30 June 2007

Nordic Vignettes

Copenhagen During my project in Finland, I briefly visited a couple of other Nordic countries that deserve mention. Before I start telling stories, I should probably explain what I mean by "Nordic" since a surprising number of Americans I've encountered have no idea...

Nordic countries include Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, all located in northern Europe. In many countries around the world, people believe that our very own Santa Claus lives somewhere in the Nordic region, rather than the North Pole.

COPENHAGEN, DENMARKCopenhagen

When my husband came to visit me in Finland in early May, we spent a delightful weekend in Copenhagen. As you may recall, my first few weeks in Finland were mostly cold and damp, with generally disappointing meals. This was in stark contrast to the warm, sunny, and tasty city we discovered in Denmark.Copenhagen

Everywhere we went in Copenhagen, there were beautiful parks and harbors and lakes and moats where people were having picnics and enjoying the gorgeous sunny weather. We discovered a great French restaurant called L'Alsace and a cozy little wine bar in town, and ended the trip with the most delicious Italian food we'd had in quite some time.

The lasagna at La Rocca was so good, in fact, that it served as the inspiration for an amazing meal Chris cooked at home just this week. It involved grinding his own hamburger, a 4-hour tomato-meat sauce, and lasagna noodles made from scratch (seriously--from flour & eggs).

Click here for more pictures of Copenhagen.

L'Alsace. Delicious French cuisine.
Ny Østerg 9
Copenhagen
Ph. 3314 5743

La Rocca Cafe & Ristorante. Great Italian in a casual setting with friendly service.
Vendersgade 23-25
Copenhagen
Ph. 3314 6655

Il Peccato. Cozy wine bar with a fireplace (there's also a restaurant, but we didn't try it).
Axel Torv, 8
Copenhagen
Ph. 3393 9903


STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN

MeThe last weekend before I returned home to the States, I spent a truly indulgent weekend in Stockholm. Although the trip was brief, by the time I left Stockholm on Sunday afternoon, I was already plotting my future there.

It was unfortunate my husband hadn't gone with me to Stockholm instead of Copenhagen, since he hates when I start planning our future together in foreign cities he's never even visited. Although, I think by now he's starting to realize that I know him well enough not to pick a city where he would be miserable, and that I change my mind often enough that he probably has nothing to worry about anyway.

There was a restaurant in Stockholm I wanted to try called Mistral, but it was very small and generally booked months in advance. I called the restaurant hoping to get lucky and somehow managed to get a reservation for Saturday evening.

StockholmKnowing I would be having a big meal in the evening, I set out to find something light and fun for lunch and ended up at a place called Grodan, where I sat outside and enjoyed bleak roe with toast and crème fraîche, and a glass of Cava. It was lovely weather, but a little cool in the shade. Not to worry, they had heaters and warm fuzzy blankets outside just in case.


After lunch, I walked all around the city and through the old town Gamla Stan. There were free music concerts in the park and interesting old neighborhoods to explore.

StockholmLater that evening, I arrived at Mistral for a 4-hour, 9-course tasting menu. I suppose the menu might sound a little weird to some. To me, it was creative and wonderful. It included such things as salted pike perch with fried ox tongue, and pork cheek with barley and fish eggs, and ended with the most heavenly olive oil ice cream.

For each course, I got a careful explanation of the concept for the dish along with descriptions of where the ingredients had come from and how the dish had been prepared. It was the best meal I'd had in months, and it was definitely the longest and most expensive meal I had ever eaten by myself. I hadn't bothered to find out the conversion rate between the Euro and the Sweden Kronor, so I didn't realize just how expensive it was until I looked at my credit card statement the following week.

Sunday it rained all day, but I had a relaxing day at the spa, with a traditional Swedish massage, sauna, and some sort of crazy water aerobics class. I found out later that many people in Sweden and Finland are not familiar with Swedish massage and think it sounds a bit scandalous. I guess they need to come to America to find out how normal it really is.

Mistral. If you can get a table, you won't be disappointed.
Lilla Nygatan, 21
Stockholm
Ph. 101 224

Grodan. Great place to eat outside.
Grev Turegatan, 16
Stockholm
Ph. 679 6100

KB. Restaurant & bar with friendly service. Try the herring & new potatoes.
Smålandsgatan, 7
Stockholm
Ph. 679 6032

For a day at the spa, try Sturebadet. I can highly recommend a traditional Swedish massage with Mons.

Sturebadet
Sturegallerian, 36
Stockholm
Ph. 545 015 00

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21 June 2007

The Inner Beauty of Finland

A few of my favorite FinnsAs I get ready to pack up my things and return home to St. Louis, I can't help feeling a little sad to leave Helsinki. Although Finland is not likely to win any awards as a tourist destination, there is something truly remarkable about the people here...

A few of my favorite Finns

Working with Finns, it's easy to forget how many differences there are between Finnish and American culture. Finns are highly proficient in English with an uncanny understanding of American slang and idioms, and they don't really look that much different from us.

It actually took me a while to figure out why I liked working with Finns. They tend to be very demanding and impatient, and quick to criticize if something isn't right. They aren't especially polite or sensitive, at least compared to American standards, and you can pretty much forget about "political correctness".

Yet there is something about the Finns that transcends all of that. I'm only now beginning to understand it, and it's always dangerous to speculate about other people's thoughts and motivations. However, I will share what I think I have learned about Finns during my two months in Helsinki.

A few of my favorite Finns and my main Swede

First and foremost, Finns are genuine. Their level of sincerity is much more profound than what I would typically think of as being honest. Somehow the Finns have managed to hold onto the kind of purity and sincerity that usually gets lost somewhere in childhood in America. Americans are trained from a very early age to watch what they say and to be careful not to offend or hurt anyone's feelings. I can only assume Finnish children are allowed to speak their minds without retribution so they never learn that it's wrong.

My favorite Swedish Bosnian Yugoslavian

Finnish confidence is also quite peculiar. Somehow, in spite of the level of criticism they must all endure growing up (since everyone is probably telling them what they really think of them), they emerge as adults with this extreme confidence that is usually missing from all but the most arrogant Americans. Yet the confidence and quiet strength of the Finns seems to have nothing to do with arrogance.

Finns also tend to show each other a great deal of respect. Even though they are quick to criticize and question each other's ideas, it doesn't come across as disrespectful. For Americans, criticism is often used to discredit someone else's ideas in order to advocate one's own position. When Finns question or criticize something, they genuinely seem to be trying to figure out the best solution by understanding someone else's position.

Me

Although it is not easy to get to know a Finn, it is really something special when it starts to happen. I was only in Finland long enough to get a small taste of the sincerity, purity, intensity, and passion upon which Finnish friendships are built. I would highly recommend the experience to anyone who has an opportunity to work with Finns.

Click here for more pictures.

The journey of Finnish discovery is tough but rewarding, and you will need some sustenance should you decide to attempt it. Fortunately, I managed to find a number of good restaurants in Helsinki.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Nuevo.
Creative Spanish/Latin American Fusion with an interesting wine list. My favorite restaurant in Helsinki.
Sofiankatu 4
+358 9 677 101

Fish Market. Excellent raw bar and steamed shellfish. Closed Sunday.
Pohjoisesplanadi 17
+358 9 1345 6220

Havis. Fresh fish and creative dishes. Owned by same company as Nuevo.
Eteläranta 16
+358 9 6869 5660

Maithai. The only good Thai restaurant in town, and the only place I was able to get truly spicy food in Finland.
Annankatu 31-33
+358 9 685 6850

Knossos. Delicious variety of Greek food with extremely attentive staff, in an interesting old building.
Lonnrotinkatu 34
+358 9 621 1122

Zetor. Fun little trucker-style bar & restaurant. The place to go if you need something tasty and bad for you, with a more interesting menu than you would expect from such a place.
Mannerheiminitie 3-5
+358 9 666 966

For good Italian, head to Bulevardi, which happens to be a lovely place to eat outside. The only one of these restauarants I tried personally is Toscanini, when Tony's Deli was booked. However, all three were recommended by the same Finn who helped me find the other great restaurants in Helsinki.

Tony's Deli. Don't let the name fool you. This is a charming Italian restaurant, not a deli.
Bulevardi 7
+358 9 641 400

Toscanini
Bulevardi at the Klaus K Hotel
020 770 4713

Serata
Bulevardi 32
+358 9 680 1365

Although sitting at a table is never as good as being handed each piece of fish directly by the chef at a proper sushi bar, Kabuki is as good as it gets in Helsinki and much better than you might expect.

Kabuki. Try the upgraded sushi or sashimi assortment.
Lapinlahdenkatu 12
+358 9 694 9446

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03 June 2007

Party in Holland

My new friends in HollandLast week, I returned to Finland after a week in the States. By the end of the week, I was still recovering from jet lag and I thought about skipping the trip out of town and being lazy in Helsinki instead. I’m glad I didn’t or I would have missed one helluva party…

On Thursday evening when I was trying to decide what to do with my weekend, I found a great deal on a flight to Amsterdam leaving the next day. I booked the travel arrangements without doing any of my usual research, and I realized after landing in Amsterdam that I didn’t have a clue about Dutch language or culture. At least the signs were in English, and the train to the city center was easy enough to figure out.

AmsterdamMy flight had been delayed out of Helsinki, and it took longer than I expected to figure out how to get from the train station to the hotel, so I didn’t get to my hotel room until around midnight local time. I showered and went directly to bed, where I stayed until almost noon on Saturday. Eventually, the grumblings in my stomach motivated me to get up and search for food.

AmsterdamI had lunch at a nice little café, and then strolled through the major shopping areas, across the bridges and around the canals. It was a gorgeous day for exploring the city. After a few hours of strolling, I decided to stop in for a drink at a beer garden in a plaza called Rembrandtplein. This is where I met Victor and Jim, two of the rare and unusual variety of Americans who are so well adjusted to European culture that you might mistake them for Europeans.

AmsterdamFour beers later, they invited me out with a group of friends for dinner and clubbing. After going back to the hotel to change, and then taking a ride on the wrong tram and missing my stop, I finally met up with everyone at a restaurant called Rain, back in Rembrandtplein. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so warmly welcomed into a group of strangers.

AmsterdamWe enjoyed a great tapas-style meal at Rain, and then continued on to a nearby club. Although the club had a couple of dance areas, we spent the majority of time hanging out talking. It was a rare treat to be part of such a diverse group with so much in common. By the end of the evening, it felt like we had known each other for years. Most surprising was that nearly everyone in the group had just met the week before, during a night similar to this one.

AmsterdamAt the airport in Amsterdam, I happened to run into Jim, who was returning home to Munich. Like me, this had been his first trip to Amsterdam and the previous night had been his first exposure to this delightful group of people. We were both amazed at how much fun we had and how much of a connection we felt with our new friends in Holland.

My only disappointment this weekend was that I was unable to find herringhuis (raw herring sandwich) for lunch on Sunday. Any other day, there would be street vendors everywhere selling these Dutch delicacies. However, Sunday is their day off.

For me, herringhuis and good friends are more than enough reason to plan a return trip.

Click here for more pictures.

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