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Unravelling the story I'm trying to tell

How Not To Be A Boy (by Robert Webb)

How not to be a boy

I snapped a quick picture of this flowery basket in Verona the other day.

If the author of the email I received had known me a little better, he might not have recommended to me the autobiography of a comedian. A book published in 2017 no less. An autobiography by someone younger than my mother.

I have never seen The Peep Show, and if you had asked me a few days ago the first names of the comedy duo Mitchell and Webb I might have shrugged, and then frowned. The frown clearly conveying my general feeling about people who try and manipulate me into laughter. It’s not that I have a low regard for all comedians, or all humour, it’s merely that I feel reluctant to join in.

I don’t know the author of the email’s views on comedy. And they aren’t relevant. What I do know is that the author of the email introduced the book as one that he’d strongly resonated with. The main topic being that of masculinity. Actually, he sobbed. Within the first chapter.

Intriguing?

My curiosity woke up. Since I’m abroad I’m currently reading on my ebook reader, which has the delightful option of downloading a preview of any book. I figured I would read the preview, make an informed decision that the book wasn’t for me and then move on to something more… pretentious.

I read the preview and bought the book with a couple of taps. Then I finished the book, only really diverging from it when faced with the whine of the dog who needed a walk and the big, brown eyes of the non-English speaking six-year-old trying to express his need for me to play volleyball with him in the garden, Puss-in-Boots style.

First, Robert Webb knows how to write. Second, he has a story to tell. Third, he’s got the guts to tell it.

Fourth, his story is the story of all of us. How we grow up with certain beliefs, dictated by the society our parents and grandparents were raised in, and inadvertently pass down to our children. Despite the simple fact that these beliefs tear us through when grief hits, when loneliness clings or when we become afraid.

I promise I am not being wilfully dense about this. I don’t know what the words ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ have to offer. Avoiding them, we still have a massive language of more precise words to describe individuals and their behaviour which somehow manage not to come pre-loaded with a steam tanker of gender manure from the last century.

‘How Not To Be A Boy’ is a book about screwing up. I can’t imagine anyone not relating to something within its pages.

And, yes… very occasionally, it made me laugh.

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A beautiful morning

shrine of mary, veneto

A tiny little shrine to Mary I found in the forest during a walk on Sunday afternoon.

This morning I didn’t run across the park, barefoot, in my pyjamas, chasing a small dog who had managed to pull open the front door and make his bid for freedom. This morning I didn’t put the Italian moka on the stove top, turn on the heat and then get distracted, downstairs, looking at Instagram, only to hear the whoosh as the coffee brewing came to completion, and so I didn’t have to dash back upstairs in fear of ruining my Italian family’s first coffee of the day.

This morning has gone somewhat smoother.

No. This morning I sat on the stool at the end of the breakfast counter, the odd one, the extra one, the one normally reserved for guitar playing, and I sipped my coffee and drew pictures of animals as requested by the six-year-old. He taught me the Italian, I taught him the English.

Now when I’m asked if I speak Italian I say, “Si, parlo Italiano, ma solo gli animali e le vedure.”

I’m getting pretty good at animals. This morning I learnt the name for a kiwi (bird) and a koala. I feel I may also remember them.

Kiwi = Kiwi

Koala = Koala

And now I’m sat out on the veranda, hiding from the sunshine, smelling of sun-cream and listening to the birds twitter along whilst provide the percussion with my typing.

A beautiful morning.

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Can I play too?

Yellow bike on a yellow wall

A Yellow bike on a yellow wall in Verona on the way to my new Italian home.

I’m babysitting. I guess that’s the best word for it because if I say I’m an au pair it suggests that I’m doing a lot more than I actually am. Either way, whatever the terminology that you choose to use, this afternoon it’s me and an Italian kid.

It seems we’re surprisingly similar: both independent and introverted. The kid’s got a powerful sense of focus, such that I can imagine most adults envying him. I watch him play with his lego. He follows the instructions with impeccable attention to detail. He rarely makes a mis-step.

What’s clear however, is that he’s going to do this on his own. He was reluctant to let me even open the packet, let alone touch his bricks. But I can understand. When I’m working on a project I often find interference terribly frustrating. I also hate asking for help.

However, when you’re in this position of watching over a kid, and preferably bonding with said kid, you rather want them to play with you. Nobody likes not being wanted as a play companion, least of all the new babysitter who doesn’t speak the language and is reliant on the kid, who knows a handful of English words, to say when he needs anything.

So I spent a good long while in this predicament. I know the pleasure of peace and quiet and time to play alone, but as the responsible adult I want to be responding to something.

The good news was that the kid, who’s terribly polite, didn’t seem to have any objection to me being around. There’s no crying for an absent parent or telling me to go away. If anything, he mostly seemed mildly bemused by me.

To satisfy my need to parent, I found ways to make myself useful. I got him a drink – I don’t want the parents coming home and the kid complaining of a headache. I sliced an apple and gave it to him. He ate it quietly, whilst continuing with his lego. I sat on the sofa and read my book.

And then, a few hours later, he suddenly decided that he wanted attention. The change was remarkable. Suddenly he wanted to go outside and play football with me.

Football? Yes! Something I can do!

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Northern Finland: The Oulanka National Park

fire pit Oulanka National Park

The snow on that log never melted. I was so sure it would.

This post is a continuation of my adventures in Finland.

Everywhere I travel I seem to find more things I want to see.

Back in the car, after sliding down the fell (and dusting the snow off our bums), we drove down the ice covered winding roads leading away from the fell and towards another natural wonder.

This time we weren’t going up, and the water was definitely not frozen solid. We were heading towards the rapids, where the water moves so fast that it has no time to freeze. After seeing so much ice it seemed strange to be faced with gushing rapids.

Rapids Oulanka National Park

The rapids in Oulanka National Park

These rapids were well equipped

It was one of those places where you can find a little hut with a wood stack and an axe waiting for you to borrow them. It makes you feel trusted and responsible. After being vaguely useful and carrying some logs to the fire pit, I wandered along the bank of these rapids taking pictures, keeping my feet moving to stay warm (minus 16?) whilst Kettu sorted out the fire. She got out her standard Finnish knife and started wielding it in knowledgeable manner. I couldn’t help but feel relieved that I have been scout and learnt to light fires and prepare sticks for toasting marshmallows or sausages on so I wasn’t completely out of my depth, but it definitely wasn’t something everyday.

Kettu had brought sausages for us

She prepared the sticks, quietly and efficiently. In the fire pit, the flames leapt around, dancing, but couldn’t melt the snow on nearby logs. I had little fear of being the cause of a spreading fire. We didn’t need a bucket of water for an emergency. We had a whole lot of snow. I propped myself up on a large log and waited, my stomach rumbling, wondering where I could position my sausage out of the flame but over some embers.

We ate the sausages with Finnish mustard – mellower than the English but very good.

I placed my foil-wrapped sandwich in the fire until it had toasted, and the lactose-free cheese had melted. It’s a pain being lactose intolerant, but in Finland, a larger proportion of the population are like me in this respect, and so obtaining lactose-free dairy products is easy. You just have to read the labels – which I can as long as the label is also in Swedish (laktosfri). In the supermarket, there are whole rows of cheese I can devour. After I’d eaten my sandwich, doing my best not to burn myself on the melted cheese, we ate our chocolate, which was not lactose-free. Some sacrifices have to be made, and when it comes to chocolate I have a rather short-term focus.

And then we tidied up, got back in the car and drove back home, where I had a date with the sauna. Because yes, in Finland even students have their own saunas.

But of course I want to see more

So having caught something of a sense of wonder for this place, I added the Oulanka National Park’s Karhunkierros trail to my list of hikes to do. Anyone interested? In the summer, when the weather’s warmer.

Oulanka National Park

White snow, translucent ice and gushing water… and a little bird.

Side-note: It’s not actually Northern Finland. Finland happens to be rather long and goes rather further north than my little head can comprehend. Kuusamo is in Finland, and it’s just below the Arctic circle, which is very north to me but this isn’t the north if you’re Finnish. I guess it’s a bit like how Southerners in England think people from the Midlands are Northerners.

Oulanka National Park

I love the shape the ice forms, like bubbles.

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Northern Finland: Up the fell and down again

snowy trees in Finland

There are rather large trees hiding in this picture.

My feet point inwards when I walk, but I imagine that my clumsiness using snowshoes for the first time is universal. It might have helped if my first snowshoe walk was on flat ground, but we were at the bottom of the fell and the point of driving to the fell – as well as to see the birds – was to climb to the top.

The advantage of walking with snowshoes is that you can walk on ground that has not been made compact by constant traffic. We started however on the path, following it as it wound upwards. The hill was steep. (And I’m saying this as someone who is surrounded by steep hills at home. I take my time getting into third gear when I’m driving up to the village and I switch to the other side of the road when I’m running because it has an ever so slightly gentler gradient.) Small children overtook me as I clambered upwards.

The hillside was covered in tall fir trees

The Father likes a decent sized Christmas tree, and there’s a vaulted ceiling in his living room to accommodate such, but these trees were more the sort of heights you might import and then have the local newspaper write an article or three about. They were also buried with snow.

My Finnish friend, Kettu, laughed at my wonder at the trees by the car. But this was nothing compared to those at the top. They were drowning in snow. So much snow that you wondered how, under the weight of it they didn’t break. I recalled how when I was in France, and we’d been felling a few trees that were overgrown and blocked the view to a nearby castle. I had been find hauling away the branches of the first few trees, and quite enjoying it. Then we felled a conifer, and my progress dramatically slowed. Branches I expected to lift, I dragged along beside me, sweating profusely.

Snowshoes

Don’t the snowshoes make my feet look small?

Kettu made me take off some of the layers that had been keeping me warm

It was a good call. When you’re trying to stay still as to not scare away the birds, you’re susceptible to freezing your toes and fingers off. Especially as it’s quite tricky to work a camera with two pairs of gloves on. As soon as you start walking, the situation is reversed. You’re trying not to sweat because what you don’t want is for your thermals to get wet, because then, as soon as you stop the cold’s going to get you.

During the first stretch of hill climbing, when we stuck to the path, and I waddled along in my snowshoes, I was overtaken by small children and their pink faced parents who were trying to keep up. As we reached the top though, the freedom of wearing snowshoes suddenly paid off. I could walk anywhere I wanted, as long as I didn’t stride straight over the edge. I took my camera out and moved forward and backwards, exploring the sculpture like shapes – snow-immersed trees – some of which were bent right over, creating huge snow arches, tall enough to walk under.

They made me think of how ice-cream might look if you’d told the Midget, as a child, that she was allowed as much ice-cream as she could cram on top of a single cone.

And this snow accumulation is all despite the shape of these trees having evolved, a bit like the rooves of traditional German houses, to shed snow quickly.

It seemed impossible that the trees could hold the weight of any more snow

But Kettu assured me that earlier in the season they had held more, and in terms of snow, this year was light. The ice on the lake hadn’t frozen so thick, and the snow had not piled so high. She talked about how gentle things were compared to her earlier memories, and the difference in the statistics that compared now to her parent’s childhoods. The ice-caps melting seems something far off and fictional – like birds that swim beneath the seas but do not fly. Here however, ice and snow is what the world is made of for most of the year, and for my friend, it’s supposed to be the ordinary.

When I looked out across the landscape I saw a view that would have been more believable if we were in a helicopter, because looking down from the fell, everything seemed flat. The forests made way for areas of flat, white snow, which I fancied as lakes, but Kettu suggested were more likely to be farmers’ fields. Despite the bold blue sky above, everything around looked like someone had sapped out the colour. All you could see below were the dark trees. Their branches being free from heavy snow showed us what a height we’d climbed. The national park here is known for its micro-climates. And these areas of unique characteristic are all at risk from changing weather patterns.

And once we had taken many pictures, and exhausted our legs, we began to think about our stomachs. And so, after making our way back across virgin snow to the path, we unclipped our snowshoes, placed our bums on the path and slid most of the way down, back to the car.

It was even more fun that you imagine.

Kuusamo fell landscape

The stunning view from the top of the fell. I want to say those white patches are frozen lakes, but they may be farmers’ fields.

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