Friday, July 9, 2010


[ Kamome Shokudo ]

Where to start with this story? – since it is one that started essentially after my last departure from Finland. Upon returning from my second extremely memorable YFU experience, I relished in all of the memories of Japan and Finland that I had around me. One day online, I stumbled on a movie that was gaining quite a bit of popularity in Japan – Kamome Shokudo, “Seagull Café”. The premise was simple, three Japanese women partaking in a comical process of starting a Japanese restaurant in Helsinki, Finland.

It seemed too good to be true - a movie that had everything all together. Once I became a student at UofM, the movie was still not easily available and I had forgotten about it. However, one of my professors that I would frequently chat with after class - [ if I am allowed to make fun of myself, it was my Buddhism teacher, and he also spoke Japanese. I always enjoyed the conversations ] -one day he gave me a burned CD and it was a copy of the movie, and he said that I would like it – of course I would, I had been waiting to see it! And ever since then, the movie has not only become a favorite of mine, but also my family’s and even Shinya, our Japanese exchange student from Okinawa, Japan. I think that is why I love the movie so much – it brings out the excitement in me of the cultures being together in the film, and how they both have opened doors for me in my own life.

Fast forward to 2010, and I am now on the train to Helsinki from Turku. As a huge coincidence, I am seated on the train next to 6 Japanese tourists venturing through Finland. At first I was a bit nervous, German dominated the part of my brain that deals with foreign languages – my Japanese was rusty at best. Even so, something sparked me to lean over and like a natural at stalking Japanese tourists: “etto… chotto sumimasen desuga….”

I cut in with a polite interjection, and joined into their discussion about Muumiland [ their previous destination in Naantali where the white hippo-like trolls live], and then to their trip Helsinki. What else was on their agenda – of course かもめ食堂, Kamome Shokudo! The series of events were all so exciting for me – I wasn’t the only one that was mesmerized by Finland and Helsinki in this film.

The film is quirky, and deals with the smaller details of life. Life abroad, helping out friends, making good food, trying to find happiness in life – but the film just makes it all seem like so much fun; calm and tranquil Helsinki is definitely a contrast to bright and chaotic Tokyo.

[ Another cultural tip to add - this map locates the areas of the city where civilians can wash and air dry their rugs, a summer ritual of many Finns (and a country where carpets are almost non-existent) ]

Once in Helsinki, the Kiukkonen family was very excited to meet me as I arrived. I had only stayed with them for one week during the final stage of my YFU exchange in 2007, but we really enjoyed each other’s company and have been in contact ever since. They have also shared their love of cultures and art with me, and caught on to my unique interests early on of Finland and Japan. They actually found the best personal gift for me – a book of Japanese Finnish fusion cuisine, in both English and Japanese!

I had sent them a copy of Kamome Shokudo last Christmas for them to see what I was so excited about in the movie. The next day we were going to visit the city and find the restaurant which was the setting of the film. In the meantime however, it was already late – near midnight, and we were home for the evening. We had no time to waste however, and Anna proposed an idea – how about some Pulla?

Now, first of all, Pulla is an excellent cardamom spiced Finnish pastry perfect with coffee. I couldn’t say no. Second – the film Kamome Shokudo has a scene with Pulla cinnamon rolls that make them look incredible – and now I was watching the yeast rise, rolling the dough and pinching the little pastries myself homemade, as traditionally Finnish as you can get!

The next day in the city, Anna and I window shopped, explored the harbor, caught up on the past years of studying abroad [ she is doing her Undergraduate studies in Lancaster, England]. The city was as beautiful as I had remembered it. Esplanadi park was bustling with people, the Havis Amanda statue was clustered with photo-snapping tourists, The street’s window displays were filled with colorful Marimekko patterns and fluid Aalto vases. Through our ventures of the city [ and me gushing about the edgy design of Scandinavia – only to find out that in 2012, Helsinki is the design capital of the world with many events and conferences, definitely worth a visit back!] we finally stumbled upon the little café. The café has a different name now, and aside from the movie poster in the window and some Japanese signs, it is unaffiliated with the movie. Even so, there is something surreal about looking down the street and it looking exactly the same as the film [ not that anything would change… but the characters of the film walked these streets, making the film come even more to life].

Peeking inside, the interior was completely different [ a shame, because in the film, the décor of the café was curiously all very expensive and iconic Finnish furniture and glassware!], but there were customers including a few Japanese that I could easily point out as well. It made me excited that they were probably here for the same reason that I was – just to see it.

[ I would make a statue of wild Finnish strawberries too ]

[ Believe it or not, this view is right in the middle of Helsinki! There are still areas that connect right back to nature. ]

The visit and snapshot lasted only a few minutes, but the experience was nonetheless extremely cool. I think that this story really documented some of the memories and laughs of my first day in Helsinki, as well as the very cool connections that I can celebrate in thanks to my great friends and host family members abroad all over the world - of course, the first person that I wanted to share the photos with was Okaasan in Japan who is also a huge fan of the film.


[ Finnish midsummer celebration ]

Bags packed, towels, check, the girls buckled up, check – we were ready to leave to the harbor, where the evening before, Jarno and I set up the sail boat for the next morning. It required many different knots and pullies, and much of it was new to me, but it was a very good experience.

The wind was slow, but once we were out of the harbor, the archipelago around me came to life and mesmerized me like it had three years ago. When one thinks archipelago, they think tropical islands and palm trees. This is still the Nordic sea, yet these rocky islands towering with dense green forests are interspersed all around you. It is truly an incredible sight.

Last time I came to Finland, it was already late in June, after the Juhannus festivities had past. Ever since leaving, I knew that I wanted to return to experience this holiday and make my experiences of a Finnish summer feel even more complete. Things were already going perfectly. The girls munched on strawberries and green pea pods [ so iconic of the summer markets here ] and I sat on deck with Jarno and Anna as we steered toward the island.

Once at the Island, we met up with Fanny and the rest of the Impilä family and the relaxing vacation began. Time was never really an issue, everything just blended together, especially with the sun lazily hanging over our heads the entire day. Swimming, card games on the boat, soccer games on the field, trips to the sauna, running out into the cold sea, back into the sauna, even colder sea – the pattern continued. We would bbq at night – always with Finnish sausages as part of the mix, and after the wonderful feeling of a good sauna experience, the nights kind of just dozed away along with the sun.

I did wake up one morning still unsatisfied with how rested I was but continued to the outdoor latrines anyways. Outside the sun was even more intense and made me need to adjust to the brightness for a few moments. All the while, it wasn’t until I returned that it was only 4:27 am! Where was my evening mask when I needed it now!

The days passed by as we chatted and gossiped about the big news in the paper – the wedding of the Swedish princes which stole the headlines of nearly every Finnish and Swedish paper in the country. And once again to my enjoyment, we also played the Finnish game of chucking blocks of wood, Möllky.

The 4 day trip was over as fast as it started. Every moment was incredible, and I was so thankful to both the Salminens and the Impilä’s for inviting me for the festivities. Saying bye to the girls, I received little “Heipa’s” in return, small bye byes, since I don’t think they grasped that it might be a year or two once again since I get to see them.

[ Probably around midnight ]

In the period with my host family, the three years that had past seemed nonexistent and it was wonderful to know that my high school YFU experience there has blossomed into what I hope will stay a lifelong friendship. I had one more leg of my trip in Finland, and that was to Helsinki where I would meet up once again with my friend Anna Kiukkonen and her family and rediscover one of my favorite places in Europe, the Finnish capital city.

Konfirmaatiomessu pt.2

[ Confirmation party pt.2 ]

Time was short, and the events planned were dense. I was only in Finland for a week and a half so everyday I was doing something new and meeting another person. As exhausted as I may have been, the first evening with Fanny, I was able to meet her friends [ whom, after Fanny’s collections of photos from the states, were all excited to get to meet me once again] and go out into the city for the weekend night. Already I was experiencing Turku like I never had as a 17 year old and was able to go out dancing in the clubs – entering when it was sunny, and exiting… when it was still sunny. I had a lot of fun with Fanny. Our friendship has really grown over the years that I have been away and have become even better through our visits. We still annoy the heck out of each other. At least in Finland, I could threaten her that I could just find other friends on the curb-sides of grocery stores.

[ not Fanny's confirmation party anymore! ]

Sunday was Fiia’s confirmation party. It brought back memories of my first full day with my Finnish host family – how incredibly awkward yet memorable it was to be taken to the oldest church in Finland for the ceremony and then a party afterwards with dozens of Finnish people also noticeably not willing to start any small talk with me. I can't say that too much was different this time around. Everyone was dressed very nicely. There were also some great Finnish foods that I had missed, including salmon as well as cakes with fresh strawberries.

The day before the confirmation, I had visited the Salminen’s house to see the girls for the first time upon returning to Finland. Not only did the young twins remember me, but pulling up to the house, their faces were already smashed up against the window to see RISTO!!!! There was so much for me to see, since the house itself was one that I actually helped out on a few days in the summer I lived down the street at Piiskukatu 4. Now the house was finished and furnished, and the girls were grown up, and more chatty then ever.

Venla was her normal rambunctious self, but this time Aada seemed to have caught up to her level of outgoingness. Sanni was a little shy at first, mostly because she is now studying English at school, 2 years already in fact, and I think she was worried about having to speak with me. I was so pleased to see at the confirmation party however, that once she warmed up to the idea, out little conversation of basic sentences allowed us to really communicate without body language or a translator sitting nearby like years prior.

Anna and Jarno are also both doing very well for themselves. With the girls older now, Anna is returning to more normal working schedules. The house looks beautiful. It has many aspects that are so characteristic of a Finnish house. Large, spacial windows, a nice porch with a bbq, a bathroom dedicated just to the sauna, and then Jarno’s favorite place of the house – the theater room. In the basement, one room is equipped with a projector and two rows of theater chairs they purchased from a closed down cinema, and now it is an entertainment room for the house.

The weekend went by quickly, with the party and events of the confirmation, as well as spending time with everyone. For those that know Fanny, you would know that she is a very dedicated player to the sport of Ringette, and I went with her one evening to see what the sport was all about. I was lucky enough to just stay on both feet while skating as the other girls whizzed by me whipping the rubber rings around the ice with their sticks during practice drills. Embarrassing as it may have been, I tried something new, and heading to the ice rink on a summer evening in Finland was an unexpected surprise during this visit.

I am also happy to add that I met up with some old friends from Finland as well. Joni, the neighbor down the street now lives in Turku city center, and I was able to meet him in the city – which really exemplified how cool it is to travel abroad, and to be able to call up an old friend and say you are in town. I also contacted Maria, a finish exchange student to Göttingen for the first semester of this year. I had pictures of her previously, so you might remember her from other travels of mine from this year. We got together to walk around the city, grab a coffee, and for the first and only time of my trip away, speak German – which was exciting in its own right to think that we were adding our own little bit of multiculturalism and diversity to the terrace of the café with many different languages being spoken.

The first few days went by very quickly, and the real event of my return to Finland was about to begin. I was going to be going sailing for the first time in my life, traveling along with my host family, and celebrating the Summer Equinox – Juhannus – on an Island of the Finnish archipelago. It sounded like paradise, and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a day where the sun would practically never set beneath the horizon!