Magpies and old places

I would be interested to know if there exists in any language a word for the feeling that something is both familiar and strange at the same time. It is a feeling that I have discovered since arriving in Australia on Sunday night. Driving up into the hills, seeing the old and newly greened bushland, and my parents’ house, it seems as though I never left. Perhaps the whole thing was some Eurovision induced fantasy.

Whether or not the months in Sweden have been a dream, the long flight over here couldn’t have been faked. As anyone who’s made long-haul flights will know, the only thing worse than 10 hours tightly packed into a cabin is the queues, waiting, security checks and sudden rush before and after the flights. The reward of course is arriving, and for us being able to see our families for the first time in months. Thanks to skype we never feel too far away from them but the internet is no substitute for a hug.

The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean

That first night we slept like the dead, waking up mid-morning to a strange feeling of warmth. While it’s been mostly cloudy with occasional showers since we arrived, it is much warmer than what we left behind and I am right now indulging in a pair of shorts, which I have not worn since we left last year. Though my mind is slowly adjusting to being on holiday and being in Australia, my body is still finding the warmth and humidity strange, and noticing more than ever the scent of eucalyptus, the soil after rain and the din of all the birds calling in the bush.

The sun behind a grasstree

The sun behind a grasstree

I went for a walk on Wednesday afternoon and felt a bit like a tourist, amazed by the cries of the various parrots, cockatoos, magpies, finches, mudlarks and other unknown birds, and the strange shapes and colours of the plants lining the gravel path. I was reminded again of the contrast between soft and hard shown in the Australian bush. The parrot bush, with its sharp edged leaves and downy yellow flowers, the prickly moses with buds not yet in bloom and an unknown grass the blades of which twist like calligraphy.

Calligraphy

Calligraphy

Another new experience was the other people cycling, walking or running on the path. Without exception, they smiled, nodded or said good morning and we passed each other. One fellow shooting past on a bike even said thank you when I moved to the side of the path in response to his bell ringing. I suppose people in Australia, or at least those who live out beyond suburbia, will probably shrug and wonder what I’m talking about. You see, in Sweden, if you meet someone on a path, or on a road, be they walking, cycling or running, the most acknowledgement you can expect is a nod. Mostly I get the briefest of eye-contact, if that. There are a few ladies who are an exception, as I pass them every day and one of their dogs generally chases me, so I get a semi-apologetic smile and ‘hej’ as I outrun the little ball of fluff. I am now experiencing the reverse of what I got used to months ago, as I blink in surprise at friendly greetings from strangers.

Prickly Australian natives

Prickly Australian natives

Further proof that I am in Australia came on Wednesday night, as I pulled aside the curtain in my bedroom to close the window. Perched on the sill, looking just as surprised as me, was a little gecko. It turned out that the top of the window screen was slightly open, so I climbed up and pulled it out so I could set the gecko free (no double glazed windows in Australia) and as I did so a big black spider scuttled across the screen. Thinking it was a redback, I may have sworn a bit, waking my dad up and startling both the spider and the gecko. It was just a plain black spider, and with a bit of shaking I got it off the screen and then tried to coax the gecko out of the window. It decided instead to scamper into a gap under the sill and as far as I know is still there. I have made sure that the screen is closed, so hopefully I won’t have any more surprise guests. On the fluffy side, I have also seen a bandicoot and two rabbits. I’m sure a kangaroo will be along at some point too.

The reason for the trip, or at least the reason for the timing, was a wedding. One of my partner’s closest friends set the date for his wedding shortly after we’d left for Sweden, so the plan to pop over had been in place for a while. The wedding was on Thursday, at a very nice venue right next to a river. It was relatively small, around 60 guests, and beautifully planned. The ceremony was short and sweet, the bride looked lovely and the groom slightly nervous but pleased. There were garden games while photos were taken, and I first beat my partner at giant-connect 4, and then we drew at chess. Well we reached an impasse so I distracted him, stole the king and made him forfeit. After which we had a reception in a very elegantly decorated pavilion, with tasty food, slightly embarrassing and sincere speeches and then dancing. The night ended as the bride and groom were driven to the airport and the guests who had lasted stumbled off to cars or taxis. I’ve only been to a few weddings, but in terms of planning, calmness and sincerity, it was the nicest.

This week has otherwise been spent recovering from jetlag, resting, spending time with family, talking, watching my brother and his girlfriend play netball (their team won), seeing friends and planning for the coming weeks. Already my days are filling up, and the first week is nearly over. Soon there will be more people to see and plans to make, but until then I’ll sit in my old room, listening to magpies and the rain.

A gravel trail

A gravel trail

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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.