...because you thought Sweden was Switzerland!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The most beautiful thing I had ever seen

Last Tuesday, I and a couple of Finnish students went to the Blue Lagoon. It was a wonderful place. On the way there, the bus passes through mountainous barren landscapes, and then a big lava field draped with bright green moss. It truly looked out of this world. As we approached the Lagoon, we could see big clouds of steam coming from the geothermal plant nearby. Later, I found find out that clouds of steam rising from the ground wasn't uncommon in the Icelandic countryside. In these particular sites with strong vulcanism, Icelanders put up powerplants, villages (that are powered by the nearby plants), greenhouses, and of course, steam baths and hot springs. Blue Lagoon is one of these hot springs, neighbor to the big geothermal plant.

The Blue Lagoon really is blue. Milky, powdery blue. Actually, the water is transparent, but the sun reflects on it in such a way that the surface looks milky blue and you can't see farther than a few inches off the surface, which is also out of this world. My students and I enjoyed being there -- it's worth a story for another time. But the real point of this entry is what happened after the Blue Lagoon.

The Lagoon closes at 8PM, but we didn't know that the bus (a charter bus) didn't leave until 9:15 in the evening. We were disappointed to know this because we hurried to catch the non-existent 8:15 bus. Waiting out in the Icelandic cold night, we tried (without success) to hitch rides with couples leaving from the Lagoon, and a company tour bus (again without success). We just had to wait there for an hour so I decided to write postcards in the meantime.

Suddenly, someone saw something. Could it be??? The other people waiting for the bus had scattered. Someone told us we could get a better view from just behind the bus stop, where there was a hill and it wasn't well lit. At first, it looked just like a strong streak of green, like a brush stroke in the air that became brighter and brighter as our eyes got used to the dark. Then parts of it grew, swelling into something that looked like a waterfall.

At this point, the bus came. But apparently the bus driver had seen the aurora on the way to the bus stop, so he called in the passengers to say that we should walk a little further down the road to the parking lot, where it was darker still. For I don't know how long, the bus driver and we were just standing at the corner of the parking lot, looking up to the sky into the most beautiful thing I had ever seen in my life.

The bright streak which we first saw from the bus stop became even brighter still, turning into an arc in the sky. It stretched across from one horizon to the other like a mythical bridge.

On one side of the sky, the waterfall of green turned into a bright curtain, fluttering and dancing. It was a sight to behold. Everyone was very excited, holding their breaths, taking pictures and holding each other (at least those who knew each other!).

The arc also danced, but in a different way. It split in two and combined again.

I didn't know until then that you could still see the stars so brightly though the northern lights.

Needless to say, nobody cared about the bus schedule anymore. Especially since the bus driver was with us watching the lights. He said he had been living in Iceland for eight years and that this was one of the best displays he had seen. Many tourists go out nightly without even seeing these mystical lights, or at least not this bright and big.

Apparently the sun activity was very bright that particular evening and the aurora was even seen in central Reykjavik, where there is a lot of light pollution and where it is normally just seen as a weak streak in the sky. I know this because the next day, I took a tourist bus tour. Two of the other tourists were a couple who watched the northern lights near the central church in Reykjavik. The man proposed to her there, under the aurora. Talk about slick!

Anyway, my students and I were very happy to have experienced this together. We were just grinning all the way back in the bus to the city, thanking our lucky stars that we had no luck hitching an early ride. I thought for a moment that I could die happily right there and then. But luckily, I didn't do that either.

The bus driver, instead of taking us to the bus station late at night (we arrived in the city at 11PM), even dropped all the passengers off in the vicinity of their respective hotels. Talk about good vibes. The whole evening was just magic!

Monday, October 12, 2015

From The Secret Life of Walter Mitty?

Earlier today, I sat on a plane bound for Iceland. Captain Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone around the World” lay on my lap, a memoir of the first solo circumnavigation of the world. As far as I had reached in the memoir, Slocum was now in South America, trying to ward away pirates and anchoring in uninhabited shores to collect firewood for the Spray. As I imagined the voyage of the Spray and Slocum’s adventures, I just had to look out the window to my own little journey.

Below me was a thick sheet of cloud – a whole world away from the waves and the rolling sea of the Atlantic, across which Slocum had just sailed. Like the sea, the sheet of cloud also seemed featureless; yet its contours created its own strange landscape. From time to time, there were bumpy elevations that looked like cloud mountains on cloud valleys. When the cloud opened up to reveal the sea below, it resembled lakes in the sky. The clouds dispersed even more, and the cloud mainland broke up into a cloud archipelago. 

As we started descent by the coast of Iceland, the clouds were scarce enough to reveal an outline of a coast, and then something large, dark, jagged and snow-covered: A glacier! My thoughts were slowly taking me back to land.

As a young girl in high school and when we first got cable TV, I used to tune into the Travel Channel or Discovery and watched about destinations that I had only dreamed of going to. “Globetrekker” was a favorite. Europe seemed very far away, so foreign yet so intriguing and full of different cultures, food and buildings. I only saw pictures in books otherwise, or in my sister’s Lufthansa training CD (She worked back then in ticket sales) where one could learn to memorize airport codes. Going back even further, back in grade school, air travel was an expensive luxury that only very rich families could afford. The only frequently traveling relative we had in the family was a missionary nun, a cousin of my grandmother. She told me interesting stories of how the horizons looked differently, as seen from a plane entering to the night / day side of the earth. (OK, we had some relatives that frequently visited Disneyland too, but that wasn’t quite as interesting for me, even then!)

If I could tell Younger me that she would end up travelling to different countries at 31, she would probably be so glad, almost not believing her ears. That thought made me realize what a privilege things really are, that if unappreciated, would seem normalized and quite “usual”. Like: You’re flying to Iceland, for goodness’ sake! No matter if it’s for the job – you’re actually here! I felt gratefulness for the things I have, for the people in my life, and to how life turned out to be, the good and the bad.

Quoting my college classmate Carlo on his 32nd birthday some weeks ago, “When I look at myself as 32 and compare it with how I thought things would be, I think: Life’s not too shabby!”

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Dear blog,

Remember Juanita some years back?

Well I have a new project that began late summer 2014, and her name is Fixa. In Swedish, “fixa” means “to fix”, and the name basically says it all. When we got Juanita, she had a large hole on deck and a missing window. Fixa, a larger boat, had much larger problems. Unloved and uncovered for more than 10 years on land, the boat was filled with about a foot of oil-mixed water. The wood interiors were damaged by the moisture and mould. The pipes had corroded. But on the upside, she was also almost unused. Her foresail had only been folded once before, i.e. by the sail maker.

Depending on how you view it, I slipped, stumbled or willingly plunged into this project through persuasion by M’s dad. At that time, I had just graduated. He said that since I was doing so many projects anyway, including ham radio with marine frequencies, why don’t I repair a boat with him that could eventually be my own? Admitting that owning a boat through mere repair work sounds too good to be true, I said yes. But I admit I also felt kind of sorry for the guy. Aside from a few pizzas now and then, our contact had always been pretty sporadic. He always asks about M’s godparents at the countryside; offers that I could call him too like I call them. Obviously, this project was also an attempt to have something in common, “to act little bit like a dad”, as he once said.

All autumn and spring, we had been working with Fixa. We drained it. We took out all the wood interiors. I sanded and varnished each one of those wooden pieces three times. We scrubbed the dirty interior twice. We replaced one winch and all the rope clutches. We changed the pipes. We re-installed the interiors. I fixed the lighting. We installed new water pipes. I cleaned the tank and the stove. We installed a refrigerator and a septic tank. I washed the exterior. I aired the mattresses. I bought kitchenware at a second-hand store, I started filling the shelves.





All is well. Or was. The boat is launched and floating but I don’t know much else as of now. I decided that I didn’t want to be a part of the mess when M’s dad “discovered” on the spot on the day of the launch that the motor wasn’t working properly, the generator wasn’t charging, and that the sail was too long for the new furling system he just bought. What a damn surprise when you haven’t given them a look in the first place. Or had prioritized other cosmetic things. "Optimist" that he was, he was even thinking of sailing away on it on that very day which of course was ungrounded fantasy.

In hindsight, I know now that whatever the context, pity is a wrong reason to do things together with people. It’s only when people are on the same wavelength that working on a common project can become a joy. Otherwise, when you realize you’re not on the same page – and haven’t been on the same page in the first place with things such as goals and methods – those unresolved differences become a source of frustration over time, bubbling under the surface before it brings to a rolling boil. I’ve felt resignation, apathy and something very close to hatred, when I decided that I needed to get away from that project for my own good. Just sucking it in for the sake of invested work, for the price of losing sight of what's supposed to be pleasant with this job, just isn't plain worth it.

I’m prepared to admit that egoism may be a much better reason than pity or “trying to be nice”. Because, for the lack of a common wavelength with M’s dad, egoism must be the only reason why I’m curious to find out what has happened to Fixa since the day of the launch. That is, I want to go out sailing when my friend Kristine comes visiting next week. Yet as I prepare to call about the boat this weekend, I can almost taste my stress, in anticipation of getting frustrated again or discovering something horribly wrong that hadn’t been fixed with anything else than some provisionary bad solution, yet again. A working boat might be too much to ask for, how pessimistic that might sound. But I’m ready for the worst now. If things go well (which I anyway hope it does), I will be pleasantly surprised. But if I get too disappointed, at least I know the feeling would just last for another few days. Then I could just drive the heck away from there, take my kayak on the roof of my car and just paddle away to some other place. Away. Perhaps I should give the kayak a name. Like Färdig (complete) or Redo (ready). Or perhaps even Friheten (freedom).

Until next time!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Projects 2015 - 2016

Dear me,

It's July, but it's better late than never for your list of New Year's projects.

This coming year (2015-2016):

Go on a skiing vacation - even if it means going alone. Promise yourself this.

Spend this Christmas with loved ones.

Go kayaking in Nedre Glottern. It's beautiful there, surrounded by pines and cliffs. I know because I was swimming there a month ago and saw a couple of kayakers in the distance, on water that reflected the evening sun. And I thought to myself that one day that would be me.

Good luck!
- Me

Monday, July 20, 2015

Annual summer leave

Dear blog,

I sometimes think about you like an old friend I should be writing to. And today, when I looked up at the ceiling from the guest bed here in the countryside, I thought that today was as a good time as any other. After all, writing is like a muscle – it atrophies when unused. And in the second place, time here in the countryside is slow. Though I’m not bored, I feel that I have infinite amounts of time here, as if time were stretched. That means I have the whole day ahead of me to sit the cat, tend to the garden, go for a run, and to sit down and write those lines I’d been thinking I should write to you one day.

As I write, I’m on a five-week long vacation – the longest break I’ve had since school summer vacations. It was rather scary deciding to be free for so long. What was I going to do with all my time? Yet, I felt that I owed it to myself to decide on a long break. When I had a part-time job last summer, I don’t remember taking more than a week’s leave. And two summers ago, I was too busy working on my thesis I practically worked all summer. That said, I had nice summers and I also did some memorable activities worthy of the name summer break. But maybe I should try this thing normal working people call “annual leave” for a change. Whatchathink? 

So far so good.

I’ve gone on The Hobbit and Harry Potter movie marathons at home. I finished all the movies in about a span of about a week and a half!

It's also nice to be home since I'm tending to my vegetable-growing project on the balcony. Here's how the plants looked like in the start of June: two kinds of parsley, chard, kale, zucchinis and strawberries. I've already harvested chard- and kale leaves. And as of last week, the zucchini plant had 4 small veggies the strawberries grew bright pink flowers.

The plants are bought from seedling and planted in contrainers that were all found in the trash (a large red plastic pot someone threw away in the building's trash room, and two file cabinet shelves).

I loaded up on summer reading at the second hand store. My reading theme two years ago was Robinsonade, featuring Kon-tiki and Robinson Crusoe. I continued the exploration theme last year with Into the Wild and a book about the failed André expedition to the north pole. This year, my reading list is Norwegian-themed, featuring Aku aku (by the same Thor Heyerdahl who rode and wrote Kon-tiki), crime novels by Jo Nessbø and an old book about car trips around Norway (which remains a thing to do in my life). I also have a couple of new non-fiction from the internet, The Cloudspotter’s Guide and Cooked. The Cloudspotter's guide probably needs another read before I can tell all the cloud species, but I know so much more now about weather than when I began reading; all from "herring sky" to why a red sunset means good upcoming weather and why fronts are called fronts.  

 View of lake Vättern from Jönköping.
Altocumulus in the foreground and cirrostratus in the background?

I’ve started running again. And most importantly I’ve begun to break the 10-kilometer mark again. It feels good. It feels indescribably rewarding. At first, it was hard to motivate myself to run again after a long pause. Short runs felt good but weren’t enough to keep me hooked. I was convinced that only long runs could give me the lust for running again. So I did a couple of very slow 10 km jogs first, with the goal of just making it to the end. I even bought a copy of Runner’s World to keep me motivated. And it worked, after a couple of weeks. Now beyond the 10 km-hurdle, I look forward to long runs again. Running is my take on meditation; I’m quite convinced it makes me into a better person. In a run I have no phone, no music, and I just listen to sound of my breath and the birds, and I feel that everything else can wait.

I also have a new acquisition: a kayak. I had been dreaming about owning a kayak for quite a while now, weighing pros and cons of buying vs. renting, thinking about where to store it, and thinking about models. Lately I’ve been talking about this dream again to some friends and colleagues of mine. And when things hadn’t been going so smoothly with the boat repair project – I have to write about that topic some other time this week – I had been seriously thinking about how nice it would be to just get out with a kayak and a tent somewhere. A few calls to kayak shops and a well-needed shove of encouragement and I was a kayak-owner finally. With no less than a kayak I am totally happy with. I used to say this during PhD days, but it still applies: I’ve got time and money, and that makes a lot of things possible. I was paddling some evenings ago to test my kayak and I am still convinced that this was my best buy in many years, to be enjoyed for many years to come.

*smile that ends at my ears*

See ya later, alligator!

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