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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Sightseeing in Helsinki/Tallinn

[From Beth] This morning in Helsinki was gorgeous. Mike and Colin headed out at about 5 am to scope out breakfast bars (dang, jet lag), and by the time the rest of us got moving, had found a nice buffet with all local, organic foods AND a gluten free toast for Jack and Saara.

We headed in the direction of the harbor and ran into the Senate Square and Helsinki Cathedral, which were awesome.

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Senate Square, from the steps of Helsinki Cathedral
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Helsinki Cathedral
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Getting to know you …

[From Beth] Before the kids hit their final wall for the evening, we managed to go out for a coffee with Henna, our-soon-to-be-third-exchange student, and her parents. Saara tells us the tradition in Finland is to eat dinner at 4:30 and have a coffee and small snack later. This was late enough (6:00 pm) to be a coffee date, which was great since none of us is up for dinner, but we knew Henna and her family were anxious about her trip, and that it would help to meet us.

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From the North Came a Tribe, Brave and Bold

[from Beth] Mike and I were brainstorming what to take on our trip to Finland for Saara’s niece and nephew when I suggested t-shirts from our alma matter. He hesitated, then wondered aloud whether our school mascot, Joe Vandal, would somehow be offensive in a country that was once regularly invaded by marauding norsemen.

So now I’m packing for the kids and stymied by the thought of the potential first impressions inspired by each item of clothing. For people who don’t like to advertise brands or cartoon characters on our shirts, we let our kids wear an amazing amount of potentially confusing or misleading information around on their chests every day, plus a fair amount of anime. Thankfully, we have a few college shirts, sans stains or potentially offensive references to mascots (Washington, Oregon, Texas included). But then there’s really weird statements our kids wear around:

“Play at your own risk: Game Over”
“I do my own stunts”
“The Smell of Victory,” with a big, stinky shoe on it
“Mayhem,” this one with a skull and crossbones
“Plunder … pillage,” what is it with the skull and crossbones?

I see another trip to WalMart and a whole lotta Haines in our near future.