Monthly Archives: July 2013

How to Tell You’re in Finland

1. It’s July and you’re wearing a jacket

My plan to visit Finland mid-July seemed foolproof. For the first time in a decade I was going to my home country smack in the middle of summer! What could possibly go wrong?

The weather, of course. The temperature hovered below twenty degrees Celsius – low sixties Fahrenheit – with some rain and thunderstorms. I mean, what the fuck? This was summer? Everyone kept telling me how the entire June had been hot, which was a cold comfort, literally.

2. The sun seems to never set

It’s easy to lose track of time, when 10 pm looks like a cloudy afternoon. Me like!

3. Every single house comes with a sauna

And every kitchen with a coffee maker, a built-in cutting board, a built-in dish rack inside a cupboard over the sink, and…

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Back in the day, babies were born in saunas

4. It speaks fluent English – until

You know that arrogant European tourist, who expects people to speak their language wherever they go? Well, you won’t have to learn Finnish to know what the hell we want from you. It’s a fringe language and we know it’s our job to make ourselves understood. It’s common for kids to study several languages in school. English is expected of everyone – you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone under 50 who cannot converse in English. But some things will inevitably get mixed up. Like, when “valleys” is translated into “hills”. Oh well.

5. You get off the bus at  “Kuusmiehenkaari – Sexmansbågen”

What? How are you supposed to read that? The names of everything are long and exhausting, twice (Finnish and SWEDISH! Useful, right?). It’s kind of like trying to read Turkish or Malay. But fear not, getting around is easy enough. In Helsinki, all the buses and trams have electrical signboards announcing the next stop – so you only need to remember the first few letters of your destination.

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I’m sure orange was a really hot color in the 80’s…but I would have gone with plain silver

6. People pick up the phone by saying their name (when they don’t know who’s calling)

Saying just “Hello” would be considered kind of rude. Only a hillbilly would do that.

7. It plays by the rules

Whether it’s waiting for the green lights to cross the street or buying a tram ticket when no one is checking…it’s a pretty obedient society. Street crime is close to none. In the small towns no one would snatch your bag if you offered it. You really don’t have to give a shit about your stuff.

8. The ladies in huge black skirts and frilly tops ain’t headed for a renaissance fair

They are Finnish gypsies. Oh yeah. It’s a small ethnic minority here. Traditionally horse traders, fortune tellers, and artists, these days the gypsies have mostly main-stream professions. The men wear black pants, and match them with a seemingly random top, like an Adidas jacket. There’s always been some friction between gypsies and the general public, but it’s nothing compared to the discrimination and human rights violations that go on in central Europe.

9. The cashier says hello! No exceptions

You know the kind of service you get in the average supermarket or pharmacy in NYC? I’m talking of the people who take pride in giving customers attitude because they really don’t give a flying fuck about their job. You simply cannot find that here.

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Rudolph is food.

10. Reindeer meat, rye bread, licorice candy, sour milk…

…is sold in every corner store.

11. Just when you give up all hope, summer appears

And then it’s all ice cream and short shorts in a warm bright night. Awesome!

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Pray, Dance, Puke

I woke up at 4am in a Lebanese mountain town. It was still dark. I waited until the morning light, and went out for a walk. The streets of Broumana were quiet and smelled like flowers. It was the second day of Ramadan, but you didn’t notice that here. It was a Christian town.

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One of the numerous churches in Broumana, Lebanon

I stepped inside a Maronite church, and sat down on the nearest bench. There was a handful of women, all sitting quietly. I noticed that the center piece above the altar was a statue of Madonna with baby Jesus. I think most churches have a depiction of a crucified Jesus there. I liked the woman holding the baby instead.

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Inside a Maronite church

A priest walked in. I realized that the women were waiting for the mass to begin. A few more people trickled in. I decided to stay. It was the first time I sat through a church service in Arabic. The Maronite mass was nice and calm. There was a lot of singing. In the end, two little boys got up to touch the priest’s hands, and then went around the church and touched everyone else’s hands. I’d never seen that. It was sweet.

The following day I attended some sort of Bellydance Olympics. Which was what I was here for.

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The climate in the mountains is great in the summer, it doesn’t get too hot

The Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, near the coastal town of Jounieh, is like Lebanon’s version of Christ the Redeemer. A giant statue of Virgin Mary casts a merciful eye on the mortals beneath her. I don’t know how I’d never made it there before. It was on my mind every time I came to Lebanon. Now I would finally do it.

You see, the Lady grants wishes. That’s a true fact. At the tender age of 18, a friend of mine prayed to the Lady to make her a bellydancer. And a bellydancer she became, beautiful as a butterfly. She’s one of the most talented people I know. It was a little late in my life to be wishing for that. I was going to ask for something entirely different.

There’s nothing like a stomach bug to kill a great plan. A puking day is not a sightseeing day. I lay in bed, and managed to recover enough to fly at night.

The three days in Lebanon had been eventful. Highlight: seeing many dear friends, and making new ones. Low point: sitting on the floor of a taxi, vomiting by the roadside. But you know what they say: if you want to make the Lady of Lebanon laugh, tell her your plans. Guess I’ll have to return another time.

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Mommy & baby

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NYC, the Home of the Amish

Ten years ago I arrived in New York City with a couple of bags, an address and a phone number. I called the landlady from a payphone at JFK to let her know I was on my way. But when I got to the apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, no one buzzed me in. I sat down on the stoop. It was the last afternoon of August. The summer was far from over. Some guys on the block noticed me and began to holla at me. “Hey baby…” I looked the other way, at my new street, at Brooklyn. I knew I had to get smart real fast.

Even while sitting on the street with my stuff, I felt relieved. The hard part was over. I’d worked my butt off to reach that stoop. Through the preceding winter I’d cleaned offices during the day, taught bellydance classes at night, and performed on the weekends. I’d scrambled together (barely) enough money to get a six month long visa – on the second attempt. (The first time they denied me. I wasn’t taking no for an answer, and reapplied with a new pile of papers.) I’d found a cheap sublet on Craigslist in Sunset Park, a mostly Mexican neighborhood. I arrived with a few thousand dollars, enough to get me through the first three or four months. I didn’t have a plan for after that. I knew nobody in New York. At least I spoke the language.

The city welcomed me. I found everything I’d been looking for, even the things I hadn’t dared to want out loud. The dance scene was amazing. For the first time I didn’t struggle to make ends meet. New friends were all around, places to live were easy to find. Each new neighborhood was a new beginning. During four years I lived in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, twice in each. Some of those roommates became friends for life.

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Tompkins Square Park in Alphabet City, Manhattan

Every so often a friend comes to visit (like next month), but these days I’m usually not around. The least I can do is make some recommendations. I got plenty, but still asked my friend Monet, one of the few native New Yorkers I know. Let’s lean in for her inside information!
“What would you call a New York must-see?”
“You’d need to ask somebody who’s moved here from someplace else. When you’re born and raised here you don’t really think about it.” (Telling it like it is!)
“Well what’s your favorite neighborhood to visit?”
She paused.
“I like Astoria. It reminds me of Brazil.” (Huh?!)
“Where do you like to shop?”
“I don’t shop.”
There! You heard it from a native. She said to ask someone who’s moved here…so I asked myself.

I think the biggest mistake visitors make is never leaving Manhattan. (Taking the ferry to the Statue of Liberty does NOT count.) Okay, you wanna see the Empire State, the Met, some diner where Sally fake orgasmed at Harry…yawn. I’m not a big fan of touristy stuff, anywhere. The best of NYC does not come with an entrance fee or opening hours. What makes this city great is its PEOPLE. The mix of cultures, the different neighborhoods. People move to New York with big dreams, whether it’s finance, fashion, or arts – or simply supporting family back home. This city was built by ambitious immigrants. We used to arrive by boat from Europe, now we fly in from all over the world, and all of us have a chance to make it here.

A few historical neighborhoods are famous, like Harlem, Little Italy and the Village in Manhattan. All are worth a linger. But there’s a hundred others. The Greek-Arabic-Hispanic (and I suppose Brazilian!) concoction Astoria in Queens is one of my favorites too. A little further east is Jackson Heights, Queens, head there for a slice of Indian heaven. Right now I’m staying in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, and I constantly hear Arabic on the streets. It offers me a soft landing from the Middle East. Wanna see what the kool kids are up to? Alternative is mainstream on St. Marks Place in the East Village, Manhattan – great for cheap eats, community yoga classes, bongs, tattoos, and other weird souvenirs.Image

Who doesn’t love Big Gay Ice Cream Shop! East Village, Manhattan

The Chinatown in Manhattan is far from the only Chinese dominated area. Try Flushing, Queens – women with umbrellas on a sunny day will confirm you’re in Asia. Or go check out the fashionable ladies in the Russian speaking Brighton and Coney Island in Brooklyn. If you keep your eyes open (or Google) you can discover interesting sub-neighborhoods like Koreatown, Little Haiti or Le Petit Senegal. I have a huge soft spot for my first hood Sunset Park, and to this day I head to 5th Avenue for cheap shopping, to hear what’s hot in Reggaeton and to grab some street snacks. (Not to be confused with the 5th Avenue in Manhattan! No Louis Vuitton here.) Other good shopping destinations are Flatbush Avenue, which is in a mostly black and Caribbean area in Brooklyn, Steinway street in Astoria, as well as Queens Mall. Great food is all around, you can find anything your heart desires, whether it’s cheap ethnic or fancy fusion. For a truly local experience, have a bagel with cream cheese.

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Arabic food is easy to find in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn

Sometimes this city stuns you. I’ll never forget when I first set foot in Borough Park, Brooklyn. Suddenly I saw a boy wearing a little hat, with a shaved head and two long curls on both sides of his face. I thought to myself “Wow, that kid’s parents have a strange sense of humor.” I walked on and began to see adults in clothes that looked like they belonged to a different century. “Right, I think these are Amish people…” Finally I saw a school bus with Hebrew text, and realized I was in a Hasidic Jewish area. Oh! Fresh from Scandinavia, I’d never seen anything like it.

Times Square deserves about three minutes of your time, unless you’re picking up a ticket for a Broadway show (TOTALLY worth your money and time). Instead, take the subway down to Union Square, and spend a couple of hours. It’s a hub for street performers and musicians, activists, craft and bake sales, and the occasional Hare Krishna gathering, especially in the summer. (Also the homeless and the crazies – New York has lots of them – but they’re usually harmless.) Speaking of performers, take kindly to those athletic young men who barge into a subway car and yell “It’s showtime!”, proceeding to blast music and do acrobatics on the aisle. Give them a dollar and a smile. They’re good kids.

I’m still a New Yorker at heart, although I don’t spend much time here. It’s my safe place, where everything makes sense. I can have a chat with virtually anyone I come across during my day – people are eager to go off script and share a laugh with a stranger. I feel completely free. I can wear anything, look people in the eye, and cross the street when I want. There have been times when I arrive a little worse for wear, licking some battle wound, but there’s nothing that can’t be talked out and made better over coffee or sushi. I turn to my friends, and I decompress.

Back to that stoop in Sunset Park. I didn’t sit there for long. A girl came to open the door for me. She said the intercom wasn’t working. I followed her to the apartment, and into my tiny little room. And from that moment on, I was home.

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