Christmas in the Dark

Merry Christmas everyone! Or happy holidays to those of you that don’t celebrate this occasion. Unlike last year when I skipped Christmas, this year I went all out – all the way out to Finland, that is. And Finland is where I’ll be for another four days, until it’s time to celebrate New Years in Tel Aviv. Can’t wait!

The reason why I’m super excited for Israel is very simple – I miss the sun! I’ve barely seen the yellow friend since arriving in the Arctic North about two weeks ago. Somehow in my enthusiasm to spend the holidays with the family I almost forgot that my homeland sucks in December. Big time. There’s no light! Here’s a photo taken around 4 p.m. Could it get any darker?

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I recently found a blog post that describes the Finnish winter down to a T: “November in Finland is murder. It’s just as beautiful as a summer’s day in Mordor, or a day spent in a windowless house without any lights.  You wake up, it’s dark. You come home from work, it’s dark. It’s not the nice and soft kind of darkness. It’s wet and rainy and awful. Pitch black.” Yes, exactly!

You see, a third of Finland is located above the Arctic Circle. That means that a third of the country experiences what is called the Polar Night – a period of about 50 days when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. As you can see in this chart taken from Gaisma.com, the number of daily sunlight hours in the city of Utsjoki currently stands exactly at 0:00. ZERO. A month from now the day lasts a whopping 3.5 hours. Yee-haw. :/

(Then again, in six months the day is exactly 24 hours longer! That’s because the Midnight Sun lights up Northern summer nights. Here’s a cool video of the phenomenon. Now THAT is a great time to visit Finland!)

Picture 16I hail from Southern Finland, a good 700 km away from the start of the Arctic Circle (that’s 400+ miles for you Yankees). So things aren’t quite as dire down here in terms of sunlight hours as they are up in Lapland, where this chart is from. But don’t be fooled: they are still pretty bad. Right now the length of the day stands at about five hours in Helsinki and Turku, the two Southern cities I always zig-zag in between. The worst part is that we usually get five hours of cloudy weather, not five hours sunny hours. And then it’s back to darkness again until the next cloudy day. And this goes on for months. Right now it’s been a week since the sun last made an appearance. Our short five-hour days look like this:

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Isn’t it cheerful here, especially since we have no snow to brighten up the scenery? A true Christmas in the dark. Makes me think longingly of the Christmas I spent in the Australian wine country, in the middle of the hottest summer. Ahhh, that was the life!

While nobody likes the lack of sun, most folks in Finland seem to be able to deal with the winter blues somehow (especially since it means we have awesome summers in return). People keep themselves busy with hobbies or look forward to their two weeks of winter holidays in Thailand or the Canary Islands. They go for brisk walks despite needing a flashlight. That’s great for them, but I just want to get out of here! I feel like I’m only a few steps away from being diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – I definitely feel anxious, hungry and sleepy (and the jet lag that keeps on lagging on is not helping). Maybe I have a harder time adjusting to the darkness since I haven’t lived through a full Nordic winter in 13 years. Two weeks is already too much for me! I am a child of the the summer, a major-league beach addict. I feel totally out of my element when I don’t see the yellow blob in the sky for days on end.

We did have one relatively bright and sunny day about 10 days ago. That made all the difference in the world. I went for a walk up a hill in Helsinki with my sleep-loving friend Mira, with whom I traveled around Central America last winter. Without that day I probably would have gotten the first flight out of here even before Christmas had started. 😛

Sunny day

As lovely as it has been to spend quality time with family and friends, I’m happy I only have one more weekend of this doom and gloom and then I’m off to sunnier pastures. If it’s up to me, I’ll continue my life as a climate refugee and avoid the Finnish winter for many years to come!

Have you been to Finland or Scandinavia during the winter? How did you cope with the darkness? What are your tips for surviving the winter blues? 

(PS. If flying off to the tropics isn’t an option for you, there are other ways you can try to alleviate SAD.)

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Happy 90th birthday, Finnair!

Finnair, the trusty airline of my home country, is celebrating a big birthday this year. Only 10 years to go until the BIG 100! Woohoo! 🙂 In January Finnair was named the world’s safest airline in 2012.

While just five years ago I didn’t have any particular ties to Finnair,  nowadays I have quite a lot: in 2011, I was selected as one of the seven Quality Hunters bloggers traveling on Finnair for seven weeks. That gig saw me zoom from New York to Europe, Japan and India in my own personal record speed. I also now have a couple of friends who work at Finnair as flight attendants.

In addition, I’m a frequent contributor to Blue Wings, Finnair’s in-flight magazine, where I’m currently in charge of compiling the monthly calendar of events. So if you are flying with blue and white wings anytime soon, check out my event recommendations under the “This Month Around the World” pages. My favorite event for this month is the breakfast buffet festival for monkeys in Lopburi, Thailand. Would love to check it out one day. 🙂

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With all these Finnair connections I’ve got going on, it was only suitable that Blue Wings asked me to write an article about Finnair’s 90th birthday – but to do it from the perspective of the passengers. Without the passengers, there would be no Finnair. So back in July I spent a day at the Helsinki Airport interviewing families and individuals for the story (and visiting the Book Swap that I helped create!). The point of the article was to show who flies with Finland’s national airline, and what they think about it.

Though I had to get up super early to get to the airport by the time the 6 a.m. rush starts, it was a really fun day of reporting. I was roaming around the airport together with photographer Tuomas Kolehmainen and our Finnair liason Markku Remes. Markku and I worked together during the Quality Hunters project too, so it was nice to catch up again. We met tons of interesting people, from international business men to Croatia’s official athletic team and Finland-loving Japanese tourists.

And here’s the result! The article is a pretty cool-looking three-page spread in the November issue of Blue Wings that is just now hitting the seat-back pockets of every Finnair flight from Hong Kong to New York. So if you are flying with the airline this month, keep an eye out for my story and my calendar. You can also read the latest issue online here (scroll to pages 24-25 for the birthday story that is pasted below, and to pages 64-65 for the start of my events listings. Just so you know – “sivu” means page in Finnish.). Hope you like reading the story as much as I liked reporting it!

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Have you flown with Finnair? What was your experience like?

Five reasons to skip Christmas (every now and then)

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus and whatnot last month! However it was you spent those leisurely days between Dec. 24 and New Year’s Eve, I trust you had a jolly time.

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Though I’m in the habit of celebrating Christmas, as is typical in my native Finland, this was my “skip-year,” so I did not do much. Instead of being huddled over a mountain of presents or munching on delicious holiday food, I chilled out in New York and spent those December days much like any others in the city: working, catching up with friends, eating in Thai restaurants, going to the gym, etc.

This might sound sad to you if you are a Christmas fanatic, but don’t worry. For me it’s not at all. You see, over the past decade I’ve crafted my own tradition of forgoing traditional family Christmas celebrations every second year for practical reasons (mostly for saving money and time).

Sure, I do miss my family and it would be great to spend time with them during the holidays, but aside from that, skipping the hustle and bustle of Christmas is really not all that bad. In fact, it’s kind of refreshing.

Some of my skip-year Christmases have been quite memorable, like  2008 when I flew to Cancun, Mexico and danced around the bar with a group of Mexican holidaymakers singing “Feliz Navidad.” Or 2006, when my friends and I toured the vineyards around the Margaret River region of Western Australia. (A white Christmas has a strong contender in my mind – a sunny one! Aussies may be onto something…)

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Being someone who loves change and variety, it’s nice for me to spice things up every other year and do something different from the usual “family dinner – Christmas sauna – presents – church” –routine, as warm and comforting as that can be. This year I attended a Panamanian Christmas fiesta in Brooklyn, where we danced Bachata and Merengue until midnight.

So believe it or not, there are plenty of good reasons to follow my lead on this tradition of skipping the holidays every other year (or at least celebrating them super low-key), many of them travel-related.

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Here are some of the biggest benefits:

1) Avoiding expensive flights

Flying to most places in the world between Dec. 18 and early January is prohibitively expensive. A round-trip ticket from the US to Europe or vice versa can easily set you back $1,000-1,300 this time of the year, when you can find flights in non-peak months for $500-700. So why not postpone that trip home by a couple of weeks and save a small fortune in the process? As most festive dates are artificial anyway, who is to say you cannot celebrate Christmas in January, should you feel like it? Or even in the summer! (Well hey, some scientists say Jesus was born on June 17.)

2) Scoring cheap flights

While prices for flights are generally sky-high in the end of December, there are two dates when you might score a deal: Dec. 25 and Dec. 31. Yep, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. That’s because most people wouldn’t dream of flying anywhere on these days, preferring to celebrate on the ground. But during my skip-years, I am more than happy to fly whenever, if it saves me hundreds of dollars. This New Year’s Eve I flew from New York to Costa Rica for a mere $195 with Spirit (and still made it to San Jose in time for the party!), while the fare was $100-300 more on the days preceding Dec. 31. You can’t beat that!

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(Our NYE party crew in San Jose – matching checkered shirts provided by our friendly host Luis, second from the right.)

3) No presents – no holiday stress

We all know the feeling: the holidays are just around the corner and we have yet to buy a single present, clean the house from top to bottom, bake cookies and plan a fancy dinner for family and friends. And why is it that the days leading up to Dec. 24 always zoom by so quick?! Streeeessssss!!!

– Well, not for me this year! I didn’t need to care how fast Christmas was approaching as I didn’t have a single thing to prepare (aside from picking up a bottle of wine for the Panamanian fiesta). I didn’t buy any presents and I told my family not to get me anything either. I didn’t even send out a single Christmas card. I did put up a holiday greeting on Facebook, but that’s about it. 😉 While everyone else was freaking out about getting things done on time, I couldn’t have been more relaxed the closer we got THE day. Plus I was able to use my Christmas-time savings towards that Central American holiday (I’m typing this on the beach as we speak… yes, I have a beach problem)!

4) Avoiding holiday weight-gain

I know how some of you are feeling right about now – looking at the newly-formed flab on your belly, you’re thinking “did I have to eat that extra box of chocolates during Christmas?” Well, don’t feel bad – you had to. That’s the spirit of Christmas. I’ve been there a million times too, but luckily I’m not there this year. By skipping Xmas I not only steered clear from fattening traditional foods and goodies, I was also able to spend some extra time working out (plus the gym was nice and empty during the holidays)! So now I’m having a much better time touring Central America without extra pounds holding me down. 🙂

5) Bringing that special holiday feeling back

Remember the days when Christmas was something you looked forward to with joy, not dread? Back when you felt like the holidays couldn’t get here fast enough? Yeah, for most people this excitement has been long ago replaced by feelings of panic as December seems to roll around quicker each year (wasn’t in just Christmas 2011?). Thus my solution is the best: when you skip the festivities every other year, Christmas retrieves its role as a truly special occasion – one that only takes place every 24 months, just often enough for you to start missing it. And during your skip-years you can spend the time and money to travel to that dream destination of yours!

What do you think about my “skip-year” habit? Have any of your tried skipping Christmas  or embraced a low-key version of the holiday? Why or why not?

Playing tour guide in Helsinki

Sorry for the blog hiatus, guys… I’m still here, still on the move! I’m currently in New York, after a whirlwind train tour of Russia, Mongolia and China and a 4-day pit stop in South Korea.

But before I get into the train trip (which I did with my dad!), let me tell you about this past summer that I spent in my native country of Finland. I was back in the Arctic North for 2.5 months, which is just enough time to catch up with friends and family in different parts of the country, attend a rock festival, travel to an island or two, get sweaty in countless saunas by the lake, party it up during the summer’s white nights, pick some mushrooms in the forest and eat all the Finnish foods and treats I’ve missed.

This summer I also ended up playing tour guide in Helsinki on four occasions to my North American friends. Most were visiting just for a day onboard one of the big cruise lines, so I got to be quite an expert in showing what the capital of FUN-land is all about in a matter of hours.

Thus I thought I’d share some of my tips with you guys in case you are ever headed to Northern Europe. So here are some of my favorite places to take my visitors in Helsinki:

The Helsinki Cathedral

-This one is a given. It’s the best-known landmark of the city, smack in the middle of Senate Square and near the Market Square where you can find overpriced souvenirs, tasty berries and sweet peas, and salmon sandwiches.

The fancy neighborhoods of Eira and Ullanlinna – the “Upper East Side” of Helsinki (in New York terms)

-Tram 3T is known as the “tourist tram” in Helsinki as it goes past some of the most important sights and the nicest neighborhoods. With my visitors we’d get off at Tehtaankatu and walk around the many picturesque streets in the area, such as Huvilakatu.

Temppeliaukio Church (i.e. The Rock Church)

-It’s a church built inside a piece of granite rock and always teaming with tourists. Many Finns don’t think it’s anything spectacular but foreigners seem to love it, including my visitors. I do think it’s pretty cool too. The church was built in 1969 by Finnish brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen (whose last name, randomly, translates to “Finn”).

The rough and ready Kallio – The “Lower East Side” of Helsinki

-Kallio is a working class neighborhood dotted with Thai “massage” parlors, cheap pubs and subsidized government housing projects. Years ago I even spotted a sign that said “Mirva’s Erotic Show” –  Haha! It’s not often I see my name spelled anywhere, let alone in this context. But as has happened with the Lower East Side in NYC, Kallio (“The Rock”) has also undergone bouts of gentrification and is now home to tons of trendy restaurants and bars, vintage shops and artists and students. It’s because of this eclectic mix that it’s one of my favorite neighborhoods in Helsinki – and the cheap beer doesn’t hurt either!

Punavuori – The “Williamsburg” of Helsinki

-Hipsters are everywhere in Helsinki these days but they are particularly plentiful in the Punavuori district of the city. Earlier in the summer two American girls opened a coffee spot there called Brooklyn Café, which makes the area resemble its New York counterpart even more. Organic food in cafes and restaurants, vintage and design shops, trendy people, cute little city parks… what’s not to like? The gay-friendly street of Iso Roobertinkatu also has a tiny sliver of the vibe of the West Village.

Hotelli Torni (Hotel Tower)

Built in 1931, the legendary Hotelli Torni and its 12th floor offer the best viewpoint in Helsinki where you can see the whole city and even all the way to Estonia on a clear day (or so the legend goes…). Just walk into the lobby and take the elevator to the top floor’s Ateljee Bar. The terrace is a great place to grab an overpriced beer or try a tasty Finnish pear cider. Don’t forget to visit the toilets as they have huge windows – you can see everywhere but people cannot see you as you are so high up.

Linnanmäki amusement park

Finland’s oldest amusement park is a fun place to walk around and people-watch. Entry to the area is free, and there’s one free ride. That’s the UFO-looking round sightseeing wheel that takes you up in the air and offers good views over the park and the city. Every other ride costs around 6 euro and a full day-pass is 38 euro. The best deal is to get the three-hour night-time pass at 7 p.m. for 28 euro, and then pay 5 euro to validate it for the following night as well. That way for 33 euro you’ll get two nights of fun and can try all the rides, including the historic wooden rollercoaster built in 1950. It looks tame but is wilder than you’d think! The rollercoaster is also one of the few left in the world where there are “brakemen” standing in the back of each row of wagons.  They make sure the wagons stop accordingly. This is often said to be the most fun summer job in all of in Finland and some brakemen have been doing the job for decades already.

Some other things I recommend for visitors to try in Helsinki:

Hesburger: The Finnish equivalent of McDonald’s with its own secret mayo recipe. I’ve taken countless American visitors there and most have loved it. One even went so far as to say that Hesburger was her saving grace while visiting the Baltic countries (the chain is also present at least in Estonia, Latvia, Russia and Germany). I recommend trying a kerroshampurilainen (the local “Big Mac”) or megahampurilainen (a mega-sized Big Mac). My vegetarian visitors have thoroughly enjoyed the falafel burger. Don’t forget to get a side of the bell pepper, cucumber or chili mayo to go with the fries!

Pick-and-mix candy: Finnish supermarkets and video rental stores like Makuuni and Filmtown have the best selection of candy in the world. I’m not exaggerating – it’s true. Most carry as many as 400 different types of fruity candy, black licorice and chocolate varieties from which to pick and choose your favorites. For the widest selection I recommend visiting any Prisma or Citymarket, but the Makuuni that is near the Rock Church is a good choice too.

Riding the metro: The Helsinki metro system is one of the shortest in the world and thus you simply cannot get lost. It consists of 17 stations and only one line than splits into two in the end. You should ride it to Itis (formerly known as Itäkeskus – Eastern Center), a big shopping mall crowded with people from all ethnicities.

Sparkling wine deals: Finland is notoriously expensive and especially so when it comes to drinking alcohol due to our high tax rates. But for some reason sparkling wine deals are stills plentiful in Helsinki. One of my old favorites is Bar Baker’s and their afternoon Sparking Bar special: you get a glass of sparkly for 1.5 euro for 100 minutes, from 5 p.m. onward (it actually used to be 90-cent glasses for 90 minutes!). The deal is valid from 5-6.40 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Just walk upstairs to the bar that’s in the corner of Mannerheiminkatu and Kalevankatu, and you’ll see a line of people standing next to hundreds of glasses of sparkling wine. It’s a sight to behold. Other sparkly deals are to be had in the bars located just up from Bakers on Kalevankatu.

And sure, you probably should also try some reindeer meat, cloud berries, rye bread, Karelian pies, blood sausages, bread cheese and other traditional foods. But for a truly authentic Helsinki experience, don’t skip my list!

It’s time to recharge those batteries!

Oopsie, it happened again. As I suspected, I got out of the habit of posting on a daily basis and the longer my writing break grew, the harder it was to get back to it. But no worries, I’m back! At least for now…

So what have I been up to lately? On the outside, it may look like I haven’t done much since the Quality Hunters project ended in the beginning of this month. After all, instead of zooming around the world I’ve now been staying put in Finland, only casually embarking on the two-hour journey between Helsinki (where most of friends live) and Turku (where my family lives). But as unexciting as that may sound, I have to say it’s been pretty nice staying in one time zone for the past three weeks! I’m finally over my two-month jet lag, yee-haw!

And yes it’s true, I definitely haven’t worked all that hard this month. About a week ago I finished writing two long-form articles for the upcoming issue of Expatrium (a magazine for Finnish expats that I regularly write for), but other than that I’ve deliberately been taking it easy this month. That’s because I suddenly realized I have worked non-stop since mid-May! That’s not healthy!

And yes, I realize that the photos above may already look like “a break” to some people, but that’s actually me in work-mode. The fact that I can work from anywhere (like from a Jamaican beach or a mountaintop in Guatemala) doesn’t mean that I never get stressed out or that I don’t work long hours. I definitely do. While I rarely count the actual work hours I put in per week, sometimes I think it must be twice what regular 9-to-5ers put in! Unlike most Monday-to-Friday folks, I am in work mode Monday to Sunday, from morning until the evening. Often times I’ll be walking down a street when a story idea hits me, or I’ll wake up in the morning with a draft of my next lede circling in my head. Sometimes I have to email editors at 4 a.m. just so I won’t forget to do it later. And this is in addition to spending hours per day doing research online and conducting interviews and writing pitches. And oh, writing articles, because they don’t write themselves!

And yes, my job is definitely super cool and fabulous, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I get to interview interesting people, eat awesome foods while doing food reviews, try out new hobbies and attend interesting travel fairs to scout for story ideas.

But despite how much fun my job is, I’ve decided to really take it easy for the month of December. It’s Christmas, people! Time to recharge those batteries and take care of stuff you have been neglecting all year (such as getting wisdom teeth removed! I’m currently in so much pain, ouch!).

And one such errand is obviously to get this blog up and running…please wish me luck with that! I’m hoping that Christmas laziness won’t entirely overtake me…

What about you guys, are you taking a break from work for Christmas (whether or not you celebrate it) or powering straight through to the new year? Either way, make sure to listen to your inner self and do what feels right to you! Merry Christmas!