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!)

Travel Snobbery

Recently, a friend shared an article titled “Your Wanderlust Is Inauthentic: The Real Difference Between Travel And Vacation”. While the article made some good points, those are shrouded in what I can only describe as Travel Snobbery. To the author, there is only one right way to travel, and doing otherwise cheapens the experience and makes it into a “vacation”, which has little merit.

For the author, vacations are trips of privilege. These are all-inclusive trips to a resort somewhere tropical and thus, exotic and worthy of bragging about. Vacations do not include public transportation or wandering very far. Vacations are experiences without culture shock or immersion. Because of this, “vacations” and “authentic” travel experiences are two completely different things.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Vacations are not separate from travel experiences.

The definition of “authentic” travel provided in the article seems to exempt the sort of tourist activities that can be an essential part of a trip. In the article, “authentic” travel experiences should be a quest to deviate from “the beaten path” and “search for the elusive history of a country and its people”. If learning the history of a place is your goal, it is not so elusive. People usually want to share their culture with you in ways that are accessible to many. Culture is preserved and shared in many ways– in museums with signs and souvenirs, in brochures at the local tourist office, and guidebooks to name a few. Those are all touristy, but no less important.

Meaningful travel should not keep you from experiencing the well-known, “brag-worthy” marvels of the world. In Rome, does “authentic” travel demand that you skirt the Coliseum to avoid the inevitable touristy atmosphere that surrounds it? Or do you make two trips to Rome? One should be a “vacation” where you stay at a ritzy hotel and travel by taxi to all the Meaningless Touristy Spots. The “authentic” experience would demand a stay in a hostel without air conditioning and stumbling your way through small talk “conversations” in jumbled Italian, walking down alleys that hold neighborhood pizza places, and wasting sleepy afternoons in streets that kind of all look the same. Are you “enlightened” about Italy based on these superficial experiences of Italian culture?

Any experience of foreign culture is based on your perspective as an outsider. An American in Rome will never have the same experience as an Italian who grew up there. Travel allows you to return home with a more well-rounded view of yourself and the culture in which you grew up. It is arrogant to suggest that your presence in another country can in any way impact that country more because you avoided the “touristy” things. Tourists make impacts on countries, especially economically, that are undeniably significant. On a smaller scale, people make connections to each other while traveling, be it through couch surfing at a local’s house or showing kindness to the cleaning person at your hotel.

Experiencing culture can take many forms wherever you visit, and “culture” is not something to be worn like costume. It is not simple, disposable, or made for a traveler to experience. Culture is complex and includes the traditions, beliefs, mannerisms, art, and history of a place or of a people. You will not become part of the culture where you are merely a visitor, no matter how much you try to act like a local.

People go to Paris to see and experience French culture. While it is certainly not representative of all of French culture, in avoiding the tourist attractions, you are missing out on that very culture. By not visiting the Louvre, you are missing out on seeing the masterpieces of French artists, not to mention all the other masterpieces that are collected there. In avoiding the Eiffel Tower (which would be quite a feat), you are missing out on a wonder of engineering. You are missing out on a story that is a part of France’s history.

The beaten path includes some of the most beautiful views and cultural landmarks. While the back roads might give you a glimpse into the life of the people that live in a city, it does not make you part of that city. The laundry hanging from the windows, the overgrown plants in window boxes—those cannot tell you the story of a country and of a people in the same way that their art can. That brief glimpse cannot tell you the history of a proud nation.

There is no right or wrong way to see the world or visit new places. Travel should enrich your life, whether you are visiting a beach you have been to a thousand times or a city that you have only dreamed about.  While it is wonderful if your travels enable you to see the world and people more complexly, traveling with the intention of leaving as a different person is incredibly limiting. Simply allowing yourself to experience and enjoy your trip is enriching on its own, regardless of how much exposure you get to the everyday experiences of the inhabitants.

To the author of the original article, I respect and understand your passion. It is wonderful that the way you travel makes you happy and provides you with enriching experiences. But your experiences aren’t the only valid traveler experiences. Everyone’s experiences are valid, whether or not you choose to travel off the beaten path or if you stick to what is safe and commonly visited. People travel for themselves and will find their own way. Many of them come back with their own passion and a case of wanderlust that is more than just a passing trend.

(Thanks to my friend Laura for helping me with this blog post! 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.

 

 

The Promise of “Cheap” Travel

Hello!

This might come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m becoming a skeptic of cheap travel. 

This is taboo to say, I think. Especially for a student.

But hear me out.

Excited to fly to Stockholm. Photo courtesy of my friend Sophia.

Excited to fly to Stockholm. Photo courtesy of my friend Sophia.

I love to travel, and I cannot afford to go all the places I want to go… at least not full price. But the more I travel, and the more I research opportunities to travel, the more I’m realizing how inconvenient it is. I mean, sure, Ryanair and Easyjet are wonderful things, but when it comes down to it: how much are you gaining from the few extra euros?

Everyone and their mother has heard of Ryanair (or Easyjet or Jetblue… insert other budget airline here). It’s a great option, and I will almost certainly be using it at one point while I’m abroad. That hasn’t happened yet, though.

As it turns out, for the places I want to go are not easily accessible by Ryanair. (Or other “budget” airlines!) For example, to get from my university town of Joensuu, Finland to Aix-en-Provence, France (where I’ll be this summer), I would have to take a bus or train from Joensuu to Lappeenranta, then a flight to “Milan”, “Dusseldorf”, or “Barcelona”. None of those airports are actually in the cities associated with them. Mostly, to get from those places to the nearby (bigger) airports, I’d have to take a bus, train, or taxi. And then another flight, bus, or train to Marseille. And then someone would have to come pick me up, or I’d have to take a bus to Aix.

IMG_2522

Sometimes surprisingly cheap: train travel!

And of course, I’d have to pay luggage fees.

That’s just not a reasonable option. While I love train rides and flights, there is nothing glorious about spending so long in transit or hauling luggage around. If I were traveling with a carry-on only (which WILL be the case one day…), I would still worry. Even on bigger airlines, sometimes you end up on planes that are so small that you can’t possibly fit your standard (maximum sized) carry-on luggage into the overhead compartments. The stress of traveling in such a haphazard way when you have a very specific destination to get to and don’t want to waste your time or money city- and country-hopping your way through foreign airports to get there just isn’t worth it. At least for me.

That is not to say that there’s anything wrong with budget travel.

I think the danger of it comes in when travelers unsuspectingly lock themselves into the “budget” option without considering the more standard alternatives… the ones that aren’t “budget”. Sure, a flight from Paris to Marseille COULD be $300, but if you know where to look, a flight on a major airline between the same airports might also be $70. If you’re checking bags, or want to go to specific (more central) locations, rather than the out-of-the-way options provided by airlines like Ryanair, then you should be INCREDIBLY thorough in your research.

Consider transportation to the airport, fees, transportation between airports/your final destination at EVERY leg of the trip. IMG_2778

It takes time and patience to figure it out. Also math. All to answer the question: how can you puzzle together the ABSOLUTELY cheapest option?

There reaches a point where it is no longer fun to play with the endless options. When you realize that maybe the “cheap” options that everyone tells you about aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Or maybe you just find out that an extra 3 euros gets you a better departure time, or an extra 20 gets you a snack and a free checked bag. Or, against all expectations, the budget option is actually MORE EXPENSIVE than the more traditional route. I can’t say which is better– the adventure and stress of piecemeal travel might be your style, and I certainly want to try it out in some capacity!

In the meantime, though, for your convenience…

Here are my suggestions for places to find cheap flights without the hassle. Add your favorites in the comments– I’d love to know how everyone gets around 🙂

Have you travelled on “budget” airlines? I’d love to hear your experiences!

(originally posted on my blog on Students Gone Global)

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