This is my first week back at work, after four weeks of vacation. I was getting used to the vacation lifestyle: pottering around, with no musts (other than keeping everybody fed and clean). The only downside (if you can call it that) was all the cakes we were eating, because every time we visited some friends or family, they’d naturally offer us some. Which is nice once in a while, but not twice a day three times a week.

The office is dead empty. I am the only person there this week. I think there might be more of us next week, but it’s not going to be a normal week, and we’re definitely not going to start on a sprint. There are hardly any phone calls, either, so I have all day to (a) focus, and (b) work on things I have long wanted to get done but never found time for.

These first three days, I’ve mostly spent refactoring and cleaning code. Small refactorings get done in the course of ordinary work, but larger chunks (half a day and up) are harder to fit in, unless there’s an immediate payoff.

The next few days, I’ll be spending more time on is planning and thinking. As with refactoring, it’s hard to find the time to focus on not-immediately-productive thinking. Prioritizing our technical debt, thinking about how to improve our processes, looking at new tools and technologies we might be able to use.

For my non-Swedish readers, here’s a representative sample of bugg.

The dance floor at Gröna Lund

The bugg course ended in June, and then we were away in Estonia, but now that I’m back, I’m determined to go out dancing regularly.

During summertime there are several outdoor dancing venues in Stockholm. Skansen and Gröna Lund are two popular ones in central Stockholm. I’ve been to Gröna Lund these past two Thursdays, and it’s been great.

The standard setup for social dancing in Sweden is that you pay some sort of entrance charge, and then you get to dance for a couple of hours while a band plays live music. At Gröna Lund the band plays from 19:00 to 22:45. There’s a break (or several) in the middle to let everyone rest. And there’s free drinking water available somewhere near the dance floor, because bugg is sweaty business.

The band always plays two slower tunes (for quickstep/foxtrot) followed by two faster ones (for bugg), and this pattern repeats throughout the evening. In order to dance, one person (usually, but not always, a guy) approaches another person (usually, but not always, of the opposite sex) and asks if they want to dance. An affirmative answer is a commitment for one “dance” consisting of two tunes, but if both are happy, a couple can go on dancing for as long as they want.

The crowd can be very varied, ranging from 20-ish girls dancing with each other to 70-ish couples, and everything in between. Some are there for serious dancing, showing off competition-level moves. Some are more casual. Some only come for a few dances after their dinner. Some are there with the very explicit goal of meeting women. (I’ve gotten polite but very thinly-veiled invitations both times.)

There was a slight excess of women both evenings. Turning up without a partner, and not knowing many people there (although I did recognize a couple of people from the dance school where I took my bugg course), I spent some time partnerless both times. It’s much easier to dance with someone you know – the first dance with a new partner can be a bit awkward when both try to figure out the other’s style – so most people are hesitant to invite a stranger to the dance floor. But I spent much less time standing on the side yesterday, so the trend is looking good.

Most guys on a dance floor are reasonably good at bugg. You either know how to dance it, or not – and if you really suck, you won’t go out dancing. There’s also some scope for the girl to dance “better” than the guy – if he’s hesitant or unclear in his signals, the girl can compensate for it. But quickstep/foxtrot is trickier. It seems so simple on the surface, so guys think they can do it. But it’s not at all easy to really do it well. Yet when both partners know it well, and their styles “match” or mesh well, it is fabulous. Out of all the dances yesterday I had a single fabulous foxtrot, and it eclipses the entire rest of the evening.

Bugg is fast, sporty, somewhat technical, with lots of twirling. It takes focus and energy. Foxtrot done well, on the other hand, is smooth and sensuous, especially the so-called “dirty fox” style with lots of body contact. It’s a bit like meditation: a combination of relaxation and concentration. I can close my eyes to shut out the world (just like when listening to music), even forget about the music and just follow the guidance of the guy, and I’m floating around like on a cloud. When the music ends, it feels like waking from a dream.

I’ve been browsing the web sites of various pushchair makers this evening, since our current Stokke pushchair is slowly falling apart. And the sites totally suck. There is no other word for it.

They are Flash-based so I cannot bookmark the models I am interested in. I have resorted to taking notes on a piece of paper. And every time I want to look at another detail, I have to start all over again.

They have start pages with f***ing soundtracks. (Yes, I’m talking about you, Emmaljunga! Hello webmaster, do you really think that your site is the only thing I currently have open on my computer?)

They pay more attention to letting me choose the right colour than on the specifications and functional details.

They are only partially translated. The worst one (Quinny) mixed three languages on one page, even though I had selected Swedish. Later I discovered that some rather crucial parts of the Quinny site (such as the specifications for each pushchair) were not even available in English. Switch to Swedish – link is there; switch to English – link gone.

Matt, graduate student in physics, tinkers with some apparatus at work. When he presses the RESET button, the machine disappears, and comes back a fraction of a second later. The next time it is gone for 10 seconds, and then 3 minutes. It turns out that Matt has accidentally created a time machine – but a one-way machine that only goes to the future. He figures out how to stay with the machine while it is gone, and goes off to the future himself. But the first few jumps go kind of wrong (taking him to unsuitable situations) so he jumps again to get away from them, getting further and further into the future. During one of the jumps, he gets a message that seems to be from his future self, so he figures that sometime in the future someone will come up with a way to travel backwards again, and goes looking for that solution.

The book was fun to read, but at the same time simple and shallow. Matt is a simple character with little depth. Despite being stranded in the future, he shows no fear, no anxiety, nor much of any other emotion. The various points in the future are not particularly exciting, and Matt always leaves so quickly that we don’t get to know much about them, or how the world got to that point. Halfway through the book a love interest is introduced. It sort of feels like a Hollywood version of SF. Easy entertainment.

Amazon UK, Amazon US

Most of this month was happy and contented. But suddenly something changed, and the last few days have been less than fun. For a few hours everything is OK, and then suddenly Ingrid is unhappy about just about everything. I say it’s time to eat. She cries “I don’t want to eat!” I say “OK, you don’t have to eat.” She cries “But I want to eat!” I say, “You can eat or not eat, whichever you want.” She cries “I don’t want anything!” (“Ma ei taha mitte midagi!”) Even things I know she wants and likes get the same response. I’m sure it’s a phase, but I sure do hope it’s a brief one. Or perhaps it’s the heat.

Half of the month was spent in Estonia. And the experience did wonders to Ingrid’s language skills. At first she would mostly speak Swedish, and then be reminded by people around her that they didn’t understand her, after which she would try to repeat herself in Estonian, and I would help her out. After a week she was speaking Estonian almost all the time (only forgetting where she was first thing in the morning) and fluently. She now speaks Estonian more freely, has a bigger vocabulary and better grammar, and overall a more Estonian pattern (word order, sentence structure etc) when she speaks Estonian.

Our vacation in Estonia was also fun because she had playmates almost every day. Two of my childhood friends both have kids who are just a few months older than Ingrid. One of them lives in the building across the street from my father’s place, so we spent a lot of time together. Katariina may be only a few months older, but she’s more than a few months ahead of Ingrid, so it was an inspiring experience for Ingrid. She learned to play doctor, and shopping. She now has a doctor’s bag of her own, and has used it every day I think.

Both children had birthday parties while we were in Estonia, so we’ve also had a lot of pretend birthday parties, with a wooden chocolate cake and lots of fruit. Mostly it’s Ingrid’s birthday but sometimes I get to have one, too. The cake is one of those where the pieces attach to each other with velcro, and you can cut them apart with a little wooden knife. Ingrid’s long been fascinated with cutting (probably because she sees me do it so often) so she’s really enjoyed that. And today we discovered that a ripe watermelon is perfect for cutting practice, with a table knife.

Another favourite game is what I think of as the contrarian game, or the lying game. We might be looking at a page in a children’s book with all the different colours. She then points at each one and says “Black. Black. Black.” about all of them. Or points at red and says “green”, and so on (and if she accidentally says the right colour, such as “red” for a red thing, she stops, thinks, and “corrects” herself). Or perhaps we’re looking at pictures of animals, and all of them are cats. Or we’re eating dinner and she starts asking us: “Is that milk? Is that milk? Is that milk?” about everything but the milk.

Tartu had a lot of good playgrounds, with far more interesting stuff than we find at playgrounds around here, especially many more kinds of structures for climbing and balancing. Ingrid did some climbing but was more interested in balancing and swinging. She found a few swings that were just the right height for her to hang on, so she did that a lot. Plus she stomped a lot of sand cakes.

Ingrid’s interest in story books has declined somewhat. Instead she’s been much more interested in counting, and in learning to read. There was a lovely animal book at my father’s place, which became a counting toy for Ingrid. “Let’s count the antelopes. Now the zebras. Now the gnus. Now the elephants.” And so on. She’s good at counting now, rarely skips objects, even when they’re in an irregular bunch. Only sometimes does her finger move faster than her mouth, so while she touches, say, seven animals she only counts six.

The same book had headings with big bold capital letters, which we would read over and over again. Ingrid knows all the common letters but cannot make a word out of them, so she spells the word and I tell her what word the letters make. It’s good practice; as with counting, she very rarely loses her place and can spell very long words (such as Emajõe ärikeskus) without a single mistake. Sometimes she thinks she knows the word and pretends to read it, slowly dragging her finger along the word and slowly saying the word. Occasionally it’s right and other times it’s something completely wrong.

On the housekeeping side, we have had very few potty accidents (to the tune of one per week, and then mostly due to some special circumstance). The nighttime nappy is still almost always wet (and I think that’s why she gets restless and half-wakes around 6.30 to 7 in the morning, but I’m usually too sleepy myself to remember to ask her whether she wants to go potty). But after daytime naps, it’s almost always dry, so I’ve stopped insisting on it, and just sneak a folded towel underneath her when she’s fallen asleep.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is an adult fairy tale, reminiscent of Stardust (or rather the other way round, since this was written in 1974).

A wizard lives in an isolated castle on top of a mountain. With his mind, he calls great mythical beasts to himself, and binds them to live with him. At one point he also calls a woman, who bears him a daughter and then dies. The daughte, Sybel, grows up and continues in the same vein: living in isolation, with only beasts such as a riddling boar and an intelligent lion for company.

Sybel is happy on her own, but when she becomes the carer for a princeling, she is – inevitably and mostly against her will – drawn into the affairs of ordinary humans. She is beautiful and powerful, and men would love to possess her for both of these.

The book is beautifully written, with a lyrical, dreamlike language. Deep and quiet and yet fast-flowing. It feels ancient, as if it was a fairy tale. While it has its share of standard fantasy elements – sorceresses and warring kings and talking animals – it uses them in a refreshingly different way. There are no grand quests, no kingdoms to save, no dragons to kill. There are just human relationships.

To use a tired cliche, it’s a jewel of a book: small and simple, and yet sparklingly, preciously beautiful.

Amazon UK, Amazon US.

Our spending (year to date):

Average US household:

(source)

First I was happy to be here in Tartu, and had lots to do – people to meet, books to buy, etc.

After a week I was getting restless. I’m not used to doing nothing but hanging around at playgrounds, and occasionally shopping for groceries. I miss cycling, or some other kind of physical activity. I miss doing something productive.

Since then we’ve been slightly more active (longer walks, some visits to a beach) and had slightly more different people around us, and the restlessness has abated somewhat. And now that I have one more day left in Tartu, and two half-days in Tallinn, I’m already slightly sad about leaving.

But I’m thinking that next year I might rent a car (or perhaps a bike), so we can get out more.

It used to be that, among the first things I would do when visiting Estonia, I would buy bread and kohuke (a quark-based chocolate-glazed dessert). Now I’ve gotten used to foreign bread and also found better bread than I used to in Sweden, so the bread is not as important any more. And the kohukesed have degraded; most feel slightly gluey (pumped full of hydrogenated fat) and too sweet for my taste.

During this summer’s trip we have instead eaten our fill of strawberries (cultivated as well as wild) and peas, straight from the pod, although not straight from the bush. Next summer we will definitely have to plant some peas.