There are days….

There are days when things just flow easily, effortlessly and seamlessly. There are days when everything falls into place.

Today is not that day.

From work to my run to errands and administrative crap, it’s been a chore. A slog through bogs, both literal and figurative.

Helsinki’s skies offer nothing but rain, snow and the darkest of days. And, right now, both of us just want to hibernate, as both an escape from November’s nastiness and because mentally we are spent.

Soon enough, all of this will be a distant memory. We’ll soon be on that long overdue holiday, sleeping soundly and setting aside our gadgets and the daily grind for a stack of books and a lounge in a hammock. And, we’ll face reminders of just how uncomplicated our lives really are here in Finland.

But, until then, we just need to get through each of these days where night is endless and seemingly darker than ever….

Days like these

November in southern Finland is not child’s play, particularly once we set the clocks back that one precious hour and live on ‘winter time’. The nights become unending and the sun — if it appears at all — shines less than brightly. Couple the darkness with a heavy dose of stress and finding any joy at all becomes excessively difficult if not impossible.

But joy can be found even in the darkest of places. At least, that’s the hope we hold on to even on those darkest of days. This week featured an array of stressors and frustrations. Don’t get me wrong: bright spots shone. Yet both of us acutely feel the effects of an entirely overly optimistic and far from restful year as we near our long-awaited and overdue holiday and annual escape to the sun.

Before our escape, we must take whatever opportunities arise to break free from the daily grind. It may be a fully working weekend for us both, but we work just as hard to find time to get out and break free for our peripatetic bonding session before night falls and the darker darkness of winter characteristic of these nights descends. We made our break sometime around 16.00.  And, here’s what we found on this wintry Caturday afternoon/early evening:

  • The street lights were on well before we made it halfway through our walk. We appreciated the light on our return journey home. But, it’s weird and eery to see them turn on well before 16.30 in the afternoon. A month from now, it will be fully dark at this time of day. And, that darkness is intensely black, standing in stark contrast to the dusk that pervades throughout what counts for summer nights. (Need I say, we prefer the darkness of summer.)
  • Despite needing multiple layers on our walk, as we approached the beach nearest our neighbourhood, a lone, brave swimmer made her way from the changing rooms to the pier and finally down into the icy waters. She wore a wool cap, gloves of some sort, slippers of some sort, a bathing suit and was wrapped in a towel. We shivered simply watching her as she submerged into the waters and swam from the pier. As she emerged after her swim, she confessed that the water ‘wasn’t so bad once you got used to it’. We both thought, ‘Better you than us, girlfriend!’ We prefer the warm bath water of the Caribbean, thank you very much.
  • Despite living in Finland for 10 years now, we still don’t understand the weather here. We left under relatively cloudless skies. At least, it looked as though the clouds had moved on to elsewhere. As we stood watching the less-than-sane swimmer [our classification of her mental state, naturally], rather large and cold drops of rain plopped on our heads. Once again, we were stuck far from home without an umbrella.
  • Mosquitoes still survive even now. Surprisingly. As I typed this post, one lone little bugger landed on my hand.

Days like these, I’m happy to be alive.

The first snow

As soon as I learned that snow was set to arrive in southern Finland this week, that little-kid excitement took over. Anticipation. Wonder. More anticipation. Awaiting snow’s arrival takes me back to those moments as a kid, waiting to see if we’d have snow, how much would eventually fall and if school would be cancelled. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want to go to school; but, rather, I wanted to run around in the freshly fallen fluff until my outdoor gear was soaking wet and I was exhausted.

Today’s snow isn’t all that fluffy. It’s weighty and wet and quickly melting rather than piling high. School won’t be cancelled for me today (because I didn’t have any classes scheduled) nor is snow ever likely to cancel classes in Finland. But, I’m still excited.

Unlike most days when I’m not in class, I needed to be somewhere this morning. After bundling up and donning the boots which I’ll likely wear through April, I found myself bracing against the icy grains of snow and smiling. I really do love snow, particularly as it falls and particularly as it changes everything it piles upon into something other worldly. No two snowfalls are alike, just as no two snowflakes are identical.

Today, the sound that accompanies snowfall struck me once again. Everything is muffled, and somehow more gentle. More muted. More peaceful. A few birds tweeted either their delight or disdain, breaking my own snow-induced trance. Perhaps those tweets were more distinct because all other sounds were muffled by the snow.

As I walked to and fro, I continued smiling as I walked in the first snow.

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A glorious, colourful reminder

Life in Finland. Years ago on a business trip to Amsterdam, after listening to me talk about life in Finland, the person to whom I was talking stated simply, ‘So, you’re on the tourism board of Finland then?’ His statement oozed with sarcasm.

There are so many great things about life in Finland. Incredibly efficient public transport. Health care. Top-notch education for all. High quality of life. Fresh air even in the capital city. And, one of the least corrupt places on the planet — if you drop your wallet on the street in Helsinki, you’re likely to get it back with its contents in tact. One of my favourite aspects of life here involves the insistence on giving each new member of Finnish society equal opportunity when born. Yes, it’s a great place to live.

And, then there’s the weather.

For all its loveliness, Finland is not a fair-weather haven. Quite the opposite. Summer is typically lovely, with its long, long days and abundant sunshine coupled with mild temperatures. Winter is dark even when it’s light. The oppressiveness of winter leads us to leave each year for the worst of it. It’s how we survive. But, the seasonal extremes are typically sandwiched between seasons of wet and wetter. When the autumn rains begin, you hope you make it through the worst. You learn to live with it, but it is anything but easy. Personally, I’ve never been quite so affected by a place’s weather. I never understood seasonal affective disorder. Until we moved here.

We have endured an unusual weather year thus far in Helsinki. (In truth, 2017 appears to be a year-long test for us all, weather simply another section of this multi-phase trial.) October has not been cold, but it has been insanely wet. This follows a rather wet and chilly summer, one which even Finns are less than thrilled with. Given that we typically get one glorious season, it’s cruel when we endure winter only to endure a less than sunny and chilly summer. On top of this, the first two weeks of October brought rain. Nearly. Every. Single. Day. Not just a light mist or drizzle, but rain. Heavy and soaking. And, utterly unrelenting.

For the last week, it’s been (mostly) glorious. Absolutely gorgeous and glorious and oh so welcome. Thankfully, this break in the autumn rains coincided with the most colourful period as well. And, again, it’s been glorious.

Thank you, Finland. Thank you for the reminder that you are quite lovely even if your weather generally sucks. It’s moments like these that we live for.

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Day 35: Proekt 365 (A family snowman affair)

Day 35: Proekt 365 Neighbourhood snowman & the family who made him

Day 35: Proekt 365
Neighbourhood snowman & the family who made him

This was perhaps my favourite moment of the year so far. Or at least one which became even lovelier as I was taking my daily photo.

Today, as The Cuban and I took a quick break and brisk walk through the neighbourhood, we stumbled upon this jolly frozen fellow, complete with a carrot nose. I whipped out my trusty Galaxy S III to take a picture for my daily blog of all things lovely and who should pop up in the window behind him but the little girl, her mother and brother, whom I’m assuming made him. They waved and smiled and waved and smiled the entire time I fumbled and waved and tried to take my photo. (If you look carefully in the upper left-hand section of the photo, you can see their shapes just barely.) It’s a good thing I got the photo the first time—this was the only one I managed to snap in the few minutes were stood there!

I don’t honestly know who was more delighted: us or them? The snowman was more than sufficient to make my day brighter. But, the sight of that lovely family — mother, dauther and son — waving just as idiotically back at us as we were at them was truly wonderful and heart-warming, particularly in a country were emotional displays such as this are rare.

It’s true: if you smile at someone, they will most likely return that smile.

Days 33 & 34: Proekt 365 (For friends and friendly praise)

Day 33: Proekt 365 A friendly snow angel for a friend

Day 33: Proekt 365
A friendly snow angel for a friendly friend

In a chat with a close friend months ago, he’d asked and I’d promised to do a snow angel when there was finally enough snow on the ground in Helsinki to allow for such a creation. Yesterday afternoon, I finally had the opportunity to lie down and fan my arms and legs like a child in my attempt to create a snow angel of the finest order. I can’t say that my angels were particularly lovely, but what fun it was to revisit a childhood thrill.

A little later in the evening, after I’d already sent version 1.0, we finally looked out our kitchen window to see version 2.0, which looked heaps better from our third-floor vantage point. I neglected to make my post yesterday. But, it was a high point of the day. A day late it may be, but it is still just as friendly today as it was last night. And, oddly, it still remains undisturbed.

I’ve yet to take a photo for today. But, honestly, I don’t know how’d I’d capture a particularly lovely moment from the day. Before I get ahead of myself, a little background history is in order.

The life of a freelancer is often characterised by periods of feast (more work than you know what to do with) or famine (being bored out of your mind). The last few months now have been downright gluttonous, which is great but also at times hugely challenging. This past week, I was a bit behind on work and was suffering from the worst sort of writer’s block at the most inopportune of times. There’s never a good time for it when 90% of my work relies on putting fingers to the keyboard and creating something logical and meaningful. But, this was particularly worrisome given the already tight deadlines my client and I were facing. I managed to fight my way through a very rough draft and sent it on thinking that it was utter shit. And, then, promptly turned my attention to other items on my to-do list along with a bit of R&R and socialising to recharge.

With that as the backdrop, today’s high point came when discussing my work with my client. Without recounting the entire conversation here (which would just be weird on all sorts of levels), it was probably one of the nicest bits of praise I’ve ever received from a client. First, I’d managed to capture the essence of what they wanted (which is always the main objective), and second, it made them excited about the idea for this particular body of work. (Whilst I recognise this is incredibly vague, it has to be given the nature of the work and the proprietary information included in that particular task.)

This really made my day. Not just because it’s nice to know that I’ve managed to do my job relatively well, but because I have a tremendous amount of respect for the organisation with which I’m working on this particular project and specifically for the individual managing my work . As he recognised, I am my own worst critic and tend to be entirely overly self-deprecating. To say I’m happy and relieved with his assessment of my work is an enormous understatement. There must have been a moment during our call when he heard my very audible ‘phew’.

There’s no way to capture on film that particular moment which took place entirely in a virtual space. But, it is captured in my memory. And, that’s not a bad way at all to call it a day on this particular Monday.

Day 32: Proekt 365 (Underground)

Day 32: Proekt 365 Walking underground in winter

Day 32: Proekt 365
Walking underground in winter

Helsinki and Finland impress us again and again.

Life is made simpler and more convenient by little touches that make combatting the seasonal elements, particularly those in winter, a little easier to endure. It was several years before we discovered the network of underground tunnels that connect key points in Helsinki’s city centre. These tunnels provide a particularly warm alternate route for pedestrians when the wind and cold outside are biting and zipping up your coat and donning hat, mittens and scarf for the hundredth time that day is just too much to face.

The tunnels connect several major shopping areas and run similar routes to the metro stations between Central Station and Kamppi. But, some of the tunnels branch off and will lead you to other places of interest in the downtown area. Various shops, a gym and a host of other amenities can be found along the tunnels. If you worked downtown, it’d be possible to go from your office to various locations to grab a bite, run a few errands and just get out of the office all without your coat and the other five layers of clothing it’s necessary to wear in winter. Not bad at all.

I love these tunnels. And, I love that someone thought of building them. The elements often make me wonder how people long forgotten from centuries past decided to settle in such an incredibly inhospitable place. Without the modern marvels of electricity and in particular light—lots and lots of lights—winter can be cruel and brutal. I cannot imagine deciding that this was the place to stay permanently. Summer is another world and I can totally relate to finding it and planting oneself firmly with no intention of ever leaving at that time of year. But, come the winter wind and dark, cold rains of autumn, I’d have high-tailed it to more southern climes. Immediately.

But, stay they did, and now we live in a world with modern conveniences designed to make life more easily livable even for those of us who live in places like the far North. Things like these underground walkways, which are warm and well it and resemble pedestrian roller coasters, make me think, ‘they nailed it’.