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.
—–

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.

Instagram me
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.

2017-05-12-06.39.37-1.jpg.jpg
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.

Foodie Fridays: okay, it’s Sunday, but here’s a catch up anyway

Typically, the week I spend completely immersed in food (not literally, or perhaps I wouldn’t still have the job) is the week I don’t manage to get fingers to keyboard to write about it. So here is a compensatory, quick little jotting of thoughts. It was my training week at my new job in the kitchen of a lovely cafe here in Reykjavik. I’ve been learning recipes, tasting, adjusting, tasting again. I’m used to cooking for just friends and family so it’s been cool to scale up and learn how to prepare large amounts of things. I’ve worked as a kitchen assistant before, in summer as a student, but this job’s a little different, it’s a one person kitchen – for two branches of the coffee shop! So it’s a really interesting challenge for me.

I’ve spent a couple of years growing food, first on a little allotment, then working at a herb farm, then as a long-term wwoof volunteer in the UK. When I came to Iceland, I considered finding work as a gardener: but after some pondering realised that I’d rather like to follow my passion for good food, rather than end up gardening commercially with only ornamental plants, and non-organically. I want to experience the other end of the food chain! To be in between producer and consumer. I have a feeling running the kitchen will inform my future food growing, and be a great opportunity to develop new skills.

As it turned out, I am super lucky to be working at a really great company. Everyone has been friendly and welcoming, and everything I learned to make was delicious. Fresh hummus, pesto, tuna salad…almond and coconut milk from scratch…toasted granola mixes…tip top spiced chai. I have enjoyed the variety of processes, and the focus of my week has really been getting my head around multi-tasking. Cooking dinner for me and Johann is a relaxed process, where I can usually just focus on one thing at a time. Preparing food at work means making the best use of time, which has often meant working on a couple of dishes at once. On quieter days I was able to plod through my to-do list one at a time – maybe four tuna, two hummus. Simple. But some days it’s necessary to get one thing going first, then hop in between various stages of the process, getting other things done too. That really taxes my mind and will be a skill to develop!

Often while I was stirring the chai and inhaling the spicy aroma, or zesting lemons, or getting a waft of toasted maple syrup as I took the granola out of the oven, I would catch myself and think happily, ‘hey! this is WORK!’ because it felt like play. I enjoy cooking. My learning curve next week will be being in charge of my time, having to decide what to make when, and co-ordinating everything. The time I spent in Calais co-ordinating the packing of food parcels has given me some confidence in organisation, and although undoubtedly it sometimes feels strange to be preparing gourmet breakfasts, not bags of tins for hungry people, I think to myself that this is part of my journey towards helping other people again sometime in the future. This is time that I am allowed to take for myself, to recover financially by working full-time, and also recover mentally, by doing something that I enjoy and that has a lower stress factor. Actually, in the past I’d have been a little furious ball of stress having to organise the volume of food needed for our busy cafes, now I feel it’s a do-able task – after all, there aren’t 10,000 customers. And I understand a little more the kind of attitude that gets things done: it’s not the hare-brained worrier! So I try to cultivate the confidence, and savour the enjoyment, and remember to be grateful.

So, just a small post to make up for missing Friday. My other challenge coming up is keeping up writing and posting here twice a week , which has been really easy whilst not working, but harder to stick to after an 8 hour shift! I’m going to have to accept that not every post can be a 1000 word opinion piece…actually, maybe that’s a good thing. Let’s see how it goes.

 

 

 

Settling

The last seven days has been so busy, my feet ache and I’m just about hanging on, but enjoying the ride. Here follows the week in brief:

Last Thursday was ‘Sumardagurinn fyrsti’, the offical first day of summer here in Iceland. It was snowing. Then the snow cleared and the sun came out. This happened approx every ten minutes throughout the day. Johann had the day off work and we made an expedition to Hveragerði, a village about 45 mins out of the city, where there’s a horticultural school. There was an open day, so we could wander round the glasshouses and buy plants raised organically there. One glasshouse contained Iceland’s largest (and now only, I believe) banana plantation. Yes, really! Warmed by geothermal heat, we walked past steaming pipes running from the ground outside. Indoors I was so excited to see the bananas actually fruiting, oranges hanging from trees, and tropical flowers, all under the shadow of a snowy mountain. I feel like a child at Disneyland going to gardens these days. Always going wow, wow, WOW! 

We were inspired and on our way home stopped at a garden centre, where we bought seeds, soil, and seed trays to start our own windowsill garden. Watching the seeds sprouting and put down roots helps me grow my own roots here. To grow something in a place is to commit to it. And we are so lucky to be watching this game of nature already, the rocket sprouted in 48 hours, now 6 days on we have chives, dill, and mustard too. So exciting. 

At the weekend I attended a course in Nonviolent Communication run by Jack Lehmann. You could also call it empathetic, or compassionate, communication. In brief it’s about learning a way of talking and listening that promotes harmony… In which we learn how to express our feelings and needs, and listen to other people’s feelings and needs, in a way that avoid conflict and allows them to be met. I couldn’t afford the fee and so bartered my skills as an illustrator to record the training visually, whilst also being a participant. It was exhausting. Illuminating. Emotional. Affecting. Funny. I’m going to take some time to process it and will hopefully share more details here soon. My drawings are currently with the course leader, I was gutted to get a migraine on the afternoon of the last day so I left them with him in a hurry. I’ll work on them when I get ’em back. 
So that happened…then I started my new job on Monday! I’m working in the kitchen at Reykjavik Roasters, which is a super nice cafe here that’s very serious about coffee. So far I’ve been learning the ropes (and the recipes) from the guy who’s running it currently before he leaves on Friday. We’ve been toasting granola, making seedy crackers, pesto, fresh almond milk and coconut milk and other delicious things. I’m really enjoying working with food all day and it’s going to be a challenge next week with no-one to tell me what to do, but I’ll learn a lot! Everyone is really friendly and I feel like I’m really settling down in this city now I have a workplace and regular faces to chat to. Also, it’s the best place to learn about coffee. So serious. To a decimal point serious. And we also planted some chive seeds at the end of the day today so soon I’ll be able to raise plants at work too, hurrah!

Still I struggle with the discipline of doing yoga and meditation. Still I know what helps and I don’t do it as often as I should! Tonight I’ll try and practice patience and self-compassion for my mistakes. The perfectionist in me wants this post to say more, for me to delve deeper and try to express the settling feeling of this at last becoming home, but I’m tired and reaching my limit. There’s always next time. I’ll be pleased I even wrote at all. 

I walk home down a hill with a view to Mount Esja, and though the foreground is taken up by a stack of humdrum office buildings and traffic, today I smiled and saw the beauty and the strangeness. Why here? Why now? How did I get here, working in a kitchen in Iceland, I who grew up in England thinking only of making words and pictures, scared of new places, scared of new food? Funny how a dream shifts, percolates* through and settles in the margins. As I grow older it becomes less important to me to forge a primary career as an artist. I find having another occupation is fertile ground for making art, telling stories. I was happy and surprised, once I wavered from the path of studying, practicing, teaching art to find other things I love: food and gardening. Things that fulfil me too. So I smile at the mountain and feel thankful for having got where I am today, standing at a busy crossroads waiting for the clickety-clack of the traffic lights to change and signal I can move forward once again.
 

*Coffee on the brain, clearly

Foodie Fridays: keeping it real.

My first intention for the Foodie Friday series of posts was to share only stories about local food, particular to place. Food that you really had to ‘be there’ for. Food that is shaped by the place in which its grown – by landscape, climate, culture, the French concept of ‘le terroir’. Food and culture seem to be a snake that’s eating itself, an ouroboros. I mean, the culture of a place shapes the food thats eaten; the food that’s eaten shapes the culture of a place.

So, Iceland. I thought of berries; foraged and pressed into service as juice, jam, sauce. Of fish, of course, in this nation with abundant seas. Of rich, fresh, organic butter, milk, cream, skyr. Rugged lambs raised on windy, verdant lands.

The uncomfortable truth I’m facing is that these foods are prohibitively expensive, to us at the moment. It is important to recognise my privilege here: Johann and I are not poor, in the global scale. We’re not even going to be poor on the Icelandic scale, once we have two salaries coming in next month. We have no disposable income by choice. We’re trying to save as much money as possible to enable us to spend next year travelling and learning, and get closer to our aim of buying land and starting our own small farm in some guise. When I talk about not being able to afford something now, it is in the full appreciation that that is a choice I have taken, and I want no sympathy. It is not the same as being without choice, truly having no access to good food. But lately I feel I am awakening to the existence of parallel food cultures. There is the Iceland of foraged berries, of geothermally baked rye bread, of whale steak: and there is also the Iceland I eat in most days which is closer in feel to the British supermarket chain. I feel that our current situation gives me a small and valuable insight into how it is to live and eat largely on a very restrictive budget.

Good, cheap, colourful dinner

In this nation of fishermen and sheep farmers, we eat most often vegetarian curry. We buy a fresh chicken occasionally: we get two meals from it and a stock if I can be bothered. We also buy bacon sometimes, little chunks, and tins of tuna. Fish, lamb, pork, beef: it’s all so expensive. Basically, most days we eat a combination of fresh, tinned and frozen veg, with eggs and beans for protein. Sometimes pasta. It’s all own brand, cheapest versions. We own a curry blend, a chicken spice blend, garam masala and oregano. From these few things we make food that nourishes, satisfies, pleases. Meals that I look forward to sitting and eating.
It seems obvious that to call curry an Icelandic food would be to deny its origins, and constitute cultural appropriation. Just because I eat it most here doesn’t make it of this place…it’s confusing though; when I look back at my time living here so far I smell the warmth of the spices of weeknight dinners. I have an inkling that when I leave Iceland and remember it, these cheaply made concoctions will come to mind as much as the isolated, few and far between times that I taste something of Iceland’s food heritage. So why do I tell half a story, writing only of heritage, organic foods, then go to the kitchen and eat something completely different? I want this blog to be honest and not one of the legion of glamorous travel accounts. By attempting to write every week about foods I can’t afford, I start to feel like I’m sharing a story that isn’t mine.

I feel guilty buying budget meat, knowing it’s welfare standards are likely low. I wonder if I can justify the end by the means: I can’t support organic producers now, but in five years I hope to be part of the revolution of small growers with an environmental and social conscience. We can’t see a way of getting to that stage without having money. Without independent wealth and high paying jobs – Johann’s doing building work, I start kitchen work next week – saving money means restrictions. Some days I’m full of the fire of the future, others I think: how can I pretend to be ethical while I hand over cash and support large-scale factory farming?

Everyday curry

If only there was a kind of national gallery of food, where our most treasured tastes and culinary heritage would be saved and available to all free of charge. This is partly addressed by the Slow Food movement’s ‘Ark of Taste’ which aims to ‘preserve at-risk foods that are sustainably produced, unique in taste, and part of a distinct ecoregion’. I am all for saving them, though I would also like to see increased access to these foods. In my experience of English ‘ark of taste’ entrants, I’ve eaten Herdwick lamb on holiday and in the case of jersey royal potatoes, bought them in Marks and Spencers in times when I was being supported by my parents. But they cost a lot more than the average spud. Increased access – does it mean more people around the world get to taste that specific item, like the Chegworth Valley apple juice in my local farmers’ market here in Iceland? In my mind increased access to ark of food tastes means that people in the area where it is available are able to have it as part of their diet, even if they are not in the wealthiest sector of population. I guess in order to save it, any kind of increase in consumers is good. But wouldn’t it be great if the foods were accessible to the producers, locals, their families, not just wealthy people or tourists!
I don’t mean to highlight any negativity in my food experience here: only to remark on the existence of alternative experiences of Icelandic food, based on what’s available in the supermarkets, not only the boutiques. What truly constitutes ‘Icelandic food’? Is it a selection of items with the most established lineage, a traceable history? Or is it a snapshot of what the majority of inhabitants eat today? I am being a devil’s advocate to myself really, I believe wholeheartedly in the preservation of traditional food, but I also want to find a way to reconcile my experience as a food consumer in Iceland with the lichen, seaweed, crowberry, lamb of it’s heritage. My experience of food here is little islands of traditional Icelandic things in a sea of foods from elsewhere: produce grown abroad, recipes from far away jumbled up and adapted to here and now.

A kind of ‘Afghan eggs’, a meal learnt during our time volunteering in Calais

When we think of a country’s food culture, how useful is it to focus only on what was widely eaten in the past? How widely adopted and currently practiced does a certain food have to be, to be considered a mainstay of a place’s food culture? Is it important also to paint a picture of how people eat today, a picture shaped by container ships, globalisation, the polarity between consumers – the millions of tourists who come versus the 330,000 residents, and an increasing number of immigrants needed to support the growing volume of tourists.
I guess I think it is important to consider the whole, and to include the contemporary, the cheap, the mass experience, in accounts of a place’s culinary culture. I think if you tell a story, you have a responsibility to tell the whole story. But I’m in over my head really. I am just starting to think about these issues and share my thoughts as a means of starting a discussion, hopefully. And I have come to enjoy the discipline of writing this blog, so even if no one reads it, it has had the effect of crystallising my thoughts: giving a regular incentive to think deeply about things. I’m going to widen my remit of writing about Icelandic food; with the experimental definition of Icelandic food simply as anything and everything I’ve eaten in this land. As always, I would relish the thoughts of others: if anyone made it this far down the post, I salute you and would like to hear your take.

Happy weekend!