Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Meeting with the Teacher...

We had our first parent/teacher conference today! Turns out, Sam's teacher is a Katrina Refugee. She came here to teach at the International School for a year and ended up staying. Maybe we'll do the same : ) She has been here for 7 years now and has a pretty good idea of how the Finnish and American systems differ.

Sam seems to be adjusting well to the school culture, classroom culture and is making friends. She said he is not afraid to speak up in class. In fact, he's quite vocal about being the "new kid" and has even asked kids to make sure they include him. (Wow! That's bold for a new kid.)

She also said he's still in "American" mode. According to Sam's teacher (and my observations 3 weeks in would support this), Finnish schools put much less pressure on kids. And for those who don't already know this and may think that the Finnish school system is failing, the whole reason we're here is so that Rob can learn why Finnish schoolchildren outperform almost every other country in the world in math and science. Apparently, this low-pressure system works for kids.

Joeys homework
Joey's homework

There are no standarized tests until grade 9. Did you hear that parents of children in school in Chicago?


Assessments given during school are used by the teacher to help her determine how well SHE is teaching the subject and if kids are getting it. Wow, that's refreshing.

Teachers are well-respected here. A masters degree is required. It is a competitive profession--it's not easy to get a job as a teacher. They are allowed to do their job without much interference from mayors and other non-educators.

Surprisingly, Ms. Megan's biggest concern for Sam is how he will adjust to the American system again. While there is no test to determine what Sam will have learned in math, science, reading and spelling second semester in Finland, he will eventually return to a system that will require him to take a test and if he hasn't learned here what he was supposed to learn at home, she fears he will suffer.

I'm not worried about it. He's in second grade. What's he's learning through this experience can't be tested or assessed. And to me, it's much more important to his future than learning what 9 X 9 is! That's what calculators are for. (This coming from the person who still has to figure out the 24 hour clock in her house by using her fingers!)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Senate Square

We made an impromptu stop at Senate Square the other day.  I was soooo bummed I didn't have a different lens on my camera.  I couldn't fit the entire Tuomiokirkko in my shot!  The white building set against that blue sky was just breathtaking!  I had to settle for some close-up shots of the details!

Tuomiokirkko 2

Tuomiokirkko detail;

Tuomiokirkko 3

Tuomiokirkko columns

Tuomiokirkko 4

It was gorgeous on this beautiful blue sky, clear (but cold) day.  Kids were sliding down the steep steps that had only been shoveled in a few spots to climb to the top.  While the pictures of the boys sliding down aren't that great, I think you can see who my daredevil is and who my catious child is! 

joey on steps

Joey steps

Sam on steps

And, there were a bride and a groom at the top to boot! 

I can't wait to come back here in the summer. 

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Kiasma Catastrophe

This was going to be the post in which I called out Lonely Planet Finland for making a really bad recommendation on a museum for children.

Last week, in the Helsinki for Children section of our guidebook, I read that "the Museum of Contemporary Art Kiasma" is "the pick of the museums" by kids and "has loads of interaction and freaky fun." And so we set off for a Saturday outing to Kiasma.

Kiasma outside

Here is how our day went:

Arrive at the stunning modern facility designed to mimic the Greek letter Chi by American architect Steven Holl. Exhibit currently running is called "Thank You For the Music." Sweet. Joey should love this.

MK helps Lily in the bathroom while Rob lags behind boys as they run up a grand, light-filled ramp. Boys encounter first installation at the top of the ramp--a video of naked women gyrating to music.

MK arrives with Lily to see Rob raise his eyebrows and hear Joey mumble "wow, this place is totally inappropriate." Rob quickly ushers boys through to the next installation...

...cool visual art utilizing old records to demonstrate that vinyl hasn't died. We all think it's cool and think we're in for lots more of the same.

Next up is an off beat video of a dude who sold his soul to the devil to become a better guitar player. Scary make-up is involved, Sam asks if we can leave now because "this place is going to give him nightmares."

We move through 1 or 2 more exhibits and arrive in a room with an enormous photograph depicting fans of a heavy metal band (maybe "Slayer?"). Fans are dressed in goth style--lots of piercings, black eyeliner and lipstick, tatoos, chains, etc. You know, the kind of clothes we wear all the time. Sam asks "Where is the exit? This place gives me the creeps."

Next is a set of four video towers depicting each of the members of KISS applying their black/white makeup. Remember Gene Simmons? He was great back in the 80s. Sam is NOT a fan.

Behind the video towers is another video of long-haired boys doing the head banger hair whip while sticking their tongues out Gene Simmons syle. Sam, somewhat more desperately this time, asks "Mom, I need an exit NOW." I will NEVER sleep again.

Gene Simmons makes another appearance in a visual art piece in which an artist has ripped out the faces of musicians on album covers and replaced them with other musicians.

Besides saying "it's scary," Sam thought this artist was "just plain rude to rip someone else's face off"  of the album cover and replace it with someone elses. How do you explain modern art to a child? (Perhaps THAT is the question I should have asked myself before choosing Kiasma over the aquarium?)

We move on to the third floor. At this point, I'm thinking, this has GOT to be the permanent exhibit and the part that kids just love. You think we would have figured this place out by now and kept the kids close by, but I was CERTAIN the third floor would be different.  It sure was different.  We let Joey get ahead of us only to find him watching (eyes wide open, mouth agape) a video of, well, all I saw was a girl dressed as a cheerleader on top with boy bits fully exposed on her (his?) bottom.

Joey announces in his loudest voice "Oh my gosh, I'm going to be scarred for life!" Sam is crying, "can we just find an exit?" I hear laughter from the people around us as we scoop up Lily, shield Sam's eyes (at this point, he isn't even curious what's on the other side of the wall--he's SURE if we are running him out of there it is SCARY!) and RUN out of there! Rob and I are laughing so hard at this point, there are tears streaming down our faces.

And that was our first outing to a museum (kids' favorite according to Lonely Planet) in Helsinki.

Sitting down at the desk today to write my blog post and call Lonely Planet out on their bad recommendation, I read the NEXT line of the guidebook: "check that special exhibits won't raise any adult themes."

Yeah. Too late for that.  

(None of the photos in the post are mine except for the top one )

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Who Knew?

Who knew I would be the one having trouble adjusting to life in Finland?  To be fair, it's my new schedule that I'm having trouble adjusting to, not the Finnish culture!  My original plan--to explore museums and other attractions with Lily while the boys are at school--is not going to work.

Depending on the day, the boys go to school at 8 or 9 a.m. Fortunately, Rob usually drops them off on his way to the university. (Which means Lily and I get to forgo the dark morning walk!) In the afternoons, however, Lily and I either shuffle back and forth between school and home (about 12 blocks) on foot or bus, or wait in the school lobby for the boys to finish. Sam is usually done at noon and Joey at 1. Since attractions usually open at 10 or 11 a.m., there just isn't time to play tourist!

So, while the boys are having their Finnish experience at school and Rob is meeting fascinating people at the University, Lily and I play a lot of games, color and do laundry (more on my laundry process in a later post)! I gotta say, for someone who was constantly in motion back in Chicago, this "simpler" life is taking a bit of adjustment on my part and I find myself playing a lot of Mahjong on the iPad in the evenings!

(BTW, Joey is working on coming home from school by himself on the bus. We made a trial run the other day, but I couldn't get the buss pass to register because I was holding it backward!)

I've been in kind of a funk the last few days as I accept my new reality and my new schedule, so I decided to bring a bit of home into our apartment and make gingersnaps for this kids' afterschool snack. (A bit ironic since gingerbread cookies are like the national cookie here!)

I collected my ingredients--not really sure if the things I selected were exactly what I needed!


I'm not one to substitute ingredients like my grandma who once substituted vanilla frosting with mayonaise!


The dough turned out quite runny--must be the substitution of margarine for shortening and I couldn't roll it into balls, so I popped the dough into the freezer for a little while.





They don't taste exactly the same, but the kids didn't seem to notice a difference!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Are you a hibernator?

lily in snow

Last year, I went walking with a friend at 9:00 p.m. on a chilly winter night. My friend, a city planner, was talking about an article she read regarding the use of outdoor space in the winter. We talked about places that embrace the cold weather and provide gathering places for people despite the temperature. For example, in some cities, the chairs and tables at outdoor cafes aren't stacked and locked up for the winter. In fact, these cafes might even provide heat lamps to make the outdoor ambience a little cozier. (For the record, I haven't seen any outdoor cafes here in Helsinki. I think it would be a logistical nightmare with the constant snow removal going on here!)

Even before we came to Finland, I wondered why we hibernate in the winter in Chicago. We know it will get cold. We know that it's pretty likely we'll have snow. So why don't children play in the parks in the winter? Why are all of our afterschool programs INSIDE? Why do we hesitate to send children outside for recess?  Why can't we have more ice skating places in Chicago?  I'm not talking about dangerously cold weather--but the teens, 20s, 30s--all are fair game in my book!

I know that individual families make an effort to get out in the winter, but I'm wondering what it takes to become a culture that wants to be outside regardless of the temperature. 

From what I've observed here in Finland so far, life outside doesn't stop because snow fell or the temperature dropped. In fact, when many children leave school, they head over to the local park where an attendant supervises them until Mom or Dad comes to pick them up. The park across the street from me is FULL of life in the late afternoon. In fact, I feel it's one place where my loud kids can be their loud selves!

s and l on climbing thing

Sadly, the photos I took at the park yesterday don't give you an idea of how many families were at the park at that point in time, but I would guess about 30 kids and a dozen parents were playing there.

lily on tire game

Snow forts are all over the place!

snow fort

This park is sandwiched between the dog park and the ice skating pond, so there is a lot of activity.

lily on playground

We live in the apartment buildings you can see in the background.

park view of apts

By the way, the boys were skating while I took pictures of Liily at the park.  I'll try not to be so preachy in my next post...

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ice Skating

Last week, the soccer field across the street from us was flooded to make an ice skating rink! Joey was beyond thrilled! So we took our loud selves on the tram this past Saturday and headed out to a used sporting goods store uptown.


The place was packed. No way was I going to snap any photos in there. Tensions were high. Lines were long. People were gobbling up ice skates, snow skis, helmets, hockey equipment and more.

$300 US later (yes, that's right $300 US*--we are still trying to figure out the math), we had in our possession three pairs of ice skates, one helmet, two hockey sticks and 2 pucks. *UPDATE: Rob returned to the store and pointed out a math error--turns out it was only $178 US. Phew that's better (but still way too expensive!)

Iice skates

sam on trolley

Joey and Lily were ready to try their "new" skates right away. Sammy was so terrified that the children in gym class would make fun of him on Monday for not knowing how to skate that he just couldn't bear the thought of getting on the ice and seeing how awful he was. (We tried ice skating in Chicago last year and while Joey skated circles around him, Sammy spent a lot of time on his bottom :(

But he DID get out there and he only fell ONCE!

sam on skates 1st

Granted he was a little slow moving and very cautious, but he got around the rink several times on his own two feet, without any help from Rob or me.

In typical Joey fashion, by the end of the evening, he was slapping the puck back and forth with a Somali boy he met there.


We've been back every day since Saturday. I love the fact that I can leave the boys on the ice with my phone and they can come back when they are cold, hungry or tired.

By the way, Sam's gym class (ice skating) went well on Monday. He paired up with a couple of other friends who aren't skaters either. I think by the end of winter, my kids will be able to hold their own on the ice. Even Lily!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Finnish T.V.

While we were flipping through t.v. channels the other night, we had one of those "uh oh, I forgot European television is a lot more liberal than American television" moments. We were just minding our own business, looking for a family-oriented t.v. show to watch, when we stumbled upon a program with a man exiting an elevator--buck naked. FULL frontal nudity.

After we picked Joey's eyeballs up off of the floor and got him to stop giggling, we decided to get cable and add some kid friendly cartoon channels to our t.v. selection here in Helsinki.

For those of you who don't know us, this is the first time we have ever had cable! I was so excited to add Showtime, CNN and the Discovery Channel to our t.v. I could barely wait. I envisioned us watching Disney movies together on the Disney channel, "not too old" movies on Showtime, and a constant newsfeed on CNN.

So, is it just here in Finland, or does Showtime always offer really offbeat, old no-name, BAD movies? And is the Wizards of Waverly place the ONLY show on the Disney channel? CNN is the international version here and while I like that, I sure would love to see a bit more news from home! (On the other hand, if you have any questions about the cruise ship that crashed in Italy, I'm your gal.) Is the Discovery Channel always about fishing? I'm thinking we were really never missing much on cable in the first place.

I'm back to watching Finnish channels in English...Seinfeld (it just never gets old!). I'm okay with old movies like Fargo; old sitcoms such as Frazier and Seinfeld and Finnish home improvement/design shows. I've also stumbled upon Conan O'Brien, but can't find it with any regularity.

Ooh, just flipped past an episode of Pawn Shop--one of my dad's favorites!

Monday, January 23, 2012


Things have been going remarkably well here in Finland. I hesitate to write that (or say it out loud) because I'm afraid the little world we've built here for our family will come tumbling down!

If there is one thing I'm having a bit of an adjustment with, however, it would be grocery shopping.

At home, I'm super organized. I have weekly menus for 6 weeks out. Then, we start with Week 1 again (before you mock me, try it). When I know the meals we'll be having for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the week, I can make a shopping list and get ALL of my shopping done in one outing. I pretty much hate grocery shopping, so I am not one to shop around for deals at Costco, Aldi, etc. I go to Jewel once a week and that's it. I'm done for the week.

But that's not quite how things work here.

I don't know what is "normal" by Finnish standards, but for us, right now, we need to shop every single day. And let me tell you, besides Lily, none of us like it.

We shop at 3 main stores: K Supermarket (like Jewel or Dominicks), K Market (a smaller version of Jewel or Dominicks closer to home) and Lidel (a German market that has some great deals--maybe like an Aldi?).

This is our local K Market. Lily loves to shop at K Market because they have mini carts for children and she is in charge of our "load."

KMarket store

K Market

It's kind of small inside and difficult to maneuver with children in tow, but basically offers everything we need. (At least I think it has everything I need. Since I don't read Finnish or Swedish, sometimes I'm not quite sure what I'm buying. I just cross my fingers and throw it in the cart!)

Groceries in Finland (like everything else) are EXPENSIVE. We need to be super careful about how much we spend. Each daily outing to the grocery store runs about $20-$25 US in addition to a "big" outing that we will make once a week to the K Supermarket running around $150.

Fortunately the K Supermarket isn't too far away, but you can only buy as much as you can schlep home without a car. We purchased this little cart to help with that. But for a family of five, that little bag barely holds the milk we drink in a day!

hand cart

Milk. Or, as Lily likes to say, Maito. (It drives Sam CRAZY that Lily never says milk anymore.) I think it's cute.


Let's get a bit of perspective on the milk carton, shall we?

maito perspective

There. That's better. See how tiny that carton is? Seriously, this family of five can go through three of those in one day.

maito mustard

On the other hand, I doubt we will finish this bottle of mustard by the time we go home in July! I think the contrast here is hilarious!

I have spent a LOT of time in grocery stores the past two weeks trying to figure out what I'm buying. I'm using my English, Spanish and the little German I remember to figure out what items are. I spent about 45 minutes working on spices the other day using color, pictures of spices and various languages to piece together my spice needs. I came home and smelled them all and found all were exactly what I thought they were!

grocery haul

I'm hoping that container of Mork Sirap is molasses--can any of my Swedish friends weigh in?

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Commercial Break

We interrupt this regularly scheduled program...

...to talk about Finnish snow pants.

The snow pants here are fan-freaking-tastic. No wonder why I see parents at the park with their little ones (as young as 1 or 2) on even the coldest, snowiest days. With Finnish snow pants, there's no getting wet and certainly no getting cold.

I brought a pair of hand-me-down snow pants for Lily and on the first outing, I realized that they were just not going to do the trick in the wet, heavy snow. So the next day, we ventured out to our local mall and made an investment in snow pants for Lily.

(It has snowed at some point during the day every day since we arrived in Helsinki. Usually, the temperature is in the high 20s. There are probably 8 inches of snow on the ground right now.)

Finnish children wear snow pants all the time. Now that we have them, I put snow pants on Lily every time we go out too.

Here's what I mean:

There are these great adjustable suspenders that are removable for washing.

back suspenders

front suspenders

They are high-waisted, so snow can't get up through your coat and down through the pants. Plus, there are elastic adjustments on the inside of the waist (a plus for my skinny Minny). They are roomy so jeans don't bunch up when you put your legs inside.

back view

front pants

The bottom of the pants have straps so that they stay inside the boots. There is an inner pant leg to tuck inside the boot and a wider pant leg that goes on the outside of the boot and then Velcros tightly around the boot. No snow in the boots!

foot area

side view

Reflectors on the pants add an extra bit of safety on those dark walks to school.

Most of all, they are waterproof and WARM. Lily has never once complained about being cold!

Now, who wants me to bring a pair of Finnish snowpants home for their little one?

Friday, January 20, 2012


We are a loud family.

Most of you reading this blog already know that.

In Chicago, we are a loud family in a loud city, so we can get away with it (sort of).

In Finland, I feel like we are Will Farrell...playing Elf...in a library...with a megaphone...on a loudspeaker...turned to highest volume.

Finns are reserved. Softspoken. Quiet.

WE ARE A LOUD FAMILY (shouting).

I find myself constantly shushing my children, my husband and sometimes, the noises of the apartment (because it has already become such a habit).

I've noticed when Finns walk down the street (even with children), you can barely hear them speaking to each other.

When WE walk down the street, there is laughing, giggling, arguing, talking (loudly of course) whining, sometimes crying, and more laughing. At any given time, three of the five of us are talking at the same time.

Even at the sledding hill, we are, by far, the loudest people there. How can you not slide down the side of a hill and squeal with delight? Or yell to the person at the bottom of the hill "hey, bring me the sled."

It's been snowing a lot the past few days. I thought that maybe the snow would muffle THE LOUD FAMILY walking down the street, but I'm pretty sure you can hear us coming from a couple of blocks away.

Thursday, January 19, 2012


Sam and Joey started school on Monday. The boys attend Ressu Elementary here in Helsinki. Ressu is one of a handful of schools in Helsinki where instruction is primarily in English. The school is an International Baccalaureate (IB) school and from what we've seen so far, the program encourages critical thinking, independence and creativity. It seems to me that kids here are a little bit ahead of kids in Chicago.

On some days, the boys start at 8:00 a.m., on others at 9:00 a.m. (We're growing to love those 9 a.m. start days! It is still a bit difficult to get out of bed in the morning when you feel like you're waking up in the middle of the night!)

walk to school

(9 a.m. start day, later walk to school.)

The first thing I noticed when we arrived at school on Monday morning was the lack of other parents. I didn't see any parents dropping children off at the school and certainly not TWO parents! Turns out, this is quite common here in Finland. At a very young age, children walk (or ride the bus) to and from school on their own. Even in this urban environment, I think it's less dangerous than we Americans might think. First, Finland is one of the safest countries in the world. Second, pedestrians are respected. There aren't nearly as many stop signs (or traffic lights for that matter) here as in Chicago and yet I feel much safer as a pedestrian here than I would feel at home.


(Entrance to Ressu School)

I don't have many photos of the school because they are putting in new windows and the building is quite hidden by scaffolding and plastic.

Both boys have an academic class for 45 minutes, then 15 minutes of recess. Sam has the regular subjects as well as Finnish as a Second Language, Ethics, Textiles/Crafts (in addition to art) and Inquiry (don't know what this is yet). Sam starts at 8 or 9 and is done by noon. I wasn't really planning on this piece and it has thrown a bit of a wrench into my plans to explore Helsinki with Lily.

Joey has similar subjects, but his day usually ends at 2 p.m. Joey likes the religion class, so he has chosen religion instead of ethics. Who knows, maybe we will return to Chicago and become Lutheran! Joey also takes French as it is an IB requirement. Of course the rest of the class has been studying French since 3rd grade, so I'm not sure how much French the boy will learn!

Rob asked the principal if the school had a band and she said "Yes!" We were so excited and hoped that Joey would be able to continue playing the trombone here in Helsinki. When Joey returned from school the other day, he said he played the electric guitar while other kids played bongo drums as they studied African music. My thought was, "well, they do have a band, we just didn't ask what kind of band it was!"

The time school ends changes based on each child's schedule--schedules that this mom still needs to figure out! I've been early, I've been late, but NEVER on time yet! Lily has been a real trooper through it all. She just trudges to and from school, sometimes multiple time a day. She rarely complains about the walk (about 10 blocks) and has NEVER complained about being cold!

Lily snowflake

Catching snowflakes while waiting (an hour) for Sam to exit!

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Before coming to Finland, a lot of people asked me how many hours of daylight we would have after moving to Helsinki.

I followed the sunrises and sunsets on the internet the week or two before leaving Chicago. At that time, sunrise at 9 a.m. and sunset at 4 p.m. didn't seem that different from home. 7 hours of light every day. No big deal.

Then I got here.

Here, darkness at 8 and 9 a.m. is, well....DARK. I guess I thought it would be sort of dusky rather than dark.

But it's dark.

9 a.m.

Dog park outside our window at 8 a.m.

We walk the kids to school at 7:30 a.m. Did I mention it's dark out? The "bright" side is that they sleep a lot more!

The afternoon does truly feel like home and we are adding more light to our days every day (see the follow-up post to this one in June when I post about how stressed out I am because no one can sleep due to 19 hour days!)

So after a week of living here in Helsinki, I think we've all sort of taken the Finnish approach to darkness: carry on. I mean, what can you do?

What I haven't gotten used to yet, however, is this:


I'm embarrassed to say, I still need to figure out the time after 1 or 2 p.m. by counting on my fingers! (Or, I ask Joey who seems to have this clock figured out already.)

Sunday, January 15, 2012

When in Rome...I mean Helsinki...

...do as the Finns do and get out in the snow!

climb hill

joey n lily in snow

Lily in snow

sam in snow

And, they just flooded the soccer field next to the dog park across from our apartment so now the kids can go skating too! Looks like we'll be shopping for skates this week!