Café Culture in Helsinki

One of the relentless habits of the Finns is drinking coffee. It is not farfetched to talk about Finnish coffee culture, which manifests itself in the large number of new and old cafés in small towns and big cities as well as in the constant reference to coffee in everyday social interactions. It is common to meet friends for coffee, offer a cup of coffee when friends drop by, and traditionally you would also bring a package of coffee as a gift when visiting friends or relatives. This well-established tradition appears also in Finnish legislation making Finland a country where a coffee break is one of the rights granted to every working person.

Finns are known to drink coffee in large quantities. For example, it was estimated that in 2010 they consumed about ten kilos of coffee per person. Brazil, Columbia, Nicaragua, Guatemala and Kenya are the biggest importers of coffee (for more statistics, click here). It has been calculated that a Finn, in average, drinks about four cups of coffee every single day. Usually you would have a ‘pulla’ or a ‘korvapuusti’ pastry with your coffee during a coffee break at work, which you would take either in the morning around 10am or in the afternoon around 3:00pm.

This social custom of drinking cups and cups of coffee during a typical Finnish day is clearly noticeable in Helsinki where new trendy cafés are continuously popping up next to more sophisticated established coffee houses. Among the new attractions that bring color to the streets of the Finnish capital and set new trends for local coffee culture could be named Brooklyn Café, a taste of New York, where you can choose between espressos and cappuccinos or more traditional Finnish coffees. With your steaming hot beverage you can taste their mouthwatering muffins, brownies or fresh bagels with cream cheese. This small, cozy, informal place with a friendly and relaxed atmosphere is located on Fredrikinkatu 19, a part of Helsinki that is fun to explore.

Another quite cute café is right in the heart of Helsinki, next door to the famous Stockmann department store. La Torrefazione (Aleksanterinkatu 50) has a Mediterranean flavor as their selection includes Italian coffees and croissants.

Café Succès with its famously huge ‘korvapuusti’ pastries is one of the old-timers, located on Korkeavuorenkatu 2.

 

 

 

On Bulevardi you can stop in for a cup of coffee at Café Ekberg, founded in 1850. It represents the traditional Finnish coffee culture at its best. It still has the charm of the nineteenth century, that touch of style and class associated with sipping coffee in a nineteenth-century à la mode place. Their pastries are out of this world; delicious, high-quality, petite delicacies. They also serve light lunches. You find them on the fashionable boulevard Bulevardi at number 9.

When visiting Helsinki, you will not want to miss Café Ursula in Kaivopuisto area, right by the sea. It was founded at the time of the 1952 Olympic games that were organized in Helsinki. On their outside terrace you can enjoy the sun, the sea, and the superb Finnish summer. After your coffee, take a relaxing walk in the Kaivopuisto park or along Huvilakatu, one of the charming streets of old Helsinki. 

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Irasshaimase – welcome to Yanaka, the ancient Edo in central Tokyo!

During your visit to Japan, you will repeatedly hear ‘Irasshaimase’ – which means ‘welcome’ – as Japanese girls greet you with a delightful smile at the airport, in department stores, restaurants, hotels, and ryokans (Japanese style hotels). When you yearn for an authentic Japanese experience, away from Tokyo’s modern noise and neon lights, the place you are looking for is Yanaka. We spent some time there a few years ago and loved it. It is the nucleus of the old shogunate capital Edo, which is centrally located, within a walking distance from some of Tokyo’s most important museums like the National Museum of Western Art or National Museum of Nature and Science. Two steps away from Ueno Park you enter into a world of the past.

The ancient culture is visible in the low wooden houses where local people sell gorgeous Japanese kimonos or shoes.

The tiny restaurants serve deliciously tasty noodle soup in traditional style. You will immediately realize the inexpensiveness of Yanaka neighborhood when you pay merely a few hundred yens (a few dollars) for your steaming hot bowl of soba soup. The narrow streets are crowded with hole-in-the-wall style restaurants whose menus offer – in addition to soba, ramen, and udon noodle soups – fresh sushi, lightly fried vegetable and shrimp tempura, and various curry dishes served with rice and Japanese vegetables (tsukemono).

When you are ready to fully emerge in Japanese life – and wish to pay little for comfort and authenticity – book your room at one of the attractive ryokans of Yanaka. The fascinating atmosphere of Yamanaka Ryokan will greet you already at the outer door where suggestive lanterns line the path that leads to the tatami-covered lobby. Another, equally fascinating Ryokan is Sawanoya. If you wish to find a room there, you need to make your reservation well in advance. A somewhat more modest accommodation is Ryokan Katsutaro, but even there you will find your bedroom separated from your living room area where you can enjoy your cup of green tea in peace and quiet after a day of sightseeing. In Yanaka district you can visit the Yanaka Cemetery, the Tokugawa family shoguns burying ground. If you yearn for the hussle and buzzle of modern Tokyo, you can take a walk around Ueno Park. Afterwards, you will feel so satisfied to retreat to the quiet calmness, the serene atmosphere of the ancient Edo. Sipping green tea in the living room of your ryokan is a perfect way to end your day in Tokyo.

‘Sayonara’ for now and ‘Irasshaimase’ again!

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Memories of Morocco

a very characteristic scene

 

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The Beaches of Bora Bora

 Last year we visited the French Polynesia to celebrate my birthday. We flew from Europe to Los Angeles, where we stopped for three-four days both on our way to Tahiti and back. That was a very wise move, we later found out. We met some Europeans who had only changed planes in LA, and after several days they were still totally out of it. The flights are so long (12 hours, followed by 8 hours) and time difference hard to deal with. Once we landed in Papetee (Tahiti) we continued on to Bora Bora.We stayed in a modest bungalow, paying about 75 euros per night, sharing the same beach with those next to us who had chosen luxury living and could afford 400 euros a night. We rented bicycles to tour the island. From Bora Bora we flew to Moorea and then to Tahiti. Gorgeous beaches, a great vacation. The photos say it better than any words.For accommodation options in Bora Bora and other islands, click here

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Hanging out in Hanoi

Vietnam could be said to be the most capitalist communist country where local inhabitants come up with clever business ideas to earn their monthly income.

They load their mopeds with impossibly huge stacks of merchandise or walk around selling what to us seemed exotic fruits.

Hanoi seduces you smoothly, gradually revealing its charm. The first impression is of a chaotic city, of frenzied traffic where mopeds buzz like busy bees and Vietnamese people conduct their business transactions on the narrow sidewalks. The population of Hanoi is said to be somewhere between six and eight million people (depending on whether or not you count in the city’s suburbs). The idea of chaos and hassle on the streets of Hanoi is caused by the packed sidewalks and streets, the steady flow of those numerous mopeds, cars, bicycles. If you stop and wait for your turn to cross the street, you can wait forever. Instead, you need to capture the rhythm of the traffic’s flow, close your eyes, and start crossing without stopping, without rushing. Simply dissolve into the stream of cars, bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians.

The life in Hanoi is concentrated on the sidewalks and streets where people eat, cook and chat with each other. Gradually, however, your gaze reaches up from the dirt and chaos of the street scenes to the fascinating old-fashioned buildings that you can peek at from between the blooming flowers and exotic tree branches. The initial frantic scene gives way to a more alluring image that evokes reflections of the old capital of French Indo-China (from 1887 to 1946).

Hanoi city tour can be made by moped, which I do not recommend for those whose nerves are not steel steady. Another option is walking around or renting a bicycle or a ciclon, a bicycle taxi. What it means is that you hire someone to ride the bicycle as you sit comfortably looking at the sights.

The Old Town sights become familiar fast and you learn to master the street names that take you from the silk street to the spice street and from there on to the fresh food market. On the Northern shores of Hoan Kiem lake you find the Water Puppet show, which is worth going to. Other places of interest that were in our itinerary included Hoa Lo Prison Museum, a Chinese-style memorial house located at 87 Pho Ma May street, Temple of Literature, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the kitsch European-style church, St Joseph Cathedral.

The local fruit and vegetable markets in Hanoi are colorful places where you can satisfy your curiosity about the intriguing, at times seemingly bizarre, ingredients that are used for preparing local dishes.

The markets explode with color; turtles and insects offered for sale as ingredients of local dishes astonish you the same way as swan steaks, grilled pork ears or dog meat on restaurant menus. The local dishes may seem unappetizing until you realize that maybe there is not such a huge difference between a fried cricket and raw fish of sushi or marinated raw fish (silli) of the Finns or the delicacy of crabs cooked alive. As always, you realize that others are not much different from you; it all boils down to habits and what you are used to, what your standards are. 

 At first we thought these were some variety of nuts, but then realized that they were alive, moving, and were some sort of bugs or worms that were sold at the markets. People seemed to be eating them (or something similar) fried, like we eat potato chips, as an appetizer. They may actually taste good with a cool beer but we decided not to taste them.

  

 Food was quite delicious and there are plenty of restaurants for those who wish to taste the less exotic local dishes that satisfy your palate. Local beer is tasty, and so are local fruit juices and tea. Ladybird Restaurant on 57 Hang Buom Street was one where we ate well. They serve a westernized version of Vietnamese food. We also ate well at Nga Hang Ngon, 26 Trang Hung Dao Street. Otherwise we walked in to a restaurant that had an interesting menu. We also tried places where we only saw local people eating very local food.

And fruit was simply delicious.

In addition to Vietnamese dong the US dollars are commonly accepted. Price levels are incredibly low. We spent two weeks in Northern Vietnam spending in all around 400 euros (plus flights). We stayed in a nice three-star hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi (paying about 30 USD per night, including breakfast),purchased souvenirs, and paid for package tours to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, to Ninh Binh, anda one-day trip to Mai Chau mountain area.

 Unfortunately there was not enough time to visit Sapa, the Northern mountain area that supposedly is gorgeous. We were very pleased with the travel agency that took care of organizing our local tours. Their guides were very knowledgeable and their tours offered a variety of activities.

During the trip to Halong Bay, we slept one night on the boat, another night on the island. The guide took us on an incredible hiking trip in the jungle. We also had enough time to visit some grottos, go kayaking in an incredible lagoon, go swimming and explore Cat Ba Island on our own. The food served to us onboard the vessel was delicious and of high quality.Just writing about Vietnam now makes me want to return there. The atmosphere was so enticing, people friendly, scenery gorgeous. Simply put, an amazingly fascinating place to visit. 

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Hakan Nesser: Hour of the Wolf

It all started on a dark rainy night as he was driving home after an evening out with his buddies. The road was slippery, visibility almost non-existent, and the level of alcohol in his blood certainly did not help his concentration. Maybe the last drink had been too much, after all. Maybe he should have left his car outside the bar and taken a taxi home. The idea had crossed his mind, but at that moment it hadn’t been raining and he really didn’t feel that drunk. He just wanted to go home, take a hot bath, and go to bed. He was thinking of that relaxing steaming bath when his car hit something. He felt a thump that shook the car. What was it? He stopped the car, got out – and that’s when he saw the body of a young boy. There was no doubt about it, the boy, who seemed barely fifteen, was dead. There was nothing he could do to save him now. But it eased his conscience to know that it had been an accident.

As it turns out when the story starts to take its course, abandoning the body by the side of the road was a wrong decision. It set in motion a chain of events the unfortunate drunk driver was unable to control. Others need to die in order for him to keep his identity concealed, but what has changed is the intentionality of the killings. No longer accidents. Victims of calculated murder.

Hakan Nesser at his best – one of the most intriguing stories with Van Veeteren as the protagonist working to solve the crimes. In this thriller the vulnerable, aging Chief Inspector is fully developed; he is presented at the height of his defenselessness. Now already retired from the Maardam police force, he is depicted mourning a personal loss, trying to cope with his personal problems while assisting his colleagues find the murderer. What could possibly be the motive for these seemingly senseless and random killings? What is the driving force and logic of the murderer? When the wheels start turning, there is no way to stop them.

Hakan Nesser’s thrillers appeared long before the Stieg Larsson trilogy. The author has won the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award three times and he is also the winner of Scandinavia’s Glass Key Award and the European Crime Fiction Star Award (2010/11). His Van Veeteren series is published in over 25 countries in which readers keep waiting for more.

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Spring wisterias

At the end of the month-beginning of May, the fragrant wisterias will be in full bloom again in Florence. Scent and sight full of spring delight. I can’t wait!

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