Helsinki, the Final Stop

The grand finale of my 10 days in Scandi-Land was Helsinki, Finland. To be frank, which by now you’re probably use to, it was a great last stop because it made me okay with going home.

Helsinki felt like stepping into Soviet Russia, (or the show Chernobyl for those of you who are terrible at history but have binge watched HBO instead).

I found the architecture rather somber and dreary, not that it isn’t interesting or aesthetically appealing to some- it’s just not my cup of tea. (I prefer buildings decorated and decked out in gold, remember?)

Nordic minimalism, functionalism, with traces of Art Deco and hints of Art Nouveau. All of it pulled together with a unifying element: lots of concrete.

Contextually, it all makes sense. Finland was an autonomous part of the Russian empire until 1917, and the two are neighboring countries. The heavy use of concrete and abundance of state sanctioned housing comes from the rise of the welfare state in the 60s. If you couldn’t tell, I did a lot of investigative work because I was trying to better understand why I constantly felt like someone would come marching down the street singing «калинка».

(Bet ya didn’t know I can read and write Cyrillic, huh? Finland is strangely the only place this mildly useless skill has come in handy since a lot of their signs are also in Russian.)

Speaking of languages, Finnish is WILD.

Throughout the trip people kept speaking to me in their native languages (which is fair because I’m blonde and light eyed liked the Scandinavians, but I would have thought that my short Slavic stature was a giveaway that my people were NOT Vikings.)

I found myself able to understand Norwegian decently enough to get by, and piece together a few Swedish words, but Finnish lost me. It is so different, so fascinating. I assumed it would either be similar to Russian or any of the Scandinavian languages, but it’s actually an Uralic language and it’s closest language is Hungarian.

God speed to anyone learning it- you’re a brave soul.

I’ll wrap my Helsinki thoughts with food because I found their cuisine strangely comforting. Herring, roe, potatoes, lots of pickled things- some of the basics you can find in polish foods.

But, the one thing I cannot forgive the people of Finland for is Salmiakki Koskenkorva, a black liquor made out of ground ammonium chloride-based candy. Salty licorice is a taste I have not yet acquired… nor do I plan to.

Catching my flight home now- thanks for coming along on my Scandinavian adventures!

Let’s go have a Swedish Fika

I have Stockholm Syndrome. All of the good, none of the bad.

Stockholm Syndrome is a condition which causes hostages to develop a psychological alliance with their captors. Though in this case Stockholm isn’t a captor, rather, a captivator, and I’m here of my own volition and honestly this analogy doesn’t really work but I wrote it before I had any coffee so I thought it made sense.

Don’t you worry, I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon to become a writer.

Alrighty then, back to Stockholm.

Where do I start? Do I start with their food? The fact that they gave us the musical geniuses otherwise known as ABBA? Do we start with the pretty Scandinavian boys? Or do we talk about the Swedish Fika?

From the first few moments of being in Stockholm I was immediately devastated that I only had 36 hours there. I could have stayed a week. (Perhaps a lifetime if I had found my Swedish prince….where are you? Call me.)

Stockholm’s old town, Gamla Stan, is gorgeous and the perfect size for a day of wanderings. The Vasa museum is one of the coolest museums I’ve seen- it houses a full preserved Swedish ship that sank on its maiden voyage in the 17th century (my favorite “whoopsies” story ever.) And, I sang and danced my heart out at the ABBA museum, having reminded myself that 1. I know almost every word to their songs and 2. I’m still tone deaf.

Stockholm is such a fun city to hang out in, and they’re food isn’t half bad either!

First of all, Swedish meatballs are real and not a brilliant marketing scheme invented by IKEA. (I genuinely believed that until Swedish people told me I had to eat meatballs in Sweden. They also confirmed that IKEA’s meatballs are actually pretty good by Swede standards.)

Speaking of balls, I discovered chocoballs, which are literally balls of chocolate about the size of a mandarin orange. I don’t think that requires further explanation. You can have these during a Swedish Fika, which is a term that describes socializing with pals over coffee and a pastry. Please watch this video for additional information: Swedish Fika

Kanelbullar are pretty dope too- they’re basically cinnamon rolls that don’t feel like you’re going to get diabetes from them. Also acceptable Fika fare.

The one thing that I missed out on was Swedish fish- as I wasn’t aware that the Swedes refer to the candy as pastellfiskar, which like…what?

Anyhoo.

Stockholm sparked an incredible amount of joy for me and I look forward to returning.

While I once dreamt of being swept off my feet by an Emirate prince, I’ve changed the narrative to Scandinavian Viking (they are significantly taller and muscular, and I’m heavier than I look so this is just more practical.)

Guess I’ll need to come back for longer next time to find a Swedish hunk to have a fika with!

Heart of Oslo

The theme of my day in Brussels was indulgence. A day in Oslo provided a stark contrast to that.

While Brussels is adorned with ornate gold accents, Oslo is a modern looking city with clean lines and buildings that kind of look like they belong in Soviet Russia.

I will say they do have beautiful people, and while I thought I would be breaking hearts in Oslo, instead I was burping hearts.

Yep. Hearts. Reindeer heart to be exact.

I went from Belgian chocolates and fries to trying out reindeer heart, smoked whale, stockfish brandade, reindeer sausage and all sorts of fun stuff.

While these weren’t my favorite meals I do believe in trying everything at least once, and if I can stomach fermented shark in Iceland, I can handle smoked whale or reindeer heart. (Both were chewy, very meaty.)

Aside from sampling Norwegian delicacies, I spent my day in Oslo learning about vikings in the Viking Museum (which by way was awesome because Vikings are totally badass), basking in the 6pm sunshine which was so high up in the sky it felt like 2 in the afternoon, and riding scooters around their gorgeous opera house.

It was a neat place to spend a day, but between how expensive it is and how generally uninteresting it is- I was happy to be here for only a day and move onto one of the most beautiful places in Norway: the Lofoten Islands!

Waffles, chocolates, fries and beer!

Any guesses as to where I might be referring to?

Yep-Belgium!

My flight to Oslo included a 10 hour layover in Brussels and it was everything I ever could have asked for from my first double digit hour layover.

I’ll start by saying I’m not usually a big fan of layovers. Mostly because I’m frustrated by the fact that I have been in Germany about 18 times in my life without having left the airport, and layovers are a sore subject for me.

I realized that I just haven’t been doing them right until now.

See, the key is to pick a small city and concentrate on the important things…in this case:

Belgian Waffles. Belgian chocolate. Belgian beer. Belgian fries.

Oh and the statue of the little boy peeing.

That was my entire itinerary. Sounds like the recipe for the best sight seeing day ever, amirite? (Except for the little boy peeing, I don’t understand why it’s such a famous statue. Mannekin Pis- look it up.)

First off, the city is a super easy 30 minute train ride from the airport and the train takes you almost directly into the main square.

I have seen my fair share of European city squares, and while I’m biased towards Kraków’s and Prague’s which are just gorgeous, the one in Brussels gets a solid ten from me.

It’s teeny tiny, but decorated entirely with gold.

I like gold. I like it a lot.

We snapped a few photos (okay fine, I snapped a couple dozen) and then explored the smaller side streets. By explored, I really mean I got waffles and then walked from one chocolate shop to another.

And before you know it, we had crossed off all the important sights and it was time for a beer.

Those of you who’ve ever gotten drinks with me (okay, so like a lot of you) know that I absolutely do not like beer. But- Belgian beer totally swayed me. (Hehe get it? Cause I was totally swaying after just one of those 8.5% suckers.)

My father, brother and I ducked into a Delirium beer house, and I exited a convert- newly obsessed with Delirium Red.

We ended our city tour with thick cut and freshly prepared Belgian fries (washed down with another beer, Floris, another new love of mine) and floated on back to the airport for the second leg of our flight.

If you ever have a chance to have a longer layover in Brussels, I highly recommend it. It’s an indulgent experience, that’s for sure.

I Need a Vacation

No, I don’t. I’m quite alright actually. My life is exhausting, sure, but in the most wonderful way. I’m always out and about checking out the hottest restaurants or bars in Chicago, dancing my way through the weekend, and bopping around the States for the occasionally work trip.

And work? I’m fortunate to be doing something I genuinely enjoy. Yeah, sometimes I find myself sending emails at ten at night or trapped at the Newark airport in Jersey for five hours, but all in all I find my job more energizing than exhausting.

So, what’s up with this obsession to give a reason for a trip?

I don’t “need a vacation”.

I travel, not to get away from my world, but to go see the rest of the world.

I like to travel. That is all.

An opportunity came up to go on an adventure with my father and brother, so I took it.

This feels like a very simple concept, but it’s something I’m starting to realize that not everyone can grasp.

I’ve gotten a few snide comments recently after sharing that I’m embarking on another trip, this time to Scandinavia for two weeks, after having just been in Poland and Italy for ten days in May.

Things like “oh, you’re going on vacation again?” Or “do you even work?”

Yes. I am. And yes, I do. Very hard. Thank you very much.

If you love something, you want to spend all of your time and money on it, right?

I don’t judge people who spend hours in front of a television watching baseball, or spend hundreds of dollars on tickets to a game because they love sports.

I don’t judge someone for spending all their time with their spouse or thousands of dollars on a wedding, because they love their partner.

I love exploring this beautiful world, so I spend my time and my money on traveling.

Simple.

This flight is about to take off, so the only thing I really have to say at this point to anyone with snarky comments running through their mind is: I hope you find the one thing in life that makes you feel alive.

I hope you find it, and I hope you go spend all of your money and all of your time on it.

And I?

I’ll be somewhere on a flight, happy for you.

Sardinian Luxury

It started with a late night phone call to my mother- the two of us were going to Poland for ten days and decided that we needed a vacation within our trip. (Note: a trip and a vacation are very different, and visiting family in Poland is definitely a trip and not a vacation.)

We sat on the phone for over two hours each with our Google Maps and Google Flights tabs open (does this qualify me for sponsorship?) and investigated destinations that were a quick flight from Kraków.

I suppose both of us are spoiled when it comes to travel because it was nearly impossible to pick a place.

“Nice, France?” Pass. I’ve been and I don’t like their beaches- too many pebbles.

“Baltic Sisters?” Sounds chilly.

“Cyprus?” Hard no to driving on the left hand side of the road.

“Sardinia?” Oh..what’s that?

Sardinia caught our eye because it’s a short Ryanair flight away from Kraków, and although I’ve been to Italy a few times I love it enough to explore new parts.

Plus, a getaway to an Italian island sounded nice and sunny.

What really sold us though was a gorgeous five star independent resort on the coast, about an hour away from the city. It was gorgeous, and because it only had 48 rooms and a no children policy- we knew it would be quiet.

We spent three days at the resort being spoiled by their lovely staff of charming Italians. Breakfasts with champagne and full spreads of local cheeses and prosciutto, poolside drinks served with cute little snacks, afternoon tea service with cakes, cookies and scones galore. Then of course dinner- a show worthy production of wines, fresh lobsters or salt baked sea bass, always followed by exquisite desserts and local digestifs.

It was basically a three day bender of wine and indulgent foods, but it’s Italy and I’m on this planet for a good time, not a long time.

This was the kind of place where people ordered a $200 lobster without batting an eye and ladies wore Hermes sandals to the beach (which by the way sounds really impractical and I cannot fathom why you would want a $650 pair of leather shoes anywhere near sand and water.)

I, on the other hand, almost hand an aneurysm ordering lobster, and my beach footwear consisted of knockoff Havaianas sandals that I got for eight dollars at a street market in Thailand years ago.

It’s ritzy, and I’m not 100% there yet- you get the picture.

So, this is where my humble brag comes in.

Instead of paying the $1,500 something that our stay would have come out to- I was able to get it almost entirely off of points. I paid right around $100 in just taxes and fees to stay at this magnificent resort by points accumulated from hotel stays and my credit card.

Realistically, I spent a chunk of those savings back in food and booze at the resort, but I would still consider that a huge win.

My mother and I loved living our extraordinary little Sardinian lifestyle for a few days walking miles of white sand beached and sipping on Aperol Spritzs, and I would go back to the resort in a heartbeat.

But, the main moral of my story is that you can still be bougie on a budget. All you have to do is get a little creative, even if it means awkwardly having to ask the hotel staff to consolidate the multiple nights you booked via separate channels. They’ll get over it.

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A quick bop: Paraguay & Uruguay

During my ten days in the Southern Hemisphere I had the chance to visit the two “guays” of South America. (I highly doubt anyone calls them that, but the word “guay,” means “cool” in Spanish slang and I thought it was clever so just go with it.)

I visited each of them for less than a full 24 hours- enough to get a feel for the countries, and to leave wanting more.

Paraguay was a sharp inhale. Alive and bustling streets that were colorful and vibrant, but also you could totally get mugged or struck by a vehicle on.

Uruguay was a slow exhale. A cool breeze, empty cobblestone streets. Quaint and quiet.

Visiting both was the perfect balance.

In Paraguay, I visited Ciudad del Este, which was a twenty minute drive from Iguazu Falls in Brazil. It’s a commercial city and is mostly known for being one of the largest free-trade zones in the world.

Their main attraction?

Shopping!

Imagine a duty free store, but it spans an entire city. They really don’t have much more to offer otherwise, so I bought myself a knock off pair of sunnies, and called it a day.

Colonia del Sacramento, the city I visited in Uruguay, was the opposite for me. I could have stayed for days.

Uruguay is sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. But, what’s the best part of a sandwich?

The middle. Hahaha, get it?

Colonia del Sacramento had what I would like to call, “sneaky charm.”

It’s a picturesque beachside town that many Argentinians vacation in. It is accented by cobblestone streets and crumbling buildings that have layers of plaster and paint peeling off of them, yet still hold their elegance in their ornate doors and gorgeous balconies.

Uruguay is known for two things: Tannat wine and their exquisite cheeses. (They may be know for much more but those are the two I have chosen to better get to know there.)

As such, I spent the better half of the afternoon tucked away in the loveliest wine bar, a charmingly quaint and small nook with a hidden outdoor courtyard, eating cheese and drinking wine.

The dream.

All in all, these two day trips were a nice bonus in my South American adventures, and I would be curious to return. I’ve made all of my assumptions about these two countries unfairly, given I’ve only been to one city in each of them for a few hours. Maybe Paraguay is actually the calm and quiet one, and the rest of Uruguay a little more rambunctious?

I suppose there is only one way to find out!

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