Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Happy Independence Day

Today my home country, Finland, celebrates its 97th Independence Day. Traditionally, this day is not a joyful festival of colour and carnival à la française, or hot summer barbecues in the American fashion. No, the Finnish independence is serious and solemn. A day to quietly give respect to the generations who sacrificed a lot to fight for this for us. I should know, being the daughter of a man, who at the tender young age of 17 was sent to fight for his country, and had devastating stories of war to tell, as he was one of the lucky ones to get home in one piece afterwards. Or the granddaughter of a village police officer very close to the Russian border, who courageously even held Russians spies at gun point in his home, with his wife and two young daughters (one of them my mum) fearing for their lives.

Having lived most of my life in a bicultural family, I find the concept of national independence rather problematic. The feeling of patriotism so easily turns into a fervent ‘us and them’ mentality, and the exclusion of those who are not considered original, authentic Finns. You would think, the 21st-century reality of constant migration around the world, would have made people more open to accepting, even welcoming, new-comers in their midst. But sadly, what I still see all around me, here and elsewhere, is suspicion, prejudice and fear of the unknown. The “when in Finland , do as the Finns do” attitude is alive and well, and too often it leaves no place for curiosity or learning about a different mindset and way of life. Conform or you will be ostracized and excluded. Learn the language perfectly, or suffer the consequences – and anonymous notes in your letter box of “Finnish being the only official language around here”.

To my mind, the restrictive and exclusive concept of 20th-century nationalism has far outlived its time. I want to believe in the utopian dream world of global citizens, living in peace and harmony. Hippie stuff – yeah totally! True, I should study sociology, social psychology and history in more detail to grasp the human condition more clearly. I’m just following hunches based on personal and limited feelings and experiences. And really, how would the complex modern world function, without the structures of local and national government? Yet, keeping the status quo is hardly feasible either. Just think about the movements in Europe of restricting immigration and closing borders, let alone regions inside existing states striving for independence.

My family history calls for me to be proud of this day, and the almost 100 years of independent Finland. But in my heart, I hear the call of the world. There is an old Finnish proverb, “Your own country is a strawberry, another country is a blueberry”, meaning roughly the same as ‘east, west, home is best’. In the end, I guess my problem really is that I like both strawberries and blueberries just as much!

A stylised Finnish flag, created by the students of my school in 2013

A stylised Finnish flag, created by the students of my school in 2013


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Pop-up “Restaurant Day” in November

November 15, a grey and windy Saturday morning. The temperature here in southern Finland barely above zero celsius, but no sight of snow or ice, thank goodness! The beginning of another pop-up restaurant experience in my town, and around the world. Following the online map, with venues popping up all through the week, I finally found 20+ to choose from, noticeably fewer, though, than on the lovely late summer day in August, which I blogged about earlier. Not surprising, given the season and weather, but enough, however, to plan an interesting tour. According to the event Facebook page, there were still all together 1698 pop-up places opened in 35 countries, which is quite an achievement!

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Our rather colourless riverside scenery in November

Two major differences to our previous experience: this time, we drove around in our car, at times parking and walking from place to place. Still got some fresh air and exercise although, I must say, I did miss my bike, but the distances along our planned route just were too long, unfortunately. Secondly, most of the November events took place indoors, which nicely added an extra interest in actually being invited into people’s homes. Very un-Finnish and brave! Compared to the open-air garden events in August, the indoor cafés and restaurants were far more intimate, and sparked even more impromptu conversations and interaction between the strangers whose paths crossed by chance, around coffee and dinner tables for fleeting moments . Great for us private, and often sullen, Finns! And what a way, for anyone, to “seize the day”, and make each unexpected encounter count.

I and hubby started by the riverside, at ‘Curry in a Hurry’. A simple canopy-covered place, offering 3 different curries with naan bread. Just the right hot treat, temperature and spice-wise, on a nippy winter day! Turned out that the friendly and welcoming curry chefs were also a mixed Finnish-British couple, just like us, so we felt right at home.

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Warmed by the nice and tasty curry, we then walked to a 1920s block of flats up the road, and entered the enchanting ambience of “The Yellow Salon Café”. This was a family endeavour, put together for the third time already by a father, keen on antiques and design, an enthusiastically baking mother and a daughter enjoying the customer service. The whole front room had been totally reorganised for the day, with a lot of effort and care to create just the right atmosphere for a Christmassy coffee break, down to the finest detail. I was especially impressed with the oldie-worldie outfits of the two ladies, not to mention all the scrumptious pies, cakes and goodies, which literally melted in your mouth. I would definitely go again, and can recommend this venue, both for culinary and aesthetic enjoyment. I’m still wondering, though, about the elegant and enigmatic young lady, quietly having chocolate cake while reading Molière in the corner. Just one of those intriguing stories of this great day!

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We finally ended our tour with another Christmassy experience. A summer hut in a garden, aptly named “Café Charm” for the day, with a view of a small, local lake. On offer was our traditional Christmas delicacy: rice porridge, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar on top. Here, too, Christmas carols were played in the background, and flickering candles added to the warm feeling in the darkening afternoon. I can understand people wanting to tap into the Christmas theme as there is no Restaurant Day closer to the holidays, but for me, maybe it was a little early for all the jingle bells, santa figures and decorating gingerbread cookies, lovely ideas and activities as they were. Next this café, there was also a quirky little boutique, boasting the world’s smallest cinema (in a toilet!) showing a 1920s documentary about the area, in the times when the adjacent broadcloth factory was still working. So, not only food and meeting people but learning about local history at the same time!

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The above mentioned “cinema” on the left

Hats off to all the hard-working and creative volunteers for organising this great day for the rest of us! Looking forward to the next edition on February 15, 2015!


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A great Finnish food carnival

Restaurantday1 Are you keen on cooking or baking? So much so that you would even like to sell some of your culinary creations to others? But, obtaining the required licences and going through all the red tape has prevented you so far, plus the fact that you really couldn’t imagine this as your full-time career. Or would you just like to have a fun, novel experience sharing food with people for one day? Well, wait no longer – there is a way: THE POP-UP RESTAURANT DAY. In the words of the inventors, this is what it is:

Restaurant Day is a worldwide food carnival when anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day. It can happen anywhere: at your home, at the office, on a street corner, in your garden or inner courtyard, at a park, or on the beach – only your imagination is the limit.

For your pop-up restaurant, café or food stall, you won’t need to apply for any permits, nor do you need to let the taxman know what you’ve earned, for as long as you only charge enough to cover your costs. The first ever “Restaurant Day” was organised in Finland in May 2011, and since then the concept has spread to over 50 countries worldwide. Quite an achievement! If you got interested, here is one of the three men behind the concept, Timo Santala, explaining to you in English what it’s all about. It’s well worth sparing 17 minutes to watch the video as it’s is full of heart-warming and funny stories about interaction, participation, open cities, active citizenship and, above all, the creative madness of people who are given the freedom and trust to organise something extraordinary for a day.

I couldn’t agree with Timo more when he asks:

Is there a better way of meeting new people, experiencing a country as a tourist or integrating to a new place as an immigrant than around a shared dinner table?

Yet, it still amazes me that this phenomenon was actually invented and given the green light in Finland, the promised land of rules and regulations! In fact, the inventors have revealed that it was exactly their frustration with all the Finnish restrictions for setting up restaurants that gave them this idea. What adds to my amazement is that, in general, we Finns are quite private people. Many of us are not particularly keen to open our homes to strangers even though we often do invite friends over for dinner or coffee. What’s more, we very much tend to keep ourselves to ourselves, and shy away from socialising with people we don’t know. I believe this is partly due to our culture of politeness, according to which it is good manners to basically leave people alone, and not bother them with unnecessary small talk. This cultural background makes the concept of the Restaurant Day, where you suddenly expose yourself to dealing with strangers, often in your own home, even more incredible. Maybe it is a positive sign of people longing for a change, and a new sense of community spirit in these highly individualised times. This great day takes place four times a year – in February, May, August and November. Obviously, here in the north, our seasons affect the organisation a lot, with May and August being much easier and more convenient for outdoor venues. I and hubby had a wonderful day last August, cycling around all Sunday to a few places we had picked from the list beforehand. Even the weather couldn’t have been better that day! Our picks then were a Polish-Finnish couple’s pierogi restaurant in their yard, raw cakes by the riverside, a garden do with several main courses and desserts, and with live music, too (in fact, two well-known Finnish musicians, which was an interesting bonus) and another garden café with traditional Finnish coffee and cakes. Not only was the food highly affordable and interesting to sample, but the tour also introduced us to lovely, new neighbourhoods of our hometown that we had never been to before, not to mention the healthy exercise and fresh air and meeting and talking with lots of people. There’s hardly a better way to spend an autumn Sunday!

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My “red lightning transport” for the day

Restaurantday2Restaurantday3Restaurantday3Restaurantday4 If you have never heard of this idea, why not jump on the bandwagon in your village / town? You can find all the information you need on this webpage (and in several languages, too). I can’t wait for the next experience on November 15. I’m even toying with the idea of having my own little café in May next year. Let’s see what happens!


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Best coffee in Turku, Finland

Finns are among the  biggest coffee-drinkers in the world. So if you ever come here, I bet you won’t be able to avoid the traditional ‘kahvi ja pulla’ (‘coffee and bun’) break during your stay. And if you happen to visit my hometown, the historical old capital city of Turku, on the south-western coast, by the Baltic Sea, here is my, totally personal, recommendation of where to go for the best cup of joe.

CaféArt (Läntinen Rantakatu 5, www.cafeart.fi)
Coffee3My all-time favourite, not least for the picturesque milieu of wooden houses by the river Aura, not far from the Cathedral or the market square. In the summertime the café extends to the pavement and side of the pedestrian street, offering a wonderful view of the riverside, and great opportunities for people watching, let alone the fact that coffee always tastes even better in the fresh air.
Coffee1Coffee2Apart from the location, my main reason for preferring this café over all the others in town, is the tasty and always reliable coffees, prepared with care of locally roasted beans by award-winning baristas. Tea-lovers can also a good selection of leaf teas. CaféArt may not be at its best in the eats department but different sandwiches and quiches, buns and cakes are always on offer. In the typical Finnish custom, no table service but ordering and paying at the counter, even if you are sitting outdoors.

Inside, there is plenty of space, and nice separate “nooks and crannies” to cater for groups of different sizes. The decor is quaint but quite ordinary. Yet, as the name of the place suggests, the changing art pieces, exhibited on the walls, add interest. If you are on your own, sitting by the riverside window is ideal for daydreaming – weather permitting, of course. Free wi-fi is also available. Personally, I really enjoy the nice, bubbly atmosphere of people, working, having informal meetings, chatting and talking. This place is not often empty or quiet! And more plus: unlike many cafés in our town (beats me why!), CaféArt is also open on Sundays between 11am-5pm. Warmly recommend!

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My favourite combo: cappuccino and a cinnamon bun

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Weekend in jail

Attending a friend’s 50th birthday party in Helsinki on Saturday, gave us a welcome short break to stay in the capital for the night. I had heard about the Katajanokka Prison Hotel from a friend earlier, and it certainly sounded worth a try. Not cheap but not the dearest either, bearing in mind the fairly elevated Helsinki hotel prices.

Entering inside the red brick walls felt ominous, to say the least. And soon enough, we were LITERALLY behind bars!

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And the same quite authentic prison atmosphere continued inside the building. Beyond the reception, the corridor was almost exactly as you might have expected it to be when the prison still housed inmates, as late as the early 2000s. I expected the doors open any minute, to let the prisoners out for a walk! The refurbishment was well done, respecting the history of the building. We had chosen the cheapest and smallest possible room, without a bathtub, but found it very comfortable and fully equipped with an iron, and ironing board, hairdryer, minibar and free wi-fi. A nice touch was the kettle and tea and coffee provided in the room plus free wi-fi, which are rare in Finnish hotels. Even if small, somehow the height of the room made it seem airy and comfortable. And the out of reach windows high on the wall let my imagination run wild, conjuring up plots of escape.

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We definitely had a good night’s sleep, and didn’t hear a peep from anywhere, possibly thanks to the extra thick prison walls. One word of warning, though – do close the curtains as the shadows on the walls from the night lights outside can be rather spooky!  However, in the morning it is good to open them again to enjoy the first light streaming through the pink curtains. Breakfast was served downstairs in the windowless, candle-lit basement. They still use the old metal plates and mugs but the breakfast itself was a full Scandinavian-style buffet with something for many different tastes. Especially nice was the selection of different jams in rustic glass jars, and the open kitchen with the chef  waiting to fry your eggs on demand.

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In the restaurant area, you can also visit an original isolation cell and a group cell from the 19th century. Anyone staying in them definitely didn’t enjoy any mod cons or creature comforts! It was nice to see that the prison theme was utilised in different parts of the hotel. For example, using one of the city bikes provided at the entrance, made you ‘a runaway’, and at the reception, you could buy theme-related souvenirs, such as mugs or even pairs of hand cuffs. All in all, this commercialisation of the theme was done in good taste, not forced down your throat, in my opinion.

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I can warmly recommend this hotel to anyone interested in something other than your regular hotel chains. The icing on the cake is the location in the charming neighbourhood of Katajanokka, a small island, separated from mainland Helsinki by a narrow canal. Weather permitting, it’s a good idea to walk around the island along the seaside path. Not only can Katajanokka boast with a lot of beautiful Jugend-style architecture, but it is also home to the Finnish foreign ministry in an originally Russian army building, and the huge Russian Orthodox Uspenski Cathedral. We were lucky, and took a leisurely stroll back to the railway station. Managed to get some more vitamin D for the winter in the gorgeous autumn sunshine!

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