How to chill during winter

I asked Siri recently what the temperature was and got this reply:


Which made it clear to me that Siri is not Finnish because -10 / 14F and sunny is a perfect winter’s day in Helsinki.

What we’ve had lately though is -21 /-5.8F with a wind chill of -28 /-18.4F, making life difficult as we still have errands to run and as we don’t have car it’s all done on foot.

So when Markus Watkins emailed me this week to tell me about his photos of people doing summer-time activities during winter, it really resonated with me.


Rowing Nowhere by Markus Watkins


Perhaps it’s the futility of rowing on a frozen lake or searching for summer berries in the snow, but I really like the way he’s thrown the two together because no matter the weather we are outside everyday.


Sno Berries are Found by Markus Watkins


After living in Finland for three years, Markus understands this well.  The 16-year old photographer was born to a British father and Finnish mother and moved to Finland in 2014.

It was while visiting his family’s summer cottage in Asikkala, 130km north of Helsinki, that he found the inspiration for his latest project, The Impossible Contrast.

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Markus Watkins

“After the weather being grey and gloomy for several days, it changed and suddenly got incredibly cold, and the sun came out!  I needed to make the most of it. Since I was at my summer cottage I thought that it would be very interesting to mix my favourite summer activities and contrast them with the winter. The impossible contrast,” he says.


Ice Cream by Markus Watkins

Currently in high school, Markus is teaching himself about photography and developing his skills as he goes. “I think it is much better to learn this way because you learn the self motivation to keep coming up with ideas and keep developing your own style. I love sharing my images with the world, it gives me a good feeling!”


Break the Ice by Markus Watkins

He also gets a good feeling from visiting Asikkala, a place his family has been returning to ever since he was a kid.


The Cold Never Bothered Me Anyway by Markus Watkins

My summer cottage is my favourite place in the world. Every time I come it has a different vibe or feeling, which makes it amazing for photography.”


Better Luck Next Time by Markus Watkins

As well as his photography, Markus’ sense of humour is also on show in the titles he’s chosen for his photos and I particularly like this comment he makes on his website: ‘Fingers and toes were harmed in the making of this series.’


A Chilling Tale by Markus Watkins

Check out more of Markus’ work at:


Helsinki – People Make the City

As many of you know, I have been working on a side project for the past year with local photographer Laura Iisalo.


Photo: Viola Vertimo

Our book, Helsinki – People Make the City – was launched early May and is available in stores around the city.

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It’s an insiders’ guide to the city and contains interviews with local creative people, sharing insights into Helsinki and the local way of life.

Helsinki People Make the City_Kirsikka Simberg_photo by Laura Iisalo_LOW RES

Kirsikka Simberg at the Winter Gardens – Photo: Laura Iisalo

I wrote the text and Laura took all the photos. She also did a fantastic job with the concept, creating six sections we are very happy to share with you.


Photo: Viola Vertimo

My Helsinki

We interviewed six creative people about their neighbourhoods and they’ve each shared a ‘Day in the Life’ so that you too can explore each area like a local. Neighbourhoods covered are Punavuori, Kruununhaka, Töölö, Kallio, Vallila and Suomenlinna.


Dorit in Suomenlinna – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Alba and Thomas in Kallio & Vallila – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Kirsikka in Töölö – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Three lovely women have given tips on creative projects you can try at home. These include making your own wildflower bouquet, how to turn a traditional Finnish heirloom into a magnetic keep-safe and harvesting pine sap from the forest to create natural incense.


Justine harvesting pine sap – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Hennamari foraging for wild flowers – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Some of our favourite local shopkeepers share their love of what they do and what’s special about the neighbourhoods they work in.


Kaisa at Pelago Bicycles – Photo: Viola Vertimo


Linda at Ansa – Photo: Viola Vertimo

Taste Helsinki

We ate a lot of cinnamon buns to bring you the best! And some of our favourite local eateries were kind enough to share their recipes so you can replicate their contemporary takes on traditional Finnish fare. This include how to make porridge, rye bread, cinnamon buns, blini, salmon soup, meatballs with lingonberry sauce and a cocktail made with a Nordic twist.

Helsinki People Make the City_Meatballs at KuuKuu_photo by Laura Iisalo_LOW RES

Meatballs at Ravintola KuuKuu – Photo: Laura Iisalo


Photo: Viola Vertimo

Winter Cosiness

Laura and I worked hard to do all our shoots and interviews during summer while the light was good and then realised we also wanted to showcase the best parts of life in Finland during winter. The Swedes have a word for it and so do the Danes (hygge), so we chose the Finnish word kaamos as our description of winter cosiness and give tips on how to create your own warm winter nest.


Photo: Viola Vertimo

Romany and Juha from Aan Tafel created some beautiful Nordic dishes for this and their recipes are included in the book.

Black Book

Finally, we put together a list of our favourite places in the city including sauna, coffee, design and urban nature.


Photo: Viola Vertimo

The book is currently available in Helsinki in Nide Kirjakauppa, Suomalainen Kirjakauppa, Akateeminen, Moko Market and Adlibris.

Weighing 700 grams, it’s a beautiful hardcover book, but shipping overseas can be expensive and it is not yet available to those living outside Finland. If you would consider paying for postage please do let them know at Cozy Publishing, as we’d love to be able to share the beauty of Helsinki beyond Finnish shores.

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Photo: Viola Vertimo

Helsinki – People Make the City

Concept & Photos: Laura Iisalo

Words: Melanie Dower

Layout: Viola Vertimo



November Reign

I read recently that Finland has five seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter and November.  While it’s true this month is dark and wet, here are a few reasons it’s not all bad…

Warm weekend breakfasts at our favourite cafe


Galleria Keidas

Practising the art of Christmas ginger biscuits


Taking the shot before Miko steals the dough…

Discovering ‘new’ bars that are old favourites of friends


Just a spritz of alcohol behind the ears….@Strindberg

Buying Norwegian salmon cooked over hot coals outside work



Enjoying wine tasting and dinner on a wet Thursday night



Photo: Angela Lee

Still getting around without full winter gear


Anticipating the best parts of a good Finnish winter


Natural History Museum

Remembering that Santa will soon be on his way (on a bicycle powered by oars)


Talivisirkus (Winter Circus)

The chance to wear my favourite boots to work


Having to use Miko’s umbrella when I can’t find mine


Seasonal office attire

New winter socks

New winter socks

Finding out my bank thinks I’m a dame

Bathroom door at my bank

My bank’s bathroom door

….and waking up to a ground cover like sugar on cornflakes.

First snow of the season

First snow of the season


Doesn’t like wet feet ( A guide to growing indoor plants in Finland)

People often tell me they can’t keep plants alive, but it’s really not too hard. Like children and pets they do need a bit of attention now and then to keep them healthy and sustained but seriously, anyone can do it.


When moving to a new climate it does take a bit of learning about what plants do best and it helps to know a few basic steps on how to care for them. Here’s my beginners guide to keeping your apartment looking green in Finland.


Look for Clues

In homes and offices, as well as in plant shops, you’ll start to notice the same kinds of plants over and over again. This is a good way to ascertain what grows well here and also the time of year it becomes available.


This plant is really common here in Finland and is growing well in a bedroom with only two small windows. As winter approaches you’ll need to find plants that survive well with very little light so take clues from those you see doing well around you.

Move it, move it

This plant has been hanging near a window in our bedroom, up against the glass.


He was sagging and drooping like limp wet washing until I moved him last week, just around the corner and out of direct sunlight. He immediately sprung to attention like some crazy guy looking for a party and so here he will stay. Take hints from your plants and if they’re not happy, try moving them. Mix up things like direct sun, shade, window positions and shelter.


This guy is very happy in his usual window spot but I may move him in winter

Lest we Forget

My favourite kind of plants (after palms) are succulents and cacti – and you don’t need to overlook them in Finland. We don’t have the same kind of heatwaves but we do live in a cold, dry climate – much like a desert in winter.


If you think about it, cacti can withstand cold temperatures. Just don’t over water them when it’s cold and remember they don’t like wet feet (who does?) so put them in cactus soil that drains water away. With good heating and triple-glazed windows, Helsinki apartments are warm over winter so bring your cacti indoors during the colder months.


Invest in your babies

I paid 80 euro for this huge monstera, which is a good incentive for me to keep it alive.


You also need to invest your time – but I don’t mean loads of it. I take a glass of water to bed every night and hardly ever drink it, so in the morning I tip it on to a different plant each day. That’s it. A regular little drink to the one who looks like they most need it tends to keep everyone happy.

Read the signs

When you buy plants they tend to come with a plastic sign with some basic care instructions on the back. Does it like sun, shade, direct light? How often should it be watered? Sometimes that’s all you need to know to keep your plant alive.


‘Tis the season

Don’t be afraid to buy something just for winter. These heathers do really well in Finland and survive even in snow.


You can also buy small trees in pots that will survive the cold. I used to buy plants for life (mine). Now I buy them for the plant’s life, doing my best to keep them going over winter but adapting to new varieties if they don’t make it through.

Keep trying

I’ve yet to master growing something really well in these glass bulbs but will persevere because I really like them.


The trick is they need just a little water and often, because the water drips straight out. A spray bottle is a good way to wet them and my monstera loves a spray on his trunk so he gets one too on the way past.


So, there you have it. You can grow plants and you can do it well – and it has nothing to do with luck. With just a little bit of loving they’ll keep you happy and healthy all year round, just as you do for them. (Otherwise – faking it is also okay).



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


Ducks on ice


4th January 2015 – frozen

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7th January 2015



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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Nightmares on Ice

IMG_2439There are a few things that get lost in translation as I make my way through life in Finland. Like when I greet people in the street with, ‘Hey, how you going?’ and they think I say ‘Where are you going?’ which makes them uncomfortable as it is quite a nosy question and they start to explain, ‘Well, first I’m going to the post office and then….’

IMG_2438So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I signed up for Adults Beginners Skating Lessons to find that actually, I had signed up for Adults Beginners Figure Skating Lessons. Because even though I emailed first and said I was an absolute beginner, there is no such thing as an absolute beginner on ice in Finland. Only one who hasn’t yet mastered the art of jumps and spins.


I went and bought a pair of skates before my first lesson because people don’t rent them here. In New Zealand it’s a bit like ten-pin bowling shoes – you go to the ice rink and hire a pair there. The first shop I went to had some lovely skates for beginners but unfortunately not in my size (big).

IMG_2436 So I headed north to another skate shop where a lovely woman helped me find a pair that fit.  Although they are not for absolute beginners, she explained, but for slightly advanced beginners. “Like for when you do jumps,” she said.

IMG_2440She showed me how to lace them up, which is quite a skill in itself, and then took my skates out the back to sharpen the blades. She also kitted me out with blade guards that I wear while making my way from the changing room to the ice and soft, furry covers to put on the blades after class to protect them and prevent rust.


It was immediately evident at my first lesson that I was way out of my depth. The only time I have been ice skating in my life was when I was 14 and a 17-year old guy from the butcher shop took me on a date to Paradice Ice Rink. We skated around holding hands to Thunderstruck by ACDC and for some reason I just haven’t recreated the scene since.

I am determined however to not sit at home all winter and read that there will be open-air ice skating rinks in Helsinki, including a big one near Rautatieasema (Central Station). One helpful comment on Trip Advisor was to remember that there are no sides – which for me means nothing to hold on to or to use to stop.

IMG_2447So while two groups of skaters move around me at class, skating backwards and pirouetting, I stick close to the wall and just aim to stand up and move forward. I am so out of my comfort zone. I’m quite tall and have never worn high-heels so balancing on two thin blades is really hard for me.

People glide by with encouraging smiles and give me thumbs up, much like you would if you saw a person of very limited mental capacity riding a bike for the first time. A few different people approached me after my first lesson with kind words and advice (get knee pads) and all of them asked me, with faces full of curiosity, “So, um, where are you from?”

IMG_2448The hardest part for me is managing my ego – it is so embarrassing to be so very bad at something while all around you people are doing it with ease. My main supporter, a man from India in the class, assures me that once I get the knack it will be just like moving over butter. Which would be great as I’m sure it would make for much softer landings.

In the meantime I just have to focus, manage my pride and stop myself from turning up to class in a t-shirt that says “I’m actually very good at swimming!”