Where Are You From? What Do You Do?

Cat paw prints in the frost

Frost on the grass

Swedish winter light

“Why Sweden?” people ask, and I say “I don’t know”, “long story”, or “why not?”. It’s because of that light, really. I have never been good at answering these kinds of questions.

“Where in France are you from?”
“Here is where I was born.”
“But this accent of yours?”
“Ah, yes, I got it from where my family is from.”
“Oh, so that’s where you grew up?”
“No, no, I’ve never lived there.”
“Where did you study, then?”
“Here. And there.”
“Is that where are you going “home for Christmas”?”
“Er, no, actually…”

Except for these somewhat confused conversations, I’ve never suffered from the fact that I just don’t have a straightforward answer to the where are you from question.

It feels like a wealth rather than a gap in my life. For a while — not anymore — I considered it a superiority. That was extremely arrogant, but I clung to it as a desperate reassurance that my life was what I wanted it to be – which it wasn’t.

Unhappy as I was in the lab, every time I stepped outside to make my way to the campus, Iooking at the light, the snow, and the colorful houses, I couldn’t help but say to myself: this is where I want to live, and here I am.

***

It’s the second winter in the little red house up North, away from the lab. It feels better than the first one. It feels good. I feel at peace with myself. I mean, have you seen that light?

***

Now for the what do you do question…

… well, one thing at a time.

Frozen droplets

Misty winter view

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On Being Creative And Putting More Wood On The Fire

window

Earlier this month we came back from Southern France to find our water pipes intact despite a week of bitter cold temperatures. I would be lying if I said that the issue of frozen pipes didn’t worry me a little while we were away, but as I now know, our electric heaters, set to the minimum, actually can do the job of keeping the plumbing frost-free. So next time, I’ll be absolutely serene.

When we decided to buy our little red house, we knew that spending our days working from home in the heart of Scandinavian winter relying on electric heaters only was out of the question. As we pondered the different wood stove options, our friends strongly recommended going for a programmable pellet stove. “It’s very convenient”, they insisted, “because you can tune it so that the house is warm when you get home, and not worry about it.”

It is indeed. Yet at the time we were less concerned by tunable thermostats than by finding a stove we could cook on. In such a climate, we argued, that would be a serious asset in the event of a power shortage. The argument was granted.

In reality, we were looking beyond these exceptional cases. We actually planned to cook on our wood stove on a daily basis, at least during the months when heating was needed in the house. I understand that coming from people like us, who’d always been living in cities, heating their apartments with electric heaters and cooking on electric stoves, the idea can have sounded like another crazy let’s-go-live-into-the-woods nonsenses.

Our friends, who’d made the big city-woods move before us, were more concerned about time management. Living frugally, they said, shouldn’t be taking all your time, and making green choices should not impinge upon creativity. “How will you manage to get things done”, they asked, “if, every hour, you have to put more wood on the fire?”

As someone who’s very attached to the idea of making room for thought, creativity or introspection in everyone’s schedule, I do get the point. But, just as I wrote in my post about cooking dried beans, I think we shouldn’t systematically take for granted the idea that freedom and creativity are always to be found in technologies and social structures that supposedly liberate us from the trivial necessities of domestic chores, the latter being the source of all slavery and alienation.

Of course I’ll willingly admit that when you get up early every day, drive to your job in the dark, spend the day with your annoying colleagues before driving back home in the dark, adding to this snow-shoveling, windshield-defrosting, grocery-bags-carrying-on-icy-parking-lots and other Scandinavian winter delights, you do need a warm house to get home to. Period. No going back and forth to the wood pile and waiting to the stove to heat up. I get that.

That is actually my point. For most of us, “liberating technologies” are not magic. They come with a cost: the financial dependence on a nine-to-five job. It was also the case for me. So last year, when my contract at the university ended, I decided that instead of looking for another unfulfilling (for me) academic job, and being unhappy, I’d rather spend time living frugally while figuring things out.

Spending a chilly but happy spring in our friends’ summerhouse, in which the old wood stove served both as heater, cooker, and water boiler – a versatility whose merits struck me as pretty obvious – gave me time to find a new routine, doing things I find more meaningful and setting up my own little business.

Now I’m working from home, by the wood stove. It turns out that a programmable pellet stove was way out of our budget. So, we went for a classic cast-iron one. So far, remembering the gloom of coming home to apartments lacking a fireplace after spending Christmas at my parents’, having to put wood on the fire every hour or so still feels much more like a luxury than like a burden.

Sure, when I’m not there, my house is cold. It is also cold when I get up in the morning. But then I have time to seat and read by the stove while the room heats up, gathering inspiration for the day’s work while the water is boiling for tea. And I really, really like it so.

On cooking dried beans and driving to work everyday

dried red beans

It gave me a chock when, a couple of years ago, I started calculating how much it cost me to be working full time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not greedy. As far as I can remember, I’ve never dreamed of making a lot of money. I have dreamed, however, of doing a job that made me happy. Around the time my academic-physicist happiness started fading away at the speed of light, I found myself doing this kind of petty cost calculation:

Take beans. Perhaps I should mention here that I eat very little meat. Being, as you may know, a vegetable freak, I’m happy with eating only organic meat from time to time. I also eat moose whenever one of my neighbors kills one, but most of the time I eat cereal and beans for protein, feeling very self-satisfied about my reduced grocery budget and my efforts to save the environment.

So, beans. It obviously takes ages to cook them. I’m not even speaking about those times when you forget to put them to soak overnight. Luckily for people who work full time, you can buy them cooked and canned. If you’re happy with your job, then, everything is fine. As for me, I kept repeating that I would quit if I could, so I calculated on.

A kilogram of lead and a kilogram of feathers certainly weight the same, but they don’t cost the same. I’ll spare you the math, but dried beans, including the water and energy to cook them, are still much, much cheaper than canned ones. They also come with less packaging, and you can even control how much salt or what spices and herbs you put in. In fact, you can prepare them exactly the way you want them.

And I started asking myself: isn’t it funny that we’re so prone to consider spending two hours cooking dried beans a waste of time, while we never question the fact that it’s also the time it takes us to drive to and from work everyday?

busy

coffee-small2Some clouds, for a change, and temperatures back to reasonable Nordic levels. Today’s another busy day. This morning was for drawing, which went pleasantly smoothly. Here’s to a new sketch ready for another version of this guy! The afternoon, as always, started with a coffee – first, coffee – and then, subtitles. Tedious, most certainly, but satisfying. I’m having a good day. Are you?