Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A peek into the black hole

There is this space we call the black hole in our house. My husband gave this nickname to our walk-in closet claiming that whatever he takes there will be absorbed forever. This is not true at all! I’m constantly recovering items I put there years ago and they are in perfectly good order.

Everyone would probably agree that the lack of storage space can be a real hindrance for comfortable living. On the other hand, if you have too many places where to keep your own and your family members’ extra stuff storage can become an even greater barrier to climb, especially if you stay put for quite some time. Your spacious facilities may start to attract a wider group of users. If you happen to be a nice person like me, even ex family members may find them handy.

It will soon be ten years since I moved into this house with many corners where to hide your belongings plus two additional buildings in the yard with lots of free space we have little actual use for. As always, I moved in a hurry and didn’t have the time to make a proper inventory of my possessions, neither beforehand nor afterwards. Therefore many of the things I just squeezed somewhere ten years ago to get them out of the way have remained, often most impractically, in those cupboards and shelves – and hideaways. Sounds familiar?

All these odds and ends we (meaning I) haven’t had the energy to organize to be utilized, recycled or disposed of have slowly piled up into a concrete hurdle. The heap is so high I feel powerless even to think of it. Therefore, it’s best not to contemplate the big picture but to jump on the challenge and start chewing it one piece at a time. Beware black hole, it wasn’t but the first small bite I took today!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Wonders in the sky

Winter sunset with a halo. (Click on image for a larger view.)

Despite the slow onset, we now have a proper winter, although milder than average. The weather has been a bit colder and frost and clearer skies generally go hand in hand. So we’ve been fortunate enough to witness an atmospheric phenomenon we had almost forgotten: we have seen some actual daylight. Of course, you need to be alert to spot the sun itself but now that it rises just a little bit above the rooftop of our old cow house there may be a chance even for me if I’m really lucky.

The other day, we were driving southward at around the time (3:15 pm) the sun was starting to set and saw the above rainbow-coloured halo on both sides of the sun. I’m always carrying my camera these days so we stopped for a while and I was able to capture this fascinating optical phenomenon, which is created when the sun (or moon) is shining through ice crystals in thin clouds.

We once observed a short spectrum-coloured stretch of a halo in the summertime in broad daylight but we had never witnessed this with the setting sun so I had to find out more about halos. I learned that they are, in fact, even more common than rainbows although many people have never noticed one. This is because halos are often formed so close to the sun that it is impossible to distinguish them with the naked eye.

A halo in full summer daylight.

But by far the most stunning shows ever to be seen in the sky are, of course, the northern lights or aurora borealisThey occur particularly in the high latitude regions and are created when particles discharged by the sun reach the Earth’s atmosphere. Nevertheless, living in the north doesn’t automatically mean you will see them often as their occurrence depends on the sun’s activity and their visibility on the conditions: it must be dark and the sky must be clear. And you need to stay outdoors in the cold waiting for them to appear.

Earlier this week the news reported that a massive sun storm would start colliding with the Earth's magnetic field and northern lights might be visible not only in the polar region but probably even as far south as in the UK. A location away from any artificial light, such as our place in the country, is the most ideal for viewing the aurora but now the sky was completely covered by clouds and there was nothing to be seen.

Some years ago I did see a fantastic display of northern lights here in Southern Finland but only because my daughter happened to take the dog out after midnight and fetched me to see them. This week the skies were clear mainly in the more northern regions and the auroras may have looked something like the spectacular ones on this striking video shot last year in Finnish Lapland. What a wonder!

Our regular sunset these days.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Meet our Jack

The blog has now reached an important milestone: Ive let my husband have a look. He pointed out one shortcoming I must rectify immediately. I must write about our cat. He certainly deserves a longer story. 

Every cat owner knows each cat has a distinct character of its own. This is true even more so with our housecat who crew up among teenage girls – and dogs. We acquired Jack almost ten years ago for my daughter who insisted on attending a special high school far away from home and we had to give in. The school provided an apartment she shared with two other girls and you might guess the rest. With three riding animal-lovers under the same roof there were soon more pets than people in the apartment. First there was Jack, then my daughter’s Shetland sheepdog, then another dog and finally a second cat.

Come play with me, pal.

During his first year, Jack was only rarely taken outdoors and even then on a leash so he became a proper in-house cat who just spent his holidays with us tasting the joys of the slow life here. When my daughter returned from the school and moved away to live on her own, Jack stayed with us for good. He has since then turned into a spoiled all-purpose cat who must be allowed his freedom to come and go as he pleases whatever the season, whatever the time of the day. In winter, he may spend most of the day sleeping indoors but even then he never uses his litter box unless we leave him home alone for longer than just overnight.

Bit by bit, Jack learned to be a mouser who enjoys the playful chase and loves to leave us treats on the porch by the front door. Still I found it hard to believe when my husband told me a few years ago he had actually seen Jack eat a mouse. I just couldn’t understand the cute silky ball of a creature purring at the far end of our bed would have been transformed into a genuine predator. It felt like losing your pet innocence.

It takes effort to stay this soft and silky, you know.

Please give me a cuddle.

Like all cats, Jack loves to be cuddled but he doesn’t stay in your lap for more than a second. Perhaps thanks to the early years with his best pal the sheepdog shepherding the herd of teenagers, some canine qualities seem to have rooted into his nature, too. Jack enjoys human presence and tends to stay close to us preferring to take his nap both indoors and outdoor in a place where he can hear both of us. We have a 400-metre walk to the mailbox but if we don’t manage to sneak away he will tag along like a dog. He also fearlessly faces any animal as if he didn’t have the faintest idea someone might overrun him in size or strength or could want him harm.

Their mailbox could be a little closer.

I'm not coming all the way in this heat. I'll just wait here.

Not long after he moved to us permanently, Jack once returned to the house in such a weak state he could barely walk. There wasn’t any blood visible but we understood he must have somehow hurt himself badly. We couldn’t get an appointment with a vet but reached one over the phone. We were told we should just let him sleep and then wait and see because cats have a miraculous ability to withstand almost anything. The only thing we could do was to make sure he will drink some water in the meanwhile. He did revive and the vet later found two clear bite marks on his body.

Where did all the birds disappear?
No, I'm not hurt. I'm just sleepy.
Our house is located in the middle of cornfields just a stone’s throw from a forest, and all kinds of wild animals from badgers to bears have been sighted lurking around. We’ve been thinking we should install a motion detection camera outside to document all the night-time activity in our yard but perhaps that isn’t such a good idea. We can already tell Jack is the master of our 250-acre universe even if we don’t know about all his adventures with the wildlife. He is our role model, an inspiring example of how to adapt to things you cannot change and enjoy every moment as it comes.

You may think I'm useless 'cause I'm always napping on this bed on the porch...

..or in this tiny little house of my own in our yard.

But I am the King around here.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Lilac rescue

There is a hedge of lilac shrubs, or rather trees, stretching from our house to the far end of our back garden, meaning some 35 metres or so. I agree this is one of the many things that are more or less in a state of neglect around our house but I haven’t had the energy – nor heart – to start any renewing. I believe the somewhat uncared-for lilacs fit rather well in the old-style farmhouse setting of our place. After all, they have been that way for decades. And I do love the couple of weeks in early summer when they are blooming.

However, every now and then we have to do some rescuing to save the tall and thin lilacs from the actions of nature. Sometimes when we have heavy snowfall at a temperature close to the freezing point, the wet snow is packed on the branches making them so heavy they can no longer carry the weight. The trunks then start to lean downwards and in the worst case they may be broken unless some of their burden is taken off.

We had these conditions last night. So I had to put on my breathable, windproof and waterproof winter gear, only for the second time this winter I might add, to plough my way in the untouched snow on both sides of the hedge. Shaking the trunks and hammering them with a long stick released most of the snow, although much on my own face, but the trees immediately sprung up to their normal position.

A similar shaking is sometimes necessary also in the summertime if we get heavy rainfall when the lilacs are blooming, which happens almost every year. At that time, the wet lilacs are forming a hanging garden of perfumed purple-pink cascades. I miss the sight. I miss the smell. I miss summer. I think I’m getting old.

Teresa Maria

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

An early bird...

There is at least one quality I totally lack but would absolutely love to have: the ability to wake up perky at the early hours of the morning. I cannot but envy and wonder people who have this gift. By the time I wake up, they have already performed a major job or two, and a few more by the time I’m ready to proceed into any occupation.

Daybreak at Porto Santo Stefano, peninsula of Monte Argentario, Tuscany.
In Aristotle’s words: “It is well to be up before daybreak, for such a habit contributes to health, wealth, and wisdom.” It may no longer be necessary to start your daily pursuits before sunrise like the ancient Greek, or people only a couple of generations ago, but I do agree it would be excellent for your productivity and spirits to start early – and have your hardest and least favourite tasks completed by noon.

Who wouldn’t be happy to achieve that? But when early rising isn’t in your nature it is a habit hard to absorb. It has always been so much easier for me to extend the day, even until the morning if necessary or if I feel like it. I’ve spent many a night at my desk, or sewing machine, either to meet a deadline or just because I haven’t been able to stop once I’ve got warmed up.

Moreover, there is a limit to the tasks you can take up at night without disturbing other people in their sleep. And there is a limit to the amount of sleep you can deprive of your own body without causing trouble to your physical or mental health. So as years go by, staying up late will inevitably mean waking up later and later, at least for me, and this is not acceptable!

An early fisherman will catch the fish.

They say you can learn to be an early riser not by adopting a strict sleeping protocol but simply by making sure you get up early at the same time every day. On the other hand, you should not try to go to bed at the same time every day but only when you a tired enough to fall asleep at once. Well, I’ve followed the latter advice to the letter and look at where I’m now. Writing my blog post in the middle of the night only to have another dark and miserable Nordic morning wasted.

Isn’t it so that any bad habit, however innate you pretend it to be, can be changed? In my part of the world, there couldn’t be a better time to start racing with the sun than right now when the day breaks at around 9 am and total darkness falls at around 4 pm.

Present reality at its best: morning glow seen through our upstairs window.

Needless to say, the sun will seldom be actually visible this time of the year here even if you were awake when it rises, nor even later in the day for that matter, but I’m promising myself to witness far more sunrises this year. Not only those I happen to see when taking friends or relatives to or picking them up from the airport.

Teresa Maria

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Radiant London

The guilded statue of Victory on top of the Victoria Memorial
in front of the Buckingham Palace.
This time last year we were in London. A rather rough patch in my life had finally come to an end and we deserved a refreshing break. 

We normally travel abroad during the spring and autumn months to extend the short summer and compensate for the weary season of darkness we have just left or are about to enter but visiting London cannot be fitted into the general pattern. London will be wonderful any time of the year. For me London will always represent an endless summer with nothing but sunshine and unlimited opportunities because that’s how it was when I first went there as a young student – and that’s how it remained for the whole three months I stayed.

It was the summer of 1976 which still holds the record for the hottest summer in the UK in more than 350 years, i.e. since records began. That summer also saw a very long dry period. People were not allowed to water their lawns because of the drought and some handy men built temporary systems to drain their bath water down to the garden. I never saw any rain during the three months. However, I remember having been in Leicester Square one afternoon in August and feeling a few faint drops on my cheek but nothing more.

That summer Björn Borg won his first Wimbledon title and ABBA was dominating the music charts. I, too, was so young and naive and oh so ready to face the world. Since then I’ve made all my visits outside the greenest season and once I lost there my purse with everything from passport to credit card but nothing will ever scale down the radiance London holds for me whenever I’m there.

Teresa Maria

PS. While waiting for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June, you can watch the video on her Golden Jubilee on the Mall in 2002 uploaded on YouTube two days ago by the Royal Channel.

A young couple cuddling under the colonnade of the Queen's House facing the Royal
 Observatory, Greenwich. (It was far too chilly for an older couple like us I'm afraid.)
Sculpture by Mike Chapman at the entrance to St Martin-in-the-Fields, Trafalgar Square.
Peace activist at Parliament Square. One protester who had been there for 10 years died this summer
and it started calming down. I wonder if the authorities have succeeded in clearing the place by now.

City of London Information Centre at St Paul's Churchyard.
Through the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern.
Quite a prominent location for the Salvation Army headquarters
that have been on this spot in the City since 1881.
The Selfridges' campaign 'Bright Young Things' showcases 10 + 10 Britain-based designers
in Jan-Feb 2011. The second scheme currently features 15 fresh talents.
These removers would convince me in a blink.
A London cab promoting the new shopping centre One New Change
at No 1 New Change in the City behind St Paul's.
Would you dare cycle in London? I don't think I would.
A night out on Shaftesbury Avenue.
There were quite a lot of us photographing the evening lights at the Piccadilly Circus.
We stayed at the Grand Royale Hyde Park, a short walk from Queensway tube station. The room was tiny
but nice enough and the period building beautiful. Rather good value for money we thought.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Inbound turning outbound

We recently replaced this wooden cupboard with
a larger one. I would have loved it as a linen closet
but we couldn't take it upstairs due to the tight stairway. 
Yesterday was a day that made my husband very happy even though he had to take some trouble to see it happen. We delivered the first item I have ever sold on an online auction to its new owner.

I am a great supporter of sustainability and have favoured recycled and second-hand products in my shopping for years. In fact, I have built up the sort of enthusiasm someone might call a passion for this kind of a lifestyle always preferring a reclaimed item or one made locally to something new and transported from a far-away place. My husband sometimes claims even our grocery tour is taking too long because I read the small print on the packages to see where the products I pick into my cart are actually coming from and don’t let the local labelling fool me.

In a world filled with perfectly usable used products, I do hate the thought that something – especially if it is a larger item such as a piece of furniture ­­– might have been manufactured, perhaps unethically, at a remote location and shipped across the globe just for me.

Moreover, like so many of us these days I’m counting decorating as one of my hobbies. So my house is full of reclaimed pieces and vintage finds from flea markets and charity shops, not to mention from the largest online auction in our country covering almost anything between heaven and earth. You wouldn’t believe the number of hours I’ve spent browsing on the site but the effort has been rewarded with quite a few great bargains and fabulous finds. Also the wooden cupboard I now sold was found on this online auction a few years ago.

The hall corner returned to a lighter decor.
However, it is this steady flow INTO the house that is starting to disturb my husband. I tend to become rather attached to the items I have had great pleasure and satisfaction in tracking down or sniffing out but I do agree we’ve reached the point when some clearing out is desirable. If only to bulldoze some space for the next outburst of sustainable decorating ideas to create my ‘perfect’ home.

Teresa Maria

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Storming St Stephen

Having just let the cat out, I happened to be awake when the blackout hit our neighbourhood. It was 4:20 am and a heavy storm was roaring. There was nothing we could do but first to have a good night’s sleep and then start to adapt.

Altogether 11 stormy days were counted in Finland in December and the climax was the storm that reached us on St Stephen’s Day toppling a tremendous amount of trees –thousands of them on electric power lines. It caused large-scale power outages and left tens of thousands of houses without electricity for days.

With its 5.4 million inhabitants Finland is such a sparsely populated country that most of the power lines outside the urban areas and village centres are still carried above ground. This makes power distribution vulnerable to outward damage, especially because forests constitute about 75% of the total area of the country.

We live in an out-of the-way rural area some 40 kilometres (25 miles) from downtown Helsinki, which means we are outside the public utilities relying on our own heating and water systems. However, our circulator pump requires electricity to take warm water to the radiators and our water pump to get water from the well to the taps.

Luckily the outage occurred when the temperature was mostly above freezing point. We had no trouble to keep the house warm enough using our several old-style fireplaces nor to cook the coffee and meals on the wood-burning stove we still have but hardly ever use. We even have an in-house cellar where we could empty the fridge.

We brought drinking water from the grocery and flushed the toilets with water we carried in buckets from our creek normally frozen this time of the year but now rich in rain water. We visited the public pool to have a sauna and shower. And burned loads of candles to see at least some light in the darkest season of the year.

Just when we were used to the new daily cycle and the hard work it entailed, power was restored to our area after a blackout of three and a half days, which set a new record for us. More storms were coming so we charged the cell phones, filled in the water cans, did some laundry, turned the dishwasher on, split some more firewood from the trunks last winter’s storms cut down on our lot, rushed to clean the house and were ready to receive guests to celebrate New Year.

Many houses in secluded locations aren’t as well equipped to cope with power cuts as ours and many people had to leave their homes to stay with friends or relatives. Some of them are only just returning, after 10 days of evacuation.

Hopefully the power companies will use some of their fat profits to put power lines underground to avoid any future damage of similar magnitude. However, with the climate change we are facing we will continue to witness an increase in extreme weather events. So it’s better to be safe than sorry. And best to adapt your lifestyle to a level the globe will endure. Less is starting to become a necessity, just like it was in our grandparents’ time.

Teresa Maria

No way in or out for hours.
The power line brought down by toppled trees was covered
by boards of wood across the alley for days.