Monday, April 30, 2012

Back to the steps

I knew we had to return to the Helsinki Cathedral and Senate Square in the spring.  (Remember the snowy steps back in January?)

helsinki cathedral

I love the contrast of the white church against that blue, blue Helsinki sky. I've honestly asked myself many times if it is possible for the sky to be bluer here than it is at home. It sure does seem like it is.

blue sky

This time, we peeked inside the church.



For a Catholic gal who's quite used to churches that are filled with religious art, the plain Protestant churches that I have visited here in Helsinki are quite stark. For example, this is my church at home:

Photo from St. Clements website.

Here is another view of the inside of the Helsinki Cathedral.  Quite a difference! 

plain church

But it's the outside of the church we were interested in anyway on this beautiful spring day.

sam in front of helsinki cath

This time, instead of sledders, the steps were filled with people eating ice cream (it was only 50 degrees Fahrenheit but hey, this is Helsinki, not Barcelona!)

lily in front of cathedral

By the way, for a photo hobbyist, taking photos in Finland is quite a challenge. I can never seem to escape the shadows...

joey in front of cathedral

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Jean Sibelius... from Finland and he's a pretty well-regarded composer here and, well, everywhere. You can read more about him here.

sibelius side view

(That's his face in the background.)

Rob and I had the incredible good fortune of attending one the Helsinki Orchestra's rehearsals of works by Jean Sibelius earlier this year.

full monument

Sadly, I'm not a big fan of his music. It's a bit dark and moody for my tastes, which is odd because I studied classical music for 15 years--almost majored in music in college--and I loved playing moody Russian compositions. I thought the styles would be similar. Perhaps they are. But perhaps my tastes have changed over the years....

pipes close

I am a big fan of this monument to Sibelius, however, which is located near the sea in Helsinki quite close to the boys' school.


There are more than 600 hollow steel pipes welded together by artist Eila Hiltunen.

sibelius pipes

The experience reminded me a bit of viewing Chicago's beloved "bean" sculpture in that you can stand underneath the sculpture, get "up close and personal" and feel the cool steel if you reach out to touch it. 

The Bean web

I miss the Bean.  I miss Chicago. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Hey Finnish Followers... a girl out!

You were all so helpful when you suggested things for us to do over the ski break, I was hoping you could give me suggestions for your favorite "can't-miss-before-you-leave-Finland" sights.

So far, we plan on visiting Turku and the Åland Islands, St. Petersburg, Savonlinna, Porvoo, Tallinn and hopefully Oulu. We also plan on fitting in a few things around Helsinki that we haven't seen yet such as the island beaches and Linnanmäki.

Give me your best "can't miss" sights!


Why is it so light out?

When we first arrived in Helsinki, Sam would wake up several times a night and wonder what time it was. It was dark until past 9 in the morning and got dark again at 3:30 in the afternoon. He was very confused and never knew when he was supposed to be sleeping and when he was supposed to be awake. :)

Now, he can't understand why he has to go to bed when it is so bright outside and it feels like 2 in the afternoon. So I told Rob he should explain (with the help of some produce) why it is light out so late into the evening--because I certainly couldn't do it! (I'm not quite sure why they added the plum, though.)

For those of you following along back in the States, the suns starts streaming in our apartment at about 5:30 a.m. these days and, eventhough it sets at about 9:15, it is still light out until 9:30.

So after we get the kids in bed, with the light of day in the window over my shoulder, I've started making plans for Midsummer here in Finland. We hope to rent one of the famous mökkis (summer cottages) Finns speak of so frequently. Apparently, Helsinki clears out in June and July as people head en masse to the countryside to relax and get closer to nature.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

More musings on life in Helsinki...

With the nicer weather, we are spending more and more time at parks and playgrounds. 

kids on trike ride

Today, as I watched the many, many, MANY children playing in our neighborhood park, I started thinking about the benefits of this kind of unstructured, outdoor play for children. 

But let me back up just a bit.  Why are kids outside so much in the first place? 

My personal opinion is that being outdoors is a Finnish core value. Finns are great lovers of the outdoors--no matter what the weather. I mean, consider outer clothing for children (see blog posts here and here). It is designed to make it possible for children outside, get dirty and have fun.

Rob writes about recess for students in one of his latest blog posts. Joey and Sam have 2 -3 recesses each day.  Many of the kids I see at the playground are there with a preschool, kindergarten, daycare or grade school. When a daycare takes a group of kids to the playground, it isn't just a brief visit. Kids are there for a long period of time. They play in the sand. They play on the playground equipment. They sled in the winter. They run.  They climb.  Being outside is an important, substantial part of their day.

As I watch kids play, I can see many benefits of this kind of play.

First, kids here are very creative in their play. I think my kids are creative.  And, I am a park mom. I take my kids to playgrounds and open green space a lot--but they usually rely on ME to direct their fun:

-Sharks and minnows? I'm the shark.
-Hide and go seek? I'm the seeker.
-Just plain running around and playing on the equipment? "Mom, look at me. Mom watch what I can do. Mom, look how fast I can..."

But today, I watched several Finnish kids as they played. One took a play broom and swept the footprint for a house into the pebbles of the playground. Another took the broom and attached it to one of the tricycles set out for kids to use and fashioned a sort of primitive street sweeper. Still another child used the broom in a more typical setting and swept out the little house at the top of the slide.

(On the flip side, I rarely see Finnish parents playing with their children on the playground.  I guess there is a fine line!)

Second, I notice a lot of children with incredible upper body strength and really well-developed gross motor skills. I've watched many kids shimmy their way up the frame of the swingset and dangle from the bar on top that holds the swings.

Obviously a third benefit is the socialization they get from so much unstructured play time. I rarely see kids fighting at the playground. I see them take turns. I see them share. I see these playground skills reflected in daily, adult life on public transportation, while waiting in line at the Posti or the grocery store...pretty much in everything I do here. After all the adults were once children on the playground too!

lily on esplanadi

I think it's important to add, by the way, that there isn't tons of supervision and adult intervention on the playground either.  In fact, I think in the U.S.,  all of our rules would take the fun out of a typical day at the Finnish playground!  I can hear it now..."too many kids/not enough supervision; not enough structured activity; kids are getting too dirty; it's too dangerous to climb to the top of the climbing allowed...too spinny, kids will throw up."  (I actually heard this last one when I helped design a playground in Chicago--the kids wanted a tire swing, but I was told NO NEW tire swings will be added to Chicago playgrounds.  They make kids throw up.) 

"Ah phooey" is all I have to say!   

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Spring has sprung

It's finally feeling a bit like spring here in Helsinki. 

The crocuses have been blooming for a while, the daffodils and jonquils look like they are ready to open any day.  There are buds on the trees, the temperature is in the high 40s and low 50s, it is raining and puddles are everywhere! 

We've turned in the snow pants in these here parts for rain pants. 

In fact, Lily has an entire rubber ensemble from head to toe. She's even got rubber mittens!

Since the ground at the park is mostly coarse sand/small pebbles, I'm all for this garb. It gets pretty messy after a few hours at the park and I can pretty much hose her down (well her clothes at least) as she walks in the door.

By the way, Finns' rain suits are much better looking than Lily's. Lily's suit was pulled together for mere Euros at various second hand stores in town. Most kids I see in our neighborhood have matching pants and coats (or, for younger kids, an all in one suit) and they reflect the Finnish design aesthetic, much more so than Lily's plan Jane mismatched rubber suit!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

In Finland...

We are at the halfway point of our journey.  In some ways, it's hard to believe it's gone so quickly and in other ways, I can't believe we're only half way.  I need to jump into travel planning mode soon as our travel time is quickly approaching!

In the meantime, there are some random things about Finland that I find fascinating!

...pencils are often sold without erasers. is so safe here that you routinely see bikes parked outside of stores and schools without any locks. In fact, I have made a game out of looking for bikes with locks.

...Finns will shovel snow into piles (for the kids) in the winter and shovel it out of piles in the spring (to help it melt faster).

...there are really nice family bathrooms/feeding rooms for mothers with small children complete with microwaves, rocking chairs, high chairs and toys in many malls and department stores. is so safe that I recently saw one of the mothers using aforementioned bathrooms leave her (wide open) purse on the floor while she used the toilet!

...most people will wait for the walk light to turn green before crossing the street even though there is not a car in sight.

...when you have a baby, you receive a maternity box FULL of baby clothes and other necessities--and it's not just for newborns! If you choose to decline the box, you can receive a cash stipend instead. If you are curious, click here to see the contents of the 2011 box. (While you're there, browse through some of the other benefits for parents and families!)

...there are timers at almost every bus or tram stop indicating how long the wait will be. is free. Yep, free. And, until now, it was free for foreigners too. But that gravy train, my friends, will soon end.  It will still be free for Finns and residents of the EU, but the rest of us will have to pay!   

...we live across the street from a public restroom that was converted into a Karaoke bar.

'nuff said.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cramming it all in

(Sorry, this is a really long post--but it's our family scrap book and I'm preserving memories!)

While here in Finland, we are trying to cram in as much of Finland and the rest of neighboring Scandinavia/Europe as we can.

While in Stockholm, we took a similar approach: do and see as much as possible.

That said, when traveling with our kids, we need to allow for downtime and "crazy" playtime (a time when the kids don't have to be quiet in a hotel room or a museum and when they have the opportunity to run around like crazy).  If we don't let them get that out of their system, the trip becomes a bad memory...quickly. 

joey and lily plaza

So with that in mind, we explored Stockholm!

The boys really dug the Vasa Museum. According to our guidebook, it's the top attraction of Scandinavia (Frommer's).

The Royal Warship Vasa sunk in front of hundreds of people on her maiden voyage in 1628. She was salvaged in 1961 and carefully restored and preserved.  It's amazing how good she looks after sitting at the bottom of Stockholm Harbor for over 300 years!

When you walk inside the building (which was designed specifically for the Vasa), the sheer size of the vessel takes your breath away. My photos do not do her justice. It was very dark inside the museum and because of the size of the ship, I could only capture details. Plus, in the picture below, you have no sense of size.  A 4 year old child could probably stand inside one of those open windows. 

vasa boat

Over 97% of the original carvings were found.

more carvings

This is what the carvings would have looked like before the Vasa sank.

colored carvings

The darker wood is new wood that was used to recreate carvings that were never found or were in such disrepair that they could not be restored.

new old carvings

boat detail

My grandfather, originally from Germany, owned a business that carved and created wood statues, benches, crosses, etc. for churches all over the Midwest, so I feel a real connection to old wood sculpture.   

They even reconstructed the remains of the crew members who died on board the Vasa. My kids thought this was one of the best parts of the exhibit! The signage told you how many cavities they had at the time the vessel went down, what afflicted them (diabetes, scoliosis, etc.), what was most likely in their pocket.... Amazing!

dead gustav

Sadly, our time in Stockholm did not give us a chance to visit the Pippi Longstocking exhibit.

lily as pippi

But we did spend quite a bit of time at Skansen--an outdoor living history museum that recreates buildings and farmsteads from all over Sweden.

pretzel 2


When we walked in to Skansen, the woman at the information booth told us we would see traditional Easter bonfires.


Clearly, there was a bit of a language issue there 'cause to me, that's called a campfire! I kept looking to the sky for smoke!

There was also a circus school at Skansen. Sam learned to spin a plate, Joey learned to juggle the flower stick and Lily walked the tightrope.

sam with plate

While I helped Sam up on the Swedish horse,

sam swedish horse

Joey HAD to do it on his own.

joeys butt 2

Over 50 attempts later...

joey swedish horse

(No, it wasn't that warm, he had just worked up a sweat trying to mount the horse!)

But MY favorite activity was the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace.

Here, the guard waits for her replacement.

guard to be changed

While we were waiting for the guards to come, Joey told us that he cut some of his hair to include in a mosaic he made in art class. The hole he left made a nice nest in his hair, so we proceded to fill it with peanuts and jelly beans.

joeys nest

Here come different guards to replace the other guards on duty.

guards coming 2


Joey and I made it our goal to make this guy smile. We succeeded (although not in this photo).


Swedish National Anthem


Overall, a GREAT trip. I've already started planning our next trip across the Baltic!

Saturday, April 7, 2012


I have dreamt of living in Europe since I was 18 years old.

Old Town from water

Royal Palace

But the Europe I dreamt of wasn't modern and hip and ultra techy like much of Helsinki--it was old.

street scene 3

Really old.

red building

Like peeling paint, crumbling bricks, cobblestone-streets-so-narrow-you-can't-drive-a-car-down-'em old.


So when we arrived in Sweden, I thought to myself "this is the Europe I always dreamed of."

swedish flag

We were warned that we would find Stockholm breathtakingly beautiful...and old.

street scene

And it did not disappoint.

water taxi to Old Town

alley 2

street scene 2

palace detail



pretty window

street lamp

joey and lily plaza