Secrets of the summer cottage

Helsinki empties over June and July as Finns escape the city and head to their summer cottages. While we could rent one ourselves, we were really pleased last weekend to spend time with Finnish friends at theirs and get an inside look at this part of Finnish life.

Photo: Heikki Puomilla

Early morning at Hirvijärvi      Photo: Heikki Puomila

About an hour out of Helsinki, we joined Heikki and Anu and their young daughter on the shores of Hirvijärvi (Moose Lake). Heikki has been holidaying here since he was a child as his grandfather built a house in the same spot.

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Although the house has been rebuilt and modern features such as electricity and running water added, the composting toilet is still outside. While I did scare myself with the thought of bears during a midnight visit, it was a huge relief not to have to check for large Australian spiders.

Composting loo

Composting loo

Part of the joy of the weekend was the chance to experience Finnish life outside of the city. After lunch we met with the local community committee, many of whom have been holidaying for generations around the shores of the same lake.

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We were warmly greeted and joined in a game where we tossed 2 euro coins at bottles of wine, with the one landing closest being the winner. In spite of my focus and good technique, I was narrowly beaten by a 12-year old boy.

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On returning to our cottage, the men and kids went fishing off the jetty, catching three small fish with bait made from flour and water.

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Heikki also showed Miko how they identify local butterflies, something his family have an avid and professional interest in.

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After a dinner of hamburgers grilled on the fire, we cooked pancakes down by the outside sauna.

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We each had a turn at flipping the pancakes, which were delicious and served with jam.

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After dinner, it was time for a huge bonfire, a tradition lit to mark the end of summer and the end of the cottage season. Heikki also let off a few fireworks he had leftover from the year before.

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As the sun dropped low in the sky the most incredible full moon rose to take its place. People lit candles out on their jetties as a way to farewell summer, with a small house on an island soon surrounded by flickering lights.

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After the children went to bed, Heikki, Jonathan and I hit the sauna, which is heated by a wood-burning fireplace inside.

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Heikki made a couple of vihta (bunches of birch leaves) and taught us how to beat ourselves and each other with them to really get the blood flowing (we have been doing it far too softly and slowly apparently).

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Each time we got too hot we headed outside to the lake, where we swam by the light of the full moon. At one point there were also huge fireworks going off overhead.

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I really can’t describe just how incredible it was to be swimming at midnight in a lake lit by candles and the moon, with fireworks bursting into bloom above us. While we all know we have another long winter ahead of us, instead of being a sad occasion it was the perfect way to say goodbye to summer.

To follow: Day Two at the summer cottage, where we head onto the lake and into the forest, finding evidence of moose and something to rival Australian spiders..

Aurinko Paistaa ( The sun is shining )

I’ve always loved the sun, which is not great in New Zealand where we are exposed to high levels of UV rays. But my love affair with the sun is even more pronounced here in Finland, where it has become something of a long distance love affair.

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I realise now there is a strong difference between sunlight and sunshine. One marks the day and one warms the skin. The second is now returning after a long hiatus and seriously, I could weep with joy. Which makes a nice difference from the day I wept on the way home from Finnish class for no real reason – other than lack of Vitamin D.

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I’ve done my first Finnish winter now and spring has never felt so good. The difference in the trees is amazing, week to week, and the presence of birds and flowers is increasing.

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On a recent walk from Hietalahti Market Square to Merekatu I was delighted to see the outdoor market growing in size once again.

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I also came across this sculpture by Rafael Saifulin called Onni.

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Onni means happiness or bliss. To me he’s really captured the pleasure of feeling the sun on your face once again.

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Although fairly weak, the sun is now up from 4am to 10pm in Helsinki, with a month to go until summer solstice. Miko told me he can’t go to bed until the sun goes down, but considering that won’t really be until October, honestly, he’s kidding himself.

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Like most Finns we are now eating ice cream any chance we get. The funny thing is, as good as it feels, it’s still only 10 degrees outside.

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But that’s okay, the sun is back and we’ve learnt to savour it while we have it.

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Treasures here and there

At first glance, Finnish antique stores look just like those in New Zealand: goods piled high, customers sorting through, hoping for a lucky find. But there are a few things here that often remind me that I am in Helsinki.

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Nordic animals: bears, moose, reindeer, wolves, foxes and salmon. No kiwi pot holders or tuatara sculptures here.

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Light shades: it’s customary to take the light shades when you move house in Finland, even when you are renting. It was a surprise to find bare wires hanging from the ceiling when we moved into our place, but that’s just the way it goes. Of course we have light shades in NZ too, but perhaps we don’t have the need to buy them quite so often.

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Glassware: there’s always loads of glassware for sale here, especially coloured glass and anything made by Finnish company Iitalla.

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Ceramic kitchenware: Likewise you’d be hard pressed to find an antique store here that didn’t have stacks of kitchenware from Finnish company Arabia.

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Tea accessories: including Russian tea cups and tea-glass holders, silver teaspoons and ornate samovars. In New Zealand we tend to have more tea accessories hailing from England than Russia, as well as places such as China and Japan.

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Dolls: particularly blonde ones in European costume. In New Zealand stores you’d also find, from a different era, brown-skinned dolls in traditional Maori dress.

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I went into another antique store recently that specialises in selling tapa cloth and artworks from the South Pacific. The owner told me that these items are highly sought after here, particularly Maori artefacts.

This store reminded me of the warm home of one of my closest friends who always has tapa cloth displayed on her walls.

I know some people may find the selling of cultural artefacts offensive, but on this grey, wet Helsinki day, it was just really nice to see something that brought memories from home.

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Lost & Found

Visitors to Helsinki often comment on how well everything works. The trains run on time, the movies start when they say they will and it is very rare to see anyone cross the street before the green man appears, even when there are no cars.

Another thing I’ve noticed is the displaying of lost property. It seems there’s an unofficial understanding that if you find something of little value you drape it somewhere it will be easily found should the owner come back.

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As the weather warms up the lost property du jour seems to be gloves. They are everywhere. Strategically placed on bushes, fences and elegantly draped over power boxes.

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Which is not surprising really as Helsinki recently came first in an experiment to find the world’s most honest city. Eleven out of 12 ‘dropped’ wallets were returned to the owner with everything inside.

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While every city has street crime I haven’t noticed it here. While Sydney is a great city, working in cafes there I witnessed bag snatching, wallet snatching, phone snatching, kids breaking into cars and people trying to steal the tip jar.

We even had one guy who would come in and stuff whole pieces of cake in his mouth and run off without paying. All part of living in a vibrant city of 4.5 million people where there’s a gap between those who have and those who have not.

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So to me these Finnish displays of lost property seem like an indication of the overall honesty of the city’s population. True, no one wants one glove but I’ve also seen hats, shoes and sunglasses strategically arranged that have been left behind.

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To be honest, Jonny’s Ray Bans disappeared after being left in a Helsinki changing room but he recently had a friend request on Facebook from a cafe worker here that he didn’t know. She was asking him to return to collect the credit card he’d left last time he bought a coffee.

Helsinki Tops World’s Most Honest Cities 

Helsinki Metro Runs on Honesty

Beware of falling ice

Now that we’ve learnt how to walk on ice without dying, it’s important that we also know how to walk under it too. Because with the big thaws happening its the ice hanging from overhead buildings you’ve got to watch out for.

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The first time a big load of snow was dumped down next to me I actually thought someone was throwing snow at us. But it’s all about timing and mine that day was bad.

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Watch out for snow & ice falling off the roof (& people dancing in mid-air)

With your head down checking where your feet go, it’s a precarious job looking for falling ice. Luckily the City of Helsinki takes precautions for us by blocking off sections of the street.

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But what are we to do? Wait until spring to use these parts of the pavement?

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No, silly. Send young men up there to scrape it off and throw it into the streets below.

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I know there must be rigorous health and safety methods going on but I swear this guy was just held up by his mate holding a rope around his waist.

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However they do it, the ice has mostly gone in Helsinki and today was feeling quite tropical with a high of 10°. Unless we have takatalvi that is (literally: taka: back or rear & talvi: winter, which means wintery conditions in spring).

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In which case you may find the sign pictured above waiting for you as you slide to the bottom of the stairs on your taka – Ei talvikunnossapitoa – not maintained in winter.

How to make the best korvapuustit (three treats with one dough)

I had a baking lesson on Sunday with my Finnish sister-in-law Ilona. She baked while I took notes before having a little sample at the end.

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This dough can be used to make various sweets. To make enough for korvapuustit, a few munkit (doughnuts) and rahkapiirakat (quark pies), follow these easy steps:

Heat 5 dcl (500ml) of milk until it is slightly warmer than body temperature. You can use water if you are lactose-free. Crumble in one packet of tuorehiiva (fresh yeast) and stir to dissolve.

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Add 1 dcl white sugar, 2 teaspoons cardamom, 2 eggs and mix. Stir in 9 dcl of plain flour (unsifted) and a pinch of salt. Once the mixture becomes thick and sticky use your hands to mix. You want a balance between the dough being thick enough to roll and loose enough so it has enough air in it to rise.

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Add 100g of melted butter and lightly mix with hands. Don’t knead too much as the dough needs to stretch.  Now it needs to double in size so cover with a tea towel and put aside. A 1950s tea towel printed with Australian birds is always best.

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Heat the oven to 200°c. Once the dough has doubled in size scrape it out onto a floured surface. When making korvapuustit you can be quite rough with the dough, it’s okay to push a bit of the air out of it. Divide the dough and put aside the amounts you would like for doughnuts and rahkapiirakat.

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Roll the dough into a 1cm thick rectangle and brush with 25g of melted butter. Sprinkle with cinnamon and sugar and then roll lengthways.

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Cut the dough into triangles with the edge of a spatula. You can freeze uncooked dough at this stage to bake later.

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Place the triangles on a tray lined with baking paper. Put them on the bottom edge of the triangle and push down (like you are squashing a pyramid).

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Leave a bit of space between them as they will grow. Brush with egg and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake in oven for about 15 minutes or until golden.

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For rahkapiiraka: These are easier to make if the dough has come from the freezer. Shape dough into little dish shapes with a slight well in the middle. If the dough is fresh poke a couple of little holes in the bottom with a fork. Brush with egg and then mix one tub of rahka (quark) with the leftover raw egg and 1 teaspoon of white sugar.

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Spoon the mixture into the wells and press in raisins if you like and bake in oven for about 15 minutes.

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For the doughnuts: Shape dough into small rounds with the side of your hands. Don’t be too rough as you want air in this dough so they will rise.

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Take a round of dough and punch a hole in it with your finger. Then stretch a bit by spinning the ring on your fingers. This makes a sturdier doughnut shape than if you were to make a sausage and join two ends. You can freeze the raw dough circles at this stage for later use, or fry in oil and coat with sugar when cooled.

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Yum! All three of these sweet snacks are best served warm with coffee on the couch while you watch the Men’s 50km cross-country skiing final.

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Apologies to Ilona for not getting more photos that included her lovely face. I would have also included more photos of us eating these delicious snacks but some of us were still in our pyjamas… 

 

How to walk on ice without dying

It’s not actually that cold here in Helsinki. With the temperature yo-yoing around zero degrees however we have snow that melts and then refreezes – leaving a layer of ice over everything.

Around 20,000 people a month in Finland sustain injuries from slipping on ice in winter. Here are a few things I’ve learnt about surviving on icy streets:

Don’t be afraid! Go outside everyday – Helsinki is set up for it – and if you don’t you’ll end up staying inside for four months. Towers like these are set up from December and are full of tiny stones that are spread on the footpaths to help with grip.

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Likewise, some of the city streets have hot water piped underneath, leaving them free of ice and snow.

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Laying the pipes in summer

 

Ice free in winter

Ice-free in winter

Choose the path of most resistance. Walk where others walk, look for gravel to walk on and avoid shiny dark areas. If there is no gravel, choose snow over ice.

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Slippery, slipperier, slipperiest

Avoid manhole covers and other metal surfaces. Always go around these ice traps.

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Likewise, avoid painted surfaces, like the lines on pedestrian crossings. Once again, aim for the gravel that has been laid out for grip.

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Don’t rush out the back door on your way to the rubbish room without checking the conditions first. Step outside that door at speed and you may find yourself slipping and sliding across the courtyard while squealing like a pig (true story).

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Always use the handrails on stairs and if possible, send a small child ahead of you to test for slippery patches.

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Stairway to hell

Leave plenty of time to get somewhere – rushing is never a good idea. I would seriously add on 50% of the time you’d normally take to walk somewhere.

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If you parked your car in the street overnight, take a shovel with you the next morning. The snow ploughs that clear the streets in the night create piles of snow that might block you in.

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Hidden layers of ice under snow make hills a real danger zone – but also a really fun thing to do on the weekend. If you do accidentally slide down a hill, always yell ‘yippee!’ and act like it was intentional.

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And finally, grab a friend for support. Or, if you’re like me, occasionally grab a stranger. One with matching clothes is even better.

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(Disclaimer: I don’t usually go around taking photos of old people from behind. It’s a new thing).

Yle News: Slip, Fall, Break a Leg – Who Pays?

Now & Then – Töölönlahti

It’s easy to miss home at this time of year. Christmas for us signals the start of summer holidays – long hours of sunshine, songbirds, swimming and sand.

One thing about living in Finland however is the intensity of each season. It’s good for me to remember that winter here can be beautiful …. and it’s not forever.

One place this is evident is Töölönlahti – it’s a great bay to walk around and witness the incredible changes as they take place.

9th October 2014

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2 December 2014 – starting to freeze

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Ducks on ice

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4th January 2015 – frozen

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7th January 2015

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23rd January 2015

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And something to look forward to! Same place, different day (taken 3rd August 2014)

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Helsinki Underground

When I first used Helsinki’s subway system I felt like I was the only one swiping my travel card. Was everyone else riding for free? I didn’t want to be the only chump paying for rides so for a while I stopped swiping my travel card too. When in Rome and all that….

Kaisaniemi Metroasema

Kaisaniemi Metroasema

Turns out I’m not in Rome, I’m in Helsinki, in one of the least corrupt countries in the world. While some people may be jumping the train, many will have bought fortnightly / monthly / annual travel cards that don’t need swiping every time they get on or off. What really amazes me is the whole system is based on trust.

Walk right in...

Walk right in…

At the entrance to each Metro station you won’t find turnstiles or six-foot high gates that are opened only by a valid ticket. There are random ticket inspections however and the fine for being caught without a ticket is 80€.

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People travelling with a child in a stroller up to the age of six travel for free on all HSL transport services (bus, train, metro & ferries). For those who do buy a ticket it is valid for all types of HSL transport within the city and is valid for one hour.

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Unlike many European cities where you can spend hours underground getting to your destination, Helsinki is so compact the metro line currently runs in two directions only – although work is currently being undertaken to expand it.

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Which makes it easy to use and also leaves you much more time to visit the city’s attractions, such as the Trevi Fountain and the colosseum Helsinki Cathedral.

Tips for using the Helsinki Metro

  • If you’re new in Helsinki don’t be afraid to try it, it basically goes in two directions so you can’ t get too lost
  • Station names are in Finnish with the Swedish name written underneath
  • Ticket machines are at the top of the escalators, before you go down to the platform
  • Travel cards can be bought & topped up at most R-Kioski (convenience stores usually found near stations)
  • All metro stations have elevators so are accessible for wheelchairs & strollers
  • Likewise, the train and platform are at the same level & there are no stairs in the trains
  • If you’re not in a hurry, don’t bother with a timetable. Trains generally arrive every 2 mins or so during peak hours
  • If you take the escalator down to the platform, stand on the right unless walking
  • Kaisaniemi station is now called Helsingin Yliopisto (Helsinki University)
  • Dogs, cats & other pets are allowed onboard and travel for free

HSL Transport info in English

Helsinki Metro

Proof of Payment System

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Remember when?

Dear Miko,

Remember when we went to the beach everyday in summer because we knew it wouldn’t last but we almost got sick of it?

And remember how the sand would burn our feet and you always wanted an ice cream but the queue was so long?

And remember how the beach was full everyday and we started to recognise the same people who would, like us, lie in the same place?

Well I went back today and it looked like this! So beautiful!

I can’t believe that one day we’ll be there again with towels instead of scarves and grapes instead of gloves and we’ll dive into the water instead of being scared the ice will crack and throw us into it. I can’t wait!

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