2015: Travels and moving forward

So 2015 is now in the past, and while like any year it creeps along at walking pace while living it, looking back it seems now to have been very full and sometimes reaching a sprint. It has been a year of travelling (7 different countries!), big steps forward (my own business) and important decisions.

It started, as all years do in Sweden, with fireworks and then a trip to Stockholm. Later in the month I met my mum in Copenhagen and traveled around with her, as we showed each other our lives in the North, both past and present.

As the darkness and cold continued to set in, there was a trip to sunny Malaga, a brief inoculation against the winter that has also left me in love with Spain.
Time passed, fear came to my home town, and then Easter and the turning of the seasons. I continued to work, relief teaching at schools and gathering private students, learning as I went. That fear seemed to grow throughout the year, rising from under the surface and at least right now it doesn’t look as though it’s going to recede any time soon.

More trips around the Nordic regions followed, including a cruise across the Baltic and a short stay in Aarhus, Denmark. Summer arrived, and with the holidays I left a beloved school, experienced my second Midsummer picnic and attempted indoor gardening. Other hobbies included joining a flamenco choir, trying to make it to a language café in between teaching and tasting the brews made by my partner.

As summer passed we flew to Malta, experiencing long sunny days, chaos, sea and incredible history. Back at home work continued to increase, with more and more private students and work through a consultancy. I found less time for writing and reflection, and for the first time since I started this blog, the gaps between posts became 2 weeks or more rather than 1. As my focus shifted, I set about making the most of the change, and formally set up my business, including a website and a business plan.

With the end of the year almost upon us, we visited London, a place I’ve long considered as a home that I’d not yet got around to visiting. It met, surpassed and left my expectations far behind, giving me yet another place that lurks invitingly in the back of my mind whenever I’m feeling restless.

Finally we returned to Australia for family, christmas and a holiday of sorts. It was intense, as any trip home to family, friends and real life is bound to be. As well as the various pressures and commitments, the days of the festive season were for the most part relaxing and enjoyable, filled with food and love. I also got a bit of a tan, though you wouldn’t think so if you asked the repairman who came to fix our dryer. I’m fairly sure I let him down a bit.

Then the year came full circle, with fireworks in the cold, cheering and friends, and a return to the long, dark wait until Spring. 2016 is still new and fresh and full of potential, and no amount of guesswork can tell what might happen. A few things are certain, and will be shared in their time, but mostly the year is unwritten, and we shall we what we shall see.

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Under the Jul tree

Since moving to Scandinavia we have celebrated Jul twice. Last year’s was unique in that it was the first away from our families, and the Jul just past in that it was our first ever white christmas. Yet if you look at the weather report for Göteborg there is only a smidgen on snow on Julafton and Jul, so how did we manage it? Well, we cheated.

At around this time last year we went on a quick post-Jul trip to Norway, staying a couple of nights in Oslo and seeing the sights. On one day we decided to visit the hometown of my maternal grandfather, and while we were there a fortuitous series of incidents led us to an evening at the home of my mother’s cousin. This led in turn to a weekend in a hytta around easter and as the year drew to a close, an invitation to spend Jul at their home.

So it was that on the 22nd of December we heaved suitcases filled with clothes, food and gifts and a set of skiis to the bus station, for the first leg of our journey to Lillehammer.

We have now taken the bus from Göteborg to Oslo four times, and so far the repetition has not spoilt the beauty of the landscape. The forests and cliffs just before the border between Sweden and Norway is still stunning and rugged, and the sweeping road around the Oslo fjord hasn’t failed to distract me every time. With the latest trip we were also treated to signs of snow almost from the moment we crossed the border. As we neared Oslo it was lying in piles by roads and clinging lightly to trees. The street of the city were slushy and people strode around muffled against the cold. We broke up the journey with a night in Oslo, and so took it easy for the first day and night.

A skating train

A skating train

We strolled around taking photos and looking for food, checking out the ice-rink that we remembered from a year ago and the lights strewn in the trees and between buildings.

Lights on the ice

Lights on the ice

The following morning we started the final leg of the trip. Snow covered the tracks, and as we boarded and the train wound it’s way north, the snow deepened and thickened, creating a world of beautiful monochrome.

At the final stop we disembarked and were met by my aunt (not exactly true, but easier to say that mum’s cousin) who greeted us with many velkommens and hugs. We had arrived.

By the time we had been welcomed by my uncle, cousin and their dog and were settled in at their home, it was mid-afternoon and the setting sun was leaving an eerie blue light on the snow piled outside. This is known as the ‘blue hour’, and given the sun rises later and sets earlier than usual at this time of year, I got to catch many of them. We decided to have a look at the lights on the main street in town, and were offered the use of one of the family’s sparks (literally: kick). It’s basically a kick-along sled with a seat, and after a very quick lesson we were soon sliding our way into town, my work mostly consisting of holding on to the seat and going, ‘weee!’ a lot. Along the way we saw others sparking, including a lady with a christmas tree and very good balance.

The mainstreet, on which cars and sparks were not allowed, was lit with festive lights and all the shops were open, some playing music and others handing out free glögg and cakes.

Mainstreet in Lillehammer

Mainstreet in Lillehammer

We checked out the stores with traditional jumpers and craftware and explored the half-familiar streets, then as my hands began to get numb headed home. Along the way we met a curious cat, who seemed alternately fascinated and bored by the runners of the spark, and chased us for a little while.

At home we defrosted and a little while later were rounded up for one of the very important Jul traditions: decorating the tree. My uncle had found it while we were in town and it was set up and bare when we arrived, waiting to be decked out in the boxes of decorations that suddenly appeared.

So, armed with lights, baubles, figurines, tinsel, cognac laced glögg and the ambition to make the finest Jul tree ever, my cousin, my partner and myself set to. As if we were some sort of highly trained decorating team, the tree was soon full of light and colour, topped off with a string of Norwegian flags (though a single dalahäst gave it a touch of Swedishness).

A hint of Norway

A hint of Norway

After congratulating ourselves and being treated to a very lively dancing Santa performance we settled down to the first of the traditional Jul meals.

Lillejulafton consists of a vast array of delicacies, mostly meats and eaten with different sorts of bread. There was specially pressed pork from a local butcher, pork rolls, homemade spiced wild meat sausage, sliced lamb, sil, jam, mustard, flat bread made out of potato, bread rolls and the loaf that my partner had baked. There was also the rakfisk, a ‘lite’ version of the Swedish surströmming which I neutralised with many trimmings and actually enjoyed. This was all washed down with Julebrus, a Norwegian soft drink from a local brewery and wine.

As the clock neared 19:00 my cousin began to look at his watch more often, and we were soon called to the tv room to take part in something very important, something that people all across Norway were rushing to their tvs to watch and enjoy: Grevinnen og Hovmesteren. This is an English language comedy sketch from the 60s about a butler and an elderly lady and is shown every 23rd of December. Apparently it was missed one year and there were complaints, as there were as well when it was late another year. As we watched all the favourite lines were called out and we laughed every time James tripped over the tiger. Exactly why this is such an important part of the Norwegian Jul tradition is unknown, but it may have something to do with the line, ‘Same procedure as every year,’ the main catchphrase from the sketch. In a country where everyone sits down to watch a sketch in another language year after year as part of a traditional holiday that stretches back before written history, perhaps this is an acknowledgement and a gentle joke at their own expense.

As is often the case with meals in which you pick at the food and take helpings as dishes are passed around, we were all soon extremely full. After tidying up we settled around the fire and under the tree to chat until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. Soon followed sleep, to prepare us for the most important day of Jul in Scandinavia: Julafton.

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.