Sinikka's snippets

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


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I’d prefer some service, please!

Why is it that departures on major journeys almost invariably occur in the middle of the night? As thrilling as travelling to exciting places as, having the taxi drive at your door at 2.30am is less thrilling. Then, in my case, usually a a coach ride of 2.5 hours to Helsinki airport. To cut a long story short, arriving at the airport, after dosing off on a chilly coach, doesn’t make me a happy camper.

And then, you are forced to do the check-in yourself at a self-service automat! Everybody seems to have some problem with it, and the young assistants there just don’t have enough time to help all passengers quickly and efficiently, no matter how hard they try. Somebody has their boarding passes crumpled and stuck inside the machine, while others are struggling to get all the information of their final address typed in correctly.

The robot-like check-in assistants at Tromsø airport in Norway

The robot-like check-in assistants at Tromsø airport in Norway

Travelling to Hawaii recently, and wrestling with the wretched automat, I could feel my blood pressure rising, and my mood getting lousier by the minute. What finally broke this camel’s back was that there was no way to proceed if you didn’t know the zip code of your address in the US! I didn’t have the zip code! The unfairness of the situation and customer neglect was palpable, in my fuming mind at least. How could airlines do this – reduce staff, to make more profits to the owners and share-holders?

Finally, after trial and error, lots of sweat and frustration, and even being reprimanded by the assistant for using foul language in front of child passengers (!), I got our boarding passes printed. Phew, after all that you’d expect the baggage drop to go nice and smooth. Fat chance! There was a long, slow queue in front of us, and it turned out we had to still see a flight attendant at the check-in desk, to get our bags tagged and ready to go. In the end, it took more or less as long for the attendant to do this, as it would have done to print the boarding passes at the same time. And doing that, how much happier would customers be with the check-in experience, and the general performance of the airline!

Self-service seems to be the norm at Scandinavian airports now. I wonder how foreign tourists to Finland, for example, feel about this inhospitable lack of service at Helsinki airport. I would imagine, it doesn’t promote a very positive country image, does it? What a pity, it’s only money that seems to rule in this part of the world these days. Or maybe I’m just getting more miserable with age, and the younger generation of self-contained globe trotters find nothing strange about this.

How pleasantly different our flying experience was coming back from Asia at the beginning of this summer. I and hubby flew back from Hong Kong, again early in the morning. No shortage of staff anywhere! In fact, I particularly noticed people proudly wearing vests with ‘trolley assistant’ printed on the back. (Needless to say that at Helsinki airport you are lucky to find a trolley anywhere, and usually have to walk quite a while to spot one.)

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What’s more, instead of the cold, uncompromising machines, we had real people with friendly smiles doing the check-in for us. And to help us avoid queuing even for a while, we were swiftly directed to the priority check-in, even without any priority tickets. Finally, the real icing on the cake was that the efficient VIP assistant managed to secure my long-legged, tall hubby extra legroom for the long-haul flight to Europe. How awesome is that!

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The plight of Arctic minority peoples

During my Easter trip to northern Norway, I learned a lot about minority peoples here in the Nordic countries, especially the oppressed history of the Sami people. The Sami are an indigenous people, in fact the only one in the whole of Europe, living in Norway, the north of Sweden and Finland, and the Kola peninsula in Russia. There are about 100,000 of them, speaking several different varieties of the Sami languages. The overwhelming majority live in Norway. I must admit that I had quite a stereotypical, touristy picture of them. You know, people wearing their colourful traditional costumes, herding reindeer in the wilderness of Arctic Lapland, just like the pictures on this Norwegian tourism website. Only Santa Claus is missing to complete the picture!

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Yet, a visit to the Sami ethnographic exhibition at the Museum in Tromsø, and listening to the many stories and insights of our hosts, opened my eyes. After decades, and centuries of oppression, and shame about being different, a minority in a country, the Sami are gradually getting recognition and rights to their language. In the past, Sami children in Norway, for instance, used to be sent to monolingual Norwegian schools to learn that language, being mocked and discriminated against in the process. It didn’t help that most of them were also members of a very strict religious sect that forbade them a lot of the activities that other Norwegian children enjoyed. Luckily, things are gradually changing, and about time before yet another small minority language disappears from this earth. Sadly, some varieties of Sami have already become extinct.

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In Norway, it wasn’t until the 1990s that bilingual road signs (Sami and Norwegian) were introduced in the north. But as you can see from this one above, displayed at the museum, not everybody was happy about this development. During the night, Norwegian opposers went ahead and shot at the signs long enough to make the Sami name undecipherable! And this went on and on, as soon as the authorities replaced the destroyed signs. The hatred and narrow-mindedness of some people!

My limited idea of the Sami was shattered at the museum, seeing huge photos of all the different people with Sami roots. Of course, they are all their own individual selves even if there are still some of the traditional reindeer herders left, too. I was deeply touched by the stories of people who had totally buried their Sami ancestry to protect themselves and be accepted in Norwegian society, only to find out later in life, sometimes through serendipitous coincidences that they were actually Sami.

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I must say I felt even worse when I learned about the Kven minority in Norway. I hadn’t even known about them! And they are my compatriots, descendants of Finns who moved to Norway back in the 19th century. Their fate has been very similar to that of the Sami, or even slightly more difficult as they didn’t have the special indigenous status. Many of them totally denied their Finnishness, and did their utmost to become Norwegian and not stand out from the crowd. These days, though, they are becoming more active, having their own little societies and meetings, and claiming their rights together with other minority groups. It is a triumph in the north that you can now see even trilingual road signs – Norwegian, Sami and Finnish!

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How has the status of these minorities improved then? In Norway, the Sami have their own Parliament and are recognised as a minority group with their own language. Here in Finland, Sami children finally have the right to education in their mother tongue. Since 1986, the Sami even have their own flag, which I saw proudly flying on the poles together with the Norwegian national flag in Tromsø. Still, there is a lot to be done, not least about the attitudes of the majority.

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How many tragedies and sad fates have these people suffered over the years! And similar injustice is still rampant all round the world. ‘Different’ equals ‘worse’ and ‘a threat’ – let’s suppress it. When in our country, be like us, behave like us, become one of us, at any cost! It’s frightening, in the wake of yet another general election here in Finland, how the extremist anti-immigration parties and ideas gain ground. Will humankind ever learn from history?

During this highly enlightening trip, I was also introduced to Mari Boine, a Sami singer and musician, who has been promoting the Sami rights, culture and language through her music ever since the 60s. Here is a song by her, where the rugged and challenging arctic circumstances and the Sami issue are ever present. The music is magical and haunting. The northern dimension, with all these ethnic tensions, will certainly be haunting me for a long time.

The lips of the silenced people burst out in speech
The stream of words once again were flowing
Over the frozen riverbanks when we finally came together
My dearest son of the wind

(Taken from Lyricstranslate)


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Romantic mini-break in the south

For couples of any age, a romantic weekend getaway every now and then is a must, in order to relax and have some carefree time together. Working weeks are busy, with often so many chores and duties to attend to that by the evening, you just crash into bed, exhausted. Conversation gets reduced to quick ‘how are you’s’ and a few rushed daily anecdotes or fixing schedules and car sharing. You know, how it is – running your daily life is almost like an extreme sport, as one Finnish columnist wrote the other day.

Somebody (Mr Google or Facebook?) must have guessed my thoughts, and sent the offer of a weekend mini-break for two to my news feed. I literally jumped at the chance! Even better that hubby had never been to Hanko, the southernmost town of Finland.

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The deal included one night at a hotel, breakfast included, and a bottle of bubbly waiting in the room, plus a 3-course meal at a seaside fish restaurant. Continuing the evening at a local pub with live music was also recommended.

And so, off we jolly well went last Saturday morning, full of anticipation. It was only a 1.5-hour drive, along quiet country roads. To boost our enthusiasm, even the sun was out, although the lovely early spring weather of earlier in the week had changed back to chilly wintry winds.

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THE TOWN

Hanko is a small seaside town with just under 10,000 inhabitants, about half of whom speak Finnish and the other half Swedish, making the town truly bilingual. It’s a summer town, really, so even at the weekend in late March, the streets were quiet, and the atmosphere idyllically sleepy. The town is best known for its history as a swinging spa resort in the late 19th – early 20th century. The many picturesque wooden villas in all their pastel colours and lacy decorations date from around the same period, and give an oldey-worldey, nicely nostalgic, feel to the place even today. It’s easy to imagine summer visitors – among them prominent political figures, wealthy Russians, the Finnish elite, and artists – flocking these streets in the past. We were sorry to see some of the magnificent villas deserted, at different stages of decay. Hope somebody will be able to afford to restore them soon!

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First and foremost, it’s the sea and, for Finland quite rare, sandy beaches that give the town its character. Being the southernmost tip of the country has made Hanko a strategic military area all through the history of our country. Interestingly, it was also from Hanko port that some quarter of a million aspiring Finns left, on steam ships, for a better life in America, Canada or Australia at the turn of the 20th century. During our stay, the beaches were still deserted, the water cold and the rocks covered in wintertime green moss. Nevertheless, the gorgeous glitter on the blue sea in the spring sunshine made me giddy with dreams of summer. Should perhaps come back then, to see all the sailing boats and yachts in the harbour and the open-air terraces of the cafés and restaurants.

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Worth mentioning is also the very professionally designed Hanko website, which provides a wealth of useful info also in English.

HOTEL BULEVARD

We were accommodated at Hotel Bulevard, only a few steps from the seafront. We only found out on the day of arrival that it is actually a converted old police station! Quite funny as we’d stayed in a converted prison hotel in Helsinki just last year.

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Some rooms were in the actual cells of the old station but ours was upstairs, possibly one that used be an office. A nice detail is that most of the rooms are named after famous Finnish designers, and the interiors get their inspiration from each artist’s work. Our spacious room was dedicated to designer Birger Kaipiainen, who had designed the wallpaper, with his signature style birds on it. In addition to the bedroom, our abode had a small separate ante-room plus a bathroom with a shower. Quite a retro feel in the whole place, and very quiet and peaceful all through the weekend.

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The buffet breakfast was typically Scandinavian, quite alright. However, it was the bowler hat light fitments in the breakfast room, aptly named ‘The Commissar’, that especially took my interest.

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A big plus was the friendly and personal service, in particular for the chance of having a “private” sauna heated for us in the afternoon. It really was a lovely addition to a romantic couple’s weekend, in particular as we were quite frozen after walking around exploring the town in the icy sea wind.

Can fully recommend this hotel. It’s interesting, clean, good value, centrally located – and they even rent bikes in summer, which would be ideal for getting around in such a small town.

PUB GRÖNAN

Not far from our hotel, in the same street, we spotted the evening venue, Pub Grönan, during our afternoon walk. Couldn’t resist checking it out straight away. Quite special, Anglo-American ambience welcomed us inside. Must say, the black leather sofa in front of the music stage looked especially inviting! Later found out on their website that the inspiration for the pub had struck two Finnish guys during their road trip in the US, crossing the Rattlesnake River somewhere in Arizona. No wonder then! There would have been a Swedish troubadour performing that night but the fresh sea air must have taken the better of us, and we had to forego the night out in the pub.

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RESTAURANT ‘PÅ KROKEN’

In the evening, it was time for dinner in the restaurant ‘På Kroken’, which is Swedish and means ‘on the hook’. It is a cosy little fish and seafood restaurant right by the sea, on the other side of the railway tracks, in Hanko village. Our hotel landlord kindly offered us a lift there, and we arrived just in time to enjoy the pinkish hues of the sunset in the horizon.

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Most of the fish served is local, and smoked on the premises. The abundant archipelago buffet is served in a boat in the middle of the room, and consists of one delicacy after another. Hubby’s absolute favourite was the pastrami spiced smoked salmon.

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I opted for ‘blinis’ as a starter. They are Russian-style yeasted pancakes made of buckwheat flour. At ‘På Kroken’ they were served with a variety of fish roes, chopped onion, sour cream, mushroom salad, and gherkins. Unbelievably scrumptious!

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Super service all through the evening, delicious food, great atmosphere, good selection of wines and beers and interesting, rustic decor! We enjoyed all the dishes so much that could hardly manage dessert at all.  Their menu is definitely worth checking out! Apart from the restaurant, there is also a fish shop, and a café that serves, for example, their popular salmon soup with the special, dark, malty archipelago bread. Hmm, a revisit in summer is getting even more tempting!

GREAT STAY

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How about the romance then? In the words of very wise Bridget Jones: “a mini-break means true love”. A weekend away is really worth it! It even got us, after being married 25 years, bold enough to walk barefoot on the empty, sandy beach, holding hands like teenagers. What a giggle, though, as otherwise we still had to wear winter gear! Was it the bubbly, or the sea wind and the spring sun? No matter, probably a combo of everything.  Yet, all in all, having pampered ourselves, and devoted some undivided attention and quality time to being together, we came home happy, rested and relaxed.

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Bussing Hawaii

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“You must be joking!” That’s what we constantly heard when I and hubby told friends that we were going to spend two weeks on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, and not rent a car. It was actually by accident that we ended up carless. You see, we didn’t realise that, here in Finland, it now takes at least a week to get an international driver’s licence (a requirement, we were told, for renting a car in Hawaii) and we only started inquiring 3 days before departure. Oh well, we thought, we don’t mind public transport, we’d be alright.

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And we were alright, regardless of our local friends’ doubts and reservations. They had been living on Oahu for 6 months, and never once ventured onto a bus. Yes, we knew what a must your own car normally is, anywhere in the States. After all, we had spent a whole year in Virginia back in the 90s. Yet, in hindsight, even there, in the Washington DC area, the metro trains ran frequently and reliably. But of course, when in the US, you do miss a lot, and life is a pain at times if you aren’t mobile with your own private car.

On the whole, I must say the Oahu buses exceeded our expectations. They were modern and clean, and took you practically all round the small island. Recorded announcements and led screens kept you informed about each approaching stop. NB. a bus stop is usually named after the two closest crossing streets (it took us a while to work this out!). And what an ingenious system they had for passengers to get their bicycles on as well!

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On the drawback side, sometimes (especially coming home late at night) the AC was too efficiently cold but that’s easily solved with layered clothing. Also, if you were unlucky to just miss a connection, often the next bus wouldn’t come until  one hour’s time. Needless to say, we spent quite a lot of time hanging around bus stops! But hey, when you’re on holiday, you are not stressed with time, and those waiting times were excellent opportunities for people and local life watching.

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For $2.50 a piece, a ticket gave you two transfers within a restricted time frame. For example, one day we travelled round the whole southern part of the island, from Kaneohe, through Honolulu to Hanauma Bay, and back round to the north through Kailua – and all this, for the two us only cost 10 bucks! Great value, I would say!

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Finding your way (even without a proper map!) was no problem! On some evenings, we checked the routes on Google maps and timetables on TheBus website in advance for the next day but, mostly, we just played it by ear. The bus drivers were extremely helpful, and willingly shouted out for us to get off when we’d reached our desired destination. One useful piece of information we learned after a couple of days was that on Oahu, people look at direction based on the trade winds blowing across the island. Thus ‘windward’ buses go north of Honolulu (i.e. the side of the island where the predominant wind blows from the sea) and ‘leeward’ buses go south (i.e. the predominant wind blows from the interior of the island to the sea). Quite a few times, people would talk to us about ‘windward and leeward buses’, without us having the faintest idea what this meant. Talking about friendly and helpful people, though, they are the best thing, all over America! I’d totally forgotten this since our American year, but how lovely to be, once again, surrounded by talkative and sociable people who don’t ignore strangers amidst them. We only needed to look a little bit lost or bewildered, and soon enough there’d be a friendly face asking if we needed any help. This happened so many times, on every single day of our stay, that it truly filled us with great gratitude and warmth. Sure, there were times when we, more reserved Europeans, would have appreciated our own peace and quiet after the initial small talk and not hear the whole life stories of our fellow passengers but, positively thinking, never a dull moment at a bus stop or on the bus in Hawaii! You’d always have somebody to talk to if you so wished!

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Oddly enough, perhaps, we didn’t miss having a rental car during our Hawaiian holiday. True, our friends, who hosted us, took us around in their car during the weekend but we did cover long distances on our own on the buses on weekdays. One more advantage for hubby was being able, for once, to sit back and take in and enjoy all the breathtaking scenery, instead of sweating away behind the wheel on busy roads. All in all, Hawaii on public transport is doable, affordable and even entertaining. Go for it, and travel greener!

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Time travel

It’s ages since I have travelled far to the west. This morning, we left Finland at 2.30 am and watched an orangey winter dawn just about to break when taking off from Helsinki for the first leg of today’s long journey.

Many hours later, the very same Sunday dawned on board a transatlantic plane somewhere over Greenland. Strange feeling. As if travelling back in time. At first faint, glittery – orangey again – streaks underneath. Then the bright light chasing away eerie clouds of mist -some hardly noticeable, thin whips, others slowly undulating blankets. The morning making the ghost of the night disappear. And then, suddenly I was blinded by the brightest sun in the horizon behind the wing of the plane. Good morning again, Sunday!

My daughter has climbed several high mountains in different parts of the world, camped on top to be ready to greet the first rays of the morning sun. I have loved seeing her wonderful photos of these special moment, but never actually experienced it myself. This morning I was lucky to have a vantage point high above the clouds, to stop and stare at the wonders of this magnificent universe that we inhabit.

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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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