Sunday, 27 February 2011

In The Chilly Hours and Minutes.......

Yesterday evening, just as dusk descended, I set off up to our neighbour's milking parlour for......milk!  We always buy our milk from Monica. It is straight from the cow, unpasturised and untouched, the way it used to be when I was a lad.  On the way back home, I looked up and there was a huge shape slowly but  purposefully powering its way  over the village, heading for the far reaches of the forest to the South. Though impossible to identify in the gloaming light and at great height, it was certainly either an Eagle Owl or a Great Grey Owl. There's nothing else around at this time of year, save for a pair of Golden Eagles who have their territory a few miles off - and it definitely was not one of those - or a Capercaillie - which again, I'm sure it was not -  that is so huge. Although there is probably a way of telling their flight patterns apart, I don't know it. So, that's as much as I can say. It was a pleasant end to what had turned out to be an unexpectedly mild, Spring-like day.

Later still, at just after 20:00,  Foxxy came by and snaffled his supper.  By that time it was about -4 (incredibly mild for that time of night) and the eves were still dripping steadily. Håkan's Elkhound, Birk, was going bonkers, straining at his tether and barking wildly at the Fox's intrusion. Foxxy knows he is safe, as he has been known to skirt around Birk, keeping just out of his reach all the while, according to Monica.

I had to buy a bit more sunflower seed for the feeders yesterday. Last year the price of this stuff rocketed in Sweden allegedly because the French crop had failed badly - according to the Swedish farming press! We were down in SW France - a major sunflower growing region, at the time, and certainly didn't notice or hear of any disastrous crop failures. So it was probably the usual explanation that prevailed: 'tis no coincidence that Swede and greed rhyme, as I often say.

Normally we feed all through winter and well  into Spring  - the ground remains hard as iron here for so long - and therefore have a superb variety of birds visit the garden. Especially once the northern Spring migrating species reach us. We have Nuthatches, Bramblings, White Wagtails,  Yellow Wagtails, Crossbills, Rosefinches, Greenfinches, Chaffinches, Fieldfares (most striking in summer plumage - with raucous voice), Redwings, Yellow Buntings, Golden Plover, Lapwing, Curlew, Canada Geese and Crane - all in the garden itself, though not all simultaneously. In autumn, on the reverse run, we usually have flocks of 100-plus of Waxwings, delightfully coloured, plumpish, school-masterly looking birds that strip the remaining berries from trees and bushes before continuing South.

Anyone who uses bird-feeders will also be familiar with the ingenuity and persistence of the squirrel.  Although generally classed as 'rodents', I have a sneaking admiration for these cheeky, clever characters. They don't cause us any real problems - apart from when they ate their way through our old plastic feeders to get at the contents - and are frequently entertaining.  They are also undeniably cute. We have one in particular who seems to miss out on much of his winter hibernation beauty sleep, preferring to stock up on the bird-feed. He gets decidedly tetchy when approached, clucking and 'tutting' at us, but only retreating when we can virtually pick him up, at which point he clambers into a tree and clucks even more irritatedly and noisily. He's really a delight to have around and we don't grudge him a thing!:

                                                       Here he is, in his dowdy winter coat.

This morning Charlie gave me a nudge at 04:30 and, gettting a limited response, fortunately and a bit to my surprise, curled up on the duvet and went off to sleep. I followed his example until he stretched and breeped loudly at almost 08:00, clearly signalling a start to the day.  I was up and dressed, heading for the door  before Jack even noticed the action. The thermometer was reading -1.  Almost Spring-like temp for this time of year. Where the eves had been dripping there are now icicles hanging and rippled-effect, glistening pools of ice below on the ground.

A trio of Great Spotted Woodies were sharing the feeders with a sole Nuthatch - the latter are very bold at times and I was able to get up very close to it to replenish the  feeders before it looked at me with its striped eye and a gesture of annoyance and flew up into the higher branches. The Woodies were evidently engaged in normal birdy Spring behaviour, two of them jousting for a mate by the look of things.  The 'mate', so to speak, subject of their desires,  carried on gorging itself and ignored the others - too sensible to be a bloke!

I must finish off packing, as far as I can, in readiness for the move South. I wander around looking at things aiming to deal with them but largely unable to see how to or know what's best. There's just so much stuff to be considered. I reckon I've cracked the back of it but there's still a bit to finish off, and only a day or two left to complete it! I hope this is our last move - it's just too much effort nowadays! Although, we'll have to come back up to Sweden at a later date to collect/move the remainder of the stuff - and the books!!  They are the biggest problem in many ways: they are heavy, cumbersome, numerous - and still expanding (I blame Amazon really) - cannot be compressed and take up an inordinate amount of space in a removal wagon. But that's not for a while, so, for now, I will try to forget them!

J's flight has landed, so she's in Sweden. Unfortunately however she flew with Ryanair today, so is a long way from home. Ryanair's version of 'Stockholm' in this case 'Skavsta' is in reality the coastal town of Nyköping, a fair way - an hour at least - from the capital of the country. She will travel by train to Stockholm central, change trains for Sundsvall, a pleasant, university town on the coast, but will not arrive there until 20:12. I have a 2.5 hour drive to collect her, followed by the same return journey time. Her journey time is therefore 14 hours long. France will be a much better option, much more accessible - with more transit options available.

I must cut a bit more wood to tide us over till we leave,  and prepare for her return. So that's enough from me today. Anyway, it's Sunday!

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Play Misty For Me......

Thick mist this morning, -16  first thing, with sun clearly struggling to break through; not our usual weather pattern here in the North! Very rare to have thick mist cloaking the village itself. The lakes frequently have a hovering layer at dawn and/or dusk because of temperature inversion/differences but we are usually clear in the village itself. By 08:00 the temp had risen to -12 and the sun broken through with the mist retreating to roof level and fringing the surrounding forest.

Charlie was a bit late on the move this morning. 06:30 before he began purring in my ear, by which time it was bright-light outside and I found it impossible to get back off to sleep. Having induced only one open eye - to check the time - in me, he stalked off to rouse Jack, who, in turn, aware of the daylight breaking decided it was positively time to be up and about, and began whining : the scrabble of his nails on the bare polished, wooden floors, is impossible to ignore - so I was soon on the go, too!

A huge flock of Bullfinches had taken over the bird-feeders, with a solitary Great Spotted Woody and about a dozen or more Redpolls. Charlie raced out optimistically, but sat crouched, ready for action in a pile of snow for about ten minutes before returning for Friskies-tucker that is easier to catch in a bowl. It also gives him a chance to thaw out a bit. He comes over to me, leaps onto the desk and lies down by my computer keyboard - the mouse always interests him, with some interesting on-screen results!

                  Here are a pair of our visiting Bullfinches; not the clearest/best shot, I'm afraid.

Mister Fox didn't show for his nosh yesterday until almost 16:30, after the sun had effectively set. I left his tub of grub outside after returning from a frozen walk with Jack, and ten minutes later, when I checked, it had gone; so he must have passed and collected his take away on the drive-in hoof. 

The garden is criss-crossed by animal tracks of many kinds. We have an ageing Collins guide to Animal Tracks but still find it very difficult to identify many.  Moose are relatively easy to spot; a sizeable notable hoof-print; they also tend to leave copious volumes of shit behind.  Rein and Red-Deer seem to leave a pretty indistinguishable trail. Bears leave a huge imprint, that can be nothing but Bruin. They, of course, hibernate for much of the winter months but can be fooled by a change in the pre-Spring climate on occasion.  They also leave scat in big clumps of berried-blackish mush. We also have Wolverines in the area, though we have yet to see one. They are retiring but ferocious, voracious creatures, aka Gluttons.  Members of the Marten family, they apparently have a striking sideways sort of gait, which should be very distinctive in the snow. None of our neighbours have seen them, though many have encountered bears. Lynx also leave a substantial spoor in their silent passing wake.

A couple of passing Red Deer by the Bagarstuga. (If, as is often said, a picture tells a thousand words, this one amply and positively shouts that I made the right decision when I spurned a possible career in photography).

I believe I saw a bear one day, though at the time I didn't realise quite what I'd seen. I was driving a friend to a nearby airport in Örnsköldsvik  (don't try saying this with a mouthful of nuts and red wine) on the spectacularly beautiful Höga Kusten (High Coast); as we drove past a roadside forest track, I glanced along and saw a huge animal lumbering off on all fours. Initially I shrugged and thought it was just another Moose. Later, however, when I thought about the colour of the thing - a dirty russety appearance - and its gait, hunched and hugely all-foured, I was convinced it had been a bear. In addition, it was in an area where they were around and often visible on village roads.  We have come across the scat on the track bordering our garden. So we know they are around.

I've just nipped upstairs and looking from the bedroom window can clearly see the fresh track of Foxxy, who must have been past earlier and I missed him.  I don't like leaving his food outside because the bloody Magpies and Hoodies will hoover most of it,  so I wait until I see him before putting it out. I'll have to keep an eye out for his return later. But I also see that the temperature, in the sun, is now +6. Marvellous. I'm tempted to take a Gadabout (odd, wonderfully quirky,  folding UK made seating - our main wooden ones are in bits ready to move to France)  and sit on the porch with a cuppa!  The ambient temp will of course be lower, probably closer to zero or +1, but we have a steady dripping from the roof eaves and the porch is virtually free of snow and ice.   Instead I will take Jack for a walk. He seems keen on this proposal!

I walked down to Roger's to check all was well with his empty house, while he swans around in sunny Spain.  He owns a Torp, those small red-painted houses, that typify Scandinavia. Much beloved by Swedes, Danes, Finns and Norwegians, they are used extensively to represent an idyllic view of Swedish country living by guide books and tourist brochures. They are functional but can be cramped inside.   By the time I returned, we had reached +8, again in full sun. It is a perfect day for a forest track ramble. And I heard nothing but bird-song and met not a single soul, though there were two guys ice-fishing in the distance, on Stortjärn, one of the bigger lakes.

I also took the opportunity to drive into Fun City - Charlie has finished his Friskies and will be demanding more tucker in the morning. The ice-cover on the river Röån has mostly melted:

In early winter, before the snowfall or ice-age reaches us, this river appears unfathomably deep, dark and, at times, almost menacing. It is not a river you would want to take a tumble in. And I speak with heartfelt experience on this one!  Though fortunately, (if that's the right word!) when I entered its depths it was summer and not too cold, or debilitating.

 This is the very canoe from which I tumbled, ably assisted by J, who returns tomorrow from London - a 12/14 hour journey by plane and train and car!

Friday, 25 February 2011

Things Ain't What They Used To Be!

Well, I'll be boogered!  Drove to Strömsund yesterday afternoon/evening and clear skies all the way there, over in the neighbouring province of Jämtland. Not only was there no falling snow but, more significantly - and astonishingly - the booze palace, Systemet, has changed its colours. Still useless hours and limited range with totally insane classificatory system in place, but a new, open-plan, brightly lit, floorplan. No longer is everything hidden behind fastened glass cases and catalogue numbers. No, now I can walk the aisles, like a normal shopper almost, and choose my poison! Extraordinary transformation.  It's been like this for about two months apparently, according to the guy I asked. You could have knocked me over with a feather, or a bottle of Corbieres - a wine they never stock nationally, for some reason or other!  I'm annoyed that I hadn't previously taken a pic of its original interior lunacy! Alas, it's now too late!

And, as if that was not enough for one day, the threatened snowfall we expected  never materialised. can imagine my chagrin, I'm sure.

This morning I was prodded into wakeful-mode at just after 05:00 by Charlie's affectionate purring, padding on my pillow and head/nosebutting. This continued for about ten persistent minutes before he sloped off - bored, presumably by my lethargic and unenthusiastic response - to let Jack know it was almost morning and to simply bug him. Jack gets a tad weary of Charlie's approaches. Especially in the pitch black wee hours of the morning. And who can blame him?! But Charlie will insist.

There's no rest for the sleepy spaniel:


The window, bottom left, is Charlie's 'virtual hunting' haunt:

The other great - and much welcome - change is the temperature today. Still in the sub-zeros but only -9 when I surfaced at around 08:00, rising quickly to -6, where it has remained so far.  In fact, it was so mild (everything being relative, of course) that I didn't bother lighting the kitchen stove that powers the central-heating until about 10:30.

The stove itself is an elderly - but wonderfully efficient thing - called a 'Norah': It is a bit like a very trimmed down 'Rayburn' or 'Aga', I suppose, but with only a small firebox and single hotplate. They can be plumbed in for hot-water, although ours is not. Nevertheless, it still manages to heat the 14 radiators around the house, keeping the place warm and toasty even when temps are in the seriously cold zone, edging towards, say, the -41 we had one day just after Xmas 2010.  Here is a shot of it in situ in the kitchen alongside the dishwasher:

Hopefully the scale of the thing is apparent from the standard-sized dishwasher next to it. It really is one of the most efficient stoves we have ever come across. Indeed, it's tempting to look for one to take down to France. Although it will, no doubt, be somewhat hernia-inducing in anyone endeavouring to move one.  Best ensure they have adequate health insurance, or sign a waiver beforehand, I guess! We would recommend them to anybody who needs winter warmth. They would be perfect for those living in the Scottish Highlands & Islands, or the hills of Wales, for sure. They are no longer particularly popular up here, as everyone wants new-style heating systems and boilers. So they are often ripped out and left to rustily rot outdoors; behind barns seems to be a favoured spot. Our  Kraut friend and neighbour, Roger, has his plumbed into the hot water system too, and it is remarkably efficient and inexpensive to run.

One of the first tasks this morning was refilling the bird-feeders. I normally do this each evening so there is nosh available for the birdies first thing on these intensely cold mornings, when they must surely need it most. We don't do 'topping-up' here, it's full blown refills that are generally needed each day.  We usually have three feeders going at any one time. And because it's so cold here, the Tits, Redpolls and Bullfinches  - aided by the regular visits of a couple of Greater Spotted Woodpeckers and a pair of Grey-Headed Woodpeckers - generally manage to easily empty them. It did take the Bullfinches a while to figure out how to do it - they're just not the right shape to perch on the small metal perchy bits at the sides, and they're too portly to boot.  But most of them seem to now have the hang of it; those that don't pick up the debris that drops to the ground below, a position particularly popular with the Grey-Headed Woodpeckers.

I'm particularly pleased with the Grey Headers: they are few,  far between and rarely seen here in Sweden. My own main reference book - 'The Birds of the Western Palearctic' - suggests only about 400 pairs are likely to be found in the entire country. So to have a pair visiting regularly is a great treat and a privilege.
They largely resemble the more common Green Woodpecker - save for the eponymous grey head/nape!

We also have the largest European woodpecker, the Black Woodpecker, in the area, though these are only usually seen  in summer, when they come flying round the house  on odd evenings. They are quite funny; they usually appear sudddenly, flying fast, come around the corner of the house, spot us sitting in the garden and almost literally freeze with surprise, lock themselves onto the nearest tree and watch us warily with the most striking gold-coloured eyes, then fly off cackling loudly in alarm.

Today, as I approached the trees to rehang the full feeders,  two regular visitors, a pair of  Willow Tits - tiny, perky little things - were hopping around my feet.  I held the feeders out on my hands, at about arm's length, and they hopped up for seeds. They often do this. I've no doubt they could be hand-fed but would rather not start down that path with them. Especially as I'm about to leave the area and they might become just too trusting in humans, which could cost the lively little things dearly. I warn Charlie each day that he is not to eat or injure them, but remain unconvinced that he is taking my appeal to his better nature fully onboard.

And, of course, it's impossible not to think of the Mikado; and I often sing to the fluffy flighty little blighters:

There are some youngish people out today playing on their snow-scooters, so the peace is shattered from time to time by the drone of the highly revving engines as they slalom through the fields of snow. They do this from time to time, and even race across and sometimes pirouette on the surfaces of the frozen lakes surrounding the village. Madness, for my money, though I have once done it myself.  Well sort of - minus the balletic performance!

A few years ago we visited a friend's stuga (cabin) over in Jämtland, close to the Norwegian border, where we spent a pleasant weekend which included ice-fishing on a 30 metre deep, frozen lake.  We went out onto the lake on snow-scooters - a slightly worrying experience, I felt at the time.  Once out on the ice, we drilled holes to fish through and spent much of the day sitting on the scooters dangling short rods and hoping for a bite.  I think we caught about 20 small trout-family fish, Arctic Char. They were absolutely delicious and are now one of my personal favourite fish types. A strikingly red hued, lean meat, spectacularly good smoked!

Here we are, scooting around on the ice and snow:

By the end of the afternoon, when it was time to head back to the cabin for warmth, drink and food, I was a trifle concerned (horrified) to note that the slush-mush around me was about ankle deep and the scooter reluctant to take-off through the resulting sloppy mess.  Full revs were needed just to get it to move, and I fishtailed for a bit before gaining a relieved grip on the icy surface below.  On returning to Björn's stuga, he beamed broadly and beckoned me into his study/ office, where he switched on a radio. It must have been a Saturday, I think, because it was broadcasting and clearly receiving live football from...... Radio Scotland!  Whodathunkit?!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A Whiter Shade of Pale......

This morning started clear and blue again, with a few wispy, fluffy clouds in the heavens and a temp of about -18 at 09:00. I lit the stove and dragged some more firewood up from the shed to stack on the porch, ready and easily to hand. But now the cloud has thickened and the blue has been swept away, probably by the strongish, chilling wind blowing in from the Siberian East.  Bloody Ruskies!! And as the cloud thickens, the threat of snow increases. Having checked online, we are in for more of the white stuff later this afternoon and evening. But temps are about to rise to more manageable levels over the coming week. Pity/thankfully I'll miss much of the improvement by being in France! Just have to raise a glass or two of rouge and bear up, I suppose.

Weather conditions change here very quickly at times. It can be clear and sunny one minute and clouded with snow shortly afterwards, with temps varying enormously too. When there is a chance of the Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights, we monitor a website which has a double-webcam link and is located about 250 miles to our North, just over the Polar Circle.

The site is maintained by a Brit and another who run a photographic gallery and Aurora-watching, outdoor experience accommodation business in a small village. When they have activity,  as long as the skies are clear, we also usually have a display.  It is really a most extraordinary phenomonon, though being that bit further North they invariably have a more colourful array. When we first saw the dancing lights in the sky, J and I both thought we were imagining it. It seemed so unlikely and almost unreal. Now we are used to it and, though never blase, certainly think little of the changing patterns and glorious skies we frequently have in winter.

I know everyone raves (rightly) about the Aurora Borealis but there is another colourful, atmospheric phenomonon that I look forward to making its annual appearance up here in Vaster Norrland!

One of the more spectacular sights we have every year, often just before Xmas, is Nacreous cloud formations. These are commonly known as Mother of Pearl clouds - and it is easy to see why. The colours can be beautiful, especially against a clear sky. It's been our experience that they occur most frequently in late afternoon/early evening. They are also more accurately called Polar Stratospheric Clouds and form at high altitudes, 15 to 30 Kms above Earth.  There is a splendid book, for those interested in clouds: 'The Cloud Book: how to understand the skies' by Richard Hamblyn, is published by David&Charles. I heartily recommend it.

The following is not the best of photos - we have seen better displays but only when cameraless:

We must remember to keep a camera in the car in future, though this was taken from the front garden. It doesn't fully capture the colours but the shape and quilted texture is fairly well represented, I'd say, and they change so quickly making it difficult to capture the true essence of the phenomenon, which can be found, given the right conditions, at latitudes above 50 degrees. Presumably, therefore, these can be seen in northern Scotland, for example. I'd certainly be interested to know.

I think something must have spooked Charlie when he was out yesterday afternoon; when he returned, just before dusk, he was a bit tetchy, restless and wide-eyed. J would say that is his normal look, but I know better; he and I have an understanding of sorts and a strange relationship, to say the least. He was reluctant to venture out this morning, preferring to pee in his tray - a rarity, because he generally much prefers the great outdoors for all his sanitary needs - not unlike the French really!  He nose-butted me at about 05:00 this morning but then curled up alongside me by the pillow, where his steady purring fortunately and effectively sent me back off to dreamland.  Maybe he had a run-in with Mister Fox - who knows!

Foxxy appears to be arriving later each day - just after 13:00 today before I spotted him creeping around the garden in front of the house. I had his tucker ready - a late, light lunch of rice, dried cat food and some old, unused cheap tinned, Lidl dog food. I found a tub of apple puree in the freezer, but don't know if Foxes eat apples; they eat most berries, I know, but apple....pureed? I'll give it a try tomorrow.  I think he needs variety in his diet - bound to be better for him!  He barely moved when I served his meal at its  usual place, instead hiding behind a pile of snow, ploughed into a Berg-like formation (Mount Håkan, we call it) by Håkan, who often generously clears our track with one of his huge tractorry things, piling the snow up into veritable mountainous pistes.  As I turned to close the front door, I caught sight of his tail whisking off into the denuded Lilac bush by the birch-tree with its bird-feeders, and by the time I got to the kitchen window - about 4.5 metres or so away - he had already hustled off with his tasty, take-away snack.

I'm a bit worried about how he is going to manage after we've gone next week. Apart possibly from Matts & Gertrude, who live about a kilometre from us, I don't think anyone else will consider feeding a fox. Håkan and Monica, for example, have Hens on the farm, so it is not a sensible option for them. Monica does like to see him around, she says, and admires his pretty coat and colours.  I have some pix of him visiting and will stick them on the blog , when I get my new camera USB lead.

I just nipped out to dismantle a wooden garden table stored in the woodshed. My fingers are numb - difficult to use spanners etc., in thick, padded gloves. It's -10 out there. I could see my hand  gaining an un-natural blue-tinge as I finished off! Charlie joined me for a brief hunting expedition among the logs and under the sawdust laden floor, unsuccessfully on this occasion, and trundled along ahead back to the warmth of the house. Sensible buggers, are cats!

Rolf paused briefly to chat - partly incomprehensibly for both of us, I think, in retrospect. I thought he was asking me if I was going to chop some wood. I now reckon he was asking me about buying some wood; the Swedish verb, Köpa - pronounced 'Shopa' - not too far from 'Chop' in my opinion! An easy enough mistake to make in the lightning-swift flow of repartee and banter in a foreign tongue.

The snow has yet to return, though things are beginning to look a bit ominous. This is indeed unfortunate, cos I could do with popping out to buy (köpa) some mer (more) plonk. (As a Scot, I am always surprised by  the large number of Scandinavian words that are similar to idiomatic Scottish expressions. Hus, mus, mer, tva, barn (bairn), ken, etc., - an obvious Viking legacy in my old homeland). But back to wine-buying: I won't have a chance before J returns from Wales and London - she returns on Sunday when the dreaded/useless Systemet (the System) is most firmly closed.

Our local, Kommun, provincial town is a place called Sollefteå, about 50 miles off to the South. It's not arresting architecturally but a pleasant enough town to live in, I'm sure.  There is a Systemet there, where we once ordered 10 boxes of Beaujolais in a single order. Needless to say, it didn't arrive! Instead they sent one three-litre box to our local ombud,  in Fun City, (an area sales outlet that holds no booze but acts as a delivery depot for orders), delivered by bus. It then took about a further three weeks to have the order fulfilled. They got the full wrath of our anger and displeasure. So much so that they sent us a small hardback book about cheeses - few of which we can possibly find, let alone buy or savour in this region! It was a decent gesture, however, no doubt triggered by J's (in particular) frontal assault  on them, and astonished Aggie, the Swedish owner of the ombud.

Swedes seldom, if ever, complain. There is an strangely constricting cultural concept - Lagöm. This ensures that few raise ripples. It sort of means that it is good not to complain or argue, that all is for the best for everyone. A societal more that I believe is, in reality, little more than a very insidious and submerged method of Swedish State control. It is drummed into Swedes from birth onwards, reinforced through their schooling and they take it merrily with them to their frequently frozen graves. I loathe the very concept because it is so insidious;  unscrupulous Swedish businesses  and organisations/associations - the bigger the more appalling - rely on it to ensure they get away with regular breaches of contract and providing virtually no consumer protections to the public. It stinks!! Swedes, however, don't see it like that - they have been told otherwise, all their long lives. It is undeniably part of the fabric that binds Swedish society together. It's also, to my mind, one of the reasons why Swedes are often mistreated at the hands of businesses, and get what they deserve!

That little rant over, I must now get it together and head out for wine. I think I'll drive to my old favourite, Strömsund Systemet, where - as I've mentioned before in this blog - the hooch is carefully hidden from sight, or kept securely behind locked, glass display cabinets.  Mustn't tempt the natives too much, you see!

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Blinded by the Light

Another day without snowfall. So far. And it looks set to continue that way today.  Glorious clear blue sky and full sun again, barely a niggardly -25 when I surfaced this morning at something ahead of 09:00.  Mind you, it was that temp when I slouched off to my scratcher at about midnight last night. Must have been colder during the early hours, then!

Luckily, and having (too much)  experience of such temps here, I put the electric heating on before snuggling down for the night, so the house had a reasonable warmth this morning.  We have a fairly standard central-heating set-up here. A smallish wood-burning spis/stove which also has an independent electric boiler and pump etc.,  as a back-up. With no shortage of timber here, it is a sensible arrangement. The drawback is that we have mostly birch and pine for fuel. Pine burns okay but is only really useful for initially lighting the thing as it burns way too fast and generates little warmth. The birch is better and burns more efficiently. Unfortunately, however, it doesn't burn or keep the small fire-box alight overnight. Hence the benefit and the need for the electric standby. It would be good to have some oak to burn but it doesn't grow up here at our latitude. You know what they say - or sing - about birch:

Or, at least, what Bill Morrissey  thinks about it........'Nuff said, bro!

It's okay in the South of the country, where there is a fair bit of oak woodland, for example in Skåne. So, if nothing else, old Inspector Wallender and his cohorts will have the benefit of decent firewood logs, though probably at frightening cost.

No sign of Mister Fox early this morning. Maybe he's fed-up with the cold, too! He did eventually turn up, at about 12:30, chasing off the Magpies that share his scavenging grounds below the small bird feeders.  I made his Brekkie and rushed out rattling the container - a small round plastic ex-biscuit thing - because he recognises the sound now.  I dumped it below the feeders and retreated.  He crept up warily, sniffing the air - as always - and keeping a cautious eye on the front door, porch and me, grabbed the container in his jaws and set off over the mounds of snow at the bottom of the garden, disappearing down the principal village road,  and took off to eat in safety and maybe even warmth - who knows!?

This is the bustling road through the village, in summer:

In the distance, again, is Rolf, still auditioning for ABBA it seems from his striking outfit,  heading to visit Kjell ( pronounced Shell) - another near neighbour - for Fika!

When the snow goes, there will doubtless be countless empty plastic biscuit containers littering the area, which will baffle the natives. Give them another reason to scratch their heads and chew some snus. It's a pity Mister Fox - the bugger - never brings the empties back;  he must leave 'em somewhere!  You'd think he'd never heard of recycling - and him a Swede, too!

Charlie crouched on the threshold and simply sniffed the frosty air  before whinnying piteously and brushing past me on his way back upstairs. He's waiting for the temps to rise before venturing out today, I'd say. More sense than his old mucker, Jack, who, daft as a brush - or a cocker-spaniel - raced out into it, rolling in the snow happily before barking a bit to rouse and infuriate our neighbour's dog, a young, rapidly expanding Älghound that is always kept tethered by the house or in a netted compound beside Håkan's garage-cum-workshop.

Älghounds (pronounced Ellyhound) are huge bloody things when fully grown. They are used for hunting Moose. Good ones are prized, praised and excercised,  often being hitched up by those extendable lead things to their owners who occasionally trudge morosely along behind them. Although more often than not, they have to help propel their owners by dragging them along while they either sit on a cycle chewing a sachet of snus (snuff) - a summer, no-snow around on ground sort of method - or, in winter, pulling the hapless bossman/woman on a sparka - a kind of minimalist small sleigh affair. (I will post a piccy of Rolf on his sparka soon, when I get my new USB camera cable)!

They are used to locate the prey, the enormous and none-too-bright oven-glove adorned Moose.  When they smell one, they take off through the forest, powering through the snowdrifts as if they didn't exist.  To illustrate the stupidity of your average Moose, you only have to know that they are apparently not afraid of these dogs. (Eat your heart out, Charlie Darwin). Instead they initially take-off, then knowing the hound poses no real threat to their well-being, they stop  and stand their (dying) ground while the frantic, panting hound barks loudly and incessantly to attract the attention of, and guide the hunters to, the animal. Which they quickly - not to say sportingly - dispatch with their finely polished rifles.

 The hunters then have celebratory Fika - hard to resist an opportunity if you're a Swede - before gralloching the beast, scooping out the intestines etc, some of which are given to the dog as a reward - instant gratification. It's then that the difficult part begins - getting a couple of tonnes of delicious but inert meat on the (moribund) hoof back to base from an often inaccessible part of the forest is not easy - especially in mid-winter! For this, little sled-things, attached to a snow-scooter (where possible), are a positive boon.

Time to sign off. I still have a little packing to do and I must walk down to Roger's mailbox and collect his post this afternoon. Also have to take a quick run into Fun City for petrol and stamps - must send a card off to the Grandsprog, Hamish aka Kitey, whose birthday it is on Friday/25th. Doubt the card will reach him on time, though sometimes post from Sweden is surprisingly fast and efficient.  So I'll leave it at that with another summery photo: the house gable-end with my shadow stretching before me!

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

There's a Kind of Hush.....

At has stopped snowing. For how long, though?........that is the question up here.  Doubt Peter Noone would have the answer. This morning at 08:00 we had -18 degrees. Now we have full sun and clear blue skies; as a result the temp has rocketed to a blistering -10. It will climb a bit higher I'm sure - before screaming off towards the bottom of the scale again at sunset.

It is usually pretty quiet hereabouts but after a prolonged snowfall the place is totally muted. Today, not even the farm or forest machinery is moving, so silence reigns. Charlie has gone off out on an expedition to find more feathered or/and furry tucker. He's pretty impressive at this. Especially with the furry stuff in the woodshed, which he often carts back to the house proudly, the poor wee sods dangling from his chops, held tightly by the head between his salivating jaws. The porch is blood-stained as a result, like a butchers block.

Here is a wee pic (admittedly remains) of one of his previous triumphs - not for the squeamish but can you identify it?:

It's kind of tricky to be sure but a was feathered and he followed it up with a different family member,  a Jay,  a few days later....a digestif, perhaps! God knows how he managed to catch them both but at least he (mostly) eats the things.

Now there's been precious little about the wine or France to date - save for the expense and difficulty of trying to buy the stuff in Sweden, of course. But that will change soon.  Right now, I'm busy packing boxes and the spare bedroom looks like a proverbial bombsite with dismantled bits & bobs, garden tables, lawnmower (I kid you not) and essential stuff needed for our move to France at the beginning of March. And of course, being in Sweden, no move would be complete without at least one IKEA thing, in this case a single bed,  dis-assembled with those daft, frustrating-to-use allen-key jobbies they seem to favour.

Having most of the pots & pans,  cutlery, crockery etc., already boxed makes it difficult at times of tucker but I'm managing - just about.  Still have the wine-glasses to hand, so not all doom and gloom. It's just the bloody boxes cluttering the place are a prize pain.

I had an email from our Teutonic neighbour, Roger,  who has gone off to Portugal for winter. He has moved into Spain now and tells me it was 20 degrees yesterday. It took me a while to assimilate this info, used as I am to thinking in Minuses at this time of the year! And while he was enjoying his morzilla and Rioja, no doubt, I was cutting wood - well for about 30 minutes anyway.

We arrived here with a (too) big mans powerful chain-saw bought in Spain (I'll explain another time), a Stihl with a gleaming, manly blade, still boxed. To this day, it remains unused; pristine, my innate mistrust of the damn things, coupled with the fact that for chopping firewood the natives up here use much more sensible gizmos, has given it an unexpected extended shelf-life.

We use a Norwegian thingy with a twirling 45cm blade,  a nice metal bit that takes metre lengths of split timber and needs 3-phase power to operate.  It's simple to use, needs only a nonchalant push action to chop the stuff up, a manly slide-along, sweeping action to position the next bit for cutting, and extreme care not to catch a glove or finger or hand in its whizzing teeth. When I first used it, I did so without hearing protection. This was a bad mistake. It makes such a high-pitched, zinging noise that I soon realised some eary things were essential to maintain the smooth operation of my lugs. It taught me forcibly the meaning of the word, 'zing'. In addition, a neighbour from the other side of the lake, a retired trucker from Goteborg (Gothenburg), Rolf, stopped me in my lumberjack tracks and told me it was stupid to work without protection and it would make me deaf.  Although he was gabbling in Swedish, I got the message. They know a thing or two about wood here. Most of the country is covered in the stuff, so they should.

Our friend and neighbour Håkan owns many hectares of forest. It is a prize asset here, always needed, wanted, argued over, used and escalating in value. He took one look at my chain-saw and almost choked with laughter at its size. It is in fact rather (much)  too big for non-commercial use - something that escaped my notice (knowledge) when purchased.  He recently felled about five or six enormous birch and pine trees that were blocking our mid-day/early afternoon sun at the front of the garden. It took him no time at all to accomplish this and he used a saw much smaller than ours. A humbling experience. I took a few photos of him in the middle of this task but cannot find my USB cable to download the things. Otherwise I'd stick one in here. I've just ordered a new lead, so will post them later, after it reaches me. For the moment, here's a pic of the same sort of trees before I get near them:

J took this piccy at sunset;  looks like there's a blaze in the forest! but it's just the sun dipping for the day.

And here is a shot of Håkan's farmstead in summer:  if you look closely you can just make out Rolf heading for the porch and Fika, wearing an outfit that ABBA would have been proud to air at any Eurovision outing.

Now I really must get back to packing up. Not much more left to do, mostly clothing, but it all takes time!  And how do you choose which books to take and which to leave behind?! Oh, and by the way, we have reached the giddying heights of -4 degrees (just as well I haven't packed the T-shirts yet) and Rolf has just whizzed past the house on his 'Sparka'. I'll explain another time.

Monday, 21 February 2011

It's Being A Long, Cold, Lonely Winter

Woke late this morning, almost 10:00 am. Charlie had already been at me while still dark. Jack, on the other hand, was snuffling contentedly in his basket in the corner of the bedroom. Only -10 when I surfaced but......Arggghhh.....more sodding snow!  Will it never end, I ask myself? The answer is probably not for another month or so. April might see an improvement in the falling stakes. though it will still be lying around for some time to come. It is undeniably pretty however.

I was in town a few days ago, to Junsele, about 10 Kms off - Fun City, I call it, cos there's virtually bugger all there. When I mentioned this to a neighbour, Håkan, he just looked puzzled, perplexed and incomprehending. They don't do irony hereabouts.

Håkan is a dairy farmer and a positive wizard with things mechanical; he does almost everything around the farm and enjoys nothing more than to get his hands dirty in the greasy, oily innards of some piece of vintage agricultural machinery. Here is an example of his canny use and genuine love of vintage machines. His 1963 (I think) Volvo truck, one of the oldest remaining in Sweden (according to its chassis number when given to Volvo for obtaining spares parts), being used in summer:

A few years ago the local fishing association, Långvattnet FVO, decided to replace some of the pontoons that are sited around most of the lakes.

I was roped in to help with this task. The locals soon had my measure and kept me restricted to dismantling the old, ruined ones -  precision use of crowbars and hammers rather than saws, drills  and measuring devices   - where I could cause little damage or upset to the general plan. Once the new pontoons were ready, however, they had to be taken to their lakeside homes, and once there floated across to their final resting places. Håkan is the guy on the floating platform/pontoon in this piccy. You can almost feel his sense of fun at being towed across the deep lake by another couple of locals, Erik and Matts.

It's Erik who is doing all the heavy work here, rowing hard while Matts holds on to the pontoon itself. No great concerns for 'elf & safety here - not a life-jacket in sight!

All in all, the time spent with the gang was fairly amusing and enjoyable. At one point, over a snack break for Fika - a Swedish national institution, normally comprising coffee, cakes and biscuits, and 30 minutes of nothing much - with the Swedish flowing around me - and frequently over my head, I heard Erik mention that he'd heard the first Cuckoo of the year on the previous day. I chimed in, confirming that I, too, had heard it going bonkers in the forest nearby. This caused some real surprise among the lads and I was immediately asked if I understood what they were all saying and could I now prata Svenska (speak Swedish). I caused great amusement by replying in Sweedle that I wanted to speak 'Skåne språk',  a rarified form of dialect from the far South of the country, around the Malmo/Ystad -  Inspector Wallender - area.  I was never invited back to help with the fishing club seasonal preperations again. So I must have got something right!

But that was in early summer, when the snow had gone. For now, we are still snowed-in and the area is more like this:

This is a fairly common morning sight on one of the lakes behind the house, as the sun rises. It's kind of eerie the way the mist creeps across the surface of the frozen lake. And here's another pic of one of the smaller local rivers, The Röån (pronounced Rayon) which is en-route to Fun City. I luckily had a camera with me in the car when I caught this view, which we used for personalised emailed Xmas cards a few years ago:

Fun City itself is set on the banks of a huge and spectacular river, the Ångerman (Ångermanälven) which right now looks a bit like this, only colder. Brrrrrrr:

You can just make out the church spire atop the distant hill. The town has most things needed for daily life but no Systemet - the State-run liquor store. A sad omission, to say the least. A desperately needed addition, to my mind. The nearest outlet is about 40 Kms and a 1.5 hour return trip away.

Booze sales are strictly controlled here. And highly taxed!  If a friend drops by on a Sunday, you can forget the idea of nipping out to grab a bottle of wine. No chance. The Systemet - wherever you might be - will be closed. It has odd hours, a limited choice and high prices - when open. Some even do their best to hide the hooch from questing and thirsty customers. Recently it has adopted a totally incomprehensible and daft wine classification system on its shelves, making it difficult to find stuff!

My own personal favourite is in a small bustling town about an hours drive away. Strömsund has glass-fronted cases where you can see the odd bottle of beer, spirit and wine, but to get your hands on any of it you must first take a number from one of those inane dispensing machines (like supermarket counters), find a catalogue from which to get the number of the product you crave, generally queue for ages and hope they have your desired drink in stock.  If they don't...bad luck, start again!  Totally mad and unneccessarily  restrictive behaviour. Makes me laugh, if in a good humour......or makes me fume, and rant at them about the stupidity of their behaviour, when less than sanguine!

It is particularly galling when you consider that Sweden is an EU member state but keeps a strangle-hold monopoly on this outlet and continually requests and gets(!) special exemption from the EU to maintain its monopolistic practises.

I once wrote a complaint to the Systemet about the system. They replied in the usual smug, self-satisfied way of the Swedish state machine that it was widely admired worldwide and had a secondary duty to protect public health. Ans so there!, basically. That was their general view. No interest whatever in improving or changing.  I then inquired of another part of the state machine (for health) why it was that Sweden was still the only country in the EU to permit the sale of 'snus' (snuff). This query met with a complete silence. Swedes don't like criticism or awkward questions. They're a bit like Ostriches when faced with something they'd rather keep or sweep under the state carpet!

The extraordinary and dreadful monopolistic behaviour of Swedish business and the State is a major irritant, I find. It's largely kept under wraps by the Swedes themselves and only becomes apparent if you actually live in the country. At which point it drives you nuts! At least this blog  gives me a relief valve and allows me to rant about it from time to time!

With that rant over, I'll only add that it's still snowing, heavier than ever, and I must venture out to the woodshed (Arrgghh! There's something in the woodshed - hopefully only wood!) and bring up a load to keep the stove and heating going. Otherwise it will be a bit nippy later on! So on that note, having missed him this morning on the Brekkie run, I'd best get Mister Fox's late afternoon tea prepared - a lovely dish of leftover pillau rice, bread-crust, dried and tinned cat food.  I'll leave you with a couple of typical Swedish winter sunsets, taken from the garden:

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Shades of Spring

What a difference a day makes. Or so it's said. Certainly here today is entirely different: the place is in full sun and though the temperature started at around a positively balmy -5 at 07:33 this morning - when Charlie decided it was time to be up and about, by purring loudly in my snugly pillowed ear and padding on the edge of the bed before bashing me affectionately on the nose, it is now hovering on zero - neither one thing nor another. But a pleasant enough change after the awful temps of recent weeks.

Charlie normally spends his time outdoors hunting but it has been just too cold for him this month, save for the odd foray for mice in our woodstore, behind the house. Constrained indoors by the inclement weather and temperatures, he engages in 'virtual hunting', nose pressed to the kitchen window as he drools over the small birds on the nut-feeder just outside the window to the side of the house.

Despite Charlie's importunate behaviour this morning, I only struggled out to the loo for a quick pee before grabbing another 1.5 hour kip.  The fox was already scrabbling in the snow below the birch tree with its bird feeders. By the time I did surface, it was long-gone; so no breakfast today, then. It usually takes another run-past in the late afternoon, so I'll get its tucker ready for later.

One of the things that surprises me up here is the type of birds that stay around and mostly survive the winter. It's not the bigger species - though we have the usual Hooded Crows, Magpies and Ravens - no, it's the Redpolls, tiny colourful balls of near weightless feather, Snow-Buntings, Great & Blue Tits, and flocks of magically colourful Bullfinches. We don't have Robins here but the brilliant orange of the Bullfinch breasts more than compensate at Xmas!

The photo at the head of the page shows our house with some of its outbuildings: the far left is the Bagarstuga, an old bakehouse which according to our neighbour, a keen local amateur historian, was originally traditionally used by groups of wintering Sami Reindeer herdsmen. They used it as a base while their  animals grazed the surrounding fields. It was a makeshift maternity unit for the Sami woman who gave birth in it. Any stillborn/deaths were disposed of on a small island in the centre of the nearby lake.

It is a fine old building, dating from around 1850 - and still standing! We use it for storage and carve paths to it through the snow, which would otherwise be over knee-high. It's easy to track the local wildlife - Moose, Fox!, Lynx & Deer (Red and Rein) - which leave a deep spoor in the surrounding white-stuff. Hares are among the most interesting, especially when in their white winter coats, though they look a bit piebald in Spring.

The Moose are prized by local hunters. Huge animals with 'oven-gloves' for antlers (as Bill Bryson says), they are widespread in the forests. And make great curry. The meat is marvellous, definitely a treat we will miss. When our local hunting syndicate have a surplus kill they sell us the odd half beast.  It is not gamey meat but more like very lean, top quality beef with a texture similar to lamb. Highly recommended tucker!

 The remainder of the buildings are (L to R): forrad (store/workshop); garage and cold-store; main house. When we first viewed it prior to purchase, we had no idea that there was anything other than the house itself. We were astonished to find the others and a largely level near 5000 sq metre garden were included in the sale price.

Now we are on the verge of leaving and preparing to put the place on the market for sale. A German neighbour has taken pix of the interior in readiness. We are dreading emptying the place; 5000 books in the sitting-room make it hard work, packing. There's another 1000 or more stashed in the Bagarstuga. We plan to come back up and collect them all later in the year.  We must be mad!!

And apropos of nothing much: here's a piccy of J enjoying herself, playing in the snow!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Not more snow!

God knows why I am doing this now........from northern Sweden, a few short weeks before leaving the country permanently to live in SW France, Dept 79. But it's snowing again......and, if nothing else, I hope to escape the near constant snow that we have had this winter.......snow, snow och mer sno, as they might say up here. And the temperatures.......don't even think of it. Minus 30 this morning. Bloody cold, makes yesterday's meagre -25 seem almost attractive!

We were expecting a decent display of auroral lights last night but although the skies were clear and gloriously blue, the moon was the dominant factor, with the entire area basking in its brilliance, making it too bright for northern light.
Recently we have been receiving a daily visit from a very pretty, young fox - a male, I think. He comes to scrape up the fallen birdseed from below the feeders in the front garden. Feeling sorry for the poor bugger, I've taken to giving him some tucker - usually cat food and scraps, which he seems to enjoy. Indeed he's becoming - not tame, thankfully - less afraid of my presence. This morning he saw me approach and skirted round a bush, to watch me. Our cat - Charlie - however had other thoughts in mind and chased him off. Still, undeterred, he was back in a matter of minutes. He must be starving in this snow-covered, frozen landscape.  And before anybody starts griping, I know they kill hens, ducks etc., we've lost a fair number of both to the wily sods over the years. But it's still a pleasure to be able to help them out in winter.
We've been here almost 5 years now and this is easily the coldest winter we've witnessed. Temps were already plunging below -30 before Xmas, virtually unheard of, according to local neighbours. Unfortunately, they appear to be stuck around there, though the end of the month holds a promise of some relief.

There is a wide-held belief that Sweden is a fine, sensible liberal democracy. Unfortunately, not true. For the most part, it is an unpleasant country, with illiberal institutions and greedy businesses that have no interest in customer care. The Ombudsman system is a farce, education and health services are crumbling, and our internet provider, when asked for the addition/inclusion of its much trumpeted VOIP internet phone service, quite simply refused to provide on the grounds, I quote: 'you are not Swedish!' The discrimination Ombudsman, to whom we complained, seemed to think this was perfectly acceptable! Extraordinary. Anyway, that's enough of an anti-Sweedle rant for now! Good to get it off my chest.

Life here is, of course, something completely different: Snow lies around till May. WHen it goes, the ground remains frozen for some time. As a result - even with a glass-house - there are limits to what can be grown. We favour as much self-sufficiency as possible. Here, in Sweden, the 23 odd hours of daylight in summer can be a hindrance rather than a help, and with sandy soil in our hamlet, some crops don't even hatch!

The village, a smattering of about 15 houses spread over a huge, forested area and surrounded by 50 lakes, is set in a nature reserve - designated for its unusual geological formations rather than flora or fauna, though these themselves are impressive: Brown bears; European moose; Lynx; Beavers; Eagle & Great Grey Owls; Black-throated Divers; Slavonian Grebe; Cranes etc. An interesting living backdrop to daily life.

I'll try to import some pix of the area, but might find that troublesome. Tried and failed......Next time, maybe!

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Lord, Have Mercy.....

Lord, have mercy. As the great, late Gary might have said. Pig of a thing, just selecting a blogtitle! Should that be one word, hyphenated or what? of the??????

Certainly not the free. A life governed by numbers, from cradle to grave, with greed as the one constant. Dreadful, nonsense; a country where the State controls every aspect of life from birth to death. Scary stuff!

With the eruption of demonstrations in the middle East/Africa, surely there's a need for similar revolts in this God-forsaken land. But, of course, 'Lagom' will ensure not.