Friday, 30 July 2010

Greenlandic Fields

You can't take fields for granted in Greenland. Indeed, in much of the country there simply aren't any, but near Narsaq (in the south) there's a growing business of sheep-farming.

Mostly the sheep roam happily in the hills, grazing as they go, but there are a small number of fields where hay is grown for winter feed. Cultivated land is so rare and precious that you're not allowed to walk across it lest you do some accidental damage: to this end, the fields are clearly marked on walking maps of the area.

Map of Narsaq area 

But it's not like you could miss them - against the harsh greys of the surrounding landscape, these are fields of the most vivid green I've ever seen. These rare oases look lush and beautiful... I can only imagine how much work it is to keep them that way!

Field near Narsaq

Wednesday, 28 July 2010


I suppose this comes back to my growing obsession with messing about in boats: I've always loved the water, but aside from one teenage attempt at dragon boat racing, I haven't had much boating experience. I learnt to sail last year, and loved it, but (being me...) I'm always looking for new experiences.

We saw some traditional kayaks being built in Greenland, and met some people who had just got back from a kayaking-camping trip. It looked fun. I happen to have a couple of friends who go paddling regularly, so when they had a day off work and the chance came up, I naturally jumped at the opportunity to join them and learn something new.


Getting in to the boat was quite possibly the hardest part, and the point where I felt I was most at risk of ending up in the water. Once you're settled inside the kayak, it's surprisingly stable, especially since we went out on a canal, on a calm day - we just had to pay a little more attention when a narrowboat came past.

For the first few minutes, I found I could steer to the left but not to the right - meaning I ended up doing several 360-degree turns just to get back on a straight line. The funny thing was, even though I was clearly a pathetic excuse for a kayaker, it was really fun. Being hopeless at something isn't usually quite so enjoyable!

By the end of a couple of hours - including a short ball game, which caused Andy to capsize in an overenthusiastic attempt to win - I was starting to feel I was getting the hang of it. I could certainly see some improvement - even if I won't be looking for white water any time soon! Now, I just have to resist the urge to buy a kayak (along with resisting the urge to buy a sailing boat, which also requires a lot of willpower).

Monday, 26 July 2010

Rum (& Potato!) Truffles

Given the addiction my husband and I have to chocolate, it may not be a surprise that we needed to find a way to feed our habit while on holiday. One ubiquitous product in both Danish and Greenlandic bakeries was the rum truffle.

Rum truffles

They had a slightly different texture to the ganache- or cake-based truffles I've made before, which was a mystery until someone mentioned that Danish baking often includes potato.

A couple of weeks later, in an English-language book shop in Copenhagen, I was flicking through a book of potato recipes and found a recipe for rum truffles, made from mashed potato. Putting two and two together, I decided to have a go. This is a variant on that recipe.

The bakery versions tended to be huge (in which case this recipe would make about four!) but I usually prefer to have a smaller treat.

Truffle ingredients 

Rum Truffles
Makes about 16

one medium (4oz/100g) potato
8oz/200g dark chocolate
8oz/200g icing sugar
2tbsp dark rum
sugar sprinkles to decorate
  1. Peel and chop the potato, and steam or boil until cooked through.

  2. Meanwhile, melt the chocolate (I have a special chocolate-melting machine, but a small bowl over a pan of boiling water will do fine).

  3. Mash the potato in a mixing bowl, then mix in the melted chocolate. Add the rum, and stir until combined.

  4. Add the icing sugar, a little at a time, and gradually combine into the potato/chocolate mixture. It will still be quite wet at this stage.

  5. Put the bowl in the fridge for half an hour.

  6. When you take it out again, it should have firmed up. Give it a stir to soften it up again.

  7. Roll into small balls using your fingertips (the warmth of your hands will soften the mixture again, to make nice round shapes).

  8. Roll the truffles in sugar sprinkles, and arrange on a plate. Chill in the fridge for a few minutes more before eating.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Greenlandic National Day, Part 2

If you haven't read Part 1, go ahead, I'll wait...

There's a tradition in Greenland called kaffimik - whenever you have something to celebrate, you put flags outside your house to signal that there's a kaffimik at your house, and anyone passing is welcomed in for coffee and cake. It's a communal celebration that's perfectly suited to the typically small settlements of Greenland.

To continue the National Day celebrations, the Nuuk administration had arranged a giant kaffimik for the whole city. This was going to be outside in the street, but although they set up the tables first thing in the morning, the rain won out and the whole affair was moved indoors, into a giant sports hall.

National Day - tables

National Day kaffimik

Despite the huge numbers of coffee pots, it was hard to find one that wasn't empty! However, with Andy's hawk-eyes looking out for refills, we did eventually manage to score our free cuppa, and a slice of Greenlandic cake (which is where I got the idea to make my own).

Most of the day's celebratory activities were also moved inside the hall. One of the things I'd been looking forwards to the most was the "Greenlandic polka" demonstration - a bouncy style of dancing which turned out to have a lot in common with various European folk and circle dances. It was fun to watch and challenging to photograph!

Dancing at the National Day celebration

Dancing at the National Day celebration

Dancing at the National Day celebration

You may have gathered that Nuuk wasn't my favourite place in Greenland, but they certainly put on a good display in honour of Greenland's semi-independence day, and we were glad we'd arranged our trip around this date.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Greenlandic National Day, Part 1

We didn't have particularly concrete plans for most of our time in Greenland; we booked arrivals and departures with very little thought of what we'd actually do in between. However, the one aspect of the timing which we did plan carefully was to make sure we were in Nuuk (Greenland's capital) for the National Day celebrations on June 21.

We found a schedule in the tourist office: the day was kicking off with a procession through the streets at 7.30am. The starting point was an hour's walk from where we were staying. Have I mentioned lately that I'm not a morning person...? I'm really not. But I'm even less of a person-who-misses-the- National-Day-procession-just-because-she's-sleepy, so I got up absurdly early and off we went into the grey Greenlandic morning.

National Day parade

In keeping with the tiny size of the city, it was a tiny procession. When we set off from the town hall there was hardly anyone there who wasn't carrying a flag or playing in the marching band, and though we picked up a few more en route, it was a small enough affair for us to feel we were really part of the action.

National Day parade

Don't you just love the colourful beaded designs of the women's costumes?

National Day paradeNational Day parade

We processed to the Colonial Harbour (the heart of the old town) where we were due to have a canon salute, speeches, and singing. Each canon blast made me jump out of my skin even though I was supposed to be expecting it - goodness, they're loud.

National Day parade

As we'd arrived, sheets of paper were given out with the lyrics to the National Anthem (in Greenlandic, of course). The choir's conductor was an enthusiastic and energetic man, and when he encouraged the audience to join in with the singing, we felt we really ought to give it a go. Thankfully, Greenlandic is written pretty much as it's pronounced - but I have no idea what we were singing about.

National Day - choir

Then, while the Greenlanders filled the cathedral for a two-hour service (everything takes a while, since it has to be in Greenlandic and Danish), we went back to bed for a little nap.

National Day cake

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Look Ma, No Kit!

I've mentioned before the problem with vague goals, and knowing when you've achieved them. I put "learn embroidery" on my Before 30 list without really thinking about how I'd know when I got there, but after a little more thought, I decided that for my purposes a reasonable definition of success would be to complete a non-trivial project of my own design. Once I've done that, I feel I can look the world in the eye and say that, from a baseline of nothing, I've made progress. Think of it as the embroidery equivalent of "learning to knit" by making a scarf.

Having decided that this is what I need to do, the next step, of course, was to decide on a project. I have loads of ideas in the back of my mind, mostly held up by my limited ability to draw the designs in the first place. But one day I realised that my jewellery representation of my travels is breaking down as I visit more obscure countries for which charm-bracelet flags aren't produced, and I decided to have a go at embroidering a set of flags for the countries I've visited.

Of course, some flags are inherently easier than others. I'm going to start with the easy ones - but I know that I have Mongolia, Cuba, and Canada waiting for me a little further down the line...

I started off with the idea that I might do each flag seperately, and then sew them on to something, but after making a couple it became clear that it would be hard to get them lined up neatly.


I decided to treat those as practice, and start again with a single, larger piece. Here's the first stage of planning, with some of the easier flags drawn in:

Embroidery planning

So here I am - trying to sew something without a kit, and without pages of notes to tell me what I should be doing next. This is, in some sense, my personal "exam piece" - if I complete it and am satisfied with the result, then I'm happy to tick off "learning embroidery" as successfully complete, even though I know in my heart that I may never stop learning more about embroidery. (And who knows, maybe eventually I'll learn enough to be able to give myself more specific goals in later years...) The only question now is, can I sew faster than I can travel...?

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Little Big City

Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, has about 15,000 inhabitants. By British standards that's a small town, but in Greenlandic terms, it's a metropolis.

This is a prime example of the folly of overlaying one's own assumptions onto a very different world. I assumed it would be a sweet little town, maybe with a few extra administrative buildings for its capital function - and instead, what I found was recognisably a city, albeit on a smaller scale.



Nuuk (originally called Godthåb) was essentially created by Danish missionaries, and a statue of Hans Egede - the man who brought Christianity to Greenland - dominates the older part of the city.

Later Danish colonists were instrumental in the growth of the city, encouraging (sometimes forcibly) the inuit populations of nearby settlements to move into the new tower blocks in town. Some of these older blocks are due to be pulled down shortly - but so far as I can tell, new building is also following in a similar style. And in contrast to the primarily outdoors life we observed in the other towns we visited, in Nuuk everything was locked away behind closed doors.

As Greenland moves from a subsistence economy into the modern age, more and more people are abandoning the smaller settlements and moving into the towns to find work. You can hardly blame them when life as a subsistence hunter has historically involved regular periods of starvation, and a life expectancy for men which hovers around 66 years even now.
Thanks to this population expansion, Nuuk has filled the little peninsula on which it was established. The building of suburbs is progressing at such a rate that the local hiking map, published in 2005, is so far out of date as to be virtually useless. It may be a small city but it is, unmistakably, a city.

Does anyone know of a smaller place that still has a "big city" feel?

Friday, 16 July 2010

Graduation! (not mine)

A brief interlude in our tales from Greenland. Today, I want to talk about my mum, because it's her graduation.

My mum didn't go to university when she finished school. The years passed, and I can only wonder how often she thought about going back to her studies. Three years ago, she finally left her job and enrolled as an undergraduate student of English Literature and Creative Writing.

It's hard work going back to uni when you've had a substantial period away from that kind of work. You have to re-learn some of your study skills and hone your essay writing. But my mum is a natural student, and an excellent writer, and she was determined to do well. In fact, she was determined to get a first class degree, which would secure her funding for postgraduate study.

I hope she won't mind my sharing one little story. A few weeks ago, after her last exam, my mum phoned me up sounding uncharacteristically dejected. The exam had gone badly - a lot of the things she'd planned to say had never made it from the pen onto the page. I'm sure everyone who's ever taken an exam knows that feeling. She was disappointed in herself, and ready to give up on her dreams of PhD study. I took a deep breath, wondered if I should be offering only sympathy, but instead told her in no uncertain terms to stop being so hard on herself. University exams, I promised, are not marked as strictly as essays written at home. Tutors know that there's a limit on how much you can write in the time limit. I'd already calculated how close she was to a first, based on the marks from previous modules, and it was too close to even contemplate giving up.

I was right.

So as my mum takes to the stage today to collect her first class degree certificate, I hope she knows she has the world's proudest daughter.

And mum...? I told you so.

Some of you already know that my mum is a blogger, too - she writes about her studies and writing, vegan cookery, crafts, gardening, house renovations... all sorts of interesting snippets. I'm sure she would love it if you dropped by to offer your congratulations.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Midnight Sun

We'd had a grey - if enjoyable - day watching ice falling into the sea. It was late, we were tired... but then we looked out of the window and noticed the world was glowing.

Seriously. Glowing.

I yawned, stretched, and suggested - since it was ten to twelve - that we should go out for a walk and experience the honest-to-God midnight sun. And I'm so glad we did, because it was the best light we had on the whole holiday.

To prove just how amazing it was, I've taken these photos straight from the camera - for this entire post I've done no editing, not even the smallest of tweaks.

Midnight light


Midnight light

Ilulissat Icefjord

Transport...Ilulissat steps

Even the puppies looked more sweet under the glow of the midnight sun.

Husky and puppies

And because I'm a child at heart, it was fun to play with the super-long shadows to generate an unusual self-portrait.

Shadow Portrait

Monday, 12 July 2010


Ice arch

How have I managed to give you three posts about Greenland (not even counting the one about Greenlandic cake!) while barely mentioning the ice?

The Greenlandic icecap dominates the map, but when you're on the coast (as all the settlements are), you can't usually see it. There are mountains in the way.

Still, there was plenty of ice in Ilulissat. We even camped for a couple of nights within sight of the world-famous icefjord.

Camping near the Icefjord

It's hard to overstate how impressive the icefjord is. It's 55km long, about 8km wide, and is basically a mass of icebergs frozen together. I wish it was safe to hike on it!

 Ilulissat Icefjord

I also learned a little more of what it means to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. I'd always imagined it to be an international version of the "Listed Building" status we have in the UK, where there are legal protections to stop the owner from making certain types of changes without permission. Not quite. Ilulissat Icefjord is registered as a World Heritage site, and that does come with certain conditions attached, but what surprised me was the option to opt out at any time. Surely if we want to protect the heritage of the world, local administrations shouldn't be able to just change their minds? Although I suppose it would be hard to enforce any other way.


We also took a day-trip by boat to Eqip glacier - an actively calving glacier where you can watch big chunks of ice falling into the sea. It was an impressive, looming wall of ice.

Eqip Glacier

If you look closely, you can see the clouds of ice dust... it's hard to photograph, but it was fun to watch.

Eqip Glacier, calving

Saturday, 10 July 2010

The Dog Lands (featuring mini huskies!)


Ilulissat (where we saw the polar bear skin) was the first stop on our tour of Greenland; it's a small town of around 4,000 people, and almost as many dogs. There used to be more - twice as many, a decade ago.

These aren't house pets, like the dogs we see in England. Every one of them is a working animal (or, in the case of the puppies, destined to become one). Indeed, if you have a pet dog then you wouldn't be allowed to take him above the Arctic Circle in Greenland - so as not to interfere with the purity of  the native husky population, no other species is allowed. And likewise, if a husky travels south of the Arctic Circle, he isn't allowed to return.

That's not the only law relating to these dogs. It's also a legal requirement that dogs older than five months be chained. The town provides anchoring points for the chains.

This results in large areas of land where dogs live - and humans don't. There are sheds and kennels, water butts and sledges... but mostly, there are dogs. Sometimes howling or snarling, usually sleeping because the summer sun means it's really too hot for their thick coats. When we took paths which cut across the dog lands, we felt strangely out of place.

Feeding the huskies

And, at this time of year, there are puppies. Miniatures; tiny, fully-working models of husky sled dogs.

Husky puppies

Andrew has a way with animals - they all just love him, and these pups were no exception. Every time we passed a new husky family, the babies would come and gather round his feet.

Husky puppies playing

Which was great for us, but often left the mother dog feeling a little confused as to why her babies had abandoned her. One mother in particular was extremely perturbed, and continued to whine at us for the whole time we were there. Since she was chained up, some metres away, that was all she could do to tell us - and her puppies - that she was unhappy.

Husky mother

As you can probably guess, we spent a lot of time photographing the puppies at play. Unlike the adults (who were suffering in the heat), the babies were energetic and enthusiastic in their play-fighting. I could have watched them for hours.

Rachel photographing husky puppies

Husky puppies playing

Husky puppies playing

Husky puppies playing

I feel sad to think that in a few months, they'll all be chained alongside their older relatives. I bet they can't wait for the relative freedom of winter, when they at least get to run, even if there is a sled to pull.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Defining Moment...

... when I knew I wasn't at home any more.

... when I knew things were different here.

... when I grabbed hold of my husband and muttered something incoherent about this being real.

Polar bear

In a perfectly normal Ilulissat back yard, right next to the washing line... a complete polar bear skin is stretched out to dry.

Of everything I saw in Greenland, in the few days before and the subsequent weeks after this moment, this image has stuck in my head the most clearly. It's the first photo I hunted out when we got home. In many ways, this is the image that defines my experiences: modern houses intertwined with ancient (and alien) traditions. Whatever else I show you over the next couple of weeks, remember this. Greenland may be changing quickly at the moment, but it has by no means lost touch with its Inuit roots.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Before I'm 30 (Update 1)

In January, I laid out a list of things I'd like to achieve before I turn 30 - giving myself three years, at the time. Today marks six months on from there, and consequently one-sixth of the way through (in time if not in progress...), so this is a quick update on where I'm up to.

But before I get on to listing and box-ticking, I'd like to say a little bit more about my motivation.

I made this list because goals and deadlines keep me productive; that's just the way my brain works. I chose things to include based on areas where I wanted to push myself, things I wanted to start (or finish) sooner rather than later, and one or two places where I felt I could use a little extra encouragement.

There's no place in this process for quick wins, or cheating, or shortcuts... I only wrote down things that I really, really want to do. And if I want to do something, I want to do properly. That might mean I miss some goals simply because I haven't finished to my satisfaction within three years. That's okay. I expect there to be other lists for other periods of time.

Enough of me rambling, then. Let's see where we're up to, with green for finished items and pink for progress since January.

Starting Point
(6 Jan 2010)
(6 July 2010)
Complete my PhDJust about to complete my 'transfer'Transferred to full PhD status on January 21st
Publish in an academic journalNot started
Present at a conferenceOne unsuccessful submission in 2009
Install a woodburning stoveNot startedDisconnected the broken gas fire which was in the fireplace we want to use.
Redecorate the houseNot startedGot some quotes.
Install solar water heatingNot started
Build raised vegetable bedsNot started
Go to GreenlandBooked for summer 2010Just got back!
Visit the southern hemisphereProbably New Zealand in 2011
Have visited 30 countriesCurrently 20Up to 22: added the Faroes and Greenland
Writing & Speaking
Have a novel publishedAbout to start sending out queries (wish me luck!)
Finish the Charanthe seriesVolume 1 (of 3) complete in draftFinished editing Vol 1, and written some of Vol 2
Finish writing one standalone novelOdd first-drafts lying around
Record and podcast an audiobookNot startedDone some test recordings
Have articles printed in 10 different publications1/10 so farSent out a few queries (ignored)
Average 5,000 hits a month on my blogCurrently ~1,500Over the past six months  the average is ~2,200
Get a slot on the local radio stationTraining course starting soonTook a short course in radio production and broadcasting
Take at least 5 public speaking engagementsNot startedFound a couple of leads for possible bookings
Crafts & Skills
Hand-knit a jumper or cardigan for myselfNot startedKnit myself a cardigan
Learn embroideryNot startedStarted learning
Learn 10 new juggling tricksNot started
Use manual camera settings most of the timeCurrently rather erratic
Get my Guiding warrantAt the beginning of the processAround 1/4 done
Develop a board gameA few ideas floating aroundMade an initial prototype (lots of work still to do!)
Make all my own Christmas cardsAbout half were hand-made in 2009

So out of 25 goals, that's two completed, with measurable progress against a further thirteen. The next full update will be on my 28th birthday...

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Kalaallit Kaagiat

Since we didn't really fancy trying mattak (raw whale skin and blubber), we decided to stick to cake for our experience of authentic Greenlandic cuisine.

Most of Greenland's baked goods are obviously imported directly from Denmark - but this recipe, whose name translates approximately as "Greenlandic cake," seems to be about as close to a national dish as you can get. We discovered it at Greenland's national day celebrations in Nuuk, where it was served (for free, along with free coffee) as part of city-wide celebrations. Kaffimik is probably my favourite Greenlandic tradition - free coffee and cake for everyone, any time you have something to celebrate. Definitely an idea I'll be stealing!

It's half-cake, half-bread; sweet enough to enjoy as a teatime snack, yet substantial enough to eat for lunch (without feeling too naughty - after all, it has fruit!).

I found a small number of different recipes for this cake, all in Danish - this is an approximation of two different recipes, in my own translation, and works out incredibly simple to make. The optional topping is not listed in any recipes I've seen, but is my attempt to recreate what we ate in Nuuk.

Kalaallit Kaagiat 

Kalaallit Kaagiat

100g sugar
100g raisins
100g butter
¼ litre boiling water
20g dried yeast
500g flour
1tbsp milk

Optional topping
2tbsp icing sugar
1tsp ground cardamom
  1. Add the sugar, raisins, butter, and boiling water to a large bowl. Combine, and stir occasionally until the butter has all melted.

  2. Meanwhile, dissolve the yeast in a small amount of lukewarm water.

  3. Add the yeast and flour to the raisin mixture, and combine thoroughly.

  4. Set aside to stand for an hour.

  5. Preheat the oven to 200°C, and line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper.

  6. Knock back the dough, knead for a couple of minutes (this will be a sticky job, because it's a very wet mixture), then arrange the dough in the middle of the baking sheet.

  7. Leave the loaf to rise in a warm place for 10-15 minutes, brush the top with milk, then bake for 35 minutes.

  8. Remove from the oven and allow to cool before serving.

  9. (optional, if you want to serve as "cake") Mix cardamom powder into icing sugar, and dust onto the top of the cake after cooling.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Blog Inspiration: July

The new theme for today is Style, which is deliberately open to a broad interpretation - I'm in love with a number of blogs which each deal with different aspects of making the world just that little bit more beautiful.

  • Kate started her Wishing True blog as a place to highlight all the beautiful things she dreams of owning - and after reading her blog I want half of them, too!

  • MJ is an Oxford geology student who blogs about fashion and her personal style at dreaming spires and old car tyres. She's off on a field trip at the moment, but please go and visit her so she'll get a nice surprise when she gets back.

  • Carole, aka Mademoiselle Poirot, is a French lady currently living in London, whose blog is bursting with charming interiors, furniture, and accessories. One day I'll get to visit her stall at Greenwich market.
Recipients are welcome to display the badge (right-click to download the image), and to pass it on if they wish; the only condition is to let me know if you decide to pass it along so that I can check out your recommendations.

If you want to let me know about passing along a badge, you can do that at the main Blog Inspiration page.

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