24 February 2008

finding the soul

I have been coming to Norway now for several months and have felt that I never quite "got it". The Norwegians I work with are all quite pleasant and polite but keep their distance, and the explorations of Oslo have been pleasant but not astounding or recommend-to-others fascinating.

However, this time my trip has involved spending a weekend here, and one of the Norwegians I work with, B, invited me to her house last week. Over a reindeer Stroganoff laced with juniper berries, we discussed my desire to ski while here, and since our snow-scouting in the area had shown nothing but thin icy cover to the fields, I decided to go to Lillehammer.

B headed to the basement to dig up the skis, the wax kit, the coat and ski pants, the gloves and boots. Everything fit me perfectly, so after an evening spent swapping stories of lacemaking, the Norwegian traditional costume, and old movies, B sent me off with her gear and wishes for a properly good time skiing.

On Saturday morning I woke early, and walked to the train station with my skis over my shoulder, the low morning sun streaming through the cross streets on the way. On the platform, I knew I had the right train when I spotted another man with skis and a big bag of gear, who turned out to be on his way for a multi-day ski trek. The train itself had a special cupboard for skiing equipment, so I set mine in and settled in for the 2 hour train ride with a cup of tea from the dining car.

The ride goes along a long narrow lake, past farmhouses and very little else, but soon I was deposited at the Lillehammer train station with all the other people carrying snowboards, skis, and snowshoes. After being informed that I probably did not want to ski the 900 meters of altitude gain on icy tracks to the x-c ski area, I decided to wait for the bus that goes to the skiing areas of Sjusjøen (a lovely sibilant word that sounds like swishing skis when Norwegians say it) and Nordseter.

In the meantime, I abandoned my skis at the train station and went to explore the downtown. There was a Saturday market in one square where I sampled reindeer salami, cheese curd, and traditional cheese, then wandered the icy streets, admiring the old buildings and the tremendously beautiful weaving in the classic shop, Husfliden. Then, time for skiing.

The bus went straight up the hill from the train station, a 20 minute ride along hairpin turn roads edged with colorful slate-roof houses. I made friends with two Dutchmen who were heading for a multi-day tenting adventure on skis, then talked to a woman and her husband, both in their 70s, who made the 22 kilometer ski from the mountains down to Lillehammer once a week. She gave me advice to ski up to the top of Nevelfjell, and when we arrived, he crumbled a bit of snow with a practiced hand and said it was a day for blue wax.

So on with the wax and on to the skis I went, stepping out into perfectly groomed triple-wide trails. This is the kind of skiing that you'd expect to have to pay for somewhere else. Sure, x-c skiing is the cheaper choice when compared to alpine, but you still usually have to pay. Not here- this is the one free thing to be found in this land of $20 hamburgers.

And everyone was out taking advantage of it- majestic old men in handknit cabled socks and knee britches, whole families with the infants in sleds with ski tracks on the bottom, and everyone in between. There were fast skiers and slow skiers, but the trail manner so courteous that there was space for everyone on this highway network of ski trails. For the first time since I've been here, people I didn't know at all were beaming wide grins at me, saying hello, and offering all the advice I could want. This is their place, these Norwegians.

Most people had a backpack from which they'd produce coffee, snacks, and seat cushions, so at every crossroad there would be clusters of people, their skis stuck in the snow like a forest of slender birches, the fat snowsuited kids rolling about in the snow while everyone ate sandwiches. I'd also packed open faced salami and cheese sandwiches, and in my borrowed authentically Norwegian clothes, I appeared so much "one of them" that people were trying to start conversations with me about the weather and the day. When I reacted with perplexity to one pair, the response I got was "ah, we didn't expect foreign people so far up in the mountains."

The landscape there was made for skiing (or more accurately perhaps, skiing was made for terrain like that), with just enough contour to keep things interesting, but no hills impossibly high. I'd also unintentionally chosen the area high enough that the trees were sparse- pinetrees sprinkled sporadically, like a teenaged boy's first attempt at a beard, so the views were quite dramatic.

My destination was fully above the treeline though, where the wind had scraped the snow into fantastical shapes around the boulders, and the trail ceased to really exist. So I alternately trekked and stopped, trekked and stopped, pausing only long enough to avoid getting cold, but wanting so very much to do nothing but stare at the huge view of nearly the entire lake I'd come past by train, and mountains spread in every direction.

The wind got so strong that by the time I'd finished the scramble up the hill it was good to see the small ice-encrusted hut at the top. Inside were sleeping platforms, a wood stove with a stack of logs nearby, and a guest book. I signed the book, had a sandwich, and tried to see if I was indeed spotting glaciers as well as Norway's highest mountain. The sun was so dazzling that I was a bit sun-blind and the wind so peppy I couldn't stay long, so I followed the scratchings of a trail down the opposite side and into gentler terrain.

I skied until the clouds rolled in and it began to grow dark, then returned to the bus stop area for the proper post-skiing drink, steaming hot chocolate, which I accessorized with some kind of cinnamon-wheat-raisin bun, still oven-warm. Then it was bus and then train, where I was whisked back south in the deepening gloom, my limbs lazy with contentment and exertion.

17 February 2008


After a week of work in Norway, I returned to Iceland for the annual pre-season training trip for the choir, the vocal equivalent of the early spring rowing training in college, where we'd go south and row ourselves silly for a few days.

The choir trips are a bit shorter, a bit less strenuous, and for some reason always seems to take place on weekends of exceptionally bad weather, like the first time when I spent an entire weekend enshrouded in fog. This year it was that special kind of rainy weather that comes after lots of snow and results in skating rink parking lots everywhere, and lots of mysterious fog wisps. Our destination this time was the complex at Sólheimar, a place that's made a name for itself by creating a safe space for people with mental disabilities to live together. The complex is situated in a valley about an hour's drive from Reykjavík, and contains houses for the people, craft studios where they have woodworking, weaving, candle making, and other activities, a small store where they sell these items, a hotel, several guesthouses, a pool and a church. Most of the food is both organic and vegetarian there, and the buildings have been built with an eye toward recycling, renewable resources, and maximum efficiency.

The choir has grown so large that we occupied two houses, each with a large kitchen/living area and wings of double guestrooms spreading outward along the ridges above the central valley. Rather than singing in the living room as we did before, we got use of the lovely church at the highest point of the little community. The low walls of the building were snug in turf, and the vaulted ceiling of pale wood adorned with a chandelier of winged lightbulbs. With the trapezoidal windows looking over the foggy landscape it was a serene and perfectly isolated place for a day and a half of musical focus.

We sang all Friday evening, and most of Saturday in the church, then stuffed ourselves into cars and drove through the swirled mist to practice some more at Skálholt, the seat of the Icelandic bishops. Like most places in Iceland, this place is steeped in fierce history and has been significant in the story of Iceland since the 11th century, but little human-generated evidence still remains of all this activity. The church built over ruins of previous constructions is only from the middle of the 20th century, and while quite large by Icelandic standards, is still a rather cozy and non-awe-inspiring scale. Despite the size, the acoustics, so sorely lacking in many Icelandic churches, are superb there. The songs that sounded decent elsewhere sounded exceptional in this special place, ringing against the dark stone floors and spreading around us.

We sang until evensong, when a few people filtered in the door of the church, and we then all lined up on opposite sides of the church for a short call-and-response service. At the end we shared a moment of silence that was remarkable in its perfect quiet. 40 people ranged along the walls of this stone building in the middle of the open countryside, so perfectly still that the only sound was the rushing of the geothermally heated water through the radiators. No cars, no horns or city hum, just the exhalation of the earth through the pipes and the breathing of the people standing beside me.

After that, it was time for some noise at dinnertime and afterwards. We ate at the restaurant in Sólheimar at two large tables, and by the end of the dinner everyone was swapping chairs, and the conversation volume rose as the wine glasses emptied. We finished by singing a favorite song, then headed back up the hill for more singing, more conversation, and more eating. Unlike last time when my Icelandic comprehension abilities shut down as the trip progressed, this time they blossomed. Although the choir now does have several other non-Icelandic members, none of them were actually on the trip, so I was alone in the sea of pre-aspiration and lilting cadence, hearing of my choir director's California exchange student experience, talking of the deliciousness of Boston beer.

This group has been a constant over my years here, and it's nice to see how things have changed over the course of these group getaways. We've been to a bunch of places in Iceland and outside of Iceland and each time there' s a new word learned, a new person I talk to, the feeling for a new song.

06 February 2008

what's in a day?

Morning in Reykjavík. It's the blue gray light from which Esja emerges from the kitchen window in my new flat, the thunk of the heavy outside door with its counterintuitive lock (turn towards the door to unlock, not away).

It's the scraping of tires getting out of the parking space, onto the narrow road that's never plowed, two tracks of glassy ice with a hump of solid snow in the center. Right, then left then right at the Salvation Army guesthouse, then it's to the roundabout and down Hringbraut. Páll Óskar's danceclub tunes on Bylgjan, a string of neon lights past Mjódd, then out into the countryside where my office now is located.

It smells of coffee and new there. Puddles on the floor from snowy feet, glass doors unable to withstand the rousing winds are still boarded over, and my gray tweed skirt matches the nubbed carpet on the stairs. In office, it's the sound of yet more construction behind the meetings, work, meetings, pondering, conversation, the punctuation of saltjkjöt og baunir, since today's sprengidagur again.

After work, pool. I do my kilometer, sharing the lane with a guy in flippers who's slower than I expect. Each time I somersault, I look for the bubbles trailing from his leading hand, and they're not there. Arms, arms, arms, breathe, arms, arms, arms, breathe, and repeat until the next flip. I always lose count but does it really matter that much after all? My only competition is myself and flippers-man who takes long breaks after each length.

Salt pot, then steam, then salt again, and it's time's-up. Shower, spin the suit in the dryer, and then on with the boots and along the dark sea route home. There's only time to check email before I'm out again, to eat blueberry-vodka marinated lamb topped with papadum, and talk economics and the intricacies of the English language with H, my erstwhile flatmate.

Home now, a whisper of breeze swirls through the crack in the window, and the rooftops I see from my new home are edged with snow. A few lights remain on, extinguished one by one as the neighborhood goes to sleep, and a solitary car grinds up the hill nearby.

What's in this day that might justify the reports that this is one of the happiest nations in the world? It does seem odd that a time spent so much in the dark can seem so cozy and lovable. Is it the food traditions that I am so happy to see for my third year, the level of constant intellectual stimulation, the socializing of such variety, the freshness of wind and the water in my glass close at hand? Of course, there are plenty of other, more practical arguments that one could make for why things are nice here, like healthcare, work conditions, short commute times, and general tidiness. I think these those are more the features of life that help you have the space to be happy about other things, rather than the reasons for happiness themselves. There's time for music, for thinking about interesting ideas, for drinking lots and lots of coffee (perhaps another reason for the happiness?), for swimming and for just dreaming in a pool of hot sea water. These are what makes it great for me here.

01 February 2008

concentrated sunrise

After hearing about them about 3 years ago for the first time, I finally saw glitský this morning. These peculiar high atmosphere clouds are a rare phenomenon in far northern places, and are one of the other rewards of the extended sunrise period in the wintertime.

My commute this morning had me heading straight towards them, so for once I wanted the stop lights to last for as long as they liked, since at every look the clouds contained different colors. First palest cobalt was surrounded by feathers of pink, then the center morphed into electric lavender with swirls of green as the edges deepened to red.

Like a concentrated sunrise, these veil-thin clouds eventually manifested all the colors of the rainbow in muted shades on my 15-minute drive, swirling and pulsating like the pre-dawn cousin of northern lights. I apparently got the best of the show, since now they've dissolved like a figment of my imagination, and the space they just occupied is now being consumed by the clouds of steam from Nesjavellir that rise from the horizon to the east.