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That Finnish Lifestyle Is Hard to Beat

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We came back from Helsinki raving about what an awesome quality of life Finns have, and we'd like to give you a rundown of the three main areas that make it so. Finnish style is both Old World European and cutting-edge modern, and that's reflected in the cuisine, physical activity, and design.

Food

Notably scarce in Helsinki society: junk food and fast food. Once we left the airport, we really didn't see too many fast-food restaurants. There are a fair number of Starbucks cafes, which is not surprising, given the coffee-centric culture, and I don't know, maybe a Starbucks looks like a cool, exotic American place to get a coffee if you're a Finn. We avoided them, because why? 

There were also a handful of Subway restaurants, which bewildered us at first until I realized that Scandinavians are all about the sandwich, so to embrace a Subway footlong isn't beyond the pale. I did wonder if they eat it with a fork, though, as sandwiches are open-faced and consumed that way throughout Scandinavia. We went to a "Mexican" restaurant once during our stay, and our tacos came with a set of instructions for how to eat a taco (1. fold, 2. pick up with your hands, 3. eat). I figured that was due to the practice of eating open-faced sandwiches with a fork as well. The rice and beans were actually split peas and white rice, so there you go. Finnishized Mexican food.

There's a lot of soup in Finland, maybe because of the cool climate. We tried salmon soup three different ways during our stay, and the one at Story Cafe in the Old Market Hall was the best.

Salmon soup
A typical Finnish meal, with salmon soup, hearty bread, rhubarb crumble, and "overnight oats" also with rhubarb. They are big on rhubarb in Finland. Overnight oats is a grain porridge, a breakfast staple.

Back to my main point: Finns eat healthier than Americans. Probably not surprising, but the quality of the food is higher, too, with fewer processed food options and much, much less sugar and salt. They're big on bread and cereal; the national food is rye bread. But hold the usual overload of sugar and salt we Americans add to these foods. I find it interesting that the food cultures in European cities tend not to be gluten-phobic, as the U.S. is increasingly becoming. (A popular snack is Karelian pie, a rye pastry filled with rice porridge.) But neither is their bread processed with loads of fillers and chemicals and made from GMO wheat. Rather, bread is usually baked fresh, with just a few high-quality ingredients. Our hotel, for example, offered a daily brunch featuring sourdough rye baked early that morning. 

Yesyesyesdinner
Though the Finns like their meat, which ranges from bear to all manner of fish to reindeer, you CAN eat here as a vegetarian. Here's one of our favorite meals, from the veg restaurant Yes Yes Yes: Halloumi fries with pomegranate, arugula salad with hearts of palm, avocado-pistachio dip, and naan bread.

Meat and cheese are staples, too. Again, rather than dropping these items from their diets, Finns generally prefer to craft them from local ingredients, close to the source, rather than processing and adding preservatives and additives. I've noticed that I've been able to eat a much broader range of foods when I'm in Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Helsinki--all cultures that share this emphasis on high-quality, locally sourced food. (I've written about my experiences in Barcelona here.

Exercise

Finns are a lot less sedentary than Americans. Helsinki is a highly walkable city, with pedestrian-only streets common, along with plenty of walking and bike paths even on high-traffic streets. Beyond that, the Finns take great pride in their physical activities, with an active culture around swimming and using the sauna (Finns super-love to get naked and sweaty, and this is an occasion for a sandwich, too!) as well as a plethora of winter sport options. 

Finns are pretty wild about jooga (yoga). Apparently one of 12 undeniable proofs that you're married to a Finn is that you "yoga breathe in the passenger's seat." 

Jooga

We witnessed many Finns opting to take the stairs, which were more accessible than they are in America, where it seems in a lot of buildings they're only provided for emergency purposes. Our business associates, who've spent a good amount of time in the U.S., remarked that they always gain "at least 5 kilograms" when they travel to the States. They attributed it to the car-centric culture, types of food, and portion sizes. Which is not to say that Finns are New York-skinny; they're not. Finnish women, from what I've seen, look like healthy Midwesterners!

Exercise sort of blends in with the lifestyle, too, rather than being something designated as separate and requiring special clothing, a scheduled time slot, or a specific place to do it. Finns walk everywhere, and they walk fast, in regular clothes. Which doesn't mean they won't stop for a glass of wine in the middle of that activity.

Cafeursula

Design

Maybe it's not as direct a quality-of-life issue as food and exercise, but the place where form and function meet is definitely important to Finns. Things must not only work well, but they must please the eye as well. Conversely, if they're only pretty but not at all functional, Finns don't want any part of them, either.

Case in point: HVAC ductwork. The below circular art piece--I mean heating vent--is all over Helsinki. This one's from the aforementioned veg restaurant, Yes Yes Yes. 

Ductwork

What's remarkable about them besides how cool they look is that they seem to work a lot better than the ones we have here in the States. The little baffles circulate the air, rather than aggressively blowing it in one direction. You know that problem where you sit down and then have to move because the vent is spewing right in your eyes or making you too hot or too cold? Never happened to me in Finland.

Besides the HVAC, that triple-Yes restaurant was a triumph in fresh interior design, from the gorgeous patterned wallpaper to the simplicity of the retro pitchers and bright, happy colors.

Wallpaper

There's a love of domestic objects here, and a common theme of bright, uncluttered, natural interiors, with both an organic sensibility and clean lines. The natural world is a focus, whether that's how plants are displayed inside or in the design themes themselves, like the magical coffee mugs our hotel used, designed by Finnish firm Ittala

Ittala

I've shared my love of Finland here on the blog this past week, and I hope you'll experience it for yourself. Tomorrow, I'll list my top 5 travel accessories, and tell you about a very special discount, too!

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A Peek Inside the Dragon Flower Farmhouse

Balloonball

Our house turns 115 this year, and that's something to celebrate. Built in the year of the iconic St. Louis World's Fair, she's a solid, sturdy old gal with a few frills and flounces that tell you her history. Let me give you a tour.

The first thing you notice are the ball finials flanking the front porch. They're original to the house; in the above photo you can see them in relation to a hot air balloon, as I took it last fall during the Great Forest Park Balloon Race. The finials are definitely conversation-starters. Recently I was out front conducting spring yard cleanup and a passerby started talking to me about them as if she were continuing a conversation we'd left off previously. They're painted white to match the white vinyl siding, and let me speak on that topic for a moment. We hate the vinyl siding, though it's conveniently maintenance-free, and the porch itself is recycled plastic. Since we can't paint either of those, the big white house will remain so, but the wooden ball finials can be painted, and painted they shall be, along with the front door, which for now is brown.

Yeah, there's a lot of brown in the Dragon Flower Farmhouse. If this were the brown of wood, either left natural or stained, we wouldn't mind at all. But it's brown paint.

Someone--a previous owner or perhaps the contractor who flipped the place--streak-painted brown on top of a dark (and from the looks of it, ancient) wood stain. The overall effect isn't good.

We think this persistent brown paint situation is partly why we were able to get the house for a good deal in a neighborhood that has strongly appreciated since the real estate recovery. Since there are no windows on one whole side of the downstairs due to the close proximity to the neighboring four-family flat, and the hardwood floors are also a dark hue, the brown paint makes for a dim living room experience. 

Livingroom

It's everywhere on the first floor, except for the kitchen, thank goodness. Some of the previous reno upgrades were good choices, as kitchens really make or break a home.

Kitchen
A pic I snapped during our viewing tour, so not our decor, but the dark floor is a great contrast to the white here.

The other reasons we got a good deal? 1) We purchased in November, when the market starts to cool, 2) the basement showed signs of serious leaking, 3) there are train tracks across the street (we see this as a plus, honestly, but others might not), and 4) there's an apartment balcony overlooking the yard, which I've already discussed here a lot when talking about the big fence project.

Apartment Side

Besides the potential for a good deal, which was really important to us when buying a house here in (late) middle age, the house captured us with her charm. Her issues could be solved. But the period details and overall great shape she was in despite her age drew us in. My husband said, "This feels like an old farmhouse," and that was it.

You already know about the outside victories--the fence and the French drain. We haven't had a lot of time for the inside, but honestly, we're lucky in that there's not that much to do, and we've already begun to tackle the brown problem. Here are before and afters of the front door and living room windows.

Front door before and after
Before... And after!
Livingroomwindowsbefore
Before...
Livingroomwindowsdone
And after! Yippee! Side note: The drapes are better, too, because they're no longer high-watering at the sill. But we hung them just a bit too low. I'd rather see them just "kiss" the floor.

Other than that, we've been enjoying decorating both generally and for the holidays. The old girl lends herself well to holiday decor, and even though that's not something I did very much during my long sojourn in the Pacific Northwest, I've picked it back up here in the Midwest and might have even gone a little bit berserk (at least by my standards) this past Christmas.

Halloween

Bookcasexmas

Chandelierxmas

My decorating style is what you might call "eclectic." I love mixing old and new, and I love color. Apparently, I can never get enough turquoise, and orange is firmly in my wheelhouse. I once painted the entire exterior of my house orange, back when I lived in Tacoma. I never could figure out why people insisted on drab house paint when the drool-y grey skies made me ache for something more vibrant. The coup de gras was the sunburst pattern on the mid-century modern ranch home's garage door.

OrangeTacoma
This might not be your cup of tea, but I still think it looks fab. And check out the thrift store lantern I repurposed with copper paint and a bamboo pole!

My husband Anthony is present in all of the home decorating decisions. He often comes up with spot-on solutions I can't see. I believe our styles have come together and melded into a new version that is very collaborative. One of my pet peeves is going into someone's home and seeing one half of the couple totally absent in the decorating presentation. Usually with hetero couples, that's the guy. It's not always her fault; dudes tend to check out when it comes to how to make a home. But I've also seen the male vibe completely squelched by too much lady vision. Maybe it's cool; he's got the man room and doesn't really care, but I think it's a little sad? I just prefer to engage with the person I'm planning a life with and really make a life together. My ex-husband (of the orange house era above) and I did this, too. He's an artist, and in his case it meant taking some colorful risks that didn't always work out, like that time we painted a ceiling slate grey and the walls marigold yellow. :) But that's OK. You gotta try, right?

My current evolution is considerably more restrained, as evidenced by this pop of orange in the stairwell.

Orangestairwell

Anthony and I are a much more mature (and, um, compatible) couple, and the Dragon Flower Farmhouse reflects that. He's encouraged my more historic, classic, antique-loving side, and I've opened him up to exciting color combinations and a general modern aesthetic. I love introducing a few more pieces with a fantasy feel to appeal to my beloved gamer geek, such as an antique brass candlestick shaped like a cobra or an original ink print of a raven queen. I won't insist on anything he totally vetoes, and he will defer to my judgment about design rules when they're important.

This pink-themed mantel in the photo below is one triumphant example, as it's built around a painting his mother, A. Grace, bequeathed us when she died. The '60s glass holding feathers is from a thrift store, and it bears Anthony's sun sign, Capricorn. There's the cobra candlestick I gave him for his birthday, which, second-hand, cost me less than $45, but I've seen it in a pair on eBay for $500. The green vase was an antique mall find and is signed by the sculptor, and the mounted print block on the far right I got for about $10 on clearance at World Market. The green bowl is a great example of Japanese kintsugi, a treasured gift from Anthony, and the small chest is his. We found the conch shell buried in our backyard, and the pink bloom grew in the front. While I'm styling the mantel according to design tips and principles, what's important to me is the meaning of each piece. 

PinkMantel

Speaking of design rules... I feel it's only right to pay tribute to my rule muse, Emily Henderson. I've been fangirling this amazing designer for a few years now, and the bit of balance and good styling you do see in the photos above are to her credit. It's not that I was a total design dweeb before I discovered EHD, but good rules of thumb can really make a difference, explaining, for example, how to style a mantel, the proper way to hang curtains, or what height to place your art. I'm much more into color than Henderson is (she hates orange!), and I at first rejected her blue-trending aesthetic, but everything she says makes so much sense. When I make a point to follow her rules, I get great results. I've even started introducing more blue into my life and am considering painting the dining room some blue hue. It helps that it's one of Anthony's favorite colors.

I first came across the EHD blog through a search for images of "gold" used in a bedroom. I'd found a mint-condition mid-century modern laundry hamper in an amazing gold lamé-like material but didn't quite know how to make it work. Here's the EHD photo that stopped me in my tracks at the time.

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Image credit, David Tsay for Emily Henderson.

I tried to use this as an inspiration on my much, much more limited budget. I think the biggest stumbling block was the lack of funds for those gorgeous gold silk drapes. Faux silk wouldn't work because it's unlined and too sheer, and the light-blocking compromise I made ended up looking more mustard-y than the gold I was shooting for. And tragically, the gold hamper that started the whole thing was a casualty in our big move from Washington state to Missouri in the fall of 2017. The best-laid plans... But that's OK. I still liked the room.

Bedroom
It was fun to play a bit with pattern, from the drapes to the artwork to the etchings on that lovely vintage 60s Italian lamp.

Bedroomcorner

It's all good. I didn't want an exact copy of EHD's room anyway and had been using it mainly for inspiration, which is how I feel about the interior design world as a whole. I like to learn the rules and take inspiration from everywhere but then decide for myself what I can do, given my budget, and what I want to do for my own enjoyment.

UPDATE: I sent a draft of this piece to EHD, and team member Velinda Hellen (loved her tiny kitchen makeover) sent me a nice note back, saying:

Thanks so much for sharing images of your home. You've done a beautiful job.

I was surprised to get a reply at all, as I'm sure they receive like billions of emails a day, so that was a graceful, nice thing to have happened. I'm still blushing from the compliment!

We've rearranged rooms to accommodate a home office since I took these photos, so it's changed yet again. I'll show those later on. 

Thanks for sticking with us here as we plant a butt-root in Midwestern soil. We've both had pretty nomadic existences as adults, so we're looking forward to feelings of permanency and seeing the long-term fruits of our labors, both inside and outside.

Where does your design inspiration come from? Please share your favorite blogs, websites, books, and other sources below! We're always looking for more.

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I'm Taking Today Off - Here Are Pics from the Stepson's Graduation

Jun 11, 2017
My husband, stepson, and me.

My stepson moved in with us full-time last fall and completed his senior year in a small-town. This big-city kid quickly got the lay of the land, though, making some great friends and getting to experience a different way of life. This is Trump country, after all, home to camo days at the high school, lifted trucks, and an activity known as "mudding." The Seattleness wore off him pretty quick, though... Maybe a little too quickly. Jumping into a lake from a rope, he injured his leg a few weeks before graduation, which put him in a boot and crutches.

Zander cane
Zander nearly had to do the grad walk on crutches. But he graduated to a cane and managed the walk without it, limping just a bit.
Zander photos
The kid has a great eye for photography. Of course, I'm biased, but hey. The judges agree! He took Champion at the county youth fair.

Congrats to all the grads out there, and a good weekend to all!

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DIY Whiteboard Wall

Writingwall

Remember when you were a kid, and you wrote with marker on the wall, and you were sent to your room without dessert or TV that night? Well, now you can write on your wall and eat your cake, too. 

In the image here it looks like I've ruined my office walls. But all that bright marker scribble totally wipes off! It's a miracle.

Writingwall Writingwall

It's all made possible through the magic of dry erase paint. This product has been out for a little while and has been popularized in creative offices where, I guess it's assumed, Millennials really wanna be writin' on the walls. 

I held back at first because I don't like the whitey-white look of whiteboards. But then I discovered a clear version, which means you can turn any color wall into a dry erase surface, and I decided to take the plunge.

If you try it, here are some things to keep in mind:

1. If your surface is not perfectly smooth or painted in something glossy, you will need to prime it first. In other words, if you don't have anything but the average household wall painted with flat paint, you will need to prime it first! Otherwise, your wall will be thirsty for this stuff. 

2. I suspect that even if you do prime it, you'll need more paint than you think. I used Rust-Oleum's Kit and needed to run back to the store for another one (the store in this case being Home Depot, because I live in the sticks, and that's what we've got). 

3. The product I used claimed to be low-VOC, but it definitely needed to be well-ventilated for at least 12 hours afterward. Note that there's a "curing" time as well, so don't go writing on your walls just because you think it's dry. It needs several days first.

4. Even though it's clear, it does darken the overall hue of the wall. So it will no longer 100% match the surrounding walls.

5. Just like a regular whiteboard, and a chalkboard for that matter, your wall will not look like a perfectly clean wall again after this. I almost bought some whiteboard cleaner, but then I read in the comment section for the product on Amazon that plain old rubbing alcohol is best for removing the worst of the marker detritus. 

6. I used a foam roller but cut in with a regular brush. Someone at Home Depot might suggest a foam brush, and they will be steering you down a path toward foam brush hell. Don't listen.

So there you have it. I painted a dormer wall and a regular wall, as in the pics below, and I love the write-on-the-walls freedom this gives me to plot out my novel, draw cover options, schedule out my life, and more. Happy dry-erasing!

*I have not received any endorsements from Rust-Oleum or Home Depot for this post. Yet.

Writingwall

Writingwall


Seattle, A Love Letter

Heart coffee

Dear Seattle,

I'm leaving you now, but I don't really want to. But I do. I mean, I guess what I'm saying is, you're an incredibly hard city to leave.

I'll miss your concerts and your KEXP and your free neighborhood music festivals all the glorious summer. I took my stepson to his very first concert (Alt-J!) here. I saw John Prine and Paul Simon and Joan Jett and the Black Keys and The National and the Decemberists here, plus lots of other acts on small stages all over the city, not to mention every summer for ten years what I danced to at the Ballard Seafood Fest. I love how you keep the dream of the 90s alive, Jet City. Please keep on rockin' it.

I'll miss your foodie culture, which infuses everything with everything else and makes sure it's all organic, free-range, unionized, shade-grown, free-trade, cruelty-free, and so on and so on. I've made fun of you for all this, but the truth is, I'm glad someone's policing our food for us. It really needed it! And my belly has been so happy here.

Speaking of my belly, I don't know what I'm gonna do without your late-night happy hours, and all those cleverly named drinks with ingredients I can't even pronounce. Now when I want a Judy Blooming with chamomile-infused vermouth and a laphroaig rinse at 10 pm, I'll have to trudge down to the kitchen and make it myself. Which means I'll be drinking milk and Pepsi from now on.

And your art! Your investigative, inquiring, whimsical, at times silly but rarely disappointing art. I just want to hunker down in that ship's hull piece tucked into the cleft of Olympic Sculpture Park and stay here forever, admiring all the pretty things Seattleites make with their hands. Oh, God. Now that I'm writing this down, I can't believe I'm leaving all this art! How will I cope in the land of scrimshaw and scrapbooking? I guess I'll just have to come back here every once in a while and meditate in Light Reign.

While I'm on the culture train here, let me just say that I will pine for your live theater scene. Some of the best performances I've ever witnessed happened at the Seattle Rep, ACT Theater, and all those lovely little neighborhood theaters, Ghost Light Theatricals, the Green Lake Bathhouse, and Theater Off Jackson... Only you know how much I want to be a playwright when I grow up.

Glimpses of the water from any angle anywhere in Seattle. The sounds of seagulls and ship horns. That briny smell. It's in my bones.

The friendships you've given me. They know who they are and that they have an open invitation to visit me anytime. They're of course encouraged to bring you, Seattle, with them.

I'll miss your "openness within reason" attitude. You're a city in which anything goes, as long as no one gets hurt. I've felt safe to write whatever I want, to carry on as a middle-aged single person without kids, and to get married and worship God the way I want here. And I thank you for that.

Seattle, I've been happier here for the past ten years than I've been anywhere else in my life. And I've lived in a lot of places. While Tacoma keeps trying, you don't have to try; you just are. You care much more for your environment than Miami does. And while you certainly don't have to encounter the nuances of racism in the same way the average St. Louisan must, you're far more racially tolerant, on balance. And unlike the suburbs of my vast American military childhood, you have so much THERE there.

I would totally stay in you if it were possible for me to have both you and a comfortable retirement. But you see, you're making me choose. And that's not fair. In my new small town, I bought a house (a house! with a yard!) for a fraction of the price of one of your micro condos. I'm just sayin'.

Now I'm going to ask you to do something I know will be hard, especially since I don't believe in them. Can we try a long-distance relationship? I promise I'll commit to making it work. I really love you. I do.

Yours always,

Lisa 

P.S. I know you're uncomfortable with the fact that I'll be just as close now to Portland as I am to you, Seattle, but I promise there's no reason to get jealous. Portland ain't got nothin' on you. Don't give me that "Powell's Book Store" look. You know I love you.