wandering, kenya
Europe, Nomadism

In Defense of Aimless Wandering, Revisited

I’m riding from Sweden to Finland on a ferry named Grace, pondering over aimless wandering. I’ll come back to that.

Grace is probably ten stories high. She has a club room and a casino, cafes and restaurants, cocktail bars and a dog toilet. She is more floating apartment building than ship, but she floats as she is meant to and she will bring me from Stockholm, Sweden to Turku, Finland in just over eleven hours. For fifteen pounds, that was a slow travel bargain I couldn’t pass up.

I’m the foggy kind of tired after a weekend of midsommar celebrations, camping adventures, and repeated sunrise-instigated wakeup calls at 4:30am.

The weather sympathizes. Thick clouds crowd the sky and cast the archipelago (stunning, by the way) in monochromatic grayscale. A drizzle comes and goes; the “sun deck” is slick and empty.

I sip sour-tasting ferry coffee, which does nothing to clear my head, but successfully destabilizes my hands, and watch the procession of tiny islands. Some have just enough space for a single house; others boast dense stretches of pine forests. I daydream up a contraption that could hitch to and unhitch from the passing ferries and allow me to island hop. (I realize they’ve already invented one better…it’s called a motorboat.)

And I’m thinking about wandering. Aimless wandering.

In fact, I’ve been thinking about aimless wandering since it came up in discussion during the week-long wild wandering school in which I participated earlier this month.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about aimless wandering for much longer than that—since one of my first forays into vagabonding in early 2014—and just briefly forgot to think about it until that discussion reminded me.

For the past couple of years, my wandering hasn’t been so aimless. With so much work to do and so many friends to visit, I’ve planned my travels more often than not. “You’re in London in July? Great, I’ll come to London in July.” “I have one week free after Portugal…perfect, I’ll see you in Barcelona.” “I need wifi for work this week; I’ll just stay in the city.”

But there is value in wandering aimlessly. So much value. I still believe that.

As I gather the skills to wander ever more gracefully, I hope to welcome more aimlessness back into my life. I’d like to invite you to do the same…

What is aimlessness? It is space, and it is time. Space to move without restraint or reservation, and time to observe without hurry. Space to expand, in body and spirit—and time to be utterly still. Space for silence. Time for reflection. Space for reflection. Time for silence.

Aimlessness isn’t purposelessness. Not to me.

Aimlessness isn’t meaningless. Quite the contrary.

Aimlessness isn’t absence from life; it is full-bodied presence in it.

To wander aimlessly is to move through the world without the conceit that we actually know what is coming next. That is, to move through the world with grace. (Told you we’d come back to it.)

So here I am, sitting on a ferry named Grace, thinking about aimless wandering.

And I’m thinking that maybe aimless wandering isn’t a choice, but a description of how we are, all of us, moving through life. Whether we like it or not. Whether we acknowledge it or not.

We don’t know what’s coming next, but we can go to it with purpose. We can go to it dancing.

There is space to expand, and there is time to be still.

Why not embrace it?

Leaving Stockholm:

A post shared by Toby Israel (@tobyintheworld) on

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Helsinki Snapshots

Monday, 11 January 2016
It is 2:30 pm, and the sky already seems to be getting dark as I make my way to the Helsinki airport… in a taxi (gasp! I know! But my tennis shoes and single layer of pants just aren’t going to make it to the bus stop in this -20º C weather). 
Somehow I have managed to visit this city three times over the past several months, for a total of six or seven weeks, and it’s about time I shared some snapshots of life here. What I lack in photos (I’ve taken very few) I’ll try to make up for with riveting description…
The in-between bingo sets show… it’s pretty much what it looks like.
Sunday nights find me at Mascot cafe with my friend Ella (and her friends) for bingo. A young, rambunctious crowd plays for free drink vouchers and the satisfaction of winning. They sing along with the flamboyant host (an out-of-costume drag queen who hardly looks his 40 years) for certain numbers—“I am 16 going on 17…” “when I’m 64…”—and cheer loudly whenever a player gets Bingo! I begin to get a solid grasp on Finnish numbers just in time to leave.
Two locals sitting outside the fray stop me this week on my way to the door to ask what’s happening. But isn’t bingo just for old people? They say. Sometimes not, apparently! It is always when I can tell a local something they didn’t know about their own city that I begin to feel I have really settled in.
Mascot, a down-to-earth bar with a lobby plastered with graffiti-letter posters advertising underground events, also plays host to Helsinki’s first spoken word festival, among other things.

German Sparkle Party capture (not mine).
My friend’s house in Käpylä, where I am very kindly welcomed as a long-term guest (maybe there is no Finnish saying about houseguests and fish…) is green. Snow covers the front lawn; when I first arrived it was autumn leaves and apples instead. Seven unique individuals coexist there with surprising harmony, and instantly make me feel at home. We practice jiujitsu on the tatami mats in the attic (later we will move the mats to make room for a massive “German Sparkle Party” (warning, click at your own risk) complete with mojito bar and black light dance floor.) and we play pinball on a vintage machine in the living room while sipping Salmiakki (licorice liqueur). In proper Finnish fashion, I become thoroughly addicted to the sauna in the basement. I learn that if you add a splash of beer to the ladle of water before tossing said water onto the hot stones, it makes a delightful smell (really). 
Elephant journal HQ, Helsinki—my coworker, Sara and I working at the kitchen table.
From the small kitchen table where I work, I can watch the light changing outside, fat snowflakes drifting lazily past the window or bunnies appearing from behind trees.
The bouldering gym where I go to climb a couple times a week is small, but intense. Typically crowded and obscured by a haze of chalk, its routes challenge me and always hold my interest. In an open loft workout area, I observe people displaying more varied exercise routines than I have ever seen in my life. I become noticeably stronger over the weeks that I train here.
At my favorite supermarket, I learn to distinguish between smoked and raw salmon, free-range and organic eggs, full fat and lactose-free milk, and more kinds of berries than I can name even now. My Finnish vocabulary seems to consist of equal halves food words and profanities.

The hill.
Finally, a quick walk from the house I briefly call home brings me to the top a small hill (the highest in Helsinki) topped with crumbling bunkers and criss-crossed with paths. When I don’t want to go anywhere else, I step outside, turn right and then right, and make my way there.


Welcome to (what was) my world for a short while, I hope you enjoyed the tour! As of yesterday, I am now in Cape Town, South Africa—currently settling in, but lots more on this new place to come!
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Culture, Europe

Will the Real Santa Claus Please Stand Up?

“Joulupukki” by Lauri Rantala from Espoo, Finland – Santaclaus at Helsinki Cathedral.

Consider this my holiday blog post. I could talk about Hanukkah (the holiday I celebrate), or Christmas markets (delightful all around the world), or any number of things. But why would I when scary monsters and mythology are on the menu?


It is September, and I am walking through the the Finnish tunturi (mountains in Lapland, way North), the setting sun to my right. Low bushes, a few turned to orange, carpet the ground. The trail is wide and mostly flat, and it carries me and my hiking partner past Pyhäkero (Sacred Mountain), herds of reindeer silent as dusk and rocca (unique shards formed by the freezing of water in crevices of rock and their subsequent explosion).

As the colors in the sky deepen and a nighttime chill settles over this landscape, I learn the real story of Santa Claus and his Nordic predecessor, Joulupukki (Yule Goat).

A terrifying creature with a goat’s skull for a head and flaming eyes, Joulupukki—so it is said—appears at homes during the Christmas season, demanding food, occasionally taking away those who have not been good. He dresses in gray furs and sows fear wherever he walks.

Jolly Saint Nick, is it?

Eventually, this Joulupukki became more or less synonymous with the Christian Santa we all know today. Funny how we always seem to do that to the less cuddly figures of mythology.

As I listen to this alternate (and, I must admit, much more interesting) Yuletide legend, I consider the gray, shifting light of this place and conclude it is much better suited to such a dark and mystical creation than a rotund, white-bearded figure in red.

Near Rovaniemi, where the train from Helsinki leaves us and we begin our journey, there is a place called The North Pole, where tourists seeking a merrier experience can visit Santa Claus’ Village.

I opt out. Biting wind, icy mountain lakes and ever-so-slightly magical mountains do so much more justice to this fascinating culture.

As for Joulupukki, the “real” Santa Claus? No, I didn’t run into him. But, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had…


{Update: Family matters brought me back to the U.S. sooner than my planned visit, and I have been quietly and busily staying under the radar in Michigan these past few weeks. I’ll be in the Northeast a few weeks longer, then it’s on to the next adventure. Where is that, you ask? …I’ll let you know when I do!}
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