I really, really loved Helsinki. We had a very comfortable AirBnB, great summer weather, and we got to see so many friends. The city is small and very walkable – you can basically get from one end to the other in about 30 minutes, and it really never feels too crowded. Now if they could just do something about the 8 months of winter, I’d be tempted to move there…

You can tell everything is designed for intensely cold temperatures and lots of snow. All apartments have double-paned windows, the front door is also doubled, and balconies are glassed in. All houses have boot brushes out front and heated towel racks in the bathroom. You typically take your shoes off whenever you go inside someone’s home or office, and I suspect that’s more to avoid tracking wet snow inside than to keep things from being dirty.

Heavy metal music is incredibly popular here, and as a friend said, its likely because of “The cold. The darkness. The isolation.” (Incidentally, the largest annual heavy metal festival was happening while we were in Helsinki. Its called “Tuska”, which in English means “Agony”.) While the summer nights are incredibly long, your only chance to see sun in the winter is during lunch.

There are also some unique Finnish words to express how people feel. For example, “Kalsarikänni” means “sitting by yourself in your underwear in front of a tv or laptop and getting drunk”. So that should set your expectations for what winter is like…

… which is why we came in the summer. Everyone is outside and happy and having fun – it was a really fantastic way to experience Helsinki for the first time.


I think seeing so many people we know really helped encourage my crush on Helsinki. We both know quite a number of people from our days at Apple. (Helsinki is home to a ton of mobile game development studios.) Unlike the US, where everything is very competitive, the various Finnish companies are all friendly – they freely share information with each other, are happy to help make valuable connections for one another, and often get their companies together just to socialize. The perspective seems to be that there’s room for everyone to be successful… I really wish more people shared this spirit (and not just about app development).

I’m really impressed with how passionate people are about their work, and also how much they do in their off time. There’s strong value placed on work/life balance.

One friend recently spent a couple weeks taking refugees to various national parks. Its a program designed to help them feel more comfortable in Finland and have an opprtunity to have fun and build confidence in themselves. How great is that?

We also got a quick visit in with an old Apple colleague who was over from London with his wife and new baby. His father lives outside of Helsinki and is full of non-stop stories, ponderings about life, and hilarious mottos like “ I don’t mind that I make mistakes as I learn from every one one of them… and that’s why I plan to keep on making them!”  He had us laughing the entire time.

Matt & his family

I also had a chance to see my old pal Sami. He’s originally from Helsinki, though we went to school together in England in 1990. This was my first chance to see him in his “natural habitat”, and I think I understand him a bit more now.


We wound up in some kind of heavy metal nightclub, which had impressive decor. This mural was just one of the features:
Summer holidays are a big deal in Finland. Many companies shut down for the month of July. Even if the company can’t let everyone take time off at once, people generally take turns taking a couple weeks off to go to their summer houses, be with family, and take advantage of the warm weather.

This time is sacred and project schedules are built around it. I often wished Apple provided a company-wide summer holiday along those lines. Christmas is the only holiday where the email stopped and you felt like you could really disconnect and recharge.

And new parent leave in Finland is essentially 2 years, which can be shared by both parents. (I’ll spare you more details as it will likely make my US friends who are parents cry.)

Helsinki Pride was the same weekend as the aforementioned Agony festival (who is a huge supporter of the Pride events). I was excited to see it, probably because I was hoping it would feel a little bit like SF. The “parade” felt more like a protest, but it all ended in an event space that felt very familiar – music, eating, drinking, and speeches. Not nearly as many festive outfits as you’d expect in SF, but still a good showing of people having fun and generally being supportive and joyous.

Less daning, but not entirely unlike SF Pride…

As we were heading toward the Pride epicenter, our friend’s young son wondered why people were “fighting for rights” (something he overheard from the parade), which triggered a very interesting dialogue… in Finland I believe there are equal rights regardless of sexual orientation/gender, so we talked about awareness, bullying, predjudice, etc. I loved how easy it was to have an honest conversation, and how much his father encouraged it.

A few other random thoughts on Helsinki:
Tar is both a cleaning product and a drink here. (WTF?) There’s even a saying “If vodka, tar, or sauna doesn’t cure you – its fatal.” My theory is that drinking tar would be fatal, but they assure me its not.

These are actually 2 different kinds of vodka…

Helsinki has some really great cocktail bars, including a true speakeasy where we genuinely had a tough time finding the door. (Sadly, photos were forbidden.) Gin & tonics are an art form here, so factor in some time to sample them if you’re in the area. In addition to the speakeasy, I also highly recommend A21, Liberty or Death and Steam.

Every house has this geniusly-designed dish rack built into the cupboards over the sink. Why has no one else thought of this? It’s brilliant! The water runs right into the sink and you don’t have to waste counter space with a drying rack. Everyone should steal this idea!

The amazing, secret, drying cupboard!

So all in all, I’m a big fan of Helsinki and Finland in general… I suspect this won’t be my last visit.



We were excited to go visit some friends in Lapland because the sun never sets, Santa lives there, and we’ve heard its really beautiful.  I’m happy to report that all of these things are true.

The thing we didn’t know about Lapland is that its also the Mosquito Capital of the Universe. To be fair, every Finnish person who heard about our plans said “get mosquito repellent”, but what they should have said was “get a full body suit made of netting, every single mosquito-killing product you can find, and pants made of thick material”.

I have never seen so many mosquitos before (and I’ve been to Africa!). There are tons of them. And they never sleep.  As soon as you step outside, regardless of the time of day, they are all over you. You are constantly swatting to keep them out of your ears and mouth. So basically, everyone looks like this:


And yes, one time we actually wore those mosquito hats. We thought they were just trying to make us look silly, but these were absolutely necessary for one of the hikes:

It was actually 75° outside – we are just dressed like this to keep the mosquitos from eating us alive

So as you’re reading the rest of this post, keep in mind that every activity was preceeded by elaborate application of mosquito repellant, and anytime we were outside we were spastically flailing our arms around our heads…

Our friends Markus and Celine spend a lot of time in Lapland as Markus grew up there. His family has a really nice summer home on a large lake, and his parents still live in Lapland year-round.

Markus showed us all aspects of Lapland summer.  We started with a visit to Aavasaksa, which was an easy walk with a phenominal view:

Lapland has a lot of trees and lakes, and not many people…

Then we stopped by his Dad’s house.  His father was actually born on the property, so there’s a lot of history there. He’s constantly adding new things to the property, including this Sauna Boat:


Apparantly, people didn’t want him building a sauna on the edge of the water as it would ruin the view. So instead, he put the sauna on a floating platform,  attached a motor to it, and called it a boat.

Markus has driven the sauna up and down the river before, but its a ridiculously small motor for such a large structure so we took out a rowboat instead. There are a lot of beautiful, secluded spots which are only accessible by boat. We were accompanied by his dad’s adorable dog, Teppsu:

She’s a Finnish Laphund – my new favourite breed.

You can tell she loves being on boats and being around people… she’s a very friendly, happy dog. (And they are lucky I didn’t try and steal her.)

We then took the over-stuffed VW Bug (3 adults, 1 child, our 2 suticases and 5 bags of groceries) to the summer house, which is on the edge of massive, clear lake:


where we commenced playing Mölkky, eating, drinking, and going in the sauna (of course):

Though the weather was nice, everyone is bundled up  because of the mosquitos.


The next day we decided to take a quick drive for a short hike  (where “quick” = 3 hours and “short” = 3 hours).  In Lapland, everything is really spread out, so spending 3 hours (one-way) to drive someplace is not a big deal.  And it doesn’t matter what time you go hiking because it never gets dark.

It was raining when we arrived at Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park.  Markus checked the weather and said it should clear up in about an hour. We were incredulous, but decided to have dinner at a lodge and see if the weather improved.

The food was great and they served a lot of traditional dishes.  It was a little twisted to watch the reindeer wandering around outside as The German ate reindeer stew, however, at least you know its free-range meat.

The reindeer are owned, but they all wander freely.  They are constantly trotting down the middle of the streets, yet amazingly, are rarely hit.


As predicted, the rain stopped right on schedule, and we set out for what was supposed to be an hour hike.  We started by hustling through a mosquito swamp, but then the trail quickly climbed higher to cooler tempartures (which means fewer mosquitos!) and we ultimately wound up in completely rocky terrain. If the rock had been red, it would have looked like Mars.

We soon realized this trail was going to take a lot longer than an hour, but at least we didn’t have to worry about it getting dark on us.

Even though there was dense fog, the sun was still fairly high at 9:10pm

Their 5 year old daughter, Sanna,  had done an amazing job walking on her own, even when the terrain turned really rocky and the fog got really dense.  Markus had the brilliant foresight to bring some chocolate along, and told her she could have it if she made it to the point where the 1952 olympic torch was lit. Hence this victorious photo:

We made it!

We all celebrated with chocolate, and then descended back to the car for the 3 hour drive home. We arrived back around 1:30am, which didn’t feel that late since it was still daylight outside.

The next day Celine suggested a BBQ at a scenic point that was much closer and a much shorter hike.  Markus warned that the first part would be like a “mosquito suicide run”, so we all put on the netted hats and made the best of it.

The view from Haukkavarra

The top of the trail contained all the essentials for a Finnish BBQ – a fire pit, an axe for chopping wood, and a wine opener. Finnish people don’t mess around with charcoal when there’s plenty of firewood around:

Markus, modeling the latest in lumbersexual fashion.

They made a fantastic lunch over an open fire – mushrooms stuffed with cheese, sausages, and even fresh crepes. Clearly, we Americans have things to learn when it comes to grilling!

After that we had time for one more sauna before catching the train back to Helsinki.

All in all, it was a fantastic time (mosquitos notwithstanding). We usually only get to see Celine & Markus under really hectic circumstances, so it was really nice to see them at home and get to experience what life in Lapland is like.

The Night Train

Our next adventure is in Lapland, which doesn’t look all that far north thanks to map projections, but is actually 440 miles/700 km from Helsinki. Flights take about an hour, the train takes 11 hours, and driving takes about 12. We weren’t in a hurry, so we decided to take the train (and save some money).

They offer an overnight train where you can book a sleeping cabin, which is something neither of us had experienced before. This all sounded very exciting and I had romantic visions of the sleeping cabins you see in the movies. Stefan decided to hedge his bets and made me have a couple drinks before we boarded.

I’m pleased to report that the cabins actually worked out great! They are small, of course, but its much more comfortable than an airplane seat. Each cabin has 2 bunks, a small seat, a sink, its own thermostat, a mirror, a place to hang up your clothes while you sleep, room to store your bags under the bottom bed, and a window. Some even have en suite toilets and showers, while the others have access to shared ones. (Yes, showers). Also, there was free wifi.

Those straps keep you from falling out of the top bunk while you sleep.


The sink lives in a small cupboard.
The en suite bathroom had a clever design – the wall moves so you’re either in shower mode, or toilet & sink mode.  Very space-efficient!


The train also had a dining car, which sounded more glamourous than it was, but did offer quite a lot of food and drink. And it was fun to walk between train cars to get there.

The Dining Car, which is mainly where bored people hang out.

The shower had surprisingly adequate amounts of water coming out of it, but you had to push a button repeatedly to make the water continue to flow. 100 pushes later and you were clean, though!

Sleeping was a little strange with the motion of the train – every time it slowed down I was worried we were missing our stop (they don’t make any announcements in the sleeping cabins). Also, its pretty easy to hear your neighbours – if I spoke Finnish, I’d certainly know everything about the people next to us.

All in all, though, it was a very pleasant journey! Finding and boarding the train was easy, the cabin was comfortable, and there was gorgeous scenery outside. I definitely recommend it!

I do wish the windows had been cleaner so I could get a decent shot out of them…

Midsummer in Finland

Midsummer is pretty much THE holiday in Finland.  Its always celebrated on a weekend (regardless of the actual solstice day) so people have plenty of time to eat and drink a lot.

Most families seem to have some kind of summer home.  A summer home has just a few requirements: a sauna, a location adjacent to water, able to accommodate a sizeable group, and have plenty of mosquitos. 🙂

The setting was so peaceful…

For Midsummer, you gather a group of friends and family, then spend the weekend eating, drinking, playing lawn games and taking saunas.  So that’s what we did! Our friend Johannes was kind enough to invite us to his family’s summer house, which was about 90 minutes north of Helsinki.

The weekend included 10 adults, 3 children, and a poodle. Though the house looked small from the outside, there were bedrooms hidden everywhere! Everyone had a place to sleep, and a seat at the kitchen table.

The German, who was colour-coordinated to our sleeping cottage.

This group of friends has been spending midsummer together regularly for 10 years or so… they were all friendly, welcoming, and super-interesting people. I suspect it was less drinking than some midsummer celebrations given that 3 of them compete in triathalons (one of whom is a pro athlete), but that also probably saved me a vicious hangover. (And made me feel lazy since they would go for 3 hour bike rides or 2 hour swims.)

We were requested to bring dessert for the group.  We each tried to prepare something in the kitchenette of our hotel before heading to the house, but given the difficulty of finding the ingredients we needed in the grocery store and the ill-equipped hotel kitchen, we decided to bring s’mores as backup.  (Graham crackers do not exist in Finland – we improved with some cookies.) We decided to make the s’mores in the interest of cultural exchange.

If nothing else, the kids loved them.

Meghan’s oatmeal choc chip cookies also went over well, and now her family recipe has  international distribution.

We basically spent the days preparing meals, eating meals, and cleaning up from the meals, with a little bit of activity in the afternoon.  My favourite was a game called Mölkky, which is a little bit like lawn bowling meets billiards, but instead of rolling a ball to score, you basically throw a small log at the pins. (Seems like an appropriate Finnish twist)

Markus in action, starting off the game.

At one point while we’re all playing, a bee flew up my skirt and got trapped in my dress.  Being very careful not to spill the wine in my hand or flash the group, I quickly managed to find a spot to safely place my wine glass before entering a complete freakout – throwing my phone across the lawn, falling on the ground, flailing my skirt around, screaming –  ultimately getting stung and making a spectacle of myself. I guess it was a good way to break the ice.

Every night we’d take turns in the sauna – women would go together, then men (or vice versa).  The ritual is to sit in the wood-burning sauna for as long as possible, then jump in the freezing river, then repeat. Its surprisingly relaxing & refreshing, despite the cold water and trying to thwart the mass of mosquitos waiting to feast on you as you’re running between the sauna and the lake.

All in all, it was a really relaxing and fun way to spend midsummer with a really lovely group of folks!