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Post Ten - Finland to Amsterdam

Finnish Salsa DancingFinnish Salsa Dancing

In the early 1980s, Heidi Tuovinen, a Finnish exchange student, lived with my family for three months. Heidi's family had hosted my sister Sarah while she was an exchange student in Finland, and we returned the favor. So, of course, a trip to Finland would not have been complete without a visit with Heidi.

Heidi remembered how much my parents love to dance, so she played one of her favorite albums, salsa tunes sung by a Finn. Dad and Mom's toes started tapping, and before we knew it, they were tripping the light fantastic in Heidi's living room.

Nigardsbreen GlacierHeidi and Klaus Viinamaki

We met Heidi's husband Klaus and son Niko, who deftly avoided the camera. Here are the Viinamakis, Finnish to the core.

In Scandinavia, I experienced for a sensation I had never felt before: I felt like I was part of a tribe. It was bizarre, and somehow kind of nice, to see people - lots of people, every day - who resembled me or my family members physically. Is this what a Chinese feels like in China, or a Greek in Greece, or a Somali in Somalia? Americans are such a rich ethnic hodgepodge; many of us know nothing of our family trees. Scandinavia's relative homogeneity is a sharp contrast to our cultural crazy quilt.

Finland also felt homey, too. I couldn't pinpoint it until Scott noted that it's because my family is still very "Finnish." I always thought it was normal to have the ever-present coffee and pulla, ethnic foods at the table, the accordion and violin music, the folkdancing, the "Scandinavian Hour" shows every Saturday morning, and the melodic lilt of the Finnish language when I listened to my Dad, Sarah, and our Finnish friends converse. I guess I am a Finn, more than I even realized.

Vanha Rauma (Old Rauma)Vanha Rauma (Old Rauma)

Rauma's rare collection of 17th-century wooden buildings in the center of town have earned it a World Heritage site designation and protected status. We strolled down dozens of streets lined with colorfully painted clapboard houses on our visit.


My ancestors came from Rauma, and we spent a good hour or two in the cemetery looking for gravestones. At first I found the quest morbid, but I quickly changed my mind when we started finding interesting gravestones like this one. The name Sinisalo, pronounced See-nee-sah-loh, belongs to my grandmother's side of the family.

My parents have both researched their family histories as far back as they could, hitting dead ends at about 1850. But they've also rediscovered relatives and formed new bonds, visiting my dad's cousins and extended family in Rauma, Pori, Seinajoki, and Tampere.

Finnish CuisineFinnish Cuisine

This plate contains, from top left clockwise, cheese and noodle casserole, beet and apple salad, breaded herring, a vegetable patty (my choice, not a traditional Finnish dish), rye bread, and in the center, blood sausage. The beer is Lapin Kulta, which comes in four different strengths, from 1.5 percent to about 7 percent.

The Finns are a hearty bunch, and their traditional foods are made with ingredients that can last through long winters or thrive in brief, glorious summer growing seasons that shoot by like a comet. There's plenty of meat and fish, pickled vegetables, cucumbers and tomatoes, Lappi cheese, rye bread, and root vegetables like potatoes, beets and rutabagas. Blueberries, strawberries and cloudberries are prominent in desserts, and lightly sweetened, spiced breads are perfect afternoon coffee accompaniments.

For years, my mother has been making a variety of Finnish food - cardamom coffee bread (pulla), Finnish pancake (pannukakku), fruit soup (sekahedelmakeitto), rye bread (ruisleipa), rutabaga casserole (maksalaatikko), cranberry air pudding (viispipuuro), rice-filled rye tarts with an egg-butter spread (Karjalan piirakka), and liver, rice, and raisin casserole (lanttulaatikko; definitely an acquired taste). And of course, there always was plenty of coffee to go with the pulla.

Helsinki ArchitectureHelsinki Architecture

Finland's capital is an eclectic mix of West and East, with an undercurrent of intensity that mirrors the stoic, passionate personality of its people. Downtown, you'll find hip restaurants and bars, with boutiques that prominently display the cool, streamlined works of Finland's textile, furniture, and glassware designers. Sleek, modern buildings like this contrast sharply with old architecture like the city's central square, which is considered one of the most beautiful examples of pre-Revolution Russian architecture outside of St. Petersburg.

We spent our last few days together in Helsinki, dining one evening at the Helsinki culinary institute's restaurant, another night sampling ciders at a cider bar (more than 100 were listed on the menu). It was hard to say goodbye at the end of our Scandinavian adventure....

Beer KingAmsterdam's Beer King

This store should be called "Beer Heaven." This is Amsterdam's Mecca for beer shoppers. Scott made the pilgrimage with our friend Dave, a beer connoisseur who had talked about this place for months. You can buy hundreds of varieties of beers here, many of them rare and wonderful Belgian and Dutch beers that aren't exported.

Dave Admires His ViewDave Admires His View

It would be an understatement to say that our friends Michelle and Dave live centrally in Amsterdam. They're in the heart of everything. This is the view out their window onto Kleine Langewaarsstraat. On this one-block stretch, you'll find restaurants serving cuisine from all over the world. A few blocks away in one direction, you can visit the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, or the Van Gogh museum. In the other direction, you'll find yourself in the heart of Amsterdam's shopping district. And best of all, they're just minutes by foot from one of Holland's better pubs (name forgotten) that makes some of the best french fries I've ever eaten.

Dave and MichelleDave and Michelle

We chilled out with Dave and Michelle Amsterdam for the better part of a week, sampling some of Europe's finest beers, catching up on e-mail, and just relaxing before we headed to Berlin, Germany.

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Copyright 2001
Scott & Karen Semyan