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.

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.

Northern Finland: The magical winter-land (where nature still rules)

willow tit Finland
A very fluffy willow tit keeping warm in the snow. We have them in England too, but their numbers are in decline because of habitat reduction and nest stealing from other species of tit.

Kettu (my Finnish friend) and I took the cameras and some cheese to a fell, a hill that stood out above the flat landscape. I was assured that it was a fell, and that it ought be called a fell, and not a hill, although I would have used the word hill if I weren’t told otherwise.

We also took two pairs of snowshoes, a flask of tea, a large sausage (chopped in two), a cheese sandwich wrapped in foil and a couple of small bars of chocolate. We wore woollen socks, thermals and fleeces and layered up on the gloves. The temperature being somewhat chilly and the snow rather deep.

And then, at the bottom of this fell we got out of the car

The first thing you don’t realise about snow is how quiet it makes everything sound. Sat at my desk there’s a whirring of fans, an electric hum, and the rain, quiet but steadily drumming. Cars drive past, sloshing through the puddles, their engines engaging beyond the wall to climb the hill that leads away from the house. In the kitchen the Mother clanks china against china, the Father coughs, something somewhere beeps. Even as I write this, I’m firing my fingers against the keyboard, the thump down against the sensors in an unsteady beat, so loud you can hear it from the hallway.

But outside, on the edge of a fell, surrounded by a deep snow that hugs the trees tight, wrapping them up like Christmas presents, there’s a lullaby of silence. The strange thing is that you don’t always notice such silence. You stand there and everything feels fresh. The sunlight, low and bright casts huge shadows. But there’s so much snow that the light seems to come from all around.

And then you moved

When I stopped and listened I was amazed by the sound of the snow creaking under my boots. I’ve never heard snow behaving like this before. The snow in England is typically of the damp variety. It doesn’t squeak or moan. Occasionally a thin layer of ice might crunch, but not this noise. I was supposed to be quiet so that I didn’t frighten away the birds. I crouched, the layers of my waterproof trousers rubbing against each other, unsilently, and watched as a willow tit attacked s feeder hung from a nearby tree. Kettu scattered out some cheese, staging her shot, whilst I crunched around the trees, following the paths, in some sort of elated daydream.

Luckily, despite my incessant need to ask questions and the squeals of the snow as it compacted beneath my weight, the birds came fluttering by to say hello.

Siberian Jay
And this fluff-ball is a Siberian jay, not a creature you find in England.

 

On woollen socks and in-the-box thinking

washing line covered in snow
A washing line in the snow – picture taken for the Mother. I hope she appreciates it!

At some point I realised that I had everything the wrong way round.

I was talking, in that absent-minded way, about socks. Saying, with a slight air of complaint, that we just don’t have proper woollen socks in England. At the time, in my hands, I grasped a large pair of thick woollen socks my friend had given me to wear over my normal socks to fight off the sub-freezing temperatures outside. What I wanted to say was just thank you. What I ended up saying was that in England, we don’t have socks. You go into a shop and all you find are socks made of synthetic materials. Even Marks and Spencer’s posh socks are only part cotton.

And my friend just stared at me as if she didn’t speak English. Except she speaks almost perfect English. Her typical use of the language is, without doubt, closer to ‘standard British English’ than my own. Apart from the occasional v/w sound that give her away as being Scandinavian, she sounds like she grew up playing lacrosse. It’s probably safe to say that the grammar pedants would have fewer qualms with her spoken English than my own.

I repeated myself, because most of the time I can get by such failures of comprehension with simpler phrasing, a slower pace and by pronouncing my ‘t’s and ‘h’s. It didn’t work. She looked at me like the French look at me when I’m trying to ask for more than one thing at once. Completely blank.

And then, she decided to use the reliable tactic of demonstration to prove the point that I was being a naïve idiot. She leant over to a box, removed the lid and pulled out a ball of wool.

“This I bought in England.”

I’m worried about becoming like one of those city kids who don’t know milk comes from a cow. I stared at the knitting needles and realised that I had a few things to learn about life. Most of which is about attitude.

If I want such wonderful socks, I need to learn to knit socks, not complain at the lack of woollen socks in the modern British culture. Or, to extrapolate from socks to life: I need to wake up myself, not expend energy complaining about the culture being asleep. Wasn’t it Gandhi who said one ought to be the change one wants to see?

Playing. Nothing but good, wonderful, delightful play.

Sliding in snow
Me meeting real voluminous snow for the first time.
Photograph by Kaisa Vänskä, used with permission.

We go for a walk around the neighbourhood, in a perfectly civilised fashion

Two young women who haven’t seen each other for some time, who never have spent all that long together, but whom somehow fit together as if we’ve been friends for years and years. Conversation goes back and forth: life and its tribulations; philosophies and their failings; the weather. Being pen-pals we know about each other’s lives, we understand each other’s stories, and so this conversation is a continuation of an ongoing discussion of life.

And then, as we’re reaching the apartment, I spot a washing line and decide what I want is to nip inside and grab my camera. Bemused, but accepting, my friend grabs her camera too. The washing line is covered in snow, more snow than that sprinkling England had, and I’m thinking suddenly of the Mother. I want to take a picture of this washing line specially for her. I imagine she, and possibly only she, will appreciate it.

And then we’re outside again, and the blue-haired Finnish photographer, who has welcomed me into her home, is laughing at me.

A grin forms over my face when I look at the snow

The air here is fresh, quiet. I was a witness to this landscape on the train from Helsinki. I travelled north. The sun rose and the snow deepened. I saw the white roads, the banks of snow, the tall trees and frozen lakes. My friend met me at the train station and we took a road trip with sandwiches and a flask of tea. I marvelled at how she drove on ice, how the tyres just worked. How everything was white, and yet, at the same time, in the ever changing sunlight, nothing was. My delight continues. I cannot quite believe my eyes. There is so much snow – less she says than years past – more than I could imagine.

She’s a wonderful photographer

Her pictures capture the quiet silence of this place. The shadows and light of the low sun. The sparkles in the crystals of frozen condensation. The small glimpses of life through the flutter of a bird’s wings. Nature’s sculptures – buried trees – worthy of a permanent position in a sculpture park.  And, between laughing at me and my disbelief, she’s teaching me. Showing me that to make the snow appear white I need to have the histogram for my photo closer to over-exposed than underexposed. Warning me that when I take my camera inside I must keep it zipped tight in its bag, so that it warms slowly, for preferably at least an hour, and doesn’t get damaged by the moisture.

And I snap away. My photos under-exposed, then over-exposed as I switch from taking pictures in the shade of the building to pictures dominated by the sunlight bouncing off the bright, sparkling snow. But in time I find balance. The controlled, yet imp-like smile of my friend gives me permission to take my time. There’s no rush here. She laughs at my delight as I squeal about the snow being like glitter, or because at last I have managed to take a picture of her that’s not a silhouette. I sound like a child, amazed and free.

Then she points to a mound of snow, which some local children have made into a slide

She suggests that I try sliding down, although she doesn’t try herself. She plonks herself and her camera down in the snow, as if the snow were a sofa that one could sink into with ease. Cautiously I climb up, taking care of my footing, I sit slowly, and then, gently I slide down.

And then I run up, my boots springing off the ice. And slide down.

It’s somewhere between minus seven and minus twenty but I have forgotten about the cold. I run up and slide down.

My dear friend gets me a plastic bag. And I run up, lay the bag down on the ice slide, sit upon it and go. Again and again and again. Until my clothes are sticky with sweat and my breath catches in my chest. And I’m laughing. Frost forms on my scarf. I’m talking in quick spurts, occasionally checking that still buried in the cold snow my friend is happy for my to be so indulgent. But she grins as she snaps more and more pictures and tells me I can go again, if I want. Like a grandmother who has seen it many times before and yet is still moved by the childish delight.

I decide I love snow.

At what point do I get a spreadsheet out for my travel planning

travel planning for hiking (Rota Vicentina)
The colour of the cliff against the sea made me want to rub the dirt between my fingers. Rota Vicentina, Portugal.

When the Midget and I did a three-week train adventure in Eastern Europe I booked our flights, the first two nights’ accommodation (in a hostel dorm) and the overnight train travel that would get us to Amsterdam on the right morning to meet the Dutch Kiwi – who kindly invited us to stay for a few days.

For some people, an attitude of planning as you go along must seem abhorrent

It certainly does have its downsides. After all, you spend a significant amount of your time staring at maps and trying to get good enough wifi to make a booking for the next night (or at least you did in the past when foreign data was so expensive). This is precious time that you’d prefer to spend staring at gargoyles or petals. If your holidaying time is limited, then there’s often a feel that you need to be looking outward not down at your phone. And perhaps, particularly in busy seasons, on tight budgets or in unusual locations then there’s not all that much choice to begin with.

Even less at the last minute.

Urgency however, has a value. It forces you to make a choice. When you’re running to a deadline it’s often easier to get things done. Being able to book accommodation without excessive hesitation is a skill that has come with practice and has now saved me hours.

Sometimes, having this flexibility pays off in a big way

I went to France for two weeks and stayed for two months. I went to Spain for seven weeks and stayed for three months. Imagine if I’d had a flight booked, or accommodation booked, and had therefore turned down the opportunities that developed around me? On both occasions I could have stayed longer, I was invited to stay even longer, but I had plans made elsewhere.

On some occasions though, a solid plan makes a trip

For me, this includes almost all travel done with anyone else. I’m used to my own stress and have coping strategies in place for being lost in train stations, unable to find the right bus and sat on the doorstep waiting for someone to let me in. What I find much more difficult is having someone else there beside me, tapping their foot, rustling the papers or bemoaning the situation. When you are with someone else, you are, in part, also responsible for them.

I’m also keen on having plans when I’m hiking. It’s tiring, physical work and the truth is, I don’t want to be walking and worrying about where I’m going to be sleeping. It can be difficult enough just with the blisters between your toes.

Last year The Grump and I walked a section of the Rota Vicentina on the coast of Portugal

It’s a stunning walk down to Cape St. Vincent, and for someone like me who prefers the walking to the map reading, it’s a gift because it’s so well marked. Since we were changing accommodation almost every night, and staying in small villages, it made sense to book everything in advance. I believe that the Grump would be happier if we also had the location of the nearest market, nearest bakery and reviews of all local restaurants all researched before either of us set foot in an airport, but where we’re sleeping and how we’re getting there tends to be enough for me. When you’ve got so many nights, each in a different place, having a spreadsheet becomes invaluable. Hiking is not meant to be a stressful endeavour.

My spreadsheet looks something like this:

Date__/____/__
Location
Address
Contact Number
Name of Host
Kitchen
Breakfast
Cost (Euro)
Cost (GBP)
Amount Paid
Who Paid?
Notes

Location is the name of the place as we remember it. Pronounced wrong. The address is what we’re going to google when we’re lost. The contact number is rung when we discover that the address on google has failed us. And the name of the host is another way of keeping nights separate in our brains.

If we’re splitting the cost, we can need columns for settling money – sometimes multiple currencies – and a statement of whether or not we’ve actually paid. Then there’s the weird notes, like that we can get the key from the grandmother who lives two doors down.

The kitchen column exists because quite often I prefer to book somewhere that I have access to a kitchen. Eating out every day is expensive, and sometimes you’re not seeking something fancy. All you want is a bowl of soup heated up in the microwave, somewhere that you can kick off your boots and curl up on the sofa.

However, a plan is just a plan

It’s a model of the situation you expect. But during travels you are, from time to time, going to happen upon the unexpected.

Breakfast, for example, is a word with a different meaning depending on where you are. If you book somewhere in England and it includes breakfast, you probably can skip lunch. If you book somewhere in Italy or Spain, you might fine what you actually have is a mug of coffee and a biscuit. You have to be at ease with some unknowns.

Even when you think you’ve got everything organised and multiple copies of the spreadsheet printed off, it cloud-stored and emailed back to yourself, you can still find yourself wandering around the wrong village (Arrifana) at nine o’clock at night. Plans don’t always play out as smoothly as a spreadsheet suggests. Sometimes you grit your teeth, try your hardest not to say anything unkind to your normally lovable companion, and call someone for help.

Asking for help is a much more important skill in travelling than making fancy spreadsheets

If you want to get better at travelling, get better at asking for help. You might find that someone’s willing to rescue you when you’re drowning in the Yorkshire Dales or that when you’re desperate for a cup of tea, the hotel receptionist will fill your mug with boiling water, even though it’s midnight and they normally charge for hot drinks. Having a tidy spreadsheet doesn’t keep you dry or your tummy full.

There was a miscommunication at the final moment of our Rota Vicentina walk

At the point I thought I’d finished my 150km walk and sat down with my ice cream to celebrate, there was still 5km left and it needed to be done asap as otherwise we’d miss the bus. The Grump set the pace, I trudged along behind. By then, my feet really hurt. And yet, the next morning, we found a bakery where the Grump had savoury crepes which came with a huge helping of chips and I tackled the pastries and coffee. Although it was raining outside and we were both tired, we laughed at it all and appreciated what we’d achieved.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, this year the Grump and I are switching Portugal for Italy and are walking a section of the Via Francigena. Although it’s a few months away, we’ve booked our accommodation, the Grump has booked his flights and I’ve made a beautiful spreadsheet. Now I don’t have to worry about it until just before I leave when I remember I need to pack.

This is perhaps not how other people plan travels.

train travel on a ferry
This was the train from Naples to Catania. It took a ferry to cross from the mainland to Sicily which amused me more than taking a plane.

Often, I’m asked where I start when I’m planning my travels

When you’re thinking about travelling it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the options. I’m lucky, in that now I have done some travelling, and met people from all over, I can build trips around visiting people I care about seeing again. There are a few other factors that orientate me within a plan. Primarily, I’m currently keeping to Europe. There’s a lot in Europe, and since I’m a young naïve woman who travels mostly alone, Europe is where I’ve decided I can push the edges of my comfort zone without jumping overboard.

This post demonstrates some of the whimsical thinking that goes on behind my travel planning.

A friend invited me to go stay with them during their spring holidays when the university is closed

Without really thinking about it, I said yes. She’s up in Finland and although I’ve driven as far as Sweden, I’ve never been to Finland. Ignoring how cold Finland is in March, it seems like an excellent idea. After all, I’ve never been to her town; I hadn’t heard of it until she moved there to study.

The two of us met in Sicily working as carpenters and have written to one another regularly ever since.

Another friend invited me skiing

I said yes despite never having been skiing before and knowing nothing about skiing. I’m sure I’ll learn, and I know I’ll have a great time since the friend in question is the sort of friend who has me giggling and chatting until the early hours of the next day – and it’s always about wondrous trivia and calamitous romances whilst eating much too much chocolate. She’s so accepting of me, and non-judgemental, that I find myself feeling comfortable even when I’m saying the most ridiculous of things, and this is despite our strong, differing opinions on odd socks. Skiing is in Austria. I’ve got new gloves, but I still need some good socks to keep my toes warm, I’ll need them for Finland anyway.

Paris is one of those cities I wish to see more of

And since another dear friend is starting work in Paris very soon, it would be a waste not to visit her and her partner and their sofa-bed to celebrate their move. I’m already imaging us in a Parisian patisserie, my mouth already watering. Then there’s the art galleries that I haven’t spent nearly enough time in and the streets which require some aimless wandering.

Which is the basis of the odd framework for my next trip (next big trip)

Which I’ve then bulked out with more whimsical intention. Since I’m going to Finland, I figured Estonia’s capital Tallinn is on the way. I read something about Tallinn long ago in a book, which I then promptly forgot, but which has managed to lodge an odd bead of curiosity in my mind. Then I learnt about the Singing Revolution which started in Tallinn in 1988 and which is the sort of thing I wish I’d been taught about in school.

It’s often entirely on gut feeling that I start off my plans for visiting places or seeing things. A painting in an art gallery can be a catalyst for my spending three months in one village in Northern Spain. A friend’s postcard spent too long staring at me and I had to go see the original again. It doesn’t take much to get me inspired, but when there’s a travel idea in my mind it takes root and won’t budge until I’ve followed it through. I’ve been to the same ice-cream shop in Italy on at least three, but probably four, entirely separate trips. All this goes to show that motivation is a complex topic. To me it feels whimsical, but simultaneously like the most obvious common sense.

Latvia and Lithuania happen to be between here and Estonia

Although I’ve been to a fair few European countries, I’ve not been to either. Lithuania particularly caught my attention because of a tour I did through Warsaw last May. From 1569 to 1795 Poland and Lithuania were joined in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which at its largest also contained Latvia, that odd extra bit of Russia, a bit of Estonia, considerable amounts of Ukraine and a tiny bit of Moldova. This commonwealth was notable for its quasi-democratic government and tolerance of religious differences.

Managing the logistics of this trip requires the full application of my analytical mind. Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, is proving an interesting challenge to get to. It has a train line that only seems linked to the rest of the world during weekends (look up Rail Baltica I). The main problem seems to be a lack of standardisation of gauge. With EU funding, this part of the world is slowly becoming more connected.

I don’t know when I decided that I was going to do the whole lot by train

I think it was when I started considering the number of planes it would take to get back and forth: England to Helsinki, Helsinki north, back to Helsinki, off to Austria… It feels excessive and I’m not in a rush. Plus, leaving the obvious planet saving point aside, I prefer trains to planes. Often, the view out of the window is better. In a plane you get a breath-taking view on take-off and landing, and occasionally when the clouds clear as you’re passing over the Alps or along a stunning coastline. Most of the time though, what you see is cloud and often. Lots of cloud. And clouds are impressive, but not necessarily any better than passing through a quaint little village station. The windows are bigger on trains, and people rarely try to sell you a glass nail file for more money than you’ve spent on your entire lunch. On the Berlin to Warsaw train you get a free cup of coffee.

I also find trains soothing

There’s something about the motion of the train that has a calming effect on me. As long as you avoid the busy trains, and frantic crowds, you can have an easy afternoon, not doing a lot, just watching the world go by.

Writing, and reading, on trains I find comes easily to me. It’s like the motion of the train sets my mind moving. When I’m in a new place learning how to fit in and ideally create a temporary sense of belonging, then I often don’t pause long enough to get my thoughts and feelings and all that stuff I’m reflecting on scribbled out. A train can, in its own peculiar way, be a place of pause and sanctuary.

What’s your favourite way to travel?

The words I do not say (and pink birthday roses)

pink roses
Pink birthday roses – playing with fairy lights.

There’s a picture on the wall as you enter my family’s home which shows my family at my sister’s graduation. On my birthday, a new friend who dropped by to take me out for lunch saw this picture for the first time, and remarked on how incredibly young I look in it. The Photographer, for since I’m writing about him I best give him a name, had difficulty accepting that the picture was taken only eighteen months previous.

The Photographer stared at the picture in disbelief. I suggested it was the amazing effect of my tan, as before the picture was taken I’d been living in sunny Spain, but really that’s just my insecurities speaking. Nobody wants to suddenly look older. You want to age gracefully, not in sudden spurts caused by life’s brutal stresses.  I know that in the last year and a half I have aged disproportionately, and by the time the Photographer brought the picture up again in conversation again a few days later, I was feeling more accepting of this fact.

However, I’m pretty certain that I do look a lot better now than I did this time last year when I looked (according to the Mother) horrendous. She has such a beautiful way with words.

Last winter my overwhelmed subconscious conducted a revolution in my mind

Shit happens, as one dear friend would shrug his shoulders and say. It does happen, moments that feel cataclysmic, that shake your beliefs and leave you quivering in your skin, feeling like your heart will explode.

I could say so much, but a lump arises in my throat, blocking the feelings from developing into words.

Perhaps I haven’t been writing here so often because I feel like I’ve lost my voice. It’s wrapped up in a cocoon, growing slowly, developing as I look out from within and learn to pay attention to what I’m doing and where I’m going.

Stop, breathe, what’s going on here?

This isn’t an easy idea to implement, but the last year has taught me that identifying that what’s in my best interest is something only I can effectively do, and that I’m bad at it. Anyone else, who might believe they know better, can tell me what they believe is in my best interest, but following someone else’s instructions on how to live life is cumbersome and leads to resentment and confusion and blame. If my mind is going one way and my emotions another, I’m going to be intensely uncomfortable.

There’s a reason why my psychotherapist prods me with questions and waits for me to join the dots. Knowing what I want is my job. She sits back, nestled in her many cushions, and enables me to do the necessary work.

What are we doing? What are we wanting? What do we fear?

They look like such simple questions, but stopping and remembering to ask them, not just chase habits off the edge of the cliff, is not easy.

Each week, the psychotherapist unsettles the ground on which I stand with her little questions. And those weeks I don’t see her, I’m in foreign lands, taking on a role that’s often new to me, fitting into a group or family of strangers, learning how to belong. Learning how to be me against a blank canvas. At the same time, there’s the me of old that’s learning to breathe again: stories skip through the pages of my diaries; I’m painting with watercolours, acrylic and my favourite oils; there’s a click as my camera shutter blinks.  It’s an experiment; I’m playing.

It may sound simple, slow, boring even, but it’s surprisingly hard being gentle to yourself. It’s a gracious act of re-sculpting my mind that I’m undertaking. I’ve never known anything so difficult, nor so full of wonder. This revolution was a reaction to horror, but it is also a beautiful thing.

The year ahead dances in front of me. Tantalising with its potential.

The seasons change, and so do I

process of change
As the seasons change: Berries, on a walk in the snow.

“And what she said,” the Father continued, “Is that before someone gets any better, they always get worse first. They have to unlearn before they can learn.”

Driving back from the grandparents’ house after dinner, we were talking about the wisdom of an archery instructor. It was comparatively warm compared to other nights, a balmy 8 degrees celsius, and cosy in the car with the heated seats on and our tummies full. Encouraged by the Grandfather, I’d had a glass of wine and a couple of rich chocolates. The stars were out.

Sometimes you really need a quiet moment like that. With the Father talking, telling me stories, his voice calm and reassuring I felt relaxed, and although still exhausted, less like my tiredness was a problem. I’d been out all day. In a new place with new people making art in a new way. It had been fun and exciting, but the fear that rides in my blood was a little closer to the surface than I’m comfortable with. The more tired I get, the less vigilant I become at silencing the thumping anxiety.

The phrase about unlearning in order to learn stuck in my mind

Over the next few days I turned the idea over, upside down and back to front. It occurred to me that unlearning is uncomfortable, and that we resist the command to have faith.

In archery, as someone tries to make a correction to their technique, they find themselves initially piercing the target further away from the bullseye (or missing it altogether). They’re thinking about what they’re doing. It’s the muscles pulling back the string that unlearn how to shoot the arrow, and then relearn. The teacher can demonstrate, prod your muscles to make you conscious of them and keep up some encouraging rhetoric, but it’s the archer, both mentally and physically, who makes the shot. It takes time for the knowledge stored in the muscles to change.

I imagined the ensuing frustration. Like learning to drive on the right of the road when you’re used to the left – suddenly you’re forced to think harder, and inevitably you’re slower, you make more mistakes and you find the simple things more difficult. In moments of panic, when driving a foreign car, I reach for the gear stick and bash my hand on the door.

Is this change really a good change?

Was the technique not better before? The fears and uncertainties go round and round in your brain. It’s uncomfortable not being able to do the things that you used to be able to do with ease. If the archer keeps with the new technique though, they begin to improve again. And this time, when they plateau, the arrow is hitting its target with more consistency.

Theoretically, as a concept I get it. When you’re trying to improve though, and things keep going astray, it’s tempting to quit rather than see the frustration as part of the learning process. Only after working through the frustration, do you get closer to owning that smug smile.

Of course, the instructor smiles a knowing smile having seen the process happen over and over, but there’s nothing much they can do but calmly wait for the internal battle to take place, and hope that it’s won.

My psychotherapist has that smile too, the one that she smiles when I finally connect the dots that she’d been purposely not mentioning. Her eyes brighten, and she leans forward slightly, a positive affirmation of my conclusion.

Sometimes it’s not two steps forward, one step back, but one step back, two steps forward.

No, I’m not playing quidditch…

Quidditch hoops
No, not Yorkshire. This photo was taken one summer in Italy, but it does show you the three hoops that you can find at each end of the pitch.

This is another account of me admitting to being changed by a sport – played on broomsticks – that I do not play.

1. When the ball goes through the hoops, raise your arms

On a chilly Saturday in November, at the Northern Cup held in Sheffield, which, if you’re too muggle to know, is a quidditch tournament for those teams who are based in the north of the United Kingdom, I was a goal referee.

It was only for a couple of minutes as the previous goal referee was needed off-pitch. The snitch was already on pitch, held in its sock, bouncing off the bum cheeks of the snitch runner. The seekers were fighting over it. The beaters were attacking with their bludgers (dodge-balls) to disrupt the battle for the final snatch. The quaffle (a soft volleyball) had already leapt through the hoops thirty-eight times. All thirty-eight times being at the other end of the pitch to the three hoops which I monitored.

Now, if you know me well, you might think that I chose the hoops that had been so neglected because the chance of me having to wave my hands in the air to indicate a goal, or at my knees to indicate no goal, was slim. But no. I had no idea who was winning (or even playing) when I went on pitch. The low, incredibly bright, winter sun was my bigger concern. I didn’t want to screw up the first time I did anything quidditchy. I needed to be able to see.

There was one moment, when a chaser had the quaffle (I only really watched the quaffle as it was the only ball I was responsible for knowing about) and seemed to be heading in my direction. I tensed ready, determined to know with certainty if the ball went through a hoop (forwards or backwards, both count), but the chap was tackled before he got close enough to lob the ball in my direction. I was kind of disappointed.

Then the sock was pulled out of the snitch runner’s shorts. The snitch was held up in the air, and the game was suddenly over.

If you’re overly interested, there are some excellent photos depicting the role of a goal referee on the QuidditchUK website. Goal refereeing is apparently something that anybody can step in and do, and when these big tournaments happen, there’s always a great demand for referees. Which brings me to the weird realisation that even I, with my unexplained aversion to team sport, have managed to find something that possibly makes me more than just an awkward person sitting on the sidelines. I wore a skirt and boots. I didn’t have to dress up strange or demonstrate my inability to throw a ball. And it was all kind of nice.

2. They/she/he… a gender rule violation

Quidditch is a mixed gender sport, with a maximum of four of any one gender playing for a team at any one time. When I first, sceptically, discussed this rule with my sister, I assumed that, because life’s unfair, the team on the pitch would almost always contain four guys and three lasses. Watching one of the matches though on Saturday, I heard the whistle blown and it was announced that there was a gender rule violation. Too many women on the pitch at once. I laughed at myself, and shook my head. Wrong again.

I’m learning a lot about gender through quidditch. Gender is not the same as sex. Sex is biological. In most cases it’s binary, but not always. Gender is a choice.

If, like me, you are privileged to never have needed to actually think about what gender you are, because you’re quite comfortable being the gender that matches your sex, it’s likely that, like me, you’re lacking the mental flexibility to really get your head around the genders represented on the quidditch roster. It’s not easy. There are many players for whom gender identity is not what was originally written on their birth certificate. All those normal indicators that we cling to for defining gender, and not just long hair and pink nail varnish, but the contrast between a bobbing up and down walk and a wiggling side to side walk, have to be put aside in favour of the individual’s preference. Which you aren’t going to know unless you’re explicitly told. Some people define and own their gender for themselves. The rest of us accept what our elders assumed.

On the quidditch pitch, whatever you feel your gender to be is how the others are willing to see you. That makes a quidditch tournament somewhat unique. I asked my sister how the referee knows who counts as what: the captains tell the head referee before the call for brooms up. Simple really. I don’t know why I felt it would be more difficult that that. No, perhaps I do. I like to think of myself as an open minded, inclusive person, but the truth is, that much like everyone else in this world, I am inclusive when it regards things I know. What I don’t know, and aren’t comfortable with, makes me feel uncertain. I naturally gravitate towards people like me.

Until recently, nobody has ever asked me what it means to be a woman. For me, gender and sex have always been one, interchangeable idea. When it comes to talking about being female I’m at a loss. I’m missing the vocabulary. Looking at my nails, which are practical nails, a guy recently remarked that I wasn’t very girly. My soft hands are apparently rough. There’s a callus on my finger. I’d prefer to be chopping logs to painting my nails, but that, I’m sure, makes me no less girl. Are girly and feminine synonyms? Clearly not. So when people talk about gender, what are they actually talking about? Is it more about perception? Could someone be female in one culture and male in another based on how they are more comfortable dressing and working? Ancient Egyptian men wore jewellery, make-up and excessive perfume. They didn’t have trousers. Three and a half thousand years ago, Hatshepsut gave birth to a daughter but was portrayed as a man. It was what fitted her role and the needs of her people at that time.

So maybe what I really took in was this: I don’t need to know the gender of the person I’m sharing brownies with or gossiping about the game with to share brownies or gossip about the game. If in doubt, I can always use peoples names instead of assuming they/she/he or whatever other pronoun is in the mix. The captains and the head referees need to know peoples gender to make sure that the game is played to the rule book. But really, what difference does it make to me?

Previous things I learnt through quidditch:

On quidditch