Sunday, September 13, 2009

He created a monster

The Philadelphia Eagles play today. Hence, in the mindset of any self-respecting Philadelphian, today is a day to wear one's Eagles jersey. Or one of one's Eagles jerseys as who would be caught with only one? Of course, Alex has a jersey (but only one, she grows too fast).

It got chilly in St. Pete as of this last week, so we wanted to put on a long sleeved shirt under Alex's jersey before going outside. The conversation between Terry and Alex went something like this:
T: "Alex we need to put this shirt on first, but then I promise we'll put the Eagles shirt on top of it."
A: "No, Eagles shirt"
T: "Yes, we'll put on the Eagles shirt AFTER this shirt."
Followed by Alex hugging the Eagles shirt to her chest, fending off daddy's attempts to put on the other jersey, then attempting to put the Eagles shirt on herself.

We did get a short video of this exchange, someday to be revealed.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Photos of Helsinki

The photos from this weekends trip are up online. I had a late night last night editing to get them all up. So enjoy the fruits of my labor.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Helsinki, part II

To keep things balanced, some things I did NOT love about the hotel:

- Reception kept directing me to the children's play area, which was allegedly situated in the dining room. Perplexed as to why I could never find it, I asked restaurant staff. It has been closed for "renovation", possibly never to return. So, a) one of the draws of the hotel didn't exist and b) front desk staff and restaurant staff (maybe 50 meters from each other) don't talk :-(

- on our first day, when our room hadn't been cleaned yet at 5pm and we headed out for dinner I asked at the front desk for housekeeping to go right away as we wouldn't be gone long. On the second day, as the cleaning staff was on our floor when we left for the afternoon I didn't feel a need to specifically ask that our room be cleaned. Silly me. I had never felt the necessity of daily room cleaning in my pre-toddler life, but really for us it is a necessity. Room cleaning should be a no-brainer for a hotel.

I'd still go back to that hotel chain, but not that hotel.

Our second night we ate at a Finnish restaurant where the meal was similar but not quite the same as the Lappish place. Terry has completely fallen in love with lingonberry and we tried to figure a viable way to bring some back with us but it wasn't to be. We'll just have to hope that it will grow it at the cabin.

The train ride back was an experience. We had booked the first class sleeper compartment, which has 2 bench/couch/beds and a small amount of space in between. Terry has posted photos so they should explain this description. Soon after we departed, one of the ladies who worked on the train (what are they called? They were basically stewardesses) came and asked if we wanted tea or coffee. It cost 60 rubles for the 2 drinks, which was actually a pretty good deal given Terry's 1.80 Euro coffee on the way there. A couple of hours later they came by again with beer or juice - free. Yes, FREE beer, but coffee will cost you. I love Russia!

The other highlight of the train ride was the sleeping daughter. When the sun started going down, we gave her about 90% of her normal bedtime routine, then lay her down on one of the beds, turned off the light, lay down ourselves, and hoped for the best while not even remotely believeing it would happen. She fell asleep with no crying, and only a few turns of sitting up and being reminded gently by her parents to lay her head down and go to sleep. It was a solid 1.5h before we came into the train station, and she even made the transition off the train and into her stroller without a major, full-scale wakeup.

This is where I extol the virtues of Ladybird Taxi. It's a great concept. The drivers are all women, and they only accept women as passengers - they will take a man if he is with a woman or a child. They carry car seats in the trunk, women's magazines if you want them, etc etc. They only speak Russian so I had asked Alex's babysitter to make the arrangements for me as we didn't have our car seat with us so it seemed like the best option for getting home at 11pm from the train station. Although the train came in 10 minutes before I had asked them to be there, my phone rang the moment we stepped outside the station. Unfortunately, there had been some miscommunication between our babysitter and the booking person, because the lady was waiting exactly at the location I was told she wouldn't be. But she gamely hung on the phone with me and talked me through getting to where she was parked even though I only understood about every 5th word she used.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Even the construction is clean

We decided to use this long weekend as a last chance to get away while we were just 3. Helsinki is a very easy train ride away, and as everyone who's been here told us it was the most boring capital city in Europe, we figured 2.5 days is probably just right to do it up.

We're completely loving life. Start with the train ride. They had coolers of Finnish water - the kind of coolers with the 20 liter bottles of mineral water - in each compartment, just available to drink. Then, the railway booked some compartments fully while others were nearly empty. As a service to us and the passengers without kids, a very nice conductor conducted us, and as it turns out another woman travelling with her little girl, into a compartment that only had 4 other passengers total (even though our assigned seats were in the full compartment). Alex basically had the run of the place, and loved climbing on and off many of the vacant seats. She also loved looking out at the scenery as we went by. We never pulled out the DVD player, even once! Although she never ended up sleeping, I still have a hunch she would have if the other little girl hadn't been around ... Alex climbed into her stoller and asked to lay down, asked for her stuffed dog and blanket and pacifier, and was quietly laying there for at least 20 minutes. However, the other little girl was up and about and just as Alex does she was really curious about the "sleeping baby". In any case, she made it to the hotel more than 2 hours past her bedtime without tantrums.

Next comes the hotel. It was a 5 minute walk from the train station and this train station isn't in a super sketchy part of town like some other big cities. Check in took almost no time at all, and our new standard of rating allegedly child friendly places is whether they have the crib in the room ahead of time. Yep, they did so we were able to get Alex down ASAP. The hotel also has a 24-hour lobby snack bar-essentials shop so we were able to get salads and drinks as we were starving. Our room is pretty close to the elevators, so we hunkered down on the huge comfy couch by the elevators to eat, rather than our usual practice of hanging out in the bathroom while Alex sleeps.

First impressions of Helsinki - everything is clean. The air, the streets, the water. Tap water is safe to drink and actually tastes pretty good. Everyone we spoke with spoke English and we heard it on the street. It was also surprisingly busy with bars, restaurants and clubs compared to what we had expected. On the street between the curb and the sidewalk where people can walk is a bike lane. We've also read that there are stands throughout the city where one can essentially use a bike for a 2 Euro deposit that gets returned when the bike is returned to either the original or another stand. How awesome is that?

Saturday we were up relatively bright and early ... of course it's an hour behind for us so it felt like we slept in. Another reason to love this hotel - at the breakfast buffet they had loose leaf tea and individual strainers. I have never, ever experienced this in my life and in my life I've stayed in some fancy places. Also, many of the items available were organic and according to the hotel everything possible is locally sourced. Breakfast was a bit lunch meat heavy for me but there were plenty of yummy breads and fruits and I got to try strawberry soup. I wasn't quite up for trying the smoked fishes as I wasn't sure where they really stood on the "OK for me to eat at this point in my pregnancy" spectrum.

As it is supposed to rain tomorrow, we chose today as the "get outside as much as possible" day and went to visit the Seurasaari Open-Air Museum, which you can read about here. As first we were feeling a bit annoyed about having paid the 6 Euros each for a place where everything was closed - we thought for the winter - but later realized we had just come too early when we walked back past previously locked buildings and saw folks in period costume hanging out in the open doorways. We stopped at the cafe for lunch and tried some Finnish cuisine - a hearty cheese and smoked reindeer soup with dark bread and a cheese and tomato pie. Soup was definitely the winner, I guess Terry still has the ordering edge on me. We also learned that the Finns drink more coffee than amost anyone.

Alex was unfortunately lacking in sleep so was grumpy and prone to frequent bursts of unhappiness, so we ended up cutting the visit shorter than we had planned. However, it is absolutely lovely there and between the open air museum, green spaces and cafes we could have easily spent the day. Terry came away with several building ideas for the cabin, and I'm actually OK with them.

After family nap we decided to get a recommendation for Finnish food and unfortunately the lady at reception directed us to a place that, although she was probably right that Alex would be welcome, there was nothing Alex would eat on the menu. Luckily, the map she used to show where it was had a bunch of other restaurants on it and we chose another one. I should stop here and clarify that we ended up at a Lappish restaurant. We think we'll try Finnish tomorrow. The lady at reception was careful to explain that they were different. The food was very hearty and very yummy and right now Terry is researching whether lingonberries and cloudberries will grow in Pennsylvania. They brought us a starter of reindeer salami that Alex scarfed down in 10 seconds flat. Terry and I both ordered different types of reindeer and for a man who doesn't like "sweet meat" - his description of meals that include sweetness or fruit in the sauce or accompanyment - he went to town on the lingonberries served alongside his meat. Dessert was a fried cheese in cinnamon cream sauce with cloudberry jam. The jam was more like fresh berries and we gave Alex spoonfuls to eat. She licked the plate clean and asked for more. I figure if they don't have it in the grocery stores, they will likely have it in a souvenier shop.

As we walked back from the restaurant, we commented on some road construction we saw. It was completely fenced off, with the striped tape threaded through the fencing for good measure. There was a big hole in the ground, but the dirt and tar debris, as well as the equipment, had all been cleared away. Those in St. Pete will attest that this is an astonishing sight compared to what we're used to, and refreshing!