Saturday, 30 June 2012

Shuttle service season

It’s starting to be high season at out private ‘bed & breakfast’ for friends and relatives living a bit further away from the capital but departing from or arriving at Helsinki airport. Last night I picked up a friend who was abroad for six months taking care of her daughter’s one-year-old. The next booking is only a few days away.

We won’t be living at this place forever so I’m happy to provide this service as long as I can. Now that I’m free, my shuttle service is operational at any hour. Not to mention that I love arranging the bedrooms for quests, decorating the house with fresh wild flowers, and all the other little things someone might call making a fuss but I call the essence of life. When you are an easy sleeper you can always take a few extra naps afterwards.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Grey skies

Early yesterday morning, I took my sister and her husband to the airport and was planning to document how greatly the scenery now differs from what it looked like three and a half months ago when I drove my other sister there returning at about the same time, which was then around daybreak.

Now the sun had risen hours earlier, at about 4:00. However, the sky has been so grey recently that there wasn’t much to see, let alone boast about. The temperature was not much above 10°C (50°F), which is rather cold for this time of the year here, the difference from what we had that freezing morning in March being around 30°C (50°F). We experienced this amount of temperature variation during a single extraordinary day in early February.

Except for the two occasions I told about in my two previous posts, June has been if not rotten at least disappointing. Neither have we been given any promises for a change to the better yet. It’s been cold and windy and every once in a while it’s raining so heavily you wouldn’t even consider stepping outdoors.

I suppose I will have to continue taking my short walks around our place with Jack hoping to catch a moment or two to record. The other night we took a stroll close to midnight shortly after rainfall and sunset. Some fog was rising from the wet fields and a faint glow was still visible through the lighter layers of the completely cloud-covered sky. Grey can be beautiful, too, but as a layman I find its beauty so hard to capture.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Midsummer like a bride

Yesterday was Midsummer Eve, one of our most important national holidays. Our Midsummer used to be a date-specific festival the Eve falling on the 24th of June but now it is always on a Friday around the summer solstice, which marks the day with the longest period of daylight. For us living in the southern parts of Finland, this means some 19 hours but in the northernmost areas of Lapland the sun will not set at all for two and a half months between mid-May and late July.

It was an especially sweet, warm and gentle day, just the kind an old saying of ours describes to be like a bride. Indeed, it was most appropriate for Midsummer Eve not only because everyone hopes to have most wonderful weather to celebrate the peak of summer but also because it used to be a popular date for weddings.

However, for several decades now Midsummer has been rather an uncommon date for any formal festivities as most of our countrymen head for their summer cottage or some other kind of special place in the countryside, preferably by a lake or the sea. On a wonderful light summer night like yesterday, many a sauna (of the approximately 3 million we have for the population of 5.4 million) was heated by a lake or pond for a group of friends or for the family, often of two or more generations.

Nevertheless, we don’t have a summer cottage. Living on a rather secluded location close to nature I feel we would have little use for one. When I moved here ten years ago and started to take the 45-minute drive to and from work daily, returning home felt like coming to your summer cottage every night, except that it had all the comforts of a modern home. To complete the picture, we also have a summer-cottage-style outdoor sauna, although currently out of use because it needs some renovation. (Something to work on for next Midsummer perhaps...) The only thing missing is a lake but we can live without that.

So once again we stayed home for the festival, this time without any extra pets to take care of. We had a long walk on the quiet country roads. I collected a large bunch of lupins from the roadside and brought them home to the porch where the delicate smell of Rosa pimpinellifolia ‘Plena’, the shrub commonly called Midsummer rose here, was aptly lingering. Then he took a nap indoors, Jack was snoozing in the shade under an old shrub by the cover of a sewage basin and I lay in the hammock in the garden browsing one of the magazines I hadn’t had the time to pick up earlier.

Later we prepared a very nice dinner, had it with some pinot noir under the evening sun in the garden and when the birches started to cast their shadow on the patio we had the dessert on the balcony. The rest of our evening was spent by the TV watching the UEFA European Championship match between Germany and Greece.

Foreigners sometimes get the impression that Nordic Midsummer is nothing but a wild festival involving a lot of strong drinks and noisy merrymaking but there are also quite a number of those who like it nice and quiet. I don’t think our day differed much from any of our normal summer Sundays. Most of it was repeated today on Midsummer Day, except that the weather was no longer that lovely and most of the ‘action’ took place indoors. Tomorrow will see a third day of this low-key celebration of ours.

Many of our friends already have grandchildren – in fact, two of my oldest friends both had one more this month – so I suppose they can seldom spend their holidays entirely on their own terms. As much as I look forward to being a grandmother one day, it is rather great to be able to enjoy this kind of easy living after at least two decades more or less on the edge of exhaustion.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The town of the persistent saint

A friend of mine had a special anniversary yesterday so I thought I’d post – for a reason she will understand – a few photos taken on the short visit I and my husband made to a particular cittaslow when driving inland from the coast of Tuscany last September. We were changing lodging, had time for one stop and chose San Miniato in the province of Pisa, about half way between the sea and Florence.

Palazzo del Seminario where clergy used to be trained.

The town was named after Saint Minias of Florence, or San Miniato in Italian, a Christian martyr probably of Armenian origin who was prosecuted for not sacrificing to the Roman gods but survived, among others, stoning and throwing to a lion. He was finally beheaded in Florence in 250 AD. Legend has it that he picked up his head and crossed the river Arno returning to his hideaway on the hilltop of Mons Fiorentinus from where the Basilica di San Miniato al Monte, St Minias on the Mountain, now overlooks Florence. An extraordinary tale. It makes you wonder about the circumstances in which the legend started to develop to such astounding dimensions.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria Asunta e di San Genesio or the Duomo of San Miniato.
The bell tower called Torre di Matilde was being renovated.
Palazzo Vescovile, the Bishop's Palace, by the Piazza del Duomo.
The arches visible on the facade of the Bishop's Palace date back to the 12th and 13th centuries. 
Remains of Etruscan and Roman civilizations have been recovered in San Miniato. During the Middle Ages, it was on the Via Francigena that served as the main route between Rome and northern Europe for troops and all kinds of travellers. In those days, the place was an important administrative centre. Many prominent persons from emperors to popes have lived there. Moreover, they say Napoleon’s ancestors, the Buonapartes of Corsica, originated from a Tuscan noble family that had most of its wealth in San Miniato.

The old town stands on a string of small hills. For quite a while since the Roman times, it formed a strategic location for a military post to dominate the lower Arno valley. The present tower on the hilltop, the Torre di Federico Secondo, is a reconstruction of the original from the 13th century.

The Tower of Frederick II was destroyed in the 2nd World War and rebuilt in the 1950s.

These days San Miniato is known for its agricultural products, most of all for the white truffles many consider to be the best because of their rarity. For the three last weeks in November each year, the town will turn into a massive open-air truffle tasting show. I wouldn’t know about the taste – I have never had the opportunity to try any truffles although I like mushrooms – but the festival would certainly be an experience.

We visited the town on a rather cloudy day in early autumn but even then the views from the tower hill towards the countryside were somehow very relaxing. All in all, San Miniato is a picturesque place embracing the slow life, a typical Tuscan hilltop town well worth a visit a bit aside from the touristic rush of Florence.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Sunshine on a rainy day

It’s been raining today and I have taken a well-deserved day off. For a week or so I’ve been too busy to even consider posting anything but I have only myself to blame: I wanted to organize a family gathering to celebrate my aunt’s eight decades. She is the youngest of my mother’s siblings, the only one surviving and single so I invited everyone to a surprise party at our place.

The reunion itself would not have required such a lot of preparation. However, when you have dozens of projects ongoing indoors and outdoors completing some of them tends to cluster around one special occasion or another. So last week we were trying to clear out quite a number of things from the agenda inside the house and my daughter worked long hours in the garden.

The date of the party was last Saturday and we were rewarded with a very lovely day, in fact, the warmest this summer so far. My aunt was all sunshine, impressed by the Dutch treat or potluck dinner we ladies had arranged with delicious cakes and all as well as by the small presents she received, especially the purple pelargonium two of her great-nephews (my mothers grandsons) gave her. She stayed with us for two more nights returning several times to the ‘wonder’ of the boys buying her the plant and took special care when wrapping it for the ride home. I drove her to the station on Monday and I believe I witnessed one happy aunt and great-aunt entering the train from a trip to remember.

This was a visit to cherish for me, too. After all, what is most precious in life are our human relationships. Very few people are such pioneers in science or technology or such unique talents in arts that their work would be invaluable and worth sacrificing one’s personal life for. We regular mortals are all replaceable in everything and to everyone, except to the ones who love us.

That is why I don’t mind the few short nights at all even though regaining the balance will no longer happen overnight. After a family gathering or a night with dear friends I am all sunshine even when exhausted, even on a rainy day.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Missing the menace

Every now and then, depending on the winds I guess, Helsinki-Vantaa airplanes keep flying over our place. This was happening again for a couple of days recently and I’ve been thinking about Great Ghost, my daughter’s blue merle Shetland sheepdog who didn’t like any trespassers, not even those up in the air. He didn’t mind the planes slightly outside our lot but he used to bark at the ones flying directly above our property sometimes chasing them even to the neighbour’s yard.

Great Ghost was the first dog I ever dared to touch, at least as far as I can remember. When I was a child I never came into real contact with any dogs. I knew my father had hunted wildfowl and had had a Finnish Spitz, which was the most common breed around where I come from in those days, but he had had to give the hobby up for health reasons and the dog was given away before my time.

So I was always sort of afraid of dogs and my daughter and son, who were some 10+ years old at that time, had to do some serious persuading until I and their father finally agreed to have one. When the puppy arrived, I was a bit scared of him, I’m embarrassed to reveal. (Sorry, no puppy photos. That was much before the digital camera era and my print files are a mess.)

The Shetland sheepdog is typically a very shy breed and so was our Great Ghost. As dedicated as he was to his family, he was suspicious of any strangers but for some curious reason more so of strange males than females. Also, if he saw a group of young children approaching he tried to drag his walker to the other side of the street to avoid facing them. I suppose he understood the risk of attracting their interest and being touched if any children were allowed too close.

I must confess I sometimes regarded Great Ghost as a menace. My daughter was his master and the apple of his eye but it sometimes happened that another member of the family was in charge. If you spend more hours than you should at the office you tend to be tired at home and it was nasty to wake up on the sofa in front of the TV in the middle of the night only to realize you have to take the dog out whatever your mental state, whatever the weather.

Being a shepherd, Great Ghost was always protecting his herd from any potential harm. I lived in an apartment building for a couple of years and he sometimes stayed with me alone when my daughter was somewhere else. So he barked at the noise of the elevator unless it was my daughter who was in it. And I can assure you he knew up on the 6th floor exactly when she entered the building standing up and starting to shuffle by the door with his tail wagging in anticipation. The rest of us only got a few lazy wags but every time she opened the door he was jumping all over her like crazy no matter how short a time she had been away.

After I moved to the countryside ten years ago Great Ghost sometimes stayed in my care for longer periods. Of course, he continued shepherding his herd but now the territory was larger and he couldn’t hold his bark for a moment out-of-doors unless everyone supposed to be present, including his best pal Jack the cat, was visible. But we endured it, my husband sometimes only just, and were little by little rewarded by a place in his heart and quite a proper wag for a greeting.

Great Ghost stayed with us over the Midsummer of 2008 when he had just turned 12. He was happy as always when I took him to his usual walks. The above photo was taken during that visit, only one week before the end of his life. The tumour in his liver turned out to be so large it had already broken a few ribs but he didn’t show the pain. He was the world to my daughter and I can only imagine the pain piercing her 20 something heart and soul when she took him to the vet and stayed by his side when he was put to sleep. Fortunately, she already had the first of her Maine Coon cats to give her some faint consolation.

Great Ghost’s ashes are buried at the summer cottage of my children’s father by the lake a few steps from the striped rock in the photo below. It was 16 years from his birth yesterday. So loyal, willing, affectionate, lively, intelligent, undemanding and eager to please. Wouldn’t it be nice if we humans had more of these qualities and less of those of a domestic cat who – although my hero as to enjoying life – doesnt need anyone but a place to become attached to? I miss him. The sweetest menace I will ever see.

(Thank you ‘kids’ for yesterday! This one is for you.)