be touching someone else around you. But I did have a straight shot of the open road, so there’s that.
Our two drivers were experienced road trippers so they had planned out several stops along the way to break up the drive a little. About three hours in we stopped to check out an ice waterfall just off the road. From the car, we walked through the forest about 1 km to the waterfall. The recent rise in temperature had thawed out the ice just enough so there was actual water flowing.
The next stop was Santa’s village. How can you drive through the village and NOT stop to hang with Santa? It was the end of his work day so we caught him with a remarkably short line. Chatting with St. Nick for a couple of minutes gave us just enough energy to push through the last leg of the drive.
The entire trip we had our eyes peeled for roaming reindeer, but none were to be seen. Then in the last two hours, while we were trying to entertain ourselves with an exceptionally long game of Celebrity, we caught a glimpse of one dashing out of the woods. Not long after that, as we were driving down a dark road, we spotted the Northern Lights out the window! Of course we had to pull over to marvel at them for a while and talk about how awesome it all was. Someone even joked that we had basically seen it all so we could just turn around and go back home. But after 12 hours of being in the car, that wasn’t something to joke about.
Next up: Levi mountain.
It’s so exciting to get to show someone around where you live. Although tons of people have seen pictures and heard stories, nothing beats seeing it in person. There’s not many “sights” to see in Joensuu so when I was showing my mom around the city it was more like, “This is the grocery store we go to” and “Here’s the university” and “Look, those are the people washing their rugs at the river”. Luckily, my mom is into that kind of stuff. She will get equally as excited about visiting a new grocery store as she would about seeing the Eiffel Tower - so that worked in my favor. And the rug washing, well she was ALL about that.
I had this old rug of ours that had been sitting on our balcony for months (because I was too lazy to take it downstairs to throw it away) that had a giant red stain on it that would not come out. (Seriously, I tried everything). Even after it had been rained and snowed on, my mom was convinced that the rug was salvageable with a good ole scrub at the river. After studying the ways of the river washers and scouting out a perfect spot, we hauled the rug out. Once we got to our spot and began mimicking the routine of the other washers, we realized we had a big problem. Everyone else had these special rug brushes and pine soap that seemed to do the trick, and all we had was my dish scrubber and dish washing soap. In attempt to act like we knew what we were doing, we hid the soap inside our bag and began scrubbing. Except we couldn’t fool the lady next to us. She saw right through our act. Fortunately, she took pity on us and let us use all her gear while she was waiting for her rug to dry. She even taught us the ways of the Finnish rug scrub. We scrubbed that rug like mad until we couldn’t scrub anymore. Then we waited all day to return to see if our hard work had paid off. And it did!! I’m not going to say that the rug is as good as new, because if you looked hard enough (ok, you don’t even have to look that hard), you can still see a little discoloration. But we just shoved that part under the couch and pretend it’s not there. What would I do without mom to save the day?
Next, we took the train from my small, sweet town of Joensuu to the big city. I’d been to Helsinki a number of times before, but you just can’t beat it in the summertime. Especially when you spend the day at one of the many islands off the coast, like we did. It was a bright, sunny and warm day that we took the ferry out to Suomenlinna and spent the day exploring the island and enjoying the weather. It was perfect. Although Suomenlinna is one of Helsinki’s most popular tourist attractions, it’s still Finland, so really not that touristy at all. We found a place on the rocks to watch all the crazy people plunge into the ice water. And because I’m kind of, maybe just a little bit competitive, I decided that I wanted to feel how cold this water really was. I mean, if they’re doing it, I can do it. As I started walking to the water, my mom, in true mom fashion, warned me to be careful on the moss, “It’s slippery”, she said. Yeah, yeah. When I got to the edge of the dry rocks and put one foot on the first mossy rock, I was reminded that moms are usually right. I slipped and fell right into the water. So instead of just touching it with my hands, like I intended, I got a little more of the full experience. Luckily, I wasn’t very far in and I didn’t hurt anything, so we just laughed about it for a good long while. That's really why I did it, for the laughs.
Instead of talking about how done I am with this weather and how the weather in Helsinki was equally as miserable (if not worse) and how all the pictures of warm places with people in anything less than a winter coat and boots are making me crazy... I'm going to tell you about all the food we ate on our trip.
That's pretty much what we did. We ate. So let's first talk about the Mexican-style brunch. Anything with a slight resemblance to Mexican food and we're there. I will admit now that it was worth the cold, wet walk over. I'm not even sure what some of the items were exactly, but I will tell you they were delicious and spicy, just how I like it. Then there was Fafa's. Giant falafals in fluffy pita bread. I got the one with pesto and goat cheese. Yes, to die for. The restaurant was out of this old, white van look-alike. Think stationary food truck. There were only about 15 seats total, which makes you feel like you snagged a highly coveted spot. It's located in the middle of a bunch of office buildings, so you would never find it just walking around, but we were on a mission. Then there's my favorite, well favorites, which were all the cute cafés around town. The one that really took the cake (I'll tell you more about that in a moment) was this small little café tucked in a corner, down the street from where we were staying. Give me a cinnamon roll or croissant with a cappuccino for breakfast and I am a happy camper. It's one of those places that would be very dangerous to live by because it would be calling my name every time I passed by. In fact it did one of the days we were there. We were going to walk by on the way back to our apartment so I took that as an opportunity to try a slice of cake. I'm not a huge cake person, well really just not a huge frosting person, but these cakes were of the homemade variety. They were different every day. Who eats cake in the middle of the day with no special occasion, you ask? I asked myself the same question, after my teeth were already covered in chocolatey goodness, and I decided the answer was that people who live by this place do. So as I was temporarily living there for a couple of days, I should do as the locals do.
Clearly we needed some comforting from the weather. And we found it in the food. It really is amazing how much the weather dictates what you eat. So to survive this next month of on and off rain/snow/sleet, we're going to be making some really comforting food around here. Starting with our favorite Moroccan-style stew. Mmmmm...I can already taste those melt-in-your-mouth sweet potatoes infused with the sweet sweet spices.
Leading up to and following New Year's Eve we spent some time visiting two other cities in Lapland. Tornio is a small town that shares a border with the Swedish town of Haparanda. There wasn't much to do in this small town, but it was kind of fun to walk right over to Sweden. Oh and a bonus to that is we went to a Swedish IKEA (score). Most of the time IKEA is a nightmare because you generally go to buy one thing and you end up spending your entire day there due to the endless maze of a store. However, when you are in Tornio and you are wandering around trying to find something to do, preferably indoors, walking slowly through an IKEA isn't half bad. (Plus we just wanted to say we'd been to an IKEA where it all began).
While we were there we also saw one of the oldest wooden churches in Finland, built in 1686, and went to a fake Tex-Mex restaurant. The person writing for Lonely Planet must not be from Texas because what we experienced was quite possibly the furthest thing from Tex-Mex. The jalapeño poppers weren't even spicy. What is that?? We actually had our first encounter with reindeer at this said Tex-Mex restaurant. After that we ate it another three times over the course of our trip in the form of, reindeer soup, reindeer burger and sautéed reindeer. I think it's safe to say that we enjoyed it.
Our stay in Kemi was a little more exciting (though it doesn't even come close to the huskies). Kemi is a port town that is known for its Snow Castle and Ice Breaker ship. Unfortunately, neither of these things were open yet. We did get to see the beginnings of the Ice Castle though, which look pretty amazing. When it's finished you can book a room inside the castle where it's like -18 degrees Celsius. Apparently it's also a fairly popular spot for people to get married or honeymoon in the winter (if we had only known...).
One of the most exciting things we did while we were there was walk on the frozen sea. There was a hole in the ice about 15 feet from shore that looked man-made, so we figured it had to be safe to walk on. It was a little risky, as we could have very well fallen through the ice and frozen to death, but fortunately we lived to tell about it.
Our New Year's Eve plans, as usual, were left to the last minute. (We like to live on the edge). Joensuu was a ghost town for the Christmas break and all flights, to just about everywhere, were jacked up for the holidays. We knew we had to get out and do something or the darkness would swallow us up (and because I get really antsy). So after exhausting several options, we made the decision to travel to even more darkness and snow. The bright side of this is that Santa would be there and he can brighten even the darkest of days, right? Joulupukki, as the Finns call him, has a village that sits on the Arctic Circle, just north of Rovaniemi. He has a post office where you can write yourself letters to be sent or have Santa himself send you one. He has a workshop, obviously, where you can buy many of the trinkets that his elves make. There's a Santa restaurant, café, and everything else you could imagine. But the real reason that we went (don't tell Santa) is for the huskies. These are not your average huskies. These puppies are masters of the sleigh. We opted for an hour long sleigh ride. When we got to "Husky Park" we were informed that there was a snow problem and we may not be able to go (cue extreme disappointment). But we soon found out that one of the women working there was going to take us out, WAY out, into the woods to a family that raises and trains the dogs for our ride. We were super pumped. Even more so when we learned that we would be leading our own team of dogs. I had imagined we would both just be along for the ride. Little did we know Scott would be the leader (well other than the lead dogs, that is). If that was the only thing we had done the entire time we were there, it would have been worth it. The experience was unforgettable. The dogs were amazing. We learned how they were trained and the different jobs each of them had on the team. I was in awe of how good they were. Oh, and then to top it off, we got to see some tiny husky babies. I died. Just about the cutest things I've ever seen. I apologize for the exessive amount of dog photos, but it could have been way worse. And, I mean, if you don't like pictures of dogs, what's wrong with you?
We made it back to Kemi just before midnight and rang in the new year at the Old Gringo. 2013 was really good to us and I have a feeling 2014 is going to be a pretty great year too.
After countless times passing through, we finally got to spend a little time in Helsinki. We went straight from several days of luxury in Switzerland to two nights in the smallest apartment ever. And we thought our apartment was small. The bathroom in this place could barely fit one person at a time, literally. You could brush your teeth, use the toilet and take a shower, all at the same time. Luckily, we didn't spend much time inside or I might have gone crazy.
My main objective for this trip was to visit as many Christmas markets as possible. We hit up three and got a good fill of Christmas spirit. Since Joensuu is not exactly a booming metropolis, we decided to get our Christmas shopping done in Helsinki. All of the markets had various stands that sold homemade good and treats, but each one was a little bit different from the others. Glögi, the Finnish version of mulled wine, is found everywhere around Christmas. It's traditionally served with almonds and raisins, in the actual drink. I was initially hesitant about nuts in my drink, but it ends up being a nice little snack when you're finished.
I have really loved living in and visiting some of the smaller towns around Europe. I think it has forced me to take a look around and appreciate the little things. It's nice to feel like we live in the middle of the forest. Whenever I'm in the city center, I always stop and think real hard about anything else I need to do/get while I'm there because if I forget something, well it better be worth an hour long bike ride. But I was raised in the city. Deep down at my core, I'm a city girl. So while we were in Helsinki, this surpressed city girl in me was doing cartwheels and flips. I loved getting to try all the fun restaurants and cafés. I loved that no matter where we were there was a store/restaurant/market/people around us. We went to brunch for the first time since we've moved and it was deeeeelicious. Oh how I miss overly priced food with fancy names. My mouth is still watering just thinking about the mounds of food that we devoured. It filled my compartment designated for big city things. But truthfully, I missed Joensuu. I was so happy to be back to our little apartment where the only thing we can hear is the loud sneezer that lives next door. It's nice to have some quiet time too.