Friday, May 31, 2013

Day 1. Helsinki

Our first view of Finland from the plane.
The day before I left for vacation I told a neighbor that it would take me three weeks to learn to relax and one week to enjoy it. If the rest of this trip is anything like today, I have nothing to worry about. Of course, when I was awakened at 3 a.m. because of light streaming through the window, I had my doubts. We experienced about 3 hours of twilight last night...not darkness, but enough light that we could sit on the deck and read a book. Already sleep deprived from the flight over, this did not make me hopeful about my energy level for the day. The Finnish people are the biggest coffee drinkers in the world and now I know why. Doreen and I immediately fell into step with them and in addition to our morning ration, we supplemented throughout the day. By 8:15 we were at the bus stop beside the hotel and just minutes later caught our ride to downtown Helsinki. First stop, the train station to get our tickets for our trip to Tampere tomorrow, about 2 hours north of Helsinki. There we will spend a few days with our new found cousins.
Train station in Helsinki. So practical and easy to navigate! And most all the clerks speak English!
After procuring our tickets we took off to explore the city on foot. I had a rough map with suggestions of things to do written in the margins and we headed out to look for the open air Market by the ferry docks. I knew we were heading in the right direction because a young Finnish woman (studying for her PhD in linguistics at the local University) who spoke excellent English must've thought we looked pitiful standing on the street corner with a map. She walked with us for a few blocks, telling us of Finnish history and then we parted ways with her pointing down the road to our destination.  We passed a large church up on a hill and stopped to take pics.
After cresting the hill and turning a corner, the Market was before us with over a hundred booths and beyond that ships docked in the azure water.
The first booths at the Market were fruit vendors and the fragrance of fresh strawberries was everywhere. Most of the fruit was from Spain (there was snow on the ground a month ago, so it is a little early in the season for veggies and fruit here) but there were some very small strawberries from Finland. They had huge blueberries, cherries and apricots-all from Spain. Most all the produce was marked with country of origin. Further down were vegetables-tiny cauliflowers the size of my fist, fennel bulbs, zucchini, fat white asparagus, even tomatoes. And then there were the potatoes, bin after bin filled with piles of the tiniest, most uniform potatoes I've ever seen, still covered in dirt and sold by the kilo. Even though we had a small kitchenette in our hotel room complete with a two burner stovetop, there were no pots or pans ( do Finns travel with cookware? Doubtful...). How I wanted to buy a half kilo and boil them up and coat them in butter and dill! We saw wonderful Finnish hand crafts; lots of felted wool hats and scarves (the most unusual ones from an exotic looking woman from Santa Barbara who married a Finnish man and now makes her home in Helsinki), carved birch coasters and kitchen utensils, elegant leather gloves, pottery the colors of the ocean and so much more. The food booths all served variations of the same meal-roasted salmon, vendace (small fish similar to smelts which are rolled in rye flour and fried), the tiny new potatoes dripping with butter and dill (if I couldn't cook them at least I could eat them!), and mixed vegetables. The variation we chose included a bit of squid rings also.
We sat at a picnic table in a huge orange tent which gave our skin a healthy glow. Doreen and I thoroughly enjoyed our meal!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Travel as a Job

About 5 years ago, while Scott and I were on a vacation in Europe, I remember telling him, "I sure wish I could get paid to travel!". The following year, I received a phone call asking about my availability in September to work in Heidelberg, Germany. It was known that I would be traveling in Germany at that time and it sure seemed a good opportunity to save on airfare if I was already going to be in the vicinity. The rest is history for me. I just completed my fourth year working in Germany (but now in Kaiserslautern) and tomorrow I leave for my second trip to South Korea. Two more trips to South Korea are planned for this year. I've also had the opportunity to travel domestically-Augusta, Georgia; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Columbus, Georgia; Clarksville, Tennessee. The work is interesting and challenging and I am so grateful that I get to do this. But there have been sacrifices-I haven't planted a real garden in 2 years: that does not mean my garden is barren as I have kale and chard and beet greens most all the time. But I am always hesitant to plant tomatoes and beans and eggplant because they need a bit more tending than the greens. I have 5 tomato plants that I am planting today with hope the rain predicted in the next few days will make them feel at home enough to flourish until I return. And I feel my Farmers Market work suffers...who wants to get hooked on a particular type of bread if there are times when it just won't be available? As if the work travel is not enough, my sister and I will take off for 4 weeks the end of May to travel through Finland and the Baltic States-(specifically Lithuania, but we will travel in Estonia and Latvia also). It will be wonderful to be on our own schedule and move about freely-a freedom I don't have as a civilian working on military bases around the world.
While I was in Germany a few weeks ago my colleague Rebecca and I finished work a bit early my last day and we headed to the spa. Last year she suggested we visit the spa and just never got around to it. She was not going to let it slip by this year. We ended up spending almost 8 hours there. The original name of this post was going to be On Nudity because this spa trip challenged ideas we hold on to dearly here in the States. My own personal feelings on nudity are out of the norm for the place I live. And, through the spa experience, I have come to realize they are much more in tune with the European model. Obviously, one cannot generalize about a country-or a cluster of countries-and their mores and habits. But I do see a different mindset in Europe when it comes to the human body. On one of our first trips to Europe, Scott and I saw a commercial in which a woman dressed in a white jumpsuit walked to the edge of a silver lake, unzipped the jumpsuit, stepped out of it and, completely naked, dove into the water. I was stunned. This was a commercial during prime time TV. We would never see this in the States.
At CUBO (the spa) -you bring your own towels, robes and spa shoes (flip flops or clogs) but at all the saunas-and they have many different kinds-you hang your robe up outside and sit on your towel inside. The saunas hold lots of people-some had 15 or so, but others were packed with thirty or more men and women. Most were our age and older-some obviously in their 80's, but there were a few twentysomethings. No one sat there and stared, you made eye contact and smiled and sometimes conversations took place. Sometimes we clapped when the music got lively and we gasped when ice chips were flung about the room. All these folks sitting in one very hot room together naked. I am not one who is uncomfortable about my body. It is the one into which I was born and the only one I have. I didn't have a choice to have longer legs or smaller breasts, what I have is what I have. And this fact was brought home to me on a very deep level sitting in that room. ALL OF US have the bodies we have and they are simply our bodies. They don't say much-if anything- about who we are inside. When the sauna was over we would walk into the robe room, grab our robes, slip on our shoes and walk out into the garden area where there were row upon row of lounge chairs. We didn't put on our robes, just placed them on the chaise and laid ourselves down...naked. We drank water, had a snack and talked and no one seemed self conscious or uncomfortable. I walked to one of the outdoor showers after a particularly searing sauna and a German woman about my age was in the shower next to me and she turned and asked, "You like?" I smiled and told her, "Very much!" She smiled back at me and walked away.
I wish I could clearly convey how this entire experience touched me. I was raised in a household of all females and my own children grew up mostly the same way. We were not terribly modest around the house and thought nothing of walking to and from the bath unclothed. Indeed, living in Texas in a house without air conditioning it was not unusual to walk around without clothes in the summer. It did not then and does not now seem weird or unhealthy or shameful.
I am not passing judgement with this post just wanting to let you know what an amazing experience the German spa was for me and how I felt right at home there. I have been to a few spas here in the States and saunas were taken with towels wrapped around you. There was no walking around the grounds without some sort of covering. If you have the chance to have a spa day in Europe, I encourage you to go. I would be very interested to hear of your experience. Personally, I don't think I will go to Germany again without somehow fitting in an afternoon at the spa and I am looking forward to taking quite a few saunas with my sister while in Finland. I hear there is one sauna to every 2 people there!