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Autumn

As we enter the SAD season I for one don’t feel sad the slightest. I can almost detect a spring in my step! Despite an early promise, summer weather never arrived to England this year. At least summer during the summer months left us waiting for more while the pages in calendar kept turning over. However, as I counted the last days of September and began mentally to prepare myself for the arrival of damp and dark October, summer finally threw herself at us. All of a sudden the quicksilver climbed to high twenties! Everyone was out in force. Sales of beer, sausages and disposable barbecues soared with the raising temperature. Even though it felt slightly odd given the time of the year this very late Indian summer gave a much needed boost to all and allowed us to recharge our biological solar panels before winter arrives. And winter is already on its way. Forecasters say that this year it is going to be even colder than last. Already snow is falling on the mountains of Scottish Highlands.

I’m full of energy and activity that seem to desert me for summer. By July I tend to use every possible self-suggestion skills I have to convince myself that summer is no time for hyped activity and I become lazy layabout regardless the weather. Take this blog for example. I decided to give myself a two week break from writing while I had my holiday. Unfortunately my holiday was too successful in emptying my mind that I found absolutely  zilch to write about. I was too relaxed! And let’s face it, summer is happy but boring times. After the vigour and vivid colours of spring, summer arrives and tones everything down a notch. It is not until autumn when we can experience explosive, fun colours again.

For me there is something stimulating in the stormy and dark autumn weather. It forces you to calm down, listen and think. It gives you the time to do that. With you batteries charged with summer’s sun energy you can finally take stock of the past few months and direct your focus towards the end of the year. As I close my eyes I can still smell the salty sea and taste the picnic food as we sat on a beach in Sounion, Greece. I take a step further and I can already hear the mighty thunder rumbling and feel the hot and humid air of Finnish summer. Enough to get me through winter however cold it might be!

Spring, summer, autumn or winter, I like them all the same. Each season has it’s pros and cons and sometimes it depends on what mood you are yourself. If I feel exceptionally grumpy, I can tell you that there is nothing more irritating than sunshine and birdsong! At spring and summer time it is almost blasphemy to be moody and ill-tempered. But there is no denying that long days and warm shallow nights are great. I’m always in favour of divergence and couldn’t imagine living close to the equator, where the only change is between the dry and wet seasons. So when I wake up to the sound of rain bashing down, bouncing off black and gloomy tarmac, I will try not to be depressed but take a deep breath and remember the warm summer wind on my face instead.

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Posted by on 16/10/2011 in Nature, Postaweek2011, Weather

 

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Sky

Silhouette of City from Greenwich Park

 

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City Living

Aleksanterinkatu, Helsinki

A little over a week ago a Finnish newspaper announced that Helsinki has been voted as the best city to live in the world by Monocle magazine. Well done, I thought, a very adventurous and bold choice, which no doubt will create some heated debate. I also wondered if the vote will get any mention in the week’s Financial Times, since the editor-in-chief of Monocle happens to have a column in FT’s weekend edition. I wasn’t disappointed. Tyler Brûlé did indeed wrap is column around the subject of what makes some cities great and others simply awful places to live in. However, to my surprise, he did not reveal the winner but only the bottom ten from twenty to eleven. The top ten, he said, was to be released the week after. It appeared that the Finnish newspaper was rather ahead of its time. Monocle magazine did not publicise the result until this past week. Hence Mr Brûlé abstained mentioning the winners in his column.

But time in the newspaper world moves quickly and only two days after trumpeting Helsinki’s success, the Finnish paper in question published another article criticising the city and its planners. Completely trashing the most recent construction developments. I was confused. Finns had the privilege before the rest of the world to know that their capital has beaten places like Zürich, Munich and Tokyo, only to use this knowledge to criticise themselves before the congratulations start pouring in and the real debate begins. Typical Finnish psyche. Why is it so damn hard for us to accept complements? It seems we rather shoot ourselves on own foot than boldly raise our collective head and hold it high and proud! I get that nobody likes a snob and it is good be able to take criticism, but sometimes I get fed up with the eternal doom and gloom. In fact I got an old newspaper cutting that hits the bullseye in describing the Finnish psyche: “When a Finn is criticised he listens, when he is caned he turns the other cheek, but when he is thanked he farts!”

Anyway, in this weekend’s column we finally got the top ten from Mr Brûlé and also insight to some of the criteria he had used. Number one was water. Not just the quality of drinking water, which for me personally has always occupied number one spot, but also the pressure by which water gushes out from city dwellers’ water tabs and shower-heads. I could not agree with him more! After many years in Manchester I’m yet to live in a flat were shower experience has not left me feeling more damp squib rather than completely trenched. For that one needs to stand outdoors at any given day, but alfresco showering isn’t quite my thing and my neighbours might quickly resort to the old bill. It seems that Tyler Brûlé has been struggling with the same problem in London, which I find depressing. I had always though that the issue with poor water pressure has been down to my bad luck or locality, but reading the column by Monocle’s editor-in-chief lets me to believe that this is a countrywide problem. Conclusion: I don’t have a chance for a decent shower as long as I live the UK. Like I said depressing, especially since I have always valued water and thought of it as one of, if not the one most important element that plays central part in our life regardless who we are and where we live. It is the great leveller, apart from death. I have to admit that I do often miss the silken feel of fresh water on my skin. But back to the criteria. Good windows and balconies are mentioned as well. Simple things, which any expat Finn living in the UK, I’m sure, can appreciate and understand why they would be part of the criteria.

So well done Helsinki for beating competition from the likes of Melbourne and Sydney! It only shows that sun

Green tunnel of Pohjois-Esplanadi, Helsinki

shine and eternal summer isn’t all that makes a city liveable. Helsinki should be even more proud of its top place as it was measured in the midst of winter.

As I’m not living in Helsinki, I try to find little things and details in Manchester that make this city a little more bearable to live in. I like cities in the early hours of summer mornings. The slice of time between when the last of night’s creatures have crawled back in their holes and before the first people start their dull journeys to work. The time in between when nature reclaims the city back to herself. All the sounds of human activity have died out and as I dive into the tunnel of green my ears are filled with the cacophony of bird song, rustling and buzzing from trees and surrounding greenery. The warm summer morning’s air is stiff with intoxicating smells: sweetness of honeysuckle and roses with some bitter notes from daisies. I continue deeper into the tunnel. Even the faintest city sounds die away and I feel like I’m wrapped in a big fragrant blanket. Nature is full of life and I with it!

It sounds and feels like nature has taken back what has always been hers. Normally we are too busy and buried in city sounds that we fail to notice her most of the time. She is there sneaking in the parks, along aqueducts and canals, waiting for that brief window in time to claim back what has always been. I feel a little bit like an unwanted intruder. I can sense puzzled and disapproving invisible eyes staring at me. “What is that hideous two-legged creature? What is she doing here? It’s our time and place now!”

I take deep breaths and press on enjoying the fresh air! I want to fill every living cell of my body with the delight of morning dew. Sun is not high enough to have warmed and dried the air. I can recognise some hint of musky cypress in the air as well, reminding me of mornings by Rhône with winds blowing hot and dusty air from North Africa. Luckily it is not that hot in here and open aqueduct radiates coolness underneath the folding trees. I would give anything to add the sound of passing river currents to world of sounds surrounding me now. If I really strain my ears I can just about make out water trickling somewhere near the bottom of the aqueduct. Despite the recent downpours we haven’t had enough rain this summer. Sometimes water-level is that high it nearly breaches the embankment and water just about manages to force its way underneath bridges without bringing them down altogether! But not now. Now you have to concentrate and get past blackbirds before you realise there is a stream out there somewhere.

Greenery has already turned into more subdued and darker colour. Only in some shadowy ditches you might spot some delicate green sprouting trying desperately catch-up its peers in growth. A mallard couple wobbles happily along the cycleway. “Kwak, kwak, kwak!” Obviously they are having a some sort of domestic, so I just mutter my ‘good mornings’ and hurry on. I’m sure there used to be quite a few foxes around here as well, but I’ve not seen any so far. No wonder the mallards were so nonchalantly strolling a way away from water. When I entered the green tunnel at first the bustling birds stopped eating and hopped away on some near by branches as they heard my approach. As I turn and begin to make my way back, to my surprise they no longer even bother stop eating! I’m obviously been identified as a harmless village idiot, invading their world at the time when no humans are allowed.

Little by little I can hear more traffic on near by roads. Lorries and trucks rumble on to feed the ever hungry belly of the city. First commuters begin to appear. Blackbirds start to tune down their ear-splitting singing. I continue my slow return from the cover of green blanket back to the hustle and bustle of city. One more glance behind me as the tunnel spits me out, closes and disappears behind me.

Morning sun is already high and warming the dusty asphalt. I can smell the car fumes and dirt again. The first wave of commuters are now well on their way to work and engines are rumbling on the roads. While I was still sucked in the green tunnel at one point I almost began to wish that the world outside would have gone quiet and its roads empty. An eerie silence in the city, but for how long it would have lasted, I wonder. I’m sure nature would have quickly ceased its moment and there would have been an explosion of green from the tunnel. But it had not happened. Not this time.

 
 

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Water

Come on, jump in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every time I look at this picture it reminds me of home and all the summers I spent as child swimming in the lake.

 
 

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Tiny

Miniature cup

This was sent to me by my cousin some years ago, in the matchbox at the background. The little cup is modelled on ‘Kuksa‘, a traditional wooden carved cup by Sami people, nowadays favoured by hikers and walkers. With this charming little ‘Kuksa’ my cousin also sent me instructions for its use: “If you take this little cupful of medicine, say Brandy for example, it will keep the doctor away.” Or roughly a long those lines!

 
 

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Reykjavik, My First Visit

Solar Voyager

I’ve had two weeks to reflect on my trip to Iceland. It seems such a long time ago now and I already miss the place! Luckily BBC Four has had Iceland Season this week. For example there was an excellent programme on Monday about the Sagas and their importance in Icelandic culture, but also their impact at literature and world at large. There has also been a programme about the changing environment at the North and people’s struggle to survive documented by photographer Ragnar Axelsson. I missed one with Julia Bradbury walking, but will definitely catch it on BBC iPlayer. All the programmes are filled with mysterious, scenic, spellbinding and wild images of the Icelandic landscape. I don’t seem to be able to shake the country’s impression off me. Nor do I want to. I want to go back there and let the terrain take me. I’m bewitched!

It all started with a long wait at the bus stop in Withington on Friday 29th or otherwise known as the Royal Wedding Day. Normally the airport busses run every ten minutes or so, but I’ve completely forgotten that since that Friday was a bank holiday, Sunday timetables were applicable and number 43 comes only once every half an hour. Great. I ended up standing for at least 25 minutes on the bus stop. At least it wasn’t raining.

When I finally got the airport it felt, well it was, empty. I was expecting long queues at check-in and security. The few people who were there were all huddled around TV-screens watching the wedding. I was more interested on my fellow passengers though and tried to guess who were the tourists and was there any Icelanders on their way home. Unfortunately the flight was delayed by an hour and we ended up sitting on the tarmac for a while. I was eager to get going and instead I spent most my Friday afternoon at Manchester Airport! I wasn’t impressed. Furthermore the flight was due to make a stop at Glasgow, which added an extra hour or so to the total travelling time. On Icelandair, with whom I fly with, only soft-drinks, tea and coffee are complementary. The rest including food you have to pay for by card preferably. Another unfortunate thing was that I got an aisle seat. I was hoping to sit by the window and weather condition and cloud cover pending snap some photos from the air before we land. Instead I was sitting next to a middle-aged couple on their way to Toronto. They didn’t seem half as excited about flying to Iceland and glimpsing a bird’s-eye view of the landscape as I was. In contrast they pretty much snored they way to the country and only woke up when the plane bounced on the tarmac.

So we landed an hour late at Keflavik Airport and as I walked through to the arrivals what’s the first thing I saw? Iron-Maiden’s world-tour jumbo jet! I thought, what a country! I had bought my airport bus ticket in advance through Reykjavik Excursions. I recommend buying a return ticket straight away, because the return ticket is valid for a year and the drivers don’t sell any, so you have to buy it from their ticket office. I had to first register on their website (strange) and then printed out a confirmation, which I had to then exchange to the actual ticket at the ticket office. The ticket office was easy to find. It’s located just next to the main entrance and busses are right outside. The system seemed to be such that when the bus filled up it left and next one took its place. I had bought a Flybus Plus ticket, which meant that I got dropped off at my hotel, Hotel Björk, which I told to the driver when embarking. The bus journey from the airport took about 45 minutes and at the Reykjavik Excursions bus depot (which seemed to be in the middle of nowhere) the driver shouted out names of hotels and told passengers staying at those to get their bags and change to a another bus next to ours. Some confusion and chaos inevitably followed. After about 20 minutes the few of us who didn’t have to change finally got on our way. And what do you know, Hotel Björk was the first stop! Excellent!

After a quick check-in and look around the room I headed out to the town. It took me about fifteen minutes to reach the main shopping street Laugavegur and another fifteen minutes to reach the other end. I was in hurry to get to a tourist information before it closed for the day. I got there in time and came out with couple of postcards, map of Reykjavik and ten stamps. From there I wondered to the seaside and the Solar Voyager. Ironically enough as I took my first photographs of the artwork the raindrops started and surely enough it looked to continue for the rest of the evening. So I headed back to the hotel and eyed out possible contenders for evening-meal. When I got to my hotel I noticed a restaurant on the other side of the building. I walked passed but it looked empty. Never a good sign. But by this time the rain was getting heavier and I decided to give the hotel’s restaurant a go. It was the right decision for that night! And as it turned out the restaurant was the same that I walked pass and thought nothing of!

Called Potturinn og Pannan they served me a mushroom soup for a starter and Icelandic lamb steak for the main. The lamb was d-e-l-i-c-o-u-s! It simply melted in my mouth! A funny thing I noticed was that on the plate the massive steak was the main story. The jacket-potato and few strips of carrot and cucumber where all miniature in size. A carnivore’s heaven! But it was good and I was full and happy chappy. The meal with glass of red wine cost me 4290Kr, but as a guest at the hotel I got 15% discount. Good deal! I had an early start the next morning so headed back to my room and got ready for next day’s adventures.

I had pre-booked a combination tour with Iceland Excursions: whale watching in the morning and Golden Tour in the afternoon. I got picked up from the hotel at eight in the morning. We were driven to the excursions’ sales office where we had to again exchange our printed vouchers to the actual tour tickets. After a little wait we climbed on another mini-bus and were driven to the harbour that actually was a walking distance away! At the harbour we had to show our tour ticket in the whale watching company’s sales office and were given yet another ticket! With pockets full of tickets I finally got to embark the ship.

Weather was chilly and miserable. The rain had turned into sleet and it continued to sleet through the morning. However, the sea looked calm so I was expecting a good sailing. On the ship there were spear blankets and warm overalls. I got my self a seat on the lower deck under cover and got a blanket to sit on. I had thermal underwear, fleece and weatherproof jacket and trousers. Compared to some of the fellow tourist, some of who looked more like ready for a night-out than trip out on icy sea, I felt like an Arctic explorer with my wooly hat, mittens and thick gloves underneath. And then we where off! At first I though it might be a long three hours out at sea if there was little wildlife activity. Also the low clouds and grey weather made sure we didn’t see much of scenery. I was proven wrong though! After about twenty minutes leaving the harbour our guide spotted the first of many harbour porpoises! She also said that there definitely was something bigger out there as well and sure enough we soon saw a glimpse of the top fin of minke whale! But it wasn’t to appear again so we continued further out. We didn’t have to sail much longer before we spotted another couple of minkes. They were busy eating and weren’t bothered about our presence, so we were treated with glimpses of their backs and tails before they dived. The minke whales shared the feeding ground with some porpoises and sea birds like puffins and gannets that made a fantastic splash when they dived liked bullets for fish. It was a great morning! Wet and happy we returned to the harbour around midday. I was getting again picked up, but apparently the pick-up wasn’t until 12:30, so I had coffee and chips at a cool little burger-joint near by.

So another short hop on the mini-bus back to the sales office and another short wait before our Golden Tour mini-bus arrived. All this while sleet was still falling. Our Golden Tour started with a climb on a mountain road over snow-covered uneven lava formations. All of a sudden the snow just disappeared and I could spot faint spring green colours among the rocks. Our first stop was Thingvellir were we had a unique opportunity to see two tectonic plates departing. It’s a strange view. First you see it just as a long valley with high rocky walls, but then you remind yourself what is it that you are actually looking at. Tectonic plates that have the power to create new land, like Iceland, or swallow it up as is happening to Southern Europe that is slowly disappearing under the African plate.

Our next stop was Gullfoss. A massive waterfall. This was the furthest point inland in our tour and the landscape had changed again and the weather! By now the clouds where breaking and sun was shining through. The river rolled through what looked like a pretty flat grassy valley, which was flanked by these massive mountains. Very dramatic. But Golden Tours is a very touristy tour, so you weren’t there on your own but surrounded by many others. And true to the spirit of ripping as much money of us as possible there was a restaurant and a gift shop. Guaranteed the stop was long enough for us to get bored looking at the waterfall and head indoors to spend our way through dullness. I bought couple more postcards and a keyring. Toilets were good.

Last but definitely not the least was Geysir or actually Strokkur. Geysir has long since gone to sleep, but the new pretender, Strokkur, still puts up an impressive show. Every 4-5 minutes it spurts a ten meter tall column of water. It’s like looking at somebody struggling to get a sneeze going. You almost adjust your own breathing to the rhythm of the hot spring as it inhales and outhales water with growing intensity. Eventually, if you are lucky, you see this clear blue half-globe and second after that GAWHOOSH! I missed my change to photograph the globe and before the next explosion there wasn’t one and we got two water columns instead of one. It is by these hot water pools that you can really smell Iceland. Slightly rotten eggs. In contrast to my expectation my shower water didn’t stink. Maybe there was a slight smell, but not anything overpowering. Occasionally while on the tour you had the odd whiffs of sulphur or maybe that was the guy next to me farting. Who knows, but Iceland is the one of the few places on Earth where you can get away with it!

Thingvellir

I decided to treat myself with a nice meal after a long day out at sea and on the road. Since I was in Iceland I had promised myself to try some of their excellent fish restaurants. I chose Fiskfelagid (or the Fish Company) on Vesturgata. A little bit up market, but the waiter didn’t even blink twice when I showed up without reservation and dressed up still in my explorer outfit. I got a table and ordered their three course offer. And guess what was my starter? Yes, that’s right minke whale! It felt slightly wrong, since only that morning I had spotted few of the wonderful creatures, but the meat itself of wonderful as well. Catfish for my main and blueberry mousse for the dessert. Otherwise a lovely meal, but the blueberry mousse was completely ruined by some milk-chocolate chips in it. There was more chocolate than blueberries! I didn’t like at all, but they sure know how to cook their fish…and well mammals.

I couldn’t believe I only had one day left in Reykjavik! I wanted to see more of the city, so I planned a route around it with few visits to museums and other places of interest. First I headed off towards Hallgrimskirkja. It’s build on top of a hill and where ever you are in Reykjavik you can always see the tall bell-tower of the church. It was nearing 10 a.m. as I walked through the ten centimetres deep slush of snow. It hadn’t stop snowing until early hours of Sunday morning and all of Reykjavik was covered in white blanket. Pretty but it was the sort of wet sleet that gets a bit annoying to walk in after a while. At least I was wearing my walking boots so my feet stayed dry. To my surprise there was no service when I got to Hallgrimskirkja. Only an organist practicing. It’s a strange building. It has almost a stripped Gothic feel to it, but the building material is modern concrete. Or the walls inside and out are plastered to give it a concrete look. Odd. But the best thing about the church is its bell-tower. For a small fee (500Kr) you can take the lift up to the viewing platform from where you get panoramic views of Reykjavik and beyond, weather permitting. From the bird’s-eye view I mapped my route to the National Museum and the Nordic House, which by the way is designed by Alvar Aalto and I believe it is the only public building in Iceland created by a foreigner. My next stop after the Nordic House was the Culture House on the other side of the city, but it took me only about twenty minutes to get there. After seeing the medieval manuscript exhibition I was all cultured and worn out. In addition my stomach was protesting loudly and my feet felt like mashed potatoes.

So I headed towards Cafe Loki opposite the Hallgrimskirkja for my last Icelandic meal.I had salad and a massive slice of trout tart, which turned out to be a what we Finns call a sandwich cake or voileipäkakku. It had slices of rye bread layered with smoked trout and mayonnaise filling. Washed down with a bottle of Viking beer, this was a nice ending to my short visit in Iceland. Dessert was rye bread ice-cream. Sounds odd, but it tastes great! Icelandic rye bread is slightly sweeter than Finnish so it worked well. The taste, well it reminded me about the Finnish Easter dessert mämmi, which is also based on rye and mixed with vanilla ice-cream is also really nice. All this cost a mere 2520Kr and the place has that small cafe charm.

Strokkur

The whole country, or the little bit that I saw of it has charmed me. I felt sorry having to pack my rucksack and get ready for the early morning wake-up. My flight back to Manchester was due at 8 a.m. and the Flybus pick-up was at 5 a.m. The hotel kindly offers early breakfasts for us unfortunate ones who need to be up before the dawn. So at least I didn’t have to leave with empty stomach. I will definitely go back to Iceland and explore the country and its landscape further. For example I didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon or walking on one of the glaciers. The little that I saw of the Icelandic nature I can easily understand why people there believed in trolls and other magical beings. The open terrain is protruded with oddly shaped lava-rock forms, small and big. It is easy with little bit of imagination to begin to see faces and bodies frozen in time in them. The varying light and cloud cover gives the place a magical feel and that magic reaches out at touches its visitors. Once you are touched by this enchantment you will want to go back and experience it all over again!

 
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Posted by on 15/05/2011 in Culture, Environment, Postaweek2011, Travel, Weather

 

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Photos: Iceland 29.4.-2.5.2011

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Islanti 29.4.-2.5.2011, a set on Flickr.

Photos from my recent trip to Iceland.

 
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Posted by on 04/05/2011 in Nature, Postaweek2011, Travel

 

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