This blue marble

– and yet it spins

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What is the soul of a city?

NYC-1What are cities made of? What is the essence of a city? We humans are funnily egocentric: we like to anthropomorphize everything. We talk about the “beat” of a city or it’s “soul”. In a way we evoke a primeval streak of animism when we claim to sense the essence of a city as if it were inhabited by a spirit.

Well, here is a bold thought: concrete, steel, asphalt, dust, dirt, glass, electricity. This is what for example New York City is made of. Perhaps you adore it, disagree, and claim NYC is made of buzz, life, ambition, and hope for the future. That the soul of a city is the people and human life.

The problem is, human life is transient and ever-changing. Without it, New York City would be a big pile of rust, concrete, and rats (rats are life, too!). And water. Apparently there used to be over 40 streams of water running across Manhattan, and the original land colonialized by Europeans was to a large extent swampland (around a few hills).

I wandered around NYC in early May, imagining from time to time what the city would look like stripped from all neon lights, cars, electronic billboards, and human life. A few months later I was given a book to read which presents scientific conclusions on what would actually happen to it should we people all disappear. Since the City is actively fighting back water in its subway systems, flooding would be the first, immediate effect. At some point the city would combust and burn, probably several times, due to all the faulty electricity and fuel sources available. The rats would probably have a feast. Then, slowly, trout and other fish would return to the river; with great difficulty over the few first generations, owing to the leaking nuclear power plant nearby. But they would come. And so would other animals.

Nature is the entropy humanity tries to fight against. The moment we stop, Nature conquers us. It has no rush as it knows it will always win in the end. Eventually. My claim is that a city is nothing but a container, a vessel, for life. And so, would it not be fair to say that the city is actually soul-less and an anomaly in the order of things? That what we mistake as the “beat” or the “soul” of the city is, in fact, our primeval collective pulse as a human community – and the city has nothing to do with it?NYC-2(New York City, USA; May 2018)

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A modern monkey

canopy-2After browsing the free-time activities during a work retreat, I signed up for a canopy tour. I thought it would be like the canopy tours I did in the past: walking on planks and suspension bridges in trees. How wrong I was. Read the small print they say – but who ever does?

Instead we were whisked up on top of a mountain in a ski lift, trussed and clamped into a harness, and sent down the mountain on ziplines, toes skimming the treetops. Hanging from a wire, wind in my eyes, speeding towards a huge tree, I had to learn to brake with my glove on the wire before hitting it full speed. That’s what the helmets were for – or against.

canopy-1 As I stood under the apex of a lark tree, enjoying the sunlight and hum of the wind in the branches, squirrels scattered in all directions with angry complaints: humans don’t belong in the trees anymore. “Have not done so for quite a while so Go Away!”

Yet I could not help but think of John Muir’s tale about when he rode out a storm in the top of a douglas fir in Yosemite. And I thought of redwood arborists who spend days harnessed and hanging from trees, studying the animals and trees that grow from compost deposited on a redwood branch – and even sleeping suspended in the trees.

And I realized I just may have missed a second calling as an arborist, spending my days up in the trees, researching the microecosystem of a single tree branch. I may have missed a chance for happiness by reverting into a modern monkey.

canopy-3(Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, USA; October 2015)

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New Hampshire ruska

NH-forest Is it a 19th century landscape with oil on canvas? No, it is real: the backyard of our lovely hotel in Bretton Woods. Ruska is Finnish for fall foliage and this is ruska at its best. But what Scandinavia misses is the maple that, when it sucks back the life from its leaves, turns them a dark-blue-blood-red against its light gray trunk. The New England ruska is tinted by royal blood.

(Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, USA; October 2015)

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The haunted hotel


Imagine a white, long, stately grand hotel. With miles of corridors, white doors, and old Persian rugs. With hidden rooms and the scent of old age, and a bar with an age-old bartender. With guest rooms in which good things have happened – and horrible things, too. With REDRUM spelled on the door.

Yes. REDRUM. The Shining. “Honey, I’m home!” Jack Nicholson’s character going into serial-killer-mode. Except for that the location was changed to another hotel in Colorado just before filming began. Yet sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. The Omni Mount Washington resort in New Hampshire looks like the hotel from the movie. Only the haunted hedge maze is missing.

What a relief, then, that only room 314 is haunted. It is only at night when the hotel creaks and sighs. On a clear day you can see Mount Washington in the distance. And no REDRUM MURDER happened on our watch. 

NH-hotel-2(Omni Mount Washington Resort, Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, USA; October 2015)


Dazed and confused in Boston

Boston-1 There was a long flight, jetlagged people lost in a hotel, and a quick dash to Macy’s for proper winter-weight stockings. There was somebody who knew which direction to take, and finally a skyscraper and an elevator upward.

And suddenly there was a cocktail party on the top floor, and Boston at our feet. A gray day turned into a spectacular golden sunset. And after hours our jetlagged brains were exposed to the crazy show of the Blue Man Group. Best viewed when drunk or near-expired by exhaustion.

Boston, city of smart and innovative minds, today my dull mind was no match against the first glimpse you offered. Rematch another time?


(The Charles River, Boston, Massachusetts, USA; October 2015)

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It’s a small world

wyomingThe border of Wyoming and Colorado from the air, just outside of Cheyenne.

wyomingfromtheair Same location one week later, when I only remembered the approximate location (after Nevada and before Cheyenne) and after studying Google Maps for about two minutes. The world is small – or Google Maps is great? Which is more frightening?

(Wyoming/Colorado, USA; December 2014)

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The crookedest street


Once upon a time there was a street so squiggly that people came to see it from far. To drive down it was sightseeing. To walk down it drunk was daring. To photograph it was expected.

And yet the roses did not mind. They thrived, covering every spot of earth in between the zig-zagging road. Because they had the most beautiful view of the Bay. Because for them, what was crooked to most people was normal.

(Lombard street at night, San Francisco, USA; December 2014)

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Gold rush blues

saloonBack to 1852 and the gold rush. When saloons were rowdy and smelled of sawdust. When bourbon was cheap. When paintings of half-dressed beautiful ladies on a picnic was considered daring art. When there was no plastic and no need for 4 “cash only” signs.

Last time I was here I drank cheap port out of a scotch glass. I debated with a bartender who looked like Dr Phil and had been banned from Canada. I listened to gray-haired hippies with cobwebbed trumpet sleeves singing blues.

This time I drank GT out of a proper glass. I was scolded by the bartender, a lady in her 60s. I listened to a fantastic gray-haired blues band and there was not a single hippie in the saloon. Life goes on. The saloon survived the 1906 earthquake. I wonder whether it will survive the next big earthquake. If that happens during my lifetime I will be back. Perhaps then it will be time for a bourbon and some more blues.

(The Saloon on Grant, San Francisco, USA; December 2014)


Water and wine

sonoma-2 There was a day of fog and rain and flood. Roads welled with water as we drove into wine country. Leaf-stripped vines stood in cold muddy foot baths as we navigated through closed roads to a winery spared of seas of water.

And then there was a swirl of crisp grass and apple in the glass. And another swirl of plum and raspberries, with a hint of chocolate. Chatter among strangers from all across the world, gathered around an old wooden table. There was an Australian couple celebrating 10 years of togetherness. A Hawaiian couple globetrotting their retirement days away. Two Finnish ladies who stole a day off from work. And a Californian winemaker spinning hilarious stories from that cold little country up north, from another life.

And there was wine. Bottled poetry. A whisper of a dream in a glass. Before long, there was sunlight and blue skies, too.

sonoma-1(Sonoma, California, USA; December 2014)