Friday, 29 May 2009

Swashbuckling in Finnish

It is official. I am on holiday. For the next 3 weeks there will be no getting up because the 6am alarm demands it or working late on Friday nights or even weekends. At this point I would normally have bags packed and passport ready to head off on the exploration of somewhere out of the way.

However this year the plan is radically different in a unintentionally ironic way. This is because there is no plan. We're just going to be at home chilling out. I hope to read The Count of Monte Cristo, make an odd day trip out from Helsinki, stay on top of my Finnish homework, drag the boss to Bar 9 to meet C and eat some lemon chicken (although neither of them know about that thought of mine yet!) and other stuff as it happens that doesn't revolve around worrying over the question "What are we going to do?" or more pertinently "What are we going to catch to eat tonight?" I know for many people what I've written above is the most natural and normal way to approach any holiday. My usual ideas of exploration and wearing myself out with strange wilderness experiences is akin to hell for many who have perfected the art of the pleasantly lazy holiday. Still it is new for me.

The challenge for the kitchen is now lunches for the boss. If I'm around she will expect to be fed by me. So while posting maybe light for the next few weeks it might also be a bit more lunch focused. However I have thought about using the time to make some more elaborate evening dinners which could provide some nice recipes and thirdly with the current weather in Helsinki I could also be returning to one of my pet themes: BBQing without compromise or carbon! Although in reality how much makes it to the blog remains to be seen.

Although having written all that my first task in a list of jobs provided by the boss is to move a huge pile of wood so that we can sit in a sunnier spot in the garden and then mow the lawn. Lazy summer anyone? Luckily there is a bottle of beer chilling in the fridge and the sun is shining so everything will be alright.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Nainen vailla varjoa

Last night we went to the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki to see the above titled opera. It is more commonly known by it's German name of "Die Frau ohne Schatten" or in English as "The woman without a shadow." We had decided to go firstly because we wanted to see the inside of the opera house (noble I know), then we chose to go last night because today is a Holiday in Finland and therefore nobody would have to get out of bed early. None of us had any knowledge of the opera itself or opera in general.
I am not really sure what to write from here? How do I make any kind of reasonable summary of a 4 hour opera that veered between sublime and ridiculous, homaged Star Wars & Snow White & the 7 dwarfs, had a plot that made Pokeman look understandable, astounded me that opera could be this good and was not at all a difficult art form, let me read Finnish & English surtitles and yet still, finally, make the point that a woman's role in society is to bear children for her husband? Having done a little reading on the Internet it appears that the opera is a nightmare/challenge to stage and to sing and despite the fact the whole production had more than a small dose of weirdness about it I came away quite exhilarated and determined to go to the opera again in the autumn.

This pleases me because when I mentioned to a work colleague who is heavily involved in classical music here in Finland that I was going to see this opera I received a sceptical eyebrow and a forlorn good luck. Yet the experience was anything but one to mourn over. It was an affirmation (as if it were needed) that an open mind will lead to enriching discoveries, that a willingness to explore your home town will throw up unusual experiences and that a Grandmother who plays her uncomprehending grandson opera at an early age will have the last laugh when he goes to the opera house and experiences something of a revelation.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The cave of swimmers

The English Patient is one of my favourite books. It is one of only a handful of books I have read multiple times. It is one of the few books that I like to see on my shelves. It is also a good example of where a film and a book compliment each other. I write this because the night before last we sat down and re watched the film for the first time in a long time and found it to be a rewarding experience.

I know one should be instinctively suspicious of a film with a stellar cast and 9 Oscar wins but this an exception to that rule. With the benefit of having read the book many times and not seen the film in a long time I was able to see subtleties in the performances of Fiennes and Scott Thomas that were not immediately obvious first time around. In adapting the story to the film I also enjoyed the counterweight provided by Hanna & Kip’s story to that of Almasy & Katherine’s. Like the book, the film does stand up to repeated viewing. I must also confess that I liked the circular nature of the film beginning as it does at the end and then setting off around again to reveal the many facets of its story.

It is also good to bring up the merits of this film and the book it derives from as we were at the movies this week to see the franchise reboot of Star Trek. First of all the good news: It is a silly romp through a culturally familiar set up that will entertain if not overly analyzed. It also looks good. However the bad news is that some of the old bugs remain in the system: the plot requires a universe in mortal danger from an unstoppable enemy that can be resolved by our hero where all have been blown to smithereens. Why does the bad guy do it? What is his motivation? It in invariably of the "Milkman ran over my cat by accident and now I will destroy everything and everyone" variety. It just doesn’t warrant the destruction of the known universe. Therefore the actor doomed to play the bad guy is forced to go down the “I must finish my unfinished symphony” brand of absurd madness. This is the problem. We’ve seen it all before and no matter how deft the reboot these fundamental weaknesses remain.

When the movie finished we went and saw the Walt Disney and Western Art exhibition at the Tennispalatsi museum. It was there I found out that Peter Pan says “Second star on the left and straight on till morning.” I thought it was Jean Luc Picard of the star ship Enterprise. In fact it was Captain James Tiberius Kirk “Second star on the right and straight on till morning.” So franchise weaknesses apart it is at least nice to see some deft references to Walt Disney who was himself such a liberal referencer in his own works.

However if there is a choice between Star Trek, Peter Pan & the English Patient I hope you will find me with an old copy of Michael Ondaatje's book.

Something quick for supper

This post was written a few weeks ago but never made it in the correct chronological order. So belatedly here it is. I should say that I am always surprised when artists hold onto pieces of their work for years and years and then suddenly put them out. Thankfully this is only 3 weeks behind schedule but I remember my lack of comprehension when I read on a Bruce Springsteen album sleeve that one song had been around for 11 years. Hopefully I won't be that bad!

I did not wish to infer that I am some sort of artist. I just hope you enjoy making this recipe.


It wasn’t to be like this. The boss & I were going out for dinner tonight with a friend. However they changed plans on us and I found myself hurrying home from Helsinki with a packet of diced pork in my bag and a mission to feed the hungry person at home.

As the “I” train made its way through the sunny afternoon I knew I had time for a quick marinade and to wash the rice. I thought it would be nice to give it a little bite with some chili.

Then I got home and was taken with inspiration. I really only used what I had to hand and didn’t stop to think about it and it was very tasty. So here is Asian influenced pork with rice.

Serves 2
100g diced pork
3 teaspoons of Sambal Olek
Soy sauce
Sesame oil
Chinese 5 spice
Vegetable oil
1 thumb of ginger chopped finely
1 sliced onion
Bamboo – slice it if you need to
Frozen Corn
Frozen Peas
Salt & Pepper

First of all marinade the pork in a little of the sesame oil, soy sauce, the sambal oelek and the Chinese 5 spices. Cover in cling film and put in the fridge. Depending on the cut of meat you may need to marinade for longer.

Heat some vegetable oil in a wok and cook up the onions and the ginger. Add the pork and the marinade. Then add the peas and the corn. Put on a lid and turn it down and get on with cooking the rice.

On this occasion I had washed the starch out of the rice to make it sticky. Then I cooked in my normal way. This means a 3:1 ratio of water to rice. Once in the pan bring to the boil and let it boil hard for a couple of minutes turn all the way down and put on the lid for about 10 minutes and then remove from the heat for 15 minutes. Serve.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A mother in laws epic

I have just finished reading "Beowulf" for the first time. I found an old copy on our bookshelf and thought I would give it a try on the basis that it is something you should have read. The boss has identified the copy as probably belonging to my mother in law.

It was a surprisingly good read. I had no expectations of what it was about. I had a vague idea that there was a monster called Grendel but that was about it. It is a short read as it only took a couple of days to finish just by dipping in while waiting for the bus. I have to say that I really enjoyed it. However I was left with the feeling that I had just read something special.

For those interested in history, mythology, the links between ancient Britons and Scandinavia and Norse Mythology this short epic poem will probably already be familiar. For those who have only read as far as The Lord of the Rings you will find much that is familiar. For me and with the books I have read recently it is the similarities between Beowulf and the Kalevala that strike me most.

I don't wish to suggest that the two works are the same and I am looking beyond the "epic" format of both. I am even trying to go beyond the thematic similarities that bind them together and reaching more into the appreciation that epics in most European cultures, both ancient and modern, show a commonality that has contributed to the world I meet around me everyday.

It is this aspect of History that causes me to think: that where we are today is just the latest in a long line of toppling dominoes and from certain places the line backwards is clear. That is not to say I can thread a path back to great uncle Beowulf, I also appreciate the escapism of the epic itself.

We had some friends over from the UK at the weekend and we had a wonderful time with them. Catching up with people who have been in and out of your life over a number of years is rewarding and I did laugh to myself a little when I remembered our university selves as I watched us all play with their lovely one year old daughter. The thing with dominoes is you can look back and make sense of how it happened. It doesn't work the other way. I laughed precisely because I knew at University I never imagined we would be grown up enough to be parents.
Luckily for us we had a few nice days weather wise and were able to take a boat trip around the harbour and see most of the main sites in Helsinki. However the weekend was over far too quickly and I hope we will see them all again soon. I know that Polar Bear sends his best wished to Catherine!

This afternoon my Finnish classes begin again I must admit to being a little nervous. However I think this is due to the fact that I have had a 5 month lay off from studying the language and it has been progressing organically at work and I am worried that I will have to have my bad habits beaten out of me!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009


The Boss & I recently spent and excellent weekend in Riga. For those of you who haven't availed yourselves of the Latvian capital it is to be recommended. However a proviso: 2 days is enough. If you plan on going for longer make sure you have a day trip out of town organised.

We left last Friday from Helsinki and the short flight was blessed with wonderful weather and clear visibility that gave us excellent views of Helsinki, Tallinn & Riga. Getting into town was simple and we found our hotel without any problems. Then we set off on out adventures.

For those of you who know us you will know that we can pound the streets and pound them we did. If it was worth seeing we went there, normally via a strangely circuitous route and then went off in an unexpected direction. It was as if we wanted to see everything Riga had to offer, and the more we got off the beaten track the better. The Jugendstil architecture lived up to the billing. Even more so in my eyes because eye wateringly extravagent buildings were plonked shoulder to shoulder to wrecks and tenements which lent the streets and sometimes shambolic but never boring air. We even managed a boat trip on the river which as anyone who knows me will tell you is a must for me when visiting anywhere. I love boat trips.

We also visited the Latvian Museum of The Occupation which will leave you depressed. One of my golden rules for myself on this blog is that it doesn't do politics. Yet in this museum History and Politics are mixed up in an uncompromising way. The narrative is that Latvia was illegally occupied by both Nazi Germany and the USSR for about 50 years. I have visited concentration camps in Poland and have studied Facism in Western Europe in the 20th century at school and university. I know that the emotions the subject engenders is part of the current political landscape in parts of Europe and this is true of Latvia today. The image its politicians choose to make of the land is a reaction to its recent past and to that end the musuem is a piece of propaganda. However for the casual visitor to Riga it is important to breathe in this sorry tale of a small country and how it has suffered. It is important not to forget that these things happened. It is also important to have a plan ready before you go into the museum on how you will cheer yourself up when you leave.

Many people say Riga is a dodgy town and certainly the Helsinki Sanomat has been coincidentally running stories suggesting the same. However we paid cash for most things and found that if you don't go chasing skirt it is a nice town. We were of course blessed with fabulous weather so were able to sit outside and enjoy a drink in the street rather than venturing into dodgy dark establishments.

We were there for 3 and half days so made a detour to the seaside resort of Jurmala via Latvian railways. All I will say is that if you can find which window to buy a ticket from in Riga central station, find your way to the platform and then find out which station to get off at (due to the lack of station signs) you must be a native Latvian and a railway enthusiast to boot!

We were also enthusiastic in our attempts to try Latvian cuisine which consists of pork and potatoes and dumplings. Yes it was stodgy and yes it seemed to have the same aversion to spices that is prevelant in this part of the world so please don't expect massive things of it but when you are in Riga give it a go. The Riga Balsam on the other hand is something I have no qualms about recommending avoidance.

All in all I can say that Riga is a place I would be happy to suggest others visit and I look forward to visiting Vilnius soon.

Tomorrow our friends arrive from the UK and I am really looking to showing them a little of Finland. The weather forecast is good for Friday so maybe a BBQ picnic on Suomenlinna is in order.


By the way I was reading another blog post and the issue of who owns what on the web came up. Therefore I would like to point out that I found the photo of Riga from a Google search and if the owner would like acknowledgment I would be more than happy to oblige. This also applies retrospectively to most photos on this blog and my apologies for lack of credit, no harm was intended.