Ski magic

As a kid growing up in Vermont, I heard of the magic that was xc skiing in Norway. In later years, I wondered about this place where it was so normal to use ski poles with your rollerblades or rollerskis that it wouldn't be the fodder for drive-by screams that I was cheating (thanks, Martha's Vineyard). Then came the first time I was stuck in Oslo during a work trip from Iceland and I saw someone dressed to ski walking to the tram on a Saturday morning. A city that had ski trails within reach of public transportation seemed impossible to someone used to New England where there was a ski culture but it wasn't something that absolutely everyone does.

I did manage to go skiing once in Norway after that one glimpse thanks to a pharmacist who took pity on me. Stuck in Norway for yet another weekend while waiting for a Monday meeting, she lent me everything I needed and I took the train to Lillehammer where I had a marvelous day. And yet still, I thought of course skiing in Lillehammer is great, because it's what the region is known for.

Then, last month my in-laws-to-be gave me a pair of my own skis for Christmas, and a week ago it began to snow. It snowed half of Saturday and all day Sunday so on Monday after work I hopped on the subway out to Sognsvann, following the others carrying skis. When I arrived, I followed the stream of other ski-bearing people to the trail head where I nervously waxed up for the first time in years. A beautifully groomed, lighted trail curved off into the darkness around the lake, so I followed the pinpricks of light between the snow-laden pines.

It's hard to get lost on a lighted trail in a forest, so I kept going until, 11 kilometers later, I emerged at Frognerseter with the glow of Oslo spread below me. From there it was a short climb to another subway station that whisked me back home to warmth and dinner.

Still not quite believing what I'd just experienced, I decided to try again this morning. By the time I arrived on the trail at Sognsvann, the sun was fully up and the sky just starting to brighten to a crisp wintry blue. There had been fresh snowfall last night so the pines were even heavier, and every bare twig was outlined in powder that gently wafted off as the sun warmed the branches.

I took a new route even farther out into the forest, a gently rolling track that wound through pines, past small frozen lakes, past a farm and along a rushing river. The forest was full of others- children barely able to walk being pulled along by parents with lead ropes, 85 year old women with vintage skis, lots of rambunctious dogs in bootees snuffling the passersby. After having skied in places where it was mostly ski team and a few enthusiasts on the trails, it's fantastic to see how all-inclusive and accessible the sport is here.

And what better way to enjoy a perfectly crisp winters day than to be skiing through landscape such as this? The trail I took eventually arrived at a skistua, where skis lined the sun drenched wall outside, and where the scent of fresh waffles drifted out the door. I paused briefly for some hot tea from my thermos before continuing on. The trail I chose started a downward descent after a brief panorama of the Oslo skyline and surrounding pine forests, and I eventually found myself back where I'd started at Sognsvann.

20 minutes later, I was home again, with a slightly frozen face but still marvelling that such incredible skiing is such a short ride away from the biggest city here, costs nothing, and is illuminated every night week until around 11pm. It's turned dark winters from something to tolerate to something to embrace and celebrate. I can't wait to do it again.


ten years in

I realized that this week marks two anniversaries: ten years since I moved abroad, and eight years since my first visit to Oslo. Now, I live with a view of that hotel where I dined with M, and a five minute walk from the microbrewery where we had beers that night. That crazy Icelandic weather I wrote about missing then is something I now take great joy in not having to deal with though. Tonight, for example, I came back from a meeting by bike, passing through Frogner park just as the slanting spring light filtered through the spray of Vigeland's majestic fountain.This is my neighborhood, my city, and it's already full of wonderful friends and favorite secret corners.

My neighborhood has also proved to be full of even more unexpected delights, much of which I can witness from the bay of unbroken windows along the front of my living room. Today the local school's marching band was out rehearsing for the high point of the Norwegian holiday calendar, the 17th of May. For three hours, a battalion of sailor-suited children marched in tight ranks around the streets of my neighborhood. They ended by marching up my street with a collection of small flag-waving children trailing along behind, to collect in front of the fire station I can see from my window. The firemen opened all the engine bays and came out to applaud the band, who then played the national anthem before smartly marching off to their school again.

It reminds me of a phrase my dad used to toss around, "an attitude of gratitude", something I feel almost every day here. How lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place, to be part of such a community! Springtime in Oslo is glorious, a furze of lurid green that mellows into delightfully bosky corners in parks and lanes. Lanes! This is a proper city, the largest population of the country, and yet yesterday I found myself on a potholed dirt lane just minutes from home. This is the city where I can take a 15 minute subway ride from my closest metro station and step off into proper forest. It's difficult to explain just how immediate the transition is from train platform to babbling brook lined with early spring flowers- I still can't quite believe it myself.

I also joined a choir recently in my local church, an elegant early 20th century pile with magnificent stained glass windows and vaguely Viking themed details along the choir loft. Just like my early experiences in Iceland, it's an exhausting and exhilarating few hours of my week. We're going to Hungary later this year and I already expect I'll come back having learned a lot of new Norwegian vocabulary.

And finally, there's this fella... a navy blue eyed Norwegian with a Sunnmøre accent who's been teaching me useful phrases like "there's hope in a hanging snore". Trust me, it makes way more sense in Norwegian.


new year new life

Since last I wrote, everything about my living situation has changed. I'm now writing from a small apartment  in the rather lovely neighborhood called Briskeby in Oslo. It's a short walk to the back entrance of the palace, where a fancifully be-hatted guard stands watch at the back gate, and has a panoramic view of Norwegian landscape above the rooftops to the northwest. The center point of my view is Holmenkollen, the famous ski jump, and in the dark hours of a Scandinavian January, it's illuminated and often shrouded in a snowmaking fog. To the left, further ranges of hills sprawl along until I can't see anymore, and above it arches a vast expanse of sky. At the moment, the sky is low, hidden by heavy snow clouds that have haunted us here for the past few days.

The rest of the apartment is small and quaint and fits me perfectly. I've got space to work and read and sleep and a separate kitchen that even has a tiny dishwasher. My bathroom is dusky pink so of course I had to have turquoise towels. In the process of moving, I also got rid of the things I've been moving around just because, without thinking of why I had them. Friends became the new owners of that random bathrobe I got in a gift bag, all the necklaces that are really just not me, all the sweaters that are too short to feel comfortable in. The end result, a home that delights, where everything has a place and a story. I had my first friends over for dinner on Saturday last week, and the general consensus was that this is indeed, unmistakeably my home.

However, I didn't choose this place for the interior space exclusively. I chose it for what lies beyond. When I walk out the door and around the corner, I've got my very own "main street" lined with cafe-slash-other-things. There's an art gallery cafe, a hair salon cafe, a juice bar cafe, and then a few other just-cafes. Add some swank shops, one of the best delis in Norway, and a convenient tram stop to round out the picture. Complete the image with some charming turn-of-the-century architecture and the promise of leafy trees come summer for pure magic.

In the weeks since I moved in, I've been enjoying the exploration tremendously. Oslo is a proper city despite what people abroad might think. There are those funny corners of the city that have weirdly specific shops- places to go get your saxophone fixed, or areas that are known for a particular cluster of specialty groceries. There's even a food hall! 

But what I love best of all right now, is that when I've had enough of the socializing and the exploring, my little treehouse nest is here for me, all cozy cushions and rugs and candlelight, high above the swirling Norwegian snow. Home at last.


The secret tour

Yesterday morning I headed solo into the storied city of Valletta, where I first stopped at the church of St. Paul's shipwreck. It's a fairly unobtrusive church from the street, as churches go, but inside it's a bonanza of baroque elegance. With floors of multicolored marble, altar upon altar covered with heavy silver, and statues in every nook and cranny, this church was built in part to house what is apparently an important relic- a fragment of St. Paul's right wrist. Although I still don't understand the catholic fascination with body parts, it was still an interesting stop. 

Next on my plan, a museum/house of a Maltese noble family. The family is still in residence, but have opened the main floor with the grandest rooms to the public. It's only possible to visit with a guided tour, so I waited the 20 minutes until the next tour in the pleasant courtyard garden. A magnificent blue macaw lives there, and occasionally greeted the waiting visitors with a hello and a wave of his claw, before sliding off his perch to parade around the garden. I also spotted two painted turtles floating around in the fountain. The visit was already interesting, and the tour hadn't started yet. 

Finally, an earnest young man came to collect us, and led the group inside and up the stairs. He pointed out various paintings and sculptures we passed along the way before entering a warren of rooms that wrapped around the courtyard. Each was highly decorated from tiled floor to painted ceiling, with the walls covered in gorgeous paintings. Cupboards and nooks housed all manner of curiosities- the famous Maltese silver filigree work, mementoes of the family, iron seals for stamping documents, century-old hair curlers, embroidery, perfumes, and books. Mixed in with the antiquities were the details of any lived-in home- family photos on the piano, a stereo in the corner of the library with CDs sitting out, the empty wine bottles from the last party standing by the back stairs ready for recycling. Hard to imagine living in such a home and sitting on 17th century chairs for the family dinner, but apparently it's done. 

The end of the tour finished in the former cisterns of the house, converted into a network of bomb shelters during the Second World War. I stopped in the bathroom on the way out, so I was the last of the group to leave the house. As I exited the courtyard, an older gentleman on the stairs going up asked me if I'd just toured the house, and how I'd enjoyed it. Since he was standing in front of his own painted portrait, I recognized him as the marquess himself. We got to talking, and when he learned I was a historic textile enthusiast, he offered to show me some of the bits of undisplayed textiles also housed in the building. He led me backwards through the rooms I'd just visited, stopping to offer me a spray of the vintage perfume sitting on the dressing table we had passed earlier, then around the corner to a door I hadn't noticed earlier. Inside, shelves upon shelves were stacked with boxes labeled with different garments- stockings, bodices, hats, baby bonnets, shoes. He opened the baby bonnet box, crammed with beautifully worked tiny Maltese lace caps, then we moved on to a niche I'd noticed in the dining room that had a trunk labeled with various dresses. He opened that too, and we sifted through Victorian night dresses, evening bodices, and embroidered shawls. 
Next, he ushered me into his office through another mystery door we had passed in the tour,where he opened yet more boxes of lace that he had just received- undersleeves, lappet caps, lace handkerchief borders. He showed me the book on Maltese lace he'd written and we discussed conservation techniques before he graciously excused himself to his duties and ushered me out of the house. In parting, he told me I was invited back and to just tell the front desk to let me in for free at his request, and if were ever back in Malta, he needed help with the lace inventory. 

By then I was half an hour late to meet S, and I dashed up the street to the grand palace. He was waing anxiously and was slightly peeved at my tardiness, but when I explained why, all was forgiven. We finished the afternoon with a long lunch, accompanied by the excellent Maltese white wine, on a shady staircase-street's landing.


Maltese magic

S and I are visiting Malta for a few days, a trip that has been a complete surprise for me. He is really interested in ancient architecture so the sites here were on his must-see list, and I agreed since it was an island in the Mediterranean. It'd be something new at least. 

We arrived yesterday via Frankfurt after having woke up at 3am to catch the train, and after a quick and slightly dazzling taxi ride, we arrived at our accommodation for the week. After spending a few days booking and then cancelling various hotels around the small island country, I chanced my first experience with airbnb. The host had no reviews but the photos looked promising, and he was friendly and responsive by email, so I hoped all would be well when we arrived. He wasn't around, so his very short father was there to meet us outside, while his mom waited upstairs. Both were charming, tiny, and with an enchanting Maltese lilt to their carefully enunciated english. 

My fears were immediately calmed when we walked in the apartment door and saw the terrace. It's the size of two hotel rooms itself, with open views to the sea northeast of the island. Looking down we can see one of the many fortifications on the island, and the complex's private saltwater swimming pool. Just at the next block, the peninsula where we are ends with a mall that contains a fantastic grocery store and several cafés. Just opposite we have ferry and bus service that connects us to the rest of the  island.

And what an island it is! I haven't managed to grasp the full history of the country's many exchanges of power, but the cuisine and language clearly shows influences from both Africa and Europe. French, Italian, Tunisian, and English flavors and products are available in the grocery store nearby, and the local cuisine is classic Mediterranean. We went to dinner last night and ate fennel-laden sausages, enormous chili-spiced white beans, fish cakes, bean-and-garlic spread, and sundried tomatoes so full of flavor it felt like I had never had a proper one before that moment. We also sampled the local wine, a white that contained flavors of the dusty limestone soil and blazing sun.

Today we spent the first half of the day in a Neolithic temple, and then I wandered the streets of Valletta, admiring the crammed combination of architecture on the steeply pitched peninsula. Heavily fortified on all sides, the center contains an overly touristic shopping street that's edged by fascinating narrow residentiall streets. I caught some entrancing glimpses of a few homes inside, since a few had their outer doors opened to catch the snappy sea breeze. They have a curious sort of baby-gate design here, where the typical Southern European heavy double door often has an ornate iron mini gate in front. Many houses have a tiny friezes of the Virgin Mary at the door as well. 

After thoroughly exploring the peninsula with a stop for an Aperol spritz in the baraka gardens, I took the ferry back to our spot and spent the remaining afternoon hours on the amazing deck, followed by a dip in the glorious saltwater pool. We had dinner at home with ingredients from our local store-Gorgonzola pasta with toasted sage, and a green salad. Simple and delicious, as the snappy breeze off the sea filled the house and made the long curtains billow. 


One year in

It's been technically more than a year at this point, but the feeling of new was still so heavy at this time last year that it feels like I'm one year in now. I'd expected the integration here to be relatively easy after Iceland. It's a country I'd visited often, with a landscape that's viscerally familiar, working a job I knew already. How hard could it really be? In retrospect I realize how difficult it was though. Establishing an entirely new social network takes time and effort and costs emotional highs and lows, and mixing that with the inevital bureaucracy of immigration doesn't make it easier. 

Yesterday was a watershed day in both senses though. Having not changed my American driving license over in Iceland, I decided now was the time to do it, and I wanted to do it properly. Norwegian licenses are different if you don't take the test in a manual car, and in typical American fashion, I'd never learned to do that properly. Several months of lessons later, my instructor booked my exam at the earliest possible date, which fell in the middle of S's company mandated fellesferie. In many Norwegian companies, the entire month of July is total shutdown, so employees have to take their holiday then. With the driving exam looming, I couldn't go anywhere, so he took off on a solo adventure while I stayed back to finish the last piece of bureaucracy I had to complete. 

Figuring that I'd either be happy to pass and want to celebrate or sad and needing distraction, I planned a ladies potluck party the evening after the test. I invited everyone I knew in the area and hoped enough of us weren't on the same summer holiday schedule as the rest of Norway. Mid day Friday, my tiny, calm Filipina driving instructor picked me up for one last practice round, then we went to the traffic station together for my exam. The examiner turned out to be a sixty-something motherly type who was in a hurry to leave for her weekend, so we took a pleasant drive along the local fjord while chatting about the area before she signed off on my exam form with the all important stamp and shook my hand. Time to start the party!

Back home I baked my two favorite summer recipes, a German onion tart and a goat cheese apricot mint bread before a local friend arrived to help set up. The weather has been amazing the past week, so we assembled all the chairs and tables in the house out on the large, shady deck, covered with my favorite grandmother-inherited tablecloths. As people and food began to arrive, introductions passed around- this woman I know from Icelandic class in 2005 who lives upriver, that woman who is a fellow alumna of my college, these women I know through a local social group, this one the visiting mother of another guest.

When the group was finally assembled, we set all the food on the tables family-style, and squashed around on the assembled collection of seats. Some had dining chairs, some were on a teak bathroom bench, we had people on hundred year old carved wooden "thrones" and others on plastic lawn chairs. The plates of food were passed hither and thither as we all loaded up the mismatched plates- we'd cleared the cupboards of all the available plates, glasses, and cutlery. 

It was hard to take a moment to reflect in the midst of the conversation, laughter, and good eating that ensued, but I did look up at one time and realize how tremendously lucky I am here. The sun was setting in a pink-striped sky over the lush green hills that surround our place, and this amazing collection of people from Norway, Canada, Germany, America, Ireland were all gathered around sharing recipes and struggles, joys and woes. We are all tied together by this beautiful place we live, and celebrating it outside  in a way all friendships should be celebrated, over delicious food made with love. 

In the midst of all this, S showed up unexpectedly a day early after having been on the return route for two whole days of plane travel. Despite what must have been some fierce jet lag, he joined the remaining guests graciously, delighted to come home to so much delicious food. And then, as the Scandinavian night deepend to navy blue, one woman's boyfriend showed up, and we ended the party as a fivesome in that deliciously night-scented air. 

When the last guest finally left, I faced the stacks of plates and abandoned glasses with a smile. It's been a rough road to this point but the roots are growing. I've conquered so many personal struggles in the last year, and while it's never going to be 100% easy, I don't regret the decision to move here at all. 


falling into place

Lately I've been thinking a lot about those quality of life surveys that definitively declare THIS city or THAT city is absolutely the best to live in. Most of the time their methods are suspect and sponsored when I dig further, but I remember one survey that defined it as a life that was absent as much friction as possible. They looked at cities where you could expect infrastructure to work and be comprehensive, where the trains are punctual and your daily life isn't interrupted by constant bureaucracy and complexity.

That's pretty much how it feels to live here, and I feel it every day in so many ways. For example, after a few months in Germany, I quickly learned that it's a constant battle against the hard, mineral laden water. It encrusts your shower head, plugging the individual nozzles so only half of them work on a good day. I'm still working on chipping the bits of mineral deposit off the teakettle that boiled German water for nearly two years, while here, the shower runs silkily and my hair is always happy. It's a taste difference too, one of the things I feared I'd miss when leaving Iceland that I find isn't compromised here either.

I also think about it on trash days, where they've got a handy tri-barrel system so each house is able to compost and recycle paper separately. They even provide free compostable bags, and if you need more, just tie a bag on the handle of your barrel, and they drop more off. After growing up composting, then living in a dozen apartments that didn't support it, I'm thrilled to have my little compost bin under the sink. Small things on a daily basis are what make up so much of your life, right?

This town has not historically been considered the most glamorous of Norwegian locations, but that's part of what I like about it. There are remnants along the river of its past as a paper producing town, in the form of some rather nice old brick factories. In the center of town, Norway's oldest brewery still churns out liters of beer in its elegant gray 19th century building that stretches along the riverfront, and on the downriver side, one of the country's biggest ports ensures constant ship traffic up and down the fjord.

A recent boom in immigrant populations has also ensured a wonderful selection of grocery stores. I visit these regularly, aboard my trusty red bicycle that was imported at some effort during our last trip to Germany. Since my first rather depressed impression of the town's busy roads, I've discovered a parallel network of bicycle and footpaths, allowing me to access these fascinating stores along with the center of town across the river. On weekends, the square seems to always have something new going on, varying from music performances to a farmer's market where I always buy our honey from the guy who produces it. It's also worth stopping by to see if the donut lady is there, selling donuts as good as the ones I remember from my childhood, a fluffy cloud of a center surrounded by crisp perfection.

Earlier tonight, I also discovered yet another thing to love. One of the paths I take to the grocery store goes past the local sports area, starting with the local football/soccer team's stadium, then the local playing fields, and finally one of the newest Olympic-size swimming pools in Norway. Rising behind everything is our own tiny ski piste, still waiting for the snow to fall. A few weeks ago, the playing fields were converted to a massive ice rink, complete with a pair of zambonis that zipped around in the evenings between hockey matches. How cool to live in a town with its own ice rinks! It got even better today when they replaced all the hockey goals with lane markers and the entire rink was full of tiny speed skaters. Clearly, Norwegians know much better what to do with cold weather than other nations.

The presence of all this outdoorsy activity and forested hills has been inspiring for my own routines, and now as the days grow short (although thankfully not as short as in Iceland), I'm going for lunchtime runs along the river. I've got a good 8-10k loop that goes through the part of town with the cobblestone street and the 19th century wood homes painted in deep Victorian colors, then over the bridge and back along the river where the old manor house stands. It's got a lovely garden where I met a pair of peacocks a few months ago, although now it's locked up tight and the birds have been taken to roost elsewhere. The end of my loops are in the neighborhood on the other side of the train tracks from my new home, where multi-family homes climb in steep terraces up to the forest's edge.

It's at times like this when I realize just how spoiled and fortunate I am, to have the choice of fjord, forest, or river views on my run, all accessible directly from my front door. Living in a beautiful place where the water is clean and delicious, and where I can see the stars twinkle overhead from home is a privilege that helps me step outside myself on a regular basis. The trash bags and bicycle-powered grocery shopping are not quite as traditionally enchanting, but they also add that little extra bit to the low friction life where I now find myself.