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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Caption contest!

Jaime sent me this photo as a preview of the photos he took in Russia, and I must admit that I cracked up.  Rather than explain this photo immediately, however, I thought it might be fun coming up with captions and/or comments for what is assuredly one of my weirder photos this year.  I'll post the responses here later.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Finnish Michelin Men

In homage to the gradual approach of spring, I thought I'd finally post about how parents here deal with kids in winter, particularly their clothing.  It has been a great source of amusement to me all winter long.  On the one hand, as you will see, the outfits are absolutely adorable and quite practical.  On the other hand, the kids look like a cross between the Michelin Man and the little brother in A Christmas Story.  And, yes, there is that turtle effect and, yes, I have seen a kid fall down who can't get up.

Here's what I mean.

I think for people who know nothing about northern Europe, like me before I came here, if they have any idea about winter clothing at all it might be something like this.  This is a group of historical reinactors doing the whole Finnish "national" clothing thing (I won't even get into the anachronisms of national clothing in the Finnish circumstance, but in any case ...)  I particularly loved this one because of the guys in down coats and cargo pants in the center:  2 sets of Finnish national clothing for the price of one picture!

The best part of the picture, though, is the baby.  See what I mean about the little brother in A Christmas Story!  And, although the clothing is all natural, and therefore ridiculously bulky compared to normal modern Finnish kids' clothes, the idea of having the baby wrapped up from head to toe in multiple layers is totally Finnish.  In fact, yesterday I saw a kid dressed somewhat like this in one of the incredibly insulated baby carriages that I'll show in a second, but in addition he was wearing wrap-around sunglasses.  I thought I was going to gag I was laughing so hard, and I pretended that I was laughing at Ted so that I didn't offend the parents (not too difficult to pretend).  Yes, I know all about UV protection, but did you really need to find sunglasses that looked like swim goggles.  (And, yes, even as I type that, I realize how incredibly practical they are.  The laughter is a mix of the kid's style and my reaction to my reaction.)

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Basically the kids-as-giant-balls-of-clothing phenomenon started around November, and by December I was determined that I HAD to get some photos of this!  They were absolutely adorable, and those of you who know me know that I'm not someone who melts at the sight of any old kid.  (Remember the children I described as needing to be "thrown to the wolves"?)  The problem was basically one of public safety.  In other words, how do you convince people that a stranger taking photos of their baby is not a pedophile?  And, you know, you actually look more like a pedophile when you take pictures from a distance.

In any case, by mid-December I was getting desperate enough to try some stealth cellphone shots, which are how these first few photos were taken.

Baby #1 (imagine a "Price is Right," Bob Barker voice there) was taken in front of the Stockmann's window at Christmas.  I had to get him because basically he was a giant ball of brown down, even including his mittens.  Mittens, not gloves, are the pattern for maximum warmth, because--let's be real--when you're dressing your kids like this, manual dexterity just isn't a major concern.  Here I particularly like the hat and the quilted cover on what is a VERY low-key stroller by Helsinki standards.  After all, it was only right around freezing, so the real, cold weather had not yet begun.

In fact, one of the things you see on lots of kids' clothes are reflectors of some sort, which makes sense considering it's dark by 3 pm and dim long before that in late December (This was taken c. 5 pm in early November).  It gives children this somewhat surreal glow, especially when attached to the Michelin clothing: is the shape human or a demonic Pillsbury doughboy?  In fact, lots of folks have these little, rubber things hanging from bags, backpacks, purses, and zippers on coats, and I only recently learned that they're there to glow in the dark, too.  Ideally you wear them at around hip level so that it's easier for drivers and cyclists to see you.   I was glad to learn that because I'd really wondered if all of Finland had succumbed to one of those weird crazes for stickers and buttons that tend to sweep high school campuses back home; the fact that a bunch of these are in the shapes of flowers or cartoon characters just added to that impression.  Then again, they're much more discreet than the blinking lights some people and dogs wore.  Dogs blinking brightly--that really took Ted aback!

I just love the full body effect of this kid's outfit.  It also gives you a sense of how waterproof these things are.  In fact, it seems like the entire population under age 5 or 6 doesn't wear a natural fiber from November until at least now!  Makes sense since these are a lot more waterproof.  Wish I had a close-up of the great, little kids' snowboots that are part of this outfit!

This picture I had to put in for the sake of one of my colleagues in the General History seminar.  We were talking about the kids' winter clothes before seminar one day, and he mentioned how much he hated being dressed up to go out for field trips when he was a kid.  Until then I hadn't really paid attention, but once he spoke up, I noticed these groups of little kids in neon reflective vests being shepherded around Helsinki in the winter.  Is it just me, or do they look like oversized, irradiated ducklings?  Then again, I like the artistic side of the orange against the white and dark brown.

Part of why kids are so bundled up here--and look so cutely Michelin-like--is that there doesn't seem to be anytime that kids are not taken outside.  Really.  Even on days of "heavy snow" they're in the park (I put "heavy snow" in quotes because people have called c. 8" heavy snow here.  The Sierras would freak Helsinki folks out!).  Even when it was -20F, they were skating in the park.  Even now with it icy and muddy, kids're out running through it.  And even when they can't move, they must be exposed to the elements!

That leads to the most seriously impressive strollers that I have EVER seen.

This photo was taken in late January when I was out with Ted in 0F weather.  I saw Mom marching towards me in the distance--yes, marching, even though the entire sidewalk was ice--and knew I had to get this because it epitomized Finnish kids "taking the air" in winter.  So I removed my gloves, dug out the camera from inside the Burgundy duvet, blew on the camera to make sure it was warm enough to work, frantically wiped the condensation off before it froze, waited for the remaining condensation to evaporate, and eventually got my zoom lens working just before she marched past (across the street).

What makes this photo quintessentially Finnish?  Check out the carriage!  That is a winter, four-wheeler!  I mean, you could go off road in that thing while simultaneously maintaining your baby in perfect 75 degree comfort!  It had wider tires with snow grips (not kidding), several layers of insulation (not kidding), waterproof covers on the top, bottom, and sides (not kidding), a movable insulated hood (not kidding), and automatic wheel locks (Okay, I can't see them from this distance, but I'll bet they're there, so I'm not kidding).  The only thing that isn't quintessentially Finnish is the bright red coat, which is lovely but should be blue or black, please.

In fact, friends of mine here who aren't Finnish have hysterical stories about elderly Finnish ladies coming up to them in the park to scold them when they've dressed their child inappropriately.  For example, can you see why in the photo below the child is a victim of child abuse?

It's not the lightweight, albeit fancy, stroller or even the fact that he appears to be sitting all alone.  It's that he isn't appropriately covered.  Yes, even though he's in full Michelin man regalia, it is snowing and he doesn't have a stroller cover over him!!  What neglectful parents!  In fact, I showed this to some Finnish colleagues, and they were a bit surprised that this was up on a website.  In fact, I had even been surprised (Hey, I found this in early March and had been well indoctrinated by that point!)

Lest you think I'm kidding, let me tell you a story.  One of my colleagues here is from Switzerland, and he and his wife have a lovely 2-year-old boy with a head of thick, curly hair.  Well, one day in November when it was c. 50 degrees Fahrenheit out, he, his wife, and his boy were in one of Helsinki's many parks.  Their son was all bundled up, but he didn't have a hat on.  My colleague noted that 5 times in a one-hour period people came up to them to tell them they really needed a hat for their little boy.  A few others also commented that his stroller would never provide sufficient protection in the winter.  They have since dutifully started dressing their son in hats and got a bigger stroller just to stop the harassment.  Of course, the winter stroller doesn't fit in the old-style elevator in his building, so they now have the joy of carrying it up several flights of stairs.  Better that than cross a Finnish grandmother!

Not everyone, even in the somewhat posh neighborhood where I live, can or wants to afford the big, fancy winter strollers (those things are 100s and 100s of Euros!), though, and that's when Finnish inventiveness takes over.  (After all, babies are too young to have to learn about sisu, right?)  This was another of my hidden-camera shots of one of the ladies at the tram stop.  She has literally covered her baby and carriage in blankets, so much so that I was wondering how the kid was breathing!

One of the things I wondered about during all of this was how or why the Finns pushed those strollers everywhere through ice and mush and snow.  I mean, it seemed like somewhere a better solution had to have been developed.  Then one day in the park I saw this.

Here I really couldn't stop myself and cracked up.  Since the lady noticed I explained what was up, she thought it was funny too when looked at it from a Californian's perspective, and she kindly volunteered to stage a photo.  Those plastic sleds are the bomb, and hers even had a little lip on the back so that she could strap the baby in somewhat upright.  It was actually one of the few I saw like that; more often they were just flat pieces of plastic and the kid was laid out like a log (Michelin log--check out the clothing!).  And, yes, I once saw one kid roll right off the sled, but don't worry; the dad noticed right away.  I mean, it's hard to balance if you're a fuzzy log.  In fact, my personal favorite moment with the little plastic sleds was a parent who'd gone shopping.  The 2-3 year old was laying out flat in the back holding all the groceries on his/her (couldn't tell) tummy while the mom pulled it all along.

As you can see here, some manufacturers really get into doing these things up.  Not only does Dad here have a very high-tech one of these sleds with a big backrest and specially grooved slides (I never actually saw one like this), but he's also able to wear a baby carrier simultaneously.  Thereby, you have the true Finnish "technical/masculine but maternal" dad.

And isn't the baby an adorable Michelin man?

The Snoring Beast

Really, I promise that more informative posts will be coming soon, but since several of you have been laughing at my Facebook posts about Ted and his snoring in my office, I figured I'd share part of why his snores reverberate so.

Yes, that's Ted--truly a fuzzy bear this year, huh?--and, yes, that's my leg in the bottom right corner.  Note how he has his head wrapped around the desk's leg.  While that's not where he sleeps all the time, you can imagine the vibration when he's there and he snores.

Of course, if he starts kicking in his sleep, my phone cord is doomed.

Now I'm back to 14th-century English sermons and more wandering dead people.

Friday, March 16, 2012

My Room in the Grand Hotel Europe

As many of you know, my "holiday" this year was a week in St. Petersburg, Russia (March 2-8).  I know it seems kind of weird to go to Russia in winter, but I just liked the idea (Russia = winter), thought it would be great to go when there weren't a ton of tourists, and figured the weather would be about the same as that in Helsinki anyway (true--St. Petersburg is 1-2 Celsius colder unless you get unlucky and the Siberian winds come in).

Since I thought I'd be alone in St. Petersburg, I figured I'd be decadent.  Better that than having to fight my way around in a country and with a language I don't know.  As it is, one of my friends from California, Jaime, decided to join me, but since that was after I'd booked the trip and gotten the idea of decadence fixed in my mind, I kept to the original plan.

And what a plan it was!

The hotel I'd booked, the Grand Hotel Europe, is a St. Petersburg landmark and has frequently been ranked the best hotel in Russia.  I knew it was pretty amazing just by looking at the website, but I really didn't get a sense of how this luxe would affect me until we checked in.

When we arrived that Saturday I was informed that I'd been upgraded to a suite on the historic floor (Jaime and I had both booked rooms on the historic floor--that is, a floor where they'd retained the historic look of the hotel when they renovated it) because I was here to celebrate my birthday.  I kind of blinked at that, not because it was a month before my birthday, but because I'd mentioned that this was my birthday present to myself in one of the many emails I'd sent organizing the trip.  Then after a brief tour of the hotel by our private butlers (no, I'm not kidding), they led us to our adjoining rooms (more on that later), and I walked into this.

Wow.  Room itself was about 600 square feet not including the entryway, bathroom (quite large, especially by European standards, too), and sun porch.  Yes, I said sun porch.  At the end of this photo, where the plant is, you can see the entrance to it.  It stretched the length of the room; I've got a photo of it a little later.

You can see that it was all done up in 19th-century gilt-and-glitz.  Definitely not my personal style, but definitely part of the experience I'd hoped for with the historic floor.  That being said, I was astonished how comfortable all that old-fashioned looking, gilt furniture was.  Really.

This picture below gives a much better sense of the size of the room, especially when you consider that it's a king-sized bed.  What makes it even more amazing is that I was already in the room when I took this; in other words, the room's actually been somewhat shortened.

Aside from the size, I just loved being back to feather pillows and a feather duvet.  In fact, my only complaint about the room involved them.  The room was so warm that I couldn't really burrow into them without sweating, and the only way to make the room colder was to turn on the AC since the windows were bolted shut for the winter!  That being said, I suffered through, especially when I came back the first evening to find the bed turned down, slippers next to the bed, and all the containers and forms for laundry and shoe cleaning laid out artfully on the bed.  Heck, there was even a menu from which I could choose different styles of pillows if these didn't suit me.  (You've got to be kidding!)

On either side of the bed were these huge, cedar-lined wardrobes.  As you might imagine, my pathetic little wardrobe barely made a dent, especially since the Burgundy duvet was hanging from its own coat rack in the entryway.

Even though I'm not really a chandelier person, this one I liked, I guess because it's more contained than they often are.  Here you can see my entertainment system and the sitting "room."  By American standards, the TV was good, not great--only c. 37".  :-)  One thing I never got to try out was the elaborate DVD library the hotel kept.  I had my own BluRay player in my room, and if I wanted  I could check movies out from the hotel.  I suppose it would've been great if the weather had been bad, but it never got that rough while we were there.

Oh, two other things to notice: the water and the red box.  It turns out that you really shouldn't drink the water in St. Petersburg because it has Guardia in it--a nasty bacteria.  I mean, it's okay to brush your teeth with, etc., but you're taking a chance if you ingest large quantities.  With that in mind, the hotel provided us with ca. 2 liters a day for free, but I'd definitely recommend having a water budget if you're someone who drinks a lot!

The red box was my in-room espresso machine.  Yes, seriously.  In fact, the first morning I decided to make espresso (Jaime's not a big coffee drinker, so I was always craving caffeine long before he was ready for breakfast), I couldn't figure out how to make it work, so I called my butler.  Yes, seriously.

This shot was taken from the doorway leading out to the sun room.  It gives you a better sense of the room's length since it shows the desk area (where I was standing when I took the earlier pictures) and the entryway.  Right off the entryway is the bathroom; more photos to come!

The sun porch--I was in love!  It was only about 4' wide, but it was wide enough for both Jaime and I to move the big chairs from the living area out there and spend the evening talking, drinking champagne (yes, they gave us that in the evening, too, sometimes), and wondering how the other 95% lives. :-)  Although the windows didn't open, if you pulled back the curtains you could look out on Nevsky Prospekt and the road connecting Nevsky with the Russian Museum & Arts Square (the Grand Hotel takes the entire block).  The deep, granite window ledges were perfect for putting stuff on, and since all the wainscoting you see provides a cover for radiators, it was quite toasty out there.  I called it my coffee room.

Back to the bathroom.  Those of you who know me know that I don't generally rave about bathrooms or care how big they are as long as I can do my thing in a comfortable, sanitary environment.  I truly don't get the fetish for large bathrooms--the temptation to make all sorts of raunchy, psychological comments is almost overwhelming--and even this bathroom seemed a bit ridiculous at points.  But there is one thing you must notice here, something that had me jumping up and down within 2 minutes of entering the room: the tub.  And this is no ordinary tub either.  This is a European tub--a big, soaking tub where, when it's full, even someone like me floats and I can fully submerge myself without bending my knees or contorting my neck.  The fact that it was attached to a rain shower and a hand shower were just bonuses.  Yes, a real European tub when I've been bath-deprived since August.  In 5 nights, I took 4 long baths!

You know it's a class act when the tub comes with its own rubber ducky! :-)

Unfortunately this photo really doesn't do the rest of the bathroom justice, in part because it only covers another small section of the bathroom.  The main reason I took this photo, though, unfortunately is hard to see here.  Now I expect some level of hotel toiletries in a better hotel, but I was truly overwhelmed and more than a bit amused by the number of different toiletries the hotel provided, each it is own ecru container with dark blue lettering.  Yes, I had (each in a separate container, remember) a shower cap, bath salts (a decent amount, too), shampoo, creme rinse, conditioner, bath gel, mouth wash, a comb, a nail file, a dental kit, a shaving kit, a "toilet amenities" kit (don't know what that is), and various forms of cotton balls.  I suppose I should be upset that there wasn't a sewing kit, but if I needed sewing, my butler could arrange that. :-)  Oh yeah, I had huge robes with slippers, too.

In case I didn't have enough tables in the room. there was also a desk where I could plan the next day's adventures, and since we wouldn't want me to be stressed from the planning, there was a lovely bouquet of fresh roses on it. :-)  In all seriousness, this has to be the only hotel I've ever been in that had enough plugs next to the desk (4).  Oh, and they also supplied adaptors for all their plugs.

Finally--and, yes, this really is my final gloat--I had waiting for me on the coffee table this large bouquet of flowers (the photo really doesn't do it justice) and a plate with 4 chocolates from their in-house chocolate factory.  Both Jaime and I thought that was a lovely way to welcome us--he had the chocolates, not the flowers--but it turns out that everyday they'd place a tray of 4 chocolates in our room.  Jaime was much more disciplined than I about eating them right away: for me, they were an evening snack; for Jaime, a pre-breakfast treat!

Ted and Gloves

Well, for the next week or so, as a homage to what appears to be the end of winter (or at least the weather's taunting us appropriately), I figure I'll alternate blogs that I'd intended to appear automatically while I was in Russia (so much for Blogger's scheduling feature) with those about the Russia trip (You can blame my photographer :-), Jaime, for delays because I only have a few Russia photos.  Of course, if I'd bother to take any on my own ...)

Today's homage: Ted's glove fetish.

Yes, one of the things Ted's loved about living in cold-weather climes has been the number of small, soft objects he can obsess about and try to steal (I won't even discuss his laser-like attention to the fur trim on strangers' hoods, coats, gloves, scarves, etc.  It makes tram travel exciting sometimes.).  One pattern to our days is his stealing a pair of slippers and shaking it as soon as I take his harness off when we get home; I'm trapped taking off my boots and the place to store shoes is right by the door. 

Well, in this case, I'd made the mistake of washing the black polarfleece gloves I use to take him for his walks.  I'd just gotten back from collecting the dried laundry and put it in my chair while I went back to take my boots off.  Yes, in the whole 30 seconds it had taken me to take off my boots Ted had found the gloves in the pile of laundry!

Of course, when I called him on it, I got the innocent, Alfred N Newman expression.  The only problem is that innocence is ruined when the gloves are lying across your legs!

Once I got the gloves back, poor Ted's fun was ruined, so the only thing he could do was take a nap.  In this case, he put himself on the couch and used as a pillow the chair that I use to balance my laptop on when it's working as my TV.  I can imagine him thinking, "Hey, I wasn't hurting the things--just shaking them."

Yes, my dog suffers so.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

More Helsinki Winter Streets

Now that the Finnish winter is on the cusp of fading, at least here in Helsinki, I figured I'd post my final shots of how the Finns adapt to winter.  My comments will illustrate how poorly I've adapted! :-)

This was the corner across from the tram stop in mid-January; it's also what it looked like about a week ago. Actually the sidewalk is somewhat deceptive.  What looks like dirt is, even at that stage, packed ice.  Yes, my ice cleats were glued to my feet from January until I got back from St. Petersburg and even at times after that!  At least now I can get a carton of milk without taking my life or limbs in my hands.

And then the winter hit.  Helsinki in late January!  Heck, it actually looked like this on the day that my wallet was stolen and we were running all over town dealing with the consequences!

Yes, this was what we were walking on while crossing the park until about March 12.  That's the road between our building and the building next door where my Dad's ex-student lived.  Even though it's getting hard to see where the sidewalk ends and the road begins at this stage, it was worse by late February.

My footpath.  You know, the one that isn't slippery.

Imagine the fun of driving these city streets even with snow tires.  I've actually gained great respect this winter for Finns' abilities as drivers.  What I find the most astonishing, though, is watching them parallel park in the stuff at the bottom of this photo.  No wonder it can take 30-45 minutes to dig out in the morning.  I'm amazed it doesn't take that long to dig in!!

Welcome to my world by mid-February.  Yes, we're expected to walk through that.  Sisu, remember, sisu.

This is probably the thing that amazed me the most when I first saw it and that I grew to accept the most quickly as ordinary.  In city center Helsinki many of the buildings have semi-flat or at least lower sloping roofs.  I find this odd given that I've always been taught that you want heavily sloping roofs in snowy climates; on the other hand, if you had such heavily sloping roofs here, not only would you lose a lot of building space but people would be in danger throughout the winter from snow falling from 6+ stories.  A little different than falling off an A-frame.

And, believe me, the threat of death from snow is real.  In fact, when I got into the elevators at the Towers on February 21st, there was this note warning all of us to be careful of falling snow and obey the barricades placed around dangerous areas because just the previous day a woman had been killed by falling snow in DOWNTOWN HELSINKI.  Agh.

That's where this picture comes in.  The owner(s) of every building are required to pay for snow removal from their roofs and any part of the building where falling snow or ice might constitute a public hazard.  For that reason, from January on, all the time we'd see scene like this one where a truck with a cherry picker would raise guys to the top of the building where they'd scrape the snow onto the sidewalk below using--and I'm not making this up--shovels and scrapers!

(I love how the truck is balanced here.)

This is a gang going up for snow removal from one of the old warehouses downtown.  What I find particularly amazing about this is that they don't have any safety equipment on.  I guess the yellow vests are so that they are noticeable while falling to earth!!

(Actually this is the only time I saw workers without safety harnesses.  I guess they felt they didn't need the precautions because the building was only 3 stories tall and they'd be falling on 8" of snow and ice.)

I had to put this here.  If you look closely you'll see a Peruvian band playing in the snow.  They really are an international phenomenon!

And, yes, this isn't some tourist shot.  The steps to the Helsinki cathedral really got so covered in snow that they made a killer, in multiple senses of the term, sledding run.  Even now, mid-March and above freezing for over a week, there are still only paths up the stairs; the rest is covered with snow and ice, although they've been doing snow removal on the open area in front of the church.

I wish I could take credit for this one, although I saw something like it one night when I didn't have my camera.  This is the road that leads alongside Senate Square up by the History Department and the heart of City Center Campus on a foggy winter's night.  Painfully atmospheric, I know, but cool nonetheless.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Going to the Beach in Winter

For some bizarre reason, none of the text I wrote to accompany these photos was exported when I used my IPad to post them, so please excuse the blank pages that you've had and the somewhat choppy text here!

In any case, before the weather got really icey (as opposed to just somewhat icey) here, I used to go down to the beach at the end of our block quite regularly with Ted.  It was amazing to this warm-weather person to watch the snow and ice gradually expand to cover both the sand and sidewalks AND the water itself.

Photo taken in December

Yes, this is the beach that people were lounging on back in September, although in this case I could chuck snowballs at Ted while on it.  About 2 minutes after I took this picture, too, I had my first experience with ice.  I was just meandering across what I remembered as a vacant lot when suddenly I heard a crack and my right leg was up in water to mid-calf.  Much to my surprise, I didn't lose my balance or get water in my boot, so I found the whole thing laughable rather than annoying.  Ted just couldn't figure out why I was standing lopsided and laughing.

Here you can see the snow gradually taking over the harbor; by this time it's early January.  (Yes, the walks I took when I had pneumonia!)

Of course, by early February it was solid.  Since I hadn't been down there for a few weeks--nursing the pneumonia once I found out what it was--I was just flabbergasted by the ice and snow everywhere.  And quite thick, too.  I hear that by mid-February some folks were out on the bay skating, taking the dogs for walks, and ice fishing.  Given that the ice was thinner this year than it had been in years (that's according to the Finnish news), I figured I'd give the whole thing a miss!

While I normally do this in dust or pollen, I can see why the Finns use their more natural element! :-)

And, yes, welcome to the Gulf of Finland at the end of February.  I admit it, I'm just stunned.  Then again, I find the whole idea of taking an ice-breaker to work, like one of the folks I've met here, just mind-blowing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

How to Walk in Snow--or Kay's in Love

As I'm sure you've gathered from my earlier posts, I am constantly astounded at what Finns manage to do on the glaciers they call sidewalks.  Skiing and stuff, that's fine and to be expected, but cross-country races using running shoes in the snow ... they have better balance and stronger ankles than I!

I mean, a large part of my daily walking with Ted involves weaving through parks where you really don't know what you'll find day to day.  Not only does the weather affect the surfaces, but the city of Helsinki and the maintenance services of the various nearby buildings always seem to be messing with the paths--and not always to the pedestrian's benefit.

I mean, something like this is navigable, although potential precarious.  For me, I just take babysteps and constantly remind myself to walk flat-footed and avoid putting my heel down hard.

Even with those precautions, and lessons from several Finns I know about the best ways to fall (!), I've been more than a bit nervous of reinjuring my bad ankle, so I've given up any pretense of coolness and broken down and bought the ice cleats that it seems only the elderly here will wear, despite the recommendations of Finnish doctors.

Funnily enough, though, finding what seemed to be a good pair for me has been a problem, in part because I didn't know exactly which stores to go to and the sporting goods store near campus was useless.  I eventually ended up with a type of cleat that forms a cap around your heel and has 5 spikes about the width of thick nails that go into the ground.  It didn't seem like it would be effective, but it did work despite what seemed to be ridiculously small cleats.  Moreover, they were pretty easy to put on and carry when I had to take them off.  I could even get away with wearing them in shops and anywhere that had hard surfaces without destroying those surfaces.  They've made Ted walks much, MUCH better recently.

Despite that security, I kept wondering about what I would do during ice season.  (Yes, according to my Finnish friends, we are only just now starting to get the slippery weather, and it's going to keep going for probably about another 5 weeks.)  With that in mind, I contacted some of my Canadian colleagues, and they recommended these cleats called Stabilicers.

I'm in love.

Here are the two different sets of ice cleats.

Yes, there is NOTHING discrete about those Stabilicers: 17 individual screws embedded into a Vibram sole that straps across your foot and ankle.  That being said, I took Ted for a 45-minute walk this morning around the bay, and I had to keep reminding myself not to speed up and not to walk on my heels because I felt so secure in these things.  Yes!

While I'll bring the heel cleats to Russia next week, too, as you might imagine, the Stabilicers will be at the top of my list of things to pack!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Finnish Winter Fashion

No, I'm not setting that up as an oxymoron, despite the Finns constant impression that their country is style handicapped.  Really, it seems like all I hear is how slovenly they are compared to Italians and Spaniards!  Then again, Italians and Spaniards rarely have to deal with snow like this, and I'll bet that those in the Alps and Pyrenees that do don't dress that much differently.

Actually, this entry is in praise of the amazing ability of Finns, particularly Finnish women to navigate through ice and biting cold wearing anything that remotely looks fashionable.  I'd like to bow before what much be supernaturally strong ankles and senses of balance.  This is assuredly one area where I could never adapt!

What do I mean?  Well, this is an example of the type of outfit I would see around Helsinki right now, that is, with weather in the teens.

Take a good close look, something I know the guys reading this won't find too difficult to do.  Yes, those are woolen leggings tucked into knee boots with heels and a long(ish) sweater.  Hey, she has gloves, a big scarf and a hat--she's ready for -20C!

Lest you think I'm joking or this is only something that women in their 20s do for the sake of fashion, meet one of the ladies with whom I was waiting for a tram.

Okay, this one has a coat on, but it's just a basic black wool one, very different from the Burgundy duvet (and she was maybe 5 years younger than me).

It's the details that make this particularly impressive.  Not the lightweight black tights and the heels on the boots.

In fact, Finnish women of all ages seem to be able to wear heels of all sorts on the snow/ice/glaciers that constitute Finnish sidewalks.  Honestly.  I mean, people have this image of northern European women in the winter as looking like this.  (and, no, I didn't take this picture, so they're not giving me the stink eye).

Not so at all.  While there are lots of more practical snowboots of the type I wear, I've also seen lots of heels up to a good 3"--and almost no casts and crutches.  Moreover, even some older women get into the act.

I know it's hard to tell here, but this lady was probably in her 60s and was wearing 2-3" pumps in the snow. 

Probably most impressive to me, though, was this even older lady who was walking ahead of me towards the tram on one of the mornings with a -20+F wind chill.  I was so astounded I dug through my backpack to get my cell and tried to get a picture before she got too far away.

Take a really close look.  Yes, it's -20+F and, yes, she already has a cane.  She's wearing practical shoes, albeit without ice grips, but notice something missing there?  Something rather major?  Yes, she was wearing plain, ordinary, thin nylons, and the gap between her boots and skirt was probably close to a foot.

Helsinki women--made of tougher stuff than me!

Even Finnish me get into the act some, although far less than the women.  In helps that most of the shoes that are in style for men are also practical in snow and that they even make this men's shoes that look like hiking boots but have retractable spikes embedded into them.  (I think of them as stealth ice cleats.  You can walk securely and still be cool).  That being said, I've also seen guys running around in Converse high tops and boat shoes in the snow, which has to be close to suicidal.  The worst, though, are the few guys who insist on wearing stylish, Italian or Italian-inspired shoes in the snow.

If you'd see these in person, you'd have just cried. They looked like gorgeous Italian leather and surely wouldn't after a few more days in the snow.  I also kept trying to imagine how he walked on them given the leather soles they assuredly had!  I've come to the conclusion that Finns just skate all winter; it's just that sometimes the skates have wider surfaces touching the ice.

One piece of winter clothing that is ubiquitous even when wearing high heels, Italian shoes, or plain nylons that it seems no Finn would do without and that is enormously practical is the hat.  They are EVERYWHERE, and it does make it easy to style your hair in the winter: you just give up!  While many are mundane and practical, like my wool caps, some have real character.  There's a grown-up version of the little kids' elf caps with pom-poms (see my earlier post on kids' clothes) that just crack me up, particularly on men.  The ones that can be really fun and quite charming on the right person are these fur-lined bomber hats.

Those things must be a God-send if you have short hair.  Me, though, I'm quite happy with my down hood.