Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for October, 2009

On Suomenlinna

On Suomenlinna

Sure, we had slightly more than 36 hours to enjoy Helsinki. But considering the amount of time we wasted trying to locate our luggage, shopping at convenience stores to replenish things we needed from our lost luggage, etc., we didn’t have a lot of time.

So I’ve highlighted the major sites we made sure to enjoy during our long weekend in Finland.

1. Suomenlinna: This sea fortress, built on six islands just a short boatride from a Helsinki harbor, was built in the mid-1700s and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It was run by the Swedes, then the Russians, and finally, of course, the Finns themselves, after they gained their independence.

The huge fortress

The huge fortress

The island also offers great views into the Baltic!

The island also offers great views into the Baltic!

 

2. Uspenski Cathedral: Built in the 1800s, this Eastern Orthodox Church towers over the central part of Helsinki. If you go between the hours of noon and 3 p.m., you can take a peek inside, too, and  see the ornate decorations.

Uspenski Cathedral, from the street level

Uspenski Cathedral, from the street level

 

Inside of the cathedral...

Inside of the cathedral...

3. Senate Square and the Lutheran Cathedral: The main “plaza” of Helsinki, this square is home to the Parliament building, a large university building AND  the Helsinki Cathedral,originally built as a tribute to Nicholas I, the Tsar of Russia, and until the independence of Finland in 1917, called St. Nicholas’ Church.  It’s also a block away from the Helsinki City Museum, which is free for visitors.

I’d suggest going to the tourist office, where you can purchase a guide of 7 self-guided walking tours for 2 euros. If you do, you can quickly learn about all the buildings surrounding Senate Square, as well as get ideas for some other interesting walks.

Senate Square

Senate Square

 

Helsinki Cathedral

Helsinki Cathedral

5. Kauppatori Square: This market square is right next to the sea, and there’s pretty old (indoor) public market building right there. Inside, you can grab a cheap falafel or a reindeer kebab sandwich, buy souvenirs (cloudberry jam, reindeer jerky, smoked trout) and even take a look at some fish.
We couldn’t get over how much salmon there is there, all marinated in different ways (some with ligonberries, rosemary, pepper, etc.). We  purchased two rye bread open-faced sandwiches pictured below. One had trout roe, the other had shrimp. They were about 2.50 euros each.
The open-air market adjacent to the building is a typical farmer’s market, and it operates from morning to early afternoon. The indoor market is open until 6 p.m. on weekdays, 4 p.m. on Saturdays.
A salmon stand at the public market

A salmon stand at the public market

Our rye bread sandwiches from the market

Our rye bread sandwiches from the market

6. Hotel Torni: This is one of the tallest hotels in Helsinki (it’s a low-rise city, so that’s not saying much) and it has a bar with a beautiful view on the 14th floor. Not only are the walls glass, the sides of the bar are patios enclosed in glass, too.

Helsinki at night.

Helsinki at night.

8. Museums: Between the National Finland Museum, Helsinki Museum, Design Museum, etc., there are plenty of places to see on a rainy – or cold- day. When we were visiting, the Helsinki City Art Museum was running an exhibit called “Good Grief! 50 Years of Peanuts in Finland.”
Helsinki City Art Museum

Helsinki City Art Museum

Tomorrow: Food in Finland…

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Around a park...

Around a park...

Since D. and I couldn’t make it to Morocco for the class break, we started looking around online for cheap rates at hotels and noticed that the Nordic countries — which were so expensive over the summer — were actually quite reasonable to visit in late October. Probably because it’s cold – but we don’t care. We are cold-weather people — we love chilly air, rain, clouds — basically, everything that depresses other people inspires us.

We never made it up to Finland over the summer, so we decided on Helsinki as our vacation spot. I got a great rate at the Hotel GLO, a very nice place located in the middle of downtown. It’s connected to the Hotel Kamp, which has a very lovely spa. Since we booked a suite, we also got free access to the spa, and the saunas. Can’t go to Finland without using a wood sauna, after all!

Our hotel room was decked out in typical Scandinavian design – wood floors (Why oh why don’t hotels in the U.S. do this? It’s so much cleaner than having some nasty carpeting!), minimal furniture, funky sinks and spigots. I particularly loved the table/lamps seen below. How multipurpose can you get?

Our hotel room had these table-lights. I want one!

Our hotel room had these table-lights. I want one!

 

Without giving you step-by-step account of everything we did, let me just say that, overall, we were very impressed by the city. It’s small. At just half-a-million inhabitants, its population is roughly the size of Milwaukee’s. Or Wyoming’s. And it’s beautiful. And very, very clean. No trash, no graffiti, no gross empty stretches of abandoned lots. No stinky alleyways.

Also, the architecture is amazing – every building in the central part of the city is either a lovely old 1890’s-type intricate buildling, a brightly-painted Art Deco building, or an Art Noveau building. They are all really well restored (or maintained).

Here are a few of my favorites:

Building across from our hotel

Building across from our hotel

Beautiful old building near the Design Museum

Beautiful old building near the Design Museum

Cool government office

Cool government office

The whole city looks like this! Amazing.

The whole city looks like this! Amazing.

Tomorrow: Our top sights in Helsinki…

Read Full Post »

Diwali on my Doorstep

Straight from Pune...

Straight from Pune...

D. and I returned from Finland to find a message in our mailbox that indicated we had a package waiting for us… somewhere. But we couldn’t read the terrible handwriting on it – only a phone number. And, seeing as we’d already used up our “French-speaking Friend Points” last week to deal with a plumber, we really didn’t know what to do. But the next morning, as I stepped out our back door to bring my rosemary plant in for the winter, I tripped over a huge cardboard box that was sitting on the stairs.

Hmm… how did a package get into the walled courtyard while my landlady was on vacation? We really have no idea. I find it hard to imagine a scrappy French Fed-Ex guy scaling the stone wall simply to deliver our ladoos and chivda. So, I’m chalking it up to divine intervention. Or the cleaning lady. Either one.

I opened it up to find that Aai and Papa had sent us 9 boxes of snacks. Yes, nine boxes. As well as a bar of sandalwood and rose soap and D. said is traditional to use to bathe with on the first day of Diwali. Well, we missed that, since it was Oct. 17, but we’re still enjoying the snacks.

There was also a nice card with Ganesha on it – although it’s all in Marathi, so I can’t read it (actually, I’m pretty sure it’s all in Hindi, not Marathi. But you have to understand,  “Marathi” is really my code word for “I can’t read any of it and don’t want to admit that my Rosetta Stone Hindi isn’t working, so I’ll pretend its all in a different language”).

In fact, I can’t read anything on any of the packages, and was somewhat hesitant to eat any of them before D. got home to tell me what they were. Hell, I probably would have eaten the soap or something.

My favorites, however, are definitely these things:

Sweet salty fried snacks

Sweet salty fried snacks

They’re fried little puffy squares with something vaguely sweet on the inside. I’m sure they’re terrible for me. So, now I just need to get D. to invite some people over who can help us enjoy these snacks, otherwise none of our clothes will fit us next week. But he doesn’t want to share…which I understand. I think we’re all a bit over-possessive about comfort foods from home. After all, I got mad at him for eating up all my Trader Joe’s peanut-filled pretzels earlier this fall. So, all’s fair in Foods from Home.

Read Full Post »

In my next post, I’m going to tell you all about my fabulous weekend trip to Finland.

But first, I’m going to tell you a little story about two people, just trying to get out of Paris…

This story starts off in small village in a big woods. Our two protagonists decide to take the train from their village to Paris Gare de Lyon, so they can then catch another two more trains, and finally make it to Charles de Gaulle International Airport. After all, the airport is very far away, and parking is very, very expensive where they live.

Our couple arrives at the platform of their train station 15 minutes early, and begins waiting for a 11:46 train. But it never comes. They “know” it “must” be running, since they checked the Internet daily schedule just minutes before leaving their home… yet it never comes.

They rush in their car, drive like maniacs to the nearby larger town (with more connecting trains), decide to pay for parking there, and just barely manage to grab a train heading into Paris. As they board the train, they hear an announcement, “Attention! The next train to Paris has been cancelled.”

Now, it starts to make sense! For some reason, on this random Wednesday, only one train per hour is going into Paris, and the one that has been cancelled each hour is the one that goes past their village. Why? Who knows.

Eventually, after spending the last 15 minutes of the 40-minute train ride listening to an emergency siren that, mysteriously, is going off on the train (and which no one seems to want to turn off), our heroic couple ends up in Paris. After transferring several times,  they finally make it to the airport.

All is good with the world, as they are only about 30 minutes later than scheduled. And our couple is always, always early, so this is not a problem.

As they arrive in the airport, they go to the SAS airlines counter, hand the ticket agent their passports and… WHAM!

The lights turn off.

The power has gone out. All throughout Charles De Gaulle International airport. No generators.

The entire airport is without power.

For nearly TWO HOURS.

The woman in our little story needs to use the restroom, but even this proves difficult. After all, there are no lights. She fearlessly charges ahead, using only the light from her cellphone to guide her. Afterwards, she puts soap on her hands, suds them up and… realizes there is no water, because the faucets are supposed to turn on automatically.

Not one to be stopped from washing her hands, she finds her Evian bottle, and asks her husband to pour it slowly, as she rinses her hands over a trash can. Desperate times, she reasons, call for desperate measures.

At no point in the next hour-and-a-half are there any announcements made over the loudspeakers. No security guards or ticket agents know what is happening. Our couple briefly worries that this is some sort of terrorist plot, but then decides, no, it’s probably just their piss-poor luck.

I would like to point out at this point that no one can buy snacks, soda, wine or water, or even a magazine, because all the cash registers are down.

With just 30 minutes to go until the flight is scheduled to take off, the lights come back on. Miraculously, the flight only takes off about 45 minutes late. Strong headwinds, however, make it take even longer than planned to go to Finland.

Oh, our couple’s luggage? And the luggage of every single person on that airplane? Not on the plane. Since the electricity was down, they couldn’t route it to the plane.

And so, our couple spends the next 36 hours of their lives in the same clothes, without anything but the coats on their backs and a few books. And carmex. Because the woman never leaves home without it. Add it’s really dry on airplanes.

When the two arrive in Helsinki, at 10:30 p.m. , the cheap cab they planned to share with other passengers into the city is not running. So they have to pay about 40 euros just to get to the hotel.

Whatever, Alexander. This couple knows how to have a  really terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Read Full Post »

You never know what you will see on the side of the country roads here in France.

To get from D’s school (and the center of town) to our place, you have to travel for about 5 minutes on a 4-lane country highway that goes through the forest of Fontainebleau.

Sometimes, especially in the evening, you see deer. Or wild boars.

Other times, especially in the day, you see men peeing on the side of the road. Or, prostitutes.

Yes, that’s right.

Young women (and sometimes, unfortunately, young teenagers) stand in pairs just a few feet off the road’s shoulder, wearing puffy jackets, tight pants and too much makeup. They’re strategically located a few kilometres from one another, and they’re standing on each major road that leaves the city, so there’s obviously a lot of forethought (and a business plan?) that goes into this.

They’ll usually be there for a day or two, then leave, and not come back for a few more weeks.

The first time I saw these girls, I drove past and thought,

 “Oh wow, someone’s car broke down, that sucks! I wonder if I should help…no, I don’t speak French. Well, they probably have a cell phone anyway.”

Then…

Hmmm that’s weird, they don’t have a car. How could it have broken down?”

Then…

 “Wow, they’re dressed like …. Ohhhhhh!”

What can I say, I’m a bit slow on the uptake?

This summer, my friends and I were driving back from a store and were practically in an accident after some dumbass guy decided, at the last minute, to stop for one of the girl.  Basically, he slammed on his breaks so hard and suddenly that about 6 cars behind him (all, of course, tailgating because that’s what they do here in France) had to slam on their breaks, and we all almost crashed into each other. Fortunately, we didn’t.

Thanks, dude. Glad it couldn’t wait.

Honestly, though, I’m really surprised that this goes on in France. Remember, we aren’t in some really run-down, dangerous part of a big American city, where you might see women walking the street. No, these spots are on country roads in the forest, near pretty pricey real estate in the nearby villages. It’s shocking to see these girls standing by the side of the road, and the police just ignoring it – we’re not in a poor country, here, we’re in France!

What the hell? Does anyone have an information about this? It seems that prostitution is illegal in France, but obviously the officials don’t really go after it. Even more disturbing, a lot of these girls look  like they aren’t French, meaning they were trafficked here. Which gives an entirely more seedy and sad dimension to the whole thing.

Is this common in other parts of France, too?

Read Full Post »

When I first saw this article last night, I thought it was a joke. But no, it’s not.

McDonald’s is coming to the Louvre.

You know they all want a Big Mac...

You know they all want a Big Mac...

 That’s right. Well, not exactly to the museum itself. The company is planning to open a restaurant in the Carousel, the underground shopping area between the Louvre-Rivoli metro stop and the entrance to the museum. This area is already full of shops and a food court. There’s even a Starbucks there, which I’ve never stopped at, but which is always packed.

Still, of course, the decision to open the fast-food joint at the doors of the world’s most famous art museum is  provoking some “outrage” and a lot of bad puns in newspapers all over the world.

Meh.

What’s the big deal?

I mean, other than the greasy McDonald’s smell that will no doubt waft through to the museum’s entrance (not really what I want to smell when I’m gettin’ my art on).

There are McDonald’s all over France. It’s hardly like this is some new, crass, corporate American invasion of  Paris, Capital of World Gastronomy.

I’m much more annoyed by reports I’ve read in the past about McDonald’s trying to open outlets near the Aztec ruins in Mexico, or on the plaza in Oaxaca. But this? Is it that big a deal?

When I first moved here, I was shocked to see so many McDonald’s, actually. Even more surprising is on Friday and Saturday evenings, they are packed! 

So I learned more about this while reading a fabulous new book,  “Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine and the End of France,” by Michael Steinberger. The book contains a very eye-opening chapter about McDonald’s in France. Not that Steinberger is exactly praising the chain’s proliferation in the country (France is the second-most profitable market for McDonald’s, after the U.S.A) but he explains why it’s such a hit among French people, and he takes a very balanced approach to looking at the benefits, and problems, coming out of the company’s operations there.

Among the tidbits I picked up from the book:

* McDonald’s European operations are run by a Frenchman, and many people think he will be next in line to take over the entire Chicago-based company. Yes, a Frenchmen could someday run McDonald’s.

* Retirees are among the chain’s most loyal clients in France.

* French McDonald’s sources 75 percent of its ingredients domestically.

* French people visit McDonald’s in their own, very French way. Americans, for example, visit McDonald’s more often than do the French, at all hours of the day, frequently alone, and they opt for takeout 70 percent of the time. The French spent more money per visit, come in groups more often, and they do 70 percent of their eating during regular lunch and dinner hours.

* McDonald’s purchases their macarons for their McCafes from the same company that owns the famous Ladurée bakery.

*By 2005, more than 40 percent of all French were considered overweight or obese, a figure that had doubled in less than a decade and which is rising by more than 10 percent annually. On a per capita basis, if that trend continues, the French will rank up there with the Americans in terms of obesity by 2020. Is this McDonald’s fault? No, no one is sying that.

*By 2007, McDonald’s had nearly 50,000 people on its payrolls in France,  making it the country’s largest private sector employer. Also, in 2006, McDonald’s was ranked the 8th best company to work for in France.

*Many of  the company’s outlets are in predominantely immigrant neighborhoods where unemployment rates among youth are often as high was 50 percent. It provides jobs for many of they young people there. I’m not really sure if I buy this, but listen to what Steinberger writes about  October, 2005, when the suburbs around Paris exploded in riots, with young people  torching many cars and trashing local businesses.

McDonald’s outlets were generally spared.  “We were very protected,” Henneguin (head of European McDonald’s)  told me. “The kids would  say, ‘ Hey, my sister works there. ‘  We’ve rarely been hit.”

McDonald’s, in his view, was helping to assimilate a large and rapidly growing immigrant population that generally felt marginalized in French society, and it was  promoting diveristy and solidary in a country that badly needed more of both. .. “In alot of these neighborhoods,  there arent alot of options. McDonald’s is one of them,” he said.

He went on to explain that McDonald’s tries to maintain certain ethnic and racial balances in their outlets, and will sometimes even send workers to different neighborhoods in order to achieve this goal.

It’s interesting to know all these facts about French McDonald’s. Now, does that mean I want to eat a Big Mac at the Louvre? No. I want to go to Cafe Richelieu, in the Richelieu wing of the museum, and eat outside on the terrace overlooking the glass pyramid.

But, you know, if I’m a mom visiting with her family of four from, say, Minneapolis, and I don’t have a ton of money, and I want something quick to eat before seeing the Mona Lisa with my kids – maybe I would go for it. I know it’s hard to find inexpensive food in Paris, especially around the tourist sites. Not everyone has the time, or the money, to visit the town’s best bistros. And, frankly, some people don’t want to.

To each his (or her) own.

Read Full Post »

I’ve wanted to go to Morocco ever since I was about 6 years old.

That’s when my family went on a vacation to Florida, and I visited the “Morocco” exhibit at Epcot Center. I don’t really remember the display, only that my mother bought me a doll for my international doll collection there — she wore a dark pink tunic with blue and yellow swirls. She also wore a light pink lace headscarf that went all the way down her back, and both fabrics were decorated with gold sequins. She had pointy-toed shoes and gold earrings and necklaces, and I was just certain that I just had to go to Morocco some day.

Sometimes, I would include her in my Barbie Dream House gang, pretending that she was a foreign exchange student who was staying with Skipper and felt very homesick.

Anyway, I’ve never made it to Morocco.

D. and I originally planned to go there on our honeymoon, but a terrorist blast in Casablanca derailed those plans. 

So, several years later, since we’re in France and it’s just a hop-skip-and-jump away to Morocco, I thought for sure we would finally go. EasyJet just started flights from Paris to Marrakesh, and they’re cheap, so I’ve done all my research, decided where to go, made hotel reservations and… now it’s all for nothing.

Because D. is an Indian citizen, he needs a visa (the story of our lives). And, because we don’t speak French or Arabic, we can’t get anyone at the Moroccan Consulate in Paris on the phone to help us out with the very simple questions of, what do we need to show you for a visa, how much does it cost, and where do you go to apply for it?

When I was in the US last month,  I called the Moroccan embassy (and consulate) there, hoping they would help me, since they speak English. But no. First of all, their site clearly states that they can only process visas if you are currently residing in the US. So I emailed and called multiple people to ask if  they knew of someone who spoke English at the Moroccan embassy in Paris, who could help us out. Or, I don’t know, maybe they could collect the info for us and just pass it on?

Nope.

One woman in DC who answered the phone who told me she “had no idea.” Another person from DC I emailed replied saying, “Almost all Moroccans Speak English so you can call them.”

So I called the consulate in Paris again.

Me: “Parlez-Vous Anglais?

Man: Non!  He hangs up.  

So I sent another email to another consulate in the US requesting information and received my favorite response of all.

What you can do is to go to google look for consulat maroc france you will find a phone number. Good Luck.”

Gee, thanks, Moroccan Embassy.

I had French and Arabic-speaking friends call the Moroccan Consulate in France for me, too, but they could never get anyone on the phone. They called during the day and the phone just rang and rang and rang.

I’d be easy for me to just say “Pff! Who cares? If you don’t want our tourism, fine!”

Except that we had really cool plans. Scared off by horror stories of overly-commercialized tourist cities like

Where we were going to go...

Where we were going to go...

Marrakesh, we had planned to stay just one day in that city, then take a bus to this rural village in the Todra Valley, where there is small eco-hotel called Ksar El Khorbat. It’s in an old walled city that has set up a sustainable tourist trade to help preserve the buildings and provide opportunities for local people. You stay in a really old guesthouse, and can take day trips including guided hikes around an oasis, 4×4 rides into the desert, trips to see nearby famous gorges, etc.

The restaurant is staffed by local women who make their traditional specialties (Like camel and date tajines), and the hotel even told me I could go in the kitchen one day and learn how to do some cooking.

It’s quite inexpensive for food and lodging, but it’s also nice to know that they money you do spend there is going to help the community. The hotel’s Web site logs all the projects that the nonprofit that started the hotel is working on, including running a school for local kids, renovating the city’s old walls and finding better ways to dispose of trash in order to protect the environment.

This was supposed to be our room:

The room we had booked

The room we had booked

Awesome, right?

But, now, I had to cancel my reservation. We just can’t figure out how to get D. a visa, no one is cooperating with us, and frankly, time is running out. You have to buy your plane tickets before you can get a visa, and at this point, who could guarantee us he’ll have his passport back with a visa before our vacation starts?

So, we’ve come up with other plans for an October trip. And, for now, we’ll have to wait to go to Morocco. Again. But, mark my words, SOME DAY I am going to Morocco and I am staying at El Khorbat and I am going to love it. Promise.

Read Full Post »