Family Travel Tips: Expect Sleep Disruptions, Remember the Ranch

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This weekend we head out on our road trip to Yellowstone, so an original blog entry for today would put me over the edge. Instead enjoy this piece of nostalgia, a version of which recently appeared on Motherhood: May Cause Drowsiness.

“Over here you can see an example of Soviet era architecture.”

Saara was craned to face us from the front, translating for her uncle, who narrated in Finnish while pointed at long rows of abandoned-looking cement apartment buildings. The car wove back and forth and occasionally into the lane of oncoming traffic.

Saara, who had been interpreting for the better part of an hour, looking back at us, surprisingly wasn’t turning green, as I would have been.

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Visiting Skull Island

[From Beth] Today, Juhani and Helena introduced us to their friends Tarja and Kaarlo, who brought us to their island off the coast of Vaasa. The Island is shaped like a skull, and called Nalkasaari (Starvation Island) after a local legend of a group of women who were left there to die. The creepy factor ends there. The island is covered with lingonberries and blueberries and frequented by moose who swim out occasionally to share in the bounty. Although it’s rare for one family to own an entire island, many Finns have a home on one of the islands in the brackish waters off the coast, some islands are quite crowded.

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The original cabin on Nalkasaari

We had the opportunity to meet Tarja and Kaarlo’s daughters Eva and Elina, and Elina’s husband Daniel, and darling boys Liinus and Luukas as well. After coffee, they invited us to tour the island with it’s 110 year-old original cabin. Then we enjoyed their wood-fired sauna, with the traditional birch-branch-beating, a quick jump in the bay (brrrr) and several repeats of the same.

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Art Shows and Archipelagos

[From Beth] Vaasa is known as an arts community, and this week hosted its Evening of the Arts, which seemed a little like Boise’s defunct Curb Cup except all the bands were spread out enough so one could listen to them individually. Of course they were also singing in Finnish. The crowds were lively and we met several of Saara’s friends and a rather inexplicable Brazilian Samba procession.

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Yesterday we packed a picnic and drove to the coast to visit the Kvarken Archipelago, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site – one of six we’ve seen on this trip (nine hundred and some to go: whc.unesco.org). We stopped at the base of Finland’s longest bridge for our picnic.

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Eating our way through Finland

[From Beth] On Tuesday, we toured around Oulu on foot and stopped at a Finnish buffet for lunch. While we’re in the company of both Colin and Saara, the next meal is never far from our thoughts. Fortunately, the Finns enjoy no fewer than five meals a day, lunch is typically the biggest. On this day we stopped at a Finnish buffet for salmon chowder, reindeer meatballs and mashed potatoes, a typical mid-day meal for Lapplanders (although Oulu is central Finland).

20110810-082935.jpgHere we took our leave of Juhani’s sister-in-law Serpa, who is darling. We traveled south from Oulu to Pulkilla to visit Juhani’s sister Airi and her husband Aaro at their summer cabin about 10 km outside of town. Aaro keeps bees on the property and showed us his honey making operation. Many Finnish families have cabins in the country. Airi and Aaro’s is a one room building with a loft. They have a wood-fire sauna off one side of the building and a bunkhouse where Saara and her cousin have spent many summers.

Airi served an afternoon coffee (usually thought of as dinner #1) of sweetbreads, blueberries and cream. Berries of some kind are a part of most meals here. While walking through the park in Oulu, we stopped to pick raspberries. At Aaro’s cabin, we were shown their strawberry beds. Some sort of fresh berry or berry compote is available at every meal.

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Zombies and Reindeer

[From Beth] Sunday didn’t start out as well as we’d hoped. Colin’s stomach woke him up after nearly 12 hours of much needed sleep. Poor kid had had fewer than 18 meals in the last 24 hours and needed sustenance NOW, which meant that we cave in on our normal standards and eat at McDonalds. Good news: McDonalds in Finland serves organic, hormone-free milk and has a gluten free menu, so mom was somewhat appeased.

We loaded up on healthy snacks from the grocery store, stowed our luggage in a locker and took a ferry to the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress off the coast of Helsinki. The ferry ride gave us the opportunity for a spectacular view of the Helsinki Harbor and downtown, and the weather was beautiful.

20110808-021935.jpgSuomenlinna was built during the era of Swedish rule of Finland, and most of it’s buildings date toward the mid to end 18th century. From the early 19th century to the early 20th century, it was a garrison town under Russian rule (as was the rest of Finland). Today there are still 800 residents and a naval academy stationed on the islands, as well as a number of gift shops, museums, restaurants and places to take pictures.

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Estonia, new and old

[From Beth] Today we had an early start, with a flight from Bremen, Germany, to Tallinn, Estonia, and a ferry ride back into Helsinki. We had hoped to stow the luggage for a few hours and walk around Old Town again, but the process of getting a shuttle from the airport to the harbor took so long that all we had time for was lunch.

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(This image is really blurry, but I like how it includes the most recent, post Soviet era sky scrapers, with the older buildings in the foreground that have been refurbished to showcase the town’s history).

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On the move, mit bier ….

[From Beth] Serious travel day today, which when you’re on a train, is so much more comfortable for all involved than cramped in a little car, hopped up on Dramamine and Dr. Pepper.

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First, we had a few hours this morning to tool around Amsterdam more. We looked at the line for the Anne Frank House and thought we had better things to do with our time, like visiting a few souvenir shops and ogling all the suggestive signs for tomorrow’s Gay Pride Festival through Amsterdam Central (seriously sorry to be missing out on that).

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Ambling through Amsterdam

[From Beth and Mike] Today we were able to rally early for our three-hour train ride into Amsterdam. Upon arriving, we bought the kids pre-lunch snacks (see how we’re learning?) and then were able to tackle the how-to-find-street-signs and whether-to-take-the-tram-bus-metro-or-canal-bus questions without breaking into fist-a-cuffs before an official lunch.

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We had lunch kitty-corner from Westerkerk, listening to the same bells Anne Frank could hear from her room, and people-watched for a little while, then boarded a canal bus for a slow circuit around Central Amsterdam.

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Out of dozens of museums, we were able to make it through exactly one floor of the Van Gogh museum before Colin declared it officially stupid. Mike tried to invent a dozen new games about finding random objects such as windmills (a few), flowers (a bunch) or skulls (at least two that we know of, but only one in this whole collection), before we all got tired of “Speed Museum” and decided to leave. We honestly forget the poor kid is eight years old and we have a habit of seeking out and dragging both boys through some of the least kid friendly stuff in the world. For the most part they’re pretty good sports.

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Bruxelles, beef and beerskis

[From Beth & Mike] This morning we elected to take a later train to Belgium than expected since all of us appeared to need the extra sleep. When we arrived, we had the benefit of Saara and Mike’s exceptional navigational skills to get us from the train, through the subway, to our hotel without mishap (it took about four hours before I could find a single street sign). We planned better today, with snacks on the train, so a late lunch wasn’t a problem, and we could make it to one of Brussels’ signature sights Grote Markt (“The Grand Place”) before we had to eat without a complete meltdown – but not much before. We have yet to calmly navigate a foreign menu without completely freaking out about whether a mixed salad might include ranch dressing, or not.

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Where they packed all the cathedrals into one place ….

[From Beth] So after a two hour flight from Tallin, Estonia, to Bremen, Germany, followed by a tram ride from the airport to the train station and a two hour train ride through the picturesque countryside, we arrived in Cologne (Koln), Germany. Mike stepped out into the sunlight and said something smart like “I wonder where they put that big cathedral that’s supposed to be here?”

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