Category Archives: Culture

Karjalanpiirakka, an amazing Finnish pastry

It’s raining here in Tampere. I wonder if the summer will ever come to Finland. I’m here to visit my parents for the weekend, but for now the best option is to stay on the sofa and read a book.

I’m home alone, because my father just went to bake 500 Karelian pies to be sold tomorrow morning at the market place – they really are a big hit! “We’ll sell them in 5 minutes”, he’s boosting.

My father’s origins are in the Eastern part of Karelia, a region that Russia invaded during the Second World War. All the Finns were “thrown out”, they were given about 24 hours to leave their homes, collect all the belongings they could and escape to what is now Finland. The Karelians were relocated all around Finland, the family of my dad in a town near Tampere, where she met my mother… So there’s something positive in the tragedy.

My dad travels a lot to Russian Karelia. Some people still speak Finnish there and he loves to revisit the familiar places – even if he was very small, when they had to go.

Because of the harsh history, Carelians feel very strong about their culture. Also my father belongs to a Karelian friendship association.

Karelians have a fame to be very hospitable. When we go to visit my Karelian aunt, she always fills the table with an amazing amount of food. So, it’s easy to understand why they have brought many delicacies to the Finnish gastronomy. The most famous food is probably the Karelian pasty or Karelian pie, which are now very popular around Finland.

There are many variations of the recipe depending on the region, village or even the house. Once, when I was taught how to bake these pies by some grandmothers, they almost almost got into a fight on which is the correct way to make the pie.

Anyway, the common recipe includes a thin rye crust with a filling of rice. You normally eat the hot pasties with munavoi, butter mixed with boiled egg. However, the pies can be eaten with almost anything: cheese, ham, salmon, vegetables…

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This is how it looks like! Or should look like. Some delicious, fresh Karelian pies.

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Karelian pies can also be made with mashed potatoes, like here, or with carrot. Credit: Ilta-Sanomat.

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This pie is called “Sultsina”. It’s a fine pie that used to be eaten with special guests. It’s normally filled with rice or semolina porridge. Credit: Yle.

I’ve visited Karelia a couple of times. It feels very special, as part of my roots are there. Here come some photos I took during my trip in 2005 – to get in the Karelian mood. As you can observe, nowadays the region is very poor.

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This is Aunus, a Karelian town on the Russian side. A very typical village path with a very typical grandmother walking on it.

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The Aunus river on a hot summer day. In the winter living here is completely different, very hard.

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The grandmothers in Russia are really something! Strong, wise women who take care of the household and especially of their boys and husbands, who in many cases like vodka a bit too much…

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A typical Karelian wooden house in Aunus region. 

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Being a Refugee in Finland

The last couple of days I’ve been in Seinäjoki, a city about 3 hours’ train trip away from Helsinki. Seinäjoki is the capital of the province of Southern Ostrobothnia, and with a population of 58 000 it’s one of the fastest growing urban centres in Finland. Even if you wouldn’t believe it.

It was my first visit to this town, which seems very small and, sorry to say, ugly. Well, this is nothing “personal” as it happens with most Finnish towns. During the fast urbanization in about 1970s, most of the old pretty houses were torn down and replaced by boring concrete blocks. This destruction is a tragedy for our cultural history.

Anyway, to compensate there is some fine Alvar Aalto architecture. Lakeuden Risti is the symbol of the city.

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The church by Alvar Aalto is the proud of Seinäjoki – with some other building designed by Aalto. Credit: Yle.

It was my first time in Seinäjoki. Sometimes traveling inside your own country is a lot more exotic than going far away. You think you know what you’ll get, but nope: people act different, they speak another dialect etc. Very eye-opening!

Why was I there? At my work we organise events called Markets of Possibilities, which take place around Finland in about 20 cities each year. So we travel to see how they go.

In these events Finnish NGOs tell about their work and offer “exotic” food and program. The aim of is to bring out the multicultural side of Finland and tell the locals what they can do “for a better world”.

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Markets of Possibilites are fun events. Here’s the Choir War in process. Don’t know about the technical quality of the signing, but these ladies were devoted.

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Flashmob by local students. They had also danced in supermarkets etc. Go Seinäjoki!

There, I met there The Refugee Woman of the Year, Malalai Rahim from Afghanistan, as she participated in a panel about refugees’ replacement in Finnish cities. Finland has agreed to receive 750 so called “quota refugees” every year, but the problem is that some municipalities don’t want to have them.

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Malalai Rahim, this amazingly active lady, seems to know everyone in Seinäjoki.

This year, Seinäjoki has promised to receive a group of 20-30 people from Congo, but the neighbouring towns have said “no”. It’s a sad thing, especially as we talk of so small numbers. I think Finland, being a wealthy country, could receive more people. But our country is still very homogenous and people are a bit afraid of “opening the borders”. Even if we’ll definitely need more foreign work force in the future.

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Panel discussion held in Seinäjoki about quota refugees and their replacement. Speakers included a representative of UNHC, vice mayor of Seinäjoki, immigration officer and Malalai Rahim.

Malalai Rahim made a big impression on me. She spoke very good Finnish and her story is amazing. The talebans threatened her life, as she was a woman working as a doctor in Afghanistan, so she had to leave. In Finland, she studied the language and went to the university to get another degree, to be a gynecologist. Now she works in a hospital in Seinäjoki, has 5 children and is actively involved in local politics trying to help newcomers. Me and my colleague, who were just about to complain how tired and stressed we felt, fast shut up.

Malalai made good points about refugees’ integration in Finland. We need to make our social integration program a lot more efficient! It’s not enough to give people a bit of food and money; everyone needs to feel meaningful and get to work, too. Otherwise you stay at home, get isolated with your problems and soon you are not even able to raise your children. I really hope this idea has some impact, coming from the mouth of someone who truly knows what suffering and life as a refugee are about.

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There is already one Congolese family living in Seinäjoki, and in the fall there should be some more quota refugees from Congo arriving. Getting ready for the Finnish winter… Credit: Yle

As a refugee, one should never lose faith and become bitter for what you have to go through. You MUST raise your head and go on. But a little help is needed, and it’s our responsibility to offer it.

Everyone should remember that things can change fast. What if one day we need to leave our country? How would you like to be treated? We have experience about this in Finland, as during The Second World War almost 80 000 children were sent to other Nordic countries as refugees. They were called The Finnish War Children.

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Finnish war Children in Turku. Credit: Wikipedia.

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What is a quota refugee? Within its refugee quota, Finland accepts for resettlement persons defined as refugees by the UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and others who are in need of international protection. The refugee quota is verified in the state budget for each year.

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shooting the streets of Helsinki

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Practising street photography. According to my  teacher, this photo has a perfect golden cut! That was nice to hear, even if while shooting you don’t think about these things… at least I don’t.

So, I’m back & blogging. The last couple of weeks have been quite hectic. We spent the first days of May on a holiday in Berlin – a wonderful, lively city  of culture I want to visit soon again! Truly, this place has something, maybe because of its harsh history… don’t know.

Further, last weekend I participated a course on Street Photography. It was a great, eye-opening experience and at the same time very intensive, as we both studied theory and history of this interesting genre and got to explore the streets of Helsinki by ourselves by taking our own street photos.

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These two guys were on their way to a ice hockey match and looked just great. The theme for our photos was intimacy and we had to find repeated colors around, so here we go…

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One of the tricks of street photography is to use reflections: on showcases, windows, wherever you can find one.

On the second day of the course everyone “had to” choose 12 of their photos to be shown and commented by the others. I was a bit nervous, as I love photography but haven’t really studied it. Also, I feel that my knowledge of the technical stuff is very limited. So it was wonderful to receive some positive feedback, – like everyone did, of course. Our teacher was gentle with us, even if we all got homework to learn more about focusing and camera technology. Something you easily forget especially while taking photos on the street where situations normally are over in just a few seconds or minutes.

But in photography, if you don’t control your camera perfectly you might miss The Perfect Picture just because your camera’s settings are wrong. And that feels bad.

In street photography, another trick is “repetition”. Here’s an exercise about that – I found even 3 pairs at one shot!

I liked the ensemble of the soft colours: on the girl’s cuddly blouse, the tram and the showcase behind. But damn it, the photo is not sharp!

So, my goal for this spring and summer is to really learn how to use my camera – and this can only be done by practising: taking thousands of photos. Our teacher said that for every 1000 photos he takes there are 100 OK ones and 1-2 excellent ones. So even professionals have it tough.

My camera is nothing special, it’s a basic system camera by Sony with a lens of 18-200. For me it’s just fine. Some of the participants of the course were showing off with their big expensive cameras but in the end, looking at our photos, all of them seemed quite the same level when it comes to the common problems of focusing and limiting the image right.

One of the themes given for our photos was “intimacy”. For me, these girls offered a good example. And it was a chilly Saturday night.

Anyway, I felt happy when the teacher said that I really control the composition and color, as these are the two aspects I’m really interested in – not only in photography but in all arts, interior design etc.

All in all, street photography truly is a new discovery to me. When I travel, I love to take photos of people and the little incidents and situations happening spontaneously on the streets, but I’ve never analysed the concept further.

There is a long and vivid tradition of street photography with its conventions, rules and heroes. Now I just want to learn more. I guess this is what happens when a course has been successful – it makes you feel that you know so little but in a positive way – and it gives you the basic tools to go further and discover a new, interesting world.

Here’s a couple of links for street photography beginners like me…

  • Matt Stuart, who is one of the most appreciated and well-known street photographers of our days. He really has captured some legendary moments!
  • Hannes Heikura, a modest guy and a great Finnish photographer (not only “street” one) who mostly works for Helsingin Sanomat, the major Finnish newspaper.
  • Shoot the street, a webpage I came across, promoting street photography.
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Helsinki: design, design and sponsored beer!

Last Thursday my dear friend, who owns a growing illustrations agency here in Helsinki, published a book! The book is called “Keltainen Kaupunki“, The Yellow City, and it features seventeen Helsinki themed stories by prolific Finnish authors. These stories are illustrated by some wonderful illustrators from my friend’s agency.

This year Helsinki is the World Design Capital, and the book project is part of the year’s events. Honestly, I don’t know how many people know about this year outside Finland (and Helsinki) but at least inside the design quarters of Punavuori, Helsinki, it certainly is a big thing. A couple of my friends are working in the Design Capital office, so I’ve stayed more or less tuned on what’s going on. And the good thing is that many young, prominent artists get new opportunities thanks to this special year. I only hope the good things shall continue in the years to come…

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A new, still unfinished gallery in Jätkäsaari, Helsinki. Looks good!

Anyway, it’s always a pleasure to attend an opening or a publication party of any big project: observing the relieved faces of the people, happy of the luckily finished cooperation and, for us visitors, sharing their joy and catching up with old friends. The party was organised in an old factory compound in Jätkäsaari, the newest neighbourhood to-be here in Helsinki, at the moment still under construction. But there’s already some vivid cultural activity going on there.

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Carlsberg, good bread and cheese - all you need for a good party. Well, maybe some wine too...

My friend was even lucky enough to get the Danish beer Carlsberg as sponsor. To accompany the beer, we enjoyed some big fresh bread with cheese and grapes. Basic but so good – both for your eyes and palatals. Here’s another blog entry about the event – and the beer – by one of the illustrators of the The Yellow City.

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There was also a DJ playing some smooth music and on the second floor we could visit a photo exhibition about Finland – the big images looked great in the empty, unfinished loft space and some of them were quite impressive…

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Yes, in Finland people like to be naked. Sauna and all. A work from the photo exhibition in Jätkäsaari.

All in all, it’s great that interesting cultural things are going on in Helsinki. And what’s even better is that my friends are taking so active part in them! These moments I feel so proud of my city.

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Sausages, beer, pretzels and castles – you’ll find all this in…


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The typical Bayerian dish - white sausage, beer and pretzel. Served only in the mornings.

This time it’s not about my dear Helsinki but of Munich and Riga!

What’s the (only?) negative thing about spring? It doesn’t offer us workers any considerable holiday breaks. So I try to take advantage of any long weekend and travel around with my boyfriend. For Easter, we went to Munich and spent a night in Riga on the way.

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Riga panorama from a bar in a clock tower. The bar is a bit styless but the view compensates it.

My first ever visit to Riga was nice but brief. We wandered around, visited typical markets and slept in a hostel owned by Australians. Must go back in the summer, as Air Baltic offers very cheap direct flights from Helsinki.

Then Munich. Well, it never was a dream destination for me, but why not (the only cheap flights we could get for those dates with a coupon we had to spend).

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The best of Bayer: Neuschwanstein Castle. We were "lucky" enough to visit it in a middle of a snow storm - in April!

The Bayerian traditions sure are interesting. Like the rypical “breakfast”, white sausages and 1 litre of beer (with prezel, of course). Or the traditional costume dirndl sold everywhere – and people who so happily wear them on the street or in the traditional beer gardens.

Ah, the beer! Normally I’m not a fan of (Finnish) beer, but the Munich versions were excellent! Especially beer with lemon. I could easily drink a litre or two of that.

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The famous Hofbräuhaus Beer Garden in Munich. Here Hitler organized the first publicity and propaganda events in 1920.

Munich is the richest and the most expensive city in Germany, which you really notice. People look wealthy as do their cars. Munich is the home of BMW, and I really got a lesson on car history as we spent some hours in the BMW headquarters and museum – a deal we made with my boyfriend so we would later see some modern art  – well, in the end we skipped it for the lack of time. But instead I got some nice beer with lemon in the park.

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Our hotel remembered us with a bottle of wine. Nice. As my boyfriend doesn't like wine, well, a woman has to do what a woman has to do...

Still, after four days of Munich – and of snowstorms and rain – it was great to come back to the sunny Helsinki. The routine is not that bad when you get away once in a while. Yesterday we took out the bicycles from the winter shelter and tonight we had a great hot sauna. Now it’s just perfect to lay down on the home sofa with a glass of red wine, jamón serrano and picos. Not very Finnish but hey – mixing cultures is the thing of today. 😉

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Jamón ibérico de bellota (the best kind) and picos (Spanish bread snacks) for dinner. Home sweet home - Helsinki.

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Easter the Finnish way – eggs, lamb and mämmi

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Easter decorations. Credit: Kotiliesi

This evening I’m off to Munich for Easter holidays, so I probably won’t get to experience all the Finnish Easter stuff. At least I can write about our Easter traditions – some of them are quite interesting.

Our Easter celebrations started last Sunday. On Palmsunday (Palmusunnuntai) children go from door to door dressed like Easter witches and doing “virpominen” by waving decorated tree-branches and wishing a good year with a rhyme. The kids give the branch away – if they receive sweets or coins in return. A bit like Halloween’s “trick-or-treat”.

I used to love this when I was small. We dressed up with my friends, went around the neighborhood and finally shared our “catch”. Good candies were worth a lot more than “boring” coins. Kinder Surprise chocolate eggs  we liked the most. And I still do, even if now the selection of chocolate eggs is a lot wider.

Unfortunately we didn’t receive any witches at our door last Sunday – well, we didn’t have any candies either – as in the city the entrance doors are locked and the kids can’t get in. 😦

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Little witches doing "virpominen". Credit: Yle

Tomorrow it’ll be Easter Friday. While I’ll be walking around Munich, I know many Finns stay silent at home. When I was a kid, my mom didn’t let me do almost anything this sad, gloomy day – even if my family wasn’t religious. In Finnish the day is called “Long Friday” (Pitkäperjantai) and it really felt so! According to tradition you weren’t even allowed to smile with your teeth this day.

At Easter you decorate your home with twigs and branches and grass you cultivated in jars or tins. You also hide cholocate eggs around the house and then children look for them. Well, my mom still does it for me and a colleague just told me that she hides eggs for his boyfriend. So the tradition goes on.

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Lamb is a typical thing to eat for Easter. Credit: MTV3

Special dishes include eggs in different forms, of course, and lamb – to celebrate the end of what used to be fasting for Easter. And it still is, for some.

A truly special Easter delicacy is “mämmi”. Foreigners normally hate this stuff that reminds closely… poo! If you are brave enough to taste mämmi, you’ll notice that it’s not that bad – with sugar and cream. At least I like it! Once a year, that is.

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Mämmi. You love it - or hate it. But you've got to taste it! Credit: Wikipedia

Another typical dessert comes from Russia, Pasha. This is heavy stuff, so taste it – but not too much. Compared to mämmi, this is a more “normal” thing to eat, I guess. 😉

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Pasha, the Russian contribution to Finnish Easter. Credit: Wikipedia

So, “Hyvää pääsiäistä”, Happy Easter! Have a rest and eat enough chocolate eggs.

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The spring is arriving to Helsinki… eventually

The Finnish spring is tricky. One day you smell the first glimpse of spring in the air, the sun is shining and the snow melting… And the next day you wake up with a snow storm.

I guess this tricky weather has its influence on the Finnish mentality – it’s quite understandable to be a bit melancholic and suspicious when you live in a climate like this.

But there are positive aspects too. If you don’t suffer the darkness and coldness of the winter months, you neither learn how to appreciate the rare warmth and the sun. And the Finnish summer with its midnight sun is real magic, even if I say so myself.

Anyway, this is what I saw yesterday when I decided to leave from work (too) early and walk around Töölönlahti Bay – with tens of other people and hundreds of ducks.

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Töölönlahti Bay with its villas the first of March. Credit: me.

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View towards the centre of Helsinki - hard to imagine that at this point you're only 5 minutes walk away from the centre of our capital city!

And today it’s Friday! And the strangest thing is that I don’t have ANY “compalsory” plans for the weekend… So I’m open for everything.

Well actually, tonight we’re going to the concert of one my favourite Finnish bands, Pariisin kevät (The Spring of Paris). They just published their 3rd album, Kaikki on satua (Everything is a fairytale). The melodies are nice, lyrics are clever and they are amazing live! What else can you ask for…

Here is a song that’s a tribute to a neighborhood here in Helsinki called Pikku Huopalahti. It tells about peoples’ dreams, melancholy and the mediocre middle class life they live.

 

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Simple things – Helsinki, sauna and makkara

Today I found joy in so called small things.

It felt wonderful to go out after a couple of days in bed with a flu and to notice that I can breathe again, the sun is shining and there is a smell of spring in the air already. Today I worked from the home office, as I still felt a bit ill in the morning – which means I was still wearing pyjamas at 5 pm. So I really felt the urge of going out, called up my boyfriend who works nearby and who joined me for a little walk around the centre of Helsinki.

Children with their toboggans in Koff Park "Koffari" in Helsinki. Credit: Helsingin Uutiset

Of course everything was still in its place in the city, after a couple of days of my absence, and I loved to see all the familiar corners once more. We passed Koffin Puisto (Koff Park or “Koffari”) on Bulevardi, where children were riding their toboggans down a snowy slope and continued to the West Harbour, where the big cruises were starting their trips to Stockholm or Tallinn – as they do every evening.

West Harbour near my home in Helsinki. I love the old cranes - which are luckily objects of protection today.

In the end we visited our familiar supermarket to buy soya milk – and sausages, as it was sauna time tonight. I taught my (Spanish) boyfriend how to cook sausage on the stones of the sauna. It’s easy, as every Finn knows! Just wrap a sausage in a folio, add perhaps a bit of strong cheese and throw some beer on top of it – maybe vegetables too, and voilà! In half an hour you’ll have a tasty sausage waiting for you- while you are enjoying the hot sauna. This is a very typical Finnish thing, and some people make real gourmet experiments inside the sauna…

Getting professional! I found out that one company has even created a "sausage tube" for preparing your sausage, "makkara" in Finnish, in the sauna. Credit: Sauna-aitta

While the boyfriend went to have sauna with his friends, I enjoyed quality time with myself in the sauna of our apartment – in Finland almost all the apartment building have a common sauna, and you can get 0,5 – 1 hour a week of sauna for yourself by buying a small amount for maintenance.

A happy Finnish family having a sauna in the Oulu region, Northern Finland. The feeling of euphoria is always the same... Credit: Everyculture.com

I didn’t have sausages – as I’ve decided to spend the month of February without eating meat (more about that later). But naturally I had some nice red wine from Chile waiting for me.  Ah, it feels so good to be healthy again!

Not for vegetarians. This is how makkara-lovers like it - with mustard and ketchup, of course. Credit: HK Sininen - the most typical makkara trademark in Finland!

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Smaller dreams in Turku

Last weekend I visited some old university friends in Turku, the old capital of Finland. There I spent 5 years studying my Master’s Degree, having endless coffees and beers with my more or less ambitious university and hippy NGO friends wondering what to do with our lives. Well, I guess we still don’t know…

Those were very good times, but I’m also happy to have finished with the studies, moved on to work in Helsinki and achieving so many new things in my life.

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Icicles covering Logomo, Turku Centre for Modern Art.

Going back to Turku is a small nostalgia trip to the past. The same dear friends, bars and restaurants… well, those that are left. It is also a bit disturbing to notice how everything stays the same in the city –  most of my friends still do the same things as we did back then, 10 years ago.

Some have finished their studies and are now working while others are still struggling with their thesis. Some have kids now and are “established”, building their own houses. Some just hang around and work the minimum possible to survive and lead a stressless life. The rhythm in Turku seems quite much slower than in Helsinki, even if the difference in the size of the cities is not that big.

It was good to have long talks with my friends, whom I haven’t seen in years. And I learnt an important lesson. I, who complain a lot about my career, life in general and “the little I’ve achieved in life so far”, should actually STOP complaining right now.

In Turku it is a lot harder getting a job, finding nice new friends or get a new, good boyfriend. So life can easily become monotonous and you loose your faith in that “anything is possible”. As one friend put it “my dreams are smaller than yours”. This made me wonder how can you ever compare the size of dreams? Aren’t all the dreams equally important and big – for the person who dreams them? I hope so.

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Shrove Buns – the last chance to eat greasy stuff in 40 days!

Oh no! Being ill with a flu almost made me forget what day it is today: Shrove Tuesday (Laskiaistiistai in Finnish). This means that today we go all take our toboggans and go to ride a slope (check the video of a bit longer ride in Northern Finland!) and after that the tradition is to eat pea soup, pancake and laskiaispulla –  the delicious Shrove buns! Well, I would say most of the people have skipped to first and even the second part as on Tuesdays they work etc but only few don’t want to taste a bun.

So, about the buns. Basically, you make normal Finnish buns but the fun part is that for laskiainen you can tune them according to your taste! And you can find them everywhere: in cafes, supermarkets – and offices. Today at my workplace we have buns for all the employees. Also in the restaurant near the office you can every year prepare a pulla with your favourite accompaniment – and they have quite a selection.

Tonight a friend is even organising a traditional “pulla party” at her place – and over 30 friends have said YES to pulla in the Facebook invitation. Also everyone has to tell in advance what kind of pulla they prefer. In the end, only you imagination is the limit…

In short, it’s hard to avoid a pulla overdosis today.

So how is this delicacy?

Here it is, laskiaispulla. So good - but only once a year.

There are two options on for to put inside  your pulla – and this truly divides people! You can either be strawberry jam person or almond paste person. If you come to Finland on laskiainen, you’ll definitely face with this difficult question! Also pulla contains whipped cream and some sugar on top. And, like I said, only the imagination is the limit on what to put inside your original sweet bun…

People even compete who makes the best pulla

Most of the people concentrate on eating and comparing pullas but there’s a deeper reason for Shrove festivities, of course. After today, Shrove Tuesday, a period of 40 days of liturgical fasting before Easter begins and during that time you can only eat simple foodstuffs. The Protestant Finns do not observe Lent anymore, but the Orthodox usually do. Some people use the fast as an excuse to eat healthier – maybe even I’ll try to quit eating candy. Hmm I must think about it.

Anyway, today is the last chance to eat a lot of heavy stuff, as people believed that food had to be very greasy today so that the pigs and cows would get fat in the spring. Now the tradition lives on only in laskiaispulla, I guess. And unfortunately it’s us getting fat, not the cows…

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