A Travellerspoint blog

Finland for Foodies.

There's a reason you've never seen this sentence before.

To prepare myself for the food options in Scandinavia, I spent some time perusing the grocery section of Ikea. I knew this was going to be the most difficult part of the world for me to find appetizing food.

With specialties like reindeer meat (you read that right), vendace (sardine/smelt-like fish prepared fried whole), herring prepared in hundreds of ways, tar-flavored ice cream and a specialty called cloudberries that tastes nothing like clouds nor berries, Finland is a challenge for me.

But since this is a part of why I travel, I had to try out a few. Here is the photographic evidence:

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Reindeer meat is everywhere. I did not try this one, but I’m told it tastes less gamey than venison (OH, you thought it was one of the same? Nope. There are real-life reindeers. Let that sink in).

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On this menu, cured horse meat. Please forgive me for passing on this one, too.

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I regretted not trying the vendace on my first trip to Helsinki. Now I have no regrets… but I won’t be rushing back here to eat these. I had to fight the mental image of chewing fish bones and tails — and smothering it in garlic sauce certainly helped. I had to eat a donut after this just to settle my stomach.

Tar-flavored ice cream, although a favorite of the Finns, tastes like you’re chewing remnants from a fireplace. Not for me — unless you top it with marshmallow, graham crackers and chocolate. Someone put that recommendation forward.

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My favorite meal was at a place called Zator in Helsinki, that was set up like a farm house. The salmon here is incredible and definitely on the (very short) list of recommendations.

And also on that short list, let me introduce you to the "Long Drink." Think Mike's Lemonade meets carbonated water - a sort of vodka spritzer that comes in flavors like lime, cranberry and grapefruit. Delicious. And dangerous. And only found in Finland and Estonia unfortunately.

And that concludes the food report from Finland.

Posted by NicHaris 10:46 Archived in Finland Tagged foodie Comments (4)

The Sauna

Day two in Turku* *If you can think of anything else that rhymes with Turku, include it in the comments section below and the next beer is on me.

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One of the many reasons why I enjoy traveling is to experience the local cultures. Of particular interest is how people approach both food and leisure. In Bangkok, I experienced a traditional Thai massage, actually paying to have my body nearly broken by a 4-ft 10-inch elderly lady. In Marakesh, my traveling buddy, Amy, and I opted for the Moroccan spa experience, whereby we were sponge-bathed by half naked women in an underground converted cellar (I distinctly remember calling Amy in the stall next to me, saying, “Is THIS happening to you?”) On this trip, the sauna was the experience to conquer. Let me explain.

While in Japan, the whole topic of bathing rituals was faced head-on when we were forced to shower in a traditional onsen (see explanation in illustration below). A fellow traveler informed me that in Switzerland - which is a scheduled stop on this tour - not only are the saunas co-ed, they’re also entirely nude. (When pressed about this in detail, I learned that eye contact is particularly important in these situations.) NOW… as an American, whose cultural values have been heavily influenced by Puritanism, this concept is not only foreign to me, but also partially scares the shit out of me. So, naturally, I’ve decided to conquer this.

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My strategic approach to the fully-nude sauna is as follows:
1. While in Finland, another country very fond of this bathing ritual, practice being normal and un-American in a European bathing environment.
2. In Switzerland, approximately 2 hours before said sauna experience, consume copious amounts of very strong alcohol and set out to accomplish mission.

Boom, you got this, Nicole.

Editor’s note: I have no visuals for the following, so please exercise imagination with what I’m about to describe.

Mika finds us a Finnish sauna, that unlike any notions of a sauna I have, is tucked away in the woods and consists of a number of little hut-like cabins situated right on a lake. At this sight, I start thinking of some HBO documentary on nudist colonies that I saw when I was 10, and start second-guessing whether Mika would pull a prank like that on me. (For the record, he would if he had more time to plan this).

The Finnish sauna is also co-ed. But luckily, because this is a public sauna, bathing suits are not only acceptable, but preferred. So I figure I got this experience in the bag. How hard could it be to sit in a hot room in a bathing suit? Fully aware that I’m likely the only foreigner in this sauna, I commit to not uttering one word — just to see if my naturalness at being half nude in front of strangers can pass me as a local.

As my friend opens the door to this cabin that can’t be more than 12 feet long, what comes into view are about 15 people, all over the age of 70, half-naked, sitting shoulder to shoulder and visibly sweating on one another while some rocks in the middle of the room release steam. Before I can even finish mentally processing this scene, I break my own rule, and declare - loud enough for everyone in this hut to hear - “This… is… NOT… normal.”

It’s too late to turn back; I’m already dressed (or rather, undressed) for the occasion and I now have the attention of the entire sauna. They make room on the bench for me to sit, and the gentleman sitting next to me, an older, Daniel Craig lookalike, speaks to me in English — the equivalent an adult who tries to coax a child on the verge of a breakdown. As he’s speaking to me, I notice it’s getting incredibly difficult to breathe; so difficult that I had to focus on taking small sips of air so as not to burn my trachea. As someone is splashing water on the hot rocks, the steam seems to completely suffocate me and feels like I’m breathing fire. Rather than focus on the weirdness of this situation, I’m actually just focused on survival (I’m not even being dramatic; I really was committed to not being the only American who ever died in that sauna).

After about four minutes, I’ve handled all that I can, and head outside to the wilderness to cool off. The more traditional of the bunch (basically everyone but me) completes this cool down by dipping in the lake, which can’t be more than 45 degrees F. This whole sauna-dip-in-the-lake act is repeated at least three times, while the more experienced sauna goers can endure longer periods of heat.

Guess what, friends? Although *slightly* less graceful than I had hoped, I completed my attempt at the Finnish sauna. And aside from nearly burning my lungs and further damaging the reputation of Americans abroad, I thought it was successful… I daresay, easy. Not that I’m about to start a nudist colony or anything.

And the best part: As we’re walking back to the car, I say to Mika, “That wasn’t so bad.” And Mika says, in the most serious tone, “Fuck, that was the weirdest sauna I’ve ever been to… I’ve never seen so many old people on top of each other in a sauna like that."

Bloody hell…

Posted by NicHaris 13:26 Archived in Finland Tagged sauna turku_finland Comments (6)

And so it begins.

Turku, Finland.

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Hello dear readers. At this very moment, I’m on board the Bore — a ship-turned-hostel in the riverbanks of Turku, Finland. Which, as I learned upon embarking, has not been updated since the 1960s, and with a total of 6 occupants that I’ve seen so far, fittingly lives up to its name.

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Perhaps the names "Not that exciting" and "Snooze Cruise" were already taken. My spacious and luxurious single bed. That was sarcasm.

I have my reservations in writing this blog. For one, when I wrote my first travel blog, the things that amused, surprised and delighted me on my first trip to Asia were so new and exciting to me (street-side Pad Thai for $1! Lady boys!), I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to find subjects in Europe that would have the same effect on me and my story telling. Secondly, I don’t have an editor. Perhaps it’s the years of working in Corporate that have made me wary of the written form - especially in such a public forum - but I know that I’m bound to offend someone, somewhere (I fully expect Southerners and cat lovers to unfollow/unfriend me after this). Please know this is unintentional and/or for comedic purposes. Then, there’s also the fact that the only times I’ve written for pleasure’s sake in the past five years are snarky text messages to my brother and memes for our family dog photos:

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Lola at her finest.

My trip hasn’t even technically begun yet when my first story subjects arrive on a Finnair flight from Chicago to Helsinki. They’re a party of five, who are loud (re: not European) and discussing in their southern accents their excitement over flying over a body of water for the first time (Amish?). The sole gentleman in the group is wearing denim overalls - and not in the hipster kind of way. The four girls are struggling to get their suitcases overhead, with their big-ass Kentucky Derby hats on. They look like they’ve never left the state of Alabama, yet alone traveled internationally. And with them are three peculiar carryon bags that seem to have mesh paneling for ventilation. Of course, being a dog-lover, I start thinking this may be the best flight ever with little puppies frolicking down the aisles… maybe they’re wearing cute diapers and have little knitted sweaters on! Maybe one of them will cuddle with me on my lap!! I’m starting not to care if these people marry their cousins if that means I get to be entertained by little puppies.

But as my poor eyesight adjusts, I see the facial outline of an animal far more sinister - an animal that causes some level of panic in me due to severe allergies… the dreaded cat. And wait… not one, not two, but THREE cats are being placed under the rows completely adjacent to me. In an instant, these people have turned into the second-most annoying types of travelers to sit by. Honestly, who brings CATS on planes? How is that allowed? I turn around to see if there are any other seats available and notice I’m two rows from the bathroom. (Sigh). It could be worse… I guess? By the end of the 8.5 hour flight, I have sneezed so much that my nose is red, raw and incapable of any feeling and my eyes are so irritated it looks like I drank blood for breakfast. So OF COURSE the customs officer who checks my passport is very attractive. He observes my passport photo and then looks up at me, trying to recognize someone with less puffy eyes and who doesn’t have snot running down their face. I couldn’t even fake a friendly American smile at that point.

With surprising ease, I find the bus from the Helsinki airport to Turku, Finland’s former capital and second largest city. With its location so close to Sweden, Turku was THE place to be back in the Middle Ages. My friend, Mika, who lives here, will argue it’s still the best city in Finland, with it’s industrial setting, university feel and numerous beer gardens in the summer.

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This “beer boat” is housed directly in front of what used to be a Turku prison. As if being imprisoned wasn’t punishment enough, inmates had to watch people onboard the beer boat, enjoying a cold beer on a nice summer night.

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Turku is also home to a gothic cathedral that was built in the 1200s and is thought to be the greatest medieval monument in the country. If you’ve read “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, this is exactly the type of cathedral that we’re talking about here.

As I tell Mika my travel plans for the next two months, he mentions that he has reservations about me traveling to the south of Sweden, as are in my plans. Apparently there are riots at the moment due to some Swedes’ intolerance for migration into their country. I understand not wanting to go to an area of unrest, but am perplexed as to why Mika is being so adamant about me not traveling to the entirety of Southern Sweden until he says, “It could be very dangerous for you since you have dark coloring. They may think you’re a Syrian immigrant.” In Japan, my tour guide admitted that most Japanese people think all caucasians- whether they are European, Australian or Canadian - are American (Non-American friends, if this is news to you, I’m sorry). It appears the same logic holds for Finnish people and those without blond hair.

See, stereotypes are unavoidable.

Posted by NicHaris 07:31 Archived in Finland Tagged turku_finland Comments (2)

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