“My dear girl, when are you going to realise that being normal is not necessarily a virtue? It rather denotes a lack of courage.” -Aunt Frances, Practical Magic
Analytical, curious, determined, patient, courageous, a survivor. These are only a few of the words that can describe Catherine well. I met Catherine for the first time the winter of 2016, when I was travelling in Sicily. After only a few minutes we found ourselves sitting on a flush red sofa, munching on carob fruits and talking about similarities and differences between world religions. Thus started a friendship that has carried over the distance, time difference and different situations in life.
Regardless of being independent and confident, Catherine denotes unbelievable vulnerability. Catherine is a rape victim, and as a result of that, she struggles with things that I take for granted: like a sense of safety, setting boundaries, finding balance between expressing her feelings and not making people around her upset or uncomfortable, and accepting what has happened.
The exhibition started as a lighting exercise but developed into a study of a courageous young woman, who hasn’t ever been and won’t ever be normal. A woman, who despite adversity, has the courage to love, trusts in life and in people. A woman, who, in the whirlwind of her own life, still has time to listen to others and offer some hard-won wisdom. A woman, who chases life and new experiences with zest, ready to meet big and small victories as well as the inevitable stumbles of life.
This is me, as seen through the lens of Kaisa Vänskä. The picture is one of a series of black and white photos of me which were exhibited in Kuusamo, Finland.
Kaisa’s photography has helped me break through a layer of the silence that surrounds me. And it’s started important conversations.
If you want to read more about my story, I have rewritten the page that describes me. I have also written a piece on second-hand trauma, which discusses the difficulties of discussing trauma and the effects it has on those people who support and care for a traumatised person.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.