A snowy Swedish morning

Snow in Helsinki, snow in Stockholm. Rather than feel diminished in my ability to travel freely, I see this greeting as a blessing. In Helsinki, the only downside was the humbling tumble I took out for my 3rd morning run in a row. Apparently, salt is for herring - not for roads & walkways - in Finland. Here in Stockholm, I let an early walk through the medieval charm of Old Town with the flurries and fresh few inches of the white stuff falling suffice. That and a massive hotel breakfast has me prepped to get out driving Sweden's highways and byways.

I'd welcome the chance to sit down with everyone and recount some of my Finnish interactions. Another time, perhaps. I'll offer a few random examples, though. Like how I've decided to become an at least temporary "fish-itarian" following the plate piled to heaping with "authentic Finnish meatballs" at the Sea Horse restaurant (ravitola, in Finnish). Overwhelming, to say the least. Haunting, more likely. I'm still approximately 30% meatball and I think I've hit my lifetime quota. And I'd love to paint a fuller picture of the hilarious, stone-cold awesome college student/taxi driver in suit and tie who drove me to airport yesterday. If I get a absentee vote for the future President of Finland, I've found my candidate. Plus his "pro tips" sent by email last night for my return trip to Helsinki were spot on, given where I'd already been trolling on both sides of the proverbial tracks. Anyone who says the Finns are reserved to a fault hasn't been making the effort needed to find the (at least anecdotal) truth.

I'll get that return to Finland later in the week - a few final days and interviews before heading back to the States. My more immediate plan is to drive today from Stockholm to Gothenburg (Goteborg in Swedish, with a few extra marks added to their trademarked vowels, and pronounced "You-tee-bor-ee-ah" with the last two syllables largely swallowed). In a perfect world, I'd get to drink from the cultural firehose here, there and everywhere. I have to call my shots, though. 

The buried lead must be mentioned. I'm both looking for parts of the larger story intertwined with my current book project, and digging at my ancestral roots where they might be partially unearthed. Fortunate doesn't begin to describe my current state of affairs. Inspired hits closer to the mark. 

Before I can get there, however, there's the small matter of testing the sort of snow tires come equipped on Swedish rental cars. Wish me luck, as I do the same for you.

Winning hearts and minds in Finland

I would love to speak Finnish. Just enough to get by and to listen in on the conversations around me while I'm here. There's something so freaking adorable about a language where they pronounce every vowel, even when they spill over the edges of the page in 20-30-letter bunches. Like you let your arm dangle over the edge of the keyboard and just didn't bother to go back and correct it. I joke as a defense mechanism because I've got nothing in the way of Finnish now that I'm here in Helsinki. I haven't even tried out my pathetic new-car-smell smattering of Swedish (learned from an earnest but utterly unprepared instructor at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle's Scandinavian heartland, Ballard). Not that I need it. Everyone - and I mean everyone - here speaks English. Embarrassingly well. I'll embarrass myself with my "lite svenska" in a few days time when I head to Sweden.

My best example of the above set-up thus far - and bear in mind I've been here less than a day - came last night at the checkout in the market across from my hotel. Every newly arrived American should go into a market where none of the labels are in English when they're shopping for...well, I wasn't really sure what I was gathering. Which was my first mistake. But then I began grabbing funny seeming lumps of carbohydrates and pulled perfectly-shaped, random pieces of fruit apart to add to my basket. My biggest and certainly most impressive bad choice was what I thought was a liter of sparking water flavored with blueberries that may instead be weak Finnish soda pop. All I know for certain about that product comes from the approximately 58% left in the bottle when I excitedly opened it standing in the center of my teeny hotel room/closet too soon after my return. I get ahead of myself, though.

So I went to the checkout and threw my barrel-full of bad choices on the conveyor and said what I thought might be seen as a colloquially cool "Hello, I am a clueless American" greeting in internet-prompted Finnish to the checker. I might have worked because she began speaking to me in those undecipherable long strains of consonants. I, of course, offered my best animated, moronic nodding in reply. Thankfully, I managed to pull my one thus far useful Finnish phrase out of my Palin ("en puhu suomea" - loosely translated to "me no speak-y the Finnish"). To which she gave me the universal sign for, "Duh..." and sweetly explained that I needed to weigh my genetically-modified apples and - what is that, half a banana? - so that I can put a sticker on them. Somehow I had missed that sign amidst everything else that I couldn't possibly decipher in the store. She took mercy on me and did so. With a smile. But not before dropping the banana(s) on the floor on her way back to the checkout. Karma is a bitch, but with a delightful sense of humor.

We finished up, I handed her a bundle of tattered Euros before trying to cram my purchases into the whisper-thin, pack-of-gum-sized bags they had for earth-ruiners like me who did not bring their own. Lesson(s) learned, I scampered back to my hotel room and began dismantling these indecipherable treats. Before getting a few so-so hours of sleep.

The one benefit of maintaining a running schedule that a serial killer would look at and say, "man, that's a bit too much commitment for me" is that waking up on four hours of rack time is child's play. If I'm lucky when I get out there for my run in a few, I'll see that checkout girl coming home from one of impressive number of bars I'd noticed while out meandering yesterday on my way to a love-at-first-sight connection with Helsinki. If so, I'm sure she'll want to introduce me to all her friends.

More later. Stay caffeinated. 

On the road to Helsinki

I've really enjoyed all that's gone into prepping for my most next research trip beginning today. Finland. Sweden. A long-enough layover on the way home through Amsterdam to maybe see a few sights. All together, less than two weeks on the road. But I hope to pursue a bundle of angles - some new, and others as old as my ancestral roots in the 19th Century - across a stretch of places I've never visited...yet always dreamed of experiencing first-hand. Will I have time to post some fresh pics and thoughts on this often neglected (but not yet forgotten) blog? I certainly plan to. You may want to check me out on Twitter for the more regular and immediate offerings. Nonetheless, I aim to be a good world citizen, and duly give some back story along the way to new insights and experiences. My next post(s) will come from Helsinki, if not in transit along the way.

To begin by acknowledging what's coming along with me, I'm fully hooked by Phil Klay's collection of stories Redeployment. I've also devoured the first half of Peter Stark's nonfiction page-turner Astoria - focused upon John Jacob Astor and his crazy venture to reach the Pacific Northwest in the early 19th Century. Bundled with Lorrie Moore's new collection of stories (Bark), I certainly have more engaging material than I'll have time on the road for reading. Better to be prepared than scavenging for something other than packages of rye crisps with ad copy in English, in my humble opinion.

May your own travels be safe. Even if they only employ the mind and spirit. Either way, always bring along an extra sweater as the ides of March approach.