The last week of 2016 was spent in the timeless whirlpool between Christmas and New Year, as is the custom. Monday was Boxing Day, which meant Britain was eating cling-filmed leftovers while watching reruns of inoffensive comedy shows. Somehow, despite the Christmas-induced fatigue, Sam found it in himself to cook breakfast for everyone (toast and bacon and tea, and more toast, and more bacon). His clothes smelled deliciously of fried meat for the rest of the day; if you find that your partner struggles with affection, I can wholeheartedly recommend masquerading as a giant rasher. They will be all over you.
We found our way outside in the afternoon, piled into two cars and drove to Chichester Marina. That is where sailing boats go to hibernate, should winter find them in that particular part of West Sussex. The marina is a part of a larger harbour, a closed structure around an inner bay. When you walk through it, the main entertainment is reading the boat names. Amongst Serendipities and Sea Wolves there was a rather small and sleek yacht called Miss Moneypenny and a catamaran named Thunder Cat.
According to Wikipedia, Chichester Harbour is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (sic). Birdwatchers have favoured the harbour ever since stalking humans was denounced as crime in 1997 and they had to switch to less obvious targets.
One of the Christmas gifts received by Sam was a new winter coat. Naturally, he had to wear it as soon as possible, and so Chichester Marina served as the fashion show location. The coat was announced both practical and stylish, with the additional bonus that it makes Sam look remarkably like Littlefinger.
It is strange being away from my partner for New Year, especially since last January we were visiting Finland together. By the way, yes, I am currently in Finland (see pictures 3–7 below). It is slightly below zero and there is a promise of snow in the air, but the woods are not covered and it would be foolish to go walking on the lake. We went slow-dancing on the ice last year though, which sounds much more refined that it actually was. With half a dozen of layers on, the best I can do is wobble the way a tipsy snowman would. So it was not an elegant waltz, but we managed to move our limbs in a resemblance of a rhythm as the snow made squeaky noises under our feet and breath settled on our eyelashes like hoar frost. Then we went home and ate our way through Finnish bread with Finnish butter.
I flew from Gatwick to Vantaa on Wednesday evening, staying with my grandparents for the night. It is always fantastic, this waking up in one place and going to sleep far, far away from it, when all you did to cross the distance was sitting in a mildly uncomfortable armchair, thinking whether you want your airport-bought chicken Caesar wrap now or later.
I lived in Helsinki before I moved to Oxford, and I both love and miss the Finnish capital. It is compact and green, with a network of islands (one of them hosts a fortress, another, a zoo), the best city music festival (Flow), green trams, orange metro cars, blue busses, and so many libraries, and such an unprecedented combination of logic and acceptance.
Helsinki Central railway station, in the picture below, is the most-visited building in the country, with approximately 200,000 passengers using it every day. (For reference: the population of Finland is 5.4 million.) It is also a cultural landmark and a great example of Finnish National Romanticism (Jugend-tyyli) in architecture. The station was designed by Eliel Saarinen and opened in 1919, and a significant amount of original decor has been preserved, including furniture and lanterns created by Saarinen.
I think trains are amazing and the art and architecture of the 1890–1910s make me cry. Not in a bad way, but in the ‘I am trying to work a Radiohead reference in here’ way. Luckily, I had enough reason to use the Central railway station regularly: travelling from Lappeenranta, St. Petersburg, Espoo, and now, leaving Helsinki for Kouvola.
Since the main reason for my visit was to see my family, and a few of them now reside in the woods near Kouvola, there I went. Most of the snow had just melted away, and so — in that respect — my hopes were dashed. In other respects, I did very well: tea-drinking, hugging the dog, playing with the dog, walking the dog, reading, writing, dog-dog-dog!
The dog’s name is Emi. Emi is beautiful and lively, as Akitas aged eight months generally are. She is also rather persistent and her ears are made of the softest fur. My Career Plan C is to declare Emi a reincarnation of a minor goddess and become the chief priestess to her. We would be benevolent and fluffy.
The woods stretch in three directions, with the lake occupying the fourth. From time to time you can hear hunters’ shots, which proved to be a good exposure for Emi, as she did not get scared of fireworks on New Year’s Eve.
There are two things I normally try to get as soon as I am in Finland: coffee and a cinnamon roll (they are called korvapuustit, ‘ear-buns’). Finland drinks more coffee than any other country in the world, although it might be quantity over quality, but it is the really good cream that is poured into your cup alongside that seals the deal for me.
Not having a chance to get my fix before my arrival to Kouvola, I might have whined my way into a bakery section of a supermarket. It was entirely worth it.
Finnish cinnamon buns are not a complicated pastry (here is a recipe you can try for yourself), so the key is in having proper ingredients. Thankfully, even the most common korvapuusti you may find at a gas station tends to be okay. It might not be as plump and soft as one from a Fazer Café, but it will taste right.
I suppose that can illustrate the uniformity of services and produce throughout the country. Corner cafeterias in Turku, Imatra, and Oulu will be remarkably similar, and the same can be said of schools, hospitals, and R-kiosks. We all play ice-hockey (also known as hockey), study dancing, and drink milk like it is going out of fashion (it is).
Last year’s winter was the warmest in Britain, and this one does not seem too far off; the weather in Finland has also been abnormal. In the south, snow usually covers the ground in November and does not melt until March. Without snow it is very dark and very bleak, as there is nothing to reflect the light coming from the roads, housing, or stars. Warmer winters influence both animals (hares’ winter coats are white, which makes them very vulnerable under the circumstances) and people.
Seasonal affective disorder is a widespread diagnosis for Nordic countries, and one of the main reasons why, despite a high level of life quality, both alcoholism and suicide remain social vices. It is simply depressing to struggle through half a year of darkness and cold. With the standard workday being 8 to 4, it is possible to miss daylight altogether. Snow alleviates the gloom somewhat, but in its absence the winters are miserable.
Rautjärvi, the lake in the picture below, had frozen earlier in December, but is now melting. Layers of ice create pretty shades of blue, treacherous and uneven.
There was a brief trip to Helsinki to have dinner with my grandparents on New Year’s Eve. I got more chocolate than my suitcase can hold, and the tiny bread-and-butter slices with red caviar on top definitely remain one of the best things about 2016. Which, by the way, is over! Hooray! Happy New Year!
2017 started with working on a number of resolutions I inherited from 2016. Running through the woods, admiring the scenery and hoping my phone is not about to die and taking pictures remains a possibility, I thought about this and that. ‘This’ included finally doing a half-marathon, and ‘that’ stood for all the books I should read and a couple that I should write. I have got big plans for you, 2017. Bring it on.
Bringing it on is sponsored by excessive schedules, perseverance, matcha lattes, friends, Protestant work ethic, and kindness — towards yourself, the others, and the world.
There has been enough walks through other kinds of forest, in other lands, but the mixture of pine, spruce, and birches, with heather and lingonberry bushes underneath, remains my favourite. There are multicoloured patches of moss and boulders upturned by moving glaciers thousands of years ago. In autumn it is virtually impossible to take a step without seeing a mushroom or two, and blueberries are ripe for the picking from August.
Most of the woods in Finland are harvested and therefore kept perpetually young. The trees are thinner and there is more light in comparison to the forests on the Russian side of the border. The latter might not be equally accessible, but they serve to preserve natural habitats which are otherwise rare. Mosquitos are plenty and vicious though, as old forests become dark and damp, which makes a perfect breeding ground for that type of insect.
One of the stark differences between living in the city and in the country is light pollution and the absence of it. Yesterday I lingered outside to look at the constellations, and there were so many. In Tolkien’s universe, the Elves first awakened on the shore to the light of the newly-created stars. I used to think that must have taken place somewhere in Finland, in late summer when nights are clear and dark. That would explain the linguistic similarities between Quenya and suomi.
This makes a circle and forms a link between a home and a home, Finland and Oxford. The next one of my weekly picture reports will be finished at an English pub; if I am being persistent enough, perhaps even at The Bird and Baby, favoured by Tolkien.
I Aear can vên na mar.
Current album: Teenage Fanclub, Here
Current book: Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures
Current TV series: Planet Earth II, Series 1 (2016)