Sinikka's snippets

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


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Buy experiences, not things

About time to reopen my blog after almost a whole year’s pause! Terrible really how school work totally absorbs me, leaving little time for other pursuits in life. Luckily, it’s another long – and well-earned – summer holiday now, and I will soon embark on an exciting adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tick off a distant destination in my bucket list.

Hongkong 2015, being a filmstar 🙂

I love travelling, and mostly spend my extra euros on a ticket that will take me somewhere outside Finland. I’ve often wondered what it is that made me this way since my two brothers are very happy to stay safely in their familiar homeland. Funny really! One decisive factor certainly is my passion for learning languages. I am proud and happy to say that hubby and I have also managed to instill the same wanderlust in our only daughter – who, by the way, is currently in Morocco, doing a two-month research project for her Master’s dissertation at the University of Edinburgh.

On a school visit with my girl in rural India, 2006

Of late, our mantra has been: “experiences, not things.” Interestingly, I found scientific proof of spending your money on travelling making most people happier than purchasing possessions. In 2014, Cornell University researchers Thomas Gilovich and Amit Kumar, published some of their findings in a paper titled We’ll always have Paris: The Hedonic Payoff from Experiential and Material Investments. They looked extensively into how purchasing experiences (i.e. spending your money on doing) and purchasing things (i.e. spending on having) affect people’s feelings of well-being and happiness. While, initially, both seemed to have a similar positive effect, it was the experiential purchases, such as travelling, concerts, movies or eating out, that tended to yield a more enduring feeling of satisfaction and happiness.

We will always remember the first time I took my girl to Paris in 2007

Research has found several reasons for this. Firstly, there is the anticipation and planning of an experience, which seemed to be very important. I can definitely relate to this. For weeks now, I have been doing background reading, getting ready to go and  dreaming of my trip ahead. For me, the anticipation is sometimes almost as rewarding as the actual experience!

The thrilling preparations – wonder if you can guess my destination this summer!

Secondly, there is the social aspect of experiences. These sorts of purchases are mostly enjoyed in the company of others, social interaction being an essential part of it all. On the contrary, material purchases, often offer solitary moments of enjoyment. Moreover, there are the memories and stories that will live on long after the experience, sometimes for the rest of your life. I will probably bore everyone with my endless stories of this trip afterwards, as I’ve done after each trip I’ve ever ventured on. People want to share their fascinating memories and learning experiences, and even negative incidents easily turn into hilarious stories afterwards. However, this is not the case with a disappointing material purchases – you’d probably rather forget all about them, get rid of them, or, at least, not talk about them that much.

Merry Christmas from Île de la Réunion 2011

Another finding seems to indicate that material purchases are easier to compare with what others have, often leading to disappointments when you realise that your neighbour, or “the Joneses”, have something better than what you just invested in. This will often result in so-called ‘buyer’s remorse’, and reduce the long-term satisfaction with a material purchase. In the case of experiential consumption, feelings of regret are directed more towards inaction, ie. wishing you hadn’t missed a wonderful opportunity.

All of us are likely to regret the planes we did not get on far more, and for far longer, than the clothing, jewellery, gadgets, or furniture we did not buy. (Gilovich and Kumar)

Finnish poet Pentti Saaritsa has described the excitement of travel beautifully in one of this poems. He writes how nothing warms you up like tomorrow’s travel ticket in your pocket, or how your familiar coat suddenly turns into the fairy tale invisibly cloak. He also urges us to set off on a trip whenever we can. And this is why, I’ll be leaving on that jet plane again in only two days’ time!

Honolulu 2015


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Hong Kong dim sum

Last summer (2015) we had the chance to visit Hong Kong for the first time on our way to Taiwan to visit our daughter and her boyfriend, who also flew over to HK for the weekend to join us. As we only had 3 days to look around, I tried to do some online research on must places to see and things to join advance. One find on an online Time magazine article was a tea house serving traditional dim sum breakfast. Even though dim sum, as such, was not new to us, having tried it before in Malaysia, China and Singapore, and the youngsters, of course, in Taiwan, we wanted to try the HK flavour as we’d always liked it so much before. Another reason for choosing this place was that it was at a walking distance from our hotel. So off we went early on a sunny Saturday morning, after arriving the afternoon before. We loved the walk along the narrow streets and lanes of SoHo, up and down hills and stairs, and past colourful markets and stalls. Unable to read or understand any of the Cantonese signs around, I was brimming with excitement. It finally sank in that we were really far away from home.

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Lin Heung Tea House, 160-164 Wellington street, Central, Hong Kong

Described, rather unflatteringly, as the “Dim Sum Warzone” by a Singaporean food blogger, we found the Lin Heung delightfully eccentric. Most of the waiters seemed to be ancient, and a little bit grumpy – made me wonder how long people kept working in Hong Kong. Service worked quite efficiently, though, although it took us some time to find a free table in the totally packed place, even that early in the morning. In fact, as we entered there was such a hullabaloo going on that we had our doubts first whether we’d manage to get any breakfast at all. We’d been warned about this by several web sources, but in the end, we were quite comfortable even having to share the table with total strangers. It just came with the territory and added to the novel experience.

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No sooner had we managed to sit down than a pot of really dark brown, steaming pu erh tea appeared in front of us. Later on, we got bolder and went to order a few other teas among the several choices on offer. But what to do to get our food? Just had to look around and observe for a while, to get the hang of it. The waiters kept coming round with their trolleys stacked with bamboo containers and plates, howling loudly in Cantonese – possibly the names of all the dishes on offer. All you had to do was to go to them and get the ones you wanted. Mind you, not so easy for us poor foreigners who didn’t understand a word, and had to try and get the waiters to open the containers to see what was inside. They weren’t too happy about this, rushing around the slightly too narrow aisles between the tables. Another piece of advice: don’t be polite and wait for your turn, like any descent Finn would. You’ll never manage to get a bite! You’ll have to be fast, or all the dishes you’d like will be snatched by somebody else right in front of your eyes! Once we learned the ropes, we got to try all sorts, the savoury seafood and meat dumplings, as well as the sweet buns and more familiar spring rolls.  All very good, I must say.

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The noise around got louder and louder while more water was constantly poured into the cute, round-bellied tea pots, and ever more exciting dim sum choices kept appearing on the trolleys. Soon enough, our eyes started being bigger than our belly, and we realised that we were already too full. But what a great experience on our first morning in Hong Kong! A bit chaotic perhaps but in a positive, intriguing way. Certainly a welcome change to quiet and organised Finland. Happy and well nourished, we were ready to hit the streets and explore the new city for the day.

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One interesting observation: as the clientele seemed to be mostly middle-aged or above, hardly any smart gizmos were in sight, but instead, like in the good old days, people read real newspapers! How quaint! As far as we could gather, most of the customers seemed local rather than tourists, which is always preferable to us. Whenever we can, we try to get small glimpses into the everyday lives and culture of the local people in the foreign places we visit, to see and try something that we would never come across at home.

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I would definitely recommend a visit to this tea house to Hong Kong visitors. An extra bonus: in an otherwise fairly pricey metropolis, at least by Asian standards, this was easily affordable. No Michelin star quality, and very old-fashioned for sure, but good value. I would have been prepared to pay extra for the entertainingly fascinating ambience alone!


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Chasing high mountain Oolong tea in Taiwan

There is something in the nature of tea that leads us into a world of quiet contemplation of life. – Lin Yutang

Coffee really is “my cup of tea”. But, being married to a Brit has taught me to appreciate tea, too. In fact, in our home, the kettle is put on dozens of times a day, and cups of tea are constantly on offer. Bad day at work, dear – never mind, have a cuppa, the universal remedy. In recent years, we have moved more and more into Chinese green teas, and latterly Taiwanese Oolong since our daughter moved there two years ago. No mugs of sweet, milky Indian black teas in our household!

Last summer we had the wonderful chance of visiting our daughter in Taiwan for two weeks. One of the musts was a visit to a tea plantation on the mountains as I’d always dreamed of seeing how tea grows. Taiwan is renowned for its teas – black, Oolong and green. Apparently, the conditions in Taiwan are ideal (temperature, humidity, altitude), which makes Taiwanese teas highly sought after by real tea connoisseurs.

THE JOURNEY TO THE MOUNTAIN

Quite the journey it was. Starting off from the southern city of Kaohsiung, we (that is four of us: I, hubby, daughter and boyfriend) first took the train to Chiayi city, from where we continued by bus up the Alishan mountain (literally Ali mountain – ‘shan’ meaning mountain in Chinese). Little did we expect how high the mountain really was, and we didn’t even reach the highest point of it! Our destination was only at an elevation of some 1,400 m, while the highest peak would have been over 2,000 m. Once we started the ascent, it felt almost like being on an aeroplane taking off. With totally blocked ears, we oohed and aahed the scenery and, higher up, spotted the first small tea plantations on the slopes. How delightful! At times I had to close my eyes out of fear, though, when the steep mountain sides seemed far too close on the twisty and turny roads. More and more mist appeared, the higher we got, and the air got cooler and cooler, which was actually quite nice, after struggling with the humid heat of June on lower ground.

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We had booked our B&B accommodation through booking.com, and the owners kindly offered to pick us up at a certain bus stop. Waiting for our ride, in the middle of the late afternoon mist, we were lucky to have a pick-up truck stop by, with tea picking ladies with their signature bamboo hats and special bamboo baskets, happily travelling on the open back. I’d read about the physically hard and meticulous job of these ladies, carefully hand picking each tea leaf, to ensure premium quality. It was a pity that the best picking season wasn’t until a month after our visit, so I didn’t manage to see any of these ladies in action.

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Soon enough, the son of our B&B owner arrived to get us, but wanted to take us to Fenchichu Old Street for dinner first because he said they didn’t have any provisions for evening meals at their place. At first we felt a little disappointed as we were quite ready to settle in for the night but the evening turned out quite good in the end. Lovely little village style setting on the slopes of the mountain, but also quite crowded and touristy.

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Strolling around the little streets and alleys, we found a nice-looking little tea shop that also offered tasting. In we went, of course! Our first taste of the genuine Alishan high mountain Oolong. Surprisingly mild, beautifully yellow in colour, and somehow curiously reminding me of the taste and faint smell of raw peas. Very smooth, with no hint of the slight bitterness of many green teas. In the traditional fashion, it was served from teeny, tiny cups, and the lady serving had quite an arsenal of little implements in front of her, to prepare the brew. The atmosphere was relaxed and informal, nothing like the rigid and ritualistic tea ceremonies in Japan, for example. The hostess kept filling the kettle again and again, and pouring us more and more of the tea. It really was good, and we left with a few packets of it in our bags.

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For dinner, we tried the local speciality, ‘lunchbox’.  In the old days, when Fenchichu was an important half-way refuel stop along the Alishan Forest Railway, somebody came up with the idea of selling train travellers a quick lunch in a box (made of wood, bamboo or iron) that was considerably lighter and easier to carry to the train platform than the previous noodle bowls. The lunchbox tradition is still kept alive in some restaurants. The food itself was not exactly to our liking – rice with some vegetables, a piece of chicken leg and chewy pork – but it was very cheap. To wash down the rather greasy taste of the dinner, I just had to buy a selection of Taiwanese mochi. They are sticky rice paste balls with different fillings, such as peanut butter, black bean paste, or various fruit pastes. I adore the consistency and taste – one of my all-time favourite Asian desserts!

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It was a nice surprise for us that Fenchichu is actually one of the stops of the famous Alishan Forest Railway. We were really happy to get return tickets on it for the next day – something we had wanted to do anyway! Finally, at the end of the day, we were driven to our B&B in complete darkness through almost impenetrable fog. We had no idea where we’d arrived as visibility was almost zero. Luckily we weren’t the drivers on the tiny mountain roads!

B&B ALISHAN YUN MIN GI                                                                                                                          No.4 Shizhuo, Zhonghe Village, Zhuqi Town, Chiayi County 604, Taiwan

We had chosen our inn based on the fact that it had its own tea plantation. As we only had very limited time, staying on Alishan only for one night, we had to make sure that we’d at least see one plantation. After all, that was the main reason of our visit in the area.

We all stayed in one huge room, which was lovely, and tastefully furnished, with big windows in two directions, a spacious bathroom and a balcony, too. Everything in the inn was perfectly tidy and clean. Late at night, with the fog and darkness, we couldn’t see a thing outside. We were hoping to catch the rising sun early in the morning, though, and set our alarms, keeping our fingers crossed for the fog to disappear by then. Most Alishan visitors travel to a special spot, either by car or the Forest Railway to admire the sun rising from behind the peaks but, as we were unsure about the weather, we opted to stay at the inn and hope for the best. After a quick tasting of the inn-keepers’ own Oolong tea downstairs, on a magnificent wooden table, special the the mountain area, (and buying some more packets of tea!) finally, tired and with excited anticipation, we fell asleep in our comfortable beds.

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Between 4 and 5 am, we were woken up by excited cries from our daughter: “Come and see, the sun is rising!” The night before, none of us could have anticipated the spectacle that unfolded in front of our eyes. Gradually, the mountain peaks around, and the valley below started to take shape and get in focus. The colourscape kept changing until the fabulous, sharp panorama revealed itself in all its glory, in brilliant sunshine. In addition to all the visual splendour, the silence was almost deafening, especially after the bustle of busy Taiwanese cities. And all this, from the best possible vantage point, right there on our own balcony – how awesome is that!

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We took a short walk around the inn before breakfast, to finally get an idea we were had come to. For me, the new modern wing of the inn, where we stayed, looked a little bit out of place in that natural setting but, I must say, it served its purpose well. Tea grew all around, and the rounded rows of it could be seen through all the windows inside as well. In fact, the windows were like landscape paintings, depicting the surrounding beauty of the area. After a nice breakfast, it was time to go for walks in and around the many tea plantations.

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WHERE OOLONG GROWS

At last I had the chance to walk in between the rows of tea, touch the waxy leaves and try to get the very faint scent. It was easy to walk up and down the nice wooden stairs, provided on the slopes. You could even go for a hike in a bamboo forest nearby. And wherever you turned, there was yet another spectacular view. We were in heaven! One word of warning, though, for anyone going on Alishan: the cool mountain air is very deceptive – I ended up totally burning my arms (through the silly holes of my sleeves!), not feeling the heat of the sun in the mountain breeze. I should have seen it coming!

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While our youngsters preferred to do several hikes, we found another tea plantation down the hill, went to have a look, and ended up having one more Oolong tasting session around a wonderfully carved wooden table. More and more people kept coming in, and eventually it looked like we had the whole family tasting tea with us. It transpired that these people were actually related to our inn owners if we understood it correctly through the few broken English words our Taiwanese hosts tried to say. No common language but still we shared a fun time together. Just the sort of impromptu meeting that we so enjoy during our travels. And off we went, with more packets of tea to take back home.

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THE ALISHAN FOREST RAILWAY

Once the only way to get up and down the mountain, the cute red engines still chug along the steep mountain sides. Unfortunately, according to Focus Taiwan, after serious typhoon damage in 2009 and more just last autumn, the whole 70 odd km stretch has still not been repaired to this day. Opened in the early 20th century for timber transportation, the railway was turned mostly touristic in the 1960s. Twenty years later, in the 1980s, with the completion of the Alishan Highway, cheaper and faster buses started to take customers away from the trains. Today, it’s mostly diesel engines instead of the old steam ones but, nonetheless, it’s definitely an experience not to miss. The technology required to run a train on those steep slopes is amazing! Waiting for departure on the platform, there was an elated ambience of setting off on a grand adventure – and that’s what it truly was.

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The two-hour return journey down the mountain took us through bamboo forests, and more tea plantations on the slopes, dramatic mountain scenery and unbelievably lush greenery. The tiny carriages were cosy, and I noticed that the regular clickety clack of the train made several passengers nod off at some point. What a way to end our brief, but unforgettable, glimpse of mighty Alishan.

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And now, a year on, I still vividly recall all these memories and sentiments, the views, the sounds and the smells, every time I’m enjoying a cup of fragrant Oolong from Alishan.


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BLOC hotels – the UK mini hotel

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For my recent leisure and conference trip to Britain, I was happy to find a new hotel chain to check out. The BLOC hotel concept reminded me of the Hong Kong mini hotel we stayed at last summer. According to the hotel brochure, the founder of Bloc hotels was inspired by the so-called capsule hotels in Japan. This did worry me a bit before seeing the rooms but luckily, they were a decent size, and not at all claustrophobic as I had feared.

At the moment, there are only two hotels in the chain – one in Birmingham, and the other one at Gatwick airport – but more may be in the pipeline.  And as it happens, I stayed in both during my UK trip. The rooms turned out to be almost exactly identical, and I read that they are actually constructed elsewhere, and then stacked together with the exterior built around the ready-made “room boxes”. Basically, each room is a simple cube, with a “wet room” (i.e. joint toilet and shower) built in one corner. No wardrobes, no frills, which is just fine for me when I only stay for a few days. I’m quite comfortable with “living out of the suitcase” as it also saves the time and effort of constant packing. The hotel brochure describes their style as “pared-down chic”.  I must admit that the modern and minimalistic decor was quite pleasing to my Scandinavian eye and soul. However, maybe they’d taken the ‘bloc’ idea a bit too far, with everything in a square shape, from the lights and stools, to shower knobs and even minuscule soaps in the bathroom! Made me smile, though.

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The king-size beds were luxurious for a solo traveller, and very comfy indeed. What’s more, I enjoyed catching up with British TV programmes on the HD LED screen integrated in the wall at the foot of the bed, and even the free wi-fi worked like a dream. No breakfast facilities but vending machines for small snacks at the reception. BLOC hotels hadn’t quite gone to all the lengths of the Hong Kong one with a spacious and interesting lobby area but the reception was quite fine, and efficient, nothing to complain about. And as icing on the cake, quite affordable prices, too!

The only downside I could mention was the wet room arrangement, fascinatingly described as “a monsoon-drench shower wet room”. No separate shower cabinet, just the shower on the wall, which meant that afterwards, the whole toilet area (floor, walls, seats, the lot) was soaking wet. Took some planning not to keep getting your feet, socks and clothes wet!

BIRMINGHAM BLOC – Caroline street

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Very nicely located in the old Jewellery quarter, and only a 15-20-minute walk to the centre of town. There are enough cafés, restaurants and pubs in the vicinity to cater for all your needs. I actually found a wonderful breakfast place, advertised on the traveller’s map provided by the hotel. As a bonus, showing the Bloc hotel key card gave you a 10 % discount, too. I liked to so much that I ended up having breakfast at Saint Kitchen every morning during my stay in Birmingham!

The Jewellery quarter still showcases beautiful Georgian houses, and the streets are nice and quiet.

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At the end of the street, lovely St. Paul’s square with the church.

Some of the restaurant nearby were quite popular in the evenings!

Some of the restaurants nearby were quite popular in the evenings!

I opted for the slightly dearer room with a window, and was really happy about that choice. I loved seeing the view, and the sunrise in the mornings when it wasn’t grey and cloudy.

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View from my window in the evening

View from my window in the evening

And sunrise in the morning

And sunrise in the morning

All in all, a very pleasant stay. Good, friendly service, and everything worked. Would definitely stay again!

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GATWICK AIRPORT BLOC – South terminal

Very easy to find, with clear sign-posting, soon after the exit from the Gatwick Express trains from London. The same familiar square light fitments at the reception, which was, however, much smaller as all the airport facilities are at your disposal, just behind these walls. In fact, I felt a bit like Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal’, going for my evening meal, snack shopping and breakfast around the airport.

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A windowless room this time, which did make it feel slightly boxier, but luckily not too disturbing!

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For once, I could sleep properly before a flight, and feel relaxed and rested in the morning. I totally enjoyed the ease of having breakfast and checking-in just a few steps from the hotel. Quite interesting, too, watching the planes take off outside the window at the end of the room corridor. I can warmly recommend this reasonably priced hotel for anyone travelling to and from Gatwick airport.

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My oyster

“The world is my oyster”, as the saying goes. Maybe that’s where London transport authorities got the name for their versatile ‘Oyster card’? I was going to write an ultra-positive post praising the usefulness of this card. However, I had to add a warning at the end of this post, having learned the hard way how important it is to be fully aware of all the conditions of use.

But, let’s start with the positive. Compared to the old system for tourists and visitors of 1-day or 2-day travel cards, now having access to the “top up as needed” Oyster card was a really welcome change during my recent visit to London.

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Arriving at Gatwick airport, I simply went to the train tickets counter, and bought my card: £5 deposit on the card itself, and £30  credit, which I reckoned should be enough for my four-day stay. And it was enough although no problem if you spend more, you can top the credit up at any tube station. The card is good on the tube, and London buses, too. Very handy.

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I especially appreciate having a card in my pocket to use on the buses. I never know exactly where I will be getting off, which is why having to buy individual tickets from a driver is always a bit complicated. Not to mention, having the right change as well. I love just getting my card out, flashing it to the reader, and I’m ready to hop on, and off, wherever I want!

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Unfortunately, my “thumbs up for the Oyster card” spiel has to come with a serious warning! Buying my ticket, I was told that if I didn’t want to keep it, I could hand the card back, when leaving the country, and get the £5 deposit back. Brilliant, I thought at the time. Yet, trying to do this, at exactly the same counter at Gatwick airport, I was told that there was still 90 pence worth of credit on the card, which meant that I couldn’t get my money back. WHAT? “This is why we put this warning on the card”, said the irritatingly know-it-all assistant at the counter. And blow me, there was the sticker on the card, printed in tiny letters as usual, reading:

REFUNDS for unused credit MUST BE completed at a London underground station before travelling back to Gatwick Airport. NO REFUNDS for unused credit can be given at the airport.

So there, quite clear, no point in protesting even though, of course, I tried. Quite honestly, how many of you always read all the small print on everything? Why on earth wasn’t I warned about this, when purchasing the card? Or is this an intentional scheme to earn £5 extra from each unsuspecting traveller? Looking at the card now, in its plastic cover, this small print is quite conveniently partly obscured by the text on the cover. I was furious for a while but then, we are not talking about a fortune, and no doubt, I will go to London again, and be able to use this same card, and all the ease it provides me with getting around Britain’s lovely capital.

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Lesson learned, though – to avoid unnecessary disappointment and frustration,  carefully read all the small print on anything you buy!


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Family dinner

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I learned it in my childhood home that as a family, you gather together for dinner around the kitchen table, every single day. I carried this tradition on in my small family. Around 5-6pm, we used to have home-made dinner together all through the years our only daughter was growing up. A time for exchanging the daily news, and bonding with your nearest and dearest.

It’s been hard to let go of this special daily moment since our daughter moved out of the family home. Of course, I and hubby still eat together, most days, but it just isn’t quite the same any more. I think for me, dinnertime will forever evoke the presence of your family. The food can be simple or fancy, but it’s your family you’re sharing it with that really counts!

For this reason, I chose a family dinner picture for this week’s Photo Challenge. It’s a picture of the last family dinner we had together. Not at home but across the world in Taiwan, where our daughter has been teaching with her boyfriend for the last two years. We visited them last summer, and as our trip coincided with my husband’s birthday, we went for a special seafood dinner to celebrate, on Quijin island, next to their home town of Kaohsiung, on the south-western coast of Taiwan.

In the picture you can see the three of them enjoying the fresh, local delicacies from the Taiwan Strait waters. And by fresh, I mean REALLY fresh! On the island, it is customary to have the restaurant at the back of the fish shop that’s outside on the pavement. You either buy the daily catch to take home, or you choose what you want to be cooked for you on the premises. In the pictures below, you can see us making our picks outside the restaurant, and some of the produce on offer. My hubby absolutely loved this – the stranger and and more unusual the food, the happier he is. A perfect birthday dinner with family!

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Shiny future

I’m on a joint leisure and conference trip to the UK for a week now. I took this picture during a guided walking tour in the East End of London, and I thought it fit this week’s Photo Challenge perfectly.

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Behind the old and dark Georgian buildings, the sparkling, bright glass walls of a brand-new City of London high-rise office building shine with the sun.

The present atmosphere in Europe is not as positive and forward-looking as one would hope. Unemployment and continuing austerity measures keep hitting the middle and lower classes hard. People despair and lose hope, which easily results in a negative cycle of complaining and looking for scapegoats. Consequently, the unfortunate refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Europe at the moment are often met with hostility and rejection.  Their tragic plight is forgotten and ignored when people are busy protecting what they feel is theirs, and theirs only. Globally, climate change poses ever-increasing threats on our earth. The future may seem gloomy, even frightening.

Despite all the doomsday clouds hanging over us, I still want to see light at the end of the tunnel. The world keeps changing and evolving – it’s never stood still. And we should be happy about that! I remember a lecture by a Finnish astronomer, Esko Valtaoja, in which he quite convincingly proved how life on earth today is better, more prosperous, and safer than ever before in human history. Yes, there are still disasters and catastrophes but, in the end, things keep improving all the time. Mr Valtaoja based his findings in cold facts, and also said that he unquiveringly believed in human potential. I can remember how listening to that lecture changed my approach to the future.

The old and the new sometimes co-exist side by side for some time, just like these buildings in London. A day will come, though, when it’s time for the old to disappear, and let the new and shiny take over. Learn the lessons from the past, and then welcome the future with open arms and mind.


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The mini hotel concept

Mini hotels, cubile hotels, bloc hotels – whatever they are called in different parts of the world. Not really new, I’m sure, but new for me.

I had read about the tiny, almost coffin-life, Japanese cubicle hotels before, but never stayed in one. It’s no wonder this concept comes from the populous Asian tourist destinations, with not too much space to build on. From my limited experience in Asia, I’ve noticed that people spend a lot of time outside their tiny homes. They eat out, they go to parks to do yoga or thai chi, and spend their evenings in the vast night markets. There is simply more public than private space in many Asian metropolises.

My first experience in such a hotel was in Hong Kong last summer. We stayed in Mini Hotel Central, in the Soho district on Hong Kong island. The “mini” meant that the room was only big enough to fit a double bed in, leaving just a tiny aisle on one side, to access the shower and toilet. Just the basics that you would need to sleep while travelling. You might think it feels almost claustrophobic, but interestingly not. As you can see in the picture below, the toilet/shower space has fairly big windows to give light and add to the space. All in all, quite a cute arrangement.

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Rather than the personal room space, what the Hong Kong hotel had invested in was the lounge and reception area downstairs. There was a quirky, yet curiously pleasing collection of different furniture to sit on, and computers for customers to use as well.

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Like many other visitors, we also ended up spending more time sitting down there than cramped in the little room upstairs. The hotel didn’t have any breakfast facilities but provided vending machines downstairs. This was understandable as the South East Asian way of living is eating out, so there is a never-ending choice of various restaurants and coffee and tea shops, one more delicious than the other.

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Would recommend this hotel to anybody who wants just a place to lay their head for the night, and good value for money.


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Arctic landscape

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Choosing my landscape for the Weekly Photo Challenge wasn’t a piece of cake for me. I’ve spent most of this afternoon going through my photos, unable to decide which landscape to pick. Too many beautiful places with memorable moments, plus the season at hand in Finland is still very dull and colourless, so going out with my camera wasn’t really worth it. Finally, Facebook came to my rescue, pushing their suggested memories onto my feed. I didn’t remember that it was exactly a year ago that I made a wonderful trip to the northernmost location I’ve ever been to so far. It was a women’s Easter excursion – three of us travelling from southern Finland all the way up to Tromsø in northern Norway, to visit an old university friend, who had moved there over 20 years ago, after marrying a Norwegian guy. What fun!

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For two whole days, our friend drove us around the quiet, narrow, meandering roads around the local fjords, surrounded by snowy fells and mountains. The scenery was nothing I could have imagined. Simply breathtaking! At times the trees dotted on the snowy hillsides made the landscape look like an unreal charcoal drawing. The weather was mostly cloudy, which resulted in a rather monotone colour scheme, but didn’t diminish the beauty one bit. The landscape I chose for this challenge was a rare moment of the sun coming through, and colouring some blue patches in the sky, which reflected dimly on the icy water of the fjord. Most of the time, the water, with a thin layer of ice still on top of it, looked almost like grey metal. Apart from the unbelievably impressive scenery, I was also amazed by the stillness of it all, hardly a sound to be heard anywhere. All in all, a very typically Scandinavian experience, wilderness and vast uninhabited stretches of land and water.

Driving along, our friend told us stories about their life up there in the north. Not being a fan of winter at all, I don’t think I would be up to that lifestyle. The Polar Night lasts from November to January, during which time the sun doesn’t rise at all. People live in constant twilight for three months!  To compensate for this long dark and cold period, people can then enjoy the midnight sun and nightless night from May to July. Quite extreme, and leads to a lot of cases of severe SAD (seasonal affective disorder). It’s the same all across the Arctic region called Lapland, which extends from Norway across Sweden and Finland all the way to northern Russia. Another hardship Tromsø area inhabitants have to deal with yearly, are winter storms with avalanches and landslides, often closing the only road home. People can get stuck for days unless special convoys behind a snow ploughing truck can be arranged. Sometimes detours are possible, but they can be very long, adding hours or even days to your journey. Our friend told us about one winter, when one of the roads totally collapsed in a storm, and the detour through Finland was 700 km! I’m in awe at the resilience and patience of people living in these parts!

I would recommend anyone to explore the Arctic regions. They are somehow magically mysterious. There is a cruise liner, Hurtigruten, which sails up and down the western coast of Norway. You basically stay in a cabin on the ship, and then have stop-overs in interesting places along the route. Exciting adventures, such as husky rides or admiring the aurora borealis, can be participated in, too. Tromsø is one of the stop-overs along this cruise, and a town well worth visiting. A cruise on Hurtigruten is definitely on my bucket list – I just need to decide whether to go on it in summer, or in winter. Oh, and another little problem – I need to save enough money as it’s quite pricy, understandably.

The Hurtigruten ship leaving Tromsø in the evening, to continue the cruise. This photo was taken as we were waiting for the sunset on the Fjellheiser Storsteinen mountain viewpoint above the city.

The Hurtigruten ship leaving Tromsø in the evening, to continue its journey. This photo was taken as we were waiting for the sunset on the Fjellheiser Storsteinen mountain viewpoint above the city.

Finally, to finish with, can’t resist posting yet another photo of Tromsø. This time from the other side of the fjord, actually from our friend’s balcony. Blue skies on one of the mornings, lighting the snow-covered mountains.

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‘On the road’ through culture shock

On Instagram, people post pictures on Thursdays with the hashtag #tbt, meaning ‘throw-back Thursday. As it’s Thursday today, instead of instagramming, I decided to post this close to 20-year-old memoir of my family’s unforgettable experience in the US here on my blog. I wrote this in 2002, having done the Fulbright teacher exchange in 1996-1997. All the sentiments and insights still ring very true today.

Back in those days, no knowledge of digital cameras, and as all our old-fashioned slide pictures are still waiting to be digitalised, after all these years – only one scanned print of us. Here we are, young and wild, at the White House for the annual kids’ Easter Egg Hunt. It was the Clinton era, and the President and the First Lady even came on the balcony to greet us.

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ONE FAMILY’S JOURNEY THROUGH AN AMERICAN FULBRIGHT EXCHANGE YEAR

Culture shock has been defined as ”the anxiety that results from losing all of our familiar signs and symbols of social intercourse” (Kalvero Oberg, “Cultural Shock: Adjustment to New Cultural Environment,” Practical Anthropology 7 (1960): 177.) As such, people setting off for any length of foreign sojourn are usually well counselled to deal with this challenge as easily as possible. As indeed, were my family and I.

We learnt all about the four basic stages: euphoria, hostility, gradual adjustment and finally – hopefully – adaptation. We thought we would have been well prepared and aware to avoid it, or at least be able to smoothly survive and get through any of the difficult stages…

Here are some brief thoughts on our year in America.

STAGE 1: EUPHORIA

August 1996 – excitedly off the plane, to set foot on American soil for the first time ever in our lives and into dazzling, sticky-hot Virginia sunshine. Amidst all the immediate ”oohs” and ”aahs” and ”gees”, we enthusiastically started our year of exploration of a vast new continent.

Daily we came across phenomena so new and exhilarating: the sound of, what we thought were noisy telephone lines, but were told bemusedly later were cicadas, the incredibly abundant choice and supply of food at restaurants, the enthusiastic service everywhere (“Have a nice day!”), all those cute American expressions, never-ending TV entertainment, the ultimate ‘shop till you drop’ experiences (I still remember the first time at the cash register: ”Paper or plastic?” and me frantically wondering whether it meant ”cash or credit card”!), the first time driving on the buzzing beltway around DC with the car radio blasting genuine country ‘n western…

And yet, at other times so strangely familiar – after all, we’d seen much of it in the movies or on TV. But it is true what we were told – everything in America is BIGGER, and even then, I’d say magnified by thousands! From such mundane things as the fridge and the garbage can to stretch limos, everything seemed giant (even our new local supermarket was aptly called “Giant”, can you believe it?). Once driving in from New Jersey, catching the first glimpse of that stunning Manhattan skyline – well, even the blue sky seemed huger.

Diary entry during the first couple of weeks: ”Even the ants here are humonguous!”

STAGE 2: HOSTILITY

Soon though, the little hitches began to appear in our consumer and tourist paradise.

For example, little did we guess that all our laboriously acquired medical certificates and child’s extra vaccinations meant diddly-squat in our new home country. Apparently, it was a pink form they needed (not the light blue one our Finnish doctor had provided). Another slight problem – you can’t enrol a child into school if her birth certificate doesn’t have a number and worse, doesn’t list her father’s name, let alone even the child’s!

Once that was all figured out, there was another line up around all different administrative offices in DC to straighten out a problem that, unknown to us, happened immediately we had arrived at the airport. The immigration official there had automatically assumed that the man would be the provider and the wife a mere dependant, and so, naturally, entered MY work permit in my husband’s passport. This now meant I didn’t have a social security number. As I later found out from my students, having this is the key to living the American life. Nothing can really start without it. I tell you, standing in line in an INS office in DC and eventually ending up at the ”deportation booth” is no fun!

Added to all this frustrating red tape, next the stress of actually starting a brand new style of work! My assignment in Falls Church Transitional ESL Center and my job in Finland were literally as different as day and night. Not only did I change from a regular day school into an evening program, for a teacher used to a national curriculum and set course books, it was a shock to end up being more like a freelance entertainer. Instead of having some time every day to team-plan with colleagues, I was literally locked into my classroom with my students for almost six full hours every night. Seeking help from my new colleagues in lost and lonely moments, I was told “just smile” and later hushed with ”we don’t talk shop during dinner breaks”.

Little by little, American peculiarities began to be less charming and started to irritate!

Even the cheerful greetings in shops – “How ya doin, you guys!” – soon sounded downright intrusive. ”Leave me alone, I don’t know you, please don’t say anything to me!!” Now why, oh why, wasn’t America more like good old silent and sensible Finland?! Even our little kindergartener daughter started to show symptoms. During the daily ’Pledge of Allegiance’ with the customary singing of ’God bless America’, she chose not to stand up with the reasoning “but it’s not my flag nor my country, teacher”.

Rock bottom came just two months in: the brakes in our borrowed car let us down one morning and resulted in a brush with law enforcement! What we saw as a really minor bump – just a common beltway fender bender – led to us naively using our European instinct to explain things to try and sort it out. WRONG!! Soon after we were advised: never admit anything, say nothing! We were just totally oblivious to the litigious US approach to any problem.

Already, it was all beginning to suck!

Diary entry: ”Love it, or leave it… Help, I want to go home!”

STAGE 3: GRADUAL ADJUSTMENT

If it wasn’t for our lifeline network of wonderful Fulbright friends we’d made at the orientation (Hilkka, Terttu, Ismo and Anikka – thanks a whole bunch to all of you!) and especially Anneli, our dedicated motherly confidante at the Helsinki end, plus our own stubborn perseverance, we might have easily packed our bags there and then.

But we had our mission to accomplish – to complete the Fulbright assignment and exchange philosophy bestowed on us.

Settling in at work and interacting with my multicultural immigrant students steadily became more of a daily delight and an inexhaustible learning experience for me. Through discussions inspired by poetry, song lyrics, folktales, and legends, I learned such touching details about their lives, feelings, hopes, and fears. In fact, I began to realise that really we were rather like allies and friends, together adjusting to our new environment and gaining invaluable insights into diversity and tolerance and each other’s fascinating cultures.

Further, juggling the roles of a teacher in a challenging new job, being the wife of a Mr. Mom (or as he preferred to call himself, ”Survival Organiser” – to impress Americans incredulous at a man staying at home!), plus a parent of a just turned 6-year-old ”exchange student”, gradually got easier. We began to meet real neat people, routines were established, and we learned the ways to make life run smoothly (coupons really stretch a budget!). Even our daughter’s regular ”OH MANNN!” exclamations, started to sound cute, and reassuring.

America was beginning to reveal to us its fun side.

Diary entry: “Trick or Treat, Thanksgiving turkey and Happy Holidays! Yeah, we’re getting a handle on this now!”

STAGE 4: ADAPTATION

America really is the ideal continent for travel and discovery.

The on the road culture of the States became so understandable. We decided the only way we could handle this was to “collect states”, and so we embarked on the road movie experience by travelling the 3,000 miles from Coast to Coast (and then back) plus a few more North and South. Well, we got to 40 states (out of 50! – that ain’t bad in a year!). Memorable experiences? Wow, countless.

Just a few of the amazing? Here goes… As well as all those famous places in New York … Grand Canyon (one day hike into, and still only got one third down!), desert to snow in one day (those Monuments and Arches up to the Rocky Mountains), San Francisco (Golden Gate Bridge – walked across 3 times), Graceland (plus Tupelo for the birthplace – ah huhhah), Las Vegas (no big bucks for us!), Route 66 (for the kicks!), Hollywood, Miami Beach, Disneyland, Niagara Falls, Kitty Hawk, Indian reservations, Amish folk, nearly everything in DC, like the White House (even the kiddies’ Easter egg hunt on the lawn!), and more…so much more…and all through it the ubiquitous motel stay (or even a tepee, one time).

To top that all we even got the year of a Presidential election. Wow indeed.

Diary entry: ”Been there, done that!”

REFLECTIONS

Only with hindsight did we realise that not only had we not avoided it, but surprise, surprise we had actually been a textbook example of going through all the stages of culture shock.

So, is there any lesson here? Well, perhaps that no matter how well you prepare yourself and are prepared by others for ‘culture shock’, in reality there’s no avoiding it. Everybody just HAS to go through it personally, in their own individual way – it’s like any initiation ritual in life, one way or another you have to work your way through them.

I don’t think you can fully adapt to a new culture in just one year. Despite all our daily triumphs we still remained legal aliens, although possibly well functioning ones. And anyway, for us, the purpose was different. Interaction and enriching our lives through mutual learning and experience were more important. I must admit we left America wistfully. Just as we felt we’d got the hang of Stateside living and culture…it was all too soon suddenly finished. We sure would have loved to stay on for another year.

And no sooner had we arrived back in Finland than it was time for ”re-entry shock”, and that in itself is a whole new ballgame……

It is now close to 5 years since we returned.

The spirit of Senator Fulbright’s original inspiration was: ”promoting understanding between people and their cultures”. In this respect, for us the whole time was totally successful and deeply affecting. After all, put a Finn to teach English to Asians and Hispanics in the US, and you can hardly get closer to that ideal!. Any problems or difficulties we ever encountered pale alongside our experiences and recollections, which are all still so vivid and truly treasured; not only the sights, but also the few lasting and dear friends we met.

But of course, the experience also significantly impacted our professional lives. It became a catalyst that ignited unexpected shifts in our mindsets. In particular, the characteristic and inspirational American ‘can-do’ attitude really got to us. Since then, I have stepped onto the lifelong road to study and learn about intercultural communication and have also become the coordinator of several international projects in my school. My husband also finally got around to setting up his own company on return (based very much on intercultural experiences, too). Even for our daughter, interest in other lifestyles has led to her now having her own sponsored little god-daughter in India.

To wrap then: as well as allowing us to realise the American experience of travelling on the road, the Fulbright exchange and opportunity also set us on the road to become more enlightened citizens of the world. Quite simply, we feel privileged to have been part of Senator Fulbright’s vision.

Diary entry: ”Was it worth it? You betcha – it undoubtedly was REAL COOL MAN!”