An American guide to European road signs

Midlife Sentence | Storebælt Bridge

Mike wasn’t super excited about renting a car for part of our trip to Denmark, and for a quick jaunt into Germany, but there were places we wanted to go where buying train tickets for the whole family was going to be super expensive, or our destination was out of the way enough, the train wouldn’t quite get us where we wanted to be.

By this point in our journey to visit the place our son had been living for a year and attend the wedding of a former exchange student, we’d experienced no real problems. None. No missed connections or lost luggage or screw ups with our Airbnb hosts.

Which made it the PERFECT time to put all marital and familial relationships to the test by having one us navigate while another drove (possibly illegally, we never really looked that up), and the rest rode in nervous silence in the back.

Or if not total silence, at least everyone tried to keep their startled screams and audible gasps to a minimum.

Saara gave Mike a quick and helpful tutorial about driving in her part of the world. It was basically pretty much the same as driving in the United States, she said, except with regard to stop signs.

“We actually stop at them,” she said. Which made us wonder what she thought we were actually doing at stop signs in our home country.

NOT stopping. Apparently.

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Deciphering Finnish Wedding Traditions

Midlife Sentence | A Finnish Wedding

Two summers ago, Saara, who’d been our first exchange student nine years ago, visited with her beau, Joona. We did all the usual Idaho stuff to see if we could scare him off. We camped, set off fireworks in the street, made him drink cheap beer at a baseball game in a zillion-degree heat, and asked him all kinds of intrusive (to Finns) questions like “how was your flight?” and “did you sleep well?”

Anyway, we and the other members of Saara’s Boise circle failed to scare him off that week and – long story short – he proposed before breakfast on their last day in town, and then we all hugged (more intrusion), and sat down to pancakes.

Midlife Sentence | A Finnish Wedding

Later that same year, Saara sent me a locket with a small slip of paper inside asking if I would be a bridesmaid. Saara’s the kind of person who puts a lot of thought into things like that. The fact that she knows I am more of the kind of person who recruits bridesmaids over beer and still thought I would be suitable for the job tells you a little about the bond we have.

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Pori, Huikee and the Sea

Midlife Sentence | Pori

It’s obvious how much thought Joona and Saara and others have put into planning our stay in Finland. On our first full day, Saara had to work for part of the day, so Joona took us on a short walking trip around Pori and to visit a natural history exhibit in the town museum. That evening Joona’s parents, Matti and Pirkko, fixed another meal for us in their home in town.

Pori is a town of about 85,000, with a university, and lumber and manufacturing as major industries. Established in the 1550s, it has burned down and been rebuilt nine times until someone got the great idea to install wide esplanades as firebreaks.

Midlife Sentence | Pori
Photo by Mike Markley

Next week, it will host its annual Pori Jazz Festival, and organizers were setting up tents and platforms in the streets while we were exploring in the drizzly weather. I don’t know a lot of the artists on the bill, but Chaka Kahn and Grace Jones were two I recognized.

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Sauna Time in Finland

Midlife Sentence | Finnish Lake, Sauna Time

In Finnish there are, apparently, a number of different words for “mosquito,” and one that in certain dialects, also means “cow.” I don’t know what that says about Finns, the complexity of their language, the mosquitos around here, or cows for that matter. I haven’t seen any cows, but the mosquitos are prolific.

For the most part, they’re also thankfully disinterested in our party. I think if one of those words is for “polite mosquito,” that’s the kind we appear to be dealing with this week.

We arrived in Pori yesterday via Onnibus, a low cost transit service that features double decker buses, with free wifi and chargers. For about 30 Euros per round-trip ticket, plus a small charge for seat reservations, I was able to secure the front row on the top deck for our party. It’s about the most fun and lowest cost way to travel the three and a half hours from Helsinki to Pori I could imagine. The scenery was fantastic, and the chance to sit and watch the landscape go by gave us a nice respite from the crowds and cobblestones of Helsinki (although that is one of our favorite cities).

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A sunny day in Suomenlinna

Midlife Sentence | Suomenlinna

I have to say, I thought our kids would remember more about Helsinki from our last trip here than they actually do (which just goes to show, if you’re trying to make family memories with young-ish kids, or even with pre-teens, you should formulate your plans around what the adults want to do and just tell the kids later what a great time everyone had, but I digress). The last time we were in Helsinki, the boys were twelve and eight years old, and I’m thinking they were more focused on not losing track of their luggage than they were on taking in the scenery.

… Maybe it’s because we kept saying: “if you forget anything, we’re not coming back for it,” which was not the exact truth, but at twelve and eight years old, one rather freaks out about losing one’s Gameboy, or being abandoned on a train platform. I don’t know why either kid would think we’d abandon him, but I am impressed with how each of them tends to keep up on our trips.

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Days 3 and 4: Everybody’s getting married in Helsinki

Midlife Sentence | Uspenski Cathedral, Helsinki

The days are starting to run together at this point, so that’s the perspective you’re going to get from this blog now, dear reader. If anything you’ve read heretofore made any sense whatsoever in the first place, that’s probably outside the norm, anyway.

Regarding our last day in Copenhagen, remember that thing where I said ‘Mike kept testing the gods, saying things like “I thought it always rained here? You guys are just pulling my leg.”?’

You knew that meant rain in our future, right?

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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.

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.


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: 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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