This blue marble

– and yet it spins


But first, yoga. And then, Spanish and cleaning.

SSyoga.jpgBut first, yoga (early-morning ashtanga Mysore in a quiet, wonderful studio). And then, Spanish class.

Today we discussed the “futuro”: what will do next weekend, next month, or in a year? We were asked to create a list of activities we planned to do in the weekend. “Wash my clothes”, I wrote. “Sleep in my room. Practice yoga.” “Now,” our teacher said, “please invite the classmate next to you to join you in your weekend activity.” I turned to look at Swiss Mattias and dubiously asked him, “vas a lavar mi ropa conmigo?” Would you like to wash my clothes with me? “Ni hablar” he instantly replied. Don’t even speak of it. “Um,” I said, “vas a practicar yoga conmigo?” “NO” he responded, with emotion. “Uh, puedo limpiar mi casa” he said. I sighed. Obviously cleaning his apartment was more important. I gave up on the thought of asking him to sleep with me in my room.

I met my landlady this morning. For five minutes, then she was gone. “Hola” she said, and tried to coax me into speaking Spanish first thing in the morning. She failed, told me to close the kitchen door when I was done, and left for work. Ainhoa is probably in her late forties, lives alone, rents out two rooms, and works two jobs: a morning job and an evening job. She is usually home between noon and 4 pm, which is why I never see her. And which is why everything in her apartment is covered in dust or grease. I would not wish to spend any precious time cleaning, either, if I had her daily schedule. But as it is now, my fingers itch to empty it all out, polish her beautiful dark hardwood floor until it gleams, and sort everything she owns into neat, beautiful boxes placed in her gorgeous hardwood cabinets (“accidentally” throwing 2/3 of her old foods, spices, cleaning chemicals, and cosmetics away).

Instead I sweep the sand from the floor of my room every day. I have not found a dustpan so I wipe everything up in wet toilet paper. I am afraid of offending my lovely landlady’s hospitality so I only dream of the dustpan.

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


Pintxos and puppy love

SS-5Yesterday I attended the city tour organized by our school, for newcomers. About Spain, in Spanish, of course. I surprised myself by understanding everything – although the guide was a teacher who spoke más despacio.

Afterwards some of us headed out to Gros in the rain, searching for food. A row of unsuccessful attempts later we concluded that all good places are always full and spilling out into the street even on a Monday. And those that have space have it for a reason. One of the unsuccessful attempts involved us actually getting seated, indoors, in a restaurant that turned out to serve pintxos and bocadillos on its (full) terrace and expensive Italian food in its (empty) restaurant. We gave up, walked out, and entered a busy pintxo bar, signed up for a table promised within half an hour, and attempted to order at the bar.

I and my Dutch classmate got ourselves a glass of wine each without a problem, but deciphering the long list of pintxos calientes and frios and bocadillos was not easy. The stuffed peppers contained meat. The bread with mushrooms contained meat. And meat is never “carne” in Spain but various kinds of cuts and hung and cured pieces of meat, or sausages, all with their own names in Spanish. I quickly concluded that most likely if there is an unfamiliar word on the menu it is the name of a kind of meat.

When we finally got the table I was on my second pintxo. My Dutch classmate had only scored a glass of wine. The rest of our group had not even been that successful: they had been coldly advised to wait until seated before being allowed a drink, let alone food.

The service was the usually slow San Sebastián service. As the rest of the table ate I wistfully meditated on my chances of receiving my third (delicious) anchovy pintxo. I was trying to converse with another Dutch classmate, a barely 20-something young woman, about her internship in the South of Spain. She gushed about how she felt it was her responsibility to also join a civil disobedience movement on climate change. Suddenly the young German (barely 20-something) man next to her poked her on the arm and asked us what we were talking about. “Climate change,” I said. “What do you think about it?” “Ha ha ha,” he nervously laughed, like a comedian. “Do I have to have an opinion about it?” “Well yes,” I said surprised. “Like, do you believe it is happening, or not?” “Ha ha ha” he laughed again, and poked the Dutch woman on the arm once more, provoking her to give him a slap on the head. And that was that conversation.

Also, that was what all conversations turned out to be at our end of the table. A nervous, constantly laughing 20-year-old wooing another pretty much killed all hopes of good talk. I gave up on my anchovy pintxo, put some cash on the table, said good night to everyone, and walked out feeling happy I was old enough to not care about what people thought of me.

As I strolled the streets of Gros I thought how wonderful it once was to have the exciting, dramatic life of a 20-year-old, and how even more wonderful it was to be liberated from expectations and to just be able to exit a situation that did not provide any value.
SS-6(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


The dance of the giant Basques, and stumbling into Spanish

SS-1La Semana Grande includes many odd things in its program. Such as a dance and parade of giant Basques. In berets, of course (“baskeri” in Finnish and “Baskermütze” in German).

Spanish class started today. As there was no A2 group starting I was put in the last week of A1. I sat down with 8 women and a female teacher. Thankfully for the sake of diversity, a quarter of an hour into the class the door opened and one man rushed in, to even out our class at least a little.

There is no English spoken. At all. “What is ‘lechuga’?” asked a Filipino student. “Well,” our teacher replied in Spanish, “it is a vegetable. For salads.” “A cucumber?” the student asked. “No, it’s more leafy….” and the teacher went on explaining until I could not help myself and burst out in plain English: “it’s lettuce.” “Ah!” the classmate said. Our teacher gave me an annoyed eye. But really, it was enough effort and time spent, and at least we could move on with the program.

After half of the 3-hour class was spent in introducing one piece of grammar, we spent the remaining time speaking, practising introductions and playing word games. The teachers had high hopes for our vocabulary: the first word game required us to name a word that started with the same letter as the one the previous word ended. Lechuga. Aire. Entender. And so forth. I would be in so much trouble here, if it were not for the endless hours of studying “the 1000 most frequent Spanish words” list all throughout the year.
SS-2(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)

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The comb of the wind

SS-3At the end of La Concha beach stands the “iconic symbol of San Sebastián”, according to most travel books and articles. I walked all the way across to have a look, and found myself at odds: two underwhelming, rusty set-ups of curved steel jutted out of two large boulders. Tourists around me took photos – out of duty, or out of true impression? I am not entirely sure what I was missing here: how and why do the locals identify with these? And why are they called El Peine del Viento, or “The Comb of the Wind”?

What did impress me was the viewing platform with groups of holes through which the wind and the waves sputtered. In stormy weather these form groups of geysers, releasing the pressure of incoming waves crashing into rocks underneath the platform floating in the air above. To me these seem to be the true combs of the wind: straightening out and vertically anything that pushes into shore horizontally from the sea.

Famished from the walk and brain activity I backtracked to the first restaurant, also by the beach. It was 11 am and the waiters looked busy even if the place was half-empty. I tried to make my presence known to a waiter arranging dishes, sweat dripping from his nose, but he successfully ignored me until I gave up.

I then tried to plead for attention with the waiters behind the pintxo bar, but did not manage until another guest politely pointed my desperation out to the staff. I asked for a sit-down menu and was told they only serve food other than pintxos after 1 pm. I asked if I could sit down, have a club soda, and wait. And if I could please have the wifi passcode. The waiter nodded, with a heavy look: I was not going to bring in any cash in the next two hours.

I took a seat out on the terrace, sighed deeply, admired the view, and punched in the wifi code which the waiter had scribbled down on a piece of paper. It did not work. Not even after five tries. I ashamedly crept back to him with the piece of paper. It turned out I should only use the second half of the word, and in small-case letters. I was to infer this from the original scribble I got, and the waiter made it clear that I had failed. Perhaps the comb of the wind had failed to comb the wind that went through my brain that morning. SS-4

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


San Sebastián in August

SS-7Bronze-tanned Spaniards with perfect skin and beach hair.
Kids screaming with excitement in the surf.
Loud Spaniards shouting to each other.
Loud Spaniards laughing like seagulls.
Sailboats moored in the middle of the bay.
The afterglow-heat of a hot day on stone walls.
Ladies with big backpacks and hiking poles, on their way to Santiago de la Compostela.
Rain clouds hanging heavily over the hills.
Sangría instead of Aperol Spritz. Good.
Straw hats. They must be in.
No selfie sticks. Really.

Today still benefits from yesterday’s heat. It will rain tonight, and it might begin any moment. Yesterday was blue sky, 30 degrees Celsius, and a beach day for the thousands. The La Concha beach was a sea of crawling brown bodies and a constant droning voice. This is where Spaniards (and some French) come to vacay. Perhaps to get out of the heat and drought of Southern Spain. Or from the coolness of the mountains. The climate in San Sebastián is a comfortable in-between.

I came here for two weeks of Spanish language classes. Really only ten days of school. I have been studying Spanish since last October, and while I think my efforts have been haphazard at best, the level test somehow put me in A2. Fortunately there will be no A2 group starting this week, so I will be put in A1+. Whatever that means. If it means understanding basic spoken Spanish and being able to produce more or less useful words and nearly no complete sentences, then they got me in the right group. In two days’ time I will find out how lucky I am, or if I am bound to be feeling ashamed and frustrated for ten days.
SS-8(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)



GetariaBusy. Warm. Crowded. Brightly lit. This is a Donostian pintxo bar on a Wednesday or Thursday night, the night of pintxopote. The waiters (all men sweat over the counter (although thankfully not onto the pintxos). Sangria and cider flow, and I am the only solo guest.

I wonder how long I get to keep my corner table. Pintxopote is a bar-crawl tradition from the recent economic recession in Spain, where Basque bars enticed locals to spend money outdoors, by offering a pintxo and a small drink for 2-3 euro. In San Sebastián old town it is on Wednesdays, and in Gros on Thursdays. A “pintxo” is a tapa, usually on bread. A “pote” is a drink in Basque.

The pintxos are good but oil, bread, and cheese are a killer combination for dinner every day. Literally. I wish pintxos would include a side salad. I doubt the Basques eat vegetables in any other form than cooked, grilled, or pickled.

Time to crawl back out into the fresh air to find a nice seaside café for a nightcap.

(San Sebastián, and photo from Getaría, Spain; August 2019)

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Hello San Sebastián

laconchaHello San Sebastián. Last time I visited you the beach was empty. Now you have 1.5 kilometers filled with bronzed bodies. Semana Grande is quite the fiesta here, wrapping up the summer. I intend to leave swimming until the bronzed crowd has vacated back to working life, next week if I am lucky.

(San Sebastián, Spain; August 2019)


The most wonderful bookshops

dauntbooksBookshops? you may inquire. Who goes to bookshops anymore, when you have Kindle, Amazon, and the easy kiosk bookshops at airports? Fortunately there are still people who love the smell of books and the feeling of picking an unknown but intriguing book off the shelf, knowing it may change your world if you just sit down and give it attention. Fortunately there are still people who love the excitement of discovery in 3D which is not possible if you browse Amazon, like a holiday trip but much cheaper (unless one comes out carrying one’s weight in paper).

My opinion is that every bookshop is important. And then there are bookshops which are both important and special, somehow. Perhaps because of their history, or how they are run. Or simply by the books they carry. Here below are a few of my favorites in no particular order, the ones that I easily lose an hour or two in. If it is not on the list it may be because I have not yet visited it – so please drop me a note!

Shakespeare and Company (Paris): English language books in a maze-y bookshop from the 50s on the Left Bank in Paris. That is an amazing combination in itself already, but it gets better: if you are an aspiring writer you can stay for free in any of the small beds hidden away between the shelves, writing away on any of the old typewriters ensconced in quiet nooks. All you have to do in return is help around, maybe read aloud, and read and review books. You will be one of tens of thousands of writers who stayed, and if you are lucky you will run into celebrated writers who occupy a room upstairs. This wonderful shop is named after the legendary shop which entertained Hemingway, Pound, Fizgerald, and the lot in the 1920s, until WWII broke out. In summer there is usually a line outside so come early in the day. It’s worth the wait.

City Lights Bookstore (San Francisco): The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights just a few years after Shakespeare and Company was re-created in the 50s. He called it the sister of the shop in Paris, perhaps because both drew crowds of beat poets and writers. While the browsing experience is not at all like that of an old nearly derelict Parisian riverside building, I love this shop because of its history, the founder’s wonderfully hilarious poetry, and the book content. If social activism, world history and politics or poetry is your thing, this shop is for you. The most-bought book is probably the beat poem Howl by Allen Ginsberg.cassandrabook.jpgPowell’s City of Books (Portland, OR): 1970s shop specialized in vintage and rare books, but also carrying a big collection of new books (side by side with the old ones). The key to visiting Powell’s is time: the building spans an entire city block and the rooms are color-coded, to help navigate with a map you can request. Powell’s also has a café and when I visited the place 10 years ago we were invited to take our book picks and read – even if we had not paid for them just yet. The shop also has a Rare Books Room which you can request access to if rare books are your thing.

Daunt Books (London): Edwardian building with a glass roof, specialized in travel books, even publishing its own collection of interesting books around the world. What can be a better reason to visit London? The top photo of this post is from Daunt Books and as you can see, the shop is to be browsed according to geographical location, save for the front room which has a traditional by-topic setup of mostly non-travel books. Daunt Books owns a few other well-curated bookshops around the UK, disguised under other names, so have a look at their store listing before you visit.

Pilgrims Book House (Kathmandu): Deep in the old town maze of Thamel hides a surprisingly large bookshop, with not only books but wonderful crafts, incense, and gift items. While the company is over 25 years old, the old bookshop burnt down in 2013 and the new shop probably does not stock quite the same selection of rare books, but you can still find them here. As well as books on mountaineering, Nepalese and Tibetan history and culture, outdoors, and of course Hinduism, Buddhism, and actually pretty much any other world religion or philosophy.

Heffers (Cambridge, UK): My favorite haunt when I studied in Cambridge. The last time I visited this shop was in 2015, with the result that I together with my sister lugged home about 10 kg of books in our suitcases. Including the ones below. Heffers is catering for world-class university students and scientists, and so if you are interested in micro-topics like the social life of trees, quantum biology, or famous historical people who liked to talk walks in London at night, this shop is for you.booksBlackwell’s (Oxford, UK): As of a few years Heffers is actually part of Blackwell’s, a UK university-town bookshop chain. Like Heffer’s, Blackwell’s caters for academics and the Oxford shop is another fabulous place to get lost in, as well as the original base of Blackwell’s, founded in 1879. Part of the shop is underneath Trinity College, including the Norrington Room which holds a Guiness World Record for its 5 km of shelves of books: the largest room of books for sale in the world.

When longing to visit a most-wonderful bookshop: If you really love books, perhaps you’d like to smell like one? The scent of old books is a science in itself, and the past few years boutique perfume companies have issued scents that smell of old paper, books, and everything we like to associate with it: perhaps a little leather from the book cover, smoke from a pipe or cigar, wood from the shelves, or dried pansies from grandmother’s table. The only one I have been privileged to smell is Bibliothèque by Byredo, available both as a candle and perfume so we can all dream of bookshops when we are not in one.Paris-2(Vejle, Denmark; October 2019)

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On a Monday in London

wheelbarrowOne Monday in August I found myself shoveling dirt in a children’s playground park in London. I had got up at 4.45 am and caught a flight in, just to shovel that dirt. But it was important dirt: dirt that recreated Nature in the middle of London, including an adventure forest and permaculture gardens, to allow kids bury their fingers in the soil and get lost between the trees and shrubberies.

My London office gave the hours of its day to an after-school care center’s amazing adventure gardens.  And I quite enjoyed seeing my highly skilled colleagues displaying entirely different skills, surprised at who naturally gravitated towards carpentry and who chose to plant instead. I doubt I know my colleagues much at all.

(London, United Kingdom; August 2019)