Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Can she teach your kid(s)?

I came across an interesting story in the Guardian newspaper today. 

Can you spot anything interesting about the picture? I didn't notice the girl's arm (or lack of) until I read further into the story.

Is prejudice a "skill" we acquire? Our world view is shaped by the people close to us - be they parents, family, friends, society or country - or by what we read, hear or watch in the mass media. What an individual view to be acceptable behavior may be taboo to another.

The disabled in Singapore may not feel embraced by society but I think we aren't doing too badly. 

Dr William Tan is a great example of a disabled person who does not bow to his disabilities. He has a PhD in medicine from Harvard and completed 10 ultra-marathons over 7 continents in 70 days. As for me, I am satisfied completing 2.4 km. Some years ago, I saw Dr Tan at Ikea Alexandra (Singapore) shopping in the store and then again, in the car park. His car was parked in the disabled lot (of course) and HE was the driver. 

Some people think that disabled people can't find work or take care of themselves without help. Some buskers are visually-handicapped and members of the public associate them with beggars. William Tan Wei Lian started his singing career as a busker and went on to win Singapore's first Superstar contest. While his win has been attributed to sympathy votes, most would agree that he is one of the best singers of the lot.

Andrew Bocelli, the Italian tenor, is also visually-handicapped but his songs are so moving. I watched a recent rendition of The Prayer he performed with Katherine McPhee. After the first couple of lines, I had to close my eyes and tears just fell. I am incredibly touched by the simplicity and tenderness of his voice. As the song peaked, he didn't need to scream or make wild gestures or even break a sweat. He's had several partners to this song but he's the real star, isn't it?

We often see disabled people in Finland. Wheelchairs are motorised and they move around with ease, going about their lives such as shopping at the supermarket or admin at the bank. Braille can be found on elevator buttons as well as medicine packaging.

Last Saturday, Estelle pointed to a man walking with crutches and asked me what they were and why he needed them. I replied that he had trouble walking and needed help, so he used crutches. One of his shoes was custom-made while the other was a running shoe.

Beijing hosted the Olympic Games in August last year, followed by the Para-Olympics. In the almost 2 years I lived in Beijing, I've never seen a disabled person in public. Walking paths may be lined with metal platelets to guide the visually handicapped but I've not seen one use them. Subways stations are not equipped with lifts or ramps so there is no way a wheelchair can get in. Maybe the new lines are facilitated but the city is too crowded anyway, so a disabled person is safer if he/she stays away.

Children with cleft lips are often abandoned in China. When each Chinese family can only have one child, some decide that they want a "perfect" one and try again. An American family in our church fosters and adopts such children and raises funds so they can be operated on. Another family runs a home for children with cerebral palsy so the aisles were sometimes jammed by tiny wheelchairs.

Singapore is in between. We are not totally embracing, neither do we ostracise the disabled. 

It boils down to us as individuals how we view and treat the disabled. Responsibility falls on us as parents to teach our children to respect them. 

I haven't seen Cerrie Burnell on TV but if she's good, she can teach my kids.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Another Fun Sunday

After that great outing last week, we decided to find another place we haven't been to, to do something we haven't done before.

Scouring the internet, we found Paloheinän maki. The website says it's a good place for outdoor activities. So again, find the address, program the GPS and off we go.

Paloheinän maki was crowded. The car park was full and the hills were alive with the sound of sleds.

Are you dizzy after watching the movie? Some of the slopes were really steep and slippery so we went rather fast. Some parts are so icy and slippery that you can't help yourself but slide downhill.

We saw kids as young as a few months old sledding. Their parents chose gentle slopes and they either go down with them or put them in baby sleds - kind of like a potty, except with ski bottoms.

Sledding is a great work-out. We climbed up-slope numerous times and sometimes, we slipped a few steps and crawled upwards. And every time we go down-slope, there's the rush of adrenaline. This went on for over an hour.

The outdoor temperature this afternoon was around -3ºC. We felt a little cold when we arrived but some rounds of sledding later, we warmed up. Throughout the outing, we didn't perspire nor felt hot and sticky. 

As much as the kids look forward to sunny Singapore and putting on shorts and sundresses again, I suspect humidity might be an issue.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Not so good news

What's cute, multiplies quickly and extremely dangerous?

If you are thinking about the Gremlins, you are wrong.

The correct answer is: wild rabbits.

I found out the proper term for our "pet" rabbit.

It is what the Finns call an urban rabbit. According to this story by national broadcaster YLE, these so-called urban rabbits are descendants of pets that escaped their owners, either intentionally or unintentionally. The report said that the city of Helsinki had problems with rabbits as early as the 1970s.

Through the years, the rabbits learn to survive in the wild. They multiply and their presence has spread beyond the city to suburbs like Vantaa and Espoo, where we live. The rabbits don't have natural predators. Here, the most dangerous thing that can happen to them is to be run down by a speeding vehicle.

Large parts of Finland are covered by forests and lakes. Paper and forestry are important industries here, particularly in the north. The authorities are worried that if left uncontrolled, rabbits can wreck havoc on the natural environment as well as gardens. If they can determine quickly the perimeter where rabbits live and breed, the easier it is to administer solutions.

Finland is not alone. The UK, France, parts of the US and Australia had reports of rabbit trouble. Typing in rabbit + wild + havoc on Google Search turns up a long list of examples.

Many articles go like "The rabbits may look cute and harmless but..." One website even has a "Click here to report a rabbit sighting" link.

"Long and cold winters are the best means of controlling the population," said Tapani Veistola of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation of the Finnish approach.

Winter may be the best time to tackle the rabbit problem. When spring comes, the rabbits would be more mobile and expand their territory further. 

Our "pet" didn't come back last week and tonight, it's gone again. Judging from the deeper prints it leaves on the snow, there's a high possibility it is pregnant. Nothing worth celebrating from the eco-environment perspective.

Jamie Oliver has a recipe for rabbit stew. He wrote that once you get over the thought of eating a cute animal, rabbits are really very tasty.

Monday, February 16, 2009

If Jesus can walk on water, so can we

Last Sunday, we decided to go somewhere we haven't been to before and do something we've never done before.

We've noticed a nice park along a highway towards Helsinki. On Saturday night, HG looked up Google Earth, found the stretch of water and identified a landmark. Sunday afternoon after Estelle's dance class, we followed directions given by the GPS and made our way to Laajalahti.

We walked along the coast and crossed a couple of wooden bridges that linked a couple of little islands. We thought we were going for a stroll in a park but little did we realise that we were going to embark on an amazing adventure.

From afar, we noticed people walking on the frozen water. Then we took the "plunge".

The water had frozen over so you could walk, ski, skate or even para-glide on it!

Estelle realised that she was going to walk on water and was hesitant about stepping in. After 2 brave steps holding my hands, she was moving on her own. What an exhilarating experience it was to walk on water! OK, technically, we were walking on the crystallised form of H2O but you've really got to try it for yourself.

Mandated by law, shops in Finland are closed on Sundays. Small proprietors can open on Sundays but supermarkets and department stores, including whole shopping complexes, are shut. Some shops in Helsinki open to cater to tourists but the city is quiet after 6 pm.

Since we arrived in June last year, we were at a loss what to do on Sundays. In Singapore or Beijing, we would spend Sunday mornings in church, followed by lunch, maybe walk the mall and finished with dinner. We would have spent the whole day out. 

In Finland, we are kind of under house arrest on Sundays. Since shops close at 6 pm on Saturdays, we would have stocked up on food to last us until Monday morning, at least. This means planning our menus in advance and racking my brains on activities to occupy the kids. 

If we go out for a walk around our home, the roads are quiet and we hardly see other living beings. Worse in November and December when the sun set at 3.30 pm. Not fun to go out when it's dark AND cold.

Last month, we met up with a family from school and went to visit a local skating rink. The outdoor grounds were filled with people of all ages, skating at various skill levels. We saw a little girl about 4 years old holding her daddy's hand as well as adults sparring with their hockey sticks. All having a good time. 

Yesterday, Laajalahti was like a giant playground where anyone can play. I'm estimating the area is around 4 sq km. Lots of space for everyone to do their thing. People came in their skates or skis or like us, just a pair of walking boots.

In my movie, you might have noticed the skating track where we took a break. There was a long skating track made out in the middle of the frozen sea! I don't know who or how they did it but the sea is turned into a free sporting facility.

Did you realise we were on the "wrong" side of the jetty? I was wondering why they kept a small circle of water fluid and placed barriers around it to warn people against dropping in. We never noticed the hut up the slope, which is actually a sauna. The sea is kept liquid so bathers can dip in. This certainly gives my entry on our own sauna experience a genuine Finnish perspective.

The walk on the sea is our most awesome experience in Finland so far. The icing on the cake is that it was totally free. F-R-E-E. 

We indulged in the wonders of nature, worked out our muscles and spent quality time with the family at no cost. The rewards: priceless.

To enjoy life in Finland requires a change in mindset. We were bored because we couldn't shop or eat out. Now, we discover that some of the best things in life are for free. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

Great Balls of Fire - Part II

Today is the 15th day of the Lunar New Year 元宵, an important date on the Chinese calendar. The family would gather together for dinner and celebrate the new year by lighting lanterns and fireworks.

Beijing has become a bad example of where you should hold a fireworks celebration.

Soon after 8 pm (local time), the new Mandarin Oriental Hotel caught fire as a result of fireworks let off in the vicinity. According to a China Daily report, the hotel was occupied during the Olympics but has since been vacant and is scheduled to officially open in mid-2009. This likely means that the rooms are furnished but there weren't any guests. The authorities are finding out if any construction workers or staff may be trapped in there. They are also reported to be investigating the cause of the fire.

In a video shot by a CNN viewer, you can still hear fireworks popping as the building burns. 

Mandarin Oriental Hotel is part of the CCTV grand project. The main building is made up of two blocks that were built separately and made to meet midway, looking like what the Chinese called "The Pants". Based on estimation on Google Earth, the hotel and Pants are just about 70m apart.

How's this for a pyrotechnics extravaganza?

Some of you may have seen my entry on New Year's Day where we had fun with fireworks in Finland. Whether city organisers or individuals, the Finns chose open spaces that are not close to buildings or trees.

Beijing is such a congested city. The CCTV towers are situated in a densely populated area near the East Third Ring Road, surrounded by residential estates and offices. People should NOT be playing with fireworks in this part of town. Maybe sparklers, but not firecrackers that shoot up into the sky and where trajectories sometimes fly out of control.

The fire brigade took about 20 minutes to get to the scene. CCTV reported 54 fire engines and troops from the Army rushed to put out the fire. However, water jets could not reach above 14 stories. The building would just have to be left to burn.

The new CCTV project is very close to where we lived in Beijing. We passed the buildings every day on the way to school or to work. We watched the scaffolding go up and when it was time for us to leave, the two buildings finally "kissed". One more successful milestone to glory.

Together with the Olympics venues Bird's Nest and Aqua Cube, these are symbols of a new Beijing - a modern and avant-garde city at the cutting edge of technology and lifestyle. Often the focus of TV documentaries, architecture and lifestyle magazines, they are China's pride and joy.

Despite the magnitude of the event, CCTV News dedicated just 20 seconds to it. The report centred on which VIPs, such as the mayors and CCTV chiefs, came quickly to the scene and by then, the fire had died down.

Tonight, we are reminded of the World Trade Centre Towers in NY. Thankfully, human casualties will be low. On the other hand, we see how recklessness can spark the swift and magnificent destruction of years of hard work.

* Pictures from www.xinhua.org.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Getting all hot and steamy

Today, we had our first family sauna.

Earlier this week, we watched a children's TV programme where a little girl tried the sauna with her grandfather. So we decided it's time to introduce our kids to this wonderful Finnish tradition.

The sauna is attached to the bathroom but our kids aren't allowed to go into the darkened room by themselves. They were really excited when we opened the door today and they could go in.

The sauna is the most under-utilised room in our home. Yes, we have our very own sauna. We've not used it since we moved in in June last year and it was tempting to use it as a store room. But this would mean that we will never ever use the sauna the way it should be - moving all that junk out, then in again, would be too much of a hassle.

This evening, our sauna fulfilled its purpose. 

We got the kids to strip down to their underwear while I had a towel wrapped around me. Finnish tradition would have had everyone stark naked because they view the sauna as a gender-free zone. We thought it might be better to keep some level of modesty.

The kids started off sitting happily on the wooden seats and watching Daddy pour water onto the hot stones. Then the steam came and it got a little uncomfortable. Jules enjoyed the experience and had fun drying himself (and others) with the little hanky I gave him. Estelle found the steam suffocating and wanted out quickly. Mommy and Daddy hadn't had enough so we chatted with them until we finished the pail of water.

Traditionally, the Finns would jump into icy waters (either lake or river) or roll in the snow after about 30 minutes of sauna. We just took a cool shower and dried off. It's a simple introduction for the kids.

My first sauna experience was some 8 years ago at a hotel in Helsinki. Another guest, a Finnish lady who had lived abroad for many years, taught me the correct way to enjoy Finnish sauna. It should be very hot and very steamy. I followed with a cold shower and was jumping and squealing. This hot-then-cold treatment combined with aerobic activity really got my heart pumping.

Spending some time in the sauna is beneficial to health. Pores on the skin are opened, toxins are excreted though perspiration and skin is moisturised. Our cheeks were flushed like we had just worked out at the gym. I also felt warmer, which is a great feeling because we are almost always in long sleeves the last 3 months, sometimes more than one layer.

Wikipedia seems to have a balanced description of the Finnish sauna and its benefits. Health claims on some of the other websites seem a little far-fetched.

The sauna is an important aspect of Finnish life. Many homes, except maybe apartments, have their own saunas. Ours is powered by electricity. The Finns go to the sauna together as a social activity and is as common as, for example, having a meal together.

HG has a T-shirt that reads: "Where's the sauna? I have a meeting."

Even Finnish offices have saunas. According to HG, there are saunas at the Nokia office in Singapore, mid-level in one of the blocks at Alexandra Technopark. The Finns sometimes hold casual corporate meetings in saunas. I can't imagine what serious issues a bunch of naked and sweaty men (not sure if women attend, not withstanding the gender-neutral stance) can be discussing. But I'm told that the relaxing and open setting is a breeding ground for innovative ideas. The secret of Nokia's success, perhaps?

So PS, you can now tell Ethan that Estelle is indeed having a good time at the sauna in Finland.

Rabbit update:  Our wild rabbit didn't come home one night. It might have been hampered by a heavy snowfall and stayed over at a friend's place. This morning, we had two rabbits in our patch. I wonder if we'll have a brood by spring...

A bunny on the left and another under the tree.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

High on Coke

HG isn't feeling well these couple of days - probably caught the flu bug from Estelle - and wants some comfortable food. I bought him a bottle of olives yesterday  and today, he decided he wants some Coca-Cola.

We trotted into K-Market and bought two 1.5l  bottles of Coke. Then we spotted the 12-pack Vanilla Coke. Would you believe that these purchases came up to €21.35? That's nearly S$43.00 worth of Coca-Cola!!

I'm not kidding. Two 1.5l bottles at €2.59 + €0.80 bottle deposit (you get the money back when you bring the empty bottles back to the recycling centre) + €17.95 for 12 cans = €21.34.

The supermarket does not take 1 cents so we pay €21.35. I clarify that this amount doesn't include the bag of groceries on the left...

The cost of living in Finland is exorbitantly high. People commonly use the "Big Mac" index to determine the cost of living in a city or country. Today, ladies and gentlemen, I suggest the Coke index can be a useful indicator too.

After being here for nearly 8 months, we have grown numb to paying €2.50 for a cup of coffee (just kopi-o, not cappuccino or latte, ok?) or €3.60 for a muffin or €9.90 for fried noodles. Even a slab of humble tofu (uncooked, mind you) costs €2.50. Remember our dinner at Ravintola Singapore?

Other than everything being expensive, I can't really find many things to complain. People are nice, drivers give way, clean environment, cool weather...

Some mornings, I'll go for a simple breakfast of pastry and tea at our nearby mall and take time to catch up on my reading. Today, I was at K-Market Leipomo reading a Chinese book on the Finnish education system. It was written by a Taiwanese mother whose family lived in Finland for several years and she has two girls who attended primary school here.

As I was reading, three old men came to share my table. They exclaimed surprise that the words in my book ran vertically instead of horizontally. In my halting Finnish and some sign language, I explained the content of the book, that it is written in Chinese and besides reading up to down, the words and pages also ran right to left.

I carried on reading and when I looked up after a chapter, we "chatted" again. Our conversation went around the same topic because that's as far as my Finnish took us. One of them noticed that I wasn't wearing any rings and helpfully pointed out that his friend sitting opposite was single. These chaps are older than my dad, hahaha. I declined his kind offer and carried on reading.

After several more chapters, I was ready to leave. At most cafes and fast-food restaurants in Finland, one is expected to tidy up and clear the table before leaving. As I stood up to go, one of the old men offered to take my tray. All he had was a cup of coffee while my tray had an empty plate, a cup, tea bag, tissue paper and sugar wrapper. But no, it's okay, he would clear up for me. 

Maybe he was trying to impress me, thinking I might need a visa to migrate. Some people, men and women, marry Finnish citizens to take advantage of the well-endowed welfare system. Unfortunately, I doubt I'll recognise any one of them if I see them again. Still, they left a warm fuzzy feeling in my heart the whole day. 

If I ever notice an old Finnish man smiling at me at the supermarket, I think I'd better smile back. It's nice to smile anyway.  : )

Monday, February 2, 2009

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

You might have heard by now that London and its surrounding areas have ground to a halt in the midst of a heavy snow storm. 

As we look at pictures and videos of London snowed in, HG remarked: "哎呀,家常便饭嘛." Regular dishes for dinner.

Southern Finland had our first snow as early as December. Imagine a salt shaker turned upside down - that first week of December saw snow fall continually for more than 48 hours. That weekend, we rode a train to Helsinki, took a walk around town and had dinner. The snow-covered train platform in the BBC slideshow looked just like the one in Helsinki.

The snow came and went, no thanks to climate change. Our latest round of snow has stayed with us for a couple of weeks now and we've had lots of fun. Like what you saw in the slideshow, cars were covered, people ski instead of walk, kids (and adults) have lots of fun with snow fights and sleighs. People taking their dogs for walks in the snow are a common sight.

The Finns come outdoors no matter the weather. Our families in Singapore think that we are cooped up at home all day because it's too cold. Little do they know that school kids come out to play twice a day for at least an hour each, rain or shine or snow. As long as they are properly dressed, the kids are unstoppable!

The kids and I tried to build a snowman last week. We were overly ambitious. Our second snow ball was so heavy we couldn't lift it up so we ended up with a pair of boobs instead. Estelle thought they look like a dumb bell. (They are on the left of the benches in the pic above.)

Driving in winter can be perilous. The vehicle might slip on icy surfaces or worse, swerve and spin. My friend Sunshine commented that I may be better at driving in winter since I obtained my license in Finland. I'm glad to say that my skills haven't been tested although an hour of practice on a slippery surface track was a compulsory module here. 

The Finnish authorities also make it mandatory for vehicles to change to winter tyres between 1 December to 28 February. Winter tyres are usually spiked with metal studs or have grooves of at least 3 mm. Snow trucks start as early as 5.30 am to clear the roads and workers shovel to clear walking paths.

So you see, the Finns - and I was told Scandinavians in general - are well-prepared for winter. Life goes on. 

HG is wishing for a national broadcast that schools and offices will be closed. He can go on dreaming.

Do you know that the speed limit on highways here is 100 km/h? Other major roads may be 70 or 80 km/h. Even exceeding 110 km/h, I don't feel I'm driving very fast, probably because the roads are longer, wider and have lesser traffic.

The past 3 days have been wonderful. The sun shone beautifully and I almost forgot we are still in winter. It's now -9ºC and white everywhere. The gloomy months of November and December are over and spring is coming. Finland is "liveable" again. 

Bonus: A wild rabbit has set up its nest under a tree outside our home! Just 5 feet from our window, isn't it amazing? I worry about the cold temperature (was down to -18ºC one night) and if it can find food. It's leaving a trail of poo-poo so I guess it's doing ok. I am also resisting the urge to feed it because it is, afterall, wild and should be able to survive on its own.