This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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A mindfulness exercise

Pomegranates sustain my life force throughout the winter. I crave that juicy goodness, impossibly red even when it stains my fingertips, and the satisfyingly crunchy mouth feel. The juice is packed with vitamins, and the seeds with healthy oils. And no, I do not buy juice nor even the cleaned, pre-packed seeds – I take an entire pomegranate and clean it out by hand.

Neither do I violently whack it like Jamie Oliver seems to prefer (not only is it brutal, it is messy and still leaves lodged-in seeds to be dug out afterwards). Instead I cut off the top and bottom, slice the fruit in two along the vertical ridges (where it naturally splits with light prying), and then split both halves again. The seeds come out by turning the clusters inside out. Soaking the quarters in water before starting helps if the fruit seems dry.

Coaxing pomegranate seeds out of their shell is gentle, methodical work. The more one rushes or exerts pressure, the worse the outcome (and the mess!). Perfect mindfulness practice for winter days – and the reward is a bowlful of summer energy.

(Copenhagen, Denmark; December 2020)

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Kaamos is Finnish for “polar night”, the midwinter weeks or months when the sun does not rise above the horizon at all. Only about one quarter of Finland officially goes through gloomy kaamos weeks ever year, but all of Finland feel the lack of light and the long twilights in the morning and at night.

During kaamos, unless one lives very near the North (or South) Pole, there is enough daylight to go about daily activities: a never-ending blue twilight with deep shadows. Kaamos can be beautiful,too: in January and February, clear days roll through watercolor-washed skies of blues, yellows, oranges, and pinks, until the snow is colored a deep purple and finally sinks into the deep blue twilight again.

Copenhagen has a little over an hour more daylight than Helsinki, and I certainly feel the difference. Yet it is increasingly difficult to get up within the first half hour of my alarm clock. When there is so little color in the day, I crave color on my plate. While my digestion does not always agree with cold greens and salads in the winter, it helps to enjoy some of the last EU-produced colorful vegetables of the season.

(Copenhagen, Denmark; November 2020)

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When at home: microgreens

It must be winter soon, because my poor radish microgreens stretch towards the window with all their might. Interestingly, they rotate towards the kitchen light, in the opposite direction, every night. I try to keep their suffering brief.

No travel means lots of opportunities to experiment at home. I tried growing microgreens in a compostable paper wool. It looks hassle-free, but begins to smell before slow-growing sunflower microgreens are ready. I am also not convinced I get good quality nutrition and may just end up making these superfoods less super. So I went back to potting soil. Perhaps coconut husk would be another less messy option?

(Copenhagen, Denmark; October 2020)


The end of slow life, still in Copenhagen

Lovely ones, I survived my first week at the new job! What a major adjustment to have to go to the office at least 4 days a week, for the first time in nearly 10 years.

And what better way to treat oneself than to have brunch in the old town of Copenhagen with a friend who came all the way from Sweden to see me.

Biking to the office every day, and having brunch in Copenhagen on a Saturday: ten years ago when I was married in Finland and had just left my science career, I would never had imagined this to be a normal week in my life at the age of forty. But I guess “unpredictable” is also the very definition of life.

(Copenhagen, Denmark; August 2020)

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Earlier this week the Danish government shut bars, clubs, sports centers, and shopping centers. Restaurants and cafés are open – for takeaway only. But two weeks ago I still had a Michelin-recommended sandwich lunch at Aamanns. Sild on rugbrød, i.e. pickled herring on wholemeal rye bread.

And the sun was shining, and the water birds were loudly sorting out spring rivalries on the lakes. It could be worse still. It will probably get worse still.

(Copenhagen, Denmark; March 2020)

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Ramen? Yes please

RamenBriefly in Helsinki and a ramen lunch at the original Momo Toko near the University main building is a must. This is where I fed my belly and soul between running Saturday errands in town. Alternatively it was a Vietnamese pho joint – but quite often here in this hot, busy little ramen joint usually crowded with Asians.

(Helsinki, Finland; February 2020)

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Basque food

Biarritz-7I know I complained endlessly about the (endless) pintxos in San Sebastián earlier this year. But honestly, the other kind of Basque food is really quite delicious and staying strictly vegetarian is a challenge I never even attempt. Hence, the lovely squid in pepper and herbs ended up being perfect nourishment, along with a Provençal dry rosé and some fresh greens with vinaigrette.

The tables at the Biarritz casino beachfront restaurant are big enough for a laptop and some tea, I discovered. And nobody seemed to mind me clomping in every day in wet wellies and waterproof gear just to eat and write for hours on end.Biarritz-3(Biarritz, France; November 2019)

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A simple feast

simplefeastEvery second Sunday a big box arrives on my doorstep. Inside are the ingredients for three days of fresh, vegan, organic, unconventional meals, ready within 10-15 minutes each. Not only are the meals green and fast, they are also interesting: Indian curries, Levantese falafel pitas, and Mediterranean goodness. The salads, dressings and toppings that provide detail are often combinations I have never even thought of.

One portion is sufficient for a lunch and a dinner for one person, or two hearty lunches. Perfect for someone working from the home office. And everything that is left behind is biodegradable. Even the empty box gets picked up.

The price per Green Feast meal is the price of a simple café lunch but for me it is the opportunity cost of a) saving time; b) saving grocery shopping; and c) getting a little surprise every second week. And for those who would like to explore healthy vegan or vegetarian fare the Simple Feast meals are also a journey of inspiration.

(Vejle, Denmark; November 2019)

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Pintxo bar survival guide

padronesMore pintxos. Of course. This is San Sebastián. I lust for fresh vegetables but all I find is pickled olives, pimientos de padrón, or grilled red peppers on bread (which I do love but in moderation!). At home I steam tenderstem broccoli or flat green beans every day. Word is spreading among my classmates about a restaurant that specializes in fresh vegetarian fare. Sounds like heaven to me right now.

The original pintxos were apparently simple fishermen’s food. They seem simple, but keeping a menu of 20-30 pintxos and bocadillos requires a lot of salting, pickling, blending, and deep-frying. A potato tortilla is a pintxo (or bocadillo), and the “original” pintxo with green olives, green pickled peppers, and a small slice of pickled anchovy requires quite a lot of preparation if everything needs to be home-made. GetariaBasque bars are not places for relaxing, thinking, and writing. The music is loud and energetic, and if there is no music the other people are loud and energetic – and there are no seats. Eating at a pintxo bar is not for the timid, and some command of the Spanish language does make it much easier. The best is to just elbow in, look at what is going on and what is on the menu (and everybody’s plates) and then do like everyone else. And if there is no need to elbow one’s way in one is probably better off by going somewhere else. Some pintxo bars are order only. Others require the guest to take a plate, fill it at the bar, and pay at the end of the counter. Some bars have table service for the lucky ones who manage to grab a table. Finally, in the most traditional bars one elbows one’s way to the counter, orders just 1-2 pintxos and a small glass of cider, and flees into the street to eat after paying in cash at the bar. 

Each bar may serve 20 different kinds of pintxos, but there is always one signature pintxo that the locals know to choose. Some are proper dishes (I’ve even heard of a risotto “pintxo”). Thus on a Wednesday pintxopote night (or a weekend night) people pintxo bar crawl, having one or two bites and a small drink at each place before moving on. Ordering 10 pintxos in one place in one go is what tourists do. 

With pintxos most locals choose to drink Basque cider, or txakolí, a local cider-like wine. Both are very dry and contain little or no bubbles. Therefore they are poured from a special cork which is added to the mouth of the bottle. The glass is placed several dozen centimeters below, preferably at arm’s length, and the drink is poured in one long stream (like something else yellow…). The idea is to freshen up the flavor by aerating the drink before serving. Both txakolí and cidra taste surprisingly strong and yeasty and even bitter. The cider is strong and alcoholic while the wine is not, and both are served in the same large tumblers which are only poured one-third full or less – some 100 cl at a time. Just enough for a pintxo.SS-9

(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)