Lunchtime in Helsinki

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Ok, you’re cute. We get it.

Of all the things Finland (and more specifically Helsinki) is known for–design, sauna, coffee, the baby box–one thing that somehow isn’t on that list but should be is lunch. The lunch game in this town is strong, and in so many ways, all of which I’m about to lay out for you.

THE CURATED SALAD BAR

Walk into almost any coffeeshop or café around noon and feast your eyes on what I like to call the curated salad bar. Unlike America, where salad bars are a mile-long display of every vegetable under the sun, often wilting and picked over, the salad bars here offer a limited, but delectable selection.

Every salad bar in town is unique and often changes daily, offering around 5-8 different kinds of mixed salads, along with the standard base of mixed greens and a raw vegetable or two. The accoutrements are equally tailored down to olive oil and vinegar, seeds or croutons, and salt and pepper.

What I particularly love about this setup is that there is little margin for user error. My usual salad bar journey back home at Whole Foods goes a little like this: I make approximately 3.5 laps around all the different salad options, mixing, matching, contemplating if the items I select pair well together, until finally I douse it all with a combo of oil/vinegar/soy sauce/hot sauce that ultimately makes it all taste the same anyway.

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You can find this delightful number at The Skiffer

Here though, they’ve done the choosing for me. Most of the descriptions are in Finnish so I’ve done most of my choosing off of looks and so far, I have yet to meet a salad I don’t like. And all I had to do was dollop it into my bowl and enjoy. I love that I don’t have to commit to a whole bowlful of one salad, nor am I tempted to “make my own” because that’s not really an option. Plus this forces me to try new combos and flavors that back at good ol’ Whole Foods, I might skip over. But the beauty of lunch in Helsinki does not stop here. Oh no, there’s more.

THE HOT ITEM OF THE DAY

I feel like Helsinki knows a thing or two about decision fatigue, and is doing its citizens and people like me a service by removing some of the decision-making when it comes to lunch. It’s true with the curated salad bar, and even more so with cafés’ tendency to only offer one or two hot items as a lunch option.

And just like their salad bar curation, their hot item curation is on point, too. Most cafés offer at least one, but usually two, soups to pair with the salad bar. One is often lohikeitto, Finnish salmon soup, and the other is usually a vegan option, like the one I had yesterday: Carrot Ginger Coconut soup.

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A little messy, but oh so delicious Tuesday lunch at Carusel on the water.

Beyond the soup, many places offer a daily hot item that again, is again, pretty damn delicious. Items like mushroom risotto, eggplant parmesan, chicken satay, and chickpea curry. A lot of restaurants list their daily lunch specials on their website and on chalkboards out front so you can check out what they have ahead of time. And if you don’t like it, you can go to the next place, or, just stick with the salad bar.

LESS MEAT, MORE VEGETABLES

Helsinki has its fair share of burger joints and steakhouses but take a little gander at the lunch menu at almost every restaurant in town and you’ll see not one, not two, but quite a few vegetarian and vegan options.

They’ve got tofu, chickpeas, mushroom patties, lentils, falafel, and seitan but my favorite option just might be their own little Finnish invention called pulled oats. It’s a mix of oats, fava beans, and yellow peas but has the look and texture of pulled pork. And it is tasty. I’ve had it in Thai and Mexican dishes so far and am a BIG FAN. It came out a couple years ago and was so popular that it sold out in the grocery store in 11 minutes. Saveur even wrote an article singing the praises of pulled oats, so it must be good. Also, their packaging is pretty rad, too.

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Now, to be clear, I’m not vegetarian or vegan. But I can get behind consuming less meat, and that’s the mindset for a lot of Finns. I asked a friend here if a lot of Finns were vegetarian, hence all the options, and she said that it was more about eating less meat for health and environmental reasons. I mean damn. Those Finns are just such responsible citizens. I love it.

FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY AND VARIETY

My number one reason for loving on lunch here has to be the cost. You see, Helsinki is a pretty expensive place to eat and drink out. That is, until you discover the lunch special. You get so much food for over half the price it would cost at dinner time. And the best part? EVERY RESTAURANT HAS ONE.

Which brings me to Part B of this section: the variety. Now this might be a bit of a misunderstanding on my own part, but when I moved to Finland I was not expecting a lot of culinary variety. And I was wrong. Helsinki has so many different cuisines and not just that, they’re all (for the most part) really good! Granted, they tend to go light on the spice level, but if you ask for it they will deliver. If you ask a Finn for food recs, chances are 90% of the places they tell you to go do not serve Finnish food. Although, if you’re town, one of your lunches has to be traditional Finnish salmon soup.

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A must on a cold day, Fat Ramen is located in the Hietalahti Market Hall.

Well that’s it. My argument for why lunch is one of the unsung heroes of Helsinki. After I get a few more months under my belt maybe I’ll make a top 10 lunch spots list. And I can’t even imagine what throwing summer patio season into the mix will do.

Until next time. Moi moi.

 

The Helsinki Apartment Hunt

Open on the HGTV House Hunters International logo. A couple walks down a snowy Helsinki promenade. Voiceover begins.

Megan and Mark have always wanted to live abroad. So when a transfer opportunity popped up with Mark’s job, they jumped at the chance. Now they’re trading their hotdish for pickled herring in Helsinki, Finland. Will things get heated in sauna-land? 

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Bringing my HGTV Dreams to Life

Five days after landing in Finland, Mark and I met up with our girl Katariina again to do a little apartment hunting. FUN FACT. HGTV actually DID reach out about being on House Hunters International. I sent them an email back in September saying we were moving and then, two days after we arrived in Helsinki (…four months later) they replied!! Fast forward to now and I have yet to get any follow up, but WHAT! We were SO CLOSE to living our (read: MY) HGTV dreams.

Now for those of you who’ve been following along on my Instagram, you saw that I did my own little version of HHI the day of apartment hunting and I have to say, I got a lot of positive feedback. Those of you who followed along already got a taste of the process AND know which apartment we ended up going with, but I’m here to tell you the WHOLE story. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Let’s start with THE REQUIREMENTS.

The Requirements

I love how on the real HHI, the two house hunters are almost always on different pages when it comes to things like budget and location. And then there’s this awkward compromise bit at the end where the couple almost always picks the over budget one in city center. And if you’re like me, you think, that doesn’t happen in real life! People can stick to budgets. Couples can be on the same page. Well HAHA! Joke’s on me because I’m here to tell you House Hunters gets it right.

In the weeks leading up to our move, Mark and I had been sending Kat listings that we liked, along with a list of nice-to-haves and areas. On the Instagram story, I only listed a couple “requirements” but in actuality we provided a bit more:

  • In the heart of the city
  • Furnished
  • 2 bedroom
  • Laundry (preferably in-unit)
  • At least 60m²
  • Sauna
  • Decent kitchen & bathroom

As far as budget goes, we were given a lump sum for housing and travel expenses through Mark’s company, and agreed that we should try and stick to that number so we could put our personal money toward weekend travel. Ah, the foreshadowing.

Turns out the amount of available housing in winter is pretty low, so we ended up expanding our search to include unfurnished options and 1 bedrooms. When the day came to actually go on house tours, we had five listings to visit–and boy did they run the gamut. Let’s get started, shall we?

Quiet Midcentury Modern

The first apartment we went to visit was by far my favorite on paper and in pictures. It was modern, stylish, furnished, had two bedrooms, and was UNDER BUDGET with utilities. You’re probably thinking, well this was a short episode. I’m here to say, it was not.

As we drove to the apartment’s location, technically only a 15-minute walk from the city center, it got noticeably quiet (which is saying A LOT since we’re already in the land where no one talks) AND slightly deserted-feeling. Granted it was in the middle of the day, so a lot of people were probably at work. And, I thought, maybe having a home away from the hubbub could be a nice thing. The area had the necessities–a small grocery store, a pub, and access to the tram line. This one was easily and definitely a contender–so we eagerly moved ON TO THE NEXT ONE.

The Spacious Swing and a Miss

You might notice that I said we had five showings set up but I only featured three on my Instagram. That’s because two of them were so unbelievably off-point that I didn’t even bother sharing. This was the first one. We had high hopes. The location was amazing. Multiple tram lines, lots of restaurants nearby, a GYM around the corner. But I’m here to tell you, nothing on the outside could’ve made up for the inside.

This home belonged to an older woman who lived there for decades and now that she had passed her family was looking to rent it out. Makes sense. However, I believe the family should’ve maybe considered I don’t know, updating a few things, or at least clearing it out a bit more? Five steps in and I was ready to move my three suitcases into that quiet midcentury modern.

There was random furniture everywhere. Two desks in one bedroom. So. Many. Curios. And for God’s sake the sauna was being used as a storage closet. COME ON PEOPLE. Set yourself up for rental success!

At the end of the day, this place was a.) not our style and b.) just way too big for us. There’s no way we would’ve used all that space. Or all those desks. After this one, I started to get a little nervous. Did we peak on #1?

Retro Reno

Whereas the first place was amazing on paper and in pictures, this next place was kind of the opposite. It was over budget, the photos didn’t have the furniture that would be included, and the kitchen was a bit dated. Also, the building was going through some renovation and as someone who would be doing a lot of working from home, I was nervous about that.

But as we toured it, we realized that although it was a bit dated, it was really well taken care of. The bathrooms had just been redone and it had full laundry (washer AND dryer). Yes, the appliances in the kitchen were a little old, but the dishwasher and microwave were new and the stove and fridge were in good condition. It wasn’t exactly my style but I did appreciate the character. And the location was sweet–a block away from the sea, a few restaurants nearby, and right next to a tram line.

 

This place had two bedrooms, would be furnished, and I must say, great closet systems. I could see us living there. After this one, I definitely started to feel a bit better, but now I was a little torn. Maybe the next two would help define a clear winner.

All White Everything

This next apartment wasn’t too far from the Retro Reno above, and was located in the Eira neighborhood aka the fancy ‘hood. The pictures looked promising and very white. And well, the apartment did not disappoint in the lack of color. The living room/dining room was roomy enough and the two bedrooms were fine, but the bathrooms and kitchen were TIGHT. I tried sitting down on both toilets and both times I hit my knees. I’m 5’3″. And Finns are giants, so I don’t know who built this place.

But the view was the main selling point of this place. Granted it was a snowy, gray day, but the Baltic Sea was right out our balcony! Come summer, we’d be smelling the salt air on the reg. On the other hand summer is only like two months long here, so we couldn’t give that feature TOO MUCH weight. Also, I shouldn’t judge a place by its owner, but sometimes you just get a vibe, a gut feeling, and the woman who owned this place (she showed it to us) was just giving me some weird anxiety that I was not feeling. This woman also owned the last apartment we saw so let’s just roll right on to that one!

Finland Flatiron

The last apartment was the other one that I didn’t even bother mentioning on Instagram because again, it just wasn’t our style, and whereas the other outlier was too big, this one was soooo small.

I only took one picture of the small second bedroom, but funny enough, the apartment is still available, so the other two photos I snagged from the listing. In addition to the weird vibes I was getting from the owner, this place also had an odor, that I’m sure could be remedied but nonetheless, didn’t do a great job selling it to us. So… this one was off the list.

Decisions, decisions

So, after touring all five places we told Katariina we’d take the night to think about it. Our immediate gut reactions were as follows:

Mark’s Top 3:

  1. All White Everything
  2. Quiet Midcentury
  3. Retro Reno

My Top 3:

  1. Quiet Midcentury
  2. Retro Reno
  3. All White Everything

Honestly, I was SHOCKED Mark ranked “All White Everything” first. I can’t remember his reasoning. And to be fair, my #1 and #2 were really tied. I was being super wishy-washy about which one I liked more, but since we both had “Quiet Midcentury” in our top two, we decided that’s the one we should go with.

ALAS, when Katariina called the owner to tell them we wanted to sign, a family that had viewed the place mere HOURS after us offered to sign a 2-year contract. We could not compete.

We were a bit bummed, but I took it as a sign that it was not meant to be and the powers were telling us to go with Retro Reno. I was not pumped about going over budget, but Mark did the math and we could actually swing it if we were smart about our return flights to the States. So that’s where we landed!

WINNER: RETRO RENO

It’s been almost a month since we moved in and honestly, I love the place. The furniture ended up being great–some of it is actually from artek, a kingpin in Finnish design. We actually have this table and these chairs as our dining set! We’ve adopted a few plants and have really started to settle in.

Perhaps one of the best things was when I did the walk-through with the owner. He was the sweetest old man, and came carrying a leather briefcase (so proper!) and a brand new bedspread that he wanted to make sure fit my style (it did). I also later found out that him and his wife had purchased the apartment to downsize from their large home in the suburbs, but his wife was currently in the hospital so they decided to rent it out until she became well again. MY HEART. If that doesn’t give you good vibes, what kind of curmudgeon are you?

Anyway, beyond the plants, we’ve added a few touches from home–family photos and a Faribault blanket–and are in the hunt for some artwork for the walls. The construction is a lovely wake up call right now, but they’ve already started taking down some of the scaffolding so fingers crossed it won’t last too much longer (we were told end of February).

Living in the St. George was nice, but it feels oh so good to have our own place now. It was a wild roller coaster, but I’m happy where we landed. The most important feature: we have a second bedroom for guests so book your flights and head our way!

I’ll let you know if House Hunters ever calls back.

We Moved to Finland!

A little less than a month ago Mark and I moved to Helsinki, Finland. Thanks to an awesome ambassador program his company offers and he was selected for, we’ll be spending all of 2019 in this quirky northern city. A lot has happened since we hopped across the Atlantic on January 4th and while I’ll probably go back and write a couple posts about specific things, consider this a brief introduction.

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Nordic, but not Scandinavian

First, a little background on the place we’re calling home for the next year. Nestled between Russia to the East and Sweden to the West (with some water in between) Finland is Nordic, but not Scandinavian. While I considered the two interchangeable, they’re technically a bit different. Scandinavia is a collective term for Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, because of their shared linguistic roots. Nordic, however, goes on to include Finland and Iceland and a handful of islands and territories like Greenland and the Faroe Islands. It’s not really that big of a deal other than Finns don’t consider themselves Scandinavian and might look at you funny if you suggest they are.

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Helsinki is at the southern tip of Finland, on a peninsula, and includes 315 islands (!!) It was the 2012 World Design Capital and hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics, amongst other notable achievements that I have yet to find on Wikipedia. And while it does get cold, it doesn’t get AS cold as everyone thinks–right now, we’re hitting the coldest months and the average is 23° F. Coming from Minnesota, that’s downright temperate, almost tropical.

One thing it does do that takes some getting used to though: darkness. When we first got here, “daytime” was really just perpetual dusk. It sneakily messes with your brain convincing you it’s almost dinner time when in fact it is 2pm. Good news though is that the days will only get longer from here until we reach mid-June when we bask in almost 24-hour daylight. Currently searching for a comfortable sleep mask. If you have suggestions, let me know.

St. George Living

For the first two weeks, Mark and I lived at the St. George Hotel. And boy, did we LIVE. A super design-y hotel, the St. George is located in the heart of city center, and is decked out in the latest Finnish and Nordic design. I often saw staff giving tours of the hotel and you can even shop all of the furnishings on the Finnish Design Shop website. Among the amenities, the hotel had a cozy cafe that I spent quite a few days in working remotely. Here, I was able to sample quite a few Finnish pastries (spoiler alert: delicious) and get my ass kicked by Finnish coffee. It took Mark and I a week to figure out that enjoying a second cup any time after 2pm seriously messed with our sleep. Word to the wise: Finnish coffee is not here to mess around.

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credit: Trip Advisor

While the whole hotel was beautiful, quite possibly my favorite part was the spa (read: SAUNA). There’s an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland (population 5 million) and we were super spoiled with this one.

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The spa featured a sauna, steam room, and small pool (above) that we quickly acquainted ourselves with. Sauna, as an experience, is legit. It’s both relaxing and invigorating and I love how chill it is. Since this was a mixed gender sauna, bathing suits were required, but usually you go au naturale. You spend about 10 minutes in the dry heat of the sauna and then when you can’t take it anymore you go cool off in the pool. The St. George not only had this small pool to cool off in, they also had a cold tub, which looked like a one-person hot tub, but was absolutely frigid. Talk about a WAKE UP CALL. After cooling down for a bit, you rinse and repeat, usually up to four times. They also had a lounge you could visit in between sessions, with tea and fruit, that made the experience even more luxurious. There’s saunas all over Helsinki, plus we have one in our apartment building, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s done elsewhere.

Mark and I have a friend coming to visit in a couple weeks (first visitor!) and we’re planning on going to Allas Sea Pool–one of Helsinki’s saunas located right on the Baltic, where you DO take a dip in the sea to cool down. Stay tuned!

All in all, the St. George Hotel was a great place to stay as we were getting our bearings in our new home. I will say though, after two weeks in a hotel room, I was getting stir crazy and so, so ready to have our own place. That process definitely deserves its own blog post, so until then here’s what else we did in our first month.

Registering, Banking, & Transport, Oh My

This isn’t exactly the sexiest thing to talk about but since it did take a lot of our time, I felt like it would be cool to share. It’s not all coffee and sauna over here!

First, let me start this section off by thanking Mark’s company for providing us with a liaison to help us navigate the registration process here in Finland. If you’ve ever moved abroad or moved to the U.S. from another country on your own, I salute you, because holy cow is there a lot to take care of. Everything needs to be done in a certain order and you need to leave enough time between each matter for things to be processed. For example, in order to get an apartment, we needed a Finnish bank account. And in order to get a Finnish bank account, you need to have the Finnish version of a social security number and have your tax situation in order. Thankfully, our lady, Katariina, had us covered.

She helped us apply for social security and healthcare (Finland is regularly ranked at the top for healthcare in the world!) and figure out what tax percentage to apply for–SUPER important, because if you don’t apply you’re automatically taxed at 60 PERCENT. This is how Finland has nice things.

Katariina also helped us get metro cards, and showed us how to refill them and use them on the trams. And with the amount of snow Helsinki’s had this winter, you best believe I’ll be taking advantage of that tram system.

One more thing Katariina helped us with: banking. Everything here is done electronically so it’s important to get a bank account setup ASAP. For example, for things like utilities, all you do is give the company your address and Finland ID and they set up a direct link with your bank account. To pay rent, you send money from your account to your landlord’s account. No checks. No typing in your number on an online portal. Very direct and efficient. As most Finnish things and people are.

Once we got everything in order we were able to really immerse ourselves in the city for a few days. And while I can’t cover everything right now, I can provide a quick first impression.

Helsinki: First Impression

Helsinki is interestingly and oddly cool. It gives you some traditional European vibes but then hits you with some Finnish design flair that makes you go, “OK, I see you Helsinki.” It’s small in comparison to other European cities, but its location right on the Baltic with hundreds of little islands is second to none, which I feel will be even more enjoyable come summer.

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In our first few weeks here, Mark and I did a LOT of walking. A lot of people say the trams are the best “almost free tour bus” in Helsinki, but since we wanted to learn the streets and whatnot we hoofed it.

It doesn’t take long to fall in love with this little city. The buildings are gorgeous, oh so colorful, and quite varied from traditional to modern. Our neighboring apartment building across the street is bright pink and it makes me smile every morning. If you can’t have sun, at least have colorful facades to look at.

 

Beyond scoping out the architecture in our first few weeks, we also visited a few market halls, the Design Museum, Oodi, the central library, and were able to check out the Lux festival, an annual light show that winds through the Töölö and Kamppi neighborhoods.

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Oodi: Helsinki’s Central Library

It’s been a whirlwind of a month here so far, and this post is only a morsel of everything we’ve done. Stay tuned for the blog posts I mentioned above and ones that cover our trip to Copenhagen, exploring Kallio, and maybe even some helpful ones like, “What I packed and wished I would have packed.” Of course it took me a month to write this one, so who knows when the next one will be. Until then, moi moi!

Pineapples & Salt Cellars: A Housewarming Gift for Friends

Oof, it’s been awhile since the last post, but here we are. It’s MAY, there’s no snow on the ground, and the sunshine is giving me LIFE. So much has happened in my party life since the last post: a Saint Patrick’s Day party, a visit Fixer Upper Mecca visit, a one-year-old’s birthday as well as a few thirty-year-olds’, and lots of friends movin’ and shakin’, including a couple who just bought a new house. Stay tuned for posts about the rest, but for today, we’ll focus on the last note.

About a month ago I helped two friends move into the sweetest home in South Minneapolis. While other friends have bought condos and houses with roommates, this couple was the first to buy a full-fledged family home–the kind you SETTLE DOWN in. It’s in a fantastic neighborhood, close to restaurants and shops, etc. and it gets me very excited about owning my own house one day.

As I am not one to pass up an opportunity to celebrate, I knew this occasion called for a housewarming gift. Pinterest turns up a lot of great ideas, but one that kept popping up was this basket of items, each with meaning:

  • Bread: May this home never know hunger
  • Candle: May this home always have light through the darkest times
  • Salt: May this home always have flavor
  • Pineapple: May this home always have cheer and warmth
  • Sugar/Honey: May this home always enjoy the sweetness of life
  • Wine: May this home never go thirsty
  • Olive Oil: May this home be blessed with health

I loved the meaning behind each one and I also thought it was a nice collection of actually USEFUL items and little treats (hi sugar & wine!), so that’s where I started and here was the result for the couple and their dog, Calvin, of course:

Housewarming

As I was doing research I noticed that all the gifts I loved were ones that felt natural and abundant–like modern-day cornucopias– so that’s what I kept in mind as I started shopping. A few notes that helped me accomplish that overall vibe:

  1. GO WITH A COLOR PALETTE: I knew I was going to putting a pineapple in this basket so I played into the green leaves and then paired that up with calm blues that you can see in the candle, towel, chocolate, and Pellegrino bottle. It made everything tie together without being TOO matchy-matchy.
  2. TEXTURES: The pineapple was the starting point here too, but I chose a woven basket (that could easily become a doggy-toy holder) and the candle with a wooden lid to make the whole basket a bit more tactile.
  3. SIMPLE INGREDIENTS, PRETTY DESIGN: When it came to choosing each ingredient for the basket I definitely shopped with the design in mind. Minimalist labels, simple containers, they were little details that helped add to the overall feel. And because packaged good design continues to get better every day, the pretty stuff isn’t going to cost you and arm and a leg either.
  4. PERSONAL HINTS: I added a doggy toy and sparkling water based off of what I knew about the couple. They had also mentioned going with blues in the kitchen so that made the towel choice easy, too. I don’t think gifts have to be overly-personalized but a few sprinkles here and there can add just the right amount of thoughtfulness.
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Olive oil: Target. Wine: Trader Joe’s. Welcome Home Card: Target. Pineapple: Target. Candle: Home Goods. Towel: Target.

I was able to find everything I was looking for (and then some!) at Trader Joe’s, Home Goods, and Target, basically my go-to shopping spots for all things home and kitchen. After putting this basket together, I can’t wait to do another one. I think there’s more fun to be had leaning even more into homeowners’ hobbies with themes like “Date Night In” or “Spring Garden”–really, the options are endless.

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Breadsticks: Trader Joe’s. Notepad: Target. Chocolate: Trader Joe’s. Salt Cellar: Target. Dog Toy: Home Goods. Water: Target. Basket: Home Goods.

What do you all think? Are there other items you would add? I want more friends to buy houses so I can do more gift-giving. Is that weird? I’d love to hear your thoughts below!