The Fascinating Finns — Moose, Reindeer & Bears, Oh My!

I had the pleasure of spending 3 days in Finland (2 full days in Helsinki [Vantaa] and a quick day trip to Nokia).  Unfortunately, I had to work most of the time and didn’t have any time to sightsee other than for 15 minutes before dinner one evening.  Therefore, unlike my other posts that cover most of the top attractions of the city, this post will focus more on what I’ve learned about Finland and my experience with the Finnish people.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Helsinki.  The one thing about “travelling while brown” is that you have to always be prepared to be the subject of stares.  Which is fine if you are just curious and not ignorant.  Especially if I’m visiting a country where there aren’t many other people of color.  I have to say that I believe my skin color actually provided me with an advantage in Finland. 

I had the pleasure of travelling with a Finnish attorney (Jura) who took it upon himself to try to educate me in everything Finnish during my 3 day trip (complete with trying to learn Finnish phrases…and I am now proud to say I know 3 words…ha!).  As a sidenote, Finnish is HARD.  There are like 19 letters in the word “fish” (or something crazy like that).

Jura explained to me that the Finns don’t do small talk and niceties.  It’s not that they are rude, but they just don’t see the need for a lot of extra conversation.  And, with it being so cold, I understand why (I mean, who wants to stand around hearing about Laaki’s corns when you can’t feel your fingers?).  However, he was surprised in the responses I would get everyplace I went.  The Finns were super nice and went out of their way to be of service.  He said it’s because they know I’m a tourist but I like to think it’s because they know I’m special 🙂  From the hotel  to the restaurants, it was like being among friends. 

My absolute favorite moment was getting to meet Jura’s father.  He is a big bear of a man and was the absolute best!  He picked me up from my hotel to take Jura and myself to the train station and even walked us to the train station platform then waited to make sure we got on the train safely.  At the end of the day, he was waiting for us to get off the train to cart me back to the hotel (and Jura to the airport).  That is hospitality at its best!

I’m naturally chatty so I asked a lot of questions about their history (which seemed to be a very subject of many).  Below are some interesting facts I learned during my stay:

1.  Santa better hide Rudolph because reindeer was on EVERY menu that I saw during my 3 day stay. 

2.  In addition to the reindeer, the Finns eat bear (watch your back, Yogi…maybe get with Rudolph in Witness Protection or something) and the Helsinki airport even sells bear liver pate.  I’m sure that just made you salivate…I’ll wait while you go to Google and search for companies that ship internationally.

3.  The Arctic Ice Bar.  Words cannot describe how much I wanted to check this place out.  Trust me, if I had stayed over a weekend, I’d have been in there with the club-offered parkas freezing my booty off while setting my drink on an ice table.  Per their website, “Inside the icebar the temperature is a constant -5C. Upon entry to the Icebar guests are given a warm cape and gloves to wear.” That is awesome!  Of course, the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time was from a reviewer on Trip Advisor who said, “You won’t find a lot of locals in the ice bar. We think it’s a damn silly idea to pay extra to be cold as we get enough of it for free.”  Ha!

4.  The Finns are required to learn an additional language in primary school (i.e. Swedish, Russian, etc.) and it is required that all men (not sure about women) serve for 9 months – 1 year in the military.

5.  Finland was once part of Sweden, then Russia before becoming its own republic.

6.  This country has 187,888 lakes and 179,584 islands which was created by the effect of the Ice Age (much like the Norwegian fjords).

7.  Want to visit the Arctic Circle?  Just go to the top of Finland!  You can freeze to your heart’s content.

8.  Northern Lights.  Finland (like Alaska) is known for its Northern Lights.  In northern Finland, you can experience 24 hour darkness in January/early February and 24 hours of sun in the summer. 

9.  Looking for a great place to eat?  Try out the FishMarket (which has a great choice of fresh fish prepared in a variety of ways) or Farang (which is delicious Pan Asian food with a Finnish flair) in downtown Helsinki. 

10.  Finns like to hunt and one local favorite is moose. 

Below are the few pictures I was able to take in downtown Helsinki.  Notice how the lakes are frozen around the boats.  Unreal that it was that cold.


What to Wear When Travelling Abroad

Coco1One of the most popular questions asked when getting ready for a trip overseas is “What should I wear?”  I always suggest researching what the locals are wearing (with a few exceptions notated below).  Not solely for aesthetic reasons, but also for safety.  Most pickpockets target tourists.  Looking like you belong goes a long way.  Here are a few suggestions to help you look like a local on your travels abroad.

1.       Dress for the Country/Culture.  Each country has its own style.  Some countries are more lax (the U.S., England, Ireland, Scotland) while others take their fashion seriously (France & Italy).  With the exceptions that I have noted below, you can usually get away with a nice pair of jeans/black pants/skirt and plain shirts/sweaters.  Don’t wear anything outrageous or loud (leave the catsuit at home).

  • Middle East/Egypt/Morocco (& other Islamic countries) = First and foremost, you want to respect the culture of the country you are visiting.  Which means no Daisy Dukes while visiting the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo (and, yes, I have seen it).  Make sure you dress conservatively (covering most of your skin).  Yeah, it may be hot, but you can find breathable and dry-wick fabrics pretty easily.  Trust me; you do not want to stand out in a conservative country.  Women from western countries are viewed as being “loose”, which can invite sexual harassment from the local male population.  By keeping your goodies covered up, you take the attention off of you (and your valuables).  In Morocco, most women (and quite a few men) wear djellabas (a hooded robe).  These can be either heavy or light weight in fabric (according to season).  I didn’t wear one when I was there, but it is definitely an option which will reduce the amount of stares you get.  I tend to buy breathable tunics from Old Navy (most are 3/4 length sleeves), long flowing skirts, loose capris and convertible cargo pants.
  • France/Italy = These 2 fabulous countries are homes to the most famous fashion houses around.  This means they take their fashion seriously.  While the Italians are a bit more accepting, the French will turn their nose up if you walk past them wearing any of the items listed below in #3.
  • You can never go wrong with basic black.  It’s easy to coordinate and you can interchange with stylish accessories (like a scarf or costume jewelry).
  • The French love black, navy and brown.  I suggest using those as your base colors.  You will notice that most of the French will pair up their dark wardrobe with a colorful scarf.  Don’t have one?  Buy one when you get there…it’s a souvenir & fashion accessory all in one.
  • The Italians love color and you can get away with a lot more.  Most of all, it is attitude.
  • Quick everyday tip = Get your clothes tailored.  I noticed that many people look better in clothes that are altered to fit their shape.  I picked this tip up while visiting Paris.  Everybody there looks like a million bucks (or euros) and it really is because their clothes fit impeccably.
  • Spain = The Spanish love color & flowing maxi dresses/skirts.  I also noticed some ladies wearing cowboy boots with shorts but we will pretend like I didn’t see that because I don’t think that’s a good look personally (I like to call that seasonal dyslexia).
  • England/Ireland/Scotland/Holland/Czech Republic/Switzerland/Scandinavia = Pretty much anything goes.  I can’t say that I have seen a huge difference in what they wear vs. the U.S. (with the exception of the “don’ts” listed below).  A popular look during the summer of 2011 was shorts with tights & Chuck Taylors (*shudders*).  Don’t emulate that.  Hopefully that was a 1 season only look.LBD

2.      Dress for the Season.  Be sure to check the weather before you go.  Weather Underground is a good resource.  I have typically found that you will need to dress in layers no matter when you travel abroad.  A light jacket, colorful scarves, stylish cardigans/sweater coats are a must for spring, summer & fall.  Going in the winter?  Bring along a warm coat, some snazzy boots & a cute hat/scarf/glove combo.   I had left my puffer coat at home during a winter trip to Milan…only to realize that everybody (and I do mean everybody) was wearing one.  First and foremost, you want to be warm.  Don’t take an unlined peacoat when visiting Finland in the dead of winter.  Your health trumps fashion.  Plus, you will stand out as not knowing how to dress properly for cold weather 🙂  ExOfficio is now offering a snazzy sweater jacket that doubles as a travel pillow when folded.  This jacket is so cozy & warm!  I recently wore it during a winter trip and fell in love with it.  The jacket packs very easily, is super soft AND rain-resistant as well as keeping you warm & toasty.  This is now my go-to jacket both here and abroad!


3.       DO NOT WEAR…

  • Baseball caps!  If you want to protect your head & face from the harsh sun, opt for a stylish wide-brimmed hat (during the summer) or cloche/fedora (during the winter). Baseball caps scream tourist. Don’t bring your favorite sporting team to France unless you are actually on the team, k?
  • Baseball/Football Jerseys, High School/College T-shirts, etc.  Do I really even to explain why wearing a baseball or football jersey is a no-no? Again, you don’t want to stand out as a tourist for pickpockets. T-shirts are fine if they are plain or have a cool graphic. Bottom line, you want to look nice…not like you are getting ready to workout. If you just don’t think you can survive without wearing sporting apparel, buy a soccer/rugby jersey. You can fit in and it will be a conversation starter.
  • Fanny-packs!  Seriously…just no.  It’s not cute.  Tell your mother to leave it at home with the rest of the 80’s attire.  I don’t even know how this item became popular.  Never carry your money and valuables in a waist contraption that is easily seen.  You are begging a pickpocket to take a knife, cut the strap and steal it from you.  Use a money belt instead.  It’s similar to your beloved fanny-pack; it just goes under your shirt/waist of your pants instead so it will not be seen.  This protects your valuables from curious onlookers.
  • Expensive jewelry/bags!  A pickpocket will tackle you to steal your Rolex or Louis Vuitton.  Leave your valuables at home.
  • White sneakers???  I have actually seen quite a few locals wearing sneakers (though not usually white) around London & Paris.  My preference is to bring a pair of running shoes (as I like to workout during my trips abroad…even running races like the Paris-Versailles 10K) as well as a comfortable & stylish walking shoe (i.e. Hush Puppies, Mephisto, Clarks) that can transition into an evening shoe. I highly recommend walking shoes that have a rubber sole to minimize the impact of walking on cobblestones.  I love the Hush Puppies Sonnet flat which you can buy at Macy’s for almost half of what it retails for at other locations as well as the Makena Ballerina shoe.  Bottom line is to wear a shoe that you will be comfortable walking in for hours at a time.


4.       Must Haves.

  • Light jacket/cardigan/wrap = If you plan to wear tanks or sleeveless tops during the summer, be sure to bring something to cover your shoulders when visiting a place of worship.  You will not be allowed to enter with shoulders (and sometimes legs) exposed.  I bought Magellan’s Sun Protection Wrap for my recent trip to Morocco and fell in love.  So soft and it provides the necessary protection (both arms and head) when you enter places of worship.  I even wear it around at home.
  • Secure purse/money belt = I have been using a PacSafe purse (stylish & secure) to carry around my valuables, guidebook, umbrella & bottled water for a couple of years now and it is awesome.  Highly recommend!  The shoulder straps are reinforced with steel so it cannot be cut and the zippers lock into place.  It will take a pickpocket a few minutes to figure out how to gain access to your valuables.
  • Comfortable walking shoes = As I stated above, cobblestones can be harsh on your feet.  A stylish rubber-soled shoe will save your tootsies!
  • Dark colored pants & skirt = Use these as your base pieces.  Dark colors camouflage stains & are great to pair with funky accessories.


5.     Handy resources.  Here are a few websites that focus on travel-related items:  While ExOfficio & Magellans offer stylish options, you can certainly find great travel clothing from cheaper stores (i.e. Old Navy, Target, etc.).

While these tips may not prevent you from being identified as a tourist, it will keep your bag lighter and you safer.  Hope it helps!  Safe travels.  Do you have any travel fashion tips?  If so, please comment as I’m always looking for a fresh perspective!

Also check out my posts on Nikki’s Favorite Things: Fashion Accessories and Essentials for Stress-Free Travel.