This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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Bordeaux Bordeaux

Lovely ones, I have a confession to make. Before this trip, I did not even know Bordeaux was a city. I simply thought it was a region that produces wines. I cover my shame with the thought that I’m not quite as bad as my American friend who thought Amsterdam was a country. Yet, what a gaping hole in all-round education, at least according to the French!

Surprisingly, thus, Bordeaux turned out to be a decently sized city – with awful traffic jams. Aside from the hopeless journeying through rush hour streets, Bordeaux seems to embrace progressive ideas almost in a hippy fashion – and most have to do with wine. For example, no pesticides or herbicides are allowed in Bordeaux, so one sees very few lawns and much overgrown weeds and flowery meadow-like patches. If you have a garden you have three choices: pluck the weeds by hand, pour boiling water over them, or let them be.

In old times, sheep would graze between the rows of vines. Now one either has sheep, plows the ground, or, again, lets the weeds be. Instead of poisons, Bordeaux and its farmers and wine growers grow forests and ensure biodiversity of those animals that eat insects and worms. Bats were reintroduced for this reason. During vine flowering season, the vines are sprayed with female pheromones that confuse male butterflies and insects who cannot find the females based on a scent gradient. They end up going into the meadows and forests where the eggs are also laid. Hopefully.

Surprisingly, with all focus on quality of the terroir and the wine, only very few Bordeaux wines bear an Organic or Biodynamic certificate. The winemakers must comply with about a million different stipulations in order to be able to call a wine Bordeaux + sub-appellations, and therefore they wish no further compliance to difficult rules. And if the harvest is at risk, many want to retain the option of taking to sturdier measures. In a world of high-performance farming and synthetic and short-term culture, it is refreshing to see that when it comes to quality wines, the market drive is for organic, natural solutions simply because people can taste the difference and are ready to pay for it. Thus, any Bordeaux wine bought in the store is most likely nearly if not completely organically produced. If only the same were true for most groceries!

Bordeaux winemakers make the wine their ancestors made. The regulations to follow to be allowed to use appellations on the bottle are an incredible catalogue of rules to adhere to. Crudely put, the end result should be that as a customer you know approximately what you get, year after year. Since the system is mainly for preserving tradition and maintaining quality and therefore brand equity, there is not much room for creativity in making a Bordeaux wine. Some bend the rules by for example adding only 1% of the second wine in the first (a Bordeaux is always a blend). Others make wines that only bear a Bordeaux label or break the rules so the bottle only says the wine is from France. We fell in love with a delicious little rosé from Chateau de la Grave that was bigger than its body: it had been matured in oak barrels like a white wine. This wine was not a typical Bordeaux but, oh, it stole my heart for as long as I had it in my glass.

The intricate system of what one is and is not allowed to do in order to make a Bordeaux wine got me lost, especially after the first glass. Fortunately, most of us only need to know where to find a bottle, and how to open it. Easy peasy, thank goodness.

(Bordeaux, France; July 2016)

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Trailing thoughts under the sea

In Finland, most people are divided into two kinds: the lake people, and the sea people. This has to do with where one spends one’s summers. The lake people cannot understand why anybody would need storms, big waves, smelly water, and to be tangled in seaweed when swimming. The sea people on the other hand cannot understand why anybody can feel alive in the confined spaces of a lake in the woods, without the promise of vastness and escape, and with the mosquitoes, and the sour water.

If you have read my writings even for a short while you have probably figured out I am a sea person. I need the sea because it teaches me, like Pablo Neruda said. The aquarium of Biarritz is one of the grand, old aquariums in Europe, originating in the 1880s. Since 1933 it has moved to a fabulous, art deco building that on the outside looks like it grew from the bedrock, and on the inside feels like you are part of a never-ending maze in the ground.

And so, I could spend hours wandering around the maze of the aquarium watching the strange and colorful world under the sea. The ocean is beautiful from the shore, indeed, but it is so much more astounding underneath the surface, where one rarely gets the possibility to peek. We think we’ve seen it all, but once we see phosphorescent creatures, fish with lamps growing out of their heads, fish with tiny legs, giant squids, and that weird thing called sunfish, we understand how limited our imagination really is.

Once I spent weeks tracking dolphins on the coast of Kenya. As part of the project, we also surveyed the reef. Like a kid I waited for the daily, one-hour immersion in 3D live-streaming television, better than any silver screen movie.

When girls grow up, they often want to work with animals, and thus hope to become one of three: a) veterinarian; b) horse trainer or rider; and c) marine biologist. I got a couple of points away from entry to veterinary school (I now know I took the better road), and I do have a biologist’s background training, but I never ventured into marine biology. Do I have regrets? No. But I have basic field training, and I ensure I have time to study the world under the water while tracking dolphins in the Amazon or in Kenya. And maybe one day I will find myself spending much more time with the sea than in the air.

Regrets are much more than wasted thoughts – they are misguided energy. So I try my best to choose how I live each day. And perhaps I one day choose to spend more time studying the sea.(Biarritz, France; July 2016)


By the bay of Biscayne

Biarritz-3One sunny day we stumbled out of the train in Biarritz, by the bay of Biscayne. In the heydays of this Belle Epoque resort, the newly built train connection whisked one down in record speed: only 30 hours of train travel from Paris. Little did the turn-of-the century aristocracy know that their favorite summer playground could be reached within five and a half hours only 100+ years later.

After all the private beaches and beach clubs on the Riviera, miles and miles of free beach is a fabulous thought. Likewise is the realization that one does not need to have the bronzed, toned body of a Brazilian beach goddess to feel welcome in a bathing suit. As long as one minds the surfer-swimmer borders, and the lifeguards who infuse trespassers with shame by tormenting the vuvuzela. biarritz-1Beach weather in Biarritz is a game of roulette. In order to have any idea about tomorrow’s weather, one must look at three independent weather forecasts, take the rough average of them, and add a serious error margin. If a weather forecast says “full sun” it may be that the sun is indeed full – but not before 5 pm. And a day with 28 degrees and scorching sun may be followed by a day with 22 degrees and drizzle. And it can be T-shirt weather in December, according to our hotel landlord.Biarritz-5On a beautiful summer’s day one can feel the illusion that Biarritz is overlooking the sea. In truth, it is the sea that tolerates the presence of Biarritz. The bay of Biscay is a graveyard for ships even in this day. Fog, swells, thunderstorms, hurricanes, you name it. In the winter the bay of Biscayne is said to be a cauldron from hell. Which is exactly why storm watchers are drawn to it.

After just two days, I had not even noticed my little heart conspiring against my reason and firmly deciding I will have to come back. Not when the sun is shining, but when the sea is raging, the whales pass close to shore, and the lighthouse beam sweeps over the dark raging waters. The sea is always lit from the shore at night, and I can only imagine the magnificent view in October, November, or December. Especially from the Hotel du Palais standing on a bluff over the sea, and most especially when viewed with a cup of heated, liquid chocolate in one’s hands.

But for now, for this July day, I will savor the sunshine and watch some crazy swimmers feel brave in the nearly sleepy waters of the bay.
Biarritz-6(Biarritz, France; July 2016)

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When curls, cherub looks, and heels were the height of masculinity

Versailles-4One day we ventured out to Versailles. Turns out we were not the only ones. During most of its history, Versailles has hosted a busy front yard bustling with horses, carriages, and working people. Today it can look down upon a few hundred meters of zigzagging, well-ordered lines of people waiting for entry.Versailles-3Versailles is a thing of beauty – feminine beauty by today’s standards. But a man of power and stature in the 17th century saw different ideals to aspire to. In Louis XIV’s time, the height of manliness was a soft, plump, slightly rounded middle-aged cherub face and angelic curls. A wig of course. And a man of court was to carry red or blue garments and a lace neckerchief; and wear high-heeled dancing shoes, along with shorts that left his tight-covered legs visible for admiration.

Yes. Men were admired for their curls and their legs, and their angelic appearance. Get used to it. Everything that is manly today was downplayed. Where was unruly, wild hair? A beard? A strong jaw, muscular arms, and a flat stomach? Things that are admired in men today were nonexistent in the French baroque and following rococo period. Only height carried over to today as a connecting trait. And the only manly physique displayed was legs, and ideally with strong calf muscles. Calf muscles! How fetishous should any woman be judged today if she drooled after calf muscles?Versailles-1As we watched the never-ending rows of paintings depicting some seriously flamboyant men, my sister pointed out that the function of the 17th century men’s sense of esthetics was to appear as peacocks, or those male tropical birds that show off with bright colors and dance and make decorated nests. Indeed. Louis XIV’s idea of a dream “man cave” was to decorate it with cherubs, gilded vines, Roman gods, and fountains. Not exactly a fanfare to masculinity in today’s terms. Versailles-6But men of the 17th century also saw warfare, murder, death, and violence as part of normal daily order of things. Being out in the battlefield, dirty and bloody, seeing comrades die was not too far from reality, even for the highest commander. Perhaps a balance was needed – and hence all the gilded vines and angels off-duty?Versailles-2As I walked through the flowery gardens of the Versailles, I could not help but wonder: were men of Louis XIV’s era emancipated in respect of a female identity alongside a very masculine identity? Or were they repressing their male identities in comparison to a strong, feminine-directed collective sense of esthetics? Did these men of the Sun King’s time truly consider cherubs cool interior decorations for their walls, or were they forced to think they needed to consider them befitting a man’s house?

And would I, the modern female, seem very vulgar and masculine in the eyes of the men of court of the 17th century?Versailles-5(Versailles, France; July 2016)

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What makes a city a writers’ city?

Paris-2As I browsed through the stock-full shelves of the Shakespeare and Company book shop, I pondered what it is that makes a city a writers’ and artists’ city. Why is it that in the 1920s Paris was the place to be, and perhaps today one should be in Berlin? Why did so many artists congregate on the French Riviera in the end of the 19th century (was it just the peculiar light?)?

So I did what everybody does today when they have a question: I typed in Google, “What makes a city a writers’ city?” The top 5 search hits were about New York City: half of them listing why New York City is a writers’ city, and the other half telling writers to leave for better cities than New York City. Odd, however, that all the cities mentioned as great writers’ cities were located in the United States. Paris-3Google made me none the wiser, except for one important factor: money and cafés. A writer thrives in a location which is esthetically pleasing and has good cafés where one can observe life – but that even a poor creative soul can afford. Places like Brooklyn and San Francisco, and St Germain-des-Pres in Paris, used to be hot hangarounds for creative people – until so many came that the area became “too hipster” (now define it if you please) and the poorest but also coolest full-time aspiring artists had to move out to find yet another inspiring haunt.Paris-1Perhaps it does not matter where one writes, as long as one is surrounded by things that inspire. Or perhaps it does help to be allowed to crash at for example Shakespeare and Company, to punch away on the age-old typewriter in the corner, or to bounce around ideas and angst with fellow aspiring writers in-between shop duty.

In any case, a picnic at Luxembourg gardens may help. Many have tried and succeeded.Paris-4
(Shakespeare and Company bookshop; the ceiling at La Coupole restaurant; Oscar Wilde’s tombstone; and Luxembourg gardens. Paris, France; July 2016)

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Random ramblings from Paris

Paris-6When I said I was going to Paris, my friend stated that we were probably the one ones going to France without going to see the soccer Euro Cup. We don’t follow soccer, so how could we have known about it? Perhaps we live in another culture bubble, one that does not engage with soccer? Blissfully ignorant, we booked our tickets in March, for 10 days in France. I was certain that we would end up in the middle of at least an attempt of terrorism. But we did not. We left 2 days before a crazy person drove a rented truck through a crowd in Nice. Yet another relatively tight call. One of many for me.

But Paris is always Paris. And this time with some American flair at the Centre Pompidou. Wandering among so many private photos and film clips of the famous Beat bunch, I could not help but wonder how Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, et al. were both so lost and so focused at the same time. “On the road” is a book about being aimless and lost, but yet Kerouac sat down, started typing on a paper scroll, and kept typing on the same scroll until his story was finished. “On the road” is 37 meters long.
Paris-7Oh, how very serious the Beat people must have been. Just aimlessness, lostness, unemployment, boheme poverty, and so much angst. Except for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who decided to open a bookstore in San Francisco and call it City Lights Books. No, Ferlinghetti was less lost, and he laughed at life. He also laughed at the painter Marc Chagall, who for some reason always painted violins. So he wrote a poem about it. Something definitely not Beat or Lost. I read it at the Pompidou and laughed, too. And I wondered why Ferlinghetti decided to write about the horse eating the violin instead of the lady on the horse with her beau, wearing an evening dress that ended right underneath her naked breasts.

Don’t let that horse
                              eat that violin
    cried Chagall’s mother
                                     But he   
                      kept right on
And became famous
And kept on painting
                              The Horse With Violin In Mouth
And when he finally finished it
he jumped up upon the horse
                                        and rode away   
          waving the violin
And then with a low bow gave it
to the first naked nude he ran across
And there were no strings   

Paris-8(Paris, France; July 2016)

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Why not?

Riviera-2A telltale sign of getting old is to get stuck on one place and return year after year. I confess, I have got stuck on coming to the Riviera. How could I ever wait for a whole year to return again? Impossible. I will not. Since I can work 1-2 days of a week from anywhere, it is not impossible to consider flying down for a long weekend to work on a patio with roses and pool instead of in the office.riviera-4My heart is whispering to me that to not have a place of one’s own down here during this lifetime is unthinkable. I am struggling not to listen, but talk to me again in 10 years from now and we will see who wins: my mind or my heart.

Perhaps it is not too bad to get old, after all. Until next time, Côte d’Azur.riviera-3(Juan-les-Pins and Nice, France; May 2016)

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A place for painters

Vence-2Hello little sleepy St-Paul-de-Vence. Beneath your car-free cobble stone streets, green facades, and chirpy birds I can sense a a vibrant energy bubbling under. I wonder if I drank from that fountain and stayed here, would I morph into an artist?  Vence-1While it must be terribly hot in the summer and dark and windy in the winter, right now it is just right. Ice cream weather and a splendid day for sketching the beginnings of a masterpiece. Many people come to stay for a while, but Chagall never left. I can understand why.Vence-3(St-Paul-de-Vence, France; May 2016)

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Headspace on the Azure Coast

RivieraThere is a reason for why the French Riviera is also called the Côte d’Azur, or the Azure Coast. And there is a reason for why so many late 20th century painters like Renoir, Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, Monet, and even Norwegian Munch, all stayed there – or moved there. I wish they would have had the delight of seeing the azure waters from the air.

I am not a painter, simply someone in dire need of a brain break and some girly time with a dear friend. A walk along the Antibes wall will do.

As I walked along the windy coast, I could not help but wonder how easy it is to be petty-minded and swirl down the vortex of “oh no, I missed that deadline” and “oh no, I still have not replied to X or done Y, what will they think of me?”. In the end this is all egoistic thinking: the company does not fall if I miss a deadline or don’t send an email. Nobody probably gets into trouble if I don’t complete a task in time. The company and most of my colleagues don’t really care about me in their daily lives. Sure it is great to have me around, and hopefully my leadership and productivity is beneficial, but should I leave (or die) nobody would miss me longer than for a week. At work, nobody is indispensable and nothing is really about me even if I’d like to think othewise.

Because our lives are usually all about “me, me, me”, we corner ourselves with expectations and are usually our own worst critics. The lunacy is only revealed once we step back (and take a brain break for example on the French Riviera).

With all the headspace and air around me I could not help but think of the Japanese proverb: “nothing in life is as important as gardening – and even that is not important.”
Antibes(Antibes / Juan-les-Pins, France; May 2016)

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Any given Monday

paris-4Any given Monday one could work. Or one could stroll around lovely Paris. One could slip into the quiet vesper mass in Sacre Coeur, and listen to the priest’s candid conversation about the recent terrible incidents in Paris. One could choose a more secular form of enjoyment and admire the paintings on the Montmartre market.

Or one could simply pause between these two alternatives and enjoy the bleak December sun setting over the city.

Work can wait. This is Paris after, France; December 2015)