Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Día de Muertos


Happy November 😊! These past couple of weeks have been all kinds of fun for me! Halloween, Día de Muertos, the beginning of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and, to top it off, my story got published in Drunken Pen Writing (more about that later)!!

But now, let's talk a little bit more about Día de Muertos ("Day of the Dead") that took place last weekend. This was my first time experiencing the 2-day fiesta in Mexico, and I have to say that it was quite impressive! And fun. Actually, I can honestly say that that's the most fun I've ever had with death 😜!

Día de Muertos - What Is It?


So, what is Día de Muertos exactly? Well, in a nutshell, it's a Mexican festival celebrated between the 1st and 2nd of November, and its purpose is to remember the loved ones that have passed away and encourage visits by their souls. However, these visits - it should be noted - do not entail dead people being resurrected Pet Sematary style and turning into monsters. Nope. Unlike Halloween, the Day of the Dead is not a spooky celebration because in Mexican culture, death is considered a natural part of life and something to be celebrated rather than feared (go figure 😉).

Death has never looked more fun!

A central part of Día de Muertos are the ofrendas. Ofrendas are types of altars built by a family to honor their dearly departed. They are composed of a picture of the deceased along with their favorite foods, drinks, and other memorabilia. In Coyoacán, you can find several ofrendas made by different cities during the Day of the Dead festivities. Here are a few of them:







Typically, ofrendas incorporate the four elements: water, fire, wind, and earth. While beverages usually symbolize water and candles fire, earth is often represented by marigolds, orange flowers, which are also called "flowers of the dead" as they represent the fragility of life and are believed to guide the spirits to their altars. Wind, on the other hand, is represented by papel picado, colorful tissue paper cut into different designs. 

Papel picado

Obviously, I wanted to take part in this tradition, too, so Fiancé and I made an ofrenda of our own. This one (below) represents two of our major food groups - sugar and chocolate 😜 

Death by chocolate


What to Do on the Day of the Dead?


Día de Muertos offers different sights and activities depending on which Mexican city you are celebrating it in. A lot of the people I talked to actually opted to celebrate the Day of the Dead in some of the smaller cities as they were told the festivities would be more authentic (or less touristy) there.

However, that is not to say that you can't enjoy Día de Muertos in CDMX as well. First of all, there is the parade. (Fun fact: Do you remember that opening scene of the 2015 James Bond movie where 007 strolls through the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City? Well, you might be interested to know that in 2015, there was no such thing as the Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. In fact, the first parade that was held in 2016 in CDMX was inspired by this very James Bond movie - not the other way around.) 

However, as neither myself nor Fiancé are big fans of crowded places, we boldly decided to skip the parade, and instead got up early on Saturday and went to Coyoacán (the south of the city) to marvel at the ofrendas and check out the market where I got a couple more decorated skulls for my skull collection (okay now, kids, it's important that you not take this sentence out of context).

After that, we walked down Reforma street, which was decorated with tall, beautifully crafted alebrijes.






Alebrijes are fantastical colorful creatures that are normally made of papier-mâché or wood. They were originally the product of an artist's feverish dream in the 1930's and that's exactly what they look like - or what do you think about this guy, for example: 

Now, here's a fella I would like to have a beer with!


Interestingly enough, however, although alebrijes were incorporated in the Day of the Dead festivities, their only connection with the tradition seems to be the fact that they were featured in the 2017 Disney movie Coco as spirit animals. Do you remember how at the end of the movie (SPOILER ALERT!! If you haven't seen Coco, stop reading now) Miguel's dog (Mexican hairless dog, which, according to legend, is every newly dead's guide through the underworld) is promoted to an alebrije? It was definitely a visually impressive move (and alebrijes are part of Mexican culture for sure), but what these papier-mâché works of art were doing in the realm of the dead in the first place is beyond me (if you know the answer to this, please educate me).

There are the scary, nightmarish alebrijes, and then there's...well... this.
But whether or not they have a connection with the Day of the Dead, alebrijes are truly something unique and impressive to see!

The Highlight


After seeing the alebrijes, we were just about to leave when something magical - the highlight of the day - happened:

We saw a gentleman with a little bird and a bunch of folded pieces of paper, who asked me if I wanted to know my fortune. Naturally, I said yes!

The man urged me to tell Pedrito the Bird my name (I was at "T for tango" when I realized I was actually spelling my name to none other than a bird), after which Pedrito picked out one of the papers for me with his beak.

I took the paper and, with held breath, unfolded it.

This is what it said:

How about that typing, huh? Not too bad for a bird, eh?


I was enjoying this fortune until I got to the "you will arrive ambulances" part. Excuse me, but what does that mean? Will I live? will I die? Should I be worried about something? What?

Well, I guess only time will tell.

Pedrito the Bird works in mysterious ways. 

Closing words


As I mentioned at the beginning, the Day of the Dead wasn't the only great thing that happened to me last weekend, as my Halloween-inspired short story got published in Drunken Pen Writing (Woo-hooooo!!). The story is actually a (slightly adapted) chapter of a novel I've been working on, so by reading it, you'll get a sneak peak of what's to come 😉. You can read the story here - I hope you enjoy it 😊!

And that's all, folks. All in all, things are good. As one wise bird once said, my life right now is "a chain of happiness" 😍!  

Until next time, friends!

Monday, September 30, 2019

Guest blogger: That Weekend at the Lake House





Hey y'all! Soooo, I've been really busy lately (more about that later) and, although a lot has happened, I've been kind of struggling to find the time to write a blog post this month. That is, of course, until my knight in shining armor (Fiancé) came to my rescue, and promised to be my very first guest blogger (yay)! 

His first blog post is a short story that might or might not be based on true events (spoiler alert: it totally is 😁!) and has the ominous title "That Weekend at the Lake House" (dunn dunn dunnnnn). 

So, without further ado, here's his story:


That Weekend at the Lake House


We arrived at the lake house. Now, before you get too excited for me, this was in Finland, the land of 10 million lakes… or something like that. Where it's easier to rent a lake house for the weekend than freeze to death in the winter when trying to run to the store next door very quickly to get a beer without your jacket on. Okay, okay, I’m exaggerating, so don’t go and try it, die, and then at the Pearly Gates tell Peter, your dog Fido, or that long lost relative of yours who is waiting for you that it was all my idea. But anyway, I have been rambling for too long now, so let's get back to the main story.

We arrived at the lake house, first time meeting Kata's family, well, almost all of them, anyway. I had met her mom before when she'd decided that she needed to meet the fortunate guy living with her daughter. And also she wanted to witness my legendary (or so she had heard) Mexican cooking skills and asked me to make some fajitas (I won’t tell her if you don’t). Good news, her mother speaks English, bad news, her father does not. How is a guy supposed to impress and be liked by his future father-in-law without being able to use his smarts to charm him? More on that later.

The objective of the weekend was to celebrate Kata's grandparents' 80th birthday (yep, both of them). They were having a party that night, but the close family was staying at the lake house for the weekend. Meaning, we had a room. We arrived and before saying our "hellos," we decided to go leave our bags in the room. While she was unpacking, I snuck out to the bathroom and came back just in time to quickly nod and smile at a man climbing up the stairs saying something in Finnish. After this encounter, I went back to the room, where Kata excitedly announced. “Hey, you met my dad!!”

🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️🤦‍♂️

Frack me sideways! There goes my first impression, and those two weeks of practicing how to say hello, nice to meet you in Finnish (BTW, do not ask me how to say it, it was one of those "memorize and forget" kind of learning experiences). Strike one for me. 

After that, we went down to the party, but not before Kata once again reminded me of the same thing she had told me many times before: “Do not drink alcohol in front of my father, he has trust issues with anyone that drinks, even beer”. Given what I just mentioned, it's not hard to predict what happened next. We arrived at the party, I met the family, and - surprise surprise -, when I said "hi" to her mother, she offered me a beer.

Hm, conundrum moment here: to reject her mother's offering (which, if you hadn't guessed yet, was more of a “take this” and less of a “would you like this” kind of thing) or to dismiss the warning, get my second strike, and hope for a hit, a double, or, even better, a home-run with my next try? After all, this was not a game I would like to have lost - to get her father to dislike me -, as it would make for a really awkward family reunion in the future. But I had confidence in myself that I could recover from this, so bring on strike two.

The party continued, as usual, people arrived and people left, it was one of those “we will be here all day, come and go as you please” kind of parties. Mostly, I stayed with Kata while people chatted with each other, but I did spend some time talking to her mom and brother, who - luckily for me - speaks English. Also, there were some other relatives that spoke English, so I was able to have a few conversations here and there. 

Now. This is the part when we arrive at the crescendo of the story. As the party went on, I decided that since I was not going to be able to get that homer with her father, I could at least get her mother to like me (at least more than just as the fajitas cook). That's when I had the amazing idea (please read that last part again with a sarcastic tone) of asking her mom for advice on what kind of an engagement ring her daughter would like. 

Before I continue, let me backtrack just a little. There are three things you should know at this point: number one, Kata and I had already talked about getting married, so this was not just an impulse question. Number two, Kata does not wear any kind of jewelry, rings, necklaces, bracelets, not even earrings. And number three, Kata always says her mom knows her taste in things better than her, so I could honestly use her advice, considering point number two just mentioned. 

I waited for Kata to be out of the room before I asked her mom, because although we had talked about getting married, we had not talked about me buying her a ring. Here is when I made the mistake that inspired this whole story: her brother was still there and heard my question. 

Why is this such a bad thing? you may be asking yourself. Well, because brothers are trolls, independently of how much they love or not their little sisters.

“You are planning to ask my father for permission first, right?” he asked. 

 Now, Kata and I are a modern couple, so I really had not considered asking her father for her hand in marriage. But, of course, by this point I had no option but to comply with the request or I would have looked like a jackass. 

“Of course I was planning to do that,” I lied. “How about the next time Kata leaves to go to the bathroom, I go ask your father and you translate for me?” Although I was not too happy with the current events, I also thought this could be the chance for that elusive home-run I had been hoping for ever since my strike two a couple of hours ago. So, when I had a chance to talk to Kata again, I told her what had happened and we agreed that in a while, she would go for a long break in the bathroom. And so she did, and I asked for her brother to help me out.

Her brother and I walked up to her father who was already in the corner of the room, sat down, and I said, “I just wanted to let you know I love your daughter and I was hoping to get your permission to marry her.” Or so I think I said, but given how nervous I was, maybe I just babbled something along those lines. 

The next couple of minutes were what could be described as a surreal dream: Brother turns and says something to her father, to which her father gives a 5-minute answer. All this time I have no idea what is happening, so I just smile very awkwardly. 

“He said it's not his decision, but Kata’s, but thanks for asking,” was the impressive translation after those very embarrassing and long long long minutes. 

“Congratulations, that’s amazing!” That was one of Kata’s mother's cousins, who'd heard the conversation. “We need to celebrate!” he says while bringing a bottle of some hard liquor and serving me a glass, right in front of Kata’s father. Okay, this will be strike 3, 4, 5, and 10. All at once, but who cares. After that, I definitely need some alcohol.

The weekend continued, but that is the end of this little trip down the memory lane. Before that, though, I would like to finish my story by letting you know that yes, I did propose sometime later (as the photo evidence below will show), and Kata and I are still very happy together. 

Epilogue:

Two days after we arrived back home, Kata received a text from her father saying that he feels like Toni did not translate all he said (which, without knowing any Finnish, I would have to agree with) and that he hoped that his answer did not scare me. Kata being the great daughter that she is forgot to reply to the message, until 3 days later her mom texted her also asking her to please reply to her father. 

Even if I struck out with him, poor man, he was worried for much longer than my 5 minutes for an answer. At least I think these days he likes me, or so my own Finnish Fiancée and translator says.



Saturday, August 31, 2019

Random Things to Do in Mexico City: Trick Eye Museum



Panic in a Painting


Okay, friends, time for my trimonthly confessional (here it comes): Every since my visit to Virtual Room in Brussels a year and some months ago (you can read all about that experience here), I've been slightly obsessed with virtual reality, augmented reality, 3D, and all that good stuff. I mean, is it just me or is this stuff completely out of this world? Don't you just look at the tech we have today and think, "Yo, we're actually living in Back to the Future II! Marty McFly, where art thou?"

To answer my own question, yes, I think it is, in fact, just me. You know how in the 19th century they showed the first ever film featuring a train, and, allegedly, the audience got so afraid thinking "the little engine that could" would burst off the screen that they ran panic-stricken to the back of the theater? Well, I'm kind of like the modern version of that (although I'm not afraid the train is going to leave the screen - even I'm not that stupid), as my past experiences with AR have had me over-using phrases such as "But all this AR stuff looks so damn real!" or "It's like... I'm inside the video! How can it be?" while my fiancé next to me goes, "I know, honey. I know" (with a condescending tone, which, by the way, he has no business having considering he's an older fart than I am and thus even less exposed to the wonders of AR and VR than Yours Truly).

So, imagine my excitement when I heard about a museum dedicated to AR and other types of optical art right here smack-dab in the middle of Mexico City (CDMX for us "locals" 😛). The place is called Trick Eye Museum, and, after talking about it with Fiancé, last month I finally managed to drag him with me to this wondrous world of eye-trickery!

What is Trick Eye Museum?




Originally a Korean concept, Trick Eye Mexico City is the first Trick Eye Museum in Latin America. The way it works is that you take your smartphone or tablet with you, download the Trick Eye app, interact with the different installations implemented with the museum's very own Augmented Reality Technology - AR:T for short (cute, huh?) -, and take photos and/or short videos, making art where you yourself are the hero.

But since a picture is worth a thousand words (and I suspect a video is worth even more), why don't you just click on the video below to see what I mean?




So, what do you think? Pretty cool, eh? Well, I thought so, anyway.

By the way - for the sake of those of you who've never met me in person - that Pegasus-rider-extraordinaire in the video there is, in fact, Yours Truly. One thing I should warn you about, though, is that the Trick Eye app adds ten to fifteen kilos on the subject being photographed or filmed (hard facts!). They don't tell you that beforehand, though - you only find out after the damage has already been done (i.e. the pictures have already been taken) 😜!

Before you go


Here's a good tip: If you plan to visit Trick Eye Museum during school holidays, I've got one word for you:

Don't.

Or do, but know that the place will be so packed with kids that you're bound to get some serious Chuck E. Cheese flashbacks (unless, of course, you are one of us poor unfortunate souls who never had a Chuck E. Cheese in your country growing up, in which case you'll get Sara's-10th-birthday-party-at-McDonald's flashbacks). Not that I have anything personal against children, of course. It's just that they make me feel pathetic and old, and like they have more of a right to ride the Pegasus than I do.



Also, I happen to think that the museum is completely wasted on kids. I mean, come on now. You think the Pokemon Go generation will be even remotely impressed by some Pegasus flapping its AR wings? I think not. For them, all this new tech is pretty much the status quo, whereas we thirty-somethings (who should totally be the target demographic, by the way) are a much easier bunch to impress (Hello? The movie, the screen, the train?).

Despite this, it did seem to me that the museum was in fact intended for a younger audience. I came to this conclusion the hard way as the props at the place that were supposed support my Academy Award -worthy acting got me twisting my body into positions it was never intended to be twisted into. Let's inspect the picture below, for instance:


There I am as a ballerina. Don't I look serene?

Well, I can assure you that it's all smoke and mirrors (or, should I say, "eye-trickery?") as behind that fake brick wall I was quite the opposite of serene. The pedestal was just too high for me (the story of my life 😜), so I had to twist all 170+ centimeters of myself into a very awkward position while Fiancé took his sweet freaking time snapping the picture.



But I guess you just have to suffer for your art, don't you? And on the bright side, at least I got a pretty decent Facebook profile picture out of it 😉!

While there


Okay, let's get down to business i.e. the actual visit.

We arrived at the museum early in the morning (to avoid the crowds) and bought the tickets, after which it was time to gather downstairs with the other early birds. There we were given a demonstration on how everything worked, instructed on how to download the app (make sure your phone/tablet battery is full) and given a chance to test it.

Here's a quick demonstration:

Jaws without the app:



Jaws with the app:





This gathering downstairs was also when I experienced my mandatory "rage against the machine" phase. Helplessly I watched as one person after another announced that their app was working fine, while my phone was taking forever to download the data.

We did finally manage to make it work, though, but, unfortunately, the technical issues didn't stop there. We took the elevator upstairs to the museum, and when we tried the app again, it got super slow (we even decided to skip a few installations just because we really didn't need any additional white hairs, plus an old-age-beard is not exactly a good look for me). Finally one of the employees told us to hold a hand in front of the phone camera when we were walking from one room to another so that it wouldn't download all of the data at once. After that, things became a little easier.

Anyway, let's talk about the different installations. The museum is divided into five different rooms:

There's Aquarium,...



...Masterpiece,...





...Winter,...








...Halloween,...



 ...and Jungle.


(Okay, here's to hoping that you and your device survived that video overload!)

Each room at Trick Eye Museum has a lot of stuff to film/photograph. Sometimes, though, you have to wait your turn for a while and then end up snapping a hasty, disappointing photo because you don't want to hold up the line. (Again, I can't emphasize enough the importance of choosing an off-peak time to avoid the crowds.)

My fiancé was my camera person, but if you want to go alone, I'm sure you can ask the museum employees to film you, too. You will have to be filmed, though, unless you want really generic and boring videos and pictures, so if you (like me) are camera-shy, well, then get over yourself! More than being filmed, however, you'll have to get comfortable feeling a little silly in front of the camera as you can't see the AR stuff your camera guy/gal sees (so, basically, when I was petting that polar bear, I was petting air). But that's the price you'll have to pay for these memories, and, at the end of the day, it's not only worth it, it's actually pretty fun 😊!

It took me and my fiancé 1.5 hours(ish) to see and experience all the installations, and the time just flew by (At least for me. Not so much for my fiancé, whom I heard muttering the word "Finally!" on the elevator ride back down)!


Closing words


Okay, so, should you visit Trick Eye Museum in CDMX if you get the chance? (BTW: I should mention that I'm not being paid to say anything about Trick Eye Museum, so whether you go or not is no skin off my nose 😊)

Let's recap:

I would recommend Trick Eye Museum to you if

  • you are interested in augmented reality
  • the word "interactive" doesn't make you gag
  • you are not camera-shy (or you are, but you're willing to let it go for one afternoon)
  • you don't mind making yourself look silly in front of a camera

If you check all these boxes and decide to go, make sure that

  • you have your smartphone/tablet with you
  • your smartphone/tablet battery is full
  • you choose an off-peak time to go

And there you have it!

I hope you found this post helpful. If you have any questions or comments, please use the comment section below!

Next time we'll be talking about something else altogether, so, until then...

...hasta luego 😊!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Finnish Food - Threat or Possibility?





Moi, everyone 😊!

Last time in the blog I talked about what places to see in Helsinki, Finland, if you're only spending 24 hours in the capital city. This time, as promised, I'll delve into the fascinating world of Finnish food... well, sort of. Rather than actual dishes, I want to talk about the food items that I miss the most from my home country, and - lucky for you - they're all things that you can (and should) try if/when you visit Finland!


So, without further ado, let's get started!


Ruisleipä


O Brother. If there's one thing I miss from Finland besides family and friends, it's ruisleipä!

Ruisleipä translates to [advance announcement: this story will have a happy ending so just bear with me here] "rye bread!"

[cue the sad trombone]

Yes, I do realize that when you hear the words "rye bread," the first thing that springs to mind might not exactly be "Let's party like it's 1999," but ruisleipä is so much more than just bread: it's breakfast, lunch, and dinner all rolled into one, it's that rare combination of healthy and delicious, it's happiness in a bite... And, for us Finns living abroad, it's basically a religion.

Now, while you might have had something called "rye bread" in your country, I can assure you the Finnish ruisleipä is in a league of its own. The easy way you can tell it apart from its less worthy counterparts is by your post-first-bite reaction. If you go, "OMG! My whole life before this has been nothing but a lie! All the rest of the bread in the world is forever ruined for me!", you, my friend, have just sunk your teeth into the Muhammad Ali of all breads - ruisleipä.

If your reaction is anything less than that, either a) you are not eating ruisleipä but one of the wannabes (probably that weird wet bread with seeds), b) there's something seriously wrong with you, or c) you're my fiancé, who's reaction after his first bite of ruisleipä was a rather disappointing "It's nice." 🤦

Recently, though, his "It's nice" has been upgraded to "It's really nice," but I cannot completely rule out the possibility that my constant scowling at him while he's consuming this Finnish national treasure hasn't been partly responsible for that change of opinion.

Jälkiuunileipä - the best type of ruisleipä (no, I'm not being paid to say that)

Now, when you're a Finn living abroad and you're used to having to basically sell your kidney and sacrifice a virgin to get your hands on ruisleipä, it can feel a bit anticlimactic to come to Finland for a vacay and realize that you can just buy this Holy Grail of breads at any supermarket for less than two euros a bag 😲!

The supermarkets usually have a pretty good selection of different types of ruisleipä, and even though you cannot go wrong with any of them, the objectively best choice is the so-called jälkiuunileipä (see picture above), which is a tougher son of a b-word than the other types. That's very practical especially if you live abroad and someone sends you a care package from Finland (bless them!), because the bread doesn't go particularly bad - it just gets even tougher, just like a real Finn 💪!

However, as any superhero, ruisleipä too has it's kryptonite; even though it can find its way to you by air, land, and/or sea, the one thing this tough son of a b-word cannot survive is the feared and revered Mexican postal service. Considering that I get Christmas cards sent to me from Finland to Mexico in March, any ruisleipä that's sent to you to Mexico will have died of old age by the time it reaches you 👴.


Karelian pie (karjalanpiirakka)


Karelian pie is another food item I really miss. It's a traditional pasty from the region of Karelia with a crispy rye crust and a rice filling (oh dear, I'm getting withdrawal symptoms just by describing it to you).


Karelian pies (obviously)


There are two ways you can get your hands on this delicacy: you can make it (I've heard an urban tale that someone in the world has actually successfully managed that) but when I visit Finland, I just buy mine at the supermarket (Go on, person in that glass house - cast the first stone! I dare you.)

Karelian pies go great with munavoi, "eggbutter," which is.. well... egg mixed with butter (hence the unoriginal name), but there are other options to suit different diets as well, which I'm sure are equally delicious.

Finnish candy


Let's begin with a little anecdote. Years ago I was living in Luxembourg, where I was doing an internship. One day I had a conversation with a colleague of mine from a Southern European country (let's call her "Judy" to protect the innocent) that went something like this:

Me: "Hey, Judy! Do you know if the supermarkets are still open? I need to buy some candy."

Judy: "Candy? For yourself?"

Me: "Yes, for myself."

Judy: "Ah. You know, I liked candy once, too. And then I turned 8."


Touché, Judy! Touché!

In one short conversation, Judy not only managed to mock me but also be completely unresponsive! However, what she didn't realize is that the sad lady in this story is not Yours Truly but, in fact, Judy herself (plot twist!).

In Finland, a lot of people eat candy all the way into adulthood and beyond for one simple reason:

Candy in Finland is freaking awesome!!! (←yes, three exclamation points were warranted here)

Every since we're children, we're indoctrinated to the idea of something called lauantaipussi, "Saturday bag," which is basically a bag of candy that we buy every Saturday (as you can see, we're not big on pushing the creative envelope when it comes to naming things). When you get older, you'd think that you'd start eating less candy but actually the opposite happens. The bag that was once called a "Saturday bag" miraculously multiplies into a Sunday bag (because, of course, the last day of the weekend needs to be celebrated with candy), as well as a Monday bag (the week just started, so obviously you need to console yourself with candy), a Tuesday bag (it's a commonly known fact that Tuesday is the hardest day of the week; consolation - i.e. candy - is needed), a Wednesday bag (Wednesday is "the little Saturday" - it's time to celebrate i.e. eat candy), a Thursday bag (repeat of the "week is long and hard" excuse), and a Friday bag (the long work week is over at last - you deserve some candy), until you finally stop pretending, drop any and all references to weekdays and just call it "my candy fix of the day."

Also, it's a (more or less) scientifically proven fact that Finnish chocolate is one of the best chocolates in the world! If you don't believe me, you can read my previous post about how Finnish chocolate fared against the allegedly best chocolate in the world - Belgian chocolate.

Warning!

If you're a non-Finn visiting a Finnish friend, one thing that will happen with 100 percent certainty is that your host will try to feed you a type of candy called salmiakki. Now, to be clear, I for one have nothing against salmiakki - au contraire, I love it! But it does require an acquired taste, and I'm sorry to tell you, my friend, that unless you're a Finn or a Dutch, you will not have acquired it yet.

The sad truth behind why your host is offering you salmiakki in the first place is not out of the goodness of their heart, but to satisfy their own sick pleasure of seeing you gag. Don't fall for it! If you see a Finn is approaching you with black candy, either start evasive maneuvers immediately or embrace your adventurous spirit and go for it - but don't say I didn't warn you!

Salmiakki comes in many forms, including alcohol and ice cream (as in the photo)


Closing words


And there you have it! If you're a Finn living abroad, I'd be interested to know which food items (if any) you miss from home.

Also, if you want to know more about these or other types of Finnish food, I'm more than happy to share my wisdom 😊.


Comic Relief of the Day: This picture was taken in Finland. I thought that I was finally going to go to a Starbucks where they would know how to spell my name.
I thought wrong 😜

So, until next time...

moi moi!



Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Day as a Tourist in My Own City (Helsinki, Finland)




A few months ago, my non-Finnish friends, who were planning to travel to Finland, asked me about tips and things to do in Helsinki, thinking that, as a Finn, I might have some amazing insight.

I had to really think about it. I haven't lived in the country for seven years, and, as much as I would like to think that everything has stayed the same, it hasn't. In seven years, my hometown has changed quite a bit.

That's why, during my travels to Finland a couple of weeks ago, I made it my mission to explore the capital city through the eyes of a tourist and make a list of things you can do in Helsinki in one day.

So, friends, based on my recent explorations, here are places I would visit if I had a chance to spend 24 hours in Helsinki as a tourist:


Kauppatori - Market Square


For me, a girl born and raised in Helsinki, the best part of the capital city has always been (and probably will always be) the Market Square (Kauppatori). Located in the center of Helsinki only a ten-minute walk from the Central Railway Station, the Market Square is a place where you can buy Finnish (and non-Finnish) berries, vegetables, and different pastries, such as lihapiirakka (meat pie) and munkkipossu (a type of doughnut with apple jam inside), as well as local arts and crafts like reindeer skin gloves and reindeer hides (basically anything reindeer) and other things.

The Market Square is not exactly a "hidden gem," as it's probably featured in most - if not all - Helsinki travel guide books and blogs. But although it does get its fair share of tourists, the market also attracts locals. It's a nice place just to walk around and take in the atmosphere, but if you get a chance, I do recommend trying Finnish strawberries and peas, which, in my humble opinion, just happen to be the best in the world (I'm obviously completely unbiased).









However, as with everything in life, sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. The bad in this case are the flocks of Hitchcockian seagulls flying around ominously, lustfully eyeing your food! If you're a bird phobe, the Market Square is unfortunately not a place for you. And if you're not a bird phobe, well, you just wait, as this place will turn you into one.

To be fair, most of the seagulls just fly low, screech, and sometimes poo on people, but there is always the occasional type A personality - or the poetic, misunderstood soul that decides that now is as good time as any to start asserting itself - that'll go straight for your food. During my explorations, I saw a young lady lose a battle with a seagull over a cinnamon roll, so if you do decide to eat or take out your food at the Market Square, I suggest you hold onto it for dear life and don't count your munkkipossus until you've safely exited the seagull zone. Also, if you are approached by one of these go-getter type seagulls, you are supposed to clap your hands together twice to shoo them away. I don't exactly know if that helps or not, but at least it's entertaining to everyone around you.



The seagull problem is well-recognized at the Market Square and the measures taken against it include (but are not limited to) a net...

Arrow in turquoise: the net
Red circle: the enemy

...and a bunch of fake black birds.



However, my guess is the seagulls have figured out long ago that the black birds are fake (at least they didn't seem to slow them down), and many of them just fly under the net, sooooo.... yeah. I imagine there's a lot of laughing and pointing at humans happening at the annual seagull conventions. 


Allas Sea Pool

My first time experiencing Allas Sea Pool was during my latest travels a couple of weeks ago.The place has been open for a few years now, but, for whatever reason, I haven't gotten around to visiting it before now.



Allas Sea Pool is situated near the Market Square by the harbor basin that the locals have given the inviting name Cholera Basin (some historical thing... don't ask!). For 14 euros, you get to swim in the pools, experience a Finnish sauna, and soak in the sun in one of the sun chairs (that is, when the sun actually bothers to make an appearance). If you don't want to buy a ticket, however, you can still enjoy the Allas Sea Pool restaurant, café, bar, and terraces.


As for the swimming pools, you've got three options:

If you want to prove that you've got as much sisu (perseverance, guts, stamina, etc.) as us Finns - who are more or less famously known for being tough sons of b-words -, you can dip into the seawater pool which is the same temperature as the Cholera Basin (a.k.a freaking cold!) as it comes from a nearby clean stream and is filtered for contaminants. And if you really want to prove what a bad-ass you are, the perfect time to go for a swim in the seawater pool is in the middle of January as Allas Sea Pool is open all year round (pictures or it didn't happen)!

You'll recognize the seawater pool by the beautiful murky greenish-brownish color of the water

For those of us who have nothing to prove (me) or who hate cold water (also me), the best pool option is the warm water pool (a.k.a the sensible person's choice), which, according to the website is heated to 27°C/80.5°F. There's also a kiddie pool for those who have (or are) children. Obviously, you don't get the bragging rights by swimming in these pools, but you also don't get a cold and maybe you even get to enjoy the water, which, in my opinion, is kind of worth it 😏.


The warm water pool and the kiddie pool

After you've swum in the water (whichever pool you choose depending on your level of bad-assery/sensibility), you have the option to experience a Finnish sauna. Full disclosure: I didn't try the Allas Sea Pool sauna(s) during my visit, so I can't say if I recommend them or not, but I will say this: you will never get the full Finnish experience unless you go to a Finnish sauna!

We Finns take our saunas very seriously. A sauna for a Finn is a sacred place, where we solve personal and worldly problems, do business, celebrate/commiserate, or just relax. Traditionally, Finns go to the sauna stark naked. Yup, that's right - no swimsuits, no towels, nada, zip. A Finn sees nothing weird about this, and if somebody points out, "Really? You're too shy to say 'hello' to a person who's lived next door to you for the past five years, but you're comfortable sitting naked in a sauna next to a complete stranger who's also naked?" they'll most likely be met with a blank stare.

However.

As Allas Sea Pool gets a lot of international visitors, you can wear a swimsuit or a towel in the women's and men's sauna if you want to (but don't have to), whereas in the mixed-gender sauna, wearing a swimsuit is actually a requirement!

Also: although in a traditional Finnish sauna, you might see Finns gently (or less gently) beat themselves or each other with a bunch of tree twigs called a sauna whisk (if you hadn't gathered it by now, we're masochists), unfortunately (or fortunately), this practice is forbidden at Allas Sea Pool.


Right behind Allas Sea Pool, there's a Ferris wheel (SkyWheel Helsinki), which you can ride if you want to end your Helsinki experience on a high (very proud of this pun, by the way)

Other stuff to do


If you're spending more than 24 hours in Helsinki (or you're a more energetic person than I am), here's some more stuff you might want to check out:

1. Suomenlinna

Whilst you're at the Market Square, you can take a ferry to the Fortress of Suomenlinna. Suomenlinna is a beautiful and historically interesting place with ruins, museums, and other cool stuff. It's also a nice place to have a picnic. However, I would plan to spend more than just a couple of hours there because otherwise you might miss out on stuff to see and experience. If you're interested, you can read more about Suomenlinna on their official website.



2. Cruises

Another thing you can do is take one of the Helsinki archipelago cruises. Some of these cruises serve food and drinks. There are several options out there, but as my last experience dates back to 2010, I encourage you to do your own research. Also, if you have been on one of these cruises, please do share your experience in the comment section below 😊!



3. Korkeasaari & Linnanmäki

If you're traveling with your kids (or if you yourself are a kid at heart), you might want to consider visiting Korkeasaari Zoo or the amusement park Linnanmäki. Linnanmäki is actually one of my favorite places in Helsinki but, unfortunately, nowadays it's quite pricey.


Closing words


So, there you have it! If you have more/other suggestions or comments that could help the people planning to visit Helsinki, I would really appreciate it if you could share your wisdom in the comment section below 😊.

Next time, I'll be talking about what you should (and shouldn't) eat on your trip to Helsinki as, in my opinion, Finnish food gets a bad rap for nothing (and even if it didn't, you gotta eat, don't you 😏?)!


So, until then...

...moi moi!

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

The One Where Kata and Fiancé Find a New Rental Apartment in Mexico City



Oh, what a couple of weeks it has been! You might or might not have heard that because of forest fires, pollution, and the fact that Mexico City is located in a valley, the air quality got so bad around mid-May here in the city that a national emergency was declared, schools were closed, tens of thousands of cars were ordered off the streets, and people were encouraged to stay indoors (oh yeah, that small thing). On top of that, the Popocatepetl volcano decided that now was the opportune moment to start spewing ash (hey, no time like the present, eh?), which didn't exactly help the situation.

This picture was supposed to be a demonstration of Popocatepetl spewing its guts out, until Fiancé pointed out that that's probably not Popocatepetl, but just some mountain with smoke behind it. So, now it's just a nice picture to look at (SANS Popocatepetl) with a pointless circle drawn on it.

In the midst of all this craziness, though, something almost as crazy happened (even crazier than having to spell the word Popocatepetl five times in one blog post): Fiancé and I managed to find ourselves a new rental apartment and, last Friday, we finally signed the contract! What's more, the air quality has improved since too and Finland won the ice hockey world championship, so, hooray, happy days!

So. Inspired by our experience of finding a new home in CDMX, I decided that I'd now like to share some of the wisdom I gained along the way. Below you'll find a few useful tips for looking for a rental apartment in Mexico City. Stick around until the end and I'll reveal a couple of details about our new apartment, too!


Don't get scammed!


The first rule of finding a rental apartment anywhere (not just in Mexico City) is to not get scammed! Unfortunately, as much as I'd like to believe in the basic decency of humankind, there seem to be some people out there who don't always have your best interest at heart (What? Shocker).

It's a commonly known fact that when looking for an apartment, you should ask yourself at least the following four questions:

  1. Do the pictures of the apartment look like straight out of a Hallmark movie or, better yet, an episode of MTV Cribs (by the way, you 20-somethings, does that show still exist or am I just super old?)?
  2. Has your request to go see the apartment been denied (with or without a note attached to an airborne brick that says "Don't ask questions")?
  3. If you google the apartment or the name of your landlord/real estate agent, does the word "SCAM" with a gazillion exclamation points (along with a couple of pictures of skulls) pop up?
  4. Have the words "Nigerian prince" been mentioned?

A double red flag


If your answer to any of these questions is YES, then chances are you're being scammed. If your answer to ALL of these questions is NO, then there's only a fifty-fifty chance you're being scammed (hey, I never promised a foolproof plan!).

Perhaps a better way to make sure that if you are, in fact, being scammed, the only thing that gets hurt in the process is your ego (and not your bank account, for instance) is to follow this list of very simple dos and dont's:

DON'T
  • pay any deposits, first month's rent, insurance, etc. before your and your landlord's or landlady's name is on that dotted line
  • give up your current apartment until you have a contract (in case the deal falls through at the last minute)
DO
  • go see the apartment beforehand and make sure everything is in order there
  • ask a copy of the previous tenant's last water, gas, and electricity bill to make sure you're not being charged for more than you're consuming

These might seem like pretty basic things, but you'd be surprised about how many people out there have been too trusting and ended up getting burned - and that is a club you don't want to join!

(By the way, if you have more - and better - tips, please do share in the comment section!)

Location, location, location...


One of the most commonly asked questions on different CDMX expat forums is "What is the best area to live in Mexico City?" Well, as it turns out, this is actually not an easy question to answer because an ideal location for one person might be less ideal for another.

The "trendy areas" of the city (also favored by expats) are, for instance, Condesa, Roma Norte, and Polanco. Especially the first two have a lot of cute restaurants, cafés, bars, and nightlife nearby. The prices of rents might be a bit higher than elsewhere in the city (especially Polanco is quite pricey), unless you know where to look. In fact, I've heard that because of the 2018 movie Roma, it's now harder than before to find a reasonably-priced apartment in the Roma Norte area (not sure if this is just an urban real estate legend, though).

Roma in living color 😉

In my opinion, it's also wise to consider where you work. As mentioned in a previous post, the traffic in Mexico City is an absolute killer! If you use four hours of your day commuting (two hours each way, and I exaggerate not at all!), the chances are that the commute will suck the fun out of living in a trendy neighborhood pretty fast!

Would you like to spend hours and hours on end every day staring at THIS view? Would you, would you, would you?

Sometimes you have to make a choice between living in a trendy area and keeping your commute time to a minimum. My fiancé and I chose the latter, but there are no right or wrong answers, of course. It comes down to what you value more (but don't say I didn't warn you 😉).

Papers, papers, papers


Oh, Lordy. This was the most frustrating part of this whole process. I've lived in rental apartments in five different countries in my life and never have I been asked for more papers than in Mexico City! And not only is it enough that you as the tenant gather up your documents. You also have to kindly ask your fiador/aval (the person who will vouch for you) to go through their piles and piles of paper, find stuff that nobody has just lying around (like a marriage certificate acquired several decades ago), and somehow come out of that experience in one piece (no small feat, this one).

The documents that were asked of us were (among others):
  1. basic information form (filled out)
  2. official ID
  3. bank statement from the past 3 months (you need to prove you have more than three months' rent on your account)
  4. proof of salary
  5. those gazillions of papers required from the fiador/aval
As mentioned before, the fiador or aval is a person who is willing to vouch for you. This person is doing you a favor out of the goodness of their heart and getting nothing in return (expect never-ending pestering about those damn papers). The bad news for expats (and out-of-towners) is that a fiador/aval cannot be just any old person off the streets. It has to be a person who owns property in the same city where you want to rent the apartment, so if you want to live in Mexico City and you know someone who owns property in Monterrey, you're out of luck.



Nevertheless, I have heard that there are other ways of going about this (such as getting a specific insurance), but it appears to be very case-dependent.

Safety


Right. So. I have pretty conflicted feelings about this topic. So much so, in fact, that I wasn't sure I was even going to write about it. First of all, I don't want to encourage anybody to live in fear. I've lived in enough places to know that anything - good or bad - can happen to anyone at any time anywhere.

However.

It is wise to recognize that Mexico City is a big city (the biggest in the world, in fact) with big city problems. While I have personally never been afraid for my safety here (then again, I've only been here for about six months, so I guess I still have time), I wouldn't encourage anybody to take unnecessary risks either. Going to a dark alley alone at 11 pm to take pictures for your scrapbook, for example, is one of those things that - in my opinion - would constitute an unnecessary risk.

I think it would be a good idea to ask around and do your research about which neighborhoods are safe and which ones are less so. Of course, people can have differing opinions about this, but the more you do your research, the better the chances you'll find the best neighborhood for your needs. Some buildings also promise 24-hour security.

Also, bear in mind, that it's not only crime that you need to be worried about. There are other fun things that can get you, too, for example, earthquakes and the volcano (yayyy... wait, what?)! And to add insult to injury, Mexico City is built on a lake, so the capital is (get this) slowly sinking (gulp). Because of the lake, even faraway earthquakes are felt strongly here (wait, why did I move here again?).

Instructions on what to do in case of earthquakes (sismos). I like the last picture (where the guy is running away) the best.

In case of an earthquake, some parts of the city can be more affected than others. Again, I encourage you to do your research!

Our checklist


So. After not getting scammed, choosing the right (and safe) location for us, and gathering up tons and tons of documents, what kind of a place did we end up getting?

Well, long story short, I'm happy to say that our apartment checks all the important boxes for us. Here's what we wanted:

Our home is not in any of these buildings, by the way 😜

✅close to work
✅safe neighborhood
✅half-furnished
✅fridge (surprisingly many apartments we saw didn't have a fridge!)
✅Starbucks nearby (before you judge, let me just say that I'm a writer, so I need my place to write, drink coffee - Starbucks coffee, not "real" coffee -, and stare wistfully out the window)
✅washer-dryer
✅grocery store nearby (actually, turns out that people order their food online these days, so this wasn't as important as we'd thought)
✅gym or a park nearby for running (otherwise we won't make the effort)
❌dishwasher (didn't get this one - nobody's perfect, I guess)

So, there you have it, our new home in a nutshell!


Closing words


That's all, folks! A special thank-you to Paty who has given us a great place to stay 💖! Myself, my fiancé and all eight of our children will be moving to our new apartment in the next few days!

The kiddos are excited to move!


So. Until next time...

... hasta luego 😊!


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