Pine, wind and snow

While spring has most definitely sprung in the west coast of Sweden, winter is still clinging to the valleys and mountains in the heart of Norway. On our train ride north from Oslo two weeks ago, winding through valleys as it followed a river for most of the way, it felt as though we were travelling back in time. Tiny pockets of snow gradually grew into piles and drifts, and ice spread its sheets over the river.
At our stop we were met by a cousin of my mother who for the sake of brevity I’ll call my aunt. We’d met her and her family in January when we visited Lillehammer, and it was as a result of that meeting that we were being driven up to a cabin on a mountain to spend a weekend Norwegian-style.

The road up to the mountain had been the site of an avalanche the year before, and it was still scarred, with many sections of road having been relaid and the riverbeds still full of the stones and earth that had been torn from the hills. It had happened at the end of winter, when the melted snow had come rushing down the valley, and had also taken a few houses with it. Luckily no one had died, but it did serve as a reminder of the massive forces at work in the mountains. Seeing the land up there, I can understand the old stories of trolls and giants, because what else could explain the tumbled boulders and steep valleys that seemed hewn by an indiscriminate hand?

The sun through clouds

The sun through clouds

We soon reached the cabin, nestled among a few pines and birches and at least half a metre of snow. Behind it loomed a snowy hill, and behind that a row of mountains peeping out of the clouds. My partner and I managed the feat of simultaneously losing one leg up to the knee in the snow as we walked from the car. From then on we were careful to stick to the path of hardened snow, and only went out with only shoes one other time, which was when we left.

The cabin, or ‘hytta’ became exactly my ideal image of a winter cabin. Made of pine in the traditional style, it was cosy, warm and spacious, and I instantly felt comfortable and at home. My aunt’s husband, who we had met before, greeted us at the door and we were then introduced to my aunt’s mother, who was very tolerant of our attempts at speaking Swedish and our inability to speak Norwegian, and who also partook of the beer and wine that was shared around as we settled in (and also when we got ready to eat, when we ate, after we ate, when we came back from an excursion outside, when we prepared for another…).

Cabin decor

Cabin decor

As we had arrived in the evening we then had dinner, and out of the windows we could see ‘the blue hour’ settled on the snowy hills behind the cabin. In April it usually happens around 9, when the sky is clear and the sun has just sunk below the horizon. The whole world seems to glow with a deep blue, and then slowly fades to darkness.

Sunset on a frozen lake

Sunset on a frozen lake

The next day we got up not particularly early (it being a holiday) and after a thorough Norwegian breakfast we bundled ourselves in warm jackets and ski boots and headed out to enjoy the sport that Norwegians are raised with. The snow was a bit sticky, but we were soon on our way along a track, my partner falling a few times and then getting the hang of it and myself falling a few times but never quite finding the glide. I could manage to shuffle along but I think I’ll need further practice to be able to fly over the snow. Particularly up in mountain cabins, oh yes.

After a few hours we headed back and needing a bit of food after our exercise we had a bbq. Unfortunately the snow was a bit heavy to use the outside bbq, but we made do with sausages roasted in the fireplace, wrapped in potato bread and followed down by beer. We then did the traditional nap, curling up to read or snooze as the afternoon passed.

Tracks in the snow

Tracks in the snow

I had noticed when we’d been preparing the skis that there were a pair of what looked like snowshoes on the verandah, so I asked my aunt about them and soon after we were trudging across the snow, mostly managing not to step on the soft snow and lose our footing. We did the obligatory snow angels and explored the covered woodlands. By the time we came back the water for the shower had been heated and my partner had enjoyed a shower, so I took my turn. Knowing that the water had been pumped by hand outside and headed in the laundry kept the shower shorter than normal, and as a result I felt even more refreshed. I was also a bit tempted by the sauna but I wasn’t sure if that would require a dip in the snow to balance out the heat, so kept that to myself.

My angel

My angel

Cleaned and refreshed, I then encouraged my partner to join me for a walk on the snow, heading for the frozen lake I had seen earlier. The sun was starting to go now by this point, so the light and shadows were stunning, the trees almost seeming to glow amid the smooth white drifts.

Pine trees in the sunset

Pine trees in the sunset

I took the pristine smoothness of the lake as an invitation to leave a message, in Norwegian of course, and realising that the appointed hour for dinner was approaching we headed back to the cabin, slowed down by gazing at the scenery and occasionally losing a foot or two.

A greeting on the ice

A greeting on the ice

Dinner and dessert went long into the night, in Swedish, Norwegian and a bit of English, and before we knew it our eyes were growing heavy and we headed of to bed for the last night. We awoke the next morning, and as we got ready for breakfast I was already starting to miss the view of snow skirted trees and distant mountains. After a hearty traditional breakfast, including expertly wrapped sandwiches for the journey, we gathered by the door with our luggage and sadly said goodbye.

A pristine lake

A pristine lake

Two weeks later I can remember the crispness of the air and the sparse beauty of the snow covered hills, and at least for now the scent of pine still lingers on my woollen jumper and scarf. I hope that we’ll be able to see the cabin in summer, to cycle along the ski tracks and paddle in the lake where I wrote a message on the ice, but if not at least I know that winter lingers for a long time in the mountains.

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Strange beasts and mysterious voyages

I don’t believe I mentioned last week that a reason I was getting all het up about Swedish grammar was that there was a test this Wednesday. Fortunately perhaps it wasn’t until the break between the 1st and 2nd part of the test that I found out that the result of the test decides whether or not we would pass on to the next level. I had been quite sufficiently stressed prior to that, though as our teacher had been able to tell us after a preparatory test what we needed to focus on, I knew when the time came to sit down that I had studied as much as I could.
I don’t yet have the result for the 2nd part, the written section which I am most concerned about, but I did get the result for the reading and comprehension section yesterday. 100% seems a satisfactory result, and the first time I’ve got that score in anything for a very long time. I also found out a lot more about the founder and founding of Ikea, which was a bonus.

A brief fall of snow

A brief fall of snow

Other than studying, last weekend we visited the Natural History Museum with a new friend of ours, which was great fun to explore. Among the mola mola and aye-ayes were enormous rooms of birds (we had wandered down one long corridor only to turn a corner and find another of identical size, almost losing the will to be curious about birds in the process), a scale model of an orca (huge!), a wombat (or should I say, vombat) and a flodhäst, which literally translates as river horse. For those who know a bit of Greek or know random trivia, you’ll probably have guessed what it was.
After which we headed to an Iranian restaurant and ate and chatted and whiled away the last hours of weekend sunlight.

An aye-aye, looking even more alien in the flesh, so to speak

An aye-aye, looking even more alien in the flesh, so to speak

I may also have got my foot in the door at an independent school. So far I’m going to be sitting in on classes and getting to know how the teachers and lessons work, and then potentially be a relief teacher. After that, who knows? I am rather excited by the idea that the school is based on feminist principles – oh Sweden!

That is unfortunately about all I have to report this week, as I have to get on with packing for a flight this afternoon. Where to, you ask? I don’t actually know yet. It’s a joint birthday present for myself and my partner which he has organised, and as it was a secret in the beginning it has stayed that way, despite moments of wanting to do away with the suspense. As of 4 this afternoon I’ll know, and so all I can promise is that in a week there’ll be a longer post, full of adventures and apparently weather over 15C (!!!), so until then I hope you have a great week.

When in Sweden…

Last weekend I tried skiing for the first time, however unless there is an event for slowly sliding backwards down a snowy slope while saying ‘Oh dear’, I fear I won’t be participating in the winter Olympics this year.

I’ve long entertained romantic images of myself gliding easy across snowdrifts, looking around at trees and stunning vistas and have been looking forward to trying it out while we’re here in Scandinavia. My partner was even more enthused, having been snowboarding before and eager to try again, so when he found a ski park not far from Göteborg, the plan was set.
We headed off with two friends, bright and early, though were discouraged by the recent rain and the iciness of the snow that remained. On our arrival we found that the snow had been iced over and was very slippery, and as we waited for the park to open we weighed our options. There were no lessons available and these weren’t the ideal conditions, but nothing it seemed could prevent my partner from unleashing himself upon the slopes. His first attempt on the little slope was, well, his first attempt, but eventually he set off up the bigger slopes and was soon gliding happily down, hardly ever on his back.

Ready to hit the slopes

Ready to hit the slopes

Meanwhile I decided to have a go and got myself decked out skiing gear and had my first try and skiing. Not quite graceful gliding, but after much concentration and effort I did manage to move forward. One of the friends who had come with us joined me and we set to, slowly climbing the little slope and then trying to work out how to stop or turn as we sped down again. By observing others (mostly around the age of 5 in our area) I worked out the basics, but each attempt at stopping or slowing down resulting in shooting off to the left. An attempt from the pinnacle of the little slope resulted in sliding into a pole and gradually making my way down while trying not to go tearing off into the lifts.
At the end of the day, though, much progress had been made from knowing nothing, though a descent from the taller slope was still out of the question. Next time I would like to try cross-country skiing, which I imagine would involve fewer slopes. Also lessons.

Study can be fun

Study can be fun

Other than adventures in the snow, this last week has been primarily focussed on preparing for a Swedish test on Wednesday, and another next Wednesday. This week’s was in preparation for the other which is much more important, and to show us and the teacher what we need to be focussing on. For me it was mostly writing. It seems sort of odd to me now as I happily type away that stringing words together is such a struggle, but someone the rules don’t seem to penetrate. What I need to do, I think, is divorce the forming sentences from all English grammar and think only in term of Swedish.
Subjekt – Verb – Objekt.
Q-ord – Verb – Subject – V2 – Objekt.
Adverbial – Verb – Subjekt – V2 – Objekt.
Infinitiv efter hjalpverb.
Still they are rules, floating above the forming ideas, not implanted yet. More practice is needed. Perhaps I should write an update in svenska någon tid? För en publik av en.

Getting there!

Getting there!

On the subject of writing I have also managed recently to finish a short story, the first one I’ve finished in over a year. Yay! It is currently being read out at the finest writing centre in the world (who me, biased?) by an obliging friend and getting good reviews and critiques. Which makes the distance between Göteborg and Greenmount Hill seem not so vast.

Falling snow

I have learnt something very important these last few weeks, which is extremely pertinent to my life in Sweden.
I really like snow.
A lot.
I like the fluffy dust heaping on the street, the crunch as it compacts and the pristine sheets it leaves wherever it falls. I especially like when it drifts down in fat clumps, sticking to my hair and revealing the star shapes I’d thought needed a microscope to be seen. I also enjoy what it isn’t: rain. Only the first rain of summer, back in Australia, compares to the glee and staring about that instantly mark me as a foreigner.

Snow crystals

Snow crystals

This last week is had continued to fall, though the tramping of feet, strewing of salt and fineness of the snow means that it isn’t anywhere near knee height yet.
Watching the snow build up is a part of a life far away that I hadn’t considered before I left, namely the seasons. Australia, at least in the south-west, has two seasons. Hot and dry and wet and cold. Whereas Sweden has a whole host of them, 3 of which I have experienced so far. Since our arrival in late August green turned brown, the long days shortened and clouds descended. It was dark, and cold for a while, almost claustrophobic, though lit by stars in windows and candles. Then snow came in a burst and returned later in earnest, coating the world outside almost to monochrome. Next I suppose the rain will come, the snow will turn to ice and slush (bleagh) and slowly brown will turn green again and I can stop wearing thermals, a thick jacket and my small army of beanies, gloves and scarves. Then the whole cycle will continue, and no doubt I’ll eagerly anticipate the first drifts of snow.

My neighbourhood this week

My neighbourhood this week

So other than gazing about at the weather, what else have I be doing since the last update? Well, not very much really. I’ve been going to classes and studying, occasionally going out and wondering how on earth I’m going to find a job. The only event that really deserves a mention is Sunday, which as many of my readers will remember, was Australia Day. This far from home I felt disconnected from the usual umming and aahing about Invasion Day and Survivor Day and post-colonial guilt, instead revelling a bit in stereotypes that I would have shuddered at previously. We had been invited to a bbq arranged by an Australian friend, and tromped over bearing sausages, beer, wine, a koala shaped hat, an apron emplasoned with images of Perth and subtly green and yellow clothes. At the party were more Australians than we’d so far met in Göteborg, and after chatting and snacking on traditional food (sausage rolls, shapes), we realised that our time here has been quietly changing us, so that in a strange way be felt a bit like outsiders. Possibly we need more exposure to Australians, or maybe it was because they were all from the eastern states. None of which took away from our enjoyment of the day, which also involved the very slow cooking of our sausages on a bbq that had been recently cleared of snow.

A brief glimpse of sun

A brief glimpse of sun

Before I sign off for another week I feel I ought to mention that last Monday made it 5 months since we arrived in Sweden, and I will have to report back in a few weeks as to whether I have managed to wrap my head around the idea of being here for 6 months. Time is a funny thing.

Fine food and deep snow

While I’ve been attempting to stuff my brain with a new language, writing, looking for a job and working out titles for my blog posts, my partner has been working very hard at his job. Even over the Jul break he put in hours, returning to the office for a day just after Jul and monitoring processes from our hotel room in Oslo, and so his boss decided he needed some kind of thanks.
Which was how we ended up walking a bit hesitantly into one of the 4 Michelin star restaurants in Göteborg, being offered a glass of spiced apple juice, escorted to a neat little table and subjected to 4 hours of amazing food, service and drinks. It was indeed a difficult cross to bear.

The restaurant in question was Thörnströms Kök, and at this stage I have to come clear about something. I have never been to a restaurant classified as ‘fancy’, so was prepared to be impressed. It didn’t take long for this to happen.
I’m no gastronome (gastrognome?) so I can’t list the food we had, but suffice to say we chose a set menu and matching wine list, and everything was perfect. The wine matched the food, each (somewhat, and expectedly small) meal was a feast of flavours and they kept foisting appetisers and sweets on us. We made a bit of a miscalculation when we ate all of the bread that was intended to last the entire sitting before the second course arrived, but they were happy to bring out another. More impressive even than the tastes and expertise was the uncanny ability of the staff to have the next course and wine on our table just when it was needed, and to my personal amusement, their habit of refolding the napkins while we were taking toilet breaks. I left mine intentionally folded but was foiled by the waiter’s superior skills.
By the time we had been there for 4 hours and I had finished a pot of a newly invented herbal tea combination, we were satisfied and ready to venture out into the cold for the slow plod home. If you get a chance to go there, go.

In addition to me now having an unrealistic benchmark for future meals, winter has finally actually arrived. About a week ago the snow came, which I mentioned in my last post, and has remained. The first day I stepped out into the now consistently -C temperatures, my breath caught in my throat, and I have resigned myself to wearing thermals whenever I venture outside and a minimum of two beanies. It has stayed cold enough that there has been hardly any slush or ice, so I make my way around town with enjoyable crunching sounds from beneath my boots. Last weekend we were lucky enough to get two days on sunlight and it was glorious. Though still cold the white snow and sharply contrasting shadows were beautiful and worth any amount of numb fingers.

Trollhättan canal

That weekend we also went on a short trip up to Trollhättan, a town about 40 minutes north of Göteborg, and where one of my partner’s workmates lives. We were greeted at the train station by piles of snow and said workmate and his daughter, who was gleefully being dragged along on a small sled. She’s about 3 and with her father’s encouragement exclaimed now and then in English, and the rest of the time squealed with excitement when he whipped the sled around in a circle or through deep snow. I very much wanted one, which was not helped when he mentioned that he sometimes attaches the sled to his bike to take her to day care. I tried sending significant looks and less subtle hints to my partner but thus far he has refused to bite.
We were then taken on a tour of the town, including a cafe stop and a visit to the locks and canals that connect the west and east of Sweden and provide the area with power. A large patch of deep snow in which the little girl demonstrated how to make a snow angel required me to do the same, and was only part of the capering about that my partner and I go into. We had a long of time to make up for from our childhood. After looking into the fast flowing canals that rushed towards the hydropower plants and exploring more of the area I discovered my phone was no longer in my pocket. We backtracked, my partner repeatedly calling my phone and the rest of us peering into tiny holes in the snow. It seemed likeliest that it had slipped out while I was capering, and as we wandered through a deep patch I heard the ringtone. After checking that I hadn’t somehow missed it in one of my pockets I dug into the snow and found it, wet, cold and loudly playing the theme to The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Relieved and starting to get cold, we then headed to our tour guide’s home, where we were supplied with whiskey and wine until it was time to head home. As the workmate is a self taught connoisseur of whiskey we were quite merry by the time we left.

Sun on the canal

The next day we followed up the traditional playing in the snow with a visit to Ikea, carrying a list that I hoped and inevitably failed to follow. We did get what we needed, in addition to a number of things I hadn’t realised we needed, and it confirmed my suspicion that Ikea in Sweden is a clone of Sweden in Australia, or wherever else they have sprouted.

Since then we have worked and studied, waiting for the weekend and the rare days like today when the sun shines on Göteborg.

Fireworks and snowflakes

We are now three weeks into the new year, and life is starting to settle into the pre-Jul routine of work, study, housework, looking for work and freetime. Last week classes started again, during which I believe my brain got whiplash after the merry complacency of the holidays. It has also started to snow this week, which I celebrated by slipping over on ice.
First I’ll continue with the holiday celebrations, and the last night of 2013.

After we returned from Norway, we spent a couple of days relaxing, taking in the city during long walks and not doing an awful lot. It was a pleasant in-between time as we counted down the last days of 2013. On the evening of the final day we headed out to a party at the apartment of a Swedish friend we’d met once, where we discovered it was in fact A Party. Music, mingling, drinks and dishes of food being piled up on every available surface. Jumping from conversation to conversation, finding friends, sitting for food, discovering water in a teapot, drinking vegan vodka cocktails and finding it harder to concentrate on the correct verb forms for Swedish words.
All of a sudden midnight was almost upon us and we were shepherded out onto the street, to see the horizon light up. It was one of the most memorable sights for me this year, watching the uncoordinated and bright firework display, bangs and flashes going off all around us. There was no countdown, just everyone gleefully lighting whatever fireworks can be found, singing, hugging, kissing and joy. We went back inside before the display finished, and I suspect it would have continued until every last firework in Göteborg had been sent up into the sky.
When we reached the apartment it had been magically (despite explanations I still maintain something outside our ken must have been used) transformed into a dance floor, and we took is upon ourselves to use it as required. Somehow 5 hours passed in dancing, talking and laughing and we began to feel a little tired. As we walked home we encountered what seemed like most of Göteborg wandering in a post NYE daze, and empty fireworks packets littering the pavement.
Then we slept.

A rare sunny day in Göteborg

Since then we spent more time around the city, and on one slightly ill-fated day decided to visit Hönö, one of the islands in the northern archipelago. A bit of advice for any travellers out there; don’t plan a visit to an island off the coast of Sweden in winter when wind and rain is forecast and the only way to the main part of town on the island is by foot. Just don’t. The highlight was catching the ferry to the island, a yellow, industrial cat transporter with small cabins for passengers. Also noticing that of the 5 locals I saw on the island, two were boss-eyed. Not that I’m making any kind of comment about people who live on small islands.

Snow returns to the forest

The last week or so has seen the return of snow, with much more determination and thoroughness than last time, the flakes getting larger by the day, so that I can now make out the classic snowflake shapes. It is still comfortable enough to walk without a beanie and catch flakes in my hair, and it has only reached about an inch deep at most but I have hopes that it will continue for some time. I also hope that the excitement I feel walking around in it, watching it float down and create a pristine white world until we wander through it, will continue as well.

Göteborg in snow

The post-Jul blues still continue, though they fade, and soon I will have to dispose of the Jul tree (smuggled out to a local park at midnight?). I think the decorations will stay somewhere around the apartment, though, to keep the spirit going till next year.

A circle completed

On the second full day of our Norway holiday, things didn’t go according to plan. In the most wonderful way.

Lillehammer

We caught an early train to Lillehammer, hoping for snow and the chance to ski, or in my case probably fall over repeatedly and hilariously. As the train wound out of Oslo we could see patches of snow and ice crusted lakes, the white growing as we went further north. On our arrival however the chances of skiing were limited, so we set out to explore the town while we thought about what to do. The first stop was the Maihaugen Museum, an collection of buildings from various times in Norwegian history, and a short, if icy, walk from the train station.

I should mention at this point that visiting Lillehammer was not only motivated by the prospect of skiing. Since I was small my mum told me about her father and his family growing up in the town and her own visits to the family farm, then the Winter Olympics in 1994 and her last visit to tie up affairs after her father died there. If I was going to have the opportunity to visit a town with family ties, I had to go.

Farm houses in Maihaugen

Walking up the icy paths I wondered whether my own family had walked in the same places, and seen the same buildings and gazed around at the snow covered hills. Maihaugen was open and free to enter in winter so we explored the old rural section, a collection of buildings from the 1700s, including a quite grand stave church and farmsteads. The lake in the centre was frozen over and in the quiet I could almost imagine it was a living town waiting for the cold to end. When we headed back to the main building to plan our next stop I managed to get a bit of wifi and found a message from my mum asking if I’d contacted her cousin who lived in the town. So I sent off an email with my phone number in case I was out of range, thinking it was a longshot but it couldn’t hurt to try. My mum had also asked if I was able to visit the church where her father is buried, which turned out to be half an hours walk from the town centre. Still pondering what to do, we headed to the Olympic centre to hopefully get a bite to eat and perhaps try some tobogganing.

Stave church dragon

On our arrival we discovered a Christian Youth group have commandeered the centre, and that the lack of snow made tobogganing and any other outside winter sport impossible. I then got a phone call from my mum’s cousin. Yes, she was in town and yes she would like to meet us. In fact, once we were finished exploring the centre and having a snack she could come and pick us up. Which was how I ended up standing in a small town in Norway being hugged by family I’d never met, after not having seen any family for about 4 months.

She took us to the huge ski jump, and location of the opening and closing ceremonies, where the torch still stands unlit and a few mad people try running up the stairs on either side. The thought of standing at the top and letting gravity take over were pretty terrifying, even from the safety of flat ground below.

The ski jump, with mysterious red lines

We then went to the church, where the yard was covered in snow. My grandfather’s grave and that of his brother and my great-grandparents had been cleared on the 24th, as part of a Norwegian tradition, so to make out the names we only needed to brush aside some snow and leaves. Lichen covers quite a lot of the stone which had been brought from the family farm, but his name is legible. I’d only met him once that I could remember, but he was my grandfather and more importantly my mother’s dad, and it felt as thought somehow a circle was being closed, stretching from Norway, to Australia and back again.
We then climbed back into her car to visit more family.

My grandfather

At this point I should mention that the terms for family relationships in Australia have left me unprepared to find a word for my mum’s cousin, not to mention her children and their children. In Swedish I’d guess she’d be my morfarbrordotter, but somehow aunt feels more accurate and less of a mouthful. We settled on third cousins for her children, and fourth for her grandchild, who was the most adorable tractor-loving wispily-blonde haired toddler I’ve met. I met him at my aunt’s house in the arms of my uncle-in-law, who warmly welcomed us in. Their house smelt of pine and spices, and was extremely cosy. We were shown their christmas tree and seated in the kitchen, where we were given cups of tea and settled in to get to know each other. As Jul was so recent, they were still burning a festive mix of herbs, including frankincense, and a dish full of traditional Jul cakes, biscuits and wafers was brought out for us. We also got to taste Norwegian brown cheese, which I heartily recommend, and which I happened to buy this evening. In time my third cousins joined us, with one of their girlfriends, and we chatted and ate and drank and watched the littlest family member, which was a show in itself. After a few hours of this, we looked up train times and were offered a tour of Lillehammer before the train arrived. Amid more hugs, and promises of skiing lessons from their family cabin in the forest, we left.

The tour was the best kind, from someone who knew and loved the town and knew the alleys that lead to old bridges and schools were generations of my family went. I also found out more about my family, and what life is like in Norway. Most of all though, I learnt how welcoming family can be and found a place where I can almost feel the footsteps of my ancestors.

Back in Oslo we spent our last half day walking along the water front in the surprising sunlight, visiting Akershus in daylight and in the fortress the Norwegian Resistance museum. In there I learnt that I knew very little about Norway’s fate in WWII, and stories I have been told about my grandfather and other family became clearer, though no less tragic.

With time running out on our Norwegian holiday we headed to the bus station, and boarded for the not-too-long drive. Back in Göteborg I felt some of the usual feeling of homecoming, but a part of me also wished it could have stayed in a little Norwegian town north of Oslo.

Ice melting in Maihaugen

I am aware that in my last update I mentioned that there would be fireworks, but as is my wont the word count on this post went over so Nytt År will have to be saved for next week. Oops.

A Jul voyage

It has been over a week since my last post, and though it concerned waiting for the oncoming festivities, there was so much more in the intervening time that I didn’t or couldn’t expect. One thing that this year has taught me is not to expect things. Don’t expect to be dreaming of living in Europe in a year, don’t expect to find your career waiting for you, don’t expect to be isolated in a new country and don’t expect inspiration to be all you need to write well.

Our Jul tree angel

I had expected to feel homesick when Jul arrived, missing the family and comfort that I’ve had every christmas of my life. Instead I felt warm, loved and well fed, as my partner and I skyped our parents, opened presents and ate a lot of food. A dose of old fashioned shmaltz in the form of It’s a Wonderful Life was like hot chocolate on a cold day, including the bit about alternate reality Mary’s cruel fate (a spinster librarian? Egad!) Tacos with homemade guacamole may not have been a traditional Jul dish, but Jul is what we make it.

And I made pepparkakor!

On the 25th we rested, and then embarked on the cooking of a christmas roast, with all the trimmings. Roast turkey, potatoes, pumpkin, cauliflower cheese, fresh baked bread and gravy, washed down with glögg and wine. It was an achievement that we managed to walk afterwards, not to mention do the dishes. And win at the BBC History Extra podcast Christmas quiz by one point and a turkey. I feel as though I ought to commit this fact to writing, as it and the score sheet may be purged from existence by a certain individual who enjoys competitiveness.
By this point we had not left the house for two days and so we decided to set out and check that the rest of the world was still there. Thankfully it was, and it included a small bar with bountiful drinks and cheerful Swedes, and comfortable couches to sink into and chat in an increasingly tipsy manner.

The next morning we awoke relatively early to catch a bus that would take us off to our short holiday. We’d decided some time before that we ought to use at least a bit of our joint holiday period to travel, preferably not too far but far enough to be away from Göteborg. We settled on Oslo, a short bus ride away and where we could use some of my partners hotel credits (I recommend ‘free’ hotel visits, gives you a lovely relaxing feeling). The bus ride took us north through small and large towns, and then dense forests and past rivers and over bridges, through a very uncheckpoint-like checkpoint and up and into the suburbs that circle the twisting Oslo fjord. My first impression of Oslo was a chill slightly stronger than we’d left and a city feeling that doesn’t exist in Göteborg. Our hotel was next to the central station, so a quick walk brought us up to our rooms, comfortable and interestingly designed and with double windows that were perfect for the refrigeration of leftovers from the previous day’s feast that we’d brought to balance out the cost of eating out in one of the most expensive cities in the world. After a snack we headed out to explore with what light there was left (it was around 2/3 by this point, so not much). Possibly because it was the 26th and most places were closed, or because that was how they roll on Thursday afternoons, the city was almost deserted. We wandered down the main street, and then followed a sign to the Akershus fortress which seemed deserted also, though a friendly soldier assured us it was open to explore.

Oslo from Akershus fortress

The fortress was built in 1290 and has been in use ever since, as it grew, sprouted new buildings and oversaw the city below it, and was never overrun by an enemy (it’s surrender to Nazi Germany in WW2 technically doesn’t count as a defeat). As with most other human constructions in Norway that I’ve seen, it’s sturdy rather than towering, and very tough. We wandered around taking photos as the sun went down, bright lights lighting up the walls and paths and occasional, blank faced soldiers guarding (what they were guarding was unclear, but they seemed very definite about it).

From the fortress we headed back to the centre of town, and onwards to the tourist office, where I hoped to plan our visit the following day. This journey took us down the main street, and past a crowded ice-rink. There were people of all kinds sliding around, either looking as though they were out on a stroll, showing off to friends or barely balancing. The children were especially impressive, some of them zipping around at great speeds, others falling over only to spring up again.

Ice rink Oslo

It looked like a lot of fun was being had. Not having skates we had a go at walking on the ice without any incidents, and then continued on our journey. Having found the tourist office we went in search of food. At this point I realised that the stories about Oslo being one of the world’s most expensive cities is true, and I discovered something else. It has some of the longest waiting times for meals. The first place we tried took about 45 minutes for a cup of tea and a beer to arrive, then another half an hour for someone to say that someone would take our order soon. We decided to pre-empt their eventual attempt and ask for the bill. Which we got 20 minutes later. After which we really needed food, though unfortunately a bar that we chose as cosy and comfortable turned out not to serve food. We settled on a pizza chain, which was filling and a relief from the prospect of having more leftovers for dinner.

The next day, after a visit to the hotel gym and a delicious breakfast, we went to the tourist office and found out that is was near impossible to get a trip to a fjord in the short time that we had. The woman at the desk suggested Lillehammer as a nice place to explore and perhaps go skiing from, which suited me as I knew of family connections in the area. Armed with knowledge and plans we then went to the Historisk Museum, which was an interesting mix of detail, sewed backdrops and stunning church portals.

Detail from a church portal, showing Sigurd fighting Fafnir

According to my mum, whose bias I am not going to mention, the relative smallness of the Oslo History Museum is due to the idea of having a museum devoted to particular things, rather than everything jammed into one building. It did have a wide selection, and the Sami exhibition was very interested, if a bit rushed for us.

The Norns, possibly by a eccentric granny

Then off to the Viking Ship museum.
Though we only saw a little of Oslo in the time we were there, I would say that the Viking Ship Museum is a must see. I’d seen the Vasa when I went to Stockholm, but the authenticity and beautiful lines of the Oseberg ship as you walk in the front door are more stunning to me than the bulk and scale of the Vasa.

The Oseberg ship from behind

The Oseberg ship is the first thing you see, and is basically what you would picture as a traditional Viking ship. The front (fore?) curls up and around in a spiral, ending in a serpents head, with the other end curling in a tail. It was a pleasure boat rather than a sailer of the high seas so fairly shallow, but the smooth lines and how incredibly intact it was were breathtaking. It was also found with the remains of 2 women, thought to be 50 and 80 years old, whose identity is a mystery. It’s around 22 metres long, 2 metres shorter than the also mostly intact Gokstad which was a much more sea worthy vessel, and may have gone on distant journeys before it was eventually buried. It didn’t have the decorative carvings of the Oseberg ship, but it was long, sturdy and also amazing to see and imagine when it was in full sail, 32 shields hanging on the sides and the sea curling in it’s wake.

The Oseberg ship

The third ship, the Tune ship, was in worse condition, planks of wood from the hull giving us an idea of what it must have been like, but no signs of it’s occupant unlike the other two.
Also in the museum were some of the artifacts discovered with the ships, bedsteads, cloth, a couldron, wooden sleighs and carved animal heads whose purpose is unknown. Old preservation techniques mean many of the items are at risk of falling apart, but for now on the surface they seem as beautifully crafted as they were hundreds of years ago.
Once again seeing these remnants of history brought back to me the humanity of the past, and how much we don’t know and can’t know. In this case it was especially profound for me as the people that made carvings like those, watching the ships sailing across the seas, harvested the wheat that once filled the trough and survived in the old lands of Norway were my people.

An inscription found with the Oseberg ship, translating loosely as 'Man knows little'

In the next post I’ll describe the second day, in which I get to meet some of my people, and the colours, music and fireworks of New Years Eve when we returned.

Lights in the dark

Fourth Sunday of Advent

As I have been updating this post, the four advent candles have been burning behind my laptop, and a little while ago the first candle burnt out, leaving the others to slowly sink. It is the last Sunday of Advent and Jul is almost here.

The sunburnt buildings and sweet tea of Istanbul seem a long time ago now, with winter settling in and Jul approaching. We have seen snow come and go, and the city unite in traditions that date back before memory. In sunny Australia where the sun sets after 7pm on a christmas night, the profusion of lights on houses and in trees are a glitzy and fun gimmick, to celebrate the season and create as much flash as possible. Here, as the days shorten and are more often overcast, the lights in the windows and in the trees keep away the darkness until the year turns again.

Two of my favourite traditions I have seen in Sweden so far are related to keeping the darkness at bay and though are ostensibly Christian, feel like part of an older tradition.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

I must have heard something somewhere about Advent candles, as I’d been looking around for a candle-holder weeks before December arrived, to no avail. I wasn’t even sure exactly what to look for, other than assuming it held four candles and possibly looked like a smaller menorah. In case you’re reading this and wondering what I’m rambling about, the Advent candle tradition says that for every Sunday in December you light the first candle on the first Sunday, the second candle on the second, the third on the third and on the final Sunday all the candles are lit. As I understand it the tradition is some sort of count down to Jesus, but I like to think of it as a count down to Jul and the new year, and a good excuse to get involved in some old traditions.

As the weeks went on they started to pop up all over the place, and I eventually found just the right one in the city. I got four red candles and eagerly awaited the first Sunday, and watched as other windows filled with candles and lights. Most other windows have electric lights, with multiple candles in a triangle shape, which I’ll probably get next year for the sake of practicality, but in my opinion nothing beats slowly burning candles lighting up a room. Wherever I go in the city, in every neighbourhood, office building and shop, almost all windows contain Advent candles, lighting up the room and a little bit of the world outside.
There are also stars, in a variety of patterns and colours, which are hung instead of or over the candles, though what the specific tradition they represent is, I don’t know. Needless to say we have one.

Our star, with the Liseberg tree behind

The second tradition begins with far off voices gradually getting louder, and light slowly filling a dark room. When I first saw it and heard it, at the Göteborg City Hall, I was transfixed. They had stuck with tradition, and the girl who entered the room first had 6 real candles on her crown, and the other 5 were wearing pure white robes and red bands around their waists as she did. They were all singing the traditional song, Santa Lucia. They sang a number of songs in Swedish, a couple in English and then ended with the first, slowly walking out in a line as their voices faded away. I have since seen a Lucia tåg (train) at my Swedish school and semi-accidentally took part in an attempt at the world’s longest Lucia tåg, both of which were more fun and felt like part of the glue that holds Swedish culture together. The first one I saw, though, felt magical and reverent.

Lucia, watched over by Hermes

One version of the story says that in around 300CE there lived in Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, a young woman named Lucia. She was betrothed to some guy, and all was fine, until her mother became sick. She prayed to all the gods she could think of (this being in the late Roman Empire, they had amassed plenty for her to choose from) and ran from doctor to doctor to find a cure but to no avail. Then one night she dreamed of an angel who promised that her mother would get better if Lucia converted to Christianity, became celibate and did some proselytising.
Despite Christianity apparently being a crime at this time, she agreed. So she went around talking about Jesus and broke of the engagement, which upset her betrothed (I assume that her mother also got better, as I couldn’t find a mention of her after this stage). He told the local law enforcers about her proselytising and they attempted to arrest her, but though they grabbed her and tried to drag her away they were unable to move her. Then someone else came up with the idea of stacking wood around her and set it alight, but even engulfed in flames she lived, until someone else stabbed her with a sword. Later she was made into a saint. Even later than that her story was combined with ancient Swedish traditions and became the festival of today.

In addition of the procession of girls, and in some cases cone-hatted stjärngossar (star boys), on this night many younger people are said to party late into the night. This is supposed to be a celebration of the ending of the school or uni year, but again the tradition goes back further. An ancient Swedish tradition said that on the 13th of December the Lussi, an evil female demon, would fly around the land with her followers the Lussiferda, and kidnap anyone silly enough to be outside or who had been naughty. To protect themselves and the households people would hold a vigil all night long, keeping candles lit and watching the darkness. These days people don’t fear evil spirits who may steal them away, but some things last long after people remember why they started.

Last night we held our own party to keep the darkness at bay, a gathering of friends who came to eat and drink and talk, and enjoy the warmth and light. It happened to be on the Winter solstice, and in memory of our country that had just celebrated the Summer solstice, we served kangaroo, among curry, pepparkakor, cheesy, nutty, honeyed bread and pastries supplied by one of our guests. Before the year is over, and as the year turns, we may gather with friends again in the night, with yet more eating, talking and drinking, marking time till the end of winter.

The last Sunday draws on

In two days we’ll celebrate Julafton (christmas eve), opening the presents piling up under our little tree and watching by skype as our families open their gifts. Then we hope to travel somewhere not too far away, to explore more of Sweden and get away from the day to day life, and if we’re lucky see some snow. We may not get a white christmas this year, but it has so far been more of a christmas in other ways than I have ever had, apart from the lack of my family, which for me has always been the heart of Jul.