Dive, Dive, Dive

From a book by Oscar Wilde's dad
From a book by Oscar Wilde’s dad

Maybe it was Katie Taylor‘s victory, making me feel like doing something physical. Maybe it was the weather; sunny after days of mugginess. (Yesterday I broke into a sweat adjusting the phone holder in the car – and I had the blower on cold.) But for whatever reason, I knew it was time to jump in the lake.

Every day I should thank my lucky geography that I live near Lough Corrib. It is not every day I can jump in it mind; far from that. But knowing it is there waiting for when the sun comes out adds greatly to the sum of reasons to get up in the morning.

It’s strange to make a fuss about one of the few lakes in Ireland when I’m not long back from Finland, a country that is mostly lake, but the Corrib is a good one. It’s pretty, dotted with islands covered in trees. It’s vast – with the exception of Lough Neagh in the North, larger than any other lake off the coasts of Europe. But it’s not very deep. Consequently, it can get remarkably warm, even in a summer that’s threatening to drown us all.

I didn’t dive straight in off Annaghdown pier. The water was very clear, and thankfully I could see that it had fallen to dangerously-close-to-large-boulder level. So I sort of gently fell in.

And I couldn’t believe how warm it was. Well all right, more not-cold than positively warm. But after the “It’s OK once you’re used to it” warmth of the Baltic this was almost amniotic. Great for doing some actual swimming practice.

I’m working on the legs. I was never properly taught how to swim with my legs as a kid. “Kick,” they’d tell me, “kick harder!” Well I kicked the living shit out of that water, but I didn’t move anywhere.

The problem is I was quite a literal kid. Hell, all kids are literal. We make the naive assumption that adults actually mean what they say, and are not just blurting out some vague impressionistic nonsense that we’re expected to decode. Adults are very lazy in the way they talk.

Kicking water doesn’t work. Waving your legs up and down, that seems to get you moving forward.

Weird Helsinki, In Pictures

Here’s one of my favourite photographs I’ve taken in Helsinki. A rather whimsical entrance tunnel to the Rautatientori (central station) metro. Note the ‘cave paintings’.

Speaking of whimsical, here’s a little kiosk in a city centre park where we bought coffee.

And this… Well this goes beyond whimsy into the nightmarishly strange. In the background here, Helsinki cathedral. In the foreground, something I bought in its gift shop. Emo ice cream. A Gothic lolly.

This is licorice flavoured. Salty Nordic licorice flavoured. NO ICE CREAM SHOULD TASTE OF SALTY LICORICE! It was the most nausea-inducing thing I actually managed to eat since I had sea urchin in an all-you-can-eat Las Vegas sushi bar.

Oh yeah – and inside it’s grey. ASH GREY.

Excuse me a minute.

Belle's Hell

We’re talking about Finnish engineering, so here’s a picture of Helsinki’s central metro station

All right, I’ve been in Finland for well over a week and so far I’ve avoided the N-word. The time has come, we have to face up to this.

Nokia – are they completely buggered?

You wouldn’t think so to look around here. There are Nokias everywhere. After that, the iPhone and maybe Blackberries. Though Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S III is being advertised on every vertical surface, I haven’t seen one in the wild – don’t see many Android phones at all.

Well, why use an imitation of the iPhone when you have the thing the iPhone imitated? Nokia were making smartphones years before Apple after all. And even today their Symbian operating system is in many ways…

No, I can’t do it. Much as I like the company, much as I like Finland, much as Symbian was once a really great operating system for smartphones, Nokia lost it there. It might have been said a year or so ago that they were at a crossroads. Today, it would be charitable to say they’re on a roundabout. Nokia now make phones with five different operating systems.

There’s Maemo/MeeGo. OK, that one we can pretty much write off as a noble experiment. There are S30 and S40, the systems for low- and mid-price phones respectively. There’s Windows Phone, the one Nokia is betting on to restore it to the leading edge of phone technology. And then, we have Symbian.

Poor Symbian.

Well actually we don’t, not anymore. The company clearly considers the name a liability, so Symbian^3 Anna (releases now have girls’ names) was superseded earlier this year by what’s known simply as Nokia Belle.

I just upgraded a friend’s phone to this latest (last?) iteration of the world’s first real smartphone OS. Aside from it coming with free Angry Birds, we hoped that it would be nicer to use than Anna. Despite being a Finn, my friend had never had a Symbian phone before and she thoroughly disliked it. Compared to her previous S60 one it just seemed needlessly complex.

An assessment I agree with – I’ve never understood why they felt that the controls had to be buried in folders within folders, divided into often confusing categories. You can spend ages on a Symbian phone trying to find how to change the ring tone, on the way passing all sorts of settings and features you never knew you needed – because you probably don’t. A little adventure really, but it also speaks volumes about the strengths and weaknesses of Symbian. It is incredibly mature, and over its twenty-odd years of development – if you trace back to its origins on the PDAs made by British company Psion – has accumulated a huge range of capabilities. But also, much now-unnecessary complexity.

For what it’s worth, Belle is an improvement. What Nokia have done – showing signs of desperation – is make it look and work a lot more like Android, even copying the ‘tray’ that slides down to display notifications and major settings. Gone are the layers of folders. But for people like my friend who upgrade to Belle it just makes the unfamiliar even more unfamiliar. And for new buyers, a resemblance to Android is hardly enough. If Symbian had been as close as this a couple of years ago, it might now have the momentum to rival Android for apps. But it appears inevitable that it will be phased out completely in the next couple of years – not just in name.

So is there any reason to choose a Symbian/Belle phone now?

Yes. The fact that it was designed from the start for the limited hardware of portable devices – indeed, the far more limited hardware of an earlier generation – means that to this day nothing can compete with a Symbian phone in terms of battery life. Plus it runs far better on low-end hardware than Android does. So if you need smartphone functionality and you don’t want to pay very much, seriously consider a cheap Nokia smartphone over a cheap Android such as Samsung’s dreadful Galaxy Y. In the year or two you might have it, that could add up to a couple of hundred fewer times you need to find a charger.

It’s sad perhaps that they won’t be keeping Symbian on just to fight that corner, but now is the time for Nokia to concentrate. They have S40 for good cheap “dumb” phones and, in Windows Phone 8, a smartphone OS that looks like it genuinely can compete with Apple and Google. Nokia I think will be all right – indeed, great again one day. It’s just sad that they have to sacrifice so much independence, and so much history.

Sayonara, Symbian.

And here’s a Finnish bridge

Eaten Alive!

The article is slightly horrific, so I’ll illustrate it with many lovely pictures to show why it was still worth going to the island. Probably.

You may be wondering why I didn’t post for several days there, pretty much the whole time I was on the island in fact. Mainly it was because we were virtually camping – having to saw and chop our wood, tend fires, cook, do all the washing by hand, and of course keep various kids amused without the aid of television. A camping holiday is pretty much like other holidays, except that you spend all your time working.

But even when I did have a moment, I couldn’t concentrate. My joke in poor taste had come back to bite me. It is true that mosquitoes are the most dangerous animal in Africa, in that they’re responsible for vastly more deaths than the big predators we usually worry about. They do it by spreading the deadly malaria parasite though. The big ones they have in Finland nearly did for me all by themselves.

They’re having their worst summer for mosquitoes on record. A country, remember, that is almost entirely composed of lakes and forests; they know mosquitoes. But they’d never seen them like this. A few more days camping and I would’ve been drained, a skeleton in a skin sack. The little bastards love me.

Unfortunately it’s not mutual. I react to mosquito bites – drastically, allergically. The site of the snacking reddens and swells. One on my forearm looked like a biceps that’d migrated south. My ankles went missing, and I’m still covered with blotches that look like a livid form of dry rot.

And Christ Christ Christ the itching. The itching! Maddening, excruciating, almost literally unbearable. If itching is a sort of tickling sensation, this was like being tickled by a psychopath with a darning needle. Am I succeeding in conveying that this was really quite unpleasant? And all the worse because I was trying like hell not to scratch. I’d had a mosquito bite become infected once, and needed an emergency injection of antibiotics. I didn’t want that to happen while camping on an island.

I thought my immune system would get used to it, but instead the more I was bitten the worse my reaction got. And, it seemed, the more I was bitten. Perhaps they could tell I was in trouble. The struggle became personal and bitter. I sat in the dark while the others slept, waiting for the tell-tale whine. The walls of the cottage were soon spattered with their blood. Wait, my blood.

What else could I do to prevent the bites? Nothing, it seemed. A citronella wristband might have been helping until it ran out – either that or I was just lucky the first day. Tea tree oil didn’t seem to repel them either, even when applied thickly enough to repel people. Though I sprayed literally every inch of my skin with Autan before going to bed, I was still eaten as I slept.

And nothing cured the itching either. I tried two antihistamines, two different analgesics (aspirin and ibuprofen), a hydrocortisone cream, a tripelennamine hydrochloride stick, and tea tree oil. None of them provided anything you could even dishonestly describe as relief.

Only one thing made the itching go away. It worked instantly, its effects lasted for hours, it was actually downright pleasant to apply. It’s available without prescription – in fact you can’t buy it in any pharmacy or  health food shop. And fortunately, it’s abundant in Finland.

What is this miracle cute for itching? Heat. Simple heat. Preferably as a powerful jet of water. On the island we didn’t have a shower – in fact we had no plumbing other than a cold tap – but we did have a sauna! Plus a wood-fired boiler with gallons of the stuff. I poured it on with a ladle, Japanese bath style, hot as I was able to stand – which seemed to be about 2°C short of first-degree burns. The heat actually intensifies the itching – in the same way that scratching does, but even more so. Like it was making all the itching that was due in the next few hours happen at once, getting it over with. The relief was… How can I put this politely? Think of the thing that gives you the greatest, the most sudden and complete, feeling of relief.

Yes, exactly. A strangely, intensely sensual experience. It was almost worth the itching to feel that release. Almost. For the first time in my life, I understand sadomasochism.

Finland – it’s the tropical paradise for people who like their tropical paradises with less heat. And indeed, three months of snow.

Strange Thoughts In The Night

Do you ever wake up suddenly in the middle of the night with a strange idea you just have to write down?

Well no, I don’t much either. But last night it happened. In the morning I found this:

I believe in God, and God believes In me.
It’s a Folie à Dieu

Where do thoughts like that come from? I have no idea. Theologically though it seems pretty solid. We invented God, but God invented us. So everything works out OK.

Anyway, we mixed it up a bit yesterday and actually didn’t go swimming in the sea. We tried one of Finland’s many billions of lakes instead. Beautiful; all surrounded by silver birch forest. In the cool of the evening, with families playing and little fish swimming around our ankles. The biggest difference from the sea was afterwards; last night was the first since coming here that I didn’t have a shower before bed. I could not have felt more thoroughly washed than I did after that lake.

Good news for anyone envying me though – it was finally too wet to go swimming today. l had to make do with a sauna.

I don’t know if you have a clear image of a sauna. It’s not at all the same thing as a steam room, more an oven to cook yourself in. Any accurate description sounds too dangerous to be quite believable, but seriously it is a sealed room where, using fire and steam, you get as hot as you can possibly bear. Then you close yourself in and sit there, sweating profusely, for as long as you can possibly bear. Then you go and take a cold shower or jump in the snow or something, for as long as you can possibly bear. Have a beer perhaps. And go back in to get unfeasibly hot all over again for as long as you can possibly bear.

For some unknown reason, this doesn’t kill you. Apparently it even does you good – I certainly feel good. I’m unclear about how it’s supposed to work, but my guess would be that the general principle is to kill every single living thing in the vicinity of you, that isn’t you. Bacteria, fungal spores, small mammals, anything that might try to infest you during the long winter months.

The heat must of course also be a great comfort on those long, frozen-solid nights. Doing it in the summer almost feels like cheating.

Sunburn And Ice

In Finland, the trees go right down to the sea. The tide is too small and the water too sweet to bother them. And I’m swimming from the shade of the forest, in waters that come winter will be frozen so solid that people will skate from island to island. But now I am swimming in the sun.

As a child I loved to swim. But that was before I went for lessons, where they taught me I was doing it wrong. Maybe I wasn’t graceful – Hell, a lot of the time I was doing the doggy paddle, I definitely wasn’t graceful – but today I swam further than I ever have before, or thought I ever could. To hell with that teacher. I didn’t labour it, didn’t try to win, didn’t thrash. I took it easy and just… made my way.

I suppose it helped a lot that I was in water where I knew, if I ever got tired or felt like I might drown, I could just lie on my back for a while. How can you be afraid of furniture? The Baltic is a good pool for learners, definitely.

And now I am sunburned, having swum in the sun for far too long. It had been lightly clouded most of the time, and I counted that as no sun at all. When it did come out, I was in the sea. You can’t be burned underwater, surely?

Perhaps. But my neck, face, shoulders and upper arms had to come up for air. I look like I’ve been dipped head-first into boiling water. Please don’t think I’m complaining though. I know that at home right now it’s raining, that we’re headed for yet another truly pointless summer. This pain in my neck feels like victory.

After the swim we went for dinner with some friends who inhabit an ecological housing project. I’m not sure what practical difference that makes, apart from the fact that it seems a lovely green place to live and they grow their own fruit and vegetables. So dinner was a really excellent salad, followed by a huge and lovely dessert. Seems a good idea.

Sitting on the balcony of a third floor apartment in Helsinki now. It’s ten at night, but the sun has not yet gone behind the tower blocks across the way. I’ll go to bed when it does. It’s been a long hot day, I’m exhausted and in discomfort.

It is though, a very comfortable discomfort.

Help! It’s Aer Lingus

Finland - Where they'll do anything naked

It’s all right, I don’t need help really. It’s just the only wordplay I could think of. For today was May Day, a feast dedicated to Spring. Except in Ireland where it’s dedicated to Mary, because only the Catholic Church could transform a feast of fecundity into a celebration of sanctified virginity.

Of course before the Christians it was Bealtaine, still by tradition the first day of summer, and we’ve never let the fact that it’s usually raining deflect us from that.

And God it was miserable today. So it made my mind up. I have just now booked my holidays. I’m going to sunny Finland. Seriously. It’ll probably be much warmer than here, come July. I plan a week or so of simple rustic pleasures. Camp on an island, take saunas, get naked, chop wood. Though not in that order.

So I’ve just been through the usual “Ryanair or Aer Lingus” juggling game. The last time I went Finland way I just plumped for Ryanair, unrealising that if I’d gone with Aer Lingus I would have only paid a little more to fly straight in Helsinki where my friend actually lives, as opposed to Tampere, a tiny airport that’s a short bus ride – and then a very long¹ train journey – north.

So this time I gave Aer Lingus serious consideration. Just as well – Ryanair doesn’t fly to Finland anymore. Not directly anyway. You can go there from Stansted. Alternatively, you can fly from Dublin to Tallinn in Estonia, from where it’s a pretty short hop. There may be other ways you could make it, it’s not too easy to figure this out with their site, but taking a two-step trip with Ryanair is out of the question anyway. If the lateness of their first connection causes you to miss the second, they take no responsibility.

They’ve been a great influence on Aer Lingus though. It’s no exaggeration to say that the national airline is often actually the cheaper now. OK, in some respects their service has just plunged to Ryanair’s level, but at least you don’t get the feeling that if you click the wrong thing on their site you’ll lose a kidney. With Ryanair everything you press seems to raise the price, including the back button.

Mind you, there are signs that Aer Lingus might be going that way. It would be easy to get the impression that even after you’ve bought your ticket you still have to pay for your seat! In fact it’s an option to book a seat, but it’s not very obvious that you don’t have to.

I called it the national airline; of course, it’s now 3% less national. Abu Dhabi carrier Etihad just got a bit. We buy their oil, they buy our strategic transport infrastructure. That’s going to end well. And with the country’s finances being in the state they are, speculation is rife that the government will sell off its share. My flight’s not until July; by the time I take it, it may not be with an Irish airline.

  1. Though this being Finland, very fast and reasonably priced.