The days after Jul

The day after Jul has always been associated with resting and recovering, at least in my old home. We’d wake up late, have a brunch of leftovers, reorder our rooms with the new gifts, flick through the inevitable books and consider the age old question of whether it’s sensible to float around in the pool on the new inflatable sofa while holding a full glass and avoiding spillage. And how long it would be before my sister bombied in and overturned both the sofa, myself and the glass.

For various reasons, not limited to the lack of inflatable sofas and my sister, we had a different day after Jul last year. It was on the 25th for a start.

As mentioned previously, I’m used to having Jul on the 24th according to Scandinavian tradition. I am also used to having it again on the 25th, according to Australian tradition, which isn’t followed in Norway. As such rather than two Juls we had two Boxing Days, both of which we spent in Norway. The first was spent recovering from Jul, heading out for wintery exercise and then a family meal and the second getting into a bit more exercise and finally beginning our journey back to Sweden.

The Julenek

The Julenek

After we had woken up and refreshed ourselves, we had a chat with family back in Australia. Thanks to the miracle of Skype, we were able to chat to a whole party of people enjoying a sunny bbq, and try to get our collective heads around the 50+ temperature difference at either end of the call.

We then packed on layers of jackets, beanies and gloves, grabbed some skiis and went out for some much needed exercise. It isn’t the custom in Norway to spend a whole day relaxing when there is snow outside, and it seemed that the rest of the town had the same idea. My own attempts weren’t quite as skillful, but we managed about an hour before we called home for a ride. While we waited I realised that my eye lashes were freezing together for the first time in my life, and my partner was developing long, frosty threads on my beanie and scarf. Around us the sunny weather belied the cold, and almost fooled us into not noticing the cold. Almost.

If only there was an automatic setting

If only there was an automatic setting

Back at home we unlayered ourselves and dressed up nicely for the visitors who would be arriving soon. They were the family we had met to visit the graveyard the day before, and soon after we had smartened ourselves up they arrived and the Jul celebrations continued.

The tradition on this day is to have a long lunch on the leftovers from the Jul dinner and have another go at the schnaps, which is what we all duly did. Chat, food, jokes and laughter rolled around, and soon we found ourselves under the tree enjoying a selection of biscuits, cakes and treats. The eating and chatting continued long into the evening, and then the guests departed with hugs and hopes to see each other again before too long.

Evening falls

Evening falls

In the relative quiet by the fire, my partner and I unwrapped the final gifts that had been sent my his family, that we had kept back until the Australian Jul day. More chatting, sipping wine, playing with the nutcracker, snacking and reading followed, finished off by sleepy goodbyes and curling up for one last night in Norway.

The nutcracker

The nutcracker

On our final day we decided to have one last go on the spark, and see if we could take some photos at Maihaugen, the local open air museum. The temperature had dropped even more by this time, and clouds covered the sun, so despite the beautiful surroundings and our energetic walking and kicking along, we were soon chilly. During the walk back my chin went completely numb and I ceased to have any feeling in my toes. We did have fun sliding down slopes on the spark, though and going ‘weee’ in a way that I hope didn’t disturb the neighbours.

The stave church at Maihaugen

The stave church at Maihaugen

Before too long is was time to pack and get ready to go, and as we did so snow began to fall, the first we had seen during our trip. So it was with the outside world slightly muffled by falling snow that we said goodbye to our hosts, trying to express our enjoyment and gratitude for the wonderful Jul we’d been invited to share. Then we were out, in the car and then at the station, tromping over to the waiting train.

The snow fall

The snow fall

Jul was over for another year, our first white christmas and hopefully not our last. It was one of the loveliest I have had, and I hope that my writing conjures up the memories of it for you as writing it has done for me.

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Marzipan pigs, almonds, family and light

An unexpected benefit to having parents from Scandinavia and Australia is that not only do you get an untraceable accent but two christmases. I can still recall the glee of opening presents a day before everyone else I knew, and the conviction that I’d better not question it in case my parents changed their minds.

The tradition has always been to have a big lunch with family and friends, and then in the evening, when the children’s patience had reached fever pitch, someone would burst in wearing a santa suit and the unwrapping would begin. Over the years the unwrapping would creep earlier and earlier, and the santa suit was left in the cupboard, though the dinner and gathering of those nearest and dearest always remained. These are the traditions I associate with christmas, and what I had expected to an extent when we were invited to the Norwegian family Jul last year. A few weeks prior to Jul I got an email detailing what would happen, a list of traditional meals and events that we would be following. We were intrigued and I was  slightly nervous that we would upset the carefully orchestrated flow of the holidays. As it turned out I needn’t have worried, though perhaps more effort at stretching the capacity of my stomach may have helped.

Julafton morning light

Julafton morning light

So it was that when the 24th dawned and we had all enjoyed a hefty breakfast, one of the important family rituals was prepared. I set up my laptop in the study and made a call across the world, and was soon chatting to my family, who were drying off from a dip in the pool. We marveled at the snow and 30+ weather outside our respective windows, gossiped and laughed and tried to bridge the gap of distance as much as technology can allow.

After the call was finished my partner dashed off to try out his skis for the first time, which my cousin had kindly waxed the night before. While he zipped back and forth on the snow I relaxed at home taking photos and helping with some work. There were a few visitors who stepped in to wish the family God Jul and hand out biscuits and best wishes, and before too long the skiers returned, cheeks flushed from the cold and ready for a little something to eat.

Jul decoration

Jul decoration

Lunch on Julafton in this house is risengrynsgrøt, or rice porridge, served with butter, sugar and cinnamon and crucially one almond. The almond is mixed into the rice and whoever happens to find it in their serving gets a chocolate covered marzipan pig. My cousin was the current reigning champion, with the last 5 almonds under his belt, and so seemed fairly confident of victory. But what about beginner’s luck? Thus ensued a meal of careful munching, poker faces and surreptitious poking through the thick, milky rice. After the first serving no one admitted to finding the almond and so second servings were offered, and despite my stomach beginning to groan I got a few spoonfuls. With tensions mounting and suspicious glances filling the room, my spoon hit something solid. I am terrible at poker faces, so when I spat it out a few minutes later, I think I had lost the element of surprise. There was cheering though, and cries of ‘You come to my house, and you take my pig!’ from my cousin and among it all I received the pig. Victory was sweet, even if I did feel as though I could never eat again.

Traditional wafer cakes

Traditional wafer cakes

All the excitement and eating required a bit of relaxing so for the next few hours we sat around, read a bit and helped with preparations for dinner. As the light faded from the sky we headed out the door for another tradition, with family I hadn’t met and would never meet.
The first time I had visited had been a few days after Jul the previous year, and we had been taken to the graves of my grandfather and great grandparents. Their gravestones had been slightly reclaimed by the snow that had been cleared not long before and the candles were still there. It was this tradition that we would be continuing.
The first stop was my aunt’s mother’s house where my uncle and his wife were staying. After a brief stop to say hello and introduce ourselves we were on our way to the church. Inside a mass was underway, the notes of Silent Night drifting out to us as we made our way past the crowds of candlelit gravestones. All around us candles flickered and families stood, clearing snow or lost in thought. There was a continuity there that I haven’t seen in Australia, where generations are so often split up by oceans and forgetting.
Soon we found our family and after clearing the snow off the stones a candle was lit and laid by the grave of my great grandparents. I was then given a candle and as I lit it, my aunt explained that I was the first of my grandfather’s line to light his candle. It was with great care that I set the candle down and scraped snow out of the curved lines of his name, and wished I had met him more than once.

My grandfather

My grandfather

Back at home we changed into our finer clothes, and sat around to enjoy schnaps and a Jul concert on tv. The cheers and wishes for God Jul continued, and followed us as we settled around the dinner table and watched as trays of food, sauces, creams and delicacies were piled around us. The main dish was pinnekjøtt, or salted lamb ribs, which is the traditional Jul dish of the area of Norway where my aunt’s husband comes from. It was served with mashed swede and potatoes and washed down with yet more schnaps, wine and julbrus. Full of food, drink and good spirits there were speeches to accompany the meal, about welcome, family, traditions and gratitude, and cheers all round.

When we reached the point where we absolutely couldn’t fit anymore food in, we tidied up and relaxed around the fire. A box of music appeared by the piano and my aunt treated us to Silent Night and a few old Norwegian carols and I wondered if anything would ever feel more Jul-ey than this.

A skier in the tree

A skier in the tree

The Jultree soon called us and we settled around for the last of the big events. There was no santa suit or ho ho ho-ing, but anticipation as my aunt’s husband announced each gift and we all watched the unwrapping. Our gift to them, a candelabra, seemed to be appreciated and stayed lit for much of the remainder of our stay. In return we got handknitted mittens in a local design which turned out to be the warmest mittens we have owned so far. I was also given some pieces of family heritage, two wooden spoons hand carved by my great grandfather. I felt, and feel, privileged to be entrusted with them.

After the unwrapping was complete and the wrappings had been gathered, dessert was served around the tree. It was handpicked cloudberries in homemade wafer cones with cream, and was delicious.

Replete with food, gifts, drink and happiness, we sat around until late, chatting and reading until the struggle to keep our eyes open became too much. With more calls of God Jul and best wishes, we climbed the stairs and slept the sleep of the contented.

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.

Island fortress

A long time ago, before even IKEA was created, the boundaries between countries in this area were quite different. Norway and Denmark vied for ownership of the region, and as the lines shifted castles and fortresses were built and attacked and built again. There are the two smallish fortresses now within the city of Göteborg, one up at Marstrand, another along the river and one further inland. I’d heard a bit about this last one and was curious to compare it to the others I’d seen. The chance presented itself a few weeks ago, which was how I found myself attempting to climb Medieval walls and completely failing.

Bohus Fortress

Bohus Fortress

Bohus Fortress lies about 20 minutes out of town by bus, and the first sight I had of it was the tall, round tower that rises above the thick walls. Even at a distance it’s impressive, and as we approached the walls loomed above us. The fortress is set on an island that is reached by two bridges on either end, and though the island had once been covered by the town that surrounded the fortress, the hills and small valley now consist of trees, grass, a bit of wilderness and a visitor’s centre. The fortress is now a museum and would usually have been open for visitors if we had visited in summer. Unfortunately it’s now closed, so our visit was restricted to peering up the walls, attempting a bit of climbing and exploring the island. A small locked door on one side showed an echoing, dripping passageway, still lit by lights from some sort of event.

View over the river

View over the river

Climbing over a fence brought us to scatterings of mushrooms and views over the swampy river and what had once been the town. At all times the walls peered down at us impenetrably, and we decided that once summer returned we’d make another attempt at the defenses.

An elderly lady lays a brief siege

An elderly lady lays a brief siege

I should perhaps mention at this time, for the sake of my mother, that Bohus Fortress was built by Norwegians and was never captured. There are still Norwegian flags at the site in case anyone was at risk of forgetting this.

...though not technically Norwegian now

…though not technically Norwegian now

As clouds began to cover up the brief blue skies, we headed over the bridge that lead to the town of Kungälv which we had never visited before. It turned out to be very lovely, our first few impressions being of narrow cobblestone streets, old-fashioned two storey houses and small, young families walking their dogs/children.

Old street in Kungälv

Old street in Kungälv

A look at a map promised some sort of historical landmark in the centre of town so we followed the old street, beneath the shadow of the hill on the right, past houses, shops and then suddenly a shopping area. By this time, however, we were both feeling quite hungry and so decided to leave the mysterious landmark for now and instead focus on dinner. Although it was only around 16:30 the dark comes quickly way up here and the urge to settle down with a plate of something tasty was growing strong. We decided on an Italian place back where we’d started and so a short bus trip later found us settling down to pasta and pizza, while I hoped that my bright pink gumboots weren’t too conspicuous for a restaurant.
Dinner finished, and gumboots unremarked upon, we arrived at the stop just in time for the next bus to Göteborg, looking forward to the next time we could visit this very nice little town sitting in the shadow of a fortress.

The waiting walls

The waiting walls

Thank you Ingvar

I hardly know where to start with this update. This last two weeks there have been travels, trials and hours spent bouncing experimentally on display beds and considering the pros and cons of decorative light fixtures. Family arrived and then left, the weather brightened then returned to clouds and a whole lot of stuff has been put into boxes. I suppose I should start with tales of a Swedish institution that we have all gotten lost in at some time and left wondering why we needed that miniature Persian rug and two different kinds of cheese-graters.
I am talking of course of IKEA.

As previously mentioned, we are in the process of moving. The new apartment is unfurnished so we have the chance to choose all of our own things to fill it with, something neither of us has had the opportunity to do before. So last week, with a mix of anticipation and wariness and a list clutched tightly in hand, we headed off to the nearest IKEA warehouse. As we found out last time, it was more or less identical to the one in Perth, except that now we know how to pronounce the names of the furniture. 5 hours later we emerged slightly dazed into the evening sunlight, heavy of furniture and light of wallet. We had got most of what was on the list, though towards the end we tended to respond to items that we needed with ‘I just don’t care right now’ and continue heaving our laden trolleys.

Soon after was the assembling day, which was happily rage free and didn’t involve any manuals or allen keys being thrown out of the window. We actually sort of enjoyed it and were rewarded with an apartment that was starting to look lived in, and a couch from which to enjoy it.

Rage free assembly

Rage free assembly

2 days later we were back at IKEA, to get all of the things that we hadn’t had the energy or time for the first time. This time we managed to keep our visit to 3 hours, and didn’t feel quite as exhausted as we headed home. We also had another assembling evening, late enough that once we’d put the bed together it was tough to resist trying it out, even without the sheets.

The second assembling time followed another event from the last week, which was partly why we were so tired by the end of the bed assemblage.

My partner’s parents had gone to Norway to see the fjords the week before last, and then for the last 2 and a half days that they were to spend in Oslo, we went up to join them. The weather was sunny and warm, and the city was completely transformed from the cold and dark Oslo we’d visited in December. Where there had been an ice-rink there is now a pond under thick green trees, with children paddling and a man making giant bubbles in the sun. Streets that had once been sparse and bare were packed with people, and restaurants that had been closed had their temporary verandahs set up in the sun.

Oslo in summer

Oslo in summer

That first day we only had time to settle in the the apartment and eat a late dinner, and plan a little bit for the next day.
When we were all ready to hit the streets the next morning, we set off for the ferry that would take us to Bygdøy, where many of the most interesting museums live. We had already been to the Viking Ship museum the last time, but it was new to my partner’s parents and neither of us regretted getting to see the beautiful ships again. They were still just as graceful and impressive, and provided great fuel for the imagination, wondering what those planks had seen and the names of those who had heaved on oars as they cruised along unknown coasts.

Detail of the Gokstad ship

Detail of the Gokstad ship

We then went to the neighbouring Folk Museum, which seemed to be a collection of ancient buildings from different eras of Norwegian history jammed together into a large park. We had seen something similar in Lillehammer during our last trip, but summer in Oslo brought out the historical re-enactors, cows, sheep, pigs and horses, as well as berries to pick on the sides of the path and green all around.

An old farm

An old farm

We wandered for a few hours, peering into farm houses from the 1600s, complete with painted and carved furniture, and the deep smell of pine resin. Entire gardens had been recreated, and everywhere we could hear the bleeting of sheep and calling of birds.
In one house we found a couple of women making traditional pancake-like bread the old way, and baking it on a stone in a large fireplace. It smelt amazing.

Traditional baking

Traditional baking

Elsewhere we found a building from the 1250s-1300s, the oldest surviving wooden building in the world. Inside it was cool and dark, and through the doors from the entrance, seemed to consist of a large hall with a little square chimney hole/sky light in the middle of the ceiling. It was simple and bare, and exactly like the halls I’ve seen in films and books, where folk gather around a central fire, hounds as their feet and smoke wreathing their faces.

A 700 year old hall

A 700 year old hall

Up on a hill we also found an 800 year old stave church, in which an older lady dressed in traditional clothes told us about the history of the building. She pointed out a pillar which is believed to be around 1000 years old, and faces carved and painted that line the ceiling, grimacing a warning those below of the hell that awaits them if they are naughty.

The stave church

The stave church

There were many other buildings and sights, including a friendly old pig, that were wonderful to explore, and I felt quite privileged to be able to walk inside ancient buildings and see life as it had been. Everywhere was history, from beautifully carved doors to children on school holiday enjoying a traditional lunch.

Children preparing for lunch

Children preparing for lunch

The next stop on Bygdøy was the Kon Tiki museum, which housed two ships built by Norwegian adventurer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl. There is a film about one of the ships, and how it crossed the Atlantic which I haven’t seen yet, but would like to now. Both ships were built using ancient methods and materials and it was very interesting to read about the voyages and trials and successes that were involved with them.

Kon Tiki

Kon Tiki

It also lead to a discussion among ourselves about what constitutes a hero. Sure, you can have a wild plan and set forth to achieve it, heroic stuff right? It would seem from what we could see that the only difference between the fool who tried a crazy scheme and failed and the hero who achieved his dream and will perhaps get an Oscar down the line, is whether or not they survive and complete what they set out to do. Simple enough I suppose, but the more I read about Thor Heyerdahl’s exploits, the more sure I felt that a lot comes down to chance. And he was very lucky.

After a quick look at the Fram, a polar ship that was used in expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic between 1893 and 1912, I began to get a bit museumed out (shocking, I know), and after the museum had closed we caught a ferry back to the town centre. Drinks were then had on a floating bar in the harbour, and followed by a final dinner in the apartment.

On the final day we got up earlyish to pack and then set out for Frogner Park, which I had been repeatedly told to visit by the mum and which I was quite intrigued about. It turned out to be absolutely worth the visit, and something I would like to see again some day. Much of the park was taken up by a boulevard, fountain area and rising platforms that lead to the pinnacle of the park, on which stands a giant granite obelisk carved with the shapes of hundreds of human figures.

The human obelisk

The human obelisk

All around it, and around the fountain and down the boulevard are hundred of other figures, also carved from granite or cast in bronze. They were in very posture imaginable, loving, challenging, laughing, crying, talking, playing, fighting and apparently trying to survive a rain of babies.

A rain of babies?

A rain of babies?

It was an amazing collection of work and I assume must have taken the artist, Gustav Vigeland, much of his life to complete. I would say it was worth it.

Girls

Girls

After this visit we went back to the hotel and then to the train station, to the bus and then some hours later found ourselves home in Göteborg.

Shadows of women

Shadows of women

Since then we had a final bbq and then dinner, and yesterday morning bade them farewell at the airport. Now we have the task of moving to the new apartment and removing the final traces of our stay here. This morning I went on my possibly final run in the forest, which was even more beautiful than usual. The new place will have many forests, and I’ll soon learn their paths and peculiarities, but none will replace the first forest I found here.

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.

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.