Monday, July 21, 2014

Finland - The Land of the Umlaut

July 4th - July 11th. Since Michael and I play a lot of Scrabble I often wonder what the tile make up might be in the various countries we've visited. In Finland it is the rare word that doesn't have  duplicate letters and a healthy sprinkle of umlauts. Google tells me the word with the most umlauts is: kääntääjää (Finnish for translator). So you must get extra tiles with ä, ö and ü along with more j and h tiles or there would be no Bingo for you! More on the hard working umlaut can be found here:

I wouldn't mind some "hardcore" punctuation in our daily correspondence.
As we wind down our year of Senior Nomadic adventures we've picked up the pace with shorter stays in  more cities. We flew from Oslo to spend a week in Helsinki, Finland. As expected, the Oslo airport was not only beautiful, functional and people friendly - we had the smoothest security clearance of the whole trip. When you were done you were asked to take a "smiley" button survey to rate your experience. Take a tip TSA - happy people beget happy people.

There are many places I would like to take this simple one-touch survey .
Riitta, our Helsinki host picked us up at the airport. Always much appreciated - however Riitta's car had a manual transmission and she seemed to know very little about how it operates. It made for a wild and crazy ride especially for Michael sitting in the front seat. It was all he could do not to have her pull over and let him drive! Fortunately we arrived safely and found the apartment to be one of the more interesting of our apartments so far. Here's the link:
The snow boot scraper, a standard fixture in every entryway wasn't necessary in July.
This interactive sculpture was just around the corner. You could sing into the pipes or tap them to make hundreds of different sounds.
Around the corner the other way from our house - a sunny beach side promenade
You may have seen that airbnb recently changed their logo and updated their interactive experience. We are big, big fans of airbnb as you know. After staying in 29 different apartments in 12 months  (with three more to go) we have only positive things to say about this amazing peer-to-peer community. Without airbnb this trip would not have been possible from a cost standpoint. But that aside, staying in peoples homes all over Europe made this a cultural experience that would not have been so impactful any other way. Here's a link to Thomas Friedman's column about airbnb in lastSunday's International New York Times: Give it a try next time you are on the road!

There wasn't a television in our flat, and normally that wouldn't disappoint us, but we had become World Cup addicts and now we weren't sure how to get our fix. Michael did some quick research on pubs that were showing the match so we headed into the city. It was the Germany v France quarter final and it brought out the many German fans living in Helsinki so every bar was full. Even a venue called The Sports Academy that can accommodate 1,000 people on two floors was standing room only! That's where we squeezed in and it was fun, but my fellow France fans and I were very much lost in the crowd.
Watching the World Cup match with 1,000 of our closest friends!
Our host had an LCD projector set up to watch movies from the Internet on a white wall so we were able to stream the other matches from the local television station website and create our own Sports Pub. That was a good thing since some of the matches went until 2:00 am our time.
Michael setting up the LCD so we could watch the World Cup at home.
Not shown - beer, peanuts and a Backgammon game in progress.
Our Helsinki apartment was in a great location. We were minutes from large open parks, the beach side home of the famous Regatta Cafe (where they pay YOU five cents when you refill your coffee) and we were close to the tram line that beelined to the center of the city.

The delightful Regatta Cafe. Great pastries and coffee and a fire pit for roasting your own sausages.
The free walking tour took us all around the city, which is very walkable indeed. The Russian influence became more apparent in its influence on history, culture, architecture and lifestyle as we went along. Hanna was our guide and she was adorable in her fuzzy reindeer hat and I 'heart' Finland t-shirt. She was very proud of her country and as enthusiastic as any of the young guides we've had.

Our tour guide Hanna pointing out the entire bay behind her freezes solid in winter and you can safely walk on it!
I spent a great day at Helsinki's huge market. During the summer there are dozens of produce stalls outside the year-round market hall. I continued to shop mostly with my eyes, since we can't pack anything else, and we are on short hops now, so buying ingredients for cooking is also limited. I made up for it with a steaming bowl of market-fresh Bouillabaisse for lunch. It was brimming with shrimp, mussels and a Finnish twist of smoked salmon. Delicious!

We've been eating just picked berries for weeks!
From the fish monger to my bowl of Bouillabaisse - it doesn't get any fresher!
The indoor Market Hall in Helsinki
I found a natural food and drug store in the market similar to PCC. In keeping with the "If we can't eat or drink it don't buy it" mantra, I decided dying my hair sort of fell into that category since there wasn't anything left over after the fact. So I dyed my ever longer head of curls Strawberry Blonde. The dye was made from all natural ingredients including coffee, chamomile, ground roots, essences of things I cannot pronounce and a dash of Henna. How bad could it be? I mixed the large packet of powder with boiling water until I had a murky swamp green goo that smelled like a bag of pre-mixed salad gone very bad. And I actually smeared this on my head. The results were not bad - but I would say the color is more satsuma blonde than strawberry. I am counting on it fading before I get home, as well as it being trimmed away when I finally get to Coupe Rokei for a much needed cut. I've only had three haircuts in a year!

There was great vintage shopping in Helsinki - I hoped to find some affordable Marimekko but no such luck.
If fur grew on sustainable trees instead of adorable animals I would wear it head to toe!
We celebrated Senior Nomad Day 365 while in Helsinki! We found a little waterside bistro and started with a champagne toast - but when the glasses arrived and contained a scant 1/4 cup of bubbly for $10 and nothing but expensive and uninteresting choices on the menu, we made our excuses and dashed away to find something more affordable and enjoyable. We ended up at a Sushi Bar - Michael's first ever!

On our last day we took a two mile walk to Seurasaari Island. It was a perfect summer day and a lovely journey. The island has an "living" museum made of collection of salvaged wooden houses, a farm, a windmill and a church with volunteers in period costume showing what life was like in rural Finland during the late 19th century. There was also a nude beach that was tastefully fenced off for privacy. For just 3 euro you could experience the national affinity for the naturist lifestyle. Tempting ... but not today. We found a bench in the sun with a view to the sea and settled in for some reading time and a picnic.

Houses nestled on the nearby coastal islands.

One of the old restored houses on Seurasaari Island.
A peek at the past instead of the nudists.
The next morning we were off to take a Ferry to Tallinn, Estonia. Being one not to waste food, Michael took it for the team and had the leftover spaghetti and an ice cream bar for breakfast on our way out the door!

We are so excited about our last two weeks. We will be in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania learning more about their recent history and The Signing Revolution! We'll see you there.

The Viking Line ferry from Helsinki was our first travel by sea.

Debbie and Michael,
Senior Nomads 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

It Pays to be Norwegian

June 27th - July 4th. We learned why Norwegians were such friendly, relaxed, happy people. In a country where working is almost a "lifestyle" choice,  everything they could worry about is taken care of.  The average citizen enjoys free health care, childcare and education. Women recieve forty-six weeks of paid maternity leave, and even being old has its benefits. All this is covered by Norway's benevolent government and funded by taxes of course, but mostly from oil revenue. So really, the hardest decision a Norwegian might make is how to spend their six weeks of paid vacation. 

Here is a excerpt from a recent Rueters article - the source is Norges Bank:

The country started a "wealth fund" in 1990 from the proceeds of their oil royalties. The fund now owns 1% of all the stocks, bonds and real estate around the globe. If you take the total value of the fund in 2014, which is 5.11 trillion Krone and divide it by the 5 million citizens of Norway, then every man, woman and child is a theoretical millionaire.

Norwegians on the way to the bank.
Oslo could be one of our favorite cities of the trip. It was clean, it was beautiful, it was prosperous. It was expensive! We had read that prices in Oslo would be higher than Paris or even London and it was true. Especially the cost of food and drink - the two things we purchase most. It didn't help that the Norwegian Krone is one of those currencies with lots of zeros so there were large price tags that we needed to convert into 'dollar-think' so when I spent an eye-popping 200 kr for a few groceries - it was really only about $33. Still not cheap for coffee, milk, cereal, OJ and two bananas.

They make it difficult to buy alcohol here so that saves a bit of money. When you do buy it you just have to close your eyes and not think about paying $20. for a $6. bottle of wine or 5 bucks for a can of beer. The rules are: No sales on Sunday, no wine in grocery stores - you need a special store for that and hard liquor. Not many of those to be found and they close at 5:00 on weekdays and 3:00 on Saturday. Beer can be purchased at the grocery store between 10:00 and 8:00 on weekdays, and until 6:00 on Saturday. The moral here: drink in moderation and plan ahead!

A typical Nomad dinner with a dash of NBC Nighly news.
Our apartment was small but comfortable and the deck was welcome since it was warm for Oslo. The best part was the location - very close to the city center, but in a quiet complex of mixed income housing. There were several parks and fountains and two grocery stores with the confines of the complex. And the center of the city was just a fifteen minute walk away.

Here's the link:

We were prudent and found several inexpensive concerts and of course took the free walking tour. Our favorite find was an afternoon concert series at the stunning opera house - so good we went twice. Not only is the building stunning - the music was really great. Opera arias on one day and a very entertaining male A Cappella quartet the next day who had some some with Barbershop.

The stunning Opera House dips into the North Sea.
Taking advantage of the short Scandinavian Summer
We also spent a day at Vigelandsparken. This 112 acre park was designed by Norwegian artist Gustav Vigeland and contains 225 of his unbelievable statues throughout the grounds. The work covers a span from 1919 to 1944. The pictures won't do these incredible figures credit. The multiple bronze figures were outstanding, but the massive granite people were so expressive and emotive of moments in real life that it was easy to imagine them slowly waking up after midnight, having a good stretch and then lumbering around chatting with each other until it was time to take up their positions again at dawn.
A busy Norwegian Stay at Home Dad
Honestly, we didn't do it!
123 figures are striving for the top in this centerpeice.
"I just realize I am naked. Wait - all the statues are naked!"
Only Vigeland could capture what it's really like to be a mother.
As I said, the city was pristine. The streets were spotless, no scribbled graffiti tags (more on that later), and not a homeless person in sight. Every thing was so well groomed it felt like the city had a good nights sleep and a daily mani-pedi. The public spaces were well thought out, with human comfort always top of mind. There were parks of all sizes filled with flower beds, shade trees, benches, public art and imaginative play areas with climbing toys and splash ponds for kids. The trams and underground trains were on-time, and spotless. The crime rate is very low here and we didn't see a single homeless person. Even the few gypsies we saw seemed content.

If you do want to earn money in Oslo - you have options.
On day two of our week in Oslo we joined in celebrating the culmination of EuroPride Week by watching the grand parade! We found a great vantage point and enjoyed watching thousands of happy, colorful, flag-waving, people dance and prance along the parade route ending at a  large outdoor festival on the waterfront.

A glimpse  at the merry marchers in the EuroPride Parade.
Happiness, rainbows, butterflies and glitter. Lots of glitter.
Our walking tour turned out to have a street art focus so it was less about the history and highlights of the city and more about the many murals and smaller portraits and icons found mostly in the hip (and hippie) Grunerlokka district. While the art is technically illegal, the city turns a blind eye to most of it, and if fact has sponsored some of the larger murals. The tour ended near a market hall filled with a dozen restaurants and food vendors where we had a great (expensive) lunch. Fish and chips, Mussels and Frites, and two glasses of wine - $50.

Several styles of street art on one corner.
Me surrounded by cats, of course!
Street art naturally makes you hungry for street food!
During the tour we did pass Youngstorget Square where in 2011 Anders Breivik set off a bomb in front of a government building as a distraction while he was an hour away shooting down young people attending a political party summer camp on the island of Utoya. 77 people died that day. It's difficult to imagine such a tragedy taking place in what otherwise feels like utopia.

Another piece of public art we found fascinating was layed out in front of the City Planning building. The piece is called Grass Roots Square and was created by Korean artist Do Ho Suh. At first glance it looked like the paving stones were interspersed with squares of grass, but on closer look, the "grass" was actually made up of hundreds of tiny bronze figures. There are 500 different types of people created in different sizes for a total of 40,000 figures.

Grass Roots Square. At first we thought this was grass.
With a closer look we could see the squares were filled with people!
I could have looked at this all day. Absolutely amazing in it's scope.
Contemporary architecture mixed with old-world grandeur gave the city a vibrant skyline, while lush forests and the brisk North Sea hugged the edges. We hopped on a tram line that took us straight up into the hills behind the city to the Holmenkollen ski-jump site where we could look down on the city. The ski-jump was massive, and a little eerie looking without snow. This beautiful, half hour journey is a hoh-hum daily commute for many residents who live along the way - we should all be so fortunate. The lodge-like Holmenkollen hotel and the views from its grounds made for a great (affordable) day out.

These buildings are fondly referred to as The Barcodes.
The Ski jump from a safe distance.
The grand Holmenkollen Hotel.
The view from the top of the hill towards the fjord and the city center.
We watched the USA v Belgium match at the Boheman Sports Pub late that night. The match started at 11:00 pm here and it was still light out when we walked to the pub. We were sorry to see the USA go home - but what an interesting match to watch, if only for Tim Howard's superhuman efforts at goal.

This shot was taken shortly before Midnight!
We attended church in the Lutheran cathedral. It was elegant yet austere - kind of like Lutherans. Very Nordic and the priest was a young women who wore black skinny jeans and Tom's under her robes. Loved it. Norway's Prime Minister is a woman, as well. Good job Norway.

The Cathedral ceiling.
Michael took some time to tour the Parliament building
Our take-away was having the stork drop you down a Norwegian chimney would be a very, very good piece of luck. But remember, this is a city where you need "Summer Down", and that chilled our enthusiasm a bit. Plus very long, dark winter days could be depressing. Here's a fun blog I found about the pros and cons of moving to Norway:

A hint about the weather here.

Happy Fourth of July America! We love you, too.

Debbie and Michael
Senior Nomads

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Men in Plaid

June 20th - June 27th. After two weeks in Ireland we flew to Edinburgh, Scotland - home of clan Campbell. My Day family heritage is equal measures Irish, Scottish, English and Welsh so I was with my people, but we are really faux Campbells. Michael's mother was fortunate to marry William Campbell after Michael's father passed away when he was very young.  However Michael's wonderful stepfather passed on some very important Scottish values to his young Danish and Portuguese son that have been the foundation for our our own family values.

We flew to Scotland on Ryanair. An airline to be avoided if you ask me. We were at the mercy of some very convoluted luggage requirements that forced us to buy an extra carry-on bag to avoid excessive checked bag fees by complying with their generous carry-on weight allowance. I guess a tick in the plus column was having the chance to do a little Spring cleaning of our belongings. We still brought most everything except my favorite condiments like good olive oil and mustard.

Ryanair also lands at the airport furthest from Edinburgh. Like an hour-and-a-half-city bus ride  further. But one thing we often have is time so no stress on our end. We spent $6.00 for the journey into town (one of the top ten bargains of the trip) and settled in on the top level of a double-decker bus and had a birds eye view all the way.
The view from our front row seats on the bus from the airport.
A sign sighted from the bus offers deep fried Haggis balls. I need to research before I take up that offer. 
We were dropped right across the street from our apartment where we were met by the host's parents. They were very jolly, and very proud of their son Dario with his lovely flat and his 'fab' job. However, it soon became apparent that he needed a wife, and his mother is bound and determined to find him one. She even asked me if I knew any lovely American girls that might be willing to move to Edinburgh. He is handsome -so let me know.

Here's a link to his flat:

A van parked outside our door - they'd better be more than good at what they do!
The pub where prisoners could have a last pint before they met their maker.
It truly was a great apartment.  We found a well equipped kitchen with a little breakfast nook - and the best flat screen TV yet! We were all set for watching the rest of the World Cup matches - made even better with BBC's world-class coverage. It's a good thing we were within walking distance of the city centre because with three matches a day we had to pop out to see the city when we could or duck into sports pub (poor us) to catch a score. It was fun to keep track of the results because of  our family pool - but it turns out I have really came to enjoy the game! Who knew?

My first and only World Cup bet £10 on the USA
Our free walking tour took us throughout the city centre including parts of the Royal Mile, the castle and some sites that inspired J.K. Rowling as she wrote Harry Potter in a upstairs coffee shop. Her perch overlooked a foreboding cemetery and a coal blackened, gargoyle covered building that was once a home for orphans but became the public school her children attended.

Our walking tour group. What a great city to explore through history.
The grave site of Voldemort where Harry Potter fans leave letters daily.
Never pass a Mr. Whippy truck without stopping. It's the best soft ice cream on the planet.
Classic Mr. Whippy - dense vanilla ice cream stuck with Cadbury chocolate stick.
Edinburgh is a manly city even though the men wear skirts. Muscular soot-covered buildings loomed everywhere and statues of great men sat (usually on horseback) in most every square. There were secret doorways, narrow alleyways, and hidden gardens. There were large churches with massive spires and an imposing castle carved into the stone hillside overlooking the city.

Back to men in kilts. I love the look - and it is very, very manly (and sexy) when you see it worn properly with all the right accessories. We are not talking Utilikilts with Sub-Pop T-shirts here.

No doubt an ancestor resplendent in the family tartan
Along the Royal Mile - with the Queen's Summer home, Hollyrood Palace, at one end and the castle at the other, beautiful gardens shops of every kind flanked the sides. I am fond of Marks & Spencer, especially the food hall, so I was happy to find a huge one in the heart of the city. Since we really only buy things that can be consumed, food and beverage browsing is my retail therapy.

I did try haggis - and it was good, but it smelled like a barnyard!
Michael spent an afternoon at the Scottish Lawn Tennis Club where years ago he organized a pre-Wimbledon tournament to allow some of ProServ's best players, including Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Conners and John McEnroe to get some practice on grass between The French Open and Wimbledon. He met with the current director who knew of the event and gave Michael a lovely coffee table book commemorating 100 years of Scottish tennis that included a section on The Bank of Scotland Grass Court Championships held between 1987 - 89. Mr. Campbell was 'chuffed' as they say here.

Michael worked with some of the best, and nicest players while at ProServ.
Staying in the sports mode we took a day trip to St. Andrew's to revisit the golf course where the British Open is played every five years. For the first time we traveled with a tour company by mini bus. It was just right for this outing. There were 16 passengers on board along with an engaging guide who took us through a seaside village and a fishing port on the way, and stopped in a quaint village for a stretch on the way back. We had three hours in St. Andrew's and that was plenty of time to watch lucky amateurs (make that wealthy amateurs) have a go at the Old Course.  Also tme for a pub lunch, a wander along the seawall, a stroll through the college campus and some time at the Abbey ruins. It turns out we were there on graduation day - so there were many St. Andrews graduates decked in robes and garters being photographed by proud family throughout the village. St. Andrew's is where Kate and William met and I could have bought the commemorative plate to prove it, but just like the tennis book, it wouldn't have made the weight cut.

The rich kids putting-out to finish their round at St. Andrews.
Michael enjoyed revisiting this magnificent course
There's always time for lunch!
A peek into the grave yard at St.Andrew's Abbey
The week went by quickly and soon we were off to Oslo, Norway! As we head to the finish line of our year as Senior Nomads, our travels are looking more like a grand finale -  bursts of short colorful stays in several cities including Oslo and Helsinki followed by stops in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Then home to Seattle through London on July 24th!

Nomads on the move!
The Queen Anne house is rented through the end of December, so our nomadic life will continue ... so the blog may never end! Look for more posts, more often over the coming weeks.

Debbie and Michael Campbell
Senior Nomads