Seasons

We have come full circle. Though we haven’t been in Iceland for a whole year, during our time here we’ve been through all four seasons. At the start of March we arrived in snow and next week, the end of November, we will leave in snow again. I have a lot of stories and pictures I’d love to share, to put a beautiful bookend to this icy sojourn, but I am going to be realistic – it’s unlikely I’ll get them written this weekend when packing is yet to begin. So, here is the place I would most like to share now as it forms a review of sorts of the whole year. The botanical gardens in their spring, summer, autumn and winter clothes.

Winter

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I saw the gardens first stripped of their own colour and lent blue by the sky. They seemed smaller than the name suggested: when I think botanical gardens I think Kew. Acres of glasshouse and border and collection. Reykjavik Botanical Gardens sit within Laugardalur, a park which also includes a swimming pool, the sports stadium and a concert hall. You won’t get exhausted walking from one end to the other. But their size didn’t matter. As I scanned the ground for labels I found many familiar names: Sorbus, Larix, Betula, Hellebore, Hosta, Hebe, Camassia, Crocus, Papaver… the trees were bare and to my rusty plant-identifying mind pretty indistinguishable. Some of the plants and bulbs named showed no trace, just a small white plaque in icy ground. So in winter the ponds sung the most, doubling everything, bringing the sky to my feet.

Spring

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There is not much to spring in Iceland, not in the city at least. It’s possible that my foreign gaze failed to pick up the subtler signs. I missed the progression of home enormously. The snowdrops giving way to crocuses making space for daffodils by which time pink and white blossom is festooned across cherries and hawthorns. The white flowers that bloom on Magnolia stellata, first of the Magnolias. It is slightly unfair to say I missed all these because to give Reykjavik credit there were snowdrops lining the paths through the park, then there were a few crocuses in decorative array, and daffodils finally. But it all took so goddamned long. Perhaps six weeks longer. And no blossom. When we left London at the beginning of March the snowdrops were fading and crocuses in full swing and even the very first few daffodils in bud. It was like being plunged back in time. Winter reigned here until mid-May. In my impatience to settle in I mourned the flowers I couldn’t wait for. And yet there were some gems in the gardens that I was grateful for. The Camassias in the photo above, which I love and have never seen a pale blue version of. And then this Daphne with the amazing strong scent, reminding me of Daphne the family dog (she smells quite nice but not as good as the plant).IMG_20170415_111217981

The rhododendron buds that survived the winter – you can see a picture of them as they are now in my last post – hunkering down for the long cold. The slivers of hot pink. Delightful.IMG_20170415_111038570

In the small glasshouse which houses a cafe in the summer months, a selection of favourites thrive against all the odds. As if by magic you can step in from the snow and smell immediately the Mexican orange blossom of the Choisya below. Plus wisteria and clematis, all flowering all powerfully bringing me home. Proustian plants.

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Summer

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The path is typical of the exuberance shown by all who make their lives here when summer finally comes. Months of dark and cold turn fairly rapidly to light, so much light, people race to the swimming pool to bask every hour they can and crowd the sunniest spots. Buttercups bloom abundantly across fields. The lupins, kept very definitely out of the botanical gardens (here they are an invasive species), turn the roadsides blue. Pots of pansies on windowsills produce more flowers then I’ve ever seen outside of an intensively-farmed bedding nursery. The botanical gardens are glorious and my pictures of this special season don’t do it justice.IMG_20170624_103544600

Here is the rock garden. Healthy spreads of alpine plants show that conditions here are ideal for them and a far cry from the anaemic rock gardens, mostly rock with spots of plant, of England.That might be a bit unfair but still I’ve never seen so many flowers and so much colour sandwiched in great slabs of stone. It is my favourite part of the garden, a world in miniature with a new discovery behind every rock, varieties and species I’ve never seen before from familiar groups – here this neon geum and campanula are shining stars. IMG_20170624_104151099IMG_20170624_102826319Beyond the rock garden is an understated zone where herbaceous perennials are shown off. It’s hard to believe they make it here. Each bed contains a variety of examples from a couple of species. Surprises – irises, thalictrums, delphiniums. It feels like the gardeners are desperately saying, look what we can do here! I don’t see many of these plants outside the confines of this garden. But perhaps it takes an awful lot of nurturing or perhaps Icelanders are not inclined to primp their front gardens or maybe they’re sick of seeing a prize hollyhock shredded by wind. Anyway, this tucked away place reminds me of visiting nurseries in the West of Scotland that produce sub-tropical beauties you don’t expect; it’s the same lush delight to find it here. IMG_20170624_110853757IMG_20170624_111206202IMG_20170624_111057916

Autumn

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We were treated with a longer-than-usual autumn this year, I’m told. IMG_20170930_111635504IMG_20171004_152834820IMG_20171004_153018153IMG_20171004_153038120

 Sorbus (Rowans) were the first trees beyond oaks, birches, chestnuts and beeches that I learned to identify (top tip: most branches end in one single leaf after pairs of opposite leaves along). There are many of them in the park and in autumn they come into their own. Berries yellow to red, leaves going up in flames, in succession because of the great number of varieties here. Rowans go unnoticed in summer but appear everywhere when the berries ripen and signal the beginning of the end. 

Autumn is not getting its full dues here because I’m now rushing to get this post posted. We fly to London in four hours time to start a new adventure. One that was not our original plan, but an opportunity that fell into our laps and gives us something we thought might take a few years to find: the chance to settle somewhere with meaningful work on a smallholding, time to work other garden and diy jobs and make things, and space for a few fruit trees of our own. It doesn’t look exactly how we pictured it- we will be working for someone else rather than owning a house or land- but we are hoping it fulfils the spirit of what we were looking for. It is not a dry acre in Portugal but a house in Bridgnorth, Shropshire, England and a job at an amazing self-sufficiency, permaculture, nature reserve that we wwoofed at last December. More on that later. Over and out Iceland, you’ve been a pleasure and a pain, a learning experience that I am so fortunate to have had. I’ve had the joy of meeting Joi’s family and seeing the land he grew up in. I’ve missed my own family and friends deeply and look forward to reconnecting. So long for now! 

A true winter wonderland

SONY DSCIt seems appropriate that before that last of the snow is trodden into slush, I will share these photos I took on Friday, the first fresh morning of carpeted white. Though several of these pictures have a decidedly blue shadow cast over them. I could really do with some photo editing skills, I should get Johann to teach me some tricks. I dallied with altered the levels and saturation but I can’t do a good job so for now they come to you as raw and blue as I took them.

We are taking a walk to and through the botanical gardens. They are just twenty minutes walk from our flat and have been a source of pleasure since we moved here in April. Soon I’m going to put together a review of the gardens through the seasons, as I have more photos of them than anything else here in Iceland (brace yourselves). For now we will stay in one snowy morning. The path I take sneaks along the side of the hostel and into the park. It’s an arched tunnel of joy through which it’s possible to glimpse the spire of Hallgrimskirkja. If I were a better photographer you would be glimpsing it in focus and not over-exposed. Just imagine it sharp through the maze of frosted branches. It was a glorious sight. To have the familiar transformed, that is the wonder of snow.

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The sun begins to shift onto the tops of trees and through narrow passageways. It rises later than I have ever experienced, on this particular day at 9.37 to be precise. The sun is above the horizon by then but the gloaming persists and it’s later still before it really feels like daytime.

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We reach the gardens now. We are greeted by this first in the series of ponds, frozen solid, reflecting pink dawn. The edges seem unclear and I stay away fearing I’ll slip in. There is no-one else here at this hour who would hear my screams. The only sound the creaking of compacting snow beneath my boots.

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The church picked out in the glow is a stairway to heaven, or perhaps a steep slide from grace.

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For once there is no wind and the snow is free to cling in thick layers on the littlest of twigs.

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It is a thrill (maybe only to the botanically minded) to see the buds of rhododendrons already. They hold the promise of spring within them and it seems incredible that they can withstand this winter to bloom their vivid red, months and months away. Just hold on, they whisper to me, this too shall pass. But today I am not eager for the season to pass because it is beautiful and calm and strange.

In the garden already intricate scenes crystallise and edges multiply. It reminds me of a visit to the silver vaults in London: curlicue and flourish on filigree limbs packed close and bearing down on you. Here the bite of cold air and views through rescue you from the discomfort of a small space crammed with detail.

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The rock garden is my favourite part of the garden and it is transformed by the soft drifting curves. A jagged mountainscape becoming pillowy, undulating, soft. The skeletons of the alpine plants persist here and there supporting an impossible weight of snow. How can it be so beautiful!?

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It’s time to go home, I haven’t worn these boots since last winter and the heels are rubbing painfully. As a parting shot the sun hauls itself over the far side of the park and lights up whole bodies of trees. This snow was a gift I didn’t expect. It rarely settles here before Christmas, so I’m told. It’s good to feel this rush of affection and to look with fresh eyes on the same old sights because we are leaving soon; a story for another day.

 

 

Colours of Seltún

There are no skyscraper plumes of steam here, the kind that burst from cloudy blue pools lined with cameras waiting for the moment to squeal in delight. Geysir, I’m talking about you. I saw you many times before I saw you in the flesh, as it were.  I saw you on screen, on Facebook and on Instagram. Even when I waited by that roiling water I saw you being seen through many lenses. As if the enjoyment of you was something to delay the gratification of, to wrap up and take home.

Seltún is quieter, both in terms of brash geothermal activity and number of visitors. It seethes and bubbles and unlike Geysir, it never gives the grand release of vast energy all in one go. But like Elliðadalur (an account of which will be coming soon!), the smaller, more intimate scale here allows for a different experience. Less of a wow than a slow burn.

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We peer in to miniature puddles of oozing grey-blue, the colour of storm clouds, but here in a red desert. The surface tremors. It’s energy is potential, not latent. It’s a tease.

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Shifting the gaze to the wider landscape the colours sit next to each other like scraped back layers of a fresco. Though their colour comes from the minerals within; not imposed on a blank space. The red emanates and ochre is shockingly yellow.

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The boardwalk leads through the steaming streams and cautions you not to step off it – perhaps a sedate section is bearable but segues signlessly into scalding water. There’s no way of knowing. IMG_20170617_140613464

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The absence of shooting plumes invites the study of smaller movements. Water rocking back and forth sending slops up the gravelly sides of it’s little pool. Quivering surface as if tickled by a strong wind. Curls of steam marking the breeze. The boundaries between colours, each intensifying the other, vibrating red and the milky blue of some crystal.

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A world in miniature. What greenery scrapes a living nearby is also a tapestry for close inspection.

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And even the concrete reinforcements bleed with ore.

By now I hope you are itching to go to Seltún. Travellers will be pleased to know it’s just around 50 minutes drive from Reykjavík on a particularly scenic route along the lower slope of some hills and passing a wide and beautiful lake, Kleifarvatn. I give these details halfheartedly because I don’t really think this blog is a very practical source of information, and this post in particular is more of an encouragement for close looking and a love letter to landscape . But on the off-chance you stumble across it and want to make the trip; take Road 41 through Kópavogur, Garðabær and Hafnarfjöður then turn onto road 42. Put it in google maps, it has you covered. For extra credit you could extend your drive around the Reykjanes peninsula afterwards.

Curiously, I am writing this on a day when the first snow of winter blankets the ground and casts everything white. It’s falling right now. What a perfect day to remember colours.

In between places: a journey to Lindisfarne

Before I leave Iceland, I am entrusted with a very important message for the Holy Islanders, pressed on me by my landlady. Tell them we are VERY sorry, yes, so sorry! 

Lindisfarne, the Holy Island, is a small, low slip of land barely 8 miles across off the north-east coast of England. A sacred place – an evangelical base -a monastery was founded there in the early 600s and churches proliferate to this day. It is the birthplace of the Lindisfarne Gospels, those intricately illuminated pages that leap from the dark ages and cast doubt on their era’s name. Lindisfarne was ransacked by the Vikings in 793, which Wikipedia helpfully tells me defines the very start of the Viking era: and Magnea tells me they are very sorry about it. 

I arrived on Holy Island on Sunday evening after a very indirect journey from Reykjavik starting at 4am on Saturday morning. I flew to via Gatwick airport, got the train to West Croydon (where the spirits of England’s Christian past mistake me for a raider and try to deter me with a biblical deluge just as I get off the train and hunt for the car containing my friends). We drove to Norfolk for the most magical party held by my dear accomplice Phoebe’s family in their garden of Eden in the countryside. It was a whirlwind of people very dear to me and it was extremely special to be there, a pilgrimage of sorts, to celebrate the Beatles and love and family and friends. 

My pilgrimage continued the next day, with a hangover that became a brewing cold, the kind I always get when I work without much rest for weeks and then stop and relax. End of term-itis. I got a lift to the station, took a train to Peterborough then changed to a train heading to Edinburgh. I hopped off at Berwick-upon-Tweed, hazy and sleep deprived, lulled by the old familiar English landscape. My parents were there to meet me with the dog, who was bemused but quite pleased to see me. We drove in the gloaming to the sea and then seemingly over it, down a narrow causeway that opens and closes with the tide. Dunes rose in the darkness. I was excited to see the landscape the next morning. We arrived at a little terraced cottage, home for the week, and I slept with night as dark as it should be for the first time in months.

What follows are mostly notes I made on the plane home, fresh in my mind. 

Lindisfarne is in between, sometimes open, sometimes closed to visitors, coastal, on the edge. Liminal. Rhythms of tide dictate life. Seals wailing at sunset. Crowds flooding in then out via the causeway. The island quietens when the tide is up, sighs, relaxes. It takes a deep breath and bustles with visitors when the tide reveals the road. 

Wildflowers everywhere forming natural patterns, varying heights of vetch, clover, meadowgrass making a tapestry, moving in the wind. Strength in diversity. But not a complete natural paradise especially if you are a furry little dog: the pirri-pirri burr, an invasive species (or very successful plant), clinging to poor Daphne’s fur on our dune walk. Luckily there were swathes of soothing seaweed to roll in.

Slowing down, switching off social media, finding a presence and simplification in dealing with here and now. 

Birds flitting everywhere, lining stone walls already draped in lichen and studded with ferns, living, breathing, wing-beating stone.

We ate mackerel at the Ship Inn, smoked kipper cakes at Craster. Full flavours linked to place. Heather honey ice cream in the car in the rain. Dark chocolate ginger slice for breakfast on the last day. Cheese and ice cream from Doddington’s Dairy in their little milk bar off the road. Coffee at Pilgrim’s coffee house where unbelievably the tell tale now familiar smell of roasting coffee emanates from a yurt in their garden.

We ate also home cooked plant based delights, masala and millet, pasta puttanesca, lentil curry. 

We were on the island in the first place because my mum was volunteering on an archaeological dig in search of the original monastery, decided to make a holiday of it and invited me to join them. Dad, the dog and I walked the dunes while Mum was scraping down the trench, finds-washing white quartz pebbles, grave offerings from very long ago. 

Back on the mainland, back even further in time, far further, we traced the curves of carved cup and ring marks, softly gouged labyrinths scattering a huge, possibly erratic boulder. Was it a map? Neolithic way-finding. There is wonder that sites like these exist without fanfare, obscured by bracken off a non-descript road. Mysteries yet to be found by the hordes. 

Sniffling and morose at the airport on my return I wondered: Can I learn to swallow the sadness of leaving? To go through the tunnel, as the theory goes, feeling all the feelings until I reach the light again. The lump in my throat and the tears pricking my eyes are evidence of how good the time I had was, which is reason to be grateful.

Grateful for the time spent with family and friends, in quiet and in party time, for the time spent in nature, for the time spent reading and learning and imagining. Grateful for the one waiting for me at home in Iceland. Perhaps to focus on these means I will keep moving through the sadness without denying it’s there. Shifting attention to what I want to feel and remember. So I think back and list more:

Upturned boat hulls becoming roofs, ropes curling through daisies, buoys and lobster pots and crates and a wetsuit down to the hoots folded limply, with care. Castle bristling with scaffolding, feather light needles of it extending far beyond the stony nucleus. A walled garden full of blooms in the middle of grass, sweet peas tied in strongly against the sea breeze.

How the tide crept out so suddenly leaving loops of seaweed marking the shallows. 

Scanning for seal heads dotting up and down and settling in sandbanks to coo at the setting sun.

The paths around the Heugh and the view from the top. 

Beautiful in between land. So many good memories. Thanks Mum and Dad! 

Seeking patience and the whole truth

So, living in Iceland, four months in. A watched pot never boils. Waiting to feel settled and at ease feels like waiting for your hair to grow, tugging expectantly at the ends everyday: for a long time, things don’t seem to change at all. Then sometime later you look up into a mirror, brushing your teeth, scrambling to be ready in time for whatever it is next: and notice that your hair has somehow shot past your shoulders and reaches down your back. Wasn’t it just yesterday barely long enough to tie back? So it is, here.

At first I had acres of time to fill up, with wandering and drawing and writing and thinking. Nowhere particular to be; no threads. My feet didn’t know my way home. Still a stranger in a strange land. I was on the outside looking in to this city with so much going on. Yet I was so eager to build a life here, I wanted everything at once: friends, a job, a favourite café, the whole tapestry. But I have had to weather my haste.

It took four weeks to find a place to live in the city. It took six weeks to find my job. Oh it sounds so little time now, in retrospect! But days stretched with uncertainty, with ‘maybe I’ll never make friends’, with ‘what if I can’t find a job’, with the creeping underlying worst doubt of all ‘maybe I’m too old, too sad and too tired to start from scratch’. Over the top, but there you go. That’s worrying for you.

A treat when delivering things from one cafe to the other branch

Then, after two months, I found I had enough threads to begin to weave together. I go to wonderful, challenging, nurturing yoga classes three times a week (which started as a perfect birthday present from Jóhann). I navigate the city enough to get where I need to go without checking my phone every thirty seconds. I go to work, I stumble over the same Icelandic phrases everyday, I know the recipes by heart and the quirks of the equipment: the sieve that leaks from the handle at a certain angle, food processor with lid that needs a little help to close. I know where tea and skyr and pesto are in the supermarket. I rack up library fines like always (bad habits don’t get left at the airport, unfortunately). I sleepwalk through the changing rooms at the swimming pool and am in my favourite hot pot before I know it. These routines, the paths I tread everyday grow like a cocoon around me. I am home, now.

And it seems that when I got busy working full-time, and going to yoga after work, and taking a trip out of the city at weekends to see nature, and so on, I stopped thinking so much about whether I would ever feel at home. And I just did.

On the road to Akranes

Acceptance of what is. Patience. Letting go of worrying. Lessons I learn and forget over and over again. Sometimes I rage at myself for making the same mistakes repeatedly, but my wise one reminded me once that when I learned to ride a bike, I most likely fell a lot of times. So every time I fall I get back on the saddle and one day, without even noticing it, I will just keep on going.
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In a perfect example of the tyranny of perfection, I wrote this post six weeks ago aiming to post it as a four months on review. But I thought I needed a drawing to go with it and I never got around to doing one, so the words were left by the wayside. I think that I will try and take my own advice: I will accept that to keep this blog going, I cannot wait around for the time and inclination to write the best words and make the best pictures I can. Because the expectations I have of myself get bigger and bigger in the meantime and then I can never meet them, and so another project is left in the dust.

So I return to this post. What I wrote for four months stays true for six months. I will add a little more. I have my moments of wailing ‘I want to go home!’ but more often than not I find my heartbeat slowed, and a calm feeling of familiarity here. I start to feel fond of Reykjavik. Fond; it feels almost like a sense of nostalgia for something that is still in existence. Perhaps in my heart I anticipate that I will leave in the not too far future, so I guard myself from a fatal head-over-heels tumble for the city. I feel affection for Reykjavik, not the zealous crush of a tourist, not love at first sight, but an amicable balance. I rather enjoy my walks to Sandholt bakery to pick up bread for work, I enjoy them even more when I go first thing and the streets are mine. I like hearing the relentless creak of the neighbourhood trampolines and the distant squeaks of children making the most of the summer sun. I like having a library card and wandering round the fleamarket on a Sunday and the routines of the swimming pool: card beeping at the turnstile, yellow rubber wristband opening locker with a click. I even like the showers where washing naked in the company of women of all ages and shapes and colours has become for me an unexpectedly affirming, relaxing and positive act. To undress and shower in a communal space is to say silently, I have nothing to hide, my body is acceptable, I am valid and the more I say it with actions, the more I believe it. Practice.

But let us be brutally honest, because I’ve been thinking a lot about the veneer effect of sharing things via social media and this blog and even in conversation too. Life seems all very wonderful on Instagram and I have had some time off sharing things on it because I became aware of a growing disconnect between what I posted and the totality of my experience. Not to negate what I have posted there, the coffees and sunsets and rhubarb and waterfalls, that all happened and is true, but I am guilty of editing. I tell the truth but it is not the whole truth. I make rhubarb tarts and custard-based ice cream and dandelion green pesto at work and then I plod home and I cannot face cooking anymore, cannot even face being in the kitchen where I might have to interact with other humans. Johann picks up the slack, all the time, makes dinner and washes up and brings me tea and porridge in the morning. Maybe we get a pizza. Maybe I spend all evening pondering the meaning of life and work myself up into a black hole and feel utterly despondent and lost and hopeless – and then, hey, I get up in the morning, feel a little silly for being so catastrophic the night before, go to work, and take a picture of the swirls I make on my latte. Who am I cheating with this narrative? EVERYONE. Myself, because I am hiding the sad and bad and mad aspects of my life and in doing so I am unwittingly telling myself and everyone else that it is unacceptable to feel sad and bad and mad. But it is okay. This practice of hiding the negative aspects of my life and showing only the sunny side of myself is not in keeping with my swimming pool shower revelations. It seems that as in yoga, I learn first with my body and it provides the gateway to learn with my mind. Or do away with the thinking mind altogether, perhaps.

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Normal me

Moving to another country does not mean leaving your issues behind, though it might feel that way at first. They are written over with novelty and might take a few months to appear. Then the same old patterns emerge. I have struggled with my mental health, wellbeing, equilibrium, whatever you like to call it, this whole year, since Calais broke my running streak of ‘good times’. In fact, I would consider that this year marks the second round (ding ding ding) of depression for me. It’s something that I could have expected, I think it’s commonly held that people who have one major depressive episode (2014-2015, holla) in their lives will be likely to have another one. To cut a long story short last time around I dropped everything and thanks to the incredibly loving and generous support of my family and large dollop of luck I was able to concentrate only on getting better- figuring out what that meant for me. There was swathes of time to simply learn to ‘be’ without the usual pressures of everyday life: work, a social life, a relationship.

This time around I am trying to do things differently. For the past six months I have been finding a home in a new country, attempting to make new friends, working full-time in a different job, and building a strong relationship with the one I intend on sticking with (aforementioned porridge-bringer). I have simultaneously been attempting to find my way out of depression and anxiety and back to full health again. Progress is slower and at many times seems non-existent. However, I have an inkling that recovering this way will give me even greater resilience;  I will have learnt how to nurture myself whilst keeping a foot in the maelstrom of everyday life, rather than needing to drop everything and hibernate.

A moment of beauty at the sea near our house. May I always have eyes for them.

So now I have aired all my laundry (metaphorically only, of course it’s all in a heap on the floor) I will sign off. I am intending to post some photos and words soon about some nice things that have happened this summer – funny that acknowledging the rubbish times makes me feel happier and more ready to share the good too. Honesty is the best policy. It’s hard to find the right words to talk about these things but I feel that it’s important to try so I will keep trying. Thanks for reading if any eyes make it this far 🙂

 

Foodie Fridays: exploring choices

Hello. It’s been a while. This week I’m reflecting on the past month, for though Friday has come and gone several times without a post (whoops!), a lot of my attention has been consumed by food. I wrote about prioritising a couple of months ago, and how after watching ‘A Quest for Meaning’ Johann and I felt that we wanted to start buying food with a better impact on people and the earth. To stop shifting the true cost of cheap food onto others. Well, here is a recap of how we are getting on. But first…

Why? Who cares what I’m eating? Says the devil on my shoulder, and perhaps a few readers. Well, yes. The likes and comments on a plethora of Instagram accounts snapping what people eat everyday indicates that some people are interested in what other people eat. I like a photogenic multicoloured bowl of fruit as much as the next sucker, but I also appreciate it when I see someone saying ‘bloody knackered got a takeaway eating it in bed’. I want beauty. I also want ugly. I don’t want to consume only perfection that makes me feel inferior about my own food. So here goes, I am trying to be honest about what’s gone wrong. On my little platform, I’d like to talk about food in a way which does not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Another phrase I learned in my permaculture course. 

We started by choosing organic tinned tomatoes. Three times the price of the basic, but not expensive in the scheme of things – it is rather that the basic brand are extremely cheap. So begins a shift in valuing. To our delight the organic ones tasted better. I believe they do actually taste better, but I also suspect my clearer conscience adds to the experience and makes me experience their taste differently. I’m reading a really great book called The Food Lab: better home cooking through science. The author conducted a taste experiment comparing supermarket eggs with farm fresh ones. First time round, everyone preferred the darker orange yolked eggs to the paler yellow supermarket ones. Then a blindfolded test – and no difference could be found. So our perception of provenance colours how we taste – I reckon that the knowing I’m buying something better for the environment makes me rate their flavour higher. But I digress. 

We still buy organic tomatoes, and coconut milk and beans and chickpeas, though if the shop doesn’t have any I’ll still get the basic brand rather than not eat any at all (confession of non-perfection no. 1). We had loftier ideals for the kidney beans and chickpeas though. The day before my birthday in May, we bought dried and excitedly soaked them overnight. Then Jóhann had to work late, and I was taken out for a drive by his mum, we all got in at ten pm and cooking beans for an hour was off the agenda. We bought a ready cooked chicken from the supermarket and ate that instead. Strike one. 

Similar strikes occurred every time we tried soaking. Working late, or coming home and forgetting to start the beans two hours before dinner time, or going out instead for some event- an unspoken decision has been taken that our lifestyle is at odds with even the tiny amount of planning needed to use dried beans. We ended up throwing away rancid soaked beans too often (no longer do I think it’s impossible to soak for too long). So, back to buying tins. 

For around a month now we have stopped eating meat, though we’re still eating fish maybe once or twice a week. I want to eat in a way which protects people and planet, and for a while I’ve had doubts about the sustainability of eating meat. But I’ve not acted. I think I might be putting off properly researching the facts of meat-eating, vegetarianism, and vegabism; perhaps because of a fear that I would then have to make severe changes to my diet. I have been choosing to live in ignorance. I don’t really believe I need to eat bacon to survive, nor have the right to, but I was pushing those feelings down and thinking, it’s tasty. 

What’s changed now? I’ve decided that I will not wait any longer without acting. While I am thinking and learning about the best way to be a consumer, I will be vegetarian. In doing so I’m listening to my gut feeling. I have been making the perfect the enemy of the good, in avoiding the question of whether it’s ethical to eat any animal product: still eating burgers and worrying about how hard it might be to be vegan! Ridiculous! So, taking the pressure off making a big decision has led to a positive change, an end to buying cheap, low welfare meat. I am a bit wary to write about this stuff because part of me feels it’s not good enough, what I am doing, but I am here to share a process, not a solution. Perhaps in a year I will have found some really good answers, but the moment I am full of questions. 

Walking round the supermarket- before I’m even in the door even! I’m thinking ‘is it right to shop here? What about supporting independent produce shops? Should I buy this packaged avocado (no, I probably shouldn’t, but I really want guacamole…) Which of these six brands of tinned tomato would pay the producer the most? How was it transported here?’ We’re talking rabbit in the headlights, stunned by the weight of not knowing, in the aisles. How can something so simple as ‘what shall we have for dinner?’ splinter into such an infinitely complex and seemingly unknowable conundrum? I start to look up promotional material from the vegan side and the meat side. I’m pretty convinced by some arguments then I find the opposition thoroughly debunks them, and then back and forth, and so on. 

With this in the background, I turn to small changes. What can I change that I am reasonably sure is better than what I currently do? Not the best, perhaps, but an improvement. Organic tomatoes. Ones without pesticides. Okay. Organic tomatoes it is. 

I’d like to thank anyone who’s read all this, and challenge you to choose one thing. One small thing. And change it for the better. If anyone does it, please let me know. Have a great weekend! 

Flowering 

The trees are in leaf, finally. I learnt the Icelandic word for finally, finally (loksins). It never gets dark and I have the beginnings of a tan. 
I am very aware that I haven’t written in a while, that my Foodie Friday habit has fallen by the wayside: this post is an update, offering and explanation. 

As Iceland wakes up from winter I am awakening from my own darkness too, slowly, slowly not quite surely. There is a quickening to spring, an acceleration where the buds whose progress you followed religiously suddenly burst with pollen, and the lawn is a lush field after months of jaundice. I have found in myself a rising urge to draw and paint, in colour, starting on a blank page without knowing it’s end, feeling the liberation like a welcome breeze on my face (Iceland is not short of welcome breezes, and absolutely brimming with unwelcome ones). So I have not made any illustrations for this blog, instead trying little steps into the unknown, feeling like I don’t know what I’m doing, which is an exciting feeling. Though I like drawing the illustrations for Foodie Friday here I haven’t found the motivation to sit and draw a picture I can already see in my head, as is the case with most of the black and white ink drawings I’ve made for this blog. 

So although this blog is a quiet space, in daily life it feels like everything is humming and blooming and flowering. While I am becoming, I know less how to write about it – in the process of forming and changing what can I say from the eye of the storm? Better perhaps from a distance, later. That’d what I tell myself when I skip writing the blog in order to see what happens if I put pink next to green. 

I have a distinct memory of being at primary school, in an afternoon given over to art. Sitting at a table, totally and utterly engrossed in the colour purple, Berol chunky felt tip in hand, moving it cross the page just to see the velvety liquid purple spread, not to make a picture. 
And later at secondary school, being scolded for wasting paint and time as I stared hypnotised into a glass, loading a brush with colour and dipping it in to see the reds unfurl in the water. 

This feeling occurred less and less as I grew up, ‘studied’ and attempted a career of sorts in art. I don’t know that those things caused the loss of it, I don’t think they always do. But now, I find the feeling again when I sit to paint. I’m painting probably quite terrible pictures. I don’t know. For the first time I realise I don’t care. That it doesn’t matter. I am putting them here anyway, I am thinking that it’s good for me to loosen my grip on perfectionism, so sharing these raw, no-thought pieces is important, not because of how they look but for the shift in process. 

There is an Icelandic cartoonist called Hugleikur Dagsson who recently formed a boy band called Never 2 L8. There’s a really quite lovely music video you can find. His reason was that he always wanted to be in a boy band and decided it was never too late. The band consists largely of bearded, middle aged men. This is the sentiment I am championing now, as I decide to paint in colour when I don’t know how. And in all areas of life too, things are flowering where I thought there would only be space.
I bought a baritone ukulele. I’m learning to play it. I want to learn to sing. I am writing songs. I am doing yoga three times a week and thinking of training as a teacher some day. I went to dance class last week and want to do more.

The idea I had of myself is shifting and the things I thought were ‘not me’ turn out to be only blocked by barriers of the mind. 

This post is like one long apology for absence, and my excuse is that I am a work in progress and I haven’t worked out how to share that without breaking a fragile spirit of trying. But I think it will be good to try. This is the first attempt.

Learning to rest

My mind feels like a pot brimming with thoughts, brewing for hours as I go about my day, then too heavy to lift and pour into this space when I get home and slump into the armchair. Too many to put into action, at the moment, when I feel tired after work. A snapshot of the pot contents:

Start fermenting things: sauerkraut, beetroot kvass, kimchi. Pot on some of the herbs on the windowsill. Sow more seeds indoors and out. Clear the outdoor bed of weeds and cover in compost. Start collecting food waste in the kitchen for composting. Draw more. Write about all this. Bake bread. Acquire mushroom spawn and start growing mushrooms at work. Make a plan for growing herbs and salad at work. Test new recipes. Meet a friend for coffee. Go swimming. Meditate. Make a planting plan for my former wwoof hosts, Greyhound Brewery. Write letters.

These are the things I daydream about doing, as I wash up, as I walk home, as I stir soup. Still, I think I am learning to prioritise and thus most of these seeds remain unsprouted (and in the case of the gardening plans, quite literally unsown). The most important thing I need to do at the moment is work out how to rest, and how to lose the guilt that slips like a shadow stuck to the heels of these ‘things to do’, a shadow that grows darker when they aren’t done.

I need to rest because I’m working 40 hours a week, at my new job, which I love, and which takes concentration and effort as I make new routines and learn how to get things right. I need to rest because my mind still fizzles with a hum that comes from making a home in a different country, where there are new sights and sounds on the morning walk, where my brain tries to unscramble the language constantly, where I am making new connections with new people, where I don’t know where to find toothpicks in the supermarket. It strikes me, writing this, that actually I need to learn that I don’t have to justify my need for rest.

However, I’m trying to pull this thought from the pot and share it – that learning how to be at peace with resting feels like the greatest task of all. To be at ease with yourself when you are not doing something that makes you feel useful, successful, or beautiful means to find fulfillment within your own being and not from external sources. Which is helpful when everything outside you crashes to the ground, as I have known before and think I will know again sometime.

Recently, in a low mood, I had the vision of a bottomless hole, a black hole into which a jug of water pours, but never fills. The spiritual equivalent of ‘in one ear and out the other’. This image comes closest to making sense, for myself, the importance of working towards (living towards, being towards) finding peace in myself. Because everything else is fleeting, and I’m so tired of being tossed on stormy seas, being elated then despondent then joyful then miserable.

So this week, under Johann’s suggestion, I have tried to prioritise rest, in whatever form that takes. And wonderfully, it’s kind of great finding a real, day to day, way of tackling the ‘how to find peace’ question. Whenever these exciting, creative, action thoughts have bubbled up in the evenings, I have tried to choose what feels like ‘rest’ over action, which for me means reading and yoga over everything else. In a confusing way writing this blog does not count as rest so I am currently not obeying my own guidelines. On the other hand, I am feeling much less guilty than usual about that, so I’m doing something right. Oh, what a minefield.

This is all big people stuff that I am in no way trying to present myself as an authority on. Nothing here is original gems of wisdom from yours truly. For genuine gems, I have found Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now to be most eye opening book on the matter of learning how to be. And I learn a lot from talking to Johann who is the real sage. Yoga shows me a path out of despair, and so many other patchwork pieces of experience have led me to this point. Rather, I present my credentials as human being who struggles but sees there is another way. In talking about my journey, narcissistic and utterly pointless though it sometimes seems, I hope maybe another person would find something that helped them on their own journey.

On a side note: I so often think of big problems in the world in contrast to my ‘struggle’ and I feel immense privilege and, yes, a great big anvil of guilt, that I have a warm home, food and safety, yet I often feel so despondent. Many people are struggling for warmth, food and safety, and don’t have the ability to launch into a navel-gazing, inner peace-finding experiment. Then I try to hold on to the idea that to transform the world, you have to transform yourself first. I think that’s not worded very well, and the change I want for myself is not an adding but a sloughing away of unnecessary habits, thought, action, and a radical return. But that’s the essence, and it’s my lived experience, from being in Calais, that without re-finding the peace that is in all of us, I am not able to work towards peace outside of myself either.

If you’ve read this far, thank you. I hope something resonated somewhere, for someone. The photo at the top is of lava cooled into rock, in the Rift Valley, where two tectonic plates meet. Hot flow in the tempest finding stillness.

 

 

 

Foodie Fridays: growing in the far north

It gives us a lot of happiness to watch our plants grow. The windowsill garden is lush now. I’m really surprised how fast everything came up – rocket, mustard, dill, coriander, and chives within days. The parsley hung about and took a week at least; still far quicker than I thought! Then again, the days are getting longer than I’ve ever experienced before. The sun is up around 4 and sets at about 10.30, with light still in the sky a while longer. Our plants are on our bedroom indoor windowsill, between the window and the curtain so they soak up all that light. They’re also advantageously placed over a radiator. In the first week of their little lives it was snowing and cold outside, we had the window open to get air into the room and I feared for them. But with some radiator heat and the overall warmth of our flat (permanently toasty) they did fine.

2017-05-12-06.40.11-1.jpg.jpgAt first they all seemed quite leggy but they don’t look so bad now, maybe as we’ve had some actual sun lately. We are yet to eat them: I think this weekend I will start snipping the rocket. All this grew in three weeks. The basil and tomato we bought as plants, as I thought we wouldn’t be able to grow from seed and get them to fruit before winter sets in, given that we started this tiny plot at the end of April.

This is about food, yet these plants are worth so much more than just their nutritional value. In a city where the trees are straining to open their buds, still, in mid-May: I can see green leaves soon as I wake up. When I stand over them the basil releases its scent first, reminding me of warmth. Having something to look after is a balm for the soul too, telling me in small but profound ways, that my actions matter. The water I give them is gratefully received. I turn the pots sporadically so they grow straighter and stronger. I will learn to care for myself the way I care for others.

2017-05-01-07.00.31-1.jpg.jpgI love the way the chive seeds sprout, sending up one tall limb that holds its own seed aloft; look what I came from. We have so many of each plant that we can conduct experiments, which was half the purpose of growing things here, to learn. Some chives might make it outdoors where our landlady has, to my delight, given over a couple metres squared growing space to us. It’s tucked around the corner so I hadn’t seen it. There’s even two compost bays! I was so gleeful to find out. So, this weekend I hope to have a look at the patch, do some weeding and get things going.

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Japanese giant mustard

When you’re staring at empty pots and full seed packets, when the garden is an idea not a touchable reality, it is so hard to imagine that anything really, truly, grows. And yet, it does. That is a thought I need to take to heart, for the times I fall into a gloom and can’t see past it. Day always follows night. Small seeds turn into plants with fruit and flowers to seeds again. I know this; I lose it, find it, lose it but I know it deep down. I will grow to know it always, I hope.

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Foodie Friday: exploring priorities

I’ve been thinking about priorities a lot this week, as it has become apparent that I don’t really make any. This came to light after writing last Sunday’s belated Foodie Friday post. I sat down for dinner with Johann, chef of the day, and he asked how the writing was going. I grumbled that it was almost finished, but I was feeling frustrated that I’d spent a couple of hours on it and so didn’t get other things done that I wanted to. As I explained this, it dawned on me how ridiculous a thought that is. I had just achieved a task I wasn’t sure I’d manage, and all I could think of, instantly, was everything else I hadn’t yet done. Change is needed.

Johann explained the radical idea of priorities to me. That you can set yourself the single, most important goal, and then work out if everything else you want to do works towards it or not. And prioritise the activities that lead to the goal. Crucially, the second step is to get rid of the guilt over not doing anything or doing the ‘wrong’ things.

Musing on this is helpful to me, and the concept has overlapped with our thoughts about food this week too. We went to see a brilliant documentary called A Quest For Meaning last week, in which two French men go on a journey to find out how to live. Ok, that summation makes it sound a bit terrible, but it covered some really cool ground, they spoke to some very inspirational figures and it had an impact on us.

One super cool amazing person I need to research more is Vandana Shiva. She said something that’s rattled round my mind ever since: that we can buy cheap food, but we are not paying the true cost. I take this to mean: the true cost of industrial agriculture is paid by the earth, and by workers, and with our health. Someone, or something, else is paying for our choices while we save money.

This made us revisit what I vowed in a previous post: that we are saving money by buying cheap low quality food now, in order to make a difference later. Reconsidering this means deciding to begin to stop shifting the cost and responsibility, and start prioritising organic, local food. I begin to think we have a responsibility to accept nothing less than good quality organic food, and to see cheap meat, cheap dairy, cheap, processed anything as unacceptable. Surely we can find other areas to economise in (I think of my trips to the ice cream shop and gulp in fear).

So, this week we have bought some dried organic kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, some organic versions of things we already buy. It’s by no means a total transformation, we are rather dipping our toes in and changing a few products at a time. But it feels good to decide that good food is a priority now, not later.

In the spirit of priorities I am also writing this in my lunch break at work, which accounts for any dodgy sentences I haven’t had time to proof. I’ve worked all week, we have family and friends visiting today – hooray! So I know this is my only time, and I want to stick writing, so I am trying to take little snippets of time.

Priorities also means today making fresh pizzas for all the staff at work. Such a good Friday tradition, that stretches my ability to coordinate all my other jobs but is so worth the effort.

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Time to go back and roll out some dough. Maybe next week I’ll have time for some drawing and a proper review of something food related! Happy weekend.