Friday, January 23, 2015

The trials and tribulations of a snow storm

Everyone knows blizzards are hazardous. Slick roads, icy sidewalks, the danger of icicles suddenly dropping on anything/one below - it can be treacherous. But I'd like to bring to light one of the lesser known perils of a snow storm: smeared mascara. 

On this specific occasion, earlier this week, it wouldn't have mattered except for that fact that I was handing out CV's to local cafes and restaurants, hoping to find a part-time source of income (at the moment, I'm a professional housewife/ aspiring writer). 

Who hands out their CV door-to-door anyway? Well, I do. Not many others based on the looks I received when I walked in. Or perhaps it was my raccoon eyes. 

Either way I don't know how Swedes do this: facing the elements and remaining put-together and not looking like a train wreck. Help! Anyone? 

I guess the lesson to be learned is don't hand out CV's during a blizzard. In case you were considering it. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Eating our way through Helsinki

Our weekend in Helsinki was an eating one. Whether we were hungry or not, eating was the primary activity of our 30-some hour visit - and it was wonderful.

We visited some of the city's main attractions, of course: the Lutheran Cathedral overlooking Senate Square, the Uspenski Cathedral, the newly renovated Saluhallen (open food market). We even took a ride on the Sky Wheel, which rose 40 meters above the harbor with views stretching far into the winter greyness. But all of these activities were killing time before our next meal. 

Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral

Finns traditionally eat a delicious pastry called karjalanpiirakka for breakfast. It's made up of a thin rye crust with a thick rice porridge inside. Sometimes a mixture of hard-boiled eggs and butter is spread on top. I was skeptical of this seemingly random creation at first, but it took only one bite for me to change my mind. You must try it the next time you're in Finland - they're amazing. 

For lunch, we found a charming, cozy cafe - Armas Kitchen & Bar - in the basement of a mall on one of the main shopping avenues, and enjoyed their pulled pork and smoked salmon kebabs made from local, organic ingredients, with some very sour beer brewed in France (note to self: drink French champagne, not beer). 

Helsinki's finest department store, Stockmann

And our last meal in Helsinki was at the renowned Sea Horse restaurant, where we indulged in traditional Finnish cuisine - cabbage rolls, meatballs, schnitzel - at a table alongside one of Finland's most famous soap opera actresses. The most unusual dish on their menu was the Iced cranberries with caramel hot sauce dessert, which we ordered - and made sure to scoop up every last drop from the pitcher of caramel that came with it. 

Then it was time to get back on our ferry, Viking Lines' Mariella, for the 18-hour journey across the icy Baltic Sea and back to Stockholm. The Mariella was fully equipped with saunas and jacuzzis galore, an all-you-can-eat-and-drink buffet, duty free shopping, and a spacious dance floor in the "Fun Club." What more could we ask for? Unfortunately, we didn't make it to the dance floor - but we did get on stage for a round of karaoke. Let's just say our audience was not overly encouraging.

Helsinki is a beautiful city, even beneath grey skies, and we loved seeing it with our local guides Maija and Tommy. Thank you guys for a wonderful weekend - we'll be back!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mountains, mopeds and a (slightly) manic classroom

You know you've been in Vietnam for awhile when it's strange to use silverware again. Not a negative strange, but just a sudden - oh, back to this now. And with it, back to a reality I'd disappeared from for 3 weeks. No more chopsticks, no more rice, no more mosquito nets.

3 weeks doesn't sound like too long, but my experiences of those days were immeasurable. Everything I saw was new. Everyone I met was new. I'd never been immersed in this degree of new-ness before, to say the least. It was wonderful and terrifying all at once - and being on my own made it all the more so. 

I arrived in Hanoi on a warm, overcast day. The Vietnamese would tell me winter was coming, but it was the most summer I'd felt in a long while. Even without the sun, I was in heaven. But the weather was the least of my focus within the hazy chaos of this 6.5 million-person city. And almost that same number of mopeds, no joke. 

riding on the back like a pro

I explored the city on the back of my trusty translator Anh's moped, and was stunned we survived the excursion. Incessant beeping, hundreds of mopeds everywhere, whizzing around carrying anything and everything on their backs - a refrigerator, a family of 4, the carcass of a freshly slain hog. Somehow, it all works. For the most part, at least. It amazed me every day of my visit. For the locals, it was just another day in the life.

the view stepping out from my homestay

I spent just 2 nights in Hanoi before taking an 8-hour night bus to my volunteer placement in the mountainous north - a tiny place called Tha Village. Population: about 500. Although I doubt it's ever been counted. We arrived to the village at about 4am - me, my translator, and my host family's son, Little Son (naturally, being the younger of their 2 sons). After a nearly sleepless night, I had exactly 4 hours until my first class as an English teacher. No reason to delay these things I guess. 

Teaching for me was truly a challenge. The city kids I taught a few kilometers away sat at desks in classrooms with notebooks and had a vocabulary of, say, a few hundred English words. The village kids, who knew only a few dozen English words, squeezed in along narrow benches in a large open space with a high roof and cement wall structures built around parts of the room. The kids ranged in age from 5 to 15 - basically, whoever in the village felt like showing up. Some evenings, 50 students sat in front of me; other times, fewer than 10.

In the midst of the chaos of this village "classroom" (if it can be called that), whatever other activities that were happening at that time would be happening in the same space, just a couple feet away from our lessons. This included a dozen elders "stretching their bones" to a work-out video; a meeting of the governing members in the community; and women practicing a dance for an upcoming festival. Not to mention the several construction workers who were temporarily living in the space. I never knew what I'd be walking into on any given evening. 

That being said, the moments when I experienced a break-through with the kids, however small, were incredible. And seeing their enthusiasm to learn was heart-rending. 

During the days, some of the kids would wander into my homestay on their own to play games or sing songs, a few carrying a tiny sibling strapped to their backs. Fortunately, I had lots of Swedish candy to share with them as prizes. They loved it.

earning my keep at my homestay - rice laid out to dry

It's difficult to summarize such an experience. The trip was one of the hardest things I've ever done; but one in which I grew the most. I truly immersed myself in a completely foreign place with only my translator to communicate with. No English-speakers, no "same-boat" confidant. Just me. And it was tough. But I also saw everything through my own eyes, rather than being influenced by how others interpreted any given situation. I observed a lot as events that I did not understand unfolded around me. And I wrote - filled 2 journals in fact, first page to last. 

I met some wonderful people in Vietnam who truly welcomed me as one of their own. One such man, a Mr. Cat, told me when we said goodbye that I was family now and should come back anytime. He said (all through Anh's translation) that you never know what the future holds, so Vietnamese people appreciate each moment as it's happening - just like Mr. Cat and his family had with my visit. 

I am trying to carry this wisdom with me, back to what feels like another planet here in Stockholm. Thank you Mr. Cat, Anh, Tha Village, and Vietnam for the experience of a lifetime in one of the most beautiful places in the world.

late afternoon light in Tha Village