Friday, December 31, 2010

The Messenger

I've told you all before about my short stint as a bike messenger on the medieval streets of London town, which left me with just a hint of devil-may-care attitude towards traffic rules and speed. The other events that have cultivated my love for the humble bicycle, lay deeper in the past. My mother is and has always been a cyclist extraordinaire; riding her bike through the ice and snow of Finland in midwinter, with little old me in tow.

In addition to hauling me, her groceries, her set-models and skates and skies and god-knows-what-else, we use to ride ten miles each week to get all our drinking water from a natural spring. Crazy hippie moms. She still rides year-around, though. That's 'cos my mom is pretty hardcore.

I like terry cloth
Anyway, I seem to have inherited this cycle gene and am happy to tell you that I too bike trough, sleet, rain, snow and impenetrable darkness (bike lights seem to be more about letting others see you than letting you see s***.).

I wear it all the time
I got my first bike when I could barely walk. It didn't have pedals though, so I don't know if it was technically a cycle. The next one, with training wheels, a big girl bike, was called something like "Foothills Pony". It was bright red. (I have a weakness for bright red bicycles. My last one was a brand of Monark called PM Champion. I christened it The Pre-Menstrual Champion. Classy, I know.)

All through my childhood mom and I would bike literally anywhere, because she didn't get a car until I had already moved out. Even now she bikes 5-10 miles a day running errands. Biking is basically a way of life for her.
The are pants!
I too like to bike most everywhere I can get to. It's very wonderful for me to live in a place where its a viable mode of transportation. In the winter it's a little challenging for sure (the afore-mentioned rain, sleet, icy roads, darkness and suicidal/homicidal deer), but whenever I actually get my act together and do it, it feels so amazing.
The Horse and I
Whenever I feel blue or overwhelmed, or just plain tired, a bike ride usually helps. Moving through the changing scenery gives you space to think and clear your head. Alternatively you can pedal 'till you're out of breath and don't care anymore. It's like a good cry that way. But more fun.
Elephant head
Like any other sport, cycling is all about gear, of course. As in you want to be wearing a helmet, so that when that deer jumps at you from the dark, your brain won't spill all over the pavement.
Sticker-doodle from Nicole
Plus you can adorn them any way you like. Mine has a sticker from Nicole and lots of crazy scribbles. (The other side says "Like hell it's yours yuppie!" in honor of a cowboy hat a friend of ours has. His said "Like hell it's yours commie!", but I like commies, actually.)
Peas on earth
Other than being good for the mind and body, cycling is obviously good for the environment, or rather, it's not detrimental to it. I try to think about that whenever I feel tempted to forgo the rain gear and the cold and all the other inconveniences. In spite the fact that it's actually the opposite, I like to think that I'm saving up some of my carbon emissions for something cool, but carbon-y I want to do. (Like say driving some 1600 miles to hang out with some people I like...) It's little more motivating than feeling like I'm chipping at the colossal carbon debt I've already accrued. Sweet, sweet self-delusion.
Hello to you too!
You're seeing some of my favorite Dump finds here, by the way. The Buffalo plaid 70s coat that C. found for me (good as new) and a green velvet blazer that reminds me of Heather, for some reason. Why is that, Heather? Do you have one, or was that a strange dream I had...

I don't generally wear blazers, but given that I am pictured here wearing terry-cloth outfits and starting the leggings-as-pants trend, I think it's safe to say that I'm a wild card.
Elusive pin
Up up!
Travels with Raleigh
Well I must be off, but do tell your cycle stories.

Ps. Thanks everyone for the recommendations on good Gypsy movies. If you're interested on some others besides the ones I mentioned check out the comments on that post.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

That 70s Snuggie® and otherwise perfect holidays

This Christmas our little hodgepodge homestead decided to have ourselves a low-key celebration. My sis-in-law J. traveled up to hang out with us, while the rest of family dispersed all over the country. We agreed on no pressure, no expectations, minimum petroleum consumption, and of course the key to all this: no presents. But sometimes, when the perfect present comes along, its your duty to be its messenger.

For years now our family has had an in-joke about how Mali needs a snuggie®. In fact, the only thing stopping us from buying her the afore-mentioned hideous couch-sack is the fact that it's just that: a fugly, highly flammable fleece atrocity. But never fear: the Island Thrift Store is here to help you. Originally when I saw this beauty from the classic American manufacturer Sear&Roebuck I thought it was cute mock-quilt coverlet. Imagine then, my delight and surprise, upon discovering that it was actually a "Body Warmer" with the original instructions still attached to it! The Perfect 2 dollar present!

Naturally I had to model the darn thing as soon as I got home.
Test run
And on Christmas eve, I got to hand it to its rightful owner, who of course was delighted.

Delighted and puzzled.
Here we go bodywarmers!
Good thing it comes with instructions.
Though of course you need a man to decipher them, with his superior technical ability.
The ghost of comfort
Things have not changed
Two dollars well spent say I.
My best present was just having my dearest friends around. We hosted a little dinner on the 24th and my friend Talu and her mom came, witch just made the assortment of girls perfect. I did get some material presents too, though a little early and wholly unexpectedly. C's mom sent us some lovely kitchen condiments and a little monetary help. My mom has a mystery package still stuck in the mail. Talu gave me a lovely sweater you'll be seeing soon. My friend Summer gifted me with this beautiful lambskin coat that has already become a staple garment.
And C. found a pair of perfect "blue jay" earrings at The Dump. They're my favorite.
Blond children
Good friends, great food, candle light, purring cat, beautiful presents, and lots of laughs. Our small house can only host about 10 people and it was at top capacity that merry night.I feel very blessed and lucky indeed.
This Christmas
We even took a family portrait for the immigration people. Notice how saintly J. looks in this picture?
Family Portrait
Other than the party, we have been taking it easy, prolonging the lazy season. We've been reading, eating good food and watching a lot of movies, including family VHS-tapes from C. and J.'s childhood. They are so cute and hilarious.
Mountains Beyond Mountains
We also hiked up our little mountain to admire the storm clouds brewing above the Olympics. Sigh.
Eagle tre
The Bay
Islands beyond islands

And now we're moving onto Birthday Season for C. and I. More fun. I don't know if I can handle it. Hope you're having some too!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Gypsies were travelling through her little town

As you may know, I don't reply to comments on my blog, simply because I don't have the time. I love comments, I do, because nobody blogs in a vacuum, and enjoy checking out the blogs of people who comment.

When I post though, I don't really think about readers, or rather, I think about the few friends I know read this for sure. Basically, I write this blog mostly for myself and the handful of regular readers I have gained over the three (!) years this adventure has gone on. You see, if I think about it too much I start worrying about whether what I write will interest you, or if someone will be insulted by something, or if I'm making sense to someone who has just wandered over.

In fact, I was rather horrified upon rediscovering the "stats"-button a few weeks ago and realizing that I might have quite a few more readers than I had thought. Yikes. I am going to work my hardest to ignore this knowledge and keep at my erratic post stylings just as before.

The balance between having a blog about what I do and wear (I hate both"style" -and "lifestyle"-blog as terms.) and what I'm listening to, watching, reading, making, thinking, are completely intertwined in my mind.

I've asked you readers before about what you think of certain things, mainly the dreaded "what I did today"-posts (or in my case "what I did not do"-posts), but I have never felt like trying to garner a particular demographic, or gain readers at all for that matter. I you like what I like, then welcome, if not, I'm sure you'll move on, thanks for stopping by.

That having been squared away, I'll tell you that I do love hearing your thoughts and will absolutely take requests, if you would like to read my insights on a particular topic. This post was prompted by one such request received by email from Aysha (Hi girl!). She asked me to recommend some films about gypsies that I liked, and how could I not oblige, these being some of my favorite topics: movies and the Romany.

I've mentioned Latcho Drom before, but I cannot emphasize enough how wonderful this film, told entirely through music, really is. The film imagines the travels of gypsies over a vast distance and hundreds of years in time. It offers a wordless insight into to past and present of the Romany, and is also just a sheer visual delight (even when you watch it from an old VHS-tape on a tiny TV/VCR.).

The acclaimed Serbian director Emir Kusturica has explored the gypsy culture throughout his carrier. First of his marvelous story-telling turns about the travellers is The Time of The Gypsies, the tale of a young Romane boy with supposed supernatural powers.

A finely woven story with many vivid characters and a wholly believable world, is hard to come by in film these days, and Kusturica is master at all these aspects of filmmaking.

There is an air of authenticity to his Romany films, a sense that in spite all the seeming caricatures and exaggerations, you get the sense that you are being shown multiple facets of something genuine. His movies to me are like listening to Gogol Bordello, utterly ridiculous and heart-warming at the same time. Often his films are both dark and humorous in turn, though The Time Of The Gypsies is mostly a tale of hardship and woe as the main character Perhan passes from one tragic circumstance to the next. It is also a beautiful film with much power.
For a more uplifting, or rather side-splitting, gypsy experience I recommend Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat, a hilarious romp of a film that will surely have you in tears. Of joy.
(I love this image.)
A hilarious adventure full of off-beat characters and unexpected twists, Black Cat, White Cat is well worth your cinematic time, whether or not you're into Gypsy movies. Custurica's knack for timing is uncanny and the artistic sensibility of Black Cat, White Cat is sure to tickle the aesthete among you, in spite the fact that it falls more into the raunchy comedy category than anything else. Take that Apatow!
Now, I will admit that my last selection is more fanciful and less gritty than the others, but in my defence I will say that it, like Latcho Drom, is more a family film and thus suited for all you mama's out there, many of whom I know are always on a search for a good movie to share with their wee ones.

A tale of two young Irish Pikeys who are taken on a life-changing journey by a magical horse called Tír Na NÓg (A faeryland in Irish mythology comparable to any mythological nether world, Tír Na NÓg is an Island that appears only under certain conditions. I remember reading about it in The Dark Is Rising cycle when I was but a wee tyke.) (I'm compiling a post, by the way, on my favorite children's fantasy books growing up, how nerdy is that.)
Like so many of the films I love, Into The West works on several levels; it's equal parts fantasy for children and a drama suited for grown-ups. It brings to mind both its screen writer's later work My Left Foot and another cross-over children's movie set in Ireland: The Secret of Roan Inish by my own favorite writer-director-editor-actor-genius John Sayles (I have a post coming up about him too;).

It is good to keep in mind when watching these stylized and fictionalized tales of the Romane, that they have traditionally been the underclass of Europe, comparable to indigenous tribes everywhere, in turns reviled, romanticized, exterminated, stolen, orphaned, appropriated and forgotten.

During the Holocaust Hitler murdered hundreds of thousands of Romany. They suffered similar pogroms to those Tsarist Russia levelled against its Jewish population. They have been hounded through the centuries as thieves and cheaters, and continue to be treated poorly in most countries in Europe, whether it be outright through lack of opportunities, neglect, or barely concealed racism.

Only six months ago Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government removed almost 200 Romanian Romane form France, in spite the fact that as the citizens of a member nation in the EU they are as entitled as anyone else to move freely between nations within the union. I'm embarrassed to say that my own native country hasn't behaved much better with the recent influx of Romanian Romane. (They have been the first people seen begging on the streets of modern Finland, a fact that says something about the country and its well-fare state.)

Finland's native Romane are very distinctive from the main population not only because of their dark hair, eyes and skin (most Finns are relatively fair.), but because of their dress, which involves a dapper look from men and an stunningly glamorous style for women. Most Romane adults "take on the dress" that distinguishes them, but also keeps them somewhat isolated from the drab masses.

Growing up I was sometimes mistaken for a Romane kid even by Romane women, because of my long dark hair, dark brows and light olive skin, though I was rather pale and had light eyes. Because of what a wonderful, open-minded individual that my mother was I never shared the common misconceptions of the Romany and remember admiring the women for their formidable beauty and dress and wishing I could pass for one more often.
For a good reason too. The women's costume, which is specific to the Finnish Romane, is absolutely amazing. The skirt alone can weight as much as 25 pounds and consists of layer upon layer of material. Romane ladies often wear high heels just to keep their hems off the ground. Their blouses are intricately embroidered, or decorated with hand-made laces, a skill that's still passed down the generations. Oftentimes you can see a Romane woman wearing enormous, intricate gold jewellery, a remnant from their travelling days when one carried their earthly possessions on their person.
I feel as though the Romane ladies of my childhood are one of the many strands that comprise my taste in clothing, perhaps even my love of tall-tales, and fiddle music, or my romance with slow travel.
Here I am indulging my follies on Christmas Day, wearing appropriately enough, things gifted by my friend Summer, my mother and the wonderful Nicole. This twirly skirt from her was the corner-stone of this outfit. I love it so.
From Russia With Love
Paisley queen
Moss grows
Mycelium bloom
A rowboat journey and a walk in the woods were certainly some of the best parts of my Christmas, along with plenty of Gogol Bordello, chocolates and books. But more about that tomorrow.
Here's lookin' at you Aysha!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Kun Joulu Joulu on meillä...

Christmas Eve is traditionally the day we Finns celebrate Christmas. We have a number of distinctive customs, many of them a remnant from the earlier pagan celebrations. Perhaps that is why the biggest holidays of the year are Christmas and Summer Solstice.

There's at least five, or six courses of food that you only ever have at Christmas: rutabaga, carrot and sweetened potato casseroles, root and cream salad with pickles, plum stars and ginger snaps, Christmas bread...We sing countless songs compared to the tens of American ones I've heard. We have advent calendars, pre-Christmas parties, radio and TV-programs galore, Tonttu-hats. Christmas is a nationwide craze all through November and December.

Usually the whole family gathers around to decorate the tree and sometimes to fetch it too. Even the most irreligious families (like mine) sing Christmas hymns and have manger scenes (I wish I could share the one I started when I was 6. Mary is a single mom (she wears a red dress and lots of eye-makeup) and Jesus is bi-racial.).
On Christmas morning we traditionally eat a kind of Christmas porridge/pudding and then start baking and cooking the meal. The porridge itself contains a remnant of an older era: an almond secreted in it who's finder can have a wish, reminiscent of the king-making almonds of the Saturnalia and the days of The Lord Of Misrule. In earlier days the almond did indeed signify a change in the social order for a day, making its finder the head of the house for the day, no matter their standing.

Around twilight you can see families congregating at the cemetery where they place candles on the graves of loved ones. It's quite magical to see a whole old cemetery, where the trees are huge and everything is covered in frost and snow, aglow with little lights.

It's only after dinner that we get to opening presents. Whether their brought by Joulupukki (Santa Claus), who's name literally means "Christmas Goat", or simply exchanged, they are usually piled under the tree. Joulupukki himself used to be quite far removed from the jolly, rotund Coca-Cola sponsored fellow he has become.
For one thing, he used to be kind of a wild spirit, a mix of man and goat, possibly a remnant of the animal one slaughtered for winter Solstice celebration, or an earlier fertility rite that took place in January. Also, he was far from benevolent back in the day. Even in my childhood he was just as likely to spank you than to bring you presents.
He was and still is surrounded by the Tonttu, a mythical Finnish creature, who not only appears during Christmas, but used to be the spirit around the house and the barnyard, part responsible and helpful, part mischievous.

The Finnish Christmas lasts a minimum of three days, and was even as recently as my childhood an almost complete shut down of the land. Trains stop running, stores are closed, most restaurants take a couple of days off. There is even such a thing as "Christmas Peace" that the president declares each year. This tradition dates to an earlier era of upheaval and is rooted in the idea that all should strive towards maintaining personal and social order during these few days midwinter.

All this is obviously easier to do if you're a tiny nation where 95% population is Christians, but the thought is well and good regardless of one's faith.
"Joulu" is a time for the family, for reflection and calm, no frenzied driving or travelling. No one has to work, save for nurses, firemen and policemen. And professional Santas, of course.

May your Christmas time be calm and peaceful and full of joy. Hauskaa Joulua!
(All images by Elsa Beskow, a sublime illustrator of the Scandinavian childhood, about whom I have a post coming up.)