A Traveling Bibliophile

I would consider myself something of a ‘bibliophile’—someone who loves books. My personal library takes up many bookshelves (and boxes) and I can’t say for certain these days how many of the books of that collection have yet to be read. I try never to travel without a book. Back in the days before e-readers, this meant I would normally carry 1-5 books with me on any vacation, certain that I would finish them. Sometimes I’d have to buy more books while on a trip since I would inevitably run out of things to read!

Peter Dutton on Flickr

Back when I was studying abroad in France, I didn’t even bring a book. (Or if I did, I cannot remember it!) My “reading for fun” in France consisted of reading Harry Potter books in French that one of my friends loaned me with my dictionary and notebook handy so that I could translate unknown words and phrases. As it turns out, this is far trickier when the book involves made-up words to begin with. While I love Harry Potter and it was a great way to practice reading French, it made reading seem like homework. I craved English words.

 As I sought out books in English with a ferocity normally reserved for cake and ice cream, I found myself downloading PDFs to read on my computer. This made for an unpleasant reading experience due to the bright screen and constant scrolling. I sometimes would change the settings so that the screen would rotate and I’d hold my laptop on my lap as if it were a massive, brightly-lit book.

Needless to say, as I kept reading books in PDF form on my computer and searched for English books in the local bookstore, I decided that I should get a Kindle before I traveled next. The thought of having multiple books with me was appealing, especially if I could collect my favorites into a portable version of my real-life library.

When I came back to the States, a Kindle went on my wish list almost immediately. I didn’t get one until around the time I graduated from high school almost a year later, and promptly downloaded several books from Project Gutenberg. That summer found me traveling often– road trips, plane rides, and more road trips. Sean Kelly on Flickr

While I brought some books with me on one of those road trips (and when I say “I”, I mean my dad brought some books which I borrowed to read during the long car rides), they did not last long. Without my Kindle, I would be stuck re-reading the same book over and over, or buying a new book when we stopped somewhere. While that would be somewhat tolerable if we were driving everywhere, I had a few flights in between trips. I’m one of those travelers who attempts to avoid checking baggage, and not carrying around a bunch of books is necessary to this. I read too quickly to bring a single book, even if it is one of those books that is more like a brick than paper.

Later on that summer, my Kindle proved itself as a versatile travel accessory. At a state park in Maine on a rainy and chilly night, my family retreated to the tent just as I finished the second of three books in a series. I was desperate to read the next. The state park happened to have WiFi that I could access from the tent, though the presence of WiFi at a state park seems hilarious and rather pointless. Instant gratification and a few more hours of entertainment were the strangest and best things at the time. That book lasted me through the rest of the trip.

I love my Kindle all the time, but I especially love it when I travel. While I love the feel of real books, the smell, the texture of them… my Kindle makes reading easy and convenient. I love being able to download a book immediately, try out new authors (check out Pixel of Ink for deals!), and being able to download classics for free. I tend to stock up on books I want or love when they’re on sale, so I rarely pay more than $6 for a book.

I rarely read just one book at a time, so being able to switch between classics, random free books, and old favorites like the Harry Potter series with a few clicks makes reading more accessible. I never have to worry that I’ll run out of books. The battery lasts so long that I have rarely encountered the problem of the battery dying on me. I don’t have to make decisions about what books to take or leave for trips or worry that I’ll be stuck without a book, bored and craving words or entertainment. Best of all, I am never far away home– these familiar stories have been with me for so long that reading them again, even on a screen, is a homecoming.

How do you feel about e-readers? Do you have a favorite book to read while traveling?

Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global. 

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American Foods Revisited

Four years ago I wrote a blog post about the American foods I missed while in France. I’m back in France now, and I thought it would be fun to re-visit that post and see if the foods I miss now are the same as they were then! Especially since one of the most quintessentially American holidays (the 4th of July) is right around the corner, and as every American knows: holidays are an excuse to eat as much food as possible!
Click here to read the original post with my comments.

Ice cream will always be one of my favorite foods. Especially from the Hop in Asheville!

White Duck Taco Shop in Asheville has the best tacos.

  1. Macaroni and Cheese. I will always miss mac and cheese. I made some from scratch in Finland, but it wasn’t the same– Gouda and Gruyere might be fancier, but it’s not the same as good ol’ cheddar cheese.
  2. American-style breakfast. — Okay, so Finland was great about American-style breakfast, since I made my own scrambled eggs and bacon on a regular basis. I do miss biscuits and waffles though.
  3. PB&J. NOPE. I wish I had peanut butter for carrots or apples, but I don’t miss peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
  4. COOKIES! Brownies, cake-with-legit-frosting. I don’t really miss this, either. Butter cream cakes, maybe, but I did a fair amount of baking in Finland, and there were plenty of brownie-like cakes.
  5. Phish Food flavor of Ben & Jerry’s. This is still my favorite flavor of Ben & Jerry’s, but I just want ice cream in general. These days I really miss The Hop in Asheville – they have the best ice cream!
  6. Mexican food. I will always want Mexican food. Just like mac and cheese, it’s one of the greatest things about living in the USA, even if it isn’t technically American.
  7. PASTA with non-meat-sauce or pasta with not-ketchup-and-Gruyere. I have not had to eat bad pasta, so I’m good on the pasta front.
  8. Barbeque. Like the kind with pulled pork sandwiches. Oh yes, I still miss this.
  9. Pop-tarts. No, and I am embarrassed that this was even on the list. Pop-tarts are sad food. I saw some in Finland and considered buying them just for the novelty of it, but… nope.
  10. Hershey’s Chocolate. NO. I had lots of delicious chocolate in Finland, and there’s plenty of chocolate around so that I don’t feel like I’m lacking everyday chocolate. My everyday chocolate is of higher quality.
Basically, I only miss 5 of the American foods I missed in 2010.

A mac & cheese and bacon pizza is as ridiculously American as it gets.

So what do I miss besides mac&cheese, American-style breakfast, ice cream, Mexican food, and barbecue?
  1. Americanized Chinese takeout. Oh yes. So unhealthy, so good.
  2. Pizza with fluffy crust. I don’t mean Chicago-style deep dish pizza, but normal, fluffy crust pizza. The kind with air bubbles in the crust. The thin crust is great and delicious, but lacking in variety and the crust bubbles are my favorite.
  3. My favorite teas. Technically not a food, but I’m still going to count it. I am almost out of my stash of tea bags from the USA! Nothing is quite like my favorite Constant Comment.
  4. Mashed potatoes with gravy. 
  5. Cinnamon rolls & donuts. Cinnamon rolls without cardamom and with real icing, instead of sugar are heavenly. The Finns have korvapuusti (like a cinnamon roll, made with pulla dough and sprinkled with sugar crystals) and munkki (fried pulla dough– can be in a donut shape or filled with jam, covered in sugar) which are delicious, but not quite the same as sticky cinnamon rolls and donuts.

Scott Ableman on FlickrThe foods I miss seem to be late-night foods: greasy, horrible-for-you piles of fries and cheese and bacon. Breakfast at all hours of the day, in any combination. Everything sweet, greasy, and (typically) unhealthy… mmm.

Soon enough, I’ll be back in the USA, enjoying all of these horrible and delicious foods. Though in the meantime, there is plenty of delicious French food to eat! (And American-style pancakes on the weekends!)

Cooking and Baking Abroad

I love cooking and baking, but as an American student studying/living abroad, I have found accomplishing these things to be a challenge. 

The problem with cooking (and baking) abroad comes in two parts: ingredients and conversion. Finding the right ingredients (and sometimes, figuring out what they are called in a different language or what the equivalent ingredient would be) usually requires research, and converting US measurements into metric is not always easy.

Recipes do not always translate well– especially if you do not have access to as many cooking utensils as you would at home! I found it useful to look up recipes on British websites like allrecipes.co.uk, where they are already posted in metric. Some ingredients are different, but for the most part it’s easier to go that route than converting an American recipe.

In 2010, during my study abroad in France, I didn’t have many opportunities to cook or bake for myself. I lived with a host family, so most of the time I was not in charge of cooking anything. On a few occasions, I was able to have baking experiments: chocolate chip cookies, and another time while on a trip, macarons.

Failed chocolate chip cookies

Round 2 of the failed cookies were slightly better

Neither of these experiments were successful. Converting what I see as the “classic” American cookie (the Toll House Chocolate Chip cookie) recipe into French took more work than I thought, and finding the ingredients was tough. When my friends and I finally got around to baking them, the ingredients weren’t quite right and we ended up with a thin block of crisp chocolate chip cookie that bore little resemblance to my beloved gooey and soft chocolate chip cookies. The second half were slightly better, but still not as good as they should have been.

The macarons were a disaster. My friend Any and I didn’t have all the ingredients, so we substituted ground almonds for almond flour and tried to assemble delicate macarons from this lumpy concoction. We ended up with cookies that were more like balls than smooth macarons. We called them “macaboules”, and they were truly horrific. (To be fair, macarons are not the easiest to make, and I haven’t tried making them again since then!)

In Finland, I lived in an apartment with two other exchange students. This means that most of the time, I was cooking my own meals. The cooking was fine– though I will admit that I ate lots of very strange combinations of food, not all of which are worth recreating. Baking happened somewhat accidentally. I always tried to buy fruit, and one week I waited too long to eat bananas so I ended up with overly ripe bananas that were more or less inedible as they were. I didn’t want to waste them, but all I could think of to do with them was to make banana bread. So that’s what I ended up doing.

My friend Charlotte and I during the cookie experiment of 2010.

My French baking experiment friends: Charlotte and Camille!

My friend Mareike and I made cookies together one during one of the last few weeks in Finland.

I ended up baking a lot in Finland. I had a strange schedule and more time on my hands than normal. Almost every week I would make scones, banana bread, or chocolate chip cookies. Often I ended up sharing these treats with my friends, many of whom had never had them before. Banana bread and American-style chocolate chip cookies were particularly special. And baked treats were great to bring on trips to cut down on food expenses while traveling!

For those of you that WANT to bake while abroad, here are the recipes I used. These are all very easy to make, though banana bread/banana cake usually seems to involve getting more bowls and utensils dirty and takes the most time overall.There is a lot of room for variation in these three recipes. The comments section of many recipes often includes suggestions from others on ways to improve the recipe; I highly recommend clicking through to the original recipes and reading some comments if you want ideas! I’ve included my own suggestions here.

Note on measuring: A kitchen scale is useful for getting precise measurements, but you can also find measuring cups similar to ones in the US. My flatmate had a measuring cup (well, more like a jug) that came in 100 gram measurements, with different lines for rice, flour, sugar, and water. This worked just fine for me, but if you don’t like estimating amounts, a kitchen scale or a select number of measuring cups/spoons might be worth the investment! Often, if you have teaspoons and tablespoons, you can use those to approximate the amount based on American measures (i.e. 8 tbsp = 1/2 c). This chart is helpful.

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The first banana bread.

Chocolate chip & walnut banana bread

Banana Bread/Cake (original recipe)

Makes 1 loaf of banana bread, about 12 servings.

  • 250g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • pinch salt
  • 115g butter
  • 115 g sugar*
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 2 – 3 over-ripe bananas, mashed

Directions:

Time: prep ~ 15 min, cook time ~ 1 hr

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 C. Lightly grease a 23x13cm loaf tin.
  2. In a large bowl, combine flour, baking soda and salt.
  3. In a separate bowl, cream together butter and brown sugar (chop the butter into small chunks to make this easier if you are creaming by hand with a fork). Stir in eggs and mashed bananas until well blended. Stir banana mixture into flour mixture until well combined. Pour mixture into prepared loaf tin.
  4. Bake in preheated oven for 60 to 65 minutes, until a knife inserted into center of the loaf comes out clean. About halfway through, if the banana bread is starting to get golden brown or is cooking too fast, you might want to cover it with aluminum foil and/or reduce the heat so that it does not burn. Reducing the heat will make it take a bit longer. Leave to cool in tin for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a wire cooling rack or a plate.

Notes: The original recipe calls for 115 g of dark brown sugar. Light brown sugar works just as well. I like to use a mix of 1/2 granulated sugar and 1/2 brown sugar. You can also make it with just granulated sugar. Brown sugar makes it more moist than white sugar and gives it a slightly different flavor.

Variations: Add a handful or two of chocolate chips/chopped dark chocolate, chopped nuts (especially walnuts or pecans), dried fruit (I’ve done this with cranberries, though raisins would be good too!). Chocolate + nuts is particularly good, and makes it a bit more filling. I also like to add some cinnamon and vanilla extract/sugar, and plain banana bread with “chai” spices like allspice, clove, cardamom, and nutmeg would also be delicious!

If you don’t have a loaf tin but have muffin tins, you can make this into muffins as well– according to a comment on the original recipe, a 12-muffin tin will make 2 batches using this recipe. Fill muffin cups up halfway and bake for 20 minutes at 150 C or until a knife, when inserted, comes out clean.

***

Chocolate chip cookie ingredients

Cookie dough!

Chocolate chip cookies

Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookies (original recipe – also translated into French!)

The full recipe makes 60 cookies. Making half (30 cookies) seems to be sufficient most of the time, unless you eat a lot of dough first 🙂

  • 150 g chocolate chips (dark or semi-sweet)
  • 160 g flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 100 g butter, softened
  • 90 g sugar
  • 90 g brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract*
  • 1 egg

Directions: 

Time: prep ~ 15 min, cook ~ 10 min

  1. Preheat oven to 190 C.
  2. Combine the dry ingredients through the salt. Cream the butter and sugar and vanilla. Add egg and beat well.
  3. Gradually beat in flour mixture. Stir in chocolate. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls onto greased baking sheets or baking sheets lined with parchment paper.
  4. Bake for 8 – 11 minutes or until golden brown. Cool two minutes, move to wire racks (or plate) to cool completely.

Store cookies in airtight container. Putting a slice of bread in with the cookies will keep them from going stale as quickly (and help soften them up if they’re hard!), though it will get you weird looks and questions. 🙂 If you have a freezer, you could freeze them as dough balls for quick baking later.

Notes: You don’t have to be very precise with this. 100 g of both sugars will work, as will using 150 g of flour. It gives a slightly different texture, but it tastes like it should! If you don’t have access to chocolate chips, chopping up dark chocolate will work as well. The original recipe calls for vanilla extract, but you could use vanilla sugar. This blog explains how to use the full vanilla bean.

Variations: Some people make Toll House Cookies with chopped nuts. Using this recipe, 1/2 cup (about 50 g) of chopped nuts would be ideal. Try white chocolate instead of dark chocolate. This even works as a sugar cookie– just omit chocolate entirely. Add cinnamon to the chocolate-less dough and sprinkle sugar/cinnamon on top if you want a snickerdoodle-like cookie. You could substitute some oatmeal for some of the flour if you wanted oatmeal cookies.

***

Blueberry-lemon scones.

Blueberry Scones (original recipe for Lemon-Blueberry scones – uses American measurements)

  • 300 g flour
  • 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoon baking powder
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 5 tablespoons (70 g) butter
  • 3 tablespoons milk
  • 2 lg eggs
  • 125 g powdered sugar*
  • 50 – 100 g blueberries (fresh or frozen)*

Directions:

Time: prep ~15 minutes, cook ~15 minutes

  1. Preheat the oven to 230 C. In a large bowl combine the flour, salt, sugar, and baking powder. Mix them well to make sure there are no clumps and everything is combined evenly.
  2. In a smaller bowl, combine the milk and eggs. Whisk well.
  3. Cut the butter into chunks and put it into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Using your hands, “smoosh” the butter into the flour over and over until there are no more clumps and it is completely combined with the flour. It should look like coarse sand.
  4. Stir the blueberries into the wet ingredients then pour all of that into the bowl of dry ingredients. Stir it all together until everything has combined (thorough mixing is not necessary). The dough will be very wet and sticky, don’t worry.
  5. Liberally flour your countertop (and your hands!) to keep the wet dough from sticking. Dump the ball of wet dough onto the floured surface and pat it down into a circle about 8 inches wide and one inch thick. (Alternatively, dump it right onto your baking sheet, covered in parchment paper/foil and pat it down.)
  6. You can cut the circle into 8 wedges and space them out or bake them in a circle and cut them later — this method keeps the inside slightly more moist, in my opinion. Place the scones on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper or foil (for easy clean up).  Bake for 12-15 minutes.
  7. If you’re using icing, make it while the scones are baking. Place one cup of powdered sugar in a small bowl and add milk by the tablespoon into it. You want the icing thick but still loose enough to drizzle over the scones.
  8. When the scones are golden brown on top, remove them from the oven and let cool. If you’re using icing, make sure they’re cool before you ice them 🙂

Notes: The powdered/confectioner’s sugar is for making icing. If you don’t have it, you can just sprinkle about a tablespoon of granulated sugar or coarse sugar over the top of your scones before baking (use a milk or egg wash first if you want, but it shouldn’t be necessary). For the blueberries, the recipe calls for half a cup — you can eyeball that, or add a couple handfuls of blueberries. Whatever you want, really!

Variations: Almost any fruit will work! I’m partial to blueberry and raspberry scones, but apricot, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, and cranberries all make delicious scones! Different dried fruit would also work. Add chocolate chips if you want your scones to be more like dessert– white chocolate and raspberry is a delicious combination. Adding orange, lemon, or lime zest is great. Try chocolate chip and orange, raspberry-lime, or lemon-blueberry. Make the recipe without any fruit or sugar for a plain scone that would be great with butter or jam (though you might want to add more milk, it might be pretty dry!). Try cinnamon scones by adding a couple tablespoons of cinnamon to the recipe (and of course no blueberries), and sprinkling cinnamon sugar over the top, or making a cinnamon-vanilla icing! The possibilities are endless.

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At any rate, I highly recommend having a baking experiment or two while abroad! It can help ease homesickness and stress, and making foods from your home country to share with friends can be a great way to share culture, especially if they join in!

Other resources: 

  • food.com has the option to show recipes in metric measurements, though they will not convert the temperature.
  • JSWard has a guide to converting recipes and cooking in metric, very handy.
  •  This website does conversions of cooking measurements for you – just make sure you put in the ingredient (it also has temperature conversionsbutter conversions, and “common conversions” for other measurements used in the kitchen)
  • In chart form, common conversions from US to Metric, as well as conversions between US amounts! Includes dry and liquid measurements and even pan measurement equivalents.
  • More British sources for recipes… BBC Good Food and Sorted Food.
  • If you don’t mind doing conversions yourself, I love Budget Bytes and (US) Allrecipes.

Have you had any experiences with baking or cooking food from home while abroad? How did it go? I’d love to hear your stories! 

(Also, if you have any questions or if you would like to see more posts like this, let me know!)

Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.

Tallinn, the Tijuana of Scandinavia

March 14 – 16, 2014

Sometime in February, an event appeared on the Facebook page for exchange students in my town: a trip to Tallinn. While I initially had little interest in going, many of my close friends wanted to go and after a while, I caved and signed up. A few weeks later, we were Tallinn-bound, my first trip outside of Joensuu since I arrived.

For those of you unfamiliar with this region of the world, this is what it looks like:

Joensuu is in the Eastern part of Finland, near the part of Finland that juts out towards Russia. Just for reference’s sake.

Tallinn is the capital of Estonia. I had never heard of it before, but it’s known for being a medieval city– the old town is a beautiful walled fortress and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a common tourist destination, easy to get to via ferry/cruise from Sweden or Finland. Tallinn is a popular place for Finns in particular– Estonia is cheaper than Finland, especially for buying alcohol and cigarettes. Apparently, before they get married, many Finns will come to Estonia to buy alcohol for the wedding. And of course, for exchange students, this opportunity to buy some cheap alcohol is worth the trip to another country.

The trip we were going on had a pretty loose itinerary: leave at 5 am from Joensuu for Helsinki (via bus, a trip that would take 8 hours), ferry to Tallinn (2 hours) and then check in at the hotel. We had 2 nights in Tallinn and then a stop at a big alcohol store before boarding the ferry back to Helsinki and then busing back to Joensuu. Luckily, the bus stopped at each of the common neighborhoods where exchange students live, which made the 5 am departure time slightly less inconvenient but no less painful. My street was one of the first stops (and later, the last).

I only packed my school backpack for this trip, since it would only be a couple days and I wasn’t anticipating buying much while there. Plus snacks. So many snacks– including blueberry scones which I shared with my friends. Eight hours on a bus is a lot of time to fill and while some of that time was early enough in the day that we could sleep, sleeping in cramped quarters on a bus full of exchange students (and a couple Finnish students) are not the best sleeping conditions.

At any rate, we amused ourselves well enough and by the time we made it onto the ferry to Estonia, we were sleepy and silly, talking about who-knows-what and munching on endless snacks to stay awake.

The first thing we saw upon arriving in Estonia was an alcohol shop. And right across the street from the ferry terminal, our hotel. This seemed rather indicative of the type of place that Tallinn would be.

The first night, my friends Carmen, Maja, Mareike, and I decided that we wanted to wander around a bit and check out some of the stores nearby. After some wandering, we ended up going to Vapiano, a (German) Italian (fast food) restaurant for dinner that Maja and Mareike promised would be good. It was delicious, and notably– cheap!

Me, Maja, Carmen, and Mareike

Then, we stopping at a random shopping center to pick up some drinks and yet more snacks on the way back to the hotel, which is how the first night was spent eating more junk food than we should have and watching MTV– the only channel we could find in English.

The next day the four of us decided we should explore the Old Town before going shopping. We met up for breakfast at the hotel and then headed off to Old Town. It wasn’t a far walk, but it was a gloomy and drizzly day, which made it less than ideal for exploring.

Carmen, Maja, and I

Carmen and I in front of an impressive-looking church door

Mareike, Maja, Carmen, and I wandered around, took a bunch of pictures, and stopped into a few stores to browse.

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral – photo by my friend Mareike

The Estonian Parliament (across from the Cathedral)

We ended up going into the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and sitting for a while, watching what looked like a baptism or maybe just a small choir practice. It was beautiful inside– ornate gold, typical Russian Orthodox style. The ambiance provided by the choir made it even more beautiful as the voices echoed and a small crowd of people watched. An elderly Estonian woman scolded us for having our legs crossed, though we weren’t sure exactly why since we had no idea what she was saying. Estonian is close to Finnish– not that any of us speak Finnish, either.

Overlooking Old Town

Overlooking Old Town

Overlooking Old Town — featuring an overly-friendly seagull

Overly-friendly seagull

The Times we had

Mareike, Maja, myself, and Carmen at the overlook – photo from Mareike

We wandered back outside and over to an overlook of the Old Town and city. You may have seen it in pictures before, at least if you spend a lot of time looking at pictures of places you’ve never been– there’s a wall that says “The times we had.” It’s the sort of melancholic beauty that seemed fitting for the gloomy day, and a reminder to enjoy the time with my friends while we were there.

Town Hall Square

Wandering back down through the Old Town, we saw a sign advertising a sky lounge and coffee shop called Katuse Kohvik. Since it was a Saturday, and coffee and cake is something of a tradition for us, we decided it was a fine place to stop.

The barista in the coffee shop was a bit overly friendly, which was unexpected and frankly made us feel uncomfortable. We joked that maybe we had gotten too used to Finns who say little and don’t try to make personal connections with you. They also don’t call you “sweetie” or “honey”. It was a bit off-putting, but the drinks were warm and the view from the coffee shop was pretty cool. Of course, while we were there, it started snowing. While we grumbled and groaned because we were tired of snow, watching the snow drift down in waves from a warm rooftop coffee shop is the sort of magical thing that makes life beautiful.

Inside the coffee shop

Looking out the windows

Mmm, hot chocolate…

After finishing our drinks, we braved the snow storm to continue our way out of Old Town and to the shopping center. We ducked in an Estonian store and sampled some Moose sausage with cheese and admired the wood and wool work they were selling. For the record, I love moose, but it’s also quite tasty in sausage form. Besides, trying strange foods at random is one of the great joys of travel.

Samples!

Trying moose sausage

We finally made our way to the shopping area we had been exploring the day before and commenced our shopping afternoon. We all seemed to be buying summer-type clothing, which probably wasn’t the best decision, since summer weather was a mythical thing for us. Besides, who buys summer clothing when it’s snowing outside?!

When we got tired of shopping, we ended up back at Vapiano for dinner. This time I splurged and bought myself a glass of wine, a rare treat since wine is expensive in Finland and even then, it’s not particularly good wine. Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, already planning to meet up later with some of our other friends at a bar. Our one foray into the nightlife of Tallinn, and a pretty tame one at that!

Later in the evening after our nap/productivity break, we met up in the lobby and made our way to a medieval-looking bar in the basement of a building in Old Town called Porgu. I wouldn’t have even known it was a bar/restaurant from the outside. Honestly, it looked like a medieval dungeon or the sort of place that bootleggers would hide out in the 1920’s during prohibition. Maybe that’s just me though.

When the rest of the girls arrived, we took over a big table and everybody was delighted to find out this bar had a large selection of German beer. Even better, the beer was cheaper than in Finland, and far superior. I might not be the biggest fan of beer, but the one I had (a dunkel) was really good, and of course we all passed around our drinks for the others to try. Friendship is sharing beer, y’know.

Table full of beers – photo from Mareike

Carmen and I

Me and my friend Marie

The next day, we didn’t do much: breakfast and the stop at the “Super Alko”– there were many debates about which alcohol was worth spending money on– and then we loaded up the bus and headed to the ferry terminal.

And of course, the last thing you see before you leave Estonia… is another alcohol shop. After all, Tijuana Tallinn is the place you go to party with friends, where you explore your vices and stock up before returning to your everyday life.

(Originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global.

Joensuu

Hello, all!

Joensuu airport

Flying out of Finland

Now seems like a good time to write this post. I have left Finland, headed South to places that are both familiar and foreign to me.

I lived in this city for 4.5 months, and I’ve called it “home”.

My first views of Joensuu

My first views of Joensuu — Art Museum is on the right

It’s funny– Joensuu is a city I had never heard of before I started applying to study abroad. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. I doubt many people have heard of it, even inside of Finland. Or, if they have, it’s the sort of small town that you wouldn’t go out of your way to visit unless you had friends or family here or if you happened to go to university here.

As you may have gathered, Joensuu isn’t the most exciting place to live. It’s somewhat a university town, and while there are plenty of student events going on, it’s not a bustling metropolitan area.

Joensuu is beautiful, though. The river that cuts through the city is lazy and lined with trees; there are bike paths along it and barbecue spots perfect for spending an afternoon. The lake the river feeds into is gorgeous. It’s huge. I’ve only been to a few small areas of it, swimming at the polar bear sauna or snowshoeing by a peninsula. A beach or two, grassy-sandy areas where a few afternoons were happily wasted by the lake in beautiful sunny weather with my friends. And once, venturing onto the lake itself, canoeing but mostly just drifting along with the wind and current.

The river in winter

The lake in winter — frozen over

IMG_2009

Canoeing on the lake

I honestly haven’t explored Joensuu enough. There are hidden corners of it where you forget you’re in a city at all, where you’re surrounded by woods.  

Sunset on the river

Despite not being the biggest city or the most exciting place, Joensuu quickly felt like home. There are reasons for this that go far beyond the city itself, but it’s a special place. Joensuu is Finland for the Finns– the everyday sort of place where you start to recognize the cashiers in the market you go to every week, the bankers, the bus drivers, the people in the sauna… they might  not speak to you, but you recognize them and they might even acknowledge you with a smile. It’s the sort of city where you’ll be sitting in the mall, and an elderly Finn might sit next to you and start speaking to you in Finnish. You can easily find help when you ask, and people aren’t offended by your silence or awkwardness or lack of understanding of their language.

Snowshoeing on the lake

Joensuu is the sort of town where you don’t really get lost. Once you’re familiar with some main roads and trails, you’re bound to find your way where you want to go– signs help when you aren’t sure. The city center is easy to navigate, and there are rarely crowds– at least, there weren’t when it was cold. When the sun comes out, the city bustles. Unless it’s a Sunday.

IMG_4085 IMG_4087 IMG_4088 IMG_4089

It’s the sort of place where the stores close early but the bars are open surprisingly late, where you know what to expect but might still be surprised. The kind of place where you find a favorite coffee shop and restaurant and become something of a regular.

It’s the sort of place that you might not even notice holds beauty. The Art Museum, the church, the peninsula, the lake… the Town Hall which (much to my surprise) was actually designed by a famous architect (Eliel Saarinen). It’s a place of those sort of hidden gems, places you could ride by hundreds of times as I did and not even realize were there, or what they even were. 

The Town Hall

Center square on Vappu

The Wolf statue, something of a local landmark

This little city let me get away with not learning Finnish. It taught me that I can be tough– those long bike rides across bridges to city center and university were daunting. It provided amusement and new experiences and a place to think. A place to see Finland as something besides a winter wonderland.

Joensuu, however unlikely a place it is, will always be extraordinary to me for being exactly what it is. For being the place where I met some amazing people and forged friendships that I truly believe will last beyond our departure; for being the place of life lessons, memorable events and stories, long winter days and joy at every moment of sunshine.

IMG_4115 IMG_4110– Aly

* This post was inspired by this prompt on the Daily Post.

 

 

Sauna Days

Hello, all!

Well, it’s been three months since I arrived in Finland! Time is still passing too quickly for me, but life has settled into something of a routine— however much of a routine you can have when your classes are never the same from week to week!

On the way to the sauna with Carmen!

One of my absolute favorite routines is going to the sauna. Not just any sauna– the polar bear sauna!
For those of you unfamiliar with the Finnish tradition of sauna, here’s the overview:
  • Sauna is a major part of Finnish culture! According to VisitFinland, the Finns will “start feeling incomplete”. That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but this centuries-old tradition is amazing, and after incorporating sauna time into my life, I can see why!
  • Saunas in Finland are a near-religious experience. While everyone in the sauna is accepting of strangers, conversation is not essential. Sauna is a great time for deep conversation with friends, or a relaxing time in your own head.
  • When you’re nearly (if not fully) naked around strangers, you learn a lot about body acceptance. You just can’t be self-conscious about yourself or judgmental of others in the sauna. That might be because everyone is sweating buckets, but nonetheless… sauna time is not a time for being self-conscious, it’s a time of introspection!
  • Going to the sauna has tons of health benefits! This includes stress relief, relief from sore or achy muscles, flushing out toxins, cleansing the skin, and many more. Read about some of the benefits here. I’ve noticed some of these myself!
  • Spending time in the sauna followed by dip in cold water increases circulation and heart rate. After going to the sauna a few times, I’ve noticed that my heart rate increases after the time in the sauna and a dip in the lake. You really become aware of your heartbeat, breathing, and circulation.
For those of you interested in a longer explanation of the sauna experience, I recommend reading this post.

Looking towards the sauna & ice swimming hole

The Polar Bear Sauna

The polar bear sauna in my town (check out their website!) is a pretty decent size. It’s only 3-4 km away from my apartment, so I usually walk there. The polar bear sauna costs 95 euro for a membership pass for a full year, but since we’re only here for a few months, we get a guest pass for 5 e. Since the polar bear sauna is a public sauna, swimsuits are mandatory, even though that isn’t the norm for most Finnish saunas. Members have these patches that they sew onto their swimsuits.
My friends and I have made Sundays our semi-official “Polar Bear Sauna” day, though on Wednesdays, there’s a sauna available for (free!) use in my apartment complex for residents. Women and men have a separate time, and clothes aren’t mandatory there. It’s a very small room, but it has the same effect– even without the lake!
The inside of the polar bear sauna is a typical sauna with heated rocks in the center flanked by two water troughs, with scoops for water hanging on the edge of the wooden frame around the rocks. The entire sauna room is made of wood, with a chimney in the center over the rocks, tiny LED lights in the ceiling and along the edge, and small windows facing the porch (overlooking the lake) and the parking out out front. There’s a clock on the wall so you can keep track of time.

The sauna building

Before you go into the sauna, you change into your swimsuit in the locker room in the main building, then walk outside a short way to the sauna building. If you want, you can hop in the lake first or rinse off, but my friends and I usually just slip off our flip-flops in the mud room (with taps and a towel rack) before opening the door to the sauna, where you are suddenly blasted with stifling hot air! (I admit this may be the wrong way to do the sauna, but we’re foreigners so I think we’re excused…)

Excited about the first time at the Polar Bear Sauna!

The first time at the sauna, this was quite shocking. The people in the sauna– mostly older Finns– kept adding water to the stones to make steam, which meant that we were sweating profusely within seconds and most of the time, it was difficult to breathe! With a room so hot, it felt like we were breathing fire— or at least, trying to. It was awful! We could barely stay inside for 10 minutes at a time, and even then, we had our eyes closed and our hands covering our face, trying to cool down the air before breathing.
(For the record, that method is helpful but also results in more sweat running down your face from your hands… which is kind of gross.)
The rule of thumb seems to be “stay in the sauna until you can’t stay in any more”. For my friends and I, this means 10- 15 minutes in the sauna, or until we can’t breathe. Breathing is important, so when that becomes difficult, it’s a good time to go outside. Sometimes, you feel like you could stay in the sauna forever! In the sauna, it’s essential to listen to your body– if you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or have difficulty breathing, then you should get out! Sometimes sauna time can be physically taxing, and making sure you are safe is far more important than braving out the fire-breathing dragon-steam.
The first time we went to the sauna, it was REALLY cold outside– something like -8*F! This made for a beautifully clear day, but the lake, which was already frozen over, was insanely cold. We only made it in a few times, but mostly we stood outside for a while and enjoyed the feel of sunshine on our skin as we cooled off. This remains a very pleasant way to shift from the heat of the sauna to a normal body temperature, instead of the shock of the extremes. Definitely my favorite, though less effective now that we’ve been having warmer temperatures.

Still steaming from the sauna…

Getting into the lake…

VERY cold!

The extreme shift in temperature is part of what makes the sauna experience so great, even if the first time it is horrible! It’s very hard to force yourself to go down a ladder and swim in a frozen-over lake, even for a few seconds. Everything in your mind is screaming at you that it is a bad idea, and sometimes the water is so cold that your chest clenches up and you swear that your heart stops for a moment. In that moment, you are hyper-aware of every inch of your skin and then suddenly, you’re climbing out again.
And then you drink some water (from a bottle, not the lake!) and head back into the sauna to do it all again… which seems crazy.
After a few circuits, it’s time to leave. We usually make it about an hour or an hour and half, in 10-15 minute intervals of sauna and 5-10 minutes of lake/outside time. At the end of it all, we’re slightly sweaty but very relaxed, if not a bit sleepy.
This is definitely one of the strangest and best experiences I’ve had in Finland. It’s a quintessentially Finnish thing to do, and although it seems crazy the first time, there is something magical about the experience as a whole. After weekends of partying or unhealthy eating, there’s nothing quite like a sauna (and ice-swimming!) day to make you feel fresh and ready for the week… even if you will definitely need a shower!

At any rate, I hope you have a chance to try something like this one day! It’s definitely an experience, and you may fall in love with it.

Feeling good after the sauna!

A bientot,
Aly

The First Two Weeks

Hello, all!

Little did I know, a little over two weeks ago when I first said that I was heading into another whirlwind, how accurate that description would be!

I can’t believe that January is almost over. My time here seems to be flying by! The days are so short but they feel so long. The first week in particular felt like it was so much longer.

Most of my time in Finland thus far has been dedicated to settling in, meeting new people, and figuring out how I’m going to survive here for the next few months. I have just now started taking pictures of all the things that have been going on, but here’s the not-so-brief story about my time here so far!

WEEK ONE

After the insane travel day through Helsinki (during which I wrote this blog post), I made it to Joensuu  (pronounced with a ‘Y’ sound instead of a ‘J’) where my tutor picked me up from the SMALLEST AIRPORT I have ever seen. It was pretty much the size of a mobile home with a conveyor belt for luggage and some seats. It was dark out by then– around 5:30 in the evening, it was just as dark as it would be at 8 o’clock at night in North Carolina!

My tutor, Jouni, gave me a brief tour of the campus and town as he drove me to my hotel, where we dropped off my luggage, including my suddenly-useless rolling suitcase, which does not work at all when the ground is covered in pebbles! After showing me around the center and arranging to meet up the next day, he left me to my own devices. While my hotel had free wifi, I had to brave the cold and foreign land outside to get food, with the knowledge that I lacked a microwave and for the next two days– Sunday and a national holiday– my ability to find food would be limited.

Ready to head out into Joensuu alone!

So I did what any college kid on a budget would– and got a pizza big enough to last a couple of days! Luckily the random pizza place (which appeared to be the only thing open at that hour) had a menu in English, a student discount, and the workers were patient enough with my inability to comprehend what they were saying that I made it out alright, if feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed!

Dinner for the next couple days…

That first night seemed to last forever. Physically and emotionally exhausted, that first night was rough. I kind of expected that based on my experiences in France.

The first night in a foreign country alone can be hard, and that night was no exception. My exhaustion combined with my disappointing dinner and computer issues lead to a not-so-fantastic first night in Finland.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but for the sake of full disclosure– and because it’s hard to talk about the parts of travel that suck– I spent most of my first night crying, before falling into a restless sleep. I didn’t expect it to be so difficult or awkward to be in a country where I don’t speak the language, could barely understand the accent, and where everything felt so unfamiliar. It was isolating, being in a hotel room alone, feeling as though I had been shoved ceremoniously into this freezing and foreign place. The kinds of questions that you must inevitably face while studying abroad sprang to mind, and it felt like I was being beaten over the head with what-if questions and doubts.

When I woke up the next morning, not terribly well rested, I opened the curtains and looked out at the city. A gloomy, cold day– but there was something a bit relaxing about seeing the city in the few hours of daytime, even if there was not much light. The light dusting of snow and the stillness of a gloomy Sunday morning were something of a comfort.

The view from my hotel room

It’s much easier to motivate yourself to explore a new place in the light of day. It doesn’t seem as scary then.

After all, if there’s one thing about waking up in a new city, it’s that the desire to explore will be present. I was still wary of it, and convincing myself to get dressed and wander for a while in the cold was no easy task. Spending all day in my hotel room– or at least, spending the whole morning until I met up with my tutor– would accomplish nothing but make me homesick.

Unfortunately, Sunday mornings in European cities are not bustling affairs. Most shops are closed, and Joensuu seemed pretty deserted. But in the morning light I was able to locate the grocery store– and more important to me– the H&M, the oh-so-familiar European brand of generally cheap fashion, with its signs proclaiming SALE! SALE! SALE!, not ALE! ALE! ALE! (the Finnish version). A strange comfort to me, recalling my time studying abroad in France. One of the first places I went to in Paris was the H&M to buy a pair of skinny jeans– a new, and now essential, part of my wardrobe. (And, of course, a crucial place for pre-Finland preparation, once again buying skinny jeans. I’m noticing a trend here…)

ANYWAY, my tutor picked me and my inconvenient rolling suitcase up and promptly took me to the wrong apartments! We figured it out and made it to my apartment, which was cold and empty. I dropped off the suitcase and he drove me back to the center of town. He gave me a bit more information about the study abroad orientation that would start on Tuesday and told me to meet him two hours beforehand with the tutee group.

And then I was on my own again. 

I wandered around for a bit longer, stopped by the grocery store to pick up some food that would keep in my mini-fridge for a couple days, before heading back to my hotel. I finally heard from my friend Carmen and invited her to come stay with me so that we could catch up (she had been in Joensuu for a few days at that point!) and hang out. So the second night in Finland was not so lonely– we watched Kill Bill volume 1.

The next day– Monday– we met up with her tutor and their tutee group and got a tour of the city and the campus! The day passed quickly and happily, meeting new people from the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, and Spain, and finally seeing more of the town. 

At the end of the day, Carmen, our new German friend, and I hiked out to our apartments– I say “hiked” because we live a whole 5 kilometers away from the center! It was cold and dark and I carried my second piece of luggage so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it the next day when we had orientation. It was a long walk– we didn’t talk much and for the most part, we had no idea where we were going. We made it there alright, and Carmen and I promptly turned around and walked back to the hotel. At this point, my apartment was bare– my room had furniture and curtains, but no linens or anything!

After a sad dinner of mysterious grocery store food, we watched Kill Bill volume 2 and went to bed.

Random grocery store foods

The next few days were insane, with orientation seeming to last forever and not providing much new or interesting information. The list of tasks that we had to complete within that first week was overwhelming, and it seemed as though we would never finish anything in time— particularly since everyone else there had to do all the same things! Signing leases on our apartments, registering with the school, beginning registration for classes, paying fees, renting survival kits from the Student Union, renting bikes, buying anything that we didn’t have, opening bank accounts, setting up internet in the apartments, buying a phone… the list seemed to go on forever!

I managed to do everything I needed to do in that first week— though my apartment was FREEZING and my first night there was horrible! I didn’t have internet or a phone for most of the first week, so I had no way to communicate with anyone, and I became very thankful for the fact that I had a few nights in a hotel room. I can’t imagine how horrible my first few nights in Finland would have been without internet or a phone, in a freezing-cold room without sheets or blankets or even a pillow.

Luckily, the first week was not all stressful things! We met and befriended more people and the ESN Joensuu hosted a “get to know each other” party at a club downtown for free. So one evening was spent talking to people from all over the world, dancing, and singing Karaoke. That was one of the most amazing evenings ever. I never thought I would be singing along and dancing to American oldies in a club in Finland, making up ridiculous dances to incomprehensible Finnish songs, or belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” on stage with new friends from Russia, Germany, and Latvia. 

It seems everyone in the world knows all the words to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As “Bohemian Rhapsody” started, my German and Latvian friends were whooping and cheering, proclaiming that it is the best song ever written. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, I agree. I’ve been singing along to that song with friends for years in the US, and that experience is just as magical, if not more so, in a club surrounded by strangers from all over the world, singing it with new friends.

That evening alone made me feel entirely at home here. Everyone seems to love the Beatles, Queen, and watching different groups of near-strangers get up to sing to songs that I grew up listening to and realizing that everyone knows the words– even if they can’t pronounce things perfectly– filled me with joy. 

And that was not the only adventure for the week!

The view from the bridge on the way to Kerubi, Saturday night

The view out the window from the upstairs of Kerubi

The upstairs lounge

Saturday night found Carmen, her flatmate Tuula, a friend of her flatmate, and I at a club called Kerubi to see a rock festival! We only really went to see a band called Santa Cruz, one of her flatmate’s favorite bands, but we ended up watching a couple other shows.

Carmen, myself, and Tuula

Santa Cruz was great. It was fun to watch– these Scandinavian guys with long hair, head-banging and singing songs that were very reminiscent of the 1980s, while everyone danced and sang along! There was no crowding or pushing like at shows in the US and it was not deafeningly loud– you could stand comfortably near the stage and not feel as though you would go deaf or be knocked over by the sound or the crowd!

After their set, we wandered around the club for a while, talking to strangers, before Carmen found the band and decided that we should take pictures with them– which is just what we did.

For a while, we made our way back upstairs where Tuula and I were pulled into this roaming circle of people by some random drunk guy, a blob of strangers with their arms around each other, laughing and kicking their legs out and spinning about, breathless, drunk, and crazy but so happy and having fun. I couldn’t stop laughing as we were swung about, thinking about how this was insane and so different from the US. As the set ended and the band left, the circle dispersed and the guy who pulled us in to the group hugged us and started babbling about how this must be the next mosh pit– a “love mosh”, he called it– where everyone is friends and loves each other. I love the idea; there was something special about those few minutes of wild movement and closeness to strangers.

We wandered back downstairs, where we re-connected with Santa Cruz and hung out in a hallway talking to them for a bit; took some more pictures, and finally left.

We wandered to a popular bar in town called Jet Set (which the Finnish pronounce as “Yet Set”), a sports bar with some of the cheapest beer in town, where we sat with a group of strangers at a table. I watched a football match for a while, and Tuula left for a bit and came back leading an African man. As he stood near the table and sipped on his beer, Tuula informed me that he wanted to meet Carmen and I — and that he was a male stripper from Helsinki!

That was one of the funniest interactions ever. He introduced himself as “Bone” and told us a bit about how he was born somewhere in Africa, lived in Bulgaria for a few years, and then fell in love with a Finnish woman and moved to Helsinki, where he’s lived for the last 15 years. He and the woman broke up, and now he was travelling for a bit and had just bought a place in the downtown area of Joensuu. He wanted to hang out with us and offered to make us dinner at his place sometime! We didn’t take him up on the offer, but it still makes for quite a story… how we randomly met a male stripper from Helsinki at a bar in a random town in Joensuu! 

We left Jet Set and made our way back to Kerubi to hang out with Carmen’s tutor, Johanna, her boyfriend Antti, and their friends. It kept getting later, and if it had been up to me, I would have left at this point! Walking the 5 km back to the apartments alone sounded like a horrible idea, though, so I stayed. I’m glad I did, too– the rest of the night was just hanging out and talking to Johanna, her boyfriend, and their friends. They were all very nice and I eventually got pulled into a miniature version of the love mosh, made up of these friends, in a close circle where we bumped hips and kicked in unison, all the time spinning in a tight circle, laughing. 

“This is a very Finnish thing!” Johanna informed me when she pulled me into the group.

The “it” drink in Finland right now– Garage

Johanna and I!

The evening slowed down a bit; the club played Elvis, Of Monsters and Men, and some other great songs– many of them oldies that I never thought I would hear in a club or dance to– but there I was, dancing with strangers to songs that I love. 

Finally, we parted ways and made it back to the apartments– exhausted, but happy.

WEEK TWO

Week two was not as exciting as week one. For the most part, it included buying some things that were unexpected necessities– including ski pants– meeting up with friends, and finally attending my first class!

There was one evening of fun– bowling with all the exchange students, followed by a trip to Jet Set (of course), where we wasted a lot of time laughing, telling stories, and even tried to play some card games. As it turns out, playing Blackjack/21 at bar with a group of 9 is quite useless, particularly when most of you are bad at math anyway! It was still a fun experience, and it seemed ‘normal’ — if staying at a bar until 12:30 am on a weeknight is ‘normal’, that is. (To be fair, it doesn’t seem all that strange in Europe, and most of us didn’t have class the next day, so it was essentially a weekend?…)

At this point, I’ve started to settle into my life in Finland. While my apartment is still a bit chilly, my room has started to feel more like home despite the bare walls. I picked up a rug from the entryway to my building that seems to have been abandoned… lucky for me, since my room would look particularly colorless without it!

While week one was “warm” (with temperatures hovering around freezing), the weather started getting colder and more like a typical Finnish winter. I rode to the university or center most days. I never thought I would be riding at least six miles a day in temperatures below freezing, but that is a near-daily activity. The ski pants are essential to making this trip more tolerable (though it seems a bit excessive?) and I am certain that I always look a bit ridiculous in my moose hat, with a massive scarf wrapped around half of my face! But the shared thought here is that it doesn’t matter what you are wearing or what you look like, so long as you are warm. It’s so cold that your breath freezes on your skin, hair, and any fabric near your face. It’s not uncommon to arrive somewhere and look like you have aged 60 years. In those conditions, you just can’t be too picky!

I suspect that I’m starting to adjust to this sort of life in Finland. There’s part of me that feels very tough– I would never imagine myself doing this in the States! But it’s so normal here, and while I still detest the cold, my outlook on what is difficult to do is changing. Zero degrees Fahrenheit sounds like a reasonable temperature, freezing sounds like summer, and after this experience I don’t think I can complain about any walk (or bike ride) that is less than 5 km, especially if it’s in any temperature above freezing!

So, that’s Finland so far. I’m leaving some stuff out, but this blog post is already quite long! I just wanted to give a (not-so-brief) update on my experiences so far! I hope you enjoyed reading and that wherever you are is warm, and if it isn’t– I hope it’s beautiful. 

A bientot,

Aly