travel

North Yorkshire: A Yoga Retreat with The Mother

North York Moors
Up in the wonders of the North York Moors.

I ache.

I had this grand illusion that on returning from a yoga retreat I would feel all relaxed and at ease. I don’t. I feel like I’ve been to the gym, except for that the muscles that ache seem to be super deep inside of me. Maybe it wasn’t the yoga at all, maybe it was the wonderful Julie and her wonderful hands massaging my body. I don’t know.

It was the Mother’s idea, this yoga retreat experience. She, unlike me, can just drop down to the ground and touch her toes (without bending her legs) at 7 o’clock in the morning. Which was a good thing for her as pre-breakfast yoga started at half seven, in the chapel. The chapel, with its bright white walls and spacious arched windows being the yoga studio for The Tree relaxation centre in the North Yorkshire Moors where we happened to be. Whilst it’s cupboards might now be stacked with yoga mats, meditation poofs and big comfy cushions – do not use if you’re trying to maintain a sense of awareness – it still does play a role within the Methodist community. They borrow it back occasionally for events like their harvest festival.

Due to the Mother, I was awake at half seven and in the chapel. She’d done her first session of yoga, that’s yoga even before the pre-breakfast yoga, in our twin bedroom whilst I slept. When I awoke and pulled back the curtains I was met with a view across the green valley and up to the delicate colours of the moors.

Ten minutes early to the chapel, we were the last to arrive. I tried to look awake and feel as energised and ready to go as my floral legging might have suggested, but their bright colours blended in with everyone else. My yoga companions were eager looking women who looked like half-seven was, for them, a lie in. We did a little breathing and for a moment I imagined I might be able to semi-sleep through the yoga – a bit like I sometimes do with the mother’s ‘over 50s DVD’, but it soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case. We were on a mission to warm up and build an appetite before breakfast.

After breakfast – porridge, fruit, toast – was, as you might guess from a yoga retreat, more yoga. This was followed by a much-needed deep relaxation. It was one of those relaxations where you start by relaxing the crown of your head, your forehead, your face, your neck, shoulders and then fall asleep, waking up just in time for ankles and toes. I blame the big comfy cushion. If I snored, I wasn’t the only one.

Yoga Retreat
Read and be wise!

Lunch followed – soup, salads and cheese and biscuits – and another round of camomile tea, decaf green tea, decaf coffee, caffeinated coffee, decaf tea, caffeinated tea, etc. etc. Then there came the afternoon. It started with a short walk for the Mother and me. Then followed the dip in the hot tub, which was in a little cabin, with wide windows overlooking the moors, fairy lights twinkling in the ceiling. The clock on the wall which instead of numbers simply said ‘now’. As you might expect the retreat centre was one of those places with cute lines about happiness being more than just a destination, or there only being the present moment, hanging off nails and scribbled across walls in abundance.

Cake awaited us back inside the house. Homemade blueberry scones and a super light lemon cake which I may have had a second slice of (yes, we’ve picked up the recipe). I asked for a fork for my cake because it was one of those places where you felt comfortable sticking your head in through the kitchen door and speaking to one of the super friendly, highly talented chefs. Also, cake should be eaten with a fork. It’s proper.

Then came my appointment to visit Julie. She put me at ease within seconds, making me feel totally comfortable as I quickly briefed her on my tendency to have a panic attack if I’m uncomfortable with a touch, but she knew exactly what she was doing and made me feel safe. Quite a skill.

The next couple of hours I spent in an excessively relaxed daze, reading a few pages of my book and testing out the variety of herbal teas. Then it was dinner time. The kitchen produced a hearty vegetarian shepherd’s pie (we have the recipe for this too). I concentrated on staying upright and awake. The rest of the table chattered along merrily, comparing notes about their professions (either teaching or nursing) and, if they had them, their children. The children mentioned all appeared to be aged twenty-seven. Nurses and teachers, mothers of twenty-seven-year-old children obviously were the retreat’s target audience. I was the only twenty-seven-year-old daughter. There was one chap, but he knew a thing or two about yoga and was obviously used to going on retreats dominated by women.

These jolly ladies, peacefully stretched and thoroughly massaged, debated the merits of 80’s fashion and food and tried to convince me that I had missed out. I pointed out that there was something beneficial about not having to record your music off the radio onto a cassette tape, but they shook their heads and smiled. They bounced into discussing the wonders of angel delight. I stared at them in horror.

The evening finished with candle gazing. This involved us returning to the chapel, sitting on our mats and staring at a tealight whilst trying not to blink too much. Your eyes are supposed to water lots. The teacher had tissues at the ready. Theoretically, it’s supposed to be good for calming hay fever, but I couldn’t really say as I spent most of my time failing not to blink and therefore my eyes barely watered at all.

We walked back from chapel to retreat house, staring up at the stars that hung brightly above the open moors, before climbing into bed.

And all that was only Saturday.

Our teacher was Elizabeth from Lemon Tree Yoga and the retreat was held at The Tree.

Travelling from Riga to Tallinn by train

Latvian railways
The Latvian countryside – taken on my phone from the train.

I’m on a train, the sort that’s likely to be modernised out of existence. The sort with a soothing chug, windows that don’t quite close and heaters that blow out warm air like my little travel hair-dryer used to before it went bang. It’s February. All around me people are layered up in thick winter coats and woollen scarves. The women are in heeled boots and have a classy, well-dressed look about them that reminds me of Northern Italy, but this is Latvia and outside it’s minus seven degrees celsius.

View from Latvian train
The reflection of the orange striped seats.

I strip off my coats and scarves and jumpers, feeling the odd one in the carriage because everyone else seems to be able to bear the heat. But maybe I’m the only one whose dragged their suitcase through the fine snow with a rucksack on her back. It’s a long journey ahead. I remove my boots and wiggle my toes in their multiple layers of sock. I’m over-dressed, but understandably so as yesterday the temperature was ten degrees lower. The colder-than-ice air, whipping through the crack at the edge of the window is a relief.

We arrive at a station and a sound reverberates through the train like that of an old-fashioned doorbell. Outside the fields are covered with an icy frost, that in places becomes a clean carpet of virgin snow. By the stations, across rows of abandoned track, the snow is trampled with heavy boots, their blue shadows are the only sure way of knowing where the roads begin. From the bank at the side of the railway they disappear between the trees.

The forest is everywhere around me. On both sides of the track for hour after hour it remains a constant companion. Trees with rich brown and orange bark stand straight and tall. Many are bare but for a crown of dark, evergreen needles. Occasionally spindly silver birches cluster between them. There are animal tracks in the snow.

When we pass a lone house, I spot what’s unmistakeably an outside toilet and a few outbuildings. At a small town, Sigulda, many of the train’s passengers drop down from the carriage to the platform. The platform reminds me of travelling through Slovakia with my sister and being amazed and bewildered to see the platforms only little higher than the track. Like the Slovakians, and unlike my sister and I, the Latvians disembark gracefully.

View from Latvian train
Latvian building taken through dirty train windows.

The docile towns appear in a state of semi-hibernation. But maybe that the illusion of quiet created by snow. The buildings are spaciously arranged. They’re steep rooved a bit like German houses, but naturally coloured. The more isolated houses are made of wood. The hours pass, but I don’t put in my earphones because there’s something precious about the moment that stops me.

We chug on. Losing passengers as we go further and further away from the capital and towards the Estonian border. And then, I glance around the carriage and realise that there are only two of us remaining. The woman a few rows down, faces me, but she can’t see me, she’s crying.

Her dark hair hangs loose, I know by the way her hair falls that she’s raked her hands through it many times this morning. I’ve seen that look in my mirror. She’s a mess, but she’s got style about her. Heeled boots accompany a tan winter coat which comes down to her knees. I suspect she knows her cheeks show mascara tears. She cared enough to put her make-up on this morning. She glares at her phone with tight drawn lips, a mixture of fear and fight. Her body is rigid. Then she is gone.

I stare out at the snow, looking through the trees for signs of deer, grateful.

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.

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!

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.