Category Archives: Heart and Home

Keeping the lights on

This morning, before I was completely awake, my son came into my bedroom with a handheld torch, instead of putting on the lights, in a bid not to wake me up. His father came in behind him and Harris shone the torch unevenly over the wardrobe for a monent, quickly round the bedside shelves, places where Toby was reaching for clothes or his watch. Harris was technically supposed to be helping Daddy, I think, but he is only 4 so the strange new potential of a light he can move himself is much more interesting than any mere purpose for it.  I lay in bed, my eyes drawn to the torchbeam like a cat’s, as it bounced around the walls and the curtains and the surfaces.  Our messy bedroom, which is also the junk room, still full of unpacked boxes – looked under torchlight like the backstage at a theatre, full of costumes and props.  The magic of light.

Two years ago, when the children’s daycare was nestled between the woods and the sea, I used to bring a torch for Sanna to carry on the return home on dark evenings, and a small electric lantern for Harris to watch in the footwell of his pushchair, and we were festooned with reflective badges and stickers.  Sanna’s torch was very interesting to the 5 year old boys.  “Can we look at your torch, Sanna” they would ask, and she would saunter all cool and “yeah okay” back to the daycare fence, the torch lying in the palm of her hand as if it was the most casual thing in the world to have a torch of your own, but the broad grin bouncing around her cheeks giving away her excitement, and the children would all crowd round to look at the torch for a few minutes and then she would stride home head up, torch out, ready for anything and holding her own. 

One year before that in Helsinki, I had arrived at a different daycare in the city, with the heavy and homesick heart of a recent migrant on a sombre evening and wondering how we would bear our first long, gloomy Finnish autumn-winter —  and been enchanted to see the twinkling pattern made in the dark by a dozen or so high vis vests as the little ones ran skittering around under the daycare’s playground lights.   And suddenly not so scared of the dark autumn-winter (and I did not even know then what it would feel like when autumn could contain the hope for flashy brilliant diamantine snow to come soon, and I did not know about the wonderful last weekend at Linnanmäki, our funfair in town, which turns itself on into one giant kaleidoscopic glitterbomb of coloured lights before closing for the season.  The weather may be too warm for snow this year, the fear of the virus may be too much to try Linnanmäki this year. Let’s not think about that yet.  The kids are good at sorting themselves out, they live in the present – when they want to, they just switch on the disco ball and blast music from a phone and they dance in swirling coloured lights.) 

This autumn I need light more than ever, but I have learnt to take my dark with my light.  I read about the Chinese tradition of the midautumn festival.  Like harvest festival but with extras:  coloured lanterns and mooncakes, I want something like that.  In December the windows all over Finland will light up with Christmas stars but we will need something to keep going with until then. 

Sometimes in autumn when I wake up and make coffee I look out from the kitchen and the sky is streaked over the sea with pink and peach and purple like a crazy cocktail.  Those are good days.  Half an hour later, the morning sun shines low between the trees and the plants on our balcony and makes grey silhouetted branches and tomato vines on our white walls.  If that morning light  is bright enough and the children are awake they act out dramas of shadow bunnies and shadow dinosaurs.  

Shadow puppets

This year more than any other we know that good enough is wonderful. Boredom has become aspirational and daily life is a celebration.  In spring we put teddy bears in our windows and waved at unknown toddlers on the path who had stopped their parents and were delightedly pointing out our own teddy bears to us. This week Sanna and I decided we will make small lanterns and hang them in our windows.  Even if we can’t see the toddlers in the dark outside, I know they will be there, because at a different time, my children will be out walking a dark path in a strange autumn.  I want those unknown toddlers to know that we have left a light on as a promise that we will be waving at them again, come spring. 


I had a c-section and it was fine, actually

This blog is just practical notes based on my own experience of c-section as I’ve been asked a few times by expectant mums and I will probably start forgetting things soon.  Techniques develop fast and things were possible on the second that weren’t on the first, so if you think you may have a c-section, do ask your midwife about things that are important to you.

  1. It is possible to have skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth.  With my second c-section the baby was immediately placed at the top of my chest, his cheek against my cheek.  While it wasn’t possible to go to immediate breastfeeding, that might be possible too in the future as techniques develop.  So if skin-to-skin is important to you, talk to your midwife/consultant about it.
  2. On my second c-section I was keen to get home asap to be with our older child. I had the c-section about midday and left the hospital at 6pm the next day. The doctors had to be satisfied that my scar was set to heal, that my bowels and waterworks were back to working order (first time I’ve had to fart for an exit visa), and that I was able  to breastfeed.  Breastfeeding was very important to my hospital, and might not be such a priority elsewhere.  I also had support at home.  C-section doesn’t have to mean a long hospital stay if you’re a bit lucky.
  3. During my first c-section, the consultant surgeon said “you’re the captain of the ship, we’re just the sailors.”  Although you are on a gurney and can’t move, you can talk.  Talk to people, ask questions.
  4. On my second c-section, unlike my first, I was allowed to keep my glasses on which was very important to me as I have very poor eyesight.
  5. As my second was a planned c-section I was able to bring my own music in and it was quite a party atmosphere, until they placed the baby on me and all the staff somehow seemed to melt discreetly out of view while my husband and I bonded with our baby. It can be lovely.
  6. I was trembling heavily during my first (emergency) c-section and I wish someone had told me that the trembling was due to the epidural I’d already been on for some hours and not anything to worry about. It didn’t happen on the second.
  7. Given my experience with the first birth, I didn’t make a birth plan with the second. I felt this would help me to just roll with the experience. I was however encouraged by my midwife to keep talking to her about my birth preferences, and we put my preferences in order (e.g. I was not willing to try an induced birth again).
  8. After the planned c-section was agreed my midwife supported me to still try to have a natural birth, e.g. scheduling the later of the two recommended dates for the c-section and giving me a cervical sweep to try to get labour going naturally.  Although it didn’t work, I was happy that I’d been supported to cover all the bases and felt very content going into my c-section.

So that’s it really. I was lucky with supportive family and friends, a great partnership with my midwife (thanks Steph!), a fab hospital (thanks GSTT!) and a party anaesthetist.  It’s not always so easy for everyone and I don’t pretend it is.  But hopefully some of these ideas may help someone else have a c-section that is fine too.

How am I British?


The first person I heard telling me that I could not be both British and Finnish was a prospective Conservative MP in 2009.  It was at a work event that had turned into a long lazy evening of summer-time drinking.  I was used to being professionally bi-partisan, and it was a charming evening with the sun setting over the mellow brick of one of London’s storied members’ clubs, and someone else was buying the drinks, so it was intriguing to find out how different my worldview was to his.  Labour was in power and had been for a long time.  Gordon Brown was exercised over problems to do with national identity which seemed rather academic to me, even though my organisation had been a bit involved; organising the launch event for Lord Goldsmith’s Citizenship Commission and going to meetings about the proposed “Statement of British Values”.  In retrospect, I see it was in the air.  I asked the future MP what had drawn him into politics.  “Well, in one word,” he said, “if you really want to know – MargaretThatcher”.  He continued to be adamant that it was literally impossible to be loyal to two countries at once.  I wasn’t worried or frightened that he and his like would change my life, or my standing in either country.  I saw nationalism as an interesting debate but one on the fringes in a nation with much bigger fish to fry because of the financial crash.

Seven years later, I woke up the day after the British had voted (narrowly) to take Britain out of the EU, and Nigel Farage was on the radio declaring it a ‘victory for decent people’.

So I was wrong about the importance of nationalism in British social life.  Nationalism played out differently among different Brexit voting groups.  The racism of the man who yelled at one of my relatives in a hospital is different to the protectionism of the trade union leader who said that his job was to protect British workers (forgetting that his union happily accepted subs from EU workers in Britain).   But when people on both left and right talk about sovereignty, what can they really mean except that their vision of the nation wasn’t being fulfilled?

Being both British and Finnish, the debate affected me differently to pro-Europeans who were only British.  I would remain an EU citizen despite the vote, whereas their rights are being stripped away.  But I felt my sense of belonging, of having a home, or homes, had been pulled out from under me.  I mulled a lot on what patriotism meant, how to think of my relationship to Britain while also being from somewhere else.  If not an ethno-nationalism of saying “the people here are better”, then what was it?  What did Britishness mean to me?

It was definitely landscape – the Yorkshire moors, the Scottish mountains nosing at the sky, the fields in Devon rolling towards the the fishing boats pulled up on pebble shores; the narrow old streets of London opening onto plazas of glass and steel tower blocks, and people from all over the world streaming through our streets.  And it was the food that came from these places: the fish and chips, the ploughman’s lunch with a  block of crumbling cheddar, and also the food from all over the world that those city dwellers had brought with them.  Britishness for 500 years had been exploratory, outward looking.  Not always to the benefit of those people Britain had looked outwards to, but that curiosity and ambition, both good and bad, had led, I  proudly thought, to Britain’s fairly decent foreign policy and its international aid programme.  In spring 2017 I stood watching clouds and sunshine chase each other over Glastonbury Tor, and thought  ‘Britain, such a beautiful country full of delightful, polite, people who make terrible decisions.’

And, to me, deeply, Britain was in its language. English (I don’t speak Welsh or Gaelic) – that wonderfully absorptive language, full of Latin and Greek and French and German, and loan words from all over the world.  The ketchup on my chips had come via Malaysia, once.  I studied English Literature at university and could never quite believe I was getting a degree for something so lovely to do as read books.  I engaged passionately and traumatically with reading.  I cried after my Medieval exam because I felt I had not been able to fully do justice to Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight, and spent much of that summer lying on the lawn meditating on the Middle English teutonic word ‘draumr’ meaning ‘joy’ which gave us our modern English word ‘dream.’  I nearly went mad dreaming my way into Ozymandias and felt I had tracked some important thoughts about post-Providential Victorian narratives through Shelley to George Eliot.  Twenty years later, for much of the summer of 2016, I hugged this thought to myself.  I was sure Nigel Farage did not love English literature the way that I did. It made me more British than him, in my head, for a while.  I felt that love gave me rights. I had a distressing moment on Twitter when Leavers Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell quoted Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins at each other over a photo of a landscape.  It was the poem my sister had read at my wedding.  They were on my turf.

There is something to say about what it means to be a re-migrant to Finland too, but I am still in the middle of that.  The only thing that has become clear in recent weeks is that Brexit or no Brexit, I cannot lose my Britishness.  People divorce their spouses but they rarely leave their children (my biological father did, but he was a shit).  For most people, there are ties that are too profound and too intertwined in everything about them to break.  My ties to both my countries are that.  I have two children, my love for one does not displace my love for the other.  The senses I have of both my countries sit happily inside me, they are not in conflict, whatever the future Tory MP thought about it. He was, I have realised, quite simply wrong.

A couple of Saturdays ago I was late to a friend’s baby’s first birthday party here in Helsinki. I explained my truthful reason for lateness, that my baby had been wild-eyed and screaming for 24 hours since a bad flight from London – but I was touched to find people ask me in reply if I had been able to watch the Royal Wedding, as if gently allowing me to reveal the truth behind a little white lie, making space for my Britishness.  And I had indeed watched the wedding on my phone on the tram, sobbing a little at Meghan Markle’s beauty as she entered the church, weeping quite freely on public transport during Bishop Curry’s rousing address about how love could change our world.  I’m sentimental about weddings anyway, but I’m sure that there was something about the Britishness that pulled me in.  The beautiful spring weather, the arches of flowers over the antique stone chapel, Britain coming face to face with our new bi-racial campaigning feminist American actress Duchess, revealed from under her magnificent veil which had been embroidered with symbols of all the countries of the Commonwealth – and a Californian poppy, for her.  We didn’t know before now that the Queen’s Prebendary is a black woman – the Church of England has been changing for a long time but now the world knows.  When I became British I had to swear loyalty to the Queen and her heirs, and I’ve never been sure what that meant.  But when I read the next day that Piers Morgan in the Daily Mail was warning Meghan off from talking about feminism from the palace, because she has servants there (as if he ever cared about intersectionality before) I felt a call inside, saying “find me my sword of words, I must fight with my Duchess!”.   Britishness evolves, and will continue to.  It’s a thing of wonder, complex and rich.  A few weeks later I lay on a hot afternoon in a hidden little corner of a Finnish forest against a smooth granite rock, amid birches and rowan blossom and the white flower called Solomon’s Seal.  It made me think of Bishop Curry’s words about love at the wedding from the Song of Solomon: “Place me like a seal upon your heart”.  I felt drenched in sunshine and love and language, and extraordinarily happy.




Tomorrow I start to leave Harris.  He goes to daycare, to the ‘soft start’ where I watch him play and hope that he seems normal and acceptable to the nursery staff and his peers.  By the end of the week he will be spending hours  without me.  The nursery think this will be traumatic for him and me, but largely they are wrong.  He will mind, a bit, but he’s a happy child who likes socialising, he will find rewards in his new days. For me, well – I have been a fiercely loving but ambivalent mother.  The real me was in many ways at work: Essi was in the analysis and the balanced decisions, she was perhaps sometimes hard-to-like but fair, and effective, people said nice words like ‘integrity’ and ‘high-performing teams’. Motherhood swamped me in the ceaselessness of its demands, the emotional whirlpool of unconditional love and curiosity and concern and boredom and loss.  Loss of friends, whose friend Party-Essi had gone underground and not in the underground party way.  Loss of faith in the world of work from everyday sexism such as the interviews at the Climate Group where they asked me twice how I would manage the (risible) travel demands of the job while having a young family.  Loss of interestingness – moving to Finland and our new friends asking my husband what he did at work, whereas my role was obvious, nappy-filled and devoid of potential.

I cannot wait to hand my beloved child over to near strangers and find myself again, to write up the presentations I have promised various people, to write as many letters as it takes to convince someone to pay me again for being work-Essi and to develop my Finnish past this language I acquired as a child based on my grandmother and things my mother remembered and puolukka, juolukka, mustikka, berries, ask me anything about berries and I will reply in Finnish.

I am now up against the State for a while, as my motherhood grant ends and I apply for jobseeker’s allowance, a much more questionable and suspicious being in the eyes of the State.  Mater certa, Jobseeker incerta.  Am I really a jobseeker or a lazy-ass scrounger determined to find a way to freeride and freeload and cause anarchy in this place that depends on a fine balance of work to create its welfare.  The kinds of job I can do don’t even feature on the drop-down menu.  I do not know forestry or asbestos clearance nor am I a teacher or a technology manager.  The 10 digit me that is my personal identification code is in 1996 again, being told by a temp agency hack that ‘the trouble with you is, you’ve got no skills.’  And the one person in the world who is completely and blithely assured of my value who cries for me the way he cries for reasons as fundamental as hunger or loneliness, has no say.  Think of the reference he could provide for me.

The indomitable food provider, forbidder of bins, gatekeeper of the noisy saucepans and wayfinder in the great outdoors.  Plus of course all the roles he does not see, the Listmaker, Button sewer, shopper and parcel collector, medicine remembrancer and hygiene monitor, social support seeker and offeror, place-maker and family activity resource, walking google map for child-friendly toilets. He does not know what will happen this week.  The closest relationship he has ever known, the relationship which overwhelms all others in his need for our closeness, our staring into each other’s eyes, joint exploration of a cardboard box, is changing.  He wouldn’t want it to, although nobody has asked him, and I am ambivalent.  That’s my cardinal quality, ambivalence.  And he has no ambivalence – he wants, or he doesn’t want.  And tomorrow, he doesn’t know what it will bring but I do.  Tomorrow.

In Memoriam Salli Lindstedt

Salli and Erkki

In memory of Salli Lindstedt:

26.09.1926 – 27.05.2016

Every so often, I think:  ‘I wish Salli-Mummo could see this.’

Today it was when I stopped at a small Korean restaurant for lunch.  It provided lovely food, there was modern Korean photography on the walls and modern concert music playing.  Salli never told me that she wished she could have travelled outside Finland, but when I came to visit her and Erkki after a trip to Kenya, she took away my old, formal school portrait, and replaced it with a snap of me, dishevelled, making morning tea on a camp fire in the Rift Valley.   Once, as two boys slid rattling below her window on skateboards, she said enviously ‘wouldn’t you like to do that?’  At the age of 24, I didn’t, but at the age of 70, she clearly did yearn for that adrenaline and freedom.

My relationship with her was close, because as a child I spent a month of every summer with her.  I marvelled then at her busyness, at the incessant round of shopping and food preparation, with  a break after lunch to read the paper, and then on again with a whirl of activity, a bucket of strawberries to stew into ‘soppa’, clothes to put through the mangle, an elderly friend to visit.  She taught me rural virtues, like duty, and not wasting anything, especially food.  If I was displeased with my dinner, she reminded me that when she was small, they had to put birch-bark in the bread to make it go further when the crops were failing.  She took me to stay in the old farm-house near Kemi where she had grown up with her 12 brothers and sisters. If I complained about having to wear unfashionable cast-off trousers and getting covered in bird poo on a day’s berry picking, well, it was either funny, lucky or character building, depending on her mood.  But every morning when I woke, she had already been out, fetching water from the pump and picking bilberries to put in my porridge. She showed me how she wove rugs on the loom in the unused parlour. We visited her mother together in Simo, in a care home where Kaarina lived with Alzheimers and cared comfortably for a doll in her lap.

Part of Salli’s duty to me, and hopefully a pleasure, was to expose me to culture as well as to feed me and make me virtuous and frugal.  We visited the library at least weekly, and sometimes went to concerts, and perhaps once a summer she took me to the spare, plain, wooden cathedral in town, where I acquired no knowledge of religion but learnt to be politely and discreetly bored, an invaluable skill.  Of course, most of what she taught me about culture was implied.  Implied in the few but excellent objects in their home: the paintings on the wall, the classic Finnish designs of glassware and ceramics that we ate from, the classic novels and the encyclopaedia on the book shelves.  She had not had the opportunity for higher education herself, although she had gone for a few years to the small village school, but she had fine taste and an easy capacity to learn.  She may have grown up on a farm in the very north of Finland, and known hunger and Nazi occupation of their barns, but she had made herself refined.  She easily picked up sentences of English from the television.  She let me play with her make up bag when I was a child, and said to me: ‘when you are grown up, you should try to look as much like Grace Kelly as possible.’ Another time, in my 20s, when I was being nagged to find a husband, I asked her if she would mind if I didn’t marry.  ‘Of course not,’ she said.  ‘There’s no point doing something just because it’s the custom.’

It took a long time for the shadows of Alzheimers to close around her completely.  One time, visiting her at the sheltered accommodation in the flat she lived in with Erkki, I saw the newspaper out and found out that she still read the paper cover to cover every day and did the crossword.  She could still say thought-provoking things.  We walked past a rosebush, and she said: ‘for some reason, I prefer a bud to a rose.  A rose is just what it is, even if it’s beautiful; but you don’t know what a bud will become.’

Further on, she was living in a care-home with a beautiful garden.  She was widowed by then, stiff in the joints but still mobile, and brightly talkative.  I had brought my fiancé to meet her.  She had no clear grip on who I was, but her impeccable social graces let us have a wonderful conversation, and we sat and talked in the garden while she periodically twinkled at my fiancé.  I wondered if, tall, good humoured and even-tempered, he reminded her of her own Erkki.  Toby’s theory was that as he was a non-Finnish speaker, she had recognised a kindred spirit in him: someone having quite a nice time but totally confused about what was going on.  Her youngest grandchild Varpu also appeared that day, which gave Salli great pleasure.  As we left, she gripped Toby by the hand and said earnestly, ‘aren’t little girls lovely?’

Further on still, two years ago, we got to introduce her to our own little girl.  She almost certainly did not understand the relationship, perhaps she no longer had a concept even for what a family relationship was.  But she knew that there was a baby girl in a yellow dress playing on the swing, for her to watch with pleasure while she strung words together like necklaces of mismatched beads.  Briefly, our daughter had a name for her great-grandmother:  ‘Mummomama.’  To play with a young child in the sun and eat ice-cream, to talk in your own way with people who love you – that seems like a good deal to strike with the world at any time of life.

4 generations


Our honeymoon at the volcano

After the arrest, the lightning storms and the dogbite, our honeymoon went really well.

The arrest happened the day after our wedding, which was also the day before we were due to go on honeymoon.  It was for a supposed infraction of driving laws, which later, we were proven innocent of.  At the time, it confused our law-abiding newly-wed souls horribly,  and we had to add crying and a sense of injustice to a busy schedule of packing away a DIY wedding and packing for a honeymoon, having a rushed dinner with family and squeaking ‘we got married!’ to each other.  Then we flew for 20 hours to Managua. We had meant to learn Spanish for the experience, but didn’t quite make it to linguistic competence – at all.  At all.  Our first taxi driver was very disapproving of us.  Then, to show forgiveness, he switched the conversation, in English, to football.  We know nothing about football.  We were social failures already, as we drove around a city where the streets have no names and the hotel had an address which was something like ‘to the left of all these things and opposite another place.’ 20120729-215600.jpg However the hotel manager seemed to like us, and was welcoming and interesting, and the food and beer delicious and very welcome.  It was midnight and just before I fell asleep I looked at the sign on the back of the door and thought ‘well, nothing says HONEYMOON like an order against bringing prostitutes to your room.’


The next day we flew again, this time from Managua to the Corn Islands.  Great Corn and Little Corn are set in the azure Caribbean off the coast of Nicaragua, an enclave of a different language (a Creole) and culture, far away from Managua and mainstream Nicaragua.

picture of beach
Beach near our hotel, Great Corn

We stayed in a hotel which was a small string of huts along the shore, 20 feet from the sea.  This became particularly exciting on our first night there as the wind rose, and the storm started to howl, and the rain lashed the timbers of our hut.  I peeked out of the window a couple of times to see how high the sea intended to rise, then quit, as there was nothing much I could do about it.  Toby developed  a post-wedding fatigue fever and lay in bed moaning ‘we’ve come on honeymoon by mistake.’  As the wind buffeted us I lay next to my sick husband with the guidebook in my hand and considered whether we should fly to Mexico or the USA .  The next day the winds dropped.   The rain continued all day, Toby was still very tired, and we read books and I got lost in imaginary worlds of talking wolves and friendly trolls.  The day after that, the sun came out, and we explored.   It was beautiful. It was also very poor.  Not direly so, as there were schools, health facilities and a lobster processing industry, but still very poor.  Workers looked at us as we moved hand in hand along the bays near our hotel.  Two bays along was a major beach, about a kilometre of white sands.  There were five other people there.  Discretion seemed to dictate that we should stay at least 200m away from the next nearest human but I was still slightly freaked out by too much time spent reading about talking wolves and I snuck us closer and closer to the family playing cheerful salsa.

Empty beach
Big beach on Great Corn

Every now and then the sky darkened, and we’d move under a beach umbrella in case another storm was coming, like that would help.  Nobody could sell us lobster or a cocktail, and we felt bad for asking.  We said hi to the other couple staying at the hotel, and the guy, a USAID staffer, remarked that he liked to go on holiday to places where there were no other people.  We took the hint and left them alone.  Three more days passed in this place and the clouds came and went over paradise, and on the last evening there, our hotel’s dog bit me in the leg on my way back from the beach.  The USAID guy popped out, interested in my yelling, and remarked that there would be no rabies on this island, or we’d know about it already and I was lucky that it was a well-looked-after dog but I should probably put some iodine on it.  I texted a pharmacist friend in the UK for advice and then we called one of the local taxis that had seats, a wheel and a gearstick, and drove to the local hospital.  They were fantastic and gave me tetanus and bandaged me up but I had a six inch bruise going all round my leg  for the rest of the holiday and couldn’t swim.  Nothing says ‘honeymoon’ like a surgical stocking.    At this point, Toby announced through gritted teeth that we were not on honeymoon, we were on Marriage Bootcamp.  It’s where they send idiots to toughen them up to survive the real rigours of marriage.  We’d given up on having fun.  But then we went to Omotepe and the honeymoon bit of things really began.

Picture of a volcano

Sometimes at night when I can’t sleep, I look up imaginary places on Google maps. Omotepe should be one of those places, except unlike Moominvalley, Mordor and Gormenghast, it’s real, but really, really beautiful.  Omotepe is not really an island with volcanos, it is two volcanos where people have farmed the lush, fertile skirts of the fire-mountains.  We stayed in a cabana at a resurrected old farm, San Juan de la Isla. The gorgeous old dark wood hacienda had been sinking back into the island from whence it came, but its new owners found it and brought it back to life, repaired the roofs and fixed up the timbers, strewed it with hammocks and rocking chairs so you step through the gates and walk down the paths to the crackle of cicadas to a place to sit that murmurs, come here, rest your legs, would you like some peace?  And a rum and guava cocktail?  And from almost every angle you could see one of the two volcanos – the one with straight sides like a pile of grey sugar, and the one which was all crumbled away like a sandcastle after the tide.

Essi on Omotepe
Essi on Omotepe

Ometepe is brighter with colours than a pack of wine gums, more serene than the storks that flag their way along the grey sand volcanic beaches, humming loudly with the life of its insects, rustling with lizards. One day we saw a yellowish green snake shooting away from us through the undergrowth, and I thought: after all, doesn’t every honeymooning couple feel like Adam and Eve, and here we are in our own paradise with the serpent circling that tree.

Solanacio plant with red berries
Solanacio plant

Our guide Nevtali showed us a bright bright berry bush on a hike to a waterfall: the solanacio plant. Apparently snakes eat its violently red and horribly poisonous fruit to encourage the development of their venom, but researchers believe that the extract may also cure eye infections. Thus are pain and healing intertwined in one double helix of DNA. The biological station is collecting and studying the properties of many such plants, of which the scientific community at large is yet ignorant, and Nevtali, our guide, collects them.

Our last stop was Granada. Originally we had been enchanted with the idea of Leon, the dark, brooding leftwing brother to the pretty, conservative Granada. Before I left, I told my sister this and she blanched, and said ‘maybe Granada would be better.’ After finally unwinding and realising that we were on honeymoon and not on a pilgrimage of political philosophies, and that our Spanish was still truncated and useless, and we would quite like to be able to walk some streets after dark, we agreed, and switched itinerary.

Toby relaxed at last, in Granada.

Granada was perfect for honeymooners . There is a beautiful central square with a delicious streetfood kiosk in each corner, under trees. Horse drawn carriages line the square and regular Granadians use them as taxis, and the tourists can hire them for an hour’s touring – what else would tourists like us do? Our driver was called Byron. ‘Como la poeta?’ I asked. ‘Si, como la poeta Americano.’  Every night I ordered ‘national cocktail’ (rum and guava) and ceviche.  We rowed through only splash-broken silence round little islands on Lake Granada, with the sun setting on the water and a ring of volcanos peacefully guarding the horizon.

On the taxi back to Managua, our driver pointed out that one of the volcanoes was puffing out ash.  ‘The volcanoes are very beautiful,’ I said in Spanish.  ‘Yes,’ he replied, like a proud father.  We had discussed poets and volcanoes, our Spanish was still useless but at least we had touched on the important things of life.

At the airport, I cried.

‘I’m sorry,’ I explained to the staff.  ‘I just really don’t want to leave Nicaragua.’

A few months later, the arrest was shown up as a miscarriage of justice it really was  once, and we are once more citizens of unblemished driving records. Phew. And the dogbite didn’t carry rabies and has healed, and the worst the lightening storm could do was drive me to regress to childhood and read all the Moomin books I could download to my Kindle.  We survived marriage bootcamp.  We’ll go back to the volcano.


Red means ready except when blue does

In September, there is still work to do on the garden, but the summer excitement has faded.  The first year, it was concrete and then mud, the second year there was grass and some lavendar bushes and some newly planted small trees and bushes.  This year there were still bare patches around the edges like unasked questions in the earth but there was also fruit.

In garden
TTT rampaging
Our garden is nothing spectacular, a brown and green urban pocket handkerchief.   But for the Ten-Ton-Toddler and Gentle Giant and I this year it was a place of unfolding mysteries, as TTT picked fruit and berries for the first time in her life.

TTT turned two in early summer and re-discovered the passion for wild strawberries that we’d observed the summer before in Finland. I had found a patch then near my uncle’s summer house, and tried my strangely fruit-detesting baby on them. She had gobbled them up. I love wild strawberries myself. I have childhood memories of staying with my mother’s friend Liisa as a teen and her having kept a patch for me to pick when I arrived. For a family with two small boys that must have been quite some strawberry sacrifice. So this year I had found a nice lady on ebay who sold bare rooted runners from her own plants. And of course endless picking of blueberries. I had low expectations – even though I knew my mother was growing wild strawberries in her garden in Devon I thought there was probably some magicry involved in that, the way my mother’s cinnamon buns always turn out better than mine. But no – they took to the soil and spread their leaves and leggy little runners and by midsummer we had clumps and clumps of aromatic soft little drops of concentrated strawberry.

Wild strawberries taste almost artificial at first, as though they are strawberry flavouring added to something else rather than the berry itself. And TTT adored them. If she was dawdling on the way home from nursery all I had to say was ‘shall we see if there are any strawberries’ and she’d nearly run home. ‘Dawbewys in my mouf’, she would announce when she had her little harvest of a couple of strawberries and perhaps a raspberry from my new canes. I tried to teach her that ‘red’ meant ‘ready’ but colours were still unworded to her, and sometimes I had to crouch on the ground to block her from a full body tackle of a strawberry plant covered in unripe mint-green little fruit. Then a month later the blueberries started to crop.

Blueberry in red autumn colours
Blueberry in autumn
They disappoint me a little – they are the pale American style blueberries, not the small, very slightly sharp but intense bilberries I pick in Finland. But TTT had no such qualms. The months had made a difference to her emotional development, and by the time the blueberries had ripened she had learnt about sharing. She would try desperately to save some blueberries for Daddy, her favourite person in the world. But she loved the blueberries so much or was so proud of having saved some for Daddy she was insistent that she needed to carry them. And then mostly the temptation was too strong or memory was too weak and the one blueberry saved for Daddy would end up in her mouf.

By the time the blueberries were well under way, the peaches were growing round and soft and fuzzy, blushing under the netting we had thrown over them to keep away the birds. The first one arrived after TTT was in bed and I confess, deprived of the garden’s fruit so far this year, I ate it, then she claimed the next ‘Sasha pitch’ the next day. The third one fell before I got to it, so Gentle Giant and I shared what the ants had not already received.  Then came the plums. Tragically, the beautifully laden lilac and gold flushed plums had been infested with moths, so only the latest ripening fruit were free of the unwelcome grubs. I muttered dark words of disappointment and swore to pheromone traps next year. TTT had mixed feelings. The first one she tried she announced was ‘not nice’ with a disappointed expression on her little face, but the second one received a ‘nice, this’ and disappeared quickly enough. We had pacified her with our first carrot after the plum disappointment. She took great pride in washing it, and then we called Mummu, who had given us the seeds. I could watch my daughter on the phone as we Facetimed, the feathery green fronds sticking out of the side of her mouth like Bugs Bunny. And by the time the tomatoes were ripening, TTT understood ‘red’ means ‘ready’ well enough, and she even understood that for the blueberries, reddish means not ready, that they must be blue. She knew that there were ‘no more dawbewys’ but there would be more ‘another time’. Fruit come in different colours and at different times, a mystery for her to absorb.


It is September now so the growth and ripening has slowed. We have a few autumn raspberries left to ripen but you can almost hear the pace of life in the gardening quietening down as the photosynthesising leaves wilt and brown and the stems weaken, tucking their energy back into their roots.

I will probably pick the remaining green tomatoes to make chutney soon, which will confuse and annoy her if she sees it, because she has learnt that you do not pick green tomatoes, and she does not like her newly acquired rules of life to be disrupted. Sanna does not use Mummy’s trowel because it is sharp, but equally, Mummy should not wear Daddy’s gardening clogs, even if her own ones are lost, because Daddy’s clogs are Daddy’s. She turns to me with an inquiring look before she picks anything in the garden because she knows there are rules and the main rule is waiting. She has tugged up feathery fronds in the hope of carrots, but the root is still tiny and white, not yet a carrot. Green or reddish blueberries are ‘not nice’.  She takes out her trowel and rakes at random pieces of ground sometimes, because this is part of the behaviour that belongs to being in the garden.

We will plant apples, blackberries and Arctic Brambles in November before we retreat to the house for mid-winter.  More for someone to discover..

Greening the Whites

For the last month, I have been a bit in love with my garden. It is uncomplicated, it shows results in a fairly short timeframe, and it doesn’t induce guilt when I ignore it for a few days. Perfect.

When we first moved in, just over two years ago, the beauty and productivity of the garden was not a priority as I was seven months pregnant, which is lucky, because the garden was hideous. Beyond the strange pink patio, two thirds of it was covered in concrete, and where the concrete was not, there were only perennial weeds as the whole garden was blighted by the canopy of two trees. The trees were handsome in their own right, but massively too big, and they blocked out light and sucked up water from all the gardens around. The previous owner had left the dismembered limbs of another gargantuan tree at the back. On a bitterly cold day (it snowed that March) I observed uselessly as Toby cleared the rotten logs, with my enormous bump unable to do much more than be ready to scream if there was something nasty in the woodpile. We drove to Lewisham dump where the attendants barked ‘no pregnant women out of cars at the dump!’ and I slid, relieved but guilty, back to my warm seat while Toby cleared our lives of the slimy, fragmenting things in the icy rain and slicing wind. I cried on the way back. I missed our small modern flat in Waterloo, felt lonely in our new house with its vile garden, in the suburbs with their isolated and freezing streets, and was fed up of being pregnant. I take a while to put down roots.

The two positive things we did do were break up the concrete and start a compost heap. I don’t remember talking about buying the compost bin, we just went shopping on one of those strange, hazy, stressed-out just-moved-house-and-about-to-have-a-baby days and came back with a compost bin. Toby came home after work, went out with the lumphammer and bashed the concrete to bits, swearing sometimes when he discovered that under the concrete, was – more concrete. His parents descended on us like freakishly strong garden clearance fairies and got rid of the concrete, again, I don’t remember how. When She-who-is now-the-Ten-Ton-Toddler was two months old we sorted out some tree surgeons, of whom the least said the better. I hid from them with my newborn and left my mum to sort it out. We kept the nicest, curliest willow branches for supports for other plants, but for several months, looked only occasionally at the hill of earth and leaf mould in the back and let the perennial weeds take over while we freaked out about caring for a soft small bundle of human beauty which never slept.  But we did start to fill up our compost bin. After a few months my mother pointed out that we had accidentally grown butternut squashes from some seeds which had fallen out on the way to the compost heap – you could see the big leaves tracking the path to the back of the garden where the compost heap stood. Unfortunately we’d paid too little attention and the slugs got some and the rest were too late in the season to fruit fully. Still, it was encouraging. Even after years under concrete, our London clay soil could grow butternut squash plants. And we had flower beds, courtesy of my in-laws, who had lifted up the slabs around the edges of the border and planted annuals. We had a place to sit in the summer evenings when Toby came home and took the wee baby reverently in his arms while I sat back revelling in the fact that for the first time in twelve hours I wasn’t holding her and had free use of both arms. One of Ten-Ton-Toddler’s grandmothers, or possibly both, had planted some courgettes, which grew so prolifically that Toby was still announcing well into the next year that he never wanted to see a courgette again. The courgette issue was compounded by the fact that we kept forgetting to pick them until they were marrows, and then in our sleep deprived state the only thing we could think of doing with them was to stuff them with stilton. There are only so many times in a week that you can eat marrow and stilton without passing into a sort of twilight zone of blue cheese devils and green man nightmares. My mother gave us a peach tree for my birthday, and put irises to bake their corms in the sunniest corner. The whitewashed back of the house could, in the sun, appear quite Italianate. We didn’t have a garden, but we did have a space to sit.

The next year, when she-who-is now-the-Ten-Ton-Toddler was nearly one, we had another go at things. I got an amazing book called ‘How to Create an Eco-Garden’ by John Walker.  The book was perfect for us because it’s written for people with small urban gardens like ours, who like getting their hands dirty.  I started to track the sunlight round the garden throughout the day to understand better what to plant for sun and shade, although I was still far too hopeful about what would grow in shade and lots of flowers never opened. For three weekends we enlisted the support of Ten-Ton-Toddler’s Aunties and adoptive Aunties (thank you Jess, Reeb, Astrid, Annika) so that they entertained her while we furiously dug and levelled the post-tree surgery hill of earth, rolled it, and fed it, or in Annika’s case, picked up a shovel and laid the turf. My mother brought us lavender plants, and strawberries in pots.  Our friend Sue gave us tomato plants. We dressed the Ten-Ton-Toddler in a bee costume and put her on the new lawn to be photogenic and she burst into tears at the strange new environment and asked to be picked up.  My mother and mother-in-law planted bulbs in the front garden. I was back at work so although my physical strength was coming back, we had little time for much more. But the tomato plants were fantastic and at the end of summer, I picked dozens of green tomatoes that would never ripen any more and made chutney. Toby, I think, felt it was rather like the courgettes all over again and begged me repeatedly to give away more chutney. I think one lesson for me is that Toby would like more variety and fewer gluts in the garden.

This year, I have been working at home a lot and so I discovered a new love for the East-facing front garden, with its beautiful crocuses, irises and soon-to-open tulips and daffs, thanks to the thoughtful planting by Ten-Ton-Toddler’s grandmothers. I do emails there on sunny mornings with a mug of coffee in my hand and thank my lucky stars I’m working in my own front garden. And in the back garden, we moved the compost bin and got our first harvest of composted kitchen matter. I found a new potato in it. There are no lengths that nature will not go to, to grow. And there were worms. ‘We’ve got worms!’ I told Toby. ‘We’ve got worms!’ I told my new friends at the Field at New Cross Gate. It means that two years after the concrete left our lives, we now have a living soil. Today, Toby and Ten-Ton-Toddler watched a blackbird eat a worm. I’ve seen bees. We’ll get the fences fixed on the South-facing border and hopefully get some veg in there and some fruit canes, interplanted with marigolds for the bees. The peach tree is blossoming.  Ten-Ton-Toddler has her own gardening kit and enjoys helping with planting and watering. Even more to my joy, I have an excuse for my hoarding instincts and claim that I need to keep things because ‘they might be useful for the garden’ and can now also justify that as a ‘Circular Economy’ approach thanks to the Masters’ Course. Hopefully this autumn I’ll do some more of the things recommended by ‘Eco-Gardening’ like planting green manure, which will hopefully deal with the perennial weeds and improve the soil for crops next year.  Hopefully our garden so far has been a net positive for the environment – although two trees were lost, they were not right for the space and I hope our planting, insect hotel and commitment to growing food will help balance the carbon loss.  I’m fairly sure that our garden is already much more biodiverse.  Some of the ideas from ‘How to Create an Eco-Garden’ were too much for me right now.  I’d love to have the fish-free pond that John Walker recommends, but Ten-Ton-Toddler needs to be older.  Similarly, having a lawn is not really that eco, but is great for her to kick a ball around on.  And we did try to keep an area of long grass and wildflowers for the bees but something kept coming to crap in it overnight and I couldn’t risk Ten-Ton-Toddler tumbling into fox faeces so Toby mowed it flat.  But a garden is a work in progress and for me part of the value is taking things slowly, being prepared to wait a few years before the compost is made, before the trees can fruit, and before I learn the ways of our micro-climate enough to plant the right things.  The parameter that the garden must be child-safe will change over time as Ten-Ton-Toddler grows.  It’s been a happy project to which the whole family and many friends have contributed their time, strength, plants from their gardens and ideas over Facebook.

So in the spirit of giving something back to the world, I went with Toby and Ten-Ton-Toddler to pick litter at the library meadow-garden today. Ten-Ton-Toddler was in a supervisory capacity only, but I think we all agree that the shouting of encouragement and juice slurping from her turquoise wheeled throne made it all much more efficient. My secret agenda is that I’m hoping to inveigle my way into the affections of the people who manage the library garden, and if I build my credibility with litter-picking I might be allowed a go at some pruning in time, or perhaps even some planting. I’ve got the bug, as much as the garden has worms.

A tale of two Jamies

Christmas this year really began with listening to my very talented friend Chris singing on the South Bank with his choir Urban Voices, followed by mulled wine with Victoria and Karen. Walking home past the London Eye and trees lit with little blue fairy lights I felt very lucky to be a Londoner and to have the friends I do. Then Jamie and I shopped at Borough Market, and bought our guinea fowl from a butcher who jointed it for me according to the instructions in my Jamie Oliver cook book, despite threatening to charge more because Jamie Oliver is now too much of a big cheese to pass the time of day with him. Then he wouldn’t let me over-tip him for the Christmas box.

Christmas proper started with a plate of cheese and preparing a jelly for the next day, then a li’l glass of Prosecco. Jamie and I went to Midnight Mass in St John’s at Bethnal Green. I’m not used to a C of E service and so the intoning was a surprise and I found myself flapping desperately through the little blue booklet trying to work out – was it the creed? The eucharist? But it was a very jolly C of E sermon, exhorting us not to feel guilty for not coming to worship more often, telling us to celebrate the birth of Christ by having a good time – though not overdoing it. Rather different to the Quaker meeting I attended recently where people had ministered happily on a new child born to a single mother who is part of the meeting, and in a more conflicted spirit on a concern for the homeless, an anger against consumerism, and a plain refusal to believe a literal truth of the poetry sung in carols. There is a principled facing of the truth with Quakers that I value, but sometimes I do wish that we could just take it easy too.

Today Jamie and I cycled through town in defiance of the rain – and as often happens when you face up to an enemy, the rain melted away. Jamie led, and his confident presence helped me conquer my nerves about tackling the roads. We cycled past a working mans’ club in Bethnal Green, adorned by a Banksy graffiti and some cheery teenagers who wished us a happy Christmas, through quiet squares at the back of Kings’ Cross, through a sedate Bloomsbury and then Seven Dials in Covent Garden which was decorated with Christmas Lights arranged in the form of Candelabra. From there we went up the sandy path on the Mall, skirted the Queen’s home, past the palace of Westminster, and through Whitehall and Piccadilly. We clicked our heels together three times and said There’s no place like Soho (not really, but Jamie gave me a Wizard of Oz mug for a present and it was in my mind). As always in Soho we saw the strangest things – a woman walking down the street, oblivious to the twinkling lights of the strip joints and revue bar, with her two toddler-ish sons, who were both wearing toy police-man’s helmets; and then a moment later outside Village Soho, a small, localised glitter tornado. Some fragments of the journey were completely new to me, some (Iike Lambs Conduit Street) had impressed me ten years ago and then I had lost them, and some turnings were ingrained in the very movements of my body, places I had worked or met people at, or danced in. Then home, and then we ate a feast, from Jamie Oliver’s recipes, with some amendments from our own Jamie. We both worried some about the people we had seen who seemed homeless, or alone, or simply caught in the rain when they wanted to be somewhere else. When we were eating our home-made jelly made with berries, elderflower cordial and prosecco I was so content I could barely form words. Christmas was all I had hoped it would be – calm, luxuriant without obscene consumerism, full of laughter and friendship. It’s a good feast to wind down the year. Many thanks to Jamie for making it such a wonderful day. It’s never quite easy to decide how much it is fair to enjoy yourself when others do not have the things they most need – companionship, shelter, nourishment of all kinds. But I suppose we too need some leisure and easy time – with an old and dear friend – I think so.