Today, I took a cruise around Lake Saimaa with Rami and his sister, Anna-Mari. We were surrounded by small children, many of whom were running around and happily yelling, but it was nice to enjoy the scenery with which I’ve come to be familiar over the past two and a half months. I’ve truly come to love this place and, at the risk of sounding trite and insincere, I will be leaving a sizable piece of myself here when I leave on Monday.

Lappeenranta is a beautiful place, whether it’s winter or summer. It’s clean, and practically everything is within walking distance. When I was here in January the harbor was peacefully barren, but it brims with activity in the summer. I’m not sure what I’ll do without regular access to salmiakki or to Cafe Isaak’s salmon, or to drinks on Princess Armada. More than all that, though, there’s something ineffable that I’ll miss terribly about this place. It’s in the sights and smells, the summer air, the lake waters and the fortress, the streets and the stores that I’ve frequented and, most of all, it’s in the people.

I do miss my family, as well as my hometown. I find myself vainly wishing that Finland were inexplicably located on the North American continent, or that Connecticut were nestled somewhere in Northern Europe. If only these two places were closer together, I might get my fill of them both.

But make no mistake, Lappeenranta. I’ll be back before you know it. I’ve fallen in love with you, and I’ll never be the same for having spent the summer here. Also, I intend to enjoy the hell out of the three days that remain of my trip. This blog hasn’t quite heard the last of me, yet.

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Well, Rami and I spent a few days in Rome, during which time we were routinely enamored of the architecture, enjoyed some of the best food we’ve ever had in our lives, and tried to take in as much of the city as was possible in such hot weather.

From a tourist’s perspective, Rome is a bustling city that unmercifully assaults your senses. Visually, it’s colorful and ornate, and the juxtaposition of ancient and modern is an impressive thing to see. The city smells alternately of mouthwatering eats and of piss. The summer sun beats down on your shoulders, and you’re left pouring sweat while the Italians that surround you look perfectly comfortable and hygienic in their Armani suits. The main streets of Rome are loud, buzzing places, while the smaller streets and alleys that lie just around the corner are typically quiet other than the sound of the occasional scooter zooming past. And the food, the food is divine.

Pizza with prosciutto

We Americans, particularly we Italian Americans, particularly we Italian Americans who live on the east coast, are accustomed to the pleasures of good pasta, pizza, and the like. I never, however, could have possibly anticipated the superiority of Italian pizza. It is simple, plentiful, and cheap. The crust crunches with perfection. The flavors are fresh and pure and strong. If I ever get back to Italy, getting a slice of pizza will be among the first things I do.

We were lucky enough to have two affordable restaurants across the street from us, so we were easily able to avoid the expensive and mediocre restaurants aimed at tourists. One of the nicest things about these restaurants is the fact that you can get a very decent half litre of red wine for five euros.

Mmmm, wine and mineral water

As for activities that did not revolve around food, we really enjoyed just walking around with only a vague destination in mind. For the most part, we did not plan the sites we wished to see in advance, and we simply stumbled on various attractions through the process of exploring. Rome is surprisingly compact, and there is something to see almost everywhere.

My favorite tourist attraction may have been Fontana di Trevi, which was just as I described – right behind a corner.

My favorite street, however, was Via Borgo Pio, located near the Vatican. It was a bit touristy, but the buildings were so typically Italian, and the smells were so tantalizing. While walking down this street, snapping photos, I realized how lucky I was to be there, and that I would never see anything like it at home or elsewhere.

A lot of people have asked me if I saw the Colosseum. The answer is yes, but we didn’t go inside. The line was very long and we were harassed by plenty of vendors and would-be tour guides. I did get a pretty good snap of the exterior, though.

We also spent one day at the beach in order to escape the city heat. Swimming in the Mediterranean was bliss. The water was refreshing and noticeably cooler than the air, but still extremely warm, especially in comparison to the icy Atlantic or to Lake Saimaa. The water had a high salt content, and floating along the surface of the waves was more than pleasant.

If you have’t already ascertained this, the trip was unforgettable. I wish my grandfather were alive, as I know he’d be thrilled by my travels, and I have so many things I’d like to ask him.

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A Very Finnish Experience

Last Thursday, and again yesterday, Rami and I went to the family summer cottage, where we ate, drank, read, and swam. It’s very common for Finns to retreat to the quiet of a summer cottage, which often don’t have modern amenities like running water, but they almost certainly have a sauna like this one. Here’s what you might experience if you’re ever lucky enough to spend time at a Finnish summer house.

Here, you can enjoy the heat of the sauna, and when that becomes too intense to bear, you can cool off in the lake waters.

The surroundings are tranquil, and an excellent shelter from the summer heat that permeates the city.

If you’re lucky, and have hosts as gracious as mine, you’ll have a lot to eat and drink when you come out of the water, hungry and thirsty and thoroughly refreshed.

There, you see some smoked salmon, sausages, potatoes, salad, and, my favorite, karjalanpiirakka.

The Finns truly know how to vacation, as far as I’m concerned. They realize that a combination of privacy, nature, good food, and, of course, sauna is essential for relaxation and rejuvenation. I feel very lucky to have had a glimpse into this spectacular tradition.

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Fun and A Small Twinge of Longing

In the last few days, the weather here has warmed up considerably. So much so, in fact, that Rami and I have been taking picnics down to the lake, after which we swim and sunbathe. Rami lives very close to the beach, so we’ve been taking full advantage of that proximity. It has been nothing short of blissful. The lake is so cold and clear, and we swim between depth and shore several times before we emerge to bask in the sun. It’s at these times that I can’t help but feel infinitely lucky for this experience; it’s so beautiful and restorative.

Now that I’m almost into my fifth week here in Lappeenranta, I have begun to feel those little nagging twinges of homesickness. Nothing terribly significant, since I know I’ll be back there before I know it, at which point my homesickness will be aimed at Finland. There are a few reasons that this new longing for New England has come about. My cousin got married yesterday, and I did very much regret not being there. My family is important to me, and I miss them quite a lot.

The other reason is rooted in topography. There is nothing that will replace the rolling hills of Northwest Connecticut and Western Massachusetts in my sights, and I’ve grown accustomed to their presence for the entirety of my 25 years on earth. Finland is topographically gorgeous, too, of course – the towering pines, the greenery, the clean, concise cities and the pastoral scenes, and don’t forget Lake Saimaa – but it will never quell my heart’s desire for those hills (since my heart’s essentially the heart of a homebody).

Here’s a picture of Northwest CT’s horizon, taken by the lovely Katherine Griswold (if you want to see more beautiful pictures of Connecticut at its finest, click the link and check out her website!). I guess I can no longer claim not to suffer some form of longing for home, and the source of that longing is characterized beautifully in this picture.

That’s not to say that I  want to go home. Quite the contrary, as I’m having far too much fun here, and I adore Finland far too much to want to abandon it just yet.

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Hyvää Juhannusta

As a follow up to my previous Juhannus post, I thought I’d share some of the pictures Rami and I took of the bonfire here in Lappeenranta.

Here are the hordes walking towards the water for a glimpse of the bonfire. Rami made a Wicker Man reference, but I can assure you that he meant it affectionately.

Here’s a picture of the smoke curling around the 9 pm sun, obscured by some cloud cover, as the fire gets going. I think it was at this point that the applause began.

And here’s a shot that Rami took of the thing raging. The crowds that surrounded the lake reminded me of those at the Lime Rock Park fireworks displays on the Fourth of July. The bonfire, however, had comparatively little visual excitement, and it occurred to me just how much more sensory stimulation we demand in the United States. Seeing swarms of children at the event – all dipping their toes in the water and waiting anxiously for the fire to be lit – made me think of how much I’d have loved Juhannus bonfires on lake Saimaa if I had been born a Finnish child.

Afterwards, we quenched our thirst with a cider at one of the terraces on the lake. It was packed, as one might expect, with drunk people letting loose in a way that the winter might never allow. I ended up with as many bug bites on my feet as I’ve ever had in my life, and we went back home for a snack of tomato, lettuce, and brie sandwiches. It was a very hyvää Juhannus.

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Midnight Sun

In celebration of Juhannus, which is a summer solstice holiday, Rami and I went out with a few of his coworkers for drinks, a decadent and excellent dinner, and, finally, more drinks. Although some of them were hesitant to speak English with me, perhaps for the same reason that I am fearful of using the little Finnish that I know, we had a nice time together. They had quite a few questions about the United States, and English language in general.

When they asked how many kilometers separated my town and New York City, however, I could only answer them in terms of how many hours it takes to get there. One of Rami’s coworkers, a translator who has spent some time in the United States, explained that, when casually asked about the distance between two points, we Americans almost always measure distance in terms of time. I once read a cultural guide to Finland written by an English woman, and in it she predicted that this scenario might occur. According to her, however, this is a convention used by all English speakers, not exclusively Americans. They had a bit of a chuckle at how imprecise that method of measurement is, saying, “But who knows how many times you’ll stop?”

Last night, we finally went for one of those midnight walks that I had so longed to take. The dusky light, pouring an iridescent sheen over the lake, was a marvel.

Rami is continually amused at my elation over the midnight sun. To him, it is as normal as are the precious few hours of sunlight in the Finnish winter. To me, it is something of a natural miracle. I’m not sure why I’m so enamored of this continuous dusk, one that lasts until the sun begins to rise again. One thing is certain, though: I can see why Juhannus continues to be celebrated, even now that pagan superstition has long since disappeared.

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One of the most pleasant things to do in Lappeenranta is get a cider at one of the bars that lie directly on lake Saimaa. Particularly since the sun shines so wonderfully late in the evening, enjoying a 9pm drink on the lake is really nice.

Here I am (with bad hair), enjoying a drink at just such a bar, a boat called the Princess Armada.

But the harbor area does not have a monopoly on Lappeenranta’s beauty. Here’s some photographic evidence:

Rami and I explored the city a bit on a short excursion yesterday, and I found that some of it reminded me of the very few parts of Connecticut cities wherein it is not the third world.

I fall in love with Lappeenranta more everyday, as I get to know it through walking, exploring, and living. There are tentative plans, however, to make a quick visit to Rome in July. We shall see!

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