Umeå, Sweden: A Darn Good Place for Lunch

We had no particular plan to stop in Umeå. It was like Vaasa on the Finland side: we needed to stop somewhere, and Umeå was there. But when we got there, it was a beautiful, an utterly gorgeous, northern city: large, fast-moving river as so many of them have*, buildings that were charming and interesting wherever you looked. Very walkable. The people were outstandingly friendly and helpful even for the far north.

(I have no idea where this idea that northerners are taciturn comes from. They talk my ear off. They did not appear to talk to Tim in the same way. But to me? Chatterboxes. You cannot get them to shut up. It’s as though they’ve met their long-lost cousin and…oh. Oh. Well. Never mind, that explains that. Seriously, in Umeå alone I saw three people who looked like specific Lingens I know.)

We didn’t have a great chance to explore Umeå; we did not, for example, stay in the hotel in the same building as the library. (See? SEE? Umeå is great.) But one of the reasons I am writing these blog posts is because there are not always English language restaurant reviews of things, and while one visit is not enough to do a proper review, an improper review is better than nothing if you’re searching your phone frantically for “restaurants Umeå.”

So: Rex Umeå. Rex is in a charming brick building–we poked our heads in because the brickwork was lovely and I could read that they had squid for supper that looked like it would be amazing, so it seemed worth finding out what lunch was. The waitress helped me finish puzzling out the lunch menu, and it all sounded great. And it was. It was so great. Transcendently awesome.

At this point in the trip it had been something like a week and a half since I had eaten meat, and something in my little anemic brain said: BEEF RYDBERG. If you have never had beef Rydberg: it is a classic Swedish dish. Here is what you do. You sauté up some onions and put them on a plate. Separately, you fine dice some potatoes and fry them crispy. Put them on the plate also. Separately, you chop up your beef and cook it in a lovely red wine sauce. Put this on the plate also. Fine. This is well enough and I thought it was grand. And then the waitress also brought me an egg yolk, freshly grated horseradish, and some Dijon mustard to mix into the hot red wine sauce to my personal taste, to make it all zippy and creamy and perfectly grand. And at Rex in Umeå, everything was utterly top quality, the horseradish absolutely fresh, perfect, perfect. They also had a little buffet of salad things and bread to go to with this, with plenty of gluten-free options if you needed that, all clearly marked, very meticulous.

Tim had some steak dish in a lovely gravy also. His would have been very nice if I had not been wallowing in beef Rydberg. Then he ate the end of my beef Rydberg because when do I finish anything in a restaurant I mean really. But if I did! This would have been a candidate! Because the polite, friendly people of Umeå are also people who can cook, there at Rex restaurant. So go throw money at them.

There is a ferry that goes from Vaasa to Umeå. I can’t think why you would want that, because the Arctic is so lovely, so very lovely. And this is not quite the Arctic. On the other hand, Vaasa and Umeå are both so great. So I can imagine wanting to bounce back and forth between them. It’s just that the stuff between them is lovely too. I would like more time in Umeå. Next time. Next time. If I’m not firmly installed in the Norwegian Arctic or something.

*This is what the -å means in Swedish cities.

Vaasa, Finland: its ruins, its pizza, its gelato

We continue the series that is mostly here to do English language restaurant commentary on things that don’t have a lot of English language reviews/commentary. Proper restaurant reviews require multiple visits, which we could not do for obvious reasons. But we could have benefited by having something in English that said something about where to get lunch in a given city, at least what kind of food a restaurant had.

Vasa/Vaasa (depending on whether you use the Swedish or the Finnish spelling–and it’s a bilingual city in a bilingual country, so the answer is not obvious) was not a planned stop on our trip. It was a lunch stop. We needed to stop somewhere between Turku and Oulu for lunch, and Vasa was timed perfectly. I saw a sign reading, “Gamla Vasa/Vanha Vaasa.” I said to Tim, “Gamla means old. Gamla Stan in Stockholm is full of little boutiques and restaurants and things. Turn here, maybe we can get lunch here.” (You can learn bits of Finnish by knowing bits of Swedish: Vanha also means old. Useful in the less overtly bilingual parts of Finland.)

Gamla Vasa was nothing like Gamla Stan. Gamla Vasa is the 19th century burnt out ruin of a 17th century city. It’s almost completely unprotected, so you can wander right up to the ruins and look at them intently. Finnish people were out walking their dogs among the ruins of their previous city. It burned under Russian rule. Vasa was a thorn in the Russians’ side during the wars, so when it burned, they weren’t the least bit upset; they attempted to name the rebuilt city after the tsar. That didn’t stick for five minutes after independence, and the Finns went back to calling their city Vasa. Even apart from being able to wander gorgeous ruins, it’s a lovely place, with attention to detail even on the water tower. The harbor building, the new church, the statues, everything. I would so happily go back to Vasa for more time. Vasa! Why not? Vasa! We didn’t know you’d be great, and there you were, Vasa!

But I was going to tell you where to eat. Right. Pizzeria Marco Polo is at Hovioikeudenpuistikko 11, and it is lovely. Just lovely. It appears to be run by a family from Naples. The vegetable toppings and the sausages for the pizzas and calzones are all incredibly fresh and beautifully handled–the charred eggplant and the artichokes and the mushrooms were beautiful. The cheese and the sauce were sublime. And the crust! Quite often if you get this type of pizza crust in the US, it is incomprehensible to me, because the outside is burnt and the inside is soggy. Who wants it? Why? But this. The outside was crispy, the inside was tender. Oh. Oh. That’s why. Also, the chef was sensible enough not to make the pizza crust and the calzone crust from the same dough. The calzone wanted a completely different dough, flaky, tender, but much thicker than the pizza. It was one of those meals where most of the conversation is, “This is so good. Here, taste mine, it’s so good.”

We looked at each other after eating these lovely lunches, and we said, “We have to try the gelato this person makes.” It was May when we were there, berry season, and the strawberry was lovely, utterly fresh strawberries. But the blueberry was the real perfection: the slightly gritty-bitter-sour peel flavor that comes from real blueberries, that is the utter opposite of artificial blueberry flavoring. So great, so great.

Probably there are other good places to eat in Vasa, and if this was your only chance at real Finnish food, you should go find it somewhere, for sure, because Finnish food is worth eating. But how would you get to Vasa without going somewhere else in Finland first? (Well. On the ferry from Umeå maybe. But probably not just for lunch.) So unless there’s some reason this needs to be a genuine Finnish meal, get your real Finnish food somewhere else and do what real Finns do and let the Neapolitans make you beautiful, beautiful pizza and gelato.

Spanish food and other solace in Turku

I love Finland, but one of the hard things is that once you leave Helsinki, it gets hard to find restaurant reviews in English–even at the level of “what kind of food does this restaurant serve.” So I have been thinking I should do a bit of that as I have the time and inclination, for other travelers in that direction–and frankly to encourage other travelers in that direction, because Finland is great. Everyone spoke English, but no one expected American travelers. Basically we didn’t hear other American voices between the Reykjavik airport and Stockholm. But we heard a lot of English, because English is what a German speaks to a Finn.

Or in this case, what a Spanish restaurateur speaks to two very hungry Americans who have stumbled into his restaurant on Ascension Day.

When I looked at the list of Finnish holidays before we left, for some reason Ascension Day was not listed, even though many things are either closed or close early and many (most) Finns get the day off. (This is true throughout the rest of the Norden also. Look out for Ascension Day.) The thing that was not intuitive to my American mores was that some restaurants stay open all afternoon and then close at what I would consider the beginning of supper hour: 5 or 6 p.m. (1700 or 1800 hours). So when we were wandering around Turku in the late afternoon, plenty of things looked open and we didn’t worry about it. In the US a restaurant that is open at 4 p.m. will likely be open at 7 p.m.; a restaurant that is closing for supper will close right after lunch. So when an earlyish suppertime rolled around and we were peckish from lunching on just gelato (Cafe Harmonia, go do that, it’s got salads and pita and a play area for children as well as quite creditable gelato), we kept going into restaurant after restaurant that said, “Oh, so sorry, we’re about to close.”

And then there was Torre, which is a lovely, lovely Spanish restaurant, and the lovely, lovely Spanish man who was running it was appalled at the very idea that he might shut down at 6 p.m. And appalled that we were so hungry. There was a little bar filled with olives and salads and bread! We must have this immediately! And wine! And a couple of kinds of gazpacho! Before we had our real food, even!

So we did. Friends, we did. And then our real food, which was full of all manner of seafood and saffron and I don’t even remember what else, it was beautiful Spanish food of all manner of flavors, there were all sorts of things on the menu we couldn’t order because we were only there once. We seriously considered not even trying another restaurant in Turku because all the saffron and seafood and gazpachos and goodness. They had a tapas tasting menu that required at least four people. Go to Turku with at least three friends, my dears. Accost two random Finns on the street if you must, and promise not to talk to them through dinner, because that tasting menu looked sublime. Unless there is some reason why you absolutely must eat traditional Finnish food for every meal when you are in Turku, Torre is where you want to eat, scallops and little perfect peppers, or lack of peppers if you need that, and they will leave you alone to enjoy your meal at leisure into the evening as the sun doesn’t go down on the river, because May in Turku, the sun isn’t going down for awhile, and you can walk along the river and it will be grand, just grand.

I love Turku. I love the fact that they built a modern art museum on top of their medieval history museum. I love that they let you play the harpsichord in the Sibelius Museum. I love that there is someone in Turku who leaves a wreath of white and blue flowers for Mikael Agricola and another for Anne Brahe. I love the street fair down along the river filled with all manners of excess except for excess of pushiness, never that. I love the sun on the river and the benches in the middle of the pedestrian bridges. I love the different eras all piled on each other willy-nilly in Turku Castle, because history came late to the north, we had quite a lot to do, so there is the crude labyrinth pattern scratched in the wall next to the large window to confuse evil spirits in the room next to the most blue-painted and ship-hung Reformation chapel you could wish. I love climbing up the riverbank to Turku Cathedral looming. I love the giant daisy and the glistening fishtail sculpture in the water and all of it, all of it. When I wrote about Helsinki, I was saying a thing that I knew many of you would do. I have no confidence that more than one or two of my readers will go to Turku, if any but oh, my Åbo, yes, of course yes.

But Finland was all made of yes for me.

If you’re just passing through to eat, eat at Torre, though. It’s nice.

Helsinki for the con going nerd

I know that a great many nerds will be heading to Helsinki for the WorldCon next year, so I wanted to say some things about my experiences there that might be helpful.

So many things are in English. So many. Sooooo many. I did not encounter anyone in a service role in Helsinki (and only one in Turku) who did not speak English. They didn’t seem to expect Americans in early May, but people from everywhere else were using English as the lingua franca, so: really you will be fine.

A great many things, including hotel breakfasts, had gluten-free and dairy-free options clearly marked, so if those are concerns for you, it should be quite possible for you to travel well with some attention and forethought. This was not an issue for me, but I have friends for whom it is, and I was very pleased to see how well things would be handled for them.

I am a morning person. Apparently so is much of the Norden. Specifically: do not expect to go sit in a little cafe or bakery or coffee shop in the evening in Helsinki. That is not a thing I could find that they do. A few restaurants are open late–not very late by my standards. In the summer you can sit in a park and it will be still fairly light and gorgeous. Otherwise, what is open late is bars. If you want to do something that is not sitting in a bar drinking, you will need to plan a room party, or you will need to go out to a park. It is very easy to misjudge how late it is because of how light it is. You can walk around looking at architecture and statues, and this will be great fun. You can hang out in the lovely parks, how wonderful, highly recommended. But what you cannot do is sit in a cafe with your friends and eat the lovely pastries or drink the lovely non-alcoholic beverages in the evening. You had better get that out of your system in the morning or the afternoon. Dessert comes with supper or not at all; stash some Fazer in your bag if you get peckish in the evening.

Speaking of which: go to the Fazer Cafe. Seriously, go. It is…look, it probably won’t be the intensely emotional experience for you that it was for me (I nearly cried, for historical political reasons), but it’ll still be lovely. The windows are full of glass globes of flowers and chocolates. It’s not just a chocolate shop, it’s an elegant sensory experience from the early 20th century. Basically from the time when Karl Fazer’s politics triumphed and the Russians were out of Helsinki for good. It is gracious. Go. You may think that the Finland 2017 bid parties were just being eccentric with all the Fazer chocolates. No. This is the chocolate shop where people gathered to conspire against the tsar. (A lot of people don’t know that even in Finland.) It is so fiercely Finnish it brings a tear to your eyes. Well, to my eyes. And this thing full of grace and beauty and good taste and opposed to the authoritarians won GO GIVE THEM MONEY FOR CHOCOLATE OR A BISCUIT OR SOMETHING I AM NOT JOKING. There is a buffet. They serve actual food. If I had known that we might have eaten it, but the hotel breakfast was so lavish I was full of mustard herring and blueberry soup and Karelian pastry.

(Just eat it, it’s good. It’s got rye flour on the outside and rice in the middle. I don’t know, I’m not Finnish, much less Karelian. That’s all much further east than me. But they’re little pancakey football things. You can get them in Finnish supermarkets and museum cafes and everything. They’re better fresh, though, like in the buffet of a nice hotel breakfast. You can eat them with egg butter or strawberry jam or what you like.)

There is a restaurant called Zetor in downtown Helsinki that is very kitschy in its decor. There is an actual tractor in this restaurant, in keeping with its Finnish country food theme. However. You can get Finnish comfort cooking. Its menu is in many languages, it marks dietary needs clearly, and you are in Finland. You should try some Finnish food. It is not dreadfully expensive, and they will serve you cloudberry wine with your pyttipanna. They will serve you reindeer or blinis, or mushroom barley risotto. They will serve you boar sausages or salmon soup. Go, eat the Finnish food.

You will see a lot of restaurants labeled Nepalese. In my experience with their menus, this is mostly what would get called Indian food in North America, very little of what I think of as specifically Nepalese dishes. It is, however, a really great idea to put Indian sauces on Finnish pike perch. If you eat fish at all and you eat Indian food at all: yes. Do that.

I hear that public transit in Helsinki is quite good. I didn’t take any. I walked and walked and walked. I went to museums and also many architectural sites, churches and modern things and 19th century building after 19th century building. (With jet lag, my American sense of “hey, that must be an important building!” misled me for…um…miles, actually. I kept seeing the something a block or two down and thinking, “That’s about 150, 200 years old, it must be important!” And no. Just that I had not adjusted to the continent I was on, architecturally. Then when we stumbled upon the President’s house, it looked…just like all the other unprepossessing 19th century Finnish buildings. Oh Finland.)

And we went up to the Sibelius Monument, which Tim has lovely pictures of over at his Patreon so you can see for yourself why it’s worth going there by some means or another. The Helsinki Art Museum was not really worth it except for the Tove Jansson murals, and is also hard to find how to get in. The National Museum is lovely, and Kiasma is alarming and great if you like really modern art. (I had to flee the terrifying art.) But my favorite Helsinki thing is honestly just Helsinki. Just walking and walking and looking at Helsinki.

People keep asking me if I’m going for the Helsinki WorldCon. My dears: I have no idea. The vertigo is not kind enough to let me plan things more than a year in advance with travel of that magnitude. So: while I would love to make some kind of plan that involves striding around Helsinki with some of my favorite nerds in tow going, “Look! It’s a statue of this writer! and here’s why that’s important! and here’s who built this church!”, I honestly don’t know. I wish that you would all stop asking. I will say when I know. But in the meantime: the Sibelius Monument! The Fazer Cafe! Zetor! I am telling you the things as best I can.

Things I left behind in Finland and Sweden, a partial list

A terrible fantasy novel I didn’t care about. The $2 I would have gotten from it at Half Price was not worth hauling it around for three weeks once I realized on day two that I wasn’t going to read more than 50 pages.

Five worn-out pairs of underwear and two worn-out bras. This was by design. Going to get thrown out somewhere. Good-bye, skivvies! Good-bye!

The Finnish phrasebook that contained “Can I get this in gabardine?” but not “service required” or “oil change” or…really, gabardine? Gabardine? Also, the dating section: if all I can say is, “can I get this in gabardine?”, I feel that “dating” is perhaps a euphemism, and going ahead and labeling it the “picking up strangers for sex” section is better. There were not any phrases in this section like, “What do you do?” or “What are your hobbies?” with a list of common answers. Kids, we have words for this, and they are not “dating.”

My black ankle boots, with two new rips in the leather. Well done, boots! Your service was appreciated!

Three pairs of tights. Unlike the boots and skivvies, these were not planned. They were eaten by the boots in their ravenous last days.

The Finnish guidebook that blandly mentioned that Helsinki might have modern art museums but not what or where, and claimed that there was a market where there was no market. I found the market. Helsinki was great. The guidebook not so much.

My purse. Um. This one was even less planned than the tights. It became leprous and started losing chunks of leather. Purse! Don’t do that, purse! I had to buy a purse in a Stockholm boutique on an emergency basis.

My fear that vertigo means no overseas travel. Vertigo means carefully managed international travel. Timed around the meds, planned very precisely around certain parameters. Do I know a year in advance whether a particular trip will be possible? No. But will some kinds of trips be possible? I think so. Yes.

Any sense that I might go the rest of my life without returning to the Arctic. Oh. Oh, you guys. The light, the air. The rivers. The rivers. I was barely out of Rovaniemi before I started researching Tromsø, Kiruna, Hammerfest, more. More. More. I’m going back. It can’t be soon, but–I have to go back.

There may also be a single perfectly good purple sock missing. Laundry progresses and hope recedes.

More as I can, as logistics allow.

Eight happens to be my favorite number

In eight days I will be on the flight to HEL.

Which ideally will not be the flight from HEL.

Anyone who has ever told me that I am going straight to HEL: you are wrong. I have a stopover in Reykjavik.

Tip the waitstaff, friends, we’re here all week. And then we’re going to Finland.

Seriously, I do intend to think of other things in the next week. But not a lot of them. Because: Finland and Sweden. Sweden and Finland. Packing and getting foreign moneys and writing up informative house things for our dear housesitter/dogsitter and making sure the people who have May birthdays will have May birthday cards early rather than late and…stuff. The stuff that is stuff. Stuff like using up the remaining foodstuffs but not so soon that we have to buy a lot more of it to use up. That stuff.

If I did this sort of thing less often I would be worse at it, and if I did it more often I wouldn’t have to think about it quite so much. But I’m in this middle ground where it’s not old hat but there has to be a very, very detailed list.

So: blogging light over the next month. Is what I’m saying. I will have email. Email is so useful. Yay email.

Brain eaten; normal service to resume.

Look, I do a lot less personal detail blogging than I used to back in the glory days of livejournal. I have the urge a lot less. And in general I think this is a good thing. In general I don’t want you to feel like you will know where I am at all times, and who with, and what we had for supper.

Occasionally, though, there’s something that makes a big brain-eating chunk. Like trying to figure out the details of a complicated multi-generational multi-leg trip to Sweden and surrounding areas for later this year. That is the sort of thing that can take up a great deal of a person’s mental energy.

Ideally this will be sorted soon with tickets and hotels and all, and I can go back to theorizing about this and ranting about that and reviewing the other thing. In the meantime if you have any can’t-miss items in Stockholm or Uppsala or even Luleå, do say.

Off adventuring

In the morning I leave for my workshop. It’s the thing I was talking about in this post, where a bunch of people are doing peer critiquing. I love that there are a bunch of ways to work together to get better in this field. The teacher/student model workshops have done a lot of good for a lot of people, and I don’t mean to knock them, I’m just disambiguating that this is not one, this is a bunch of us looking at each other’s stuff and offering ideas. Like my regular writers’ group, basically, only in intensive form.

I don’t actually know any of these people very well. I’ve read some of their work (before the work being critiqued, I mean), and I expect some of them have read some of mine.

So it’ll be an adventure.

Probably it’ll be an adventure I won’t tell you very much about, because critiques are like that. You’re not supposed to talk about unpublished manuscripts you’re critiquing even to say OMG YOU GUYS THIS BOOK YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK, because you can’t read this book yet. So I just get to be smug later, when you can read this book (these books). I will look superior and say, oh yes, I got to that one first. I knew that would be a good one. And also the person who wrote it makes good breakfasts, or whatever it is they do.

In case you were wondering how the vertigo situation is: it is terrible. In case you were wondering how that will go with air travel and a strange house filled with people I don’t know very well: ahahaha THOSE POOR PEOPLE. No, seriously, the great thing about vertigo is that it is not contagious. The worst I am likely to be is, like, parked in the corner of the couch, palely drinking water, which is not my most entertaining but as health concerns goes really could be worse for other people. And hey, as long as I’m going to have a rough go of it, I might as well have a rough go of it trying to do something fun and cool and interesting, right? If you think the answer is no, no, wrong, not at all right, too late now, no one asked you, I’m doing this anyway.

Meanwhile, and the reason I’m writing this: I expect I will have email connectivity and such, but I will not be posting here for the next eight days. So: see you when it’s almost October. Or see you on email. Yes. Onward.

Home and House

I am home from Montreal and digging out from under the mountain of things that will pile up when you take a vacation. It was lovely, it was grand, and now it is lovely and grand to be home. And oh, so much stuff. So much stuff. Presents to wrap, more presents to buy and wrap. Stories to revise, more stories to write. The laundry is starting to feel a bit under control, although I know that this is an illusion, as the laundry hamper is almost full again. There are several things that want cooking, and more that want backing, and…well, most of you know what day it is, Saturday.

While I’m doing all this stuff, the magic of publishing brings you things I worked on much earlier. I have a new story up on BCS today, A House of Gold and Steel. Go, read, enjoy.

Public service announcement from the frozen north

Did you know–I did not, which is why I am telling you–that they sell little compressor dealies that will plug into the cell phone charger slot in your car? (It is not either the cigarette lighter. Ours never once came with a thing that would light cigarettes. It is the cell phone charger.) So that if you regularly go places that are so cold that a) your tires will deflate somewhat and b) the air hoses at gas stations will freeze, then you can just carry this solution along with you in the car, and it is a very small box and reads out the pressure for you so you can tell how long to run it?

Obviously this is not a solution if you have shredded a tire so badly that it is more of a tire fringe than a tire. Very few things are a solution to that, and you probably already know what they are. But if you have a slow leak, or if you are just in the cold conditions described above and your tires are fine, then you can have this lovely little gadget that will set your mind at ease about being stranded somewhere with mildly flat tires. Or if you worry about someone else you know who goes places where this might apply, then you can stop worrying about them. The nice-ish ones are $30. They sell even less-nice ones for less than that. It is a thing that should be known. So now you know it.