I jumped on the latest Facebook meme and changed my profile picture to a comic character from my childhood. My father, whenever he went on a business trip, would buy me a new Tintin book. After awhile, I had every single issue and would read them from cover-to-cover, over and over again. Funny now when I leaf back through my old copies to see that Captain Haddock, my favorite character, was basically an alcoholic. Not a role model that would pass muster today but we live in different times.
Captain Haddock was famous for his colorful insults (Billions of Blistering Blue Barnacles and a Thundering Typhoon!!). You can experience them for yourself on the wonderful Captain Haddock Insult Generator.
I just got back from two weeks vacation in Paris with the Izumi and the kids. We opted to spend all our time in one place and rented an apartment so that we could soak in the rhythms of daily life in the city at our own pace. As an American from Silicon Valley, two weeks in one go seemed positively decadent but after experiencing a Finnish winter, I now understand why two, if not four weeks at a go is a Finnish right.
Parisians have created a wonderful alternate reality, a rose-colored bubble to keep out the noisy efficiency of the 21st century. The Paris we experienced mostly doesn’t know about sweatshirts or bulk food. It’s important to look good to keep up the illusion. It’s OK, if not preferred, to wear bright red slacks and a shirt with white cuffs. People pull this off naturally, without looking the least bit pompous. When you visit a cafe, water comes to your table not rationed out in plastic cups but in functional stemware and a recycled wine carafe that says, “please rest easy, stay awhile.”
The bistros overflow not with tourists but locals, taking long, chatty lunches with co-workers or clients over home cooked meals that you need to slice with a knife and fork, all washed down with cool Rose and finished off with dessert and a demi-tasse of coffee. People eat to share the experience, not stuff something in the gut to stave off hunger. This is not the land of pizza slices or Subway food logs. Even the ice cream is artfully crafted into a bouquet to be marveled at before it is consumed.
Our apartment was in the Marias, a fashionable district on the right bank, (3ème Arrondissement if you must). Home to the Place des Vogues where Victor Hugo took and apartment and Henry II was mortally wounded with a lance to the eye while jousting to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. The surrounding area is fashionably hip and reminded us of Daikanyama or Aoyama in Tokyo. Packed on the main streets but more interesting on the fringes where you find the up and coming boutiques. We had a couple of guidebooks, Rick Steves’ Paris 2010 and the Eyewitness Travel Guide were good for a few walks but Izumi’s Japanese guidebooks were even better in pointing out interesting places off the beaten path (I would link to it but we left it behind in the apartment for others to use).
It was a stroke of genius to travel with Mimi, our small Terrier-Shizu mix. French people love dogs and Mimi was free to roam with us through the stores and was welcomed by her own bowl of water when we took her to lunch with us. The only regret is that dogs are not allowed in most parks and we had to leave her at the apartment when we chose to visit a museum. People say that it’s hard to get a waiter’s attention. All you need is a cute dog and you’ll immediately have half the staff fawning all over you, or at least your dog!
We settled into a daily rhythm of visiting one museum a day in order to pace ourselves. We would go either in the morning or late-afternoon to avoid the crowds, then spend the other half of the day out on long, exploratory walks with Mimi. Paris is such a great city to explore on foot so 2-3 hour hikes to investigate neighborhoods was the norm. We caught a break in the weather which was oddly cooler than the record-breaking heatwave in Helsinki. Average temperatures for the week was in the mid-20s (mid-70s Fahrenheit). In order to save a bit on costs (and also because the kitchen in the apartment wasn’t really set up to cook, we ended up making lunch our biggest meal of the day. Restaurants have great values during the lunch hours and you can fortify yourself with a two course Prix Fixe menu making anything more than cheese, pate, and baguettes for dinner unnecessary.
I was delighted to find the usual myths about the coldness of the French smashed during our trip. As mentioned before, having Mimi with us did a lot to charm people but also, because we walked the same streets each day, we began to recognize (and be recognized) by those we saw as we set out on our explorations. Strangers on trains were all polite and the instinctual civility of people who were quick to give up their seat to others or hold the door made things even more pleasant.
Our last evening, I mixed up the dates on my online reservation for the Eiffel Tower and expected there to be all sorts of trouble as my tickets were for the following day. The line for tickets that day was horrendously long so I prepared to have go at convincing the staff to give us a break and let us in a day earlier. Each step of the way as I steeled myself to argue our way forward, New York-style. I was met instead with a shrug and a, “fine with me, it’s really up to the next guy.” We went from ticket checker, to security guard, to ticket taker, to elevator operator before we finally realized that we made it all the way through to the second level.
We were driven to the airport the next morning by a cabbie I met the day before. He chatted colorfully all the way to the airport as we exchanged observations about the different places we had been. Sometimes he would start up a topic, other times it was me, lots of back and forth. He was originally from Algeria and observed that the Mediterranean cultures were definitely more chatty than those in the North.
Arriving back in Finland that evening, my few half-hearted attempts at conversation were as futile as trying to set fire to wet leaves. An icy stare on one word answers from our driver squelched any attempts at conversation. I felt like Kermit the Frog, my curiosity kept at bay by his forearms, laced with menacing tattoos. The rest of the drive home was silent, punctuated only by the breathing of our driver through his nostrils. Vacation over. Back to Serious-land.
On our last trip to Japan, we decided to take our dog, Mimi, along to meet the rest of the family. We moved to Finland from the United States so we knew that travelling with pets involves a lot of paperwork. Avoiding a lengthy quarantine for Mimi coming to Finland required the signature and stamp from a man in a windowless office next to San Francisco Airport with a poster that said, and I’m not making this up, “1,000 reasons to say No.” We knew there was some paperwork so shortly after arriving in Finland, started to research what it would take to get little Mimi through customs without a hitch. I’m glad we did because, next to buying a home and getting married, this was one of the more stressful things I’ve ever done.
First stop was the Japanese Animal Quarantine Service (AQS) website where we learned that you need (besides teaching your dog how to email) several shots and certification that your dog is free of rabies. To prove your dog is free of rabies, you need to give them a rabies vaccination then take a blood test and send it off to get tested. In Finland, this is done by Evira. For some reason this test needs to be done at least six months before your departure. Thankfully we read all this in time but only just. For those wondering why we stuck around Helsinki until Christmas Eve, that six month window was the reason.
Over the next six months, I traded at least twenty emails with the Animal Quarantine Service. We went back and forth on the specifics of their requirements, what shots, when, by whom, etc, etc, etc. Paperwork went back and forth, each time I had to scan various documents and send them via email because it’s such a pain to find a fax machine these days. In Japan, the signature is still important so the facsimile is paramount.
As the date of our arrival to Narita drew closer, AQS helpfully sent an email reminding me what paperwork was required. They also asked for my flight details. I had been back and forth quite a bit with the folks at Section One so I think I replied to them on a first name basis that we were arriving on a Finnair flight and gave them my flight number.
Panic ensued when AQS replied the next day that since Finnair comes into Terminal Two that we’d have to get clearance from Section Two. I was rattled because it concerned me that the relations built up over the past six months now meant nothing and I’d be starting with a fresh file so to speak. At least the paperwork transferred over cleanly and luckily, one phone call later, things were back on track. I was still nervous though. Our trip to Japan was for 10 days. The standard quarantine period is 90-days. If we got off the plane and our paperwork was for some reason out of order, I was resigned to getting back on the plane to take Mimi back to Finland.
We were entering a tricky window where we had to have a shot for echinococcus, which was good for 30 days, and a final health inspection. We got the shot and then made a date to go back again for a health inspection which had to be done within a 24 hour window of our arrival. We were also required to get this inspection validated by an “official veterinarian” which our private vet and I struggled to interpret. Eventually the vet gave us the number of the City of Helsinki vet, an All-Creatures-Great-and-Small kind of man when we met him
Because we were leaving on Christmas Eve, and the city pretty much shuts down, we got a reprieve from AQS to get the health check done on the 22nd. It’s a good thing too because when I emailed AQS with the City Vet’s signature, they told me I needed his official seal too. Then, while we were visiting with the him the next day for his seal, we got a call on my wife’s cell from Japan that the City Vet is not official enough, that either the State or Federal Vet is needed and that we needed their stamps as well.
This is not a a knock on the folks at AQS but it was getting a bit ridiculous. Their site is very vague and there is not enough definition around what actually makes a Vet “official.” Only after a phone conversation were we sent a document listing the 30-odd people in the entire country that are official enough to authorize a dog to travel unhindered to Japan.
All these shots, tests, stamps, and signatures. When you think of it, it’s more paperwork than you need for a child. Just wave a passport and you’re good to go. Just to be safe, I made appointments with both the Southern Finland regional Vet and the Finnish National Vet who happened to be in Helsinki that day. It was a blizzard on the 23rd but, GPS in hand, I made these two appointments and got our stamps.
We arrived in Japan after a 10 hour direct flight from Helsinki. No problems in customs, we had all the stamps and seals we needed. In Japan, usually over Summer vacation, the train lines all hold Stamp Rallies in which they give kids a booklet with a box for each station’s stamp. The kids then can travel the lines with their friends and collect the stamps from each station. Presenting not one but three official stamps I felt like I deserved some sort of award.
Each stamp and signature were compared carefully with master reference list so they could be sure that we had everything right. We came bearing the news that all the stamps in Finland were going to change in a few weeks so that, of course, threw the office into disarray. Anyone thinking of using the images above for counterfeiting, sorry to spoil your plans.
So it can be done. It’s a pain but, like anything, it gets easier each time you do it. We’ve got a rabies vaccine and test validation that will last us for another year or so and all we need is another echinococcus shot and we know where to go for our official stamps. It was totally worth it. Mimi had a blast in Japan.
For giggles, let’s repeat what I did almost exactly a year ago and take a look back at my online activity from a year ago and make a snapshot for future reference.
top post of the year – Is this the new Obama phone? was the top post of the year, mostly because of traffic early in the year from StumbleUpon. Another top post was a write up I did on software I recommended for the Nokia e71. Seeing as I now also have an n95, n97 and n900 and plan on recommending software for those as well, it made sense to move into it’s own tab. Last year’s post about Barack Obama’s speechwriter still did well and was the 4th most popular post on the site.
biggest traffic day of the year – as in 2008, my traffic is normally around 100 visitors/day but in late-February you see a spike on the previously mentioned Obama-Phone post from StumbleUpon.
source of readers – Google organic search drove 58.06% of my traffic, up from 51.72% from last year. I’m embarrassed to say that “british slang insults” is the lead referral phrase for my site where I am #4 on Google’s search listing pointing to a silly little post from over four years ago. Interestingly enough, twitter.com sent more traffic my way than either Yahoo or any of the Microsoft search engines (Bing, MSN, or Live).
comment spam – I’m happy to say that comment spam is a non-issue for me. I suspect this is because I’ve switched over to hosted commenting provided by the good folks over at Disqus.
browsers and OS – Firefox took the lead and now 45.29% of my readers are sporting the Firefox. IE has dropped to 35.34% and Chrome has climbed from 1% last year to 5% this year. Still over 76% of my readers are running Windows.
mobile OS – new category for this year, still very small percentage of users come via mobile but it’s worth tracking this as time goes on. iPhone is at 0.76%, symbian at 0.39%, iPod is at 0.18%, Android at 0.06% and Blackberry at 0.04%. I love that I got 6 visits from a Danger Hiptop!
rss subscriptions – I’m really not sure how relevant this is anymore. My numbers have been steady but I think many people are dropping their feed readers and letting their twitter and facebook friends recommend what to read.
twitter – I was at 1,142 last year and followed 343 back. This year I am at 1,516 and follow 390. I’m not sure if these numbers mean so much anymore with all the auto-following going on. My tweetstats info graphic looks like this:
friendfeed – 807 followed me last year, today it’s 1,301. Since they were purchased by facebook, I have to confess I don’t use this service anymore and wonder if it will still exist as a stand-alone service next year.
mybloglog – 1,148 people followed me last year, this year it’s 1,814. I fear this is another service that has an uncertain future in 2010. I’m working on a post to help people pull their data as a service.
top track of the year – According to my last.fm chart,David Bowie by Phish was my most popular track. My scrobbling activity has gone way down this past year because the firewall at work blocks the ability to scrobble.
top photo of the year – unchanged from last year, Yes you can is still the all time most interesting photo from my collection. I uploaded 2,058 photos to flickr in 2009, more than 750 than last year. The all time most popular photo is still Jaws (4,460 views) with a photo of a classic BMW motorcycle (4,014 views) that I took in Los Altos coming up fast at #2.
youtube – I don’t upload a lot of videos. The most popular video from last year was a crappy one I took of a Japanese flip phone when I visited Tokyo (2,414 views). The most popular video of all time is a short clip from a Harlem Globetrotters “game” (8,349 views).
del.icio.us – I have been using twitter to syndicate many links so my usage of this service has gone way down. My top tag of all time is still, yahoo, my previous employer.
google reader – my most read feeds are TechCrunch, Laughing Squid (which I read to keep up on the SF scene), and YLE (an English language news feed about Finland)
dopplr -my raumzeitgeist shows quite a bit more travel than last year, especially with the weekly trips I have been making to Berlin in the last few months.
Back when I was a lad life on the playground was a little more . . . tenuous.
Everything in the playground was more dangerous. And they were different and unique, seemingly put together by the neighborhood handymen who in a burst of creative energy one Saturday morning emptied their garages of old tires, 2×4s, and chains and just nailed it all together.
There was little adult supervision during recess. A skinned knee or elbow taught you the limits of safe. Broken bones marked the less graceful or too-brave-for-their-own-good. Kids would devise new, often alarming, uses for the playground structures. This was time before product testing and lawsuits.
Behold the Witch’s Hat. This was a device at my elementary school in Connecticut. The people that made this thing thought the children (imagine boys in sky blue shorts with suspenders and girls in red gingham dresses) would hang onto the bar in a neat circle and playfully skip around like merry little Dick and Janes.
The reality was more edgy. 6th graders would offer to give the younger kids “high rides” lining up a few unsuspecting subjects and invite them to hang on to one end while they would then jam the other right up next to the pole, lifting five or more kids up off the ground. As they began to spin you around it was a thrill for the first minute or so, wind in your hair, legs dangling out from under you as you whirled round and round. Once you realized this ride wasn’t going to stop, an icy determination to hang on for dear life took over.
Suspended a good 10 or 15 feet off the ground (which, if memory recalls, was rough asphalt), the bigger kids would spin the ring around the pole, faster and faster, while keeping you, now terrified, high up off the ground. Sweaty palms start to loose grip as your legs swing out almost horizontal from the centrifugal force.
One by one your classmates would fly off, thrown into other playground equipment or even the fence, bodies crumple to the pavement like rag dolls. Seeing the image of the rusted device above I can still hear the screams. It was the stuff of prison yards. I survived my high ride and learned lessons about grit, determination, the frailty of life and the cruelty of mankind.
Now everything on the playground has rounded corners and is covered in plastic. The ground is a sea of vulcanized rubber. It’s a kinder, gentler world of helicopter parents and the safety council. Maybe, as Bill Cosby says, the grown-ups were trying to bump us off.
A Nokia colleague of mine here in Finland had a charming update to an age old scenario. In this scene, the older sister, who is 13, is saying she has a crush on a boy in her school. It’s a boy in her school and the younger sister is dying to know who it is.
Younger sister creates a website which is all sparkly with animation and mood music and has an embedded form in it. Fill in the name of the person you love and this site will tell you if it’s a true match. It’s a trap of course. There’s a mailto: embedded into the Submit button. Anything typed into the box will be emailed to the younger sister’s email account.
The younger sister is ten.
Older sister runs across the form, can’t resist temptation and types in boy’s name and clicks on button. As soon as she does, old sis realizes what’s happening! She’s furious!
Old sis tries to logging into Young sis’ email account to delete the email. It takes her a few tries but she gets it. It’s easy to guess. She deletes the email with her beau’s name, disaster averted!
Old sis saunters into the living room, tells Young sis that she wasn’t fooled by her amateur prank – says that her password was easy to guess and she deleted the email anyway.
Young sis winks back at Old sis. Says she figured that would happen. That’s why she added a .forward file to her account that forwards any email sent to her email address to another secret account she created just for that purpose.
I have a feeling this is going to be a regular feature. There are many things that are different here in Finland. Here are just a few that I’ve learned about in the past few weeks.
Speeding tickets are progressive, you pay more if you earn more. I was warned about someone who had a $1,000 speeding ticket and they were only slightly over the limit. How do the police know how much you make?
There is a government service that allows anyone to lookup another person’s salary. The idea is that if you know what your colleagues are making (and they know that you know) that everyone will cooperate better. Of course no one bothers to look up someone’s salary, just knowing that you can does the trick.
When you get here, you register with the local city hall and once they get your address, they let everyone know. This has the unsettling effect of you signing up for cable TV and the rep not even needing your address because (and they always wink when they say this) we know where you live. The flip side of this is that we’re in a temporary apartment right now but when we move, there’s only one place we need to tell our new address. No pesky change of address forms!
Like Britain and Japan, there is an annual fee for TV. It’s about $250/year for one set (you pay based on the number of TV sets) and if you’re busted cheating, you pay triple.
I can drive on my California driver’s license for the next year but if (or is it when?) I get my Finnish license, the driver’s test includes snow driving.
Most people pay with debit cards for everything and invoices are paid with a wire transfer. This extends to individuals. I can wire money to any account, free of charge. In the US, it costs $40 to do this from one bank to another. Fiscal Portability anyone?
The Finnish Posti is well aware of the impact of all this electronic billing on their revenues so they’ve gone ahead and offered a service which scans in any paper invoices headed your way and they will email you notification when a bill is ready. Login to your Posti account in time and you can look at a scanned copy of your invoice before it arrives.
Recently in Oulu, a development center for Nokia up north, one of my colleagues dialed me a taxi and all he did was grunt a few times, hung up and said a cab was on it’s way. The taxi service used caller ID to identify him, then pulled up the most popular destinations he’s made when he’s booked before, and asked him which of these he is (1) at right now and, (2) going to as a destination. Smart! Like a call log for taxi destinations!
Over the past month, I have been unwinding my life in the San Francisco Bay Area and getting ready to move the family (and dog) over to Helsinki, Finland where Nokia, my employer, is headquartered.
For the past four and half years we have been living in Alameda, an island in the East Bay, about 20 minutes from San Francisco, over the Bay Bridge. We settled here because, Izumi, spotting Alameda on a map noted it’s location in the middle of the Bay, making it most convenient to most locations.
It took two months of intense house hunting (remember, this was 2004, the peak of the housing bubble) but we finally found a place that we could call home. We lucked out and were fortunate to find a neighborhood that we loved on a block surrounded by families with children that really bonded with our kids and grew up together over the years.
Tyler started in kindergarden when we moved in and just finished forth grade, Julia’s finished first grade. Edison School, where we walked our kids to school each day, is the only school that our kids really know. It’s been tough for them to imagine what their life will be like in Finland so it’s been hard for them to leave.
Izumi too has made many friends here and as we walk the island people often wave or honk their horn, it’s that kind of place. Because English is not Izumi’s native language and she didn’t grow up here, she sometimes misses some of the cultural references people make in casual conversation but the community embraced her and Izumi really came to feel like one of the community. It’s been rough for her to uproot herself and get ready for our move and the past few days have seen a lot of teary goodbyes.
It’s sad to leave but it also represents a new beginning, a fork in the road. We’ve had the good fortune to live in Tokyo, Princeton, and Alameda. Now we have a chance to live in Helsinki, in a semi-socialist country with a totally different climate – a place where we’ll live with a built-in sauna, the schools and hospitals are excellent, and when we arrive it will be light out until 10pm. We been given the choice to live day-to-day in Europe and add that to our life experiences. What we do with this experience and what we make of it is up to us.
We’re leaving Alameda today but are making plans for a reunion in Europe next Summer and hope to make it back for a visit the Christmas after next. Thank you Alameda for taking us in and keep in touch!