Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Farewell Finland: The Scandinavian interlude has ended

As we get prepared to cross the pond and move back to California in a few days I reflect back on the wonderful experience of living 4 years overseas in Finland. It has been a very rewarding time abroad for the family and I in too many ways to list here. The kids learned the language and the culture while experiencing Finnish traditions. I personally will miss the clean air, peaceful forests, mostly traffic-free roads and kind, trustworthy folks. While there is no utopia in this world, Finland was a great place to spend these past years if you don’t mind occasionally freezing your butt off during the long, dark winters. :) However, I won’t deny I do miss my Californian spontaneity, awesome mountains and eternal sunshine. (Though I need to take some rain back with me to help the Californian drought)  I am really looking forward to seeing my family and friends back home. 

I thought to end this blog I would make a list of things I liked and disliked about living in Finland. Please don't take these too seriously.  :)  Also, thank you very much for reading my blog through these past several years.


1. Peaceful nature and forests and picking berries
2. Clean, crisp air
3. Stunning archipelago
4. Clean and quiet bus system
5. Security for my children
6. Easy access to health care
7. Trustworthy people
8. Summer, though it's very short
9. Sauna
10. Cross country skiing
11. Access to the rest of Europe
12. Helsinki
13. Beautiful Finnish Lake land (Eastern Finland)
14. Music clubs in Helsinki for Concerts
15. Long Holidays


1. Expensive Gasoline and Beer
2. Cold, dark winters
3. Too many rules about everything
4. Lack of spontaneity
5. Boring Finnish lager beer
6. Very unpredictable weather
7. increasingly difficult economic situation
8. Extreme pickiness of Finns when buying used items
9. Lack of customer service in many situations
10. Minimal store hours on Weekends
11. Xenophobia
12. Lack of good ethnic restaurants, though it improved much lately
13. 50 varieties of the same boring Finnish sausage
14. Lack of smiling faces
15. Takes a long time to get to know your neighbors 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Escape to the Canary Islands

Unfortunately, I haven't had as much time to keep blogging on a regular basis.  I think this is the longest I have gone between posts since I first created my blog in 2011.  Hopefully, I can post with more regularity, but no promises. :) My family went on a trip to the Canary Islands for the Christmas and New Year Holidays and it was our first time getting away from Finland for a warm weather winter trip since we moved here almost four years ago.

I had heard about the Canary Islands from various people and they had always been high on my curiosity list.  They are a chain of 7 Islands which are owned by Spain and just 100km from the coast of Northern Africa.  The Canary Islands get approximately 12 million tourists per year. They are specially popular amongst Scandinavians and other Northern Europeans who want to get away from their cold winter climates.  We had many choices among the 5-6 main Islands that you can travel too. It seems the most popular destinations are The Gran Canaria and Tenerife Islands.  We decided to get off the beaten path a bit and picked both Lanzarote and Fuertaventura.  Most people tend to book these trips directly through a travel agent and usually have their travel plans already laid out for them.  In our case we decided to be a bit more adventuresome, so we agreed to book everything on our own.  We thought we would save some money and have some added flexibility doing it this way.  This might be the case, but all the extra hassles of travel (shuttles, buses, ferries, airplanes) hardly made it worth our time for the little savings.

Camels of Lanzarote
We ended up flying directly into Madrid, Spain and then spending one night there before flying to Lanzarote.  We didn't really have time to enjoy Madrid, so the first night consisted of just a nice dinner near the hotel.  We would get 2 more nights in Madrid en route back to Helsinki.  Even though our flight was directly into Lanzarote, we needed to journey down to Fuertaventura via the Ferry for our first 3 nights.  So, after a shuttle, ferry ride, bus and taxi we finally arrived to our hotel.  Fuertaventura is one of the larger islands and is most famous for it's long white sand beaches, sand dunes and goats.  We made sure to visit one of the more popular beaches on the island.  During that excursion we noticed that many people were hanging (literally) at the beach Au-natural.  :)  I guess it was a clothing optional beach much to the children's shocked look on their faces.   We also really enjoyed visiting the Sand Dunes which are supposedly very similar to those in the Sahara Desert of Africa which is just 100km away.

Volcanic park in Lanzarote
Our final stop was the volcanic island of Lanzarote.  It is famous for it's varied volcanic architecture and has been compared to a mini version of Hawaii's big Island.  It also features an annual Iron Man triathlon.  We saw many cyclists riding all over the Island and perhaps they were training for the coming Iron Man event. We had a bit more time to tour around this Island and the highlights of the visit were seeing the main volcanic craters and participating in a camel ride.  The kids really enjoyed both of those activities.  This Island has it's own beauty but is definitely not as sandy beach oriented as Fuertaventura.

Having been to the Hawaiian Islands several times in my life, I wasn't sure the Canary Islands could live up to my high expectations.  We did enjoy our trip and the varied landscapes though I would have to give the edge to Hawaii if you are looking for more lush, waterfall filled landscapes.  I still think the Islands are worth visiting and would definitely go back and see the more popular Islands of Tenerife or Gran Canarias. These islands are welcoming during the dark, cold days of winter in Finland.  Speaking of old man winter, Finland enjoyed one of the warmest Februaries in a long time and Spring came early as the beginning of March saw the end of the snow pack. 


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Socialized healthcare – a nightmare?

I regularly watch political shows, and often in US media the term “socialized healthcare” is used to refer to something negative and something that US consumers should be afraid of.  Remember the "Death panel" discussions that Sarah Palin started several years back in the US? Having lived in Finland for more than 3 years with my family, I now have some experiences within a socialized healthcare system and perhaps it is time to address the big question – is it a nightmare?  In my experience, not so.  Once we moved to Finland, everyone in my family received a Finnish social security card (Kela), which entitles us to the benefits in the public healthcare system.  Of importance, the Finnish system is not entirely reliant on the public system, as there are several large private health providers, who are typically sponsored by employers.  Both me and my wife have the supplemental employer sponsored private health care, so we have also used that for our healthcare needs, especially for quick health check-ups, e.g. for cold and flu symptoms etc.  In essence, we have a choice between the private and the public system, however, the private system does have limitations so that e.g. all surgeries are referred by the private doctors to the public system.

How does the system work?  Our kids are school-aged so they receive regular health check-ups either by a nurse or a doctor through their school.  The cost for regular check-ups for kids?  None.  :)  Recently one of my kid had a regular check-up and during the visit we discussed the need to have her tested for certain allergies.  The original appointment with the doctor at the school premises was on Tuesday afternoon and on Friday we received a letter in the mail indicating that she had been scheduled for an allergy test at a hospital approx. three weeks later.  We did not get to choose the date and time for the test as in the Finnish system typically the providers will do the scheduling without input from you (yes, I can see how that would be considered inconvenient to many), but this was certainly quick and efficient. 

Dental care is free for all until age 23.  Our kids receive letters in the mail for their dental check-ups.  Again, we do not get to choose the time and date, but the system makes sure every child gets their appointments at certain grades/ages.  Cost for kids’ dental care?  None.  Adults pay for dental services, however, the Finnish social security administration (Kela) still subsidizes a portion of the costs.  I have done e.g. dental cleanings via the public system.  Perhaps a bit inconvenient is that it usually will take about 2 months for an appointment, but then again dental cleanings can be planned ahead of time.  Dental care in the public side in our experience has been just fine.  Of course, Finns in general are not very emphatic, or at least they do not hold your hand at every juncture, so I don’t have a warm or close relationship with my dentist, but rather I receive the care and they provide it.  Cost for adult dental care?  Yes, there is some depending on what you need.  Dental cleaning at the public side costs about 30 euros.   My wife has done dental cleanings as well as other procedures at the private providers and paid a bit as well, again with partial Kela subsidies.  Nevertheless, to our surprise the cost of dental care even with private providers in Finland is no more expensive than dental care in US with (good) employer sponsored dental plans. 

Surgeries in Finland are typically handled by the public side.  Even if you visit a private doctor who determines the need for a surgery they will give you a referral to the public hospitals for the actual surgery.  I know some friends who have had surgeries in Finland and my wife recently had one as well.  As far as I have been told, all of them have been happy about the quality of the care they received.  Again, they did not get to pick the date for the surgery, although certainly if the original date does not work you can reschedule it, in which case it will be rescheduled for the next available time the hospital has.  For my wife, the wait time for the surgery, which was not time-sensitive, was approx. 2-3 months.  Cost for surgeries?  Yes, there is some, but they are ridiculously low.  Surgeries involve a day-charge for the use of hospital beds, and that is all that is charged from the patient.  So, if your surgery requires you to stay overnight in the hospital, you would pay 2 x approx. 30 euros ($40, i.e. $80 in total).  For my wife, she did not get to choose the surgeon (or the date), but she had a meeting with one of the two operating surgeons prior to the surgery and as a result had no concerns about not knowing the surgeon or what would happen during the surgery.   Another friend we know had cancer while in Finland, and many of her friends asked if she would have rather been in US to receive care there.  My impression was that she felt that she received timely and appropriate care, and most importantly, she fully recovered from cancer.  So, from our experiences, there are no delays, long lines or other inefficiencies, at least not with respect to serious illnesses or procedures. 

The idea of having to wait for long lines is often portrayed as something that certainly happens in socialized healthcare systems.  We tested this recently as well.  Few weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon my wife suddenly lost hearing in one of her ears (due to what turned out to be an ear infection).  With no private health care providers open late on weekends, she went to the on-call (päivystys) at a local hospital.  She provided her social security card and explained her issue at the front desk.  They logged her in and told her to go to the waiting room to be called.  This is where the long wait times come in, right?  It was a large room with lots of chairs, tables, magazines and TV-screens, and it was after all Saturday evening almost 9 pm.  The patients are called in to see the doctor based on priority.  So, the more urgent your matter the quicker you are seen.  Given that her symptom was merely inability to hear and pain in her ear, she pulled out a bunch of magazines and prepared for the wait.  Long?  No, in about 10 minutes she was called to see a doctor, and within another 10 minutes she was done equipped with an antibiotic prescription.  Since pharmacies were not open, she was given the first two antibiotic pills free of charge by the doctor to get going before the pharmacies would open the next morning.  Cost for urgent on-call appointment?  Yes, approx. 30 euros ($40).   This was certainly just one experience and I am sure there are more busier times than others when patients with less urgent matters have to wait. 

We have had few urgent check-up needs (for our kids) over the years as well.  In each case, we have received an appointment for the same day.  With an appointment we are seen when the appointment is scheduled for, so there are no lines or extensive wait times.  Cost for urgent or same day appointments for children?  None.   My son recently fell at school at recess at approx. 11:15 am.  The teacher called us when my son complained about his teeth hurting.  My wife called the urgent same-day (public) dental care, and received an appointment for 1 pm, which really was the earliest she could do after picking him up from school and driving to the dentist.  Efficient and no waiting.

Filling out form after form.  That is one thing I recall from US health care visits.  Most every time you visit a doctor’s office you have to fill out few forms about your health history and few disclosures as well.  The amount of paperwork required at doctor’s offices in Finland seems to be quite minimal in comparison.  I think the reason for that is a centralized system where all of one’s health information is stored.  Typical doctor’s examination rooms in Finland include a computer, and the doctor always enters some information into the computer during the visit.   Prescriptions are entered by the doctor into the computer system as well and during the visit they will print a copy to you which you can present at the pharmacy.  However, only on few occasions have we been asked to fill out extensive forms about health history. 

Medicine and pharmacies are closely related to health care.  Medicine costs are subsidized by the social security administration.  The costs vary depending on the medication, and the cost is often described particularly by the elderly as being expensive.  Finland in general is an expensive country.  By way of an example, we have seen e.g. antibiotic prescriptions cost anywhere from 10-25 euros (13-35 USD).  I am sure there are more expensive medicines in Finland, but our experiences are quite limited.  Getting a prescription filled in a pharmacy in Finland is in itself one of the most efficient operations I have seen.  Some prescriptions nowadays are electronic, but regardless of the format, you show up at the pharmacy and wait few minutes to be seen by the next available pharmacist.  You proceed to the counter, present your prescription and social security card.  The pharmacist types in the information on the computer and while she/he is still typing, the medicine you need is either dropped off at the counter by another clerk or dropped from an automatic tubing system (think of those systems used e.g. in Costco by cashiers to send a stack of bills via the tubing system into some office).  I have never seen them handling individual pills and counting how many to place in a bottle to be prepared for the patient.  Instead the clerk finds the packaged drug from behind-the-counter shelves etc., and it is brought to you.  I remember having to wait in US in Safeway or Longs for 10-15 minutes even without anyone else being there so that they can confirm the prescription and then prepare it by getting the actual pills, sorting the quantity etc.  The total process for getting medicine in a pharmacy in Finland is finished within few minutes. 

So, in response to the overall question – is socialized healthcare something to be afraid of and would it be the end of the world?  Based on our experiences of over 3 years in the Finnish health care system, I think the words socialized healthcare and nightmare should be used in the same sentence only in late night entertainment shows.  Regardless of the system, some people will always complain.  I know some Finns who complain about the Finnish system as well.  However, based on the experiences we have had, I think (Finnish) socialized health care system works quite efficiently and well, especially considering that it is universal and almost free.  And those Finns who complain, have not really given me any specifics as to what in particular is worth complaining about.  Seems like those who I know who have needed care have received it in a timely manner and with sufficient quality.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Weekend escape to Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen, which is the capital of Denmark is another city that I hadn't visited in over 20 years since I was a post college graduate backpacker.  Copenhagen is a wonderful Scandinavian city in the tiny country of Denmark. This beautiful city features a little for everyone and is fairly compact and pedestrian friendly.  Copenhagen is smaller than Stockholm, but definitely larger than Helsinki.  In comparison to Helsinki there was much more action downtown, including many famous restaurants, shops and street musicians.  In fact, Copenhagen is known for having the finest dining in all Scandinavia, including the most Michelin starred restaurants.

During our brief stay we walked around the city, focusing on the touristic center.  We strolled down to the harbor to see the famous Little Mermaid statue based on the story from Hans Christian Anderson.  This statue has gained status as the most recognizable monument in all of Copenhagen and Denmark.  The area was full of tourists snapping pics at breakneck speed.  The Mermaid will always get her share of attention.  Later, we walked over towards what is perhaps the most famous church in Copenhagen, "Church of our Saviour".  This church is unique in that you can climb up to the top of the tower which features a unique outside staircase with only brass rails stopping you from plunging down almost 300 feet to the ground.  I decided to climb up on my own and enjoyed the scenic views of the city from the outside staircase.  I am glad it wasn't windy that day while I walked the final 150 of 400 total steps to reach the top.

Church of our Saviour

Perhaps the most interesting but controversial site we visited during our stay was the area called Freetown Christiana.  This little (84 acres) self proclaimed autonomous area was started by hippies in the early 1970s.  There are many artists, shops, food vendors and housing units here.  Around 800 people actually live here, but their claim to fame is that they live by their own rules.  This means that marijuana is sold and smoked here out in the open. Marijuana is not legal in Denmark, but it seems that it is highly tolerated in Christiana.  When we walked through, we noticed that probably 75% of the people here were either purchasing or smoking it.  It felt a bit like walking through Amsterdam's seedy red light district or Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California.  I won't get into the politics of this place, but it was definitely an interesting site.

Overall my impressions of Copenhagen were very good.  This liberal and free spirited city is Scandinavian in appearance but feels a bit more closely related to the Netherlands in tolerance and culture.  I feel and after talking to a local that even semi-liberal Stockholm, Oslo and Helsinki are not as progressive as Copenhagen.  It was pleasant to explore this city again after 21 years since my backpacking days.  I have now visited all 5 Scandinavian capitals in the last decade.  They all have their charms and interesting sites.  I would definitely put Copenhagen towards the top of the list as it seems there is much to offer for everyone here. So, it is another city that I highly recommend to any traveler looking for Scandinavian exposure. Allow yourself  at least 2-3 days to see the city non-rushed.
Christiana's artwork

Monday, September 15, 2014

Summer vacation part 8, 3 days in Prague, Czech Republic

The final stop in my family's Summer trip was Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic.  Prague holds a very special place in my heart since I spent 4 months living here right after graduating from college back in 1993.  For a young and impressionable traveler back then, Prague was just magical.  The iron curtain had recently fallen during the Velvet revolution of 1989 and the city was exciting and growing into the capitalistic ways of the West while retaining it's Bohemian charm.  It simply was the trendy "place to be" in Europe during that time period. I worked part-time as an English teacher while living here and I got to really know the city's soul beyond the touristic old town.  Tourism was already hitting Prague fairly hard even back in the early 90s, however little would I be prepared for the dramatic change that has taken place recently.  Turn the clock ahead to 2014 and the city now has been completely over run with tourists and fancy shops lining most streets near the old town.  Prague is known for it's beautiful architecture and the famous Gothic buildings are in their original state since the city was not bombed, and therefore spared damage after World War II. The center piece of Prague and main attraction is the Charles Bridge which is nearly 1,000 years old and is one of the most famous walking bridges in the world. As I strolled around the city, I was still in awe of it's charm and the architecture, though I became increasingly annoyed at the high end shopping and massive amounts of tourists marching like cattle through the cobblestone streets.

Since this was the very end of a long and busy vacation throughout eastern Europe, my family didn't have the energy for doing all that much. Most of our days were spent casually walking around the old town and seeing some of the nearby sites. We covered most of the famous old town and lesser town, and later my daughter and I hiked up the hill to the Prague castle. My daughter and I also explored a bit off the beaten path which included a 300 step walk to the top of the mighty St. Vitus cathedral. We also took in the gorgeous view from the mini Eiffel tower at Petrin hill. On our last full day in Prague, my daughter and I peddle boated around in the Charles river, taking in the views from the water. I had absolutely no regrets visiting Prague again 21 years later, though I was a bit saddened that my magical city had gone through such dramatic changes. I guess a romanticist/idealist always wants to dream about a city in a certain fashion, while a realist understands the changes and influences that occur when a city rapidly goes through a metamorphosis. The strong Western influence over Prague is not necessarily a bad thing for the locals as the city is thriving.  I still recommend a visit to Prague, however I do think an off season trip here is optimum. Also, do try to explore a bit outside of the city's touristic center so you can experience some little gems that lie outside the beaten path.  Prague is still fairly cheap by Western standards and there are budget accommodations/food to be had.  Last but not least, try to enjoy a few pints of Prague's famous beer which should only set you back about $1.25 per pint.  :)

Charles Bridge

View from Petrin Hill
Prague's Astronomical clock

Church of our lady Tyn

St. Vitus Cathedral
Dancing house

Magical Prague from high on Petrin hill

Monday, September 1, 2014

Summer vacation part 7, Three days in Krakow, Poland

After our stay in Vienna and a very short visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, we took an overnight train to Krakow, Poland.  Poland is another country that neither my wife nor I had ever visited.  I had heard many great things about Krakow and had wanted to visit the city for a long time. Krakow was very interesting in many ways and has the largest medieval square in all of Europe.  It is a city for walking around and people watching throughout the enormous square.  My family was quite surprised how reasonably priced everything was in Krakow. The city had a very Western feel to it and the service and quality were top notch at just about every place we visited.  We had some very nice and gourmet meals for fractions of what they would cost in Helsinki, Finland.  We had three full days in Krakow and made it a very cultural visit.  

The first day we ventured all around the city and in the afternoon saw the famous factory that was formerly owned by Oskar Schindler.  Schindler, who was immortalized in the Spielberg film, "Schindler's list" was famous for employing Jews during the Holocaust in his factory in order to save them from extermination by the Nazis.  The entire factory has now become a memorial and history museum about the German invasion and occupation of Krakow during World War II.  Krakow was fully invaded and Poles just like Jews were persecuted and even put to death in the extermination camps.  The second day in Krakow was a somber day because we took a tour of the infamous Nazi extermination camp that is in Auschwitz.  The extermination camps Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II) are known as the world's largest graveyard as up to 1.5 people million perished there. It was a very heavy and depressing subject and tour, however also a very important and educational experience that I feel should be experienced at least once by everyone in their lifetime because we should never forget and never repeat history again.  The last day was spent in a more uplifting and fun fashion as we visited the Wieliczka salt mines.  This incredibly deep and humongous salt mine was an amazing experience for the entire family.  First, you must walk for at least 10 minutes just to get down the flight of stairs to the very bottom of the mine and then you walked around countless tunnels and rooms in order to see all the different passages and art that is in the mines. The tour only covers about 1% of this cavernous and interesting place. There was an underground church carved out of Salt as well as theaters, gift shops, exhibitions and even a restaurant well underground.  At the end of the tour we were luckily able to take an elevator that raced up to the top of the mine back to solid ground again. Overall, I really loved Krakow, Poland and it's surrounding areas. In fact, we found Krakow to be one of the highlights of our entire Summer tour of Eastern Europe.  I would even recommend it over my former favorite Eastern European city of Prague, Czech Republic which has suffered a bit from over tourism during the last 25 years.  More on that to come in part 8, which will be the final chapter in our summer tour of 2014.

Krakow's grand square

Pope John Paul II, Church in Wielickza salt mines


Monday, August 18, 2014

Restaurant Day in Finland

So you have a great idea on a food dish?  You always wanted to share your special recipe with others but never had your chance?  Well, you can in Finland, because Restaurant Day, which takes place approx. 3 x per year means that you can set up and advertise your "restaurant" and you don't need a license to do it.  The awesome concept of Restaurant Day is sweeping across Finland and other countries in rapid pace.  "Restaurant Day is a worldwide food carnival when anyone can set up a restaurant, café or a bar for a day. It can happen anywhere: at your home, at the office, on a street corner, in your garden or inner courtyard, at a park, or on the beach – only your imagination is the limit". - Restaurantday.org 

My wife and daughter always wanted to try to sell their own cupcakes, so they finally decided to make a batch of 100 for the final Restaurant Day of summer 2014. The menu for their cupcake stand in Espoo was 1) vanilla and lemon, 2) chocolate hazelnut, and 3) raspberry.  The cupcakes turned out very well and were purchased steadily during the few hours the stand was open.  To our surprise, even on a slower Sunday afternoon they sold 100 cupcakes in just 2.5 hours time, exceeding our expectations.  My son and I journeyed over to Helsinki for part of the day.  We went to one of the parks in downtown Helsinki where we saw at least 50 pop-up restaurants.  Countries from all over the world were represented in Helsinki.  There were treats from Turkey, falafels from the Middle East, bratwursts from Germany, tapas from Spain, burritos from Mexico, chorizo sausage from Argentina, Cuban food, ribs, sushi from Japan as well as many Finnish dishes and options. You name it, you could find it.  My son and I only covered a park which is just one city block in size, but that was plenty for us to choose from. The Restaurant Day map showed hundreds of pop-up restaurants all over Helsinki, so we barely scratched the surface.  This really cool concept is perfect for new entrepreneurs or folks just trying to have a bit of fun selling what they love to make.  The great thing is that you don't need a permit and can set-up shop just about anywhere you want during the day - even in shopping centers and other commercial (but public) areas.  I am excited that this Finnish invention started and is spreading over to other countries.  However, I would be pretty surprised to see it enter the United States, which has much stricter laws about who can sell what and where.  This grassroots organization is not for profit and definitely is giving back to the community in great ways.  I really hope that this amazing concept continues to grow and continues to encourage others to participate.  If you live in Finland or another country that participates, I definitely recommend that you visit during the next Restaurant Day.  For more information check: