Sinikka's snippets

Finland and travelling, a woman's life, cultures, languages, photography plus family recipes


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Moments to cherish

Today was the day when we received the results of this year’s national final exams at senior high schools in Finland again. A moment of great joy for those who passed and did well. Now it will be two more weeks of busy preparations before the graduation ceremony and celebration at the beginning of June.

This brings me back to – oh my god! – 6 years ago already when our daughter celebrated her high school graduation day. Jubilant – this week’s photo challenge – is exactly the word to describe the feelings on that day. So young and beautiful, with the whole world and all its wonderful opportunities at her feet. The traditional Finnish white graduation cap shining in the sun. A major milestone in a young person’s life reached.

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And then, four years later, a more experienced and mature university graduate in Scotland. Different hat but very similar sentiments of jubilation. Proud beyond words of my darling daughter! IMG_9386


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Painted faces

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I haven’t been very much into portraits or people photography in general. I’m more at home roaming the woods, snapping pictures of nature. That’s why, this week’s photo challenge – Face – has been slightly troublesome for me.

In the end, I chose this photo from an annual Hanami festival, organised in a park full of cherry trees in Helsinki last weekend. As last year, I tried to capture some of the Japan-inspired costumes and characters around the park. Surprisingly many young Finns are great fans of Japanese anime, and enjoy dressing up as their favourite characters. This ‘geisha’ caught my eye from afar, but on closer look, turned out to be possibly a ‘taikomochi’, a male geisha. Some online searching revealed that the original ‘geisha’-style entertainers, back in the 13th century, were, in fact, all male. The ‘taikomochi’ have since become rarer and rarer, and today, there are only very few left in Japan, the field having become almost exclusively female.

I have always been fascinated by the Japanese culture, finding it inscrutably irresistible. For example, Japanese facial expressions are impossible for me to interpret as their real feelings seem to be hidden underneath a mask, dictated by cultural norms and unspoken rules. Even more mysterious, are the striking, white-painted faces of the geishas. Here is another picture, taken during our family trip to Japan in 2004 – a geisha spotted in a Kyoto night, white face shining in the darkness.

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A walk in the woods

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I am lucky. I live in a country where over 70 % of the surface area is covered with forests. They used to be called “the green gold of Finland”. Maybe not so much any more in the changed circumstances of the modern information age. Yet, for us Finns, the forest or wood is still an important source of peace of mind. Feeling stressed out? Just half an hour in a forest, and you will start to calm down, and feel your energy levels going up. Suffer from hypertension? Easy cure – according to Finnish research, only a 20-minute walk in a forest will significantly lower your blood pressure. What’s more, in those 20 minutes any bad mood will disappear, and your general alertness will improve. Only two hours in a forest will boost your body’s immunity system. The message is clear: go and walk in the woods!

And most of us do. If asked, the majority of Finns label themselves as “nature lovers”. Why is it then that we seem to do our best to destroy and disrupt our environment? Especially in urban areas, the beginning of spring is marked by the sound of chain saws when Finns go into a frenzy of cutting down as many trees as they possibly can. Just a few weeks back, on Earth Day of all days (April 22), one neighbour cut down two magnificent, old white willows in their yard. Not only did they look gorgeous in summer but they also efficiently worked as a buffer to the noise and pollution coming from the busy street in front. The audacity to get rid of them on Earth Day – not that these people would be aware of such global, environmental movements! A friend of ours, a British gardener, is appalled at the rate that Finns are destroying the diversity of the environment. The Finnish tradition of “tidiness” totally clashes with the natural world around us. Having so many forests makes us blindly take them for granted, and cut and fell with abandon. It’s as though the urban concrete jungles make people into mindless controllers of nature.

But I digress. I was going to write about the beauty of spring in Finnish forests. It’s Mother’s Day today when white anemones are usually in bloom, and cover the forest floor like thick, white and green blankets. It has been our family tradition for generations to pick a bunch of these anemones for mum on this day. Sadly, my daughter is still overseas, so I had to go to the woods behind our house to pick them myself. I wasn’t too upset about it, though, as I got my daily dose of “tree hugging” therapy at the same time, and realised once again how much I love this earth I live on.

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My take on this week’s photo challenge: EARTH.


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Mothers and daughters and a mysterious suitcase

It’s the second Sunday in May, celebrated as ‘Mother’s Day’ in Finland. A bitter-sweet day for me for several years now, ever since our only daughter moved abroad to study, and then stayed on for a couple of ‘gap years’, working in Asia. Still not back this year either although, hopefully, we will enjoy a visit later this month, at last!

This year, to celebrate Mother’s Day, I decided to reminisce on the generations of mothers and daughters in my family. It is often stated that your mother is your first love, your first friend but also your first enemy. I think it’s undeniable that these female family bonds are strong, and have a profound effect in shaping our lives.

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Here we are, four generations of women, starting with my grandmother Linda, then my mother Mirja Helinä, then me Päivi Sinikka, and finally my daughter Riikka Rosalinda or Rosie. Originally, I suggested we should give our daughter the name Linda, after my beloved grandmother. My husband wasn’t too keen on it, though, but then, luckily, from a children’s picture book, we came across Rosalinda (Spanish for ‘beautiful rose’). Is there any resemblance between us? I can’t tell but seeing old pictures, friends say they can notice many similarities. The sad thing is that Rosie never met her maternal great-grandmother, nor grandmother. It was about a month after my mum’s passing away that I realised I was pregnant. Such a pity, as all of us missed out on a lot. My mum would have loved and spoiled Rosie to bits, and I missed sharing the ups and downs of motherhood with my own mum. I used to feel that my experience of a significant birth and death intertwined withing one year of my life was nature’s way of replacing a missing piece, making sure that the female family genes were passed on down the line.

My grandmother – or ‘mummi’ as we used to call her in Finnish – was the sweetest and most even tempered old lady I’ve ever known. I’ve often thought how she managed to keep herself so calm and friendly, despite her unpredictable, grumpy and bossy policeman husband.The old sepia picture of her has been printed on a thick, cardboard-like surface. She looks young and innocent there, probably not yet married, somewhere in the first two decades of the 20th century, her gentle and compassionate nature shining out even from that old photo. I wonder what the occasion of this picture was, and why they’d placed her sitting on a suitcase? Crazy to think that she spent her childhood and youth in the time when Finland still was an autonomous Grand Duchy of Russia. She was 17 when our country gained independence.

My grandparents lived in the east, close to the Russian border, while our home was a 6-hour-drive away in the west. Sometimes poor mummi used to take the train, and come and stay with us for a few months when, I gathered, she simply had had enough of granddad’s antics. Those were the loveliest times for me and my two brothers. There was always somebody to welcome us from school, as both our parents worked long hours. And more often than not mummi would have baked something nice for us kids to eat. I also loved the evenings when mum and mummi had their long women-to-women talks, and I, pretending to read on the couch, kept an alert ear, not to miss any of their words. Mummi was a woman of a different era. In her day, people usually stayed married for appearances, divorce was rare. At least to my knowledge, she never had a job, but you never saw her sitting idly. She would always have busy fingers sewing, mending, crocheting or knitting. In fact, I still have carpets woven by her in our home today!

How many modern products last for over 50 decades? This rug was woven by my grandmother in the 60s, and still on my floor, as good as new!

How many modern products last for over 50 years? This rug was woven by my grandmother in the 60s, and still on my floor, as good as new!

How about my mother then? The black and white picture was taken at the post office where she worked in a little village in the 50s. It was there that she also met my father. My mum was the oldest of two daughters. I have gathered that she was considered the less academically gifted of the two, so she had to finish school and start working at 16, whereas her younger sister was sent to university to become a primary school teacher. Nevertheless, my mum did a long career in the Finnish postal services, and gradually got promoted to higher and higher positions. She was a very ambitious, determined and hard-working woman. Later on in life, she went to several further training courses, and even got some higher education qualifications through the Open University. She never talked about it much but, in hindsight, I suspect that she probably resented not having had the same chances as her sister in her youth.

Compared to me, the women of my mum’s generation, were expected to do everything themselves – work long hours, and then come home and start with the never-ending household chores. That was a woman’s lot, and it was also the women, themselves, who let these expectations determine their worth. My mum was a wizard in the kitchen, and would spend most weekends just baking everything from scratch, even most of the bread we ate. Naturally, she made sure our home was always spotlessly clean, all our clothes neatly ironed after wash, and bed linen washed, mangled and changed every three weeks. Later on, my parents were lucky to earn enough between the two of them, to afford weekly cleaning help, which was quite unusual in those days. All in all, though, it must have taken an awful lot of effort, running a family of five, especially as I and my two brothers were all born within five years. It seemed that my mum had inherited her father’s temperament, which wasn’t helped by her duty-bound life. She would often overstretch herself, and when tired, be bad-tempered, and in those moments not tolerate any nonsense from us kids. We were all expected to help a lot around the house, and she was also very particular about appearances and school performance, and took pride in showing off her well-behaved children, boasting about our achievements. Quite often this would be a real burden for us kids. I sometimes felt suffocated, and having to put on a front, never being accepted as the person I was becoming inside. Mind you, my mum also had her loving and affectionate side, and her hearty laughter still rings in my ears when I think about her. If I could go back to those old days, I would try to tell her to take it easy, not agonise over irrelevant appearances, and just enjoy life. Not that she, with her rather stubborn disposition, would have listened to me, or anyone!

As for me, being the only girl, born in the middle of two boys, granted me a special place in my childhood family. I was the high-achiever at school, obedient and conscientious – the archetypical good-girl swot! I never dared to contradict my strict mother as that would have been totally unacceptable and disrespectful behaviour. However, I was clever enough to find my ways of secretly bending the rules, without her knowing. I was teased ad nauseam by my incorrigible brothers, but fought hard to defend myself against them. The two boys always ganged up against me, and it was invariably me who ended up doing all the chores set for us kids by our parents! Early on, I got passionate about learning languages, spending ages writing down the lyrics of foreign pop songs that I had recorded on old-fashioned cassettes, or dreaming about distant, exotic lands. Back in 1972, I watched the Winter Olympics from Sapporo, Japan on TV, spell-bound by the intriguing looks of Asian people. You see, in those days, foreigners were still a rare sight in Finland, especially in the small village where I grew up! Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that in the future, I would personally get to know many of those fascinating Asians, and have the chance to even visit their countries. I guess my fate was sealed – no surprise then that I married a Brit and started a bicultural life of teaching languages, with lots of international contacts, work projects abroad and travel. I don’t think my mum saw this coming when she and dad paid for me to go on a language course in Eastbourne, England, when I was only 15! Maybe there is a “wandering gene” in my family women. Maybe that suitcase my grandmother is sitting on in that photo is a symbol of the women in my family?

And it seems my daughter is continuing on this restless, wandering path, even more strongly as our world really has shrunk, with the ease of travelling, and finding opportunities online. In the two photos above, I and Rosie are about the same age, 23-24, both university students. There is a resemblance for sure, especially in our smiles, I think. Now at 25, Rosie is already an experienced world-traveller, thanks to us showing her the world in her youth but latterly, her own wanderlust has also truly surfaced. Not only has she studied in several countries already but she has just returned from a two-year stay in Taiwan, where she successfully taught English.

Hopefully, one day Rosie will be become a mother, too. And I’m also keeping my fingers crossed that, unlike my mother, I will be able to be there when that happens. Motherhood is one of the most miraculous aspects of a woman’s life. Nothing in life quite compares to carrying your baby inside you for nine months, then giving birth and afterwards seeing a wonderful, new person grow and develop. At the same time, being a mother is one of the most daunting roles in a woman’s life. It involves lots of self-doubt and worry, feelings of inadequacy and fears of doing it all wrong. Been there, done that, and still, I wouldn’t change it for the world! I’m confident that I was able to ease off the rigid rules of my own mother but still, I can’t let go of the gnawing insecurity in my mind whether I was able to provide my darling daughter the love, support and encouragement my darling daughter needed and deserved.

Looking at these four photos, I can see how, over the years, each of our lives becomes an inseparable part of the intricate family tapestry (or maybe woven rug in our case!), with customs and traditions passed on from mother to daughter, and with each new member adding their own special touch to the emerging pattern. What’s more, in the big picture of things, these personal life stories beautifully reflect the history of your country, and the whole world. In four generations, the women of my family have turned from housewives of a modest, agrarian society, to globe-trotting, independent and empowered creatures, claiming more and more equal rights with the men in our lives.

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Underneath the cherry trees

 

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Look at the cherry blossoms!

Their color and scent fall with them,

Are gone forever,

Yet mindless

The spring comes again.

– Ikkyu –

The magical rebirth, and breathtaking beauty of spring is unfolding in front of my eyes. Here in the north, spring usually sweeps past in a heartbeat. We won’t even know what’s happened until it’s turned into full-blown summer once again. Every second, every precious moment of this season is worth admiration. I’m breathing it in with my body and soul! Hats off – I and the natural world around me made it through another long and dark winter!

This is my take on this week’s photo challenge: ADMIRATION.

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Sometimes it snows in April

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Pretty abstract this morning, looking out of the bedroom window! Had to rub my sleepy eyes a few times as, last night, we’d gone to bed with greenish grass, spotted with blue scilla that have been in bloom for about a week. And now this! Back to black & white. Darn Finnish weather – you must be joking! The only good thing about this is that it gave me a picture for this week’s photo challenge.

Sometimes it snows in April
Sometimes I feel so bad, so bad
Sometimes I wish that life was never ending,
But all good things, they say, never last

I actually pinched the title for this post from the recently passed away iconic star, Prince and his song by the same name. Maybe this weather is his last good-bye to earth, from the edge of a cloud.

Well, at least there was humour in my Facebook feed all through the day. I guess that’s the best way to deal with this misery. “Finnish spring – so near and yet so far away.” read the status of one friend. “Finnish summer is short but not very snowy.” joked another. “In April we celebrate this holiday called ‘Spring is cancelled’ in Finland.” “Finnish spring – or spring finished?”  “Have to start skating to school.” was a remark from a colleague.

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BLOC hotels – the UK mini hotel

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For my recent leisure and conference trip to Britain, I was happy to find a new hotel chain to check out. The BLOC hotel concept reminded me of the Hong Kong mini hotel we stayed at last summer. According to the hotel brochure, the founder of Bloc hotels was inspired by the so-called capsule hotels in Japan. This did worry me a bit before seeing the rooms but luckily, they were a decent size, and not at all claustrophobic as I had feared.

At the moment, there are only two hotels in the chain – one in Birmingham, and the other one at Gatwick airport – but more may be in the pipeline.  And as it happens, I stayed in both during my UK trip. The rooms turned out to be almost exactly identical, and I read that they are actually constructed elsewhere, and then stacked together with the exterior built around the ready-made “room boxes”. Basically, each room is a simple cube, with a “wet room” (i.e. joint toilet and shower) built in one corner. No wardrobes, no frills, which is just fine for me when I only stay for a few days. I’m quite comfortable with “living out of the suitcase” as it also saves the time and effort of constant packing. The hotel brochure describes their style as “pared-down chic”.  I must admit that the modern and minimalistic decor was quite pleasing to my Scandinavian eye and soul. However, maybe they’d taken the ‘bloc’ idea a bit too far, with everything in a square shape, from the lights and stools, to shower knobs and even minuscule soaps in the bathroom! Made me smile, though.

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The king-size beds were luxurious for a solo traveller, and very comfy indeed. What’s more, I enjoyed catching up with British TV programmes on the HD LED screen integrated in the wall at the foot of the bed, and even the free wi-fi worked like a dream. No breakfast facilities but vending machines for small snacks at the reception. BLOC hotels hadn’t quite gone to all the lengths of the Hong Kong one with a spacious and interesting lobby area but the reception was quite fine, and efficient, nothing to complain about. And as icing on the cake, quite affordable prices, too!

The only downside I could mention was the wet room arrangement, fascinatingly described as “a monsoon-drench shower wet room”. No separate shower cabinet, just the shower on the wall, which meant that afterwards, the whole toilet area (floor, walls, seats, the lot) was soaking wet. Took some planning not to keep getting your feet, socks and clothes wet!

BIRMINGHAM BLOC – Caroline street

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Very nicely located in the old Jewellery quarter, and only a 15-20-minute walk to the centre of town. There are enough cafés, restaurants and pubs in the vicinity to cater for all your needs. I actually found a wonderful breakfast place, advertised on the traveller’s map provided by the hotel. As a bonus, showing the Bloc hotel key card gave you a 10 % discount, too. I liked to so much that I ended up having breakfast at Saint Kitchen every morning during my stay in Birmingham!

The Jewellery quarter still showcases beautiful Georgian houses, and the streets are nice and quiet.

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At the end of the street, lovely St. Paul’s square with the church.

Some of the restaurant nearby were quite popular in the evenings!

Some of the restaurants nearby were quite popular in the evenings!

I opted for the slightly dearer room with a window, and was really happy about that choice. I loved seeing the view, and the sunrise in the mornings when it wasn’t grey and cloudy.

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View from my window in the evening

View from my window in the evening

And sunrise in the morning

And sunrise in the morning

All in all, a very pleasant stay. Good, friendly service, and everything worked. Would definitely stay again!

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GATWICK AIRPORT BLOC – South terminal

Very easy to find, with clear sign-posting, soon after the exit from the Gatwick Express trains from London. The same familiar square light fitments at the reception, which was, however, much smaller as all the airport facilities are at your disposal, just behind these walls. In fact, I felt a bit like Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal’, going for my evening meal, snack shopping and breakfast around the airport.

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A windowless room this time, which did make it feel slightly boxier, but luckily not too disturbing!

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For once, I could sleep properly before a flight, and feel relaxed and rested in the morning. I totally enjoyed the ease of having breakfast and checking-in just a few steps from the hotel. Quite interesting, too, watching the planes take off outside the window at the end of the room corridor. I can warmly recommend this reasonably priced hotel for anyone travelling to and from Gatwick airport.

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My oyster

“The world is my oyster”, as the saying goes. Maybe that’s where London transport authorities got the name for their versatile ‘Oyster card’? I was going to write an ultra-positive post praising the usefulness of this card. However, I had to add a warning at the end of this post, having learned the hard way how important it is to be fully aware of all the conditions of use.

But, let’s start with the positive. Compared to the old system for tourists and visitors of 1-day or 2-day travel cards, now having access to the “top up as needed” Oyster card was a really welcome change during my recent visit to London.

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Arriving at Gatwick airport, I simply went to the train tickets counter, and bought my card: £5 deposit on the card itself, and £30  credit, which I reckoned should be enough for my four-day stay. And it was enough although no problem if you spend more, you can top the credit up at any tube station. The card is good on the tube, and London buses, too. Very handy.

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I especially appreciate having a card in my pocket to use on the buses. I never know exactly where I will be getting off, which is why having to buy individual tickets from a driver is always a bit complicated. Not to mention, having the right change as well. I love just getting my card out, flashing it to the reader, and I’m ready to hop on, and off, wherever I want!

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Unfortunately, my “thumbs up for the Oyster card” spiel has to come with a serious warning! Buying my ticket, I was told that if I didn’t want to keep it, I could hand the card back, when leaving the country, and get the £5 deposit back. Brilliant, I thought at the time. Yet, trying to do this, at exactly the same counter at Gatwick airport, I was told that there was still 90 pence worth of credit on the card, which meant that I couldn’t get my money back. WHAT? “This is why we put this warning on the card”, said the irritatingly know-it-all assistant at the counter. And blow me, there was the sticker on the card, printed in tiny letters as usual, reading:

REFUNDS for unused credit MUST BE completed at a London underground station before travelling back to Gatwick Airport. NO REFUNDS for unused credit can be given at the airport.

So there, quite clear, no point in protesting even though, of course, I tried. Quite honestly, how many of you always read all the small print on everything? Why on earth wasn’t I warned about this, when purchasing the card? Or is this an intentional scheme to earn £5 extra from each unsuspecting traveller? Looking at the card now, in its plastic cover, this small print is quite conveniently partly obscured by the text on the cover. I was furious for a while but then, we are not talking about a fortune, and no doubt, I will go to London again, and be able to use this same card, and all the ease it provides me with getting around Britain’s lovely capital.

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Lesson learned, though – to avoid unnecessary disappointment and frustration,  carefully read all the small print on anything you buy!


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Family dinner

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I learned it in my childhood home that as a family, you gather together for dinner around the kitchen table, every single day. I carried this tradition on in my small family. Around 5-6pm, we used to have home-made dinner together all through the years our only daughter was growing up. A time for exchanging the daily news, and bonding with your nearest and dearest.

It’s been hard to let go of this special daily moment since our daughter moved out of the family home. Of course, I and hubby still eat together, most days, but it just isn’t quite the same any more. I think for me, dinnertime will forever evoke the presence of your family. The food can be simple or fancy, but it’s your family you’re sharing it with that really counts!

For this reason, I chose a family dinner picture for this week’s Photo Challenge. It’s a picture of the last family dinner we had together. Not at home but across the world in Taiwan, where our daughter has been teaching with her boyfriend for the last two years. We visited them last summer, and as our trip coincided with my husband’s birthday, we went for a special seafood dinner to celebrate, on Quijin island, next to their home town of Kaohsiung, on the south-western coast of Taiwan.

In the picture you can see the three of them enjoying the fresh, local delicacies from the Taiwan Strait waters. And by fresh, I mean REALLY fresh! On the island, it is customary to have the restaurant at the back of the fish shop that’s outside on the pavement. You either buy the daily catch to take home, or you choose what you want to be cooked for you on the premises. In the pictures below, you can see us making our picks outside the restaurant, and some of the produce on offer. My hubby absolutely loved this – the stranger and and more unusual the food, the happier he is. A perfect birthday dinner with family!

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Shiny future

I’m on a joint leisure and conference trip to the UK for a week now. I took this picture during a guided walking tour in the East End of London, and I thought it fit this week’s Photo Challenge perfectly.

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Behind the old and dark Georgian buildings, the sparkling, bright glass walls of a brand-new City of London high-rise office building shine with the sun.

The present atmosphere in Europe is not as positive and forward-looking as one would hope. Unemployment and continuing austerity measures keep hitting the middle and lower classes hard. People despair and lose hope, which easily results in a negative cycle of complaining and looking for scapegoats. Consequently, the unfortunate refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Europe at the moment are often met with hostility and rejection.  Their tragic plight is forgotten and ignored when people are busy protecting what they feel is theirs, and theirs only. Globally, climate change poses ever-increasing threats on our earth. The future may seem gloomy, even frightening.

Despite all the doomsday clouds hanging over us, I still want to see light at the end of the tunnel. The world keeps changing and evolving – it’s never stood still. And we should be happy about that! I remember a lecture by a Finnish astronomer, Esko Valtaoja, in which he quite convincingly proved how life on earth today is better, more prosperous, and safer than ever before in human history. Yes, there are still disasters and catastrophes but, in the end, things keep improving all the time. Mr Valtaoja based his findings in cold facts, and also said that he unquiveringly believed in human potential. I can remember how listening to that lecture changed my approach to the future.

The old and the new sometimes co-exist side by side for some time, just like these buildings in London. A day will come, though, when it’s time for the old to disappear, and let the new and shiny take over. Learn the lessons from the past, and then welcome the future with open arms and mind.