Sinikka's snippets

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


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#weekendcoffeeshare: May 27, 2016

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If we were having coffee today, I would take you to one of the riverside cafés, with tables out on the pedestrian street. It’s a beautifully sunny day, and together we would bask in the warmth, and talk about the wonders of spring and the beginning summer. Here in the north, this is a time of being almost overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of our nature. While sipping our frothy cappuccinos, I want to show you the procession from spring to summer through my nature photos.

Starting in April, quite suddenly, after the snow has melted, and with the first warmer days, the little yellow “suns” appear by the roadsides. Interestingly, coltsfoot is called “widow’s leaf” in Finnish – but, please, don’t ask me about the etymology behind the name, I have no clue. These first spring flowers are small, low and quite modest but as they usually grow in groups, they will soon create bright patches of colour on the otherwise sepia ground, and revive our tired winter eyes.

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Not long after this, there will be the first glimpses of blue in the woods behind our house. ‘Anemone hepatica’, with its furry stem, starts opening its petals. In Finnish we call it the “blue” hepatica although I find the colour more towards mauve or purple, especially in sunlight. Lovely, aren’t they?

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Towards the end of April, it will be the gorgeous whites and pinks of the cherry blossoms. So fragile, shivering in the wind, and so fleeting – you hardly have time to adore them before they are gone. A powerful reminder to seize every precious moment of our lives!

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By Mother’s Day (second Sunday in May in Finland), the woods will have usually changed into white, with countless ‘Anemone nemorosa’. It’s a common flower to be picked by children to give to their mothers on that special day. One of my all-time spring favourites.

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Later in May then, while many people I know will be busy stocking up with all possible poisons to kill them off, my eyes will feast in the fields coloured bright yellow with dandelions. Why would you want to kill them off? Yellow makes us humans happier!

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What’s more, killing off dandelions will also deprive bees of their vital pollen. As declining bee populations are a major catastrophe in more and more areas of the world, it is essential to protect them. Luckily, apple blossoms can always be counted on to keep the bees busy. This year, apple trees were especially heavy with blooms. I find them very romantic, and they make me think of white lace, tulle and weddings, for some reason.

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Last but definitely not least, in the cavalcade of some of my favourite spring flowers, comes the Finnish national flower, lily of the valley. The anemones have by now given way to these white beauties. The whole wood behind our house is now full of their intoxicating scent. I just couldn’t resist picking a few to put in a vase at home.

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The wonderful flower season will continue all through the summer, and it brings me enormous joy every year. Hope you enjoyed my flowphotos! Now let me get another cappuccino for you, so you can tell me about your favourite blooms in your part of the world.


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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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Dancing with the daffodils

It was purely by chance that I came across this weekly photo challenge idea, and decided on the spot this would be right up my street. Firstly, my blog has been a little dormant of late, and I want to bring it alive again. Secondly, I’m a keen photographer, observing my surroundings through the camera lens. And best of all, I happened to have exactly the right photo and inspiration behind it at hand. So here is my take on the photo, inspired by a poem, verse, song lyric or story.

Being an English teacher, I love the language, and enjoy the work of many authors writing in English, past and present, British or American. Poetry is not always my cup of tea but certain poems have stuck with me ever since my uni years, where an elderly, white-haired and -bearded, English professor passionately guided us mundane and down-to-earth Finns into the secrets of English verse.

The photo I’ve chosen is one that I take, from different angles, every year at this time. My hometown of Turku, on the south-western coast of Finland, by the Baltic Sea, has a lovely tradition of decorating the pedestrian bridge across the river, leading to the City Theatre, with thousands of daffodils just before Easter. For me, this a special day, and I always rush to the riverside to snap some pictures. After the long winter, this is one of the first signs of spring. And lucky for me, yellow happens to be one of my favourite colours, so happy and bright. Who would not smile, and take a few dancing steps, when seeing this sudden splash of brilliant colour after months of nothing but grey, black and white? This year we were super lucky to even have a clear, sunny day to welcome the flower display. I found the dazzling bokeh of sunlight, reflected on the water, added to the joyful feeling and spirit. Many people stopped on the bridge to stand and stare, some taken by surprise at the unexpected sight, others, like me, coming there on purpose.IMG_8847And here is the inspirational poem, in memory of late Professor Doherty. The riverside daffodils bring it to mind every year. In particular the last two lines resonate with me: And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with the daffodils.

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A Poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

– William Wordsworth

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Hanami – adoration of cherry blossoms

My first encounter with cherry blossoms was back in the mid-90s in Washington DC of all places. I was working as a Fulbright exchange teacher in Virginia for a year, only 30 minutes by metro from the capital. There are some 1,700 cherry trees around the Tidal Basin, donated as a sign of friendship by the mayor of Tokyo in the early 20th century. They offer a spectacular display of beauty in spring. I remember going there several times, to admire the first small pinkish blooms, through to the peak time and all the way to the end of the fragile petals falling on the ground, white as if it was snowing. At the weekend, we also saw a lot of Asian, and other people enjoying picnics under the blooming trees.

Ever since then, cherry blossoms have held a special place in my memory and heart. They are an annual reminder of the fleeting nature of life. So breathtakingly beautiful, but so short-lived at the same time! Recently, I have been more than pleased to see that some cherry trees have been planted along the riverside, and elsewhere, here in my hometown of Turku in Finland. This spring I have been cycling around with my camera to capture some of this floral splendour. It’s good for your soul to just sit or stand underneath a canopy of blooming trees, taking in the subtle colours of the petals, which quiver helplessly in the slightest breeze. So fragile that you feel as if you need to protect the tiny blossoms with your hands.

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One Sunday, I happened to be cycling along the river, and came across some cherry trees that I had never even noticed before. The blossoms were already coming to the end of their time, and had turned gorgeously white. They made me think of a full, lacy wedding dress – what a lovely thought!

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My project for next year is to start early enough, probably towards the end of April, and go round all the different trees I now know of, and enjoy the whole, swift blooming cycle. Unfortunately, our town doesn’t enlighten us of the different species of cherries they have planted. So, finding that out will be part of this project, too. ‘Mindfulness’ is one of the new fads here, and I feel enjoying the nature around us is the best form of mindfulness you can engage in – and it’s all free!

HANAMI FESTIVAL IN HELSINKI

I was lucky to notice an ad for a cherry blossom festival in Helsinki somewhere in my social media feed. It falling on a weekday religious holiday, made me convince hubby that we needed to go. It was actually the 8th time this festival was organised in the suburb of Roihuvuori in Helsinki, where over 200 cherry trees have been planted along a hill in a park. It was interesting to find out on a website that just as in Washington DC, these trees, too, are thanks to donations, this time by Japanese nationals residing here in Finland.

According to Wikipedia, HANAMI, or “flower viewing” means:

the Japanese traditional custom of enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, flowers (“hana”) in this case almost always referring to those of the cherry (“sakura”) or, less frequently, plum (“ume”) trees

It was a windy day, and a bit on the cool side. We even had a hail storm pour over us in the afternoon! But the weather didn’t prevent thousands of people from having a good time underneath the trees. Arriving by train, after a two-hour journey, we were there early, and managed to see the trees better than later on when all the participants were milling around and setting up their picnic spots.

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I was especially pleased to see people of all ages taking part in the festival. Too often the Finnish custom is to separate the generations, each to their own specific activities. Lots of young families came with their babies, toddlers and pre-teens, many of whom wore creative fancy dresses for the occasion.

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The cosplay and anime crowd were there, too, with the most elaborate costumes. It was all quite delightfully unexpected for us but, of course, so much part of Japanese culture. Made me remember our trip to Japan, and a visit to Harajuku district in Tokyo where imaginative teens gathered to show off their sometimes quite outrageous fashions and styles.

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Initially, I had a very stereotypical expectation of the festival: a sophisticated, serene, almost solemn occasion, with possibly some faint, traditional Japanese music in the background, and people staring at the blossoming trees in quiet awe and adoration. Couldn’t have been more wrong! Little did I know, that people would bring boom boxes and other music devices, and play really loud rock and pop. What’s more, there were also music and Japanese martial arts performances on a stage, which added to the noise. Well, why not! Everybody to their own, and possibly this is the way ‘hanami’ is celebrated in Japan.

Definitely an occasion to mark in our diaries for next year. It was refreshingly different for Finland. Firstly, so crowded, and such a diverse and colourful group as well, with happy faces all around. Secondly, the joyful activity all through the day, Japanese food being cooked and sold in stalls, all the fascinating shows and performances. Thirdly, meeting friends for a chat and picnic on the lawn. And last but not least, the feeling of wonder, magic and fairy tale,  thanks to wonderful creatures such as this spring butterfly, for example.

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The message of the cherry blossoms for me was ‘carpe diem’. Seize the day, and ‘gather ye rosebuds while ye may’ as it’s all too soon over.

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