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Life in the big smoke

Some thoughts for the equinox

At the end of our holiday in Finland earlier this year we spent a couple of days in Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland. We hiked through forests and spent several kilometers staring at the narrows paths between the bilberry bushes and the moss, trying not to stumble over any of the red pine roots criss-crossing the ground. We climbed up watch towers and looked out over a never ending forest. The air was so clean it felt thick and satisfying, like a fine meal for the lungs.

The days were cloud-covered and sometimes it rained. The temperature hovered around ten degrees centigrade. We stopped by a cold and windy lake on one of our hikes and watched three otters playing in the grey waves, slinky shadows underneath the water. Every now and then a head popped up, watching us watching them.

For a bit more than a week after we came back to London I dreamed of these forests. When I woke up in the morning the only thing on my mind were the trees. Every year I feel more and more homesick when I come back to London. It’s as if I miss the land itself, the forests and the air and the water. And I kept dreaming about trees.

lapland forest

Little by little the memory fades and I sink back into the reality here in London. We have a house to renovate and decorate and there is a lot of other work to do. We’re in the process of emptying two rooms upstairs and have set up camp in the living room downstairs for the first time since we moved in. These last few weeks are the first we’ve been able to use the fire place we installed at the beginning of the year. We found some boxes of old wood at the studio and have been keeping the fire going most nights. That reminds me of home. Even though this is a tame fire, in a perfect and sealed modern stove, a different beast to the smoky, fierce flames in the open fire place at the summer house.

Yesterday we had a fire. Yesterday was the equinox and the days will grow shorter now. That made me think of this Sami story I read while we were in Lapland. It’s about a pagan woman, Mariska, and the priest who tries to convert her. I found the story on this blog.

The priest says, “My poor child, you are now the only pagan left in this region”. Mariska agrees and turns around and sends a kiss to the Sun. She answers, “When you are old like me, you will like the warm Gods”. The priest continues: “But what happens, when the Sun disappears in the winter, behind the clouds?” “One of Beaivvás´ sons sits upon my wood oven. I give him firewood to eat.”, replies Mariska.
“I thought that wood is also one of your Gods. I have seen how respectfully you treat the bark and use it in your handcrafts. How can you put your God in the fire?”, asks the priest. “Only a God is worthy to be food for another God”, answered Mariska, and then she explained that she prefers a God that can be cut down, like a tree, instead of a God she cannot see nor touch.

So this winter I will keep feeding the fire, thinking of home.

Back in rainy London

London. It’s eight days since we landed at Heathrow. The day after we left Finland the temperature in my hometown dropped to minus 27. Cold enough to make your hair turn white with frost and your nostrils stick together when you inhale. London hovers around 7 plus. Drizzle-gray. Sunshine and showers. Mostly showers.

Today I walked past the big house and the deer at Clissold Park. The sun was out. Orange light in the puddles. Bright and early joggers rushing past. I stopped to say hello to the deer. Then I met up with Madicken and we spent the morning writing together in a café. All the other customers had brought their laptops too. Madicken spotted an actor sitting behind us. It’s very north London. I wrote some words and I was pretty happy with them. Then I came home and read about the publishing industry and suddenly everything felt impossible. I did my taxes. I downloaded Spotify again and created a radio station based on Sia. I’m clicking thumbs down on anything that isn’t Sia.

This month is one of small tasks. It’s too early for a big picture. There is one thing and then the next and maybe soon the year will start taking shape. I took me a week to shake the post-Christmas fog. I went home to Finland and didn’t turn on my phone for the first five days. A sweet, disconnected rebellion. Gerry and I went for long walks when it was light. The inlet near the house thawed and then froze over again. The ice was washed up by a storm and looked like panes of broken glass, crushed and squeezed together. I’ve never seen it like that before. I ate well and often. I spent some time in the sauna. My muscles unwound themselves. I relaxed and stopped thinking about work, the future, everything. It takes a while to resurface from that. So here I am, tensing up again, telling myself I should do more yoga, writing lists and trying to get a sense of where this year will take me.

Image by David Marcu.

Some winter kindness

This is the time of the year when life speeds up. There are markets to do and mail-outs to send out, articles to write, t-shirts to fold and Christmas presents to buy. Sometimes just staying warm seems like enough of a challenge. When it rains it’s worse. The damp here is the real problem in the winter. It’s not like home where, in my mind, it’s dry cold, the sort of cold that makes your nostrils stick together, where the snow itself is cold, hard and sticky. Home where it’s dark at three in the afternoon and there are mountains of snow piled up on pavements, in gardens and alongside the houses. But this all in my mind. It’s not like that anymore, the winters are warmer.

Here in London it’s grey, sometimes sunny, but mostly grey. I’m spending some of my time helping Gerry with the pre-Christmas rush. I’m writing long lists and rushing around, but I should remember this is the time of the year when you need to slow down. It’s the time of the year for blankets, books and hot tea.

I’m trying to read, but the books I choose are exciting and speedy as well. I finished Cecilia Ekbäck’s Wolf Winter yesterday. It’s a book written in English by a Swedish author about Lapland in the 1700s. It’s a murder mystery, there is magic and snow. I liked it, but the more I write the more distant I feel from the novels I read. It’s a good book though, seek it out if it sounds like your cup of tea.

Today I might to do some more writing of my own. I’ve set myself a target of 500 words per day. Just 500 slow words. In this busy period I’ve not been writing every day, but that’s OK too. I figure during this cold time of the year when the news reports are full of fearful things kindness needs to come first. So I’m going easy on myself. I hope you are too.

Image by Sirma Krusteva.

The place where I belong

Back from the summer house where the sun doesn’t set at midsummer. Where the mosquitoes are almost as big as butterflies. Where there is a drawer full of photographs and postcards from Liverpool and New York and California. Hundreds of frozen faces, the relatives and friends of relatives who emigrated two generations ago.

When my grandmother was young they used to pack down their whole house in the spring and move out to the summerhouse. I think they even moved the piano, but I might have made that up. When my dad was young my grandparents crammed their children, cats and dog into a small car in June and drove for three hours to get to there, stopping occasionally to allow the children to vomit from car sickness. They stayed at the summerhouse until autumn came and it was time to go back to work and school. During one of these summers they picked up a tame crow. Another summer my grandmother adopted two aggressive turkeys that nipped at the feet of those who went out for a nightly pee.

The place is heavy with memories and stories. Every summer the house calls us back and we retell some and add some more.

There is a rowan tree by the shore. An ant hill next to the car park and another one near the wood shed. There is a big pine against which my brother and I practiced throwing knives one summer when we couldn’t come up with anything else to do. If I close my eyes I can see the path running from the house to the shore, the one going behind the small red hut which is rotting away and needs a new roof. I can see the rose bushes, the blueberries, the trees and the paper mill on the other side of the bay. I know the place and it knows me. There are roots from the soles of my feet that go deep into the ground. At the summerhouse I’m part of something bigger. I’m part of a past and a story.

We went to the summerhouse for a week and now we’re back. I’m raging against London sounds and pollution. But I’m here, back home. Missing home.

Things I notice about Finland after living in the UK

1. The showers

I was staying in my brother’s lovely, but typical, Helsinki flat. The bathroom is small, the shower installed in a corner. At a glance you wouldn’t think there is anything special about it, unless you take the geeky LED shower-head that makes the whole thing slightly more disco-like into account. But let’s ignore the disco effect for now, because it doesn’t really mean much for this story. It doesn’t explain why I had to quickly leap out of the shower, swear a bit and then turn the temperature down to slightly below lukewarm. The water was just too hot. I’m clearly not used to good showers anymore. I caught myself thinking, “my god this shower is like hotel-awesome”. Then I realised all showers in Finland are like this and that I’ve moved to a country where it’s perfectly normal to spend around thirty minutes trying to get your hair wet and then the hot water runs out.

2. Crossing the street

In Finland people wait until the light turns green and then they cross the street. They do this even though they can see that the cars have a red light and have stopped. They don’t cross too early. They wait obediently for the green man. After almost five years in London this confuses me. “Look there are no cars” I want to say. “There is absolutely no reason to wait”. But something was holding me back from jaywalking in Helsinki. No one else was crossing the street dangerously.

3. The price of alcohol

So there I was at the airport on Sunday afternoon. Slightly jittery after a couple of intense days. And actually terrified because of all this talk of the big storm. I don’t like flying very much. The thought of flying into the early hours of the worst storm since 1987 didn’t exactly fill me with joy. I was starving and thought, maybe a glass of wine with my very late lunch will be exactly what I need.

By the time I got to the cafe I was ravenous, tried and nervous. I ordered. The woman behind the till asked me if I wanted a large glass of wine. I didn’t really think twice about this. These were exceptional times. I said yes and she said “thank you very much”. This confused me slightly. Why thank me? Then I saw the bill, 40 euros for a salad, a yoghurt, a bottle of water and a glass of wine. The wine was half of that bill. I drank it slowly, promising myself that if I survived the plane journey I would remember that alcohol is expensive in Finland and even more expensive in airports.

4. Rudeness

This is something I wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on before I moved to the UK where you apologise when someone else walks into you in the street. I like the fact that people are polite, apologise, open doors, say thank you and please and ask about how you are. Perhaps because I’ve grown used to it I now notice and become annoyed by rudeness.

The plane landed bumpily and we all survived. As we were waiting to exit the plane I noticed a young couple with a small baby. It took a while for the flow of people to start moving out of the plane. The family was a couple of rows ahead of me, trying to get out. The dad got out into the aisle first and the mum was waiting to follow, baby strapped onto her front. Then a young woman pushes past, cramming between them, without looking, caring or apologising. I don’t know about you, but in stressful situations like these people can really annoy you. This woman really annoyed me. I wanted to walk up to her and say – hey, did you notice that family you just forced yourself past, why didn’t you even apologise for separating them and invading their space. Perhaps because I was annoyed I noticed her as we made our way into the airport where she ran toward one of the toilets. I guess in some situations you’re not really aware of your surroundings, other things are more important (we’ve all been there).

A final note about the flight. We were strapped in with the seatbelt sign on for about 40 minutes before we landed. It was bumpy. The landing was a bit hairy. But at some point during those turbulent minutes I had a thought. Planes are amazing. They can cope with this storm. The pilots are coping with this storm. This is an amazing way to travel. Perhaps the best way to cure a fear of flying is to fly in really bad weather and realise it’s not actually that dangerous.