Travels Part 3: Helsinki and Home

Colourful benches in Helsinki FInland

On our penultimate day in Edinburgh, I was woken at 6am by a soft, rustling sound in the hallway. It wasn’t, as I first thought, a wee mouse. It was DorkySon tip-toeing around the flat, gathering his belongings, and starting to pack.

It seemed that he was ready to keep moving.

In the cab to our hotel in Helsinki, we realised that it was DorkySon’s first time in a country where English is not the first language. We were throwing him in at the deep end: Finnish is very pretty and melodic, but the linguistic rhythms are so different to the romance languages we’re familiar with that we found it a real challenge.

Judging by the cab driver’s bemused look, I completely mangled the name of our hotel and the neighbourhood in which it stood. Over the coming days our embarrassment grew further. Even a simple thank you – Kiitos – took many attempts before we mastered it.

We persevered though – all three of us – because there was a lot to say Kiitos for.

Unicorn on Helsinki street sign

Helsinki is a beautiful city, and two days was barely enough to scratch the surface, but we did our best.

The hotel we were staying in – Hotel Katajanokka – was a converted prison. It was a red brick building near the ferry terminal, and an easy walk to the city centre. There was also a tram stop right by the gate. There were enough of the old prison features incorporated to give you a sense of the building’s history, but not so many that it became creepy.

The hotel provided our first introduction to the excellent European practice of two single duvets on a double bed. SUCH a good idea to avoid fighting over the sheets. It was also the comfiest hotel bed that DorkyDad or I have ever slept in, anywhere in the world. Our first night there we managed a solid twelve hours of sleep.

Thankfully we woke up in time to enjoy the fantastic breakfast.

Finland – with its strong coffee and ten kinds of bread with every meal – is my kind of place. The crispy rye bread with salmon and dill cream was delicious. The soft, sweet, gooey, malt bread which left melted butter trickling down my wrists was delicious. The Karelian pies – palm sized pastries with a rye crust, stuffed with rice or mashed potato – were REALLY delicious, and I had to be dissuaded from filling my pockets with them to snack on throughout the day.

The food in general was excellent. DorkySon slurped blueberry or lingonberry juice everywhere we went. We ate one lunch in what was obviously a local spot overlooking the harbour, and another in a surprisingly good Tapas bar. Dinner at the hotel was also very good, although eye-wateringly expensive. The buffet lunch that DorkySon and I had there on our last day was much better value, and equally yum. Our only real miss was an uninspiring meal in an Estonian chain steakhouse, where we ended up purely to avoid a hangry meltdown from DorkySon.

It was a reminder that city breaks – especially when you’re in a hotel rather than self-catering – can be tricky with kids.  Without a fridge full of snacks to fall back on (or a pocket full of Karelian pies…) we had to settle on compromise meal times that were usually too late for DorkySon and too early for us.

However, there were far more positives about this city than there were negatives. DorkySon – with Formula One never far from his mind – was thrilled to discover that our hotel was just around the corner from the karaoke bar owned by Kimi Raikonnen, so our first walk took us in that direction. There was also lots of activity to watch in the various harbours, interesting architecture, and a couple of very cute little bridges covered in love locks.

Helsinki skywheel and ferry boat

On our first full day, which was warm and sunny, we took the tram up to Linnanmäki, a huge amusement park in the north of the city. The park itself was closed, but DorkySon was keen to see Sea Life Helsinki, and they’re on the same site. It was a pretty small centre, but well maintained, with staff who seemed passionate about marine conservation.

Unfortunately, on our second day, the weather took a turn for the worse. It wasn’t just cold and it wasn’t just wet, it was that combination of the two that makes your cheeks ache. We pulled the puff jackets out from our suitcases, but when we ventured outside it wasn’t for long. Grateful for the warm, comfy hotel room, all three of us scurried inside after an hour and buried our noses back in our books.

We didn’t fly out until late evening on the third day, so there was plenty of time for another good walk around. DorkyDad popped into a specialist hat shop for some browsing; DorkySon found a shop full of Christmas decorations and chose one to bring home; and I annoyed them both by stopping every few hundred metres to take a photo of another brightly coloured bench, cute bicycle, or interesting street sign. My iPhone shots didn’t do much justice to what is a really unique city, which I suppose means I’ll have to go back one day and do it all again.

Eventually, it was time to pack up for the last time and head out to the airport to begin the long journey back to Hobart.

Sitting at the gate and slurping down one final blueberry juice, patting my bag to make sure I’d still got the painted shark stone we’d found in Edinburgh, I found myself strangely emotional at the thought of leaving Europe. Helsinki had reminded me of the early days with DorkyDad when we used to jet off every few months to Prague, or Paris, or Barcelona. We had both loved living somewhere where it was possible to experience an entirely different culture just by travelling an hour or two, and I hoped that all the young people growing up in a post-Brexit Britain wouldn’t miss out on it. What a loss that would be.

Love lock reading 'you are home to me' on bridge in Helsinki

We have been home from our travels now for more than six weeks. The laundry basket is finally empty. The souvenirs have found shelves to live on. Gifts have been given, and the fridge is full once more.

In that time, DorkyDad and I have both had a decent amount of work to keep us out of mischief. The weather hasn’t been great, but it’s been light enough in the evenings that I’ve started running again, and he is back to weeding the garden. DorkySon is making his way through the last term of Grade 3, and looking with ever-increasing excitement towards Christmas. His letter to Santa this year included an apology to Rudolph for trying reindeer in Helsinki – I am pretty confident he will be forgiven.

It doesn’t take long to return to the daily routine, to all that is familiar and comfortable. But like all holidays, this one has left its mark. I think all three of us have taken time to reflect on how lucky we are to have friends and family who we stay connected with, even if they are scattered very widely across the globe; we are lucky that we are able to travel; and lucky that we have a safe, warm house to return to, in a place that we now call home.

Most of all, I think, we are lucky to have each other. As Ernest Hemingway said:

Never go on trips with anyone you do not love.”

Travels Part 2: Edinburgh

Sunset in Edinburgh Marchmont

It was time to leave Harris for the second part of our trip: a week in Edinburgh, followed by a few days in Helsinki, and then the long, long journey home.

We’d said our goodbyes, stuffed things back into our bags, and negotiated the notoriously tricky security line at Stornoway Airport. We were sitting on a tiny plane waiting to taxi to the runway.

Ten minutes later… we were still sitting there.

Twenty minutes later… we were still sitting there.

The pilot came on the radio and said he was going to turn the plane off and turn it back on again, in an attempt to fix whatever mechanical issue was causing the delay. Unfortunately, the old on-off-on again trick doesn’t work as well on Embraers as it does on iPhones, and a few minutes later we found ourselves traipsing down the aircraft steps and back into the airport. Continue reading

Where I Live

Lovely Michelle at The American Resident has just started a new linky called Where You Live, and this week’s prompt was ‘If I visited you for a day, where would you take me? One place. And why.’

How could I not take part in that?

In most of the places I’ve lived before, I would have been spoiled for choice with this question.

Tarbert, Isle of Harris

In Harris I would have wondered whether we should go to the beach, roll our trousers up and shriek as we splashed in the clear, cold waters of the North Atlantic. Or whether we should get fish and chips in the village, which we’d eat sitting on the wall that overlooks the pier – the best spot to watch the ferry come in.

Eventually I would have settled on showing you the big boulder on the hill behind my Dad’s house, right beside the lower loch. With a large flat top like a table, and ledges that stick out like shelves below, that rock was my imaginary childhood teashop. I would put my pretend cakes in to bake in the pretend oven, before serving them up with pretend cups of tea and coffee. There was an indentation in another nearby rock, which would fill with water on rainy days, and that is where I would do my dishes. It made my heart sing when we went to Harris last year and DorkySon ran up the back hill, headed right for the same spot.

A touchstone, both literally and metaphorically. Continue reading

Settling In: a Butcher, a big pink slide and Benny plays the Blues

blues harmonica

We’ve been in our new place just over a week now, and it’s starting to really take shape. DorkyDad spent much of the weekend putting pictures up – how could we not feel at home with Benny the Blues Harmonica Player on our living room wall – and DorkySon and I took advantage of the good weather to get out and explore some more.

We are in a residential neighbourhood; it’s very quiet and feels very safe. There is a beautiful wee park right beside us, filled with crunchy autumn leaves, squirrels and dog walkers. That makes me happy. There is a petrol station across the road, so DorkySon has spent a lot of the last week standing in the window, mesmerised by the constant movement of cars, trucks and tankers. That makes him happy. And on Saturday we finally found two very important things; a wine store and a butcher right beside each other. So that’s DorkyDad happy now too.

DorkySon and I joined the library last week. It took quite a long time… while I sat trying to fill in our forms, and the very patient woman on the desk entered our details into her computer, DorkySon sat and worked his way through a copy of ‘What Car’ magazine, announcing to everyone in the library (at full volume) what his favourite car was on each page. We got there eventually though, and it was well worth the wait. All the children’s books are stored in the ‘carriages’ of a red wooden train, with little benches for sitting on between each carriage. I think we’ll be spending a lot of time in there this winter.

We also found another playground, and met up with two brilliant mums and their kids in an indoor adventure play area. DorkySon spent all morning scooting down an enormous pink slide. Graceful he was not, but his enthusiasm couldn’t be faulted. Later this week we are off to meet another mum (another Edinburgh exile) at something called the Kangaroo Club. I am assured that it doesn’t involve any actual marsupials – just lots of toys and a big space to run around, with unlimited coffee and friendly chat for the parents.

So yes, in short, DorkySon is in toddler heaven. He’s spoilt for choice with fun things to do. He’s also working hard to get his head around DorkyDad’s new job. Earlier in the week he asked if Daddy was out reading poetry all day. ‘No,’ we said. ‘He’s working in an office, asking people for money so that other children can have food and be happy like you are.’

DorkySon let this ferment in his brain for a day or two, and then over the weekend he said ‘Maybe next week I could go with Daddy to his office and meet all the children that he is looking after…’


The Gallery: Home

I’ve never taken part in The Gallery before – a weekly link-up hosted by top blogger Tara at Sticky Fingers, where participants post photos around a certain theme – but when I saw that this week’s prompt was ‘Home’ I couldn’t resist. For obvious reasons I’ve been thinking about the concept of home a lot recently, and this provided a great excuse to go and look back through some of my old photos.

I chose to make a collage, using photos of some of the bits and bobs around our house that we’ll be taking with us when we move, and using to make our new place feel like home. I’ve given a short explanation below of what they all are. If you like these photos, please feel free to check out some of my others on my Flickr stream, which is here.

Photos, moving clockwise from top left:

The rug. We love our rugs, we do. We’ve got two beautiful wooden floors in the house, which we had sanded and varnished when we moved in… and then promptly covered up with our big, patterned area rugs. When I first met DorkyDad, he had a special comb for keeping the fringes of his rugs nice and neat (can you tell that he’s a Virgo?). But since having DorkySon he’s pretty much given up on that. Now he’s just grateful to get to the end of the day without having milk or juice tipped over any of them.

The cat. I may lose readers over this, but I’m not a cat person. I’m not just ambivalent; I actively dislike most cats I meet. Partly because I’m allergic to them, but mainly just because I think they’re horrible. If it’s any consolation to the feline fans out there, the feeling is mutual… most cats head straight for me and slink around my ankles once or twice, before hopping in my lap, looking me straight in the eye, and sinking their sharp little claws into my thighs. Anyway, I digress. This funky little metal guy is the exception to my cat-hating rule; he sits in our kitchen and keeps an eye on things. He has attitude. I like him a lot.

The table. I’m not being boasty (well, I am a little bit), but we have the best dining room table ever, which we found in a wee second hand shop in Edinburgh. It’s ridiculously big and heavy and, as you can see from the photo, has had the crap beaten out of it. Apparently it was used as a cook’s table in Donaldson’s School, which is why there are so many knife marks and chunks missing. It’s coming with us, even if I end up sleeping under it on a pavement somewhere.

The lamp. This was a present from me to DorkyDad. It’s an old Cadillac headlamp, which has been fixed on top of a wooden tripod. For some reason it also has a built-in compass. For months, when we walked past the lamp in a nearby shop window, DorkyDad used to say how much he’d like it. Then one day it disappeared and he was very sad… until he discovered that I’d gone in without him one day, haggled down the price, and hidden it for his birthday. It’s kinda kooky, but we like it.

The candlesticks. These were a wedding present from a friend in Zimbabwe. I haven’t been able to find candles dinky enough to fit in them recently, so we haven’t lit them for months, but I still like having them around.

The dominoes. These are DorkyDad’s dominoes, which live in an old wooden cigar box. I am totally an old lady before my time; I love playing dominoes, especially by candlelight, with a glass of wine and some music on. I get ridiculously competitive, and take enormous delight in sending DorkyDad ‘down to the boneyard’.

The bed. Comfiest bed ever. The end.

The paintings. Our house is chock-a-block with art, none of it valuable, but all of it well loved. We are lucky enough to have some ridiculously talented family and friends; and we’ve also picked up some beautiful pieces at the College of Art degree shows. A large proportion of our paintings, including this wooden lizard, are pieces of Gullah Art, from the Red Piano Gallery in South Carolina. They are all non-negotiable; they’re coming with us.

The harmonicas. Because no home is complete without some sweet music making machines. Both DorkySon and DorkyDad are fans of playing the mouthie. Me, I just like to take photos of them.

The toy cars. Only a fool would try and part DorkySon from his red Chevy, his purple Carmen Ghia, his yellow Beetle, or any of the other several hundred cars and trucks in his possession. He knows where every single one of them originally came from. And are they coming with us to London? Hell yes.

The blue vase. This was a present for DorkyDad from some of his very best friends, when he moved house previously. Having fresh cut flowers in a house always helps it feel like home, and never more than when they’re placed in a beautiful vase.

The notebooks. This is a family of writers. We are note-takers, poets, journal-makers, scrapbookers and photographers. We are surrounded by paper. We may have to do some filing, but we gave away our shredder last week, so all the papery stuff is here to stay.

The centrepiece. The clock, the painting, and the marble fireplace in this shot are all wonderful… but the real star of the show is the Monster. He is very old, and is part of a great story, which I probably can’t tell without getting DorkyDad into trouble. But wherever we go he will be coming too. He’s our protector, and no house would be a home without him.

To see how other bloggers have interpreted the theme of home, check out this week’s gallery here.