Monday, February 14, 2011

Talinn by Boat

An overnight cruise to Talinn, Estonia to shake off the Finnish winter blues. Slide into port around midnight, get up in the morning and leisurely make your way into town.

Finns don't do things that way. At 6.30am a voice over the tannoy announced that we had to vacate our rooms in 15 minutes and the boat in a half hour. So we poured children into snowsuits and stumbled out into a snow storm. Talinn which was supposed to be 5 degrees warmer was actually much colder and more Baltic than Helsinki.

We stumbled onto a taxi driver who spoke little English but I managed to figure out his Swedish and he dropped us off at a hotel that was serving breakfast. I now realise it was a bit away from where we wanted to go but I thought it wouldn't be too difficult to get into the old town, find the tour bus we wanted to get an overview of the city as we only had 11 hours on shore.

We had a lovely breakfast, filled to the brim with caffiene and cakes we went out into the Estonian capital. Only to be confused by badly marked bus stops, winter and summer timetables, no show buses. I have to admit that I lost my cool. I'd had enough of planning things that fell apart due to no fault of my own, museums and amusement parks that weren't open, struggling in languages I cannot fathom or can only half-arse in. So I grumped for a while.

Then we decided that waiting outside with the 3 Weans for a bus that may never come was silly, so 3 hours already in the can we went off to a little science museum to let the kids warm up and have some fun. Foo discovered a wonky mirror that kept him happy for ages. My camera decided to die, so had to make do with my too expensive phone. But it did pretty well.

We then wandered the old town of Talinn. More medieval and interesting that Helsinki. Lots of winding cobbled streets, old wooden buildings and stone towers. There were lots of little craft shops hidden in lanes that we ducked into, including a glass blower working at his fire and a woman handpainting some fabric.

Ladies what lounge.

Of course the city had that annoying trick that most cities you visit have of offering lots of shops, restaurants, cafes or whatever you're not looking for until you're actually looking for them. We struggled to find some place for lunch, but eventally found a nice pub that offered Estonian food and hot wine with a slug of something more potent that kept wee Bumptious sleepy for a while - oops! But it warmed my cockles as well so made the bitter wind that sometimes caught up with us a bit more bearable.

We were guided around a bit by a lovely but funny Russian couple Stella and Olav. She had the full length full coat and he was decked out in leather, pushing their grandson in a very posh pram. They showed us the long way up to the castle and Orthodox Cathedral. Here's them leading the way:

After a long day pushing buggies up medieval alleyways and struggling to find interesting things to see and do, we finally crashed at Cafe Josephine (after Josephine Baker) for an overdose of chocolate cakes. The whole cafe was done up ala Parisian boudouir in velvets and muted lights. I have to admit I eavesdropped on a couple at a table near by as he tried to smooth talk his date - 'your ring goes wonderfully with your eyes'. Young love, heh?!

I managed to get Arno our faithful taxi driver to come and pick us up with a mess of Norwegian, Finnish, English and a few made up words, but he found us at 'un stor kirkko' which is Italian, Norwegian Finnish for the Big Church.

On the way back to Helsinki we had a bit more time to relax and let the boys explore and play on the ship, but I think we were all glad to see our beds that night, even if Bumptious took her dear sweet time settling. She has gotten a bit too used to sleeping with Mum, so has been struggling to get back into the swing of things.

Auntie departed the next day for American shores and work as usual. On Sunday the Chief, Weans and I went to a sledging party at the local Leikkiepuisto. We met some other expats and will hopefully be expanding our circle of friends soon.

And Monday morning brought all 3 Weans a present of a nice fresh cold. So we have Croupy, Snotty and Pheglmy, the new Dwarves. Winter is still with us, but I hope spring is just around the corner, even if that corner is a bit longer than what I would like.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Last Day in Lapland and Porvoo Fun

Boy, this sight-seeing, guest-hosting thing is exhausting, so this catch-up will be brief.

Day 3 in Lapland was more laid back. (Day 1 here and Day 2 here.) We had considered the Zoo in Ranua, but it was an hour away and the temperatures had dropped down to -15C and it was all outdoors. After 2 days mostly outside I didn't think we could expect the kids to put up with that so we went to the Artikum Museum in Rovaniemi before catching the train home. It's just a small museum with a big glass tunnel built on top and most of it underground. It has a nice movie of Lapin nature and a few fun exhibits.

It was a nice finish to the trip. We got a bit of info about the culture in Lapland and the Sami. The kids also got big wide open spaces to run around in. And run they did, but there were bears chasing them. Bump's new to all this, so was a bit worried, but Foo is a charmer, so soon had the fiercest eating out of his hand.

A nice day was had and then it was back on the train for the trip to Helsinki. Seasoned train travellers now, we did everything right and got into our shoe-boxes with no bother. Didn't make it to the dinner service though as we were all shattered. Foo and I of course had trouble settling with all the noise of people getting on and running down the halls, but even we eventually gave up and crashed until way too early the next morning when we entered a still dark Helsinki. Back home to DVDs, Lego Star Wars and our comfy couches and beds.

Today Mormor, Auntie, Foo, Bumptious and I went to Porvoo to sightsee. Ach, let's be honest, we went to shop. With the Chief at work, Mousie at kindergarden and Foo and Bumpy unable to protest (much) we had no choice but to give in to the call of the wool, clothes and craft shops. Even if we were turning into icicles going from one shop to the next.

I managed to resist buying tons of wool I'd never get around to doing things with, but was sorely tempted. I have learned though that I like my little girl in old fashioned clothes and have bought her first pair of panteloons and have found a shop that sells them, little simple dresses with pinafores, velvet jackets and boys' clothes with waistcoats and knee breeches. Much fun will be had this summer dressing them and the poor children will be bemoaning the cruelness of their Äiti for many a year to come, but hey, if you can't dress your kids in panteloons what's the point in having them. Will post plenty of photos soon.

We're off to Talinn, capital of Estonia in a few days, just for a short trip, but should be a nice end to Auntie's visit. Will update soon.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Jolly Old Elf Himself Briefly

Day 2 in Lapland (Day 1 here) - Santa Claus Village beckoned and we followed across the frozen north - via taxi of course, this is the 21st century. To Santa's workshop, just over the Arctic Circle which Bumptious was quite impressed with.

We got there early so didn't have to queue too long. The entrance was a bit of a blur as Mousie was so excited we rushed through to get to see Santa that we missed a lot of secrets about how he works, like stopping time with a big wheel, etc.  Luckily we got a video that should show us more.

When we walked in Foo, who had just woken up, was facing the wrong way so missed Santa entirely. Mousie started off shy, but was soon counting in Finnish for him and thanking him for his Christmas present. He asked some questions and then we all posed for pictures and then it was over. I think they could have done a lot more with the workshop to make the build-up more exciting and afterwards more rewarding.

Foo wasn't very happy about his photo being taken so soon after waking from a nap and it's hard to get a good photo of 8 people, but here's our best. I'm sure the other adults will all disagree with me, but hey, it's my blog, get your own if you want to choose.

There isn't much to do in Santa's Village. We visited the Post Office and went to the Arctic Winter Wonderland which had an ice bar. We had some drinks, including a cranberry liquer in a ice glass. I did my photography homework there, but it felt really forced.

It also had big ice flumes that you went down in inflatable sleds. The boys went on the little one and loved it, not so much me, sore bum on the ice and I'm not good on rides.

And besides a lot of shops, that was it. Luckily they don't charge you to go on site, just for certain things like the Ice Park.

We were going to go to Santa's Park down the road which is more of an amusement park, but it's only open at Christmas time and summer - go figure. Mousie was a bit crushed, so we let him choose between the reindeer park or husky park attatched to the Village for our after lunch entertainment.

He chose more huskies. Auntie, Isä, Mousie and I went off and Mormor watched the little 'uns. We had to walk a bit and when we found the place, it seemed abandoned except for dogs. Which was cool because we got to wander and see them for ourselves, rather than be rushed through to the sledges. These were working Siberian Huskies, so lots of blue eyes and familiar markings, but lean, fit dogs.

We went off for a 2km ride, but not driving this time. We seemed to be out in the middle of nowhere, trees and more trees, a biting wind and nothing else. We got to hear a proper driver talk to her dogs and direct them and she was a she which is unusual, we were told. After that we were shown the latest additions to the pack.

After that everyone was pretty tired, but Mormor and Auntie had another shop they wanted to hit.  So I resisted buying tons of little reindeer thingmabobs, barely. Then we went out for dinner and Auntie got to try reindeer sausages and the Weans were little stars and behaved almost perfectly. Then it was an early night (well for everyone but Foo and I and Tigger and Pooh, damn them and their bouncy ways).  But Bumptious let me have a decent sleep so I can't complain too much.

Day 3 to follow.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Santa Claus Express, Hooves and Paws

An overnight train to Lapland. Sounds romantic, you'd think. Cocktails before bed, lovely spacious cabin all done in wood and 1920s art deco, piano bar. Agatha Christie with the Northern Lights and silent snowy landscapes. We took the Santa Claus Express hoping for just that. 

Hah! One exhausted grumpy toddler, one over-excited willful toddler and a hungry, excited baby. Four tired adults trying to fathom the Finnish ticket system, trying to shift too much luggage and 3 very small cabins. Not really what we were hoping for. 

Thanks to the 'you have to be Finnish to understand the system' attitude, we ended up in the wrong carriage, in the wrong cabins with a very annoyed conductor because we had sat on the beds and they now could no longer sell them to someone else. Eventually he let us stay put, but it was too late for the Foo who was past tired and into the hyper-exhausted stage. His toys Tigger and Pooh bounced for at least four hours before they were finally put to bed.

I was too tired to even go see what the food car was like, but it was soon reported that this 'wasn't the Orient Express'. But after a restless night for all, we arrived in Rovaniemi at 8am, dumped our bags at the hotel and crashed out for a few hours to wait for the world to wake up. Nothing opens in Finland before 10am, it seems.

After perusing various brochures we decided that Santa Claus could wait another day as we found a tour that took in both a Husky Farm and a Reindeer Farm. Bundled up for the -7C weather off we went. Our guide Sanna picked us up, along with two deliriously happy Japanese girls and took us to the Husky Point Farm. Everyone was over-excited, including dozens of dogs. Foo giggled constantly, Mouse never stopped talking, Auntie and the Japanese girls took photos of everything.

Then we found out we were going to drive the sled dogs ourselves. The driver talked about leaning into curves, falling out, stepping on the brake while the dogs jumped and barked like Mexican jumping beans. It was a bit worrying, but Mousie Magoo and I hopped into the sledge with Baby Bumptious strapped to my chest in the sling, Isä took the reins or the handlebar or whatever. The driver stood next to him for the first curve and then jumped off. We were left in the dogs' paws.

It was a set path that they obviously knew well and ran over and over again, but they ran for the sheer joy of it, between the snow covered trees, low branches slapping our faces. These were Alaskan Huskies, rougher and tougher than the Siberian Huskies you see in the cities. Our little wooden sledge bounced along at a good speed so our 1km trip was over too soon.

The Japanese girls went next, but didn't drive. Then Auntie took me, Bumptious and the Foo. Foo didn't like it, the wind in his face, the speed, the barking dogs was a bit much, so he cuddled into me. But Auntie loved it and I got a bit of time to enjoy the trip between comforting Foo. Auntie loved it so much I think she had problems stopping and the driver had to jump out and help her.

We then got to visit with all the dogs still in the kennels. One that was tied up near a path was a bit too affectionate with Mousie and knocked him into the snow for a bit of rough play, then jumped up on Auntie for a cuddle. A hot drink and warm by the fire before moving on to the reindeer farm.

This was much busier, but we got to go and feed a group of males handfuls of 'reindeer sweeties' - lichen - in a separate enclosure with another guide in some Sami clothes, including the boots I have wanted for years. Turns out they're seal fur, not reindeer and only available in Norway. Knew I should have bought that pair 20 plus years ago. It's hard for tourists to tell now who's really Sami but we got lots of good information and a chance to butt heads with reindeer up close. This was my favourite bit, I have a soft spot for these big furry louts, their hairy noses, velvety antlers and big splayed feet.

We then split into pairs and drove little sledges pulled by one reindeer. I got to drive this time with Foo as I only had to hang onto him and one rope and did it sitting down. Foo was much better as it was a bit slower, less windy and I kept shouting 'reindeer bum' to keep him distracted. Our deer galloped a bit, but got stuck behind Auntie and Mormor who were with a reindeer in training.

Janne our reindeer guide in traditional Lappish clothing. 

Another kilometre track and the ride was over. I could have done it all day. We then got our reindeer driving licenses and it was time to go back to the hotel. It was early yet, but everyone was tired, so we finished off the day with a Chinese meal and then a sauna to ease our muscles stiff from driving. The boys bounced around in the hotel room for a while but everyone slept pretty good once they settled.

Day 2 to follow. 
Day 3 here
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