Monday, 31 December 2012

Quiet New Year's Eve

The lady is alert (as if) preparing herself for the festivities in the evening. The boys are taking a nap on a comfortable bed. Sounds familiar?

Happy New Year everyone, human or not!

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Silent night

I hope you are having a most relaxing holiday season.

It’s not The Snowman and not even It’s a Wonderful Life but Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander is the film that feels the most like Christmas to me. Once again we were lucky to have it broadcast and I spent the three hours glued to the screen.

The Christmas Eve mass held in St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is another broadcast that has become a tradition also here and as usual I kept the TV open until the end. An extra bit of ceremonial solemnity is good for you every once in a while I think.

He has been asleep for hours and now Im trying to force myself to have some rest, too. Tomorrow we may even remember to unwrap the presents. It will be just the two of us until Boxing Day so we forgot all about them tonight. Age does bring certain advantages, I’m happy to report.

Photos in this post from: 1 Florence, 2-4 Rome, 5&6 the Vatican.

Tapestry at the Vatican Museums.

Monday, 17 December 2012


This winter, nature has certainly done her best to speed up reaching our Christmas spirits. It’s been snowing almost constantly for days and there’s no end in sight. This time we should have no worries: my persuasions finally worked and he ordered a snow blower that should be here in a couple of days.

The house is practically ready to welcome the festive season and we still have one more week to go, which is most unusual for me. I am no magician in the kitchen but the preparations by the oven are now under way. Yesterday I did some baking, among others two units of my favourite Christmas cake (a fruit cake flavoured with brandy) pictured above. The recipe can be found in one of my very first posts here. Happy pre-Christmas time to you, too!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Better safe than sorry

I’d like to remind everyone living in an older house about the importance of measuring the indoor radon levels to see whether any improvements are required to lower the concentration of this radioactive gas in your home.

If your house was built before your local building regulations included radon protection, especially if you happen to be living in a risky area but are unaware whether any protective insulation or ventilation has been carried out since, now is the time to order a home measurement kit from your local authorities.

The measurement must be made for at least two months during the cold season so this is the time for the northern hemisphere. We made it last season and are safe. Everything I discovered last year about this cancer-causing gas, how to measure it in your home and where to find maps to give you an indication about radon levels in your area can be found in my post here. Let’s hope you will be safe, too.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Winter kicks off

November was very mild but suddenly winter is here, a month earlier than last year. We don’t have much snow yet but it’s been cold, at night around -20°C (-4°F) and during daytime around -10°C (14°F). With a few layers of pullovers I can just about manage it.

We have spotted a new visitor lurking around the bird feeder hanging from the apple tree visible from our kitchen window. Strangely, the winter birds do not seem to mind the larger newcomer that is sitting on the upper branches of the tree every now and then. I zoomed it standing a few steps away from the window to avoid disturbing it so the photo is not very clear. As far as we can tell, the creature looking straight to the camera is a female Eurasian sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) (varpushaukka) – far more dangerous for the winter birds than our Jack. The little ones should watch out!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

HT 2: Crochet bedspread

Choosing photos for the previous post reminded me about the Handmade treasures series I started in late October. My original plan was to introduce one item weekly but the first week has now turned into a good month. Our recent trip to Spain will serve as an excuse for the delay this time. Let’s worry about the frequency of the sequels later.

If you have visited my blog before you will have realized I’m not the black-and-white-and-grey sort of a person. In fact, that would be the colour palette I’d find the most uncomfortable to wear. I like my life to be colourful (never mind the fact it often isn’t) and this is also reflected in my clothing as well as home decor. So there was no escaping when I saw this crochet patchwork bedspread at a flea market several years ago, soon after I had moved to my old house in the countryside.

It is particularly the bright red and the ultramarine green (very fashionable in clothing now about a decade later) that please my eye in this piece. So does their matching harmony with the dark blue and greyish pale blue. I also like the orderly pattern of the diagonal rows that is enhanced by one round of grey around each square. And the red round around the completed spread adds the perfect finishing touch.

Unlike so many of my treasures, this item is hardly ever hidden in a closet. It is just the ideal size for the wide one-person bed in the alcove under the eaves in our upstairs ‘studio’ that used to be my daughter’s bedroom but now serves as my study. Sometimes I spread it on the extendable wooden bed made by my grandfather – another handmade treasure with a story to share one day.

Needless to say, when I bought this bedspread there was nothing in these colours in the designated room before. Now the red and the green are the accent colours there. For me, decorating often goes this way, gradually evolving around a fascinating textile of some sort, sometimes intentionally, sometimes intuitively out of a happy coincidence. I guess that’s just the correct kind of an approach for someone whose favourite items in her home are the handmade pieces.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Collateral damage

Now that the weather has finally turned into something resembling winter, Jack is usually purring his day away indoors on one of the beds or couches, generally on the one closest to the place where we happen to be doing whatever we are doing. Doesn’t he look like the sweetest little cat you ever saw with the happy ‘smile’ on his cute little face. Looks can be so deceiving!

At night, the instincts of this silky little thing turn him into an outdoor predator. Colder weather inevitably means panic to all the little rodents out there and winter birds are again clustering around the bird feeder. This means that there is too much wildlife on our lot for a house cat – however spoiled – to resist. The smell of prey makes him restless and often keeps him rambling his rounds in the neighbourhood until several hours past midnight.

Every now and then Jack carries us a nocturnal present leaving it on the porch by the front door. I don’t mind it when he brings a mouse or a vole but I hate it when he sometimes catches a bird. This beautiful brambling (Fringilla montifringilla) (järripeippo) lost its life yesterday. We found the crime scene by Jack’s cathouse. The fresh snow on the roof had recorded where the bird was attacked. There is even a mark made by Jack’s paw visible on the roof corner.

I’m sure when my daughter reads this she will insist we tie another ribbon with a bell around Jack’s neck. That might save a bird or two, I agree. But that might also let a dozen or more rodents off the hook. As much as I dislike it, with cats some collateral damage can’t be avoided. Not even if they were belled, I’m afraid. Oh, that deceiving disguise of an indifferent face!

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The basic question

Yesterday was the first anniversary of this blog of mine. As I find I haven’t made much progress during the year I need to pose this question to myself in black and white, “What’s stopping you?”

Absolutely nothing! Absolutely everything that’s stopping me is inside my own head and I should be the best expert to handle that.

When I was young, it was incredibly easy to make decisions. In fact, it feels like you hardly ever had to make any but you just let yourself glide with the flow of life: 12 years at school, a few years of studies, getting married with your (first) boyfriend, taking a mortgage, starting a family, accepting whichever job you could find...  To me the 1970s and 1980s were a kind of a continuum of the simplicity of my childhood when practically everything that happened in your life was self-evident.

Now everything seems so much more complicated. There are not only masses of different kinds of options that weren’t there in my youth but thanks to all the means of modern media we are much more aware of them all. No wonder it is so hard for some to settle down and decide which one of the myriad of paths to follow to reach their dream when there are so many competing dreams you could pursue.

I feel I have been smitten by this complexity. But this time I couldn’t find any excuse even if I tried. My children have been grown-ups for years, there are no grandchildren yet and there is no longer any mortgage nor job to tie me down to the nine-to-five cage. I’m completely free to do as I please.

Nothing’s stopping me. This time next year I had better know what to do with the rest of my life and be headed that way full speed.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Wrapped in titanium

What is this? A selection of gorgeous candy wrappers in glossy foil? The photos very much look like that but they have nothing to do with sweets but everything to do with another product that is most delightful, even healthy if consumed in moderation. They are close-ups of metal sheets decorating Hotel Marqués de Riscal on the premises of their winery in the village of Elciego in Spain.

Before going into the visits we made to the bodegas during our recent trip to the Rioja wine region, I must introduce you to this amazing building designed by the Canadian maestro Frank Gehry. The limestone exterior is wrapped in titanium sheets in Riscal’s signature colours: red for the wine, gold for the net around the Riscal bottle and silver for the bottle top.

The winery of Herederos del Marqués de Riscal has a tradition of more than 150 years in the Álava province of the Basque Country. To celebrate this they decided to develop their 10-hectare (24-acre) premises into an area they call the City of Wine and set their mind on building a modernist luxury hotel there. It is not surprising they came to think of Frank Gehry, famous for his design of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the capital of the neighbouring Biscay province of the Basque Country. Perhaps thanks to the bottle of wine from his year of birth 1929 that accompanied the design request, we can now marvel this startling creation in the middle of Álava’s rural setting.

Frank Gehry is world-renowned for his extraordinary architecture many praise for its boldness but others consider too striking and impractical. I saw his Dancing House in Prague in the late 1990s and found it rather out-of-place among the surrounding neoclassical buildings. Having seen more modernism by now, I might think differently if I saw it again, who knows. At least the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles seems both very fascinating and functional judged from the film I saw about the project on TV a few years ago.

Hotel Marqués de Riscal was completed in 2006 after years of construction and an estimated cost of €70M. For the big and beautiful the wine business appears to involve much more than just peanuts. There are 43 luxurious rooms and a spa offering, among others, (external) vinotherapy plus a restaurant that gained a Michelin star in 2011.

I guess the suites are located in the ‘cubes’ in the main building and the rest of the rooms and the spa are in the more regular-looking annex connected with the main building by a covered bridge. We didn’t see the annex; the below photo (where the side view of the hotel resembles a fat-cheeked face framed with long curly hair) was taken standing on one of the squares inside the City of Wine and the buildings seen here belong to the winery.

We attended a guided tour of the Marqués de Riscal winery producing great Rioja Alavesa wines and were not able to have a closer look at the hotel. Then again, exploring the interior might have been too much for a first-timer. The exterior was impressive enough and attracted my lens like a magnet. You can see below how the hotel looks like viewed from the main road and from the medieval village of Elciego. Amazing, stunning, one-of-a-kind!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Special time of day

Do you have a preferred time of day? To me it is as specific as 14:11 or 02:11 pm but I’m so happy we use the former format here because the latter wouldn’t do.

There was a time not so long ago when seeing those digits made my heart beat faster and brought a blissful smile on my face. And it seemed I happened to look at the time at 14:11 almost every other day. Maybe the heartbeat is more normal now but the happy smile is still there every time I see those digits on my mobile or any other device showing time digitally.

To me these numbers on a clock imply my husband’s birthday. I’m so lucky he was not born early in the month or otherwise I wouldn’t have had so many extra moments of happiness thinking about him wherever I was whatever I was doing. These days I’m such a late riser I could hardly ever catch a glimpse of, say, 09:06 which points to my birthday. 

Hope you liked your present honey. (The prince, the pilot and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The mystery of his final flight by Triebel and von Gartzen, so I’m sure he did.) And hope you will venture with me to Trogir once again because the above is the only photo we didnt lose of those taken at this Unesco world heritage site during the holiday we spent in Croatia two years ago. I love the light blue clock face and the golden hands. The pretty little clock tower is my all-time favourite, even if it isnt digital.

Monday, 12 November 2012

¡Mira, mira!

We returned from Spain several days ago and I am still almost out of words and most reluctant to resign to domestic realities. The Rioja wine region took my breath away! Everything was perfect: our little but spacious family-run hotel in an ancient palacio in a small village, the excursions, the company, the meals, the weather and the timing of our visit. Not to mention the wines but more about them later.

The hilly landscapes patched with vineyards of all shapes were garnished in bright shades of red, orange and yellow. The old towns and castles scattered on hilltops here and there were just lovely. The autumn scenery was simply magnificent!

The most breathtaking views were probably those we saw when driving the winding roads through the vineyards from one small town or village to the next. “¡Mira, mira! Look at that!”, was exclaimed from the front seat every minute or two to us ladies occupying the two back rows of the family van.

But we happened to be at a hilltop town a few times at the time of sunset and were able to take some photos of the changing landscape in the valley below and the shadows cast against the hills and mountains in the distance. Impressive, even with my point-and-shoot camera. (Although it is so handy to carry in your handbag or pocket even I must start to practise with a proper camera one of these days.)

As for the rain so common this time of the year, we hardly had to open our umbrellas but saw quite a number of rainbows. We spent the holiday in a rather small area in the northern part of the Rioja wine region and it felt like being very close to the end of the rainbow. In fact, we were close – twice! We witnessed the same phenomenon two times in the horizon to the east of the hilltop town of Laguardia. It might not have been in the province of La Rioja but perhaps in the neighbouring País Vasco, the Basque Country, or Navarra. Wherever it was, there must be something magic there, don’t you think?