This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Ground Zero, ten years later

NYC-4I never saw the famous World Trade Center Twin Towers, except for in photos. They defined the lower Manhattan skyline – until the day they didn’t. I first visited Ground Zero in 2008. It was one big hole, part concrete and soil and part construction crews. Visitors were lead around on boardwalks and held back by ropes. There were only a few smartphones and certainly no selfies or selfie-sticks. The atmosphere was somber, even if the attack on the twin towers was seven years in the past.

Ten years later, the site is unrecognizable. Where the crumbled towers stood lie large square holes in the ground, with water flowing down around the rim and disappearing into a sinister, dark, bottomless pit. Two voids, just like the towers left a physical void in the city, and the terrorist attack left a mental and spiritual void in the people.

The USA is always stretching for extremes, and so it is befitting that the new main building of the World Trade Center  disappears into the clouds. Naturally, it is taller than its two predecessors. How could one otherwise symbolize perseverance and pride without fear?

Today, smartphones and selfie-sticks are everywhere on the Memorial Plaza. Perhaps it could be viewed as too light and ignoring the weight of the dramatic events. Or, just perhaps, our somewhat silly selfie-culture is an even better way to show perseverance and no fear? NYC-7(9/11 Memorial Plaza, New York City, USA; May 2018)


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An English garden in Italy

italygardens-2When one is 35 years old and wishes to establish oneself, one can either join the entertaining society or one can entertain oneself by building a fine garden from scratch. In this garden it is not enough for the visitor to love flowers to see them; here one must climb down a height difference of 100 meters to see the end of the garden by the ocean – and another 100 m up again to exit by the gate. When deciding to establish themselves, Sir Thomas Hanbury and his brother Daniel did not choose a garden site with step-free access.italygardens-1 To compensate for the viewer’s labors, in the late 19th century the La Mortola garden was one of the most famous gardens in the world: nearly 6,000 different plants; many exotic and brought home from Asia by Sir Thomas himself.

The garden has been destroyed and reborn several times due to war and bad management. Today it is owned by the University of Genoa and is in better shape than it has been for decades. While it is lovely, and age has only made the buildings and structure more charming, I could not help but think that it lacks the more orderly feel of an English or German garden (Hanbury’s head gardener was German). Perhaps this slightly topsy-turvy current state befits a garden which after all is on Italian soil.
italygardens-3(La Mortola, Italy; April 2018)


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The extravagance of a soul-searching baroness

france-2The owner of this place must have been ambitious. And quirky: she had gazelles, monkeys, and a mongoose in her garden.

She was born into a banker family – and smartly married another banker at the age of 19, not caring her husband was 15 years her senior. Marriages were seldom for love and more for economy, politics, and convenience. When her husband’s business affairs went south she divorced him. They had no children and the rumor goes he not only gave her gray hairs but also a disease that made her barren.france-3She was no angel either, because just as her husband, she liked gambling, too. Her gambling room in her pink (yes of course, pink) villa is quite something. And if she was not entertaining there, she was being entertained in a casino in Monaco.

Her villa was pink, yes; and she loved to dress in blue it is said. If she had lived today she probably had dressed her pets, too. Perhaps she did. But they certainly all had their own luxurious daybeds from best silk and brocade.france-4Béatrice Ephrussi de Rotschild lived the most extravagant life a divorced woman in the turn of the 19th century could. She commissioned an incredible villa and garden – not for herself but to see and to be seen. But was she happy? Perhaps she was in some ways. Women in those days found themselves unfit for any mold if they were divorced, unmarried, and wealthy. Perhaps she was shallow and happiest when entertaining. Or perhaps she felt lost in her role and happiest doing all the things she should not: play tennis, ride horseback on a man’s saddle, drive a car, and even fly a plane. Did she find meaning in her life? Perhaps. And at least one cannot blame her for not trying hard enough.

Unfortunately the house took its time to be completed, and the baroness herself was swept away from this life just four years after its completion. But the house is still there, as are the gorgeous gardens. And if you listen really carefully you can hear the jazzy tune from the gramophone and the click-clack of cards and dice from the after-dinner parlor.
france-5(Cap Ferrat, France; April 2018)


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The Nordic version of Carnival

laskiaisbunThe laskiaispulla (FIN), or fastlagsbulle (Swedish dialect in FIN), fastelavnsbolle (NO) or semla (SE) is one hell of a calorie bomb: sweetbread carved out to harbor a clump of juicy, bitter-almond tasting marzipan (or raspberry jam for the heretics), with a cloud of whipped cream on top. But what else do you want on a cold February Shrove Tuesday when the body craves for energy?

This is as close as we get to Carnival in the Nordics: one or several laskiaispulla before 40 days of “fasting” (over here it was mainly cutting out the superfluous) before Easter. Except I don’t know of anyone who actually fasts. It seems to be a nearly dead tradition – and why? In the middle of the carbohydrate frenzy our body seems to prefer during the cold months, take 40 days and really consider every piece of simple, unextravagant food you put in your mouth. Cut down on sugar, leave out the booze. And kick-start it all with a few laskiaispullas in the ancient fashion: served in a bowl of hot milk. This dish is called “hetvägg” in Sweden (hot wall). Try it and you’ll find out why.

(Stockholm, Sweden; February 2018)


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Who are the Finns and where do they come from?

langmap-2Finnish, Estonia, Vepsian, Livonian, Hungarian, Mansi, Sami, Udmurt, Mari, Moksha. How many of these languages have you ever heard of? How about Nenets, Karelian, and Khanty? This is the language tree of the Uralic languages, including Fenno-Ugric languages where Finnish and Estonian belong (the top yellow-and-orange languages in the photo above).

In school I was taught that Finnish is an old language that stems from somewhere deep in Russian territory. It is not Indo-European, meaning Finnish is less related to Swedish than Sanskrit to German. I was also taught that the languages can be trailed backwards in tribes, along migration routes across the Siberian taiga, all the way back to the Ural mountains. Basically, people linguistically related to Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian are a smattering of fur-trapping and reindeer-hearding tribes between Finland and Mongolia. Sami, or the language of the reindeer-hearding Lapps in the Nordic countries, is on a separate branch even if it is geographically close to Finnish. It has heavy influences from its geographic neighbors but is according to linquists also close to Mongolian. langmap-1Today this model is challenged. Those who combine ancestry genetics with linguistics say that Finns have a mixed genetic heritage, Finnish came to Finland from Estonia, and as a language it is not really old at all: if you remove all influences of Baltic, Swedish, ancient Germanic, and ancient Russian languages, you are left with just a few words. Surely this is plausible because people adopt each others words when they spend time together.

Which ever way is the truth, it is a curious and often forgotten fact that we EU citizens who feel we belong with Western Europe, Ikea, beer-lovers, and a Christian cultural heritage, actually have close family links with tribes living in very cold climes, either in wooden huts or in yurts, trapping fur animals or herding reindeer for a living. We share the same words and partially the same culture of singing our stories through poetic verse (check out the Finnish national epos, the Kalevala. It was a huge inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien in his youth). The soul of our ancestry lies in a mythical connection with nature, where everything from bears to trees to rocks have souls, too. We forget this, even when we pick seven kinds of flowers to put under our pillow at midsummer night so we dream of our husband-to-be; or when we retreat to our summer cottages, choosing to enjoy our holidays without power or running water, living and breathing Nature.

When you look at our past as well as the lifestyle of our linguistic relatives, is striking how much the Sami, Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian “Europeans” have much in common with Native American heritage: hunter-gatherer living, respect for big prey, living in connection with Nature, animism, and shamanism. Sure, this is the backdrop of the stone age human, but we Fenno-Ugric people lived like this still as near as 1000 years ago. And what happened to these two cultures? Today the Sami have their own council, their own languages, their own schools, and a growing respect for their culture, while the Native Americans seem to be downtrodden, century after century. And the Finns and the Estonian keep their heritage alive only through subconscious, not-realized connections to their past, such as big feasts when eating big prey animals, and the summer cottage culture.

Interested to learn more about the mysterious folks of the North-Eastern taigas and steppes? There is an excellent, permanent exhibition on the Uralic peoples at the Estonian National museum in Tartu.
rahvamuuseum(Eesti Rahva Muuseum, Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)


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Stone of sacrifice

tartudec-14There, unassumingly in the park, next to a currently acknowledged house of God stands a much older site of God. A million sacrifice ceremonies have worn out round indentations in the rock, like bowls carrying gifts to the Divine.

The days of worship are not over. The students of Tartu university use it to burn their lecture notes after exams. Perhaps it is not so much a sacrifice to knowledge and life but a purification of methods after numerous books have been converted to understanding and insight?

Times change. Our need to connect with the Universe will not.
tartudec-13(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)


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Ruins

tartudec-15

Days of misfortune arrived—blows fell broadly—
death seized all those sword-stout men—their idol-fanes were laid waste —
the city-steads perished. Their maintaining multitudes fell to the earth.
For that the houses of red vaulting have drearied and shed their tiles,
these roofs of ringed wood. This place has sunk into ruin, been broken
into heaps…

(Anonymous, 800 AD)

tartudec-16(Tartu, Estonia; December 2017)