Sunday, 28 February 2010


I hope these guys at the Winter Olympics appreciate how exhausted we are over here. It’s all very well for them, charging up and down the Canadian Rockies winning medals left, right and centre. Do they know what they’re putting us through? I am obliged to watch them back here, sitting on the sofa all night long with my heart in my mouth as yet another nerve-crunching final reaches its conclusion. It’s completely shattering. Just as well this last week has been the Vinterferie.

The Winter Holiday, during which schools close for a week to allow all good Norwegians to perfect their skiing technique, is a much-prized time of year. All manner of person from 2 to 102 is out there taking advantage of the heavy snow and mountainous topography. The glorification of mass participation in winter sports is almost palpable.

Like the Brits, Norwegians take their holidays very, very seriously. With over 50 airports in Norway alone, the choice of locations on offer is almost bewildering. It is no surprise that the average number of flights per head per year is four times more than in the UK.

The amount of annual leave is comparable to most Scots. According to the law, Norwegian employees have the right to four weeks and one day’s holiday a year, a total of 25 weekdays plus the intervening weekends. If you are over 60, you have five weeks a year.

But, in addition to fully-paid leave, Norwegians have a tax holiday too. While Norway operates a tax system similar to Britain’s PAYE system, there is a payment holiday. The year’s tax is paid over 10 ½ months rather than 12, with a ‘half tax’ month in December to allow people extra cash for Christmas. Then there is a tax free month in spring to allow extra cash for a summer holiday. (In the UK, we have a similar system regarding council tax which operates a 10 month system with no tax due in February or March.)

It is as though the state regards holidays, and the ability to pay for them, as vital to the health and wealth of the nation. If an employee is properly rested, if they have managed to find the perfect spot in which to ‘slappe av’, the employer will benefit from having a well-rested, fitter, keener worker.

Strangely, the law does not state that Vinterferie means Norwegians HAVE to go skiing in their own mountains. Some choose the Alps or the Rockies, while some more radical folk (can you believe it) don’t even go skiing....they decide they are sick of snow and cold, and zap off to the sun to lie on a beach.

So now, as everyone returns from wherever, the stories of their adventures during the last week are pouring out. Whether they went hot or cold, the change was good. Without the Vinterferie this record-breaking snowy period would have felt excruciatingly long and tiresome, so a whole week off is most welcome and truly restoring.

But I suspect this year there has been a little less ‘recharging of the batteries’ than usual, for which I hold the Winter Olympics entirely responsible. And as a Scot, I am finding it exquisitely enjoyable to be situated in a country capable of such splendid Olympic success. I am not even mildly embarrassed at being able to bask in their glory. It’s extremely convenient. With a clutch of eight golds, eight silvers and six bronze medals at this point, this land of 5 million souls is flying the flag for the strength of a small nation with spectacular aplomb. It’s utterly compelling, so those of us not in Vancouver are wiped out from having to stay up all night watching the games. We need a holiday.

Friday, 26 February 2010


It’s snowing in Scotland, it’s snowing in Norway. In Scotland, they’re fed up of the white stuff. In Norway, I can’t even see out of the window for white stuff. In some areas of Scotland, no-one has seen a blade of grass since 19th December. In Norway, the same is true. In both countries, record levels of snow have fallen and stayed on the ground for weeks and weeks. In both countries, spring is just a distant memory.

But, there is a big fat difference. In Scotland hundreds of schools are shut for the umpteenth time. In Norway, we have yet to have a ‘snow day’ when schools are shut. In Scotland the economy suffers again with a good day’s work being hampered. In Norway, everyone calmly gets on with building a successful nation. In Scotland, too many motorists are stuck on the roads, some having spent a night of hell on the A9. In Norway, we all reached work at the normal time. In Scotland, roads are shut, including some of the main ones. In Norway, only a few are deemed to be impassable.

So what would the big fat difference be, I wonder? I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again and again and again until it sinks in.... WINTER TYRES.

As a driver in this country I am obliged by law to fix winter tyres to my car by a certain date in November. Every car must have both summer and winter tyres. If I prang the car during the winter without my ‘vinterdekker’ on, I am not covered by insurance. That’s a very, very expensive mistake in Norway.

I am stunned at the difference my winter tyres make to my non-posh car’s performance. At home, I’ve often driven in snow, slithering about on city roads or trying to deal with drifts in the countryside. It’s horrible. But here, I have driven for miles on thick ice at an astounding pace, including right across the highest plateau in Europe, with 20 ft high snow-walls on either side, and where the average speed was 60 kph go any slower would be letting the side down, and cause a jam.

The other advantage is nobody really needs a 4x4 vehicle here to deal with snow. In Scotland, when these despised 'Chelsea Tractors' came into their own during the thick snow, their gas-guzzling yuppy reputation was all but forgiven as they gallantly served a snow-bound community in a Dunkirk-like spirit. Over here, I seldom see a 4x4.

Every holder of a Norwegian Driving Licence will have completed a winter driving course...these drivers know how to drive on snow and ice. For those in the remotest of places, they can go one further by fixing ‘piggdekk’, tyres with metal studs....brilliant in snow, although they chew up the road if ever bare tarmac should dare to appear. And when it gets really tough, you can always resort to snow-chains.

I know that this winter is exceptional.But it is as exceptional for this southerly part of Norway as it is for Scotland. Two winters ago, all we had was months of rain, and our winter tyres saw the snow only once, but even then, their capacity to cope with wetness was far greater than their summer equivalent. The question is, in the life-time of one car based in Scotland, how many days over a number of winters will snow affect the roads? I bet the answer would mean an investment in extra tyres would easily pay off.

I don’t often freak my frock over cars, and if anyone compares me to that Clarkson person after this, I will not allow them in my vehicle. However, I’ve already bored several Scots into a coma over this. As I see the chaos on the Scottish roads, and think of the cost to our nation in terms of lost working days, lost revenue, missed school days, missed appointments and endless other additional stresses, I feel the need to keep harping on.

I’m away for a wee drive to calm myself down.

Thursday, 25 February 2010


I do not think I want to continue the rest of my life without owning and operating a hytte box. If ever anyone invented a handier item, I would like to know what it is.

Having returned from the latest hytte, it is with great pleasure that I start the sorting of the hytte box. This is a box that is solemnly carted off to every hytte and back, its contents continually under scrutiny, often being used and always replenished. If any Norwegian family does not possess and run one of these with exemplary Norsk efficiency, then I’m a cloudberry.

In every hytte box, wherever it may be, there lurks all manner of essentials. There is the obvious stuff...the matches, torches, pen-knives, sponges, clothes, wipes, batteries, light-bulbs and candles. There is an assortment of tools, the sort necessary for the repair or bicycles, cars, skates, skis and boating equipment. There is some stuff with which to do things to wood. There is a first-aid kit.There must always be a loo roll. There are various types of soap for the washing dishes, floors, animals, human bodies and hair.

On the entertainment front, there are several packs of cards, and that old board game that no-one has ever managed to understand. There is the Norwegian version of Monopoly in which the ambitious can purchase whole mountain ranges and entire ski resorts, not to mention the capital of Norway . There is a sewing-kit and several knitting needles...nobody knows that these could be for. There is a selection of balls from golf to rugby (this latter is omitted from any Norwegian box, the game being seen as an unnecessary affliction cast upon nations with less snow where they need something to do in the winter).

Then there is a collection of ropes, string and pieces of elastic, none of which have any particular purpose, but all of which might just come in handy. There are some extending spades, thermoses, hot-water bottles, and snow chains for the car. There is a dustpan-like piece of plastic with a giant comb on the front, which according to the label, is for the collection of small berries from spiky bushes. Blow-up life jackets and an abundance of beach/swimming equipment will add to the recreational choices on offer. And then there is always a vast selection of fishing equipment, an armoury of lethal-looking hooks, reels for all occasions, fishing line and some jelly-like long, wobbly things that are meant to tempt fish.

Hytte food is rather specific in that it is required to fit into the box. Assuming we will be catching all the protein we need, the rest of the food has to be flat, light, convenient, dry and able to morph into something edible upon the addition of water. Norway freeze-dries and dehydrates with dedicated style and enviable imagination. Thus we have sampled an impressive and exotic number of small, light packets of powder, the flatter the better. A wide range of sophisticated soups and sauces have had all the moisture sooked out before being scooped back into a packet for our delectation.

But the absolute crème-de-la-crème, the best discovery for anyone who has ever prepared a traditional Christmas dinner, is the utterly splendid invention of Boil-in-the-Bag Red Cabbage. Just how many hours of a woman’s life does this stuff save? I am about to start exporting it.

Armed with our hytte box, we are more or less prepared for anything the elements can chuck at us. I simply cannot imagine how I have arrived at this great age without one of these boxes, nor can I conceive of a minute more on this planet without one. They say The Theory of the 7 Ps is an oil industry thing....I suspect it came from a knowledge of hytte-life first. Whatever its origin, it is appropriate for both and is never far from my mind: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010


There is a level of humiliation that accompanies the execution of outdoor pursuits that I have to hope, despite everything, is beneficial in some way. My most recent skiing experience is not only causing me considerable physical pain, but mental anguish too, as I struggle to weigh up its merits.

We had set off gamely from a cosy sea-side hytte, determined to make the most of the never-ending snow all around us. We ploughed up a hill at speed and arrived at the top, sweating and panting. Before us lay an undulating landscape of white which glittered beneath the bright winter sun, great rolling snow fields smooth as a freshly-iced Christmas cake. We skied and skied and skied. With miles of landscape entirely to ourselves, this seemed to be exactly what langrenn skiing was all about.

Then the trouble started. I KNOW that what goes up must come down. I just didn’t know the coming down part was going to be impossible, and so sore. I foolishly assumed a downhill skier could use her cross-country skis on a downward slope with ease and suave efficiency.

I was wrong. It was a disaster, carnage. I fell, and fell and fell. Every time I struggled up again, I fell even more inelegantly. I had snow up my arms, round my neck and down the back of my breeks. Eventually I realised the only way was to give up on style and bend forward, in imitation of some kind of cartoon-postcard version of a skier. Cool it was not.

But there was worse to come. Reluctant to go the long way home, we discovered a neat short-cut. However, this new route involved the negotiation of a fence, a nasty fence, complete with three fiendish levels of barbed-wire. A gap was formed between the wires, through which the children whizzed without difficulty. The TA managed with alacrity and then stood there patiently forcing the gap between the barbed-wire strands as wide as possible for me to ski through.

‘Surely I should take my skies off,’ I suggested weakly.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. Waste of time. Avante.’

I managed to shove the skis through with my feet still attached, but the rest of me was quite another matter. My torso appeared to have gained and extra ten stone. I couldn’t move. I was a sprawling, flailing, helpless wreck, skis in the air, poles lunging. My body was working itself further into a deep snow-hole while a vicious looking strand of barbed-wire threatened the back of my thighs.

I lay back and paused for a moment’s quiet reflection. For heaven’s sakes, what was I doing? I used to be a proper person with a grown-up job in a shiny office - I used to wear a pencil skirt and kick-ass heels and people did what I said – and look at me now, a helpless, endangered dork. By way of comfort, I tried to imagine various members of the Great and the Good in a similar position. How might our leaders cope with such indignity, our captains of industry, our politicians and most honoured celebs? I convinced myself the occasional dose of mortification could only be a good thing. The intoxicating glow of power, money, high-office would surely be tempered by a regular return to humility. The trick of being able to keep one’s feet on the ground is as rare as a non-skiing Norwegian. The thought was marvellously comforting. I sat up, inspired.

I must add of course, no Norwegian would ever be caught in a similar pickle, having spent a life-time dealing with fences in thick snow while wearing skis, but I sense if such an occasion were to happen to one of the ‘high-ups’ in this country, they would cope with calm, admirable, Nordic efficiency.

Sunday, 21 February 2010


It is the night before the day of rest. I shall post this on the actual day of rest, and then have a day of rest, or two. Frankly, both blogger and bloggees could probably do with a day or two of rest, and I never promised I’d be showing up here EVERY day, I only said MOST days. I have a life to lead, you know, and some Unspeakably Norsk Things to be getting on with.

What’s more, my staff here at HQ are slacking. The place is a tip. The housekeeper has gone on strike, the butler has stopped butling, I have no idea where the cook is, and the dhobi wallah’s gone skiing.

At least that’s my excuse. There are various heaps of outdoor winter equipment lying around in every room, there is a minimal and deeply unappetizing supply of food in the house, very few clothes are currently in a wearable state, and the ironing pile is high enough to form a very respectable ski slope. So, what with the day of rest and the skivvy-ing that needs doing, I’m checking out of here for a day or so.

I’m going to ‘slapp av’. This excellent Norwegian phrase, with its splendidly onomatopoeic suggestion, describes the thing we should all be doing at the weekend. ‘Slapping av’ is what weekends were invented for. To ‘slapp av’ is to ‘chill out’, to relax, to seek sanctuary, comfort and rest all in order to restore one’s strength, sanity, and peace of mind. And eat chocolate.

So, I shall be finding a suitable relaxing station, a big comfy armchair with one of those springy things that shoot out for resting the feet of the sitter. This chair will be placed in front of a first-class view, preferably of a fjord with an absolute stouter of a big mountain behind it. . The armchair will have wheels because I will start my ‘slapping av’ session outside on a balcony beneath a heap of furs...when it becomes too chilly, I will wheel myself inside to the warmth of the fireside. There will be a selection of coiffable beverages of an acceptable vintage available within arm’s reach. The TA will peel me a grape. And secreted beneath a cushion, in order to prevent theft, a stash of chocolate will lurk.

I do feel mildly guilty at this level of indulgence, mainly because to enjoy a really decent ‘slapp av’ session, one should no doubt have scaled a mountain or two first, or maybe even secured yet another gold medal at the Winter Olympics for one’s nation. A little effort would ensure that the 'slapping av' is not only pleasant, but richly deserved and tinged with a good dose of self-congratulation.

Oh well, I’ll do that later. The best bit of all is that I get to choose which book to read from the heap of Scandinavian literature piled up behind my chair. With time for reading at a frustratingly miniscule level, this is the real and most delicious treat.

So, I’m going to ‘slapp av’, and from my reading selection no doubt pick my current obsession, Nansen. Although, come to think of it, Nansen and ‘slapping av’ don’t really go together too well. I might have to stagger up and go skiing, dash it. If ever there was a man who makes me feel like I’ve never lifted a finger, if is the Fabulous Fridtjof himself.

Saturday, 20 February 2010


When the TA informed me, all those years ago, that we were off to our first hytte for the weekend, he thoughtfully presented me with a helpful list of requirements entitled ‘What to Pack.’ This list stretched from my shoulder to the floor.

I looked at him, startled rigid. ‘Are you NUTS? Have you lost your mind?’

He carried on staring at me, his countenance still as an idol.

I continued, a mysterious shaft of ice creeping into my appalled voice. ‘No mother,’ I said coldly, ‘in the history of motherdom, has ever packed this amount of stuff for one weekend. It is beyond comprehension and entirely unnatural.’

After a considerably long and highly animated discussion, I realised I was entirely mistaken. Not only do Norwegian families pack like this, but they pack like this every other weekend. This is seen as normal behaviour, it is fully expected. Part of being a proper Norwegian is the ability to ‘rough it’.

Three years later, I don’t think twice about the ‘What to Pack’ list. Due to the complexity of the over-all plan, logistics commence several, if not many days, before the launch of manoeuvres. And now, I am an expert. I am not scared of preparing 10 pairs of skis, (two different types of skiing, you know), 10 pairs of ski boots, 20 ski sticks, 5 helmets and 5 ski suits, all of which are different sizes, and several of which change sizes according to the rate of growth of the intended wearer. I then prepare 10 sets of merino underwear of the under-shirt and long-john variety. I consult a weather report for the area in question, and try to guess how many layers of fleece might be needed between merino and ski suit in order to ensure maximum comfort and warmth. Then there is a separate bag devoted to several hundred hats, gloves, scarves, buffs, goggles and big thick socks.

Experience has persuaded me to eliminate pyjamas and any other casual’re either skiing or you’re in your long-johns and there will be nothing in between. An unnecessary pair of jeans or a T-shirt will be viewed as pure vanity, and any such an item will fall outside my maternal responsibility.

Then there’s the bedding. It is apparently The Law that every hytte bed is furnished with a duvet and pillow. This means I must pack pillowcases, sheets and duvet covers, or sleeping bags for each person. Our bulky bedding has been honed down to a small bundle with the acquisition of sheet-bags, a relative of the potato sack, but narrower and marginally less itchy. (Although recently, I did happen to notice the TA slipped in a deluxe version of this item made from pure silk...I can’t help feeling this is a cop out, and not really in the spirit things.) And finally,’re sharing...don’t push it.

I think it was at this point that someone first mentioned a folding canoe. Was that a joke? It was impossible to tell. Clearly this form of recreation was going to someone’s head and they were entering the realms of fantasy. I dictated thus: ‘If anyone wishes to have anything to do with a folding canoe, on their own head be it. It will not be allowed inside the car, and I myself will have nothing whatever to do with it. Is that quite clear?’

Nothing but silence. Conspiratorial silence.

Well, I for one am absolutely fed up with this for now, and I haven’t even started on the food yet. Bet you can’t wait.


Friday, 19 February 2010


So now Norway has three gold medals from the Winter Olympics, two of them won by women, it is time to consider the Toughness of The Norwegian Woman. For now, let’s call her Eva-Tone.

Eva-Tone is born a perfectly normal little girl with the standard Scandinavian white hair and deep-set piercing blue eyes. She spends her childhood at the foot of a mountain beside a fjord. In the summer she learns to fish, swim, sail, canoe, plumb in a lavatory and operate an outboard engine. In the winter she learns to shoot for meat and drill holes in the ice for fish. In summer she climbs several miles uphill to school, in winter she skis several miles uphill to school. Upon finishing school, she chooses to embark upon a spell of military service (not compulsory for women). After this she starts her electrical-engineering studies in the far north of Norway, with a view to working off-shore in the oil industry. While she is a student, she becomes a competitive biathlete and is selected for the Norwegian Olympic Team. We haven’t heard how she has got on so far.

My point is, Eva-Tone is an All-Norwegian-Girl, tough, strong and independent. I have often heard that Norwegian women are so tough they don’t really need men. Apart from the inconvenience of having to procreate, men seem to be more or less incidental.

Luckily for the Norwegian population, this turns out to be a false rumour, and the women can’t resist the men. Are we surprised? Nope. It would take the toughest of the tough to resist the temptations of the average Norwegian male, and that kind of challenge is not an Olympic event, so far. It just so happens the men are also as fit as you like, with fabulous hair and that very special Scandinavian tan that people wear around here. It’s enough to make any girl weak at the knees.

So when I see a Norwegian woman winning the Biathlon in Vancouver, skiing like a demented bat out of hell and shooting at her targets with stylish accuracy, I am not surprised. There are many other tough women of different nationalities out there on the course, and they are also astoundingly fit. But somehow Tore Berger, whether skiing or shooting (she only missed one out of 20 shots), looked utterly at home, as though this kind of life was completely natural.

Of course I am not saying women in Scotland are not tough. Far from it. There are thousands upon thousands who push themselves hard, who deal with arduous conditions, difficult situations, if not unrelenting drudgery with admirable physical and mental strength. But somehow the level of expectation is different, as though we are surprised that women are able to draw on their inner resources so powerfully. So are we capable of more than we know?

The 19 year old Eve Muirhead, bag-pipe-playing, golfing, captain of the British curling team in Vancouver is a splendid example of Scottish womanhood. Apart from the fact that she could not be more Scottish if you painted her tartan, she has admirable determination. And who could forget Rhona Martin’s gold winning curling team of the 2002 Winter Olympics? We don't all need to be Olympic medalists, but we should remember to have faith in ourselves.
Women know how tough they can be, and they should never be persuaded otherwise. Back in Norway, I can just imagine Eva-Tone once she is married. ‘Hi, Honey, I’m home....made it up to the mountain peak and back in 43.7 and 4 hundredths of a second.... managed to hit 19 out of 20 reindeer. Bit of a drag hauling them home, but they’ll keep us going for a while.’

Thursday, 18 February 2010


We just booked a couple of nights in a hytte.

In Norway, the hytte, a cabin or even a hut, is a place of sanctuary so close to the Norwegian soul that it is not possible to write about it only once. Its splendours are such that their impact on society is vast but incalculable, and marks one of the most fundamental differences between our two nations.

I recently asked a Norwegian if it was true that 85% of the population now owns a hytte. She thought for a moment, and replied that this was not would be more accurate to say 85% of the population owned two hytter, a mountain one for skiing, and a lake or fjord-side one for summer. What is more, companies tend to own or rent hytter too. It has often been said when a Norwegian is offered a job, his or her first question will be less concerned with the salary than the number and locations of the company hytter. The age-old tradition of a Norwegian living in harmony with nature is as popular as ever.

Years ago, a hytte was indeed a hut. It grew from being a simple shelter from the weather, to a place to stay, a quiet retreat from everyday life. In the 20th century, it became fashionable to build a hytte, often by one’s own hand, purely for recreational purposes. These might be of the log-cabin variety, and placed in a picturesque spot, where the owner could furnish it with simple wooden furniture and chequered curtains so cute one might expect Little Red Riding Hood drop in. Here the average Norwegian would ski, skate, fish, swim and generally mess about, positively relishing the lack of running water and absence of electricity.

But in recent years, the hytte has gone up-market. Nowadays, a hytte can be every bit as grand as a normal house, if not even posher. There might be a bathroom for starters, a sauna, heated floors, a TV and a broadband connection. Some people suspect the Norwegians are getting soft. 

But I don’t. It seems the hytte imposes such inconvenience and discomfort upon the owners that the result is a highly self-reliant, extraordiinarily strong population.Mountains are not littered with plumbers, electricians and joiners. The lust for DIY that exists in Britain is taken to a new level here.

Not all hytter are posh. Some of the loveliest are small and remarkably basic where the struggle to survive in them is undoubtedly part of the attraction. Unless your journey towards your hytte has been fraught with icy roads involving snow-chains, a steep hill climb on skis, a wet and breathless boat-ride, a power-cut, frozen pipes, and a five hour wait for the place to heat up, then you have not experienced the full joy of the hytte.

One guy, after decades of abstinence, decided to treat himself to a little comfort in his hytte by installing a washing machine. These are not light objects. Having bought it and transported it behind his car for miles into the mountains, he single-handedly unloaded it from trailer to sledge. He then put on his skis and began hauling it up a mountain with only a small head-torch to light his way through the murk. An hour later he arrived, to find his new white-good would not fit through the hytte door. After an awkward entrance involving a balcony, a ladder and a window, he finally placed it triumphantly upon the interior floor of his hytte and ripped off the bubble-wrap.

Only to find it was a dish-washer, which was as much use to him as the proverbial snowball in a microwave.

Oh, by the way, with Norway generally seen as the favourites in the cross-country skiing events at the Winter Olympics, I’m nervous. But yesterday, the fantastically strong Marit Bjoergen did the business and won Norway’s first gold in the Women's 1.4 Cross-country Sprint. Phew.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


Every weekday morning, in school-term time, at 7.52am precisely, I start standing at the bus stop to ward off any passing trolls that may step out of the woods and scare the kids. The enjoyment of this task is highly weather-dependent, but in these northern climes, it is far more dependent on light, or lack of it. An ill-placed hedge prevents me from using the thoughtfully-provided-bus-shelter, hidden as it is from any passing buses. So I balance on the pavement edge. In summer, I have often stood there in blistering, blinding sun, but recently it’s been deep, black, unrelenting, brooding darkness.

Right now, though, this is changing at spectacular speed, hence my need to write of this now. Anorak that I am, a spreadsheet has been started to record what’s going on with the dawn. Currently, each day dawns 5 minutes earlier than the day before, that’s 35 minutes a week. This very morning, during the bus-stop-standing, the street lamps flicked off, which proves the Powers-That-Be must reckon it’s time to rely on the sun. How very different from those January mornings just a few weeks ago.

Back then, I was obliged to dress as a road-mender. Decked in luminous day-glow from head to foot, and, for warmth, encased in several layers of wool, fleece, and down, I resembled a high-viz tennis ball. The only shape was round, the only colour fluorescent. It’s not a look I’ll be exporting , but it served my recent purpose admirably.

Of course, this particular winter of bus-stop-standing has been far less dark than others, bathed as it often has been in shimmering moonlight, illuminating the ever-present, record-breaking snow and ice all around. My early morning walk has had a dream-like quality as I slide past fields of undisturbed snow, the moon a bling-like jewel above. And this a good couple of hours before the sun even hinted at showing up.

There have been times in past winters when rain was the main factor...great, horizontal, thick arrows of wetness propelled by vicious winds. Dressed fit to operate a North Sea fishing trawler in a storm, my vision was constantly blurred as water jetted into my spectacles, steaming up the lenses until I hadn’t a scooby as to what might be happening. It was like trying to stop a bus while standing in a carwash. Sometimes, even the street lamps gave up, petering out as if the effort was too much. And on those days it was really dark. Wet-dark seems much darker than dry-dark. It was very, very dark. Darker than the darkest of the dark darks.

It is wise to learn not to mind. There is no way of surviving this level of darkness unless one can embrace it, learn to love it even if the passion is muted. Norwegians in the north of this long, long country, where there is no light all day for months, are world experts at this. As we live on the same latitude as Orkney and Shetland, I realise people there are accomplished at this too.

But dark has its advantages. The main, big one is that I can go out in the morning looking like the wrath of Odin. There is no chance of scaring anyone. Sartorial elegance, hair-do and make-up would be a frivolous waste. Provided I am luminous, I can wear whatever I like, which is usually pyjamas with numerous layers on top. The bus stop is neither Paris nor Milan. The fashion police are absent.

Darkness depresses some people. SAD, Seasonal Affected Disorder can hit the most vivacious of minds. Solar lamps are installed in an effort to ward off the winter blues. Perhaps I’m just weird, but as time has gone on, I have surprised myself in the strength with which I have come to relish the darkness. Once used to it, it offers a further advantage, and affords a kind of intimacy, a quiet, private time for reflection, contemplation, and restoration of the soul.

However, it doesn’t mean I can’t wait for the dawn. Now, where’s my lippy?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010


My knees are shot to smithereens, battered to a pulp, and that’s just from sitting on the sofa. Having to watch the Men’s Downhill is nothing short of exhausting.

I promise I will talk about something other than skiing in the very near future, but for now, what with the Winter Olympics being on in Vancouver, and what with Norway having won more medals at the WO’s than any other nation in the history of the games, I have to get some of this off my chest.

When it comes to downhill, I watch very, very closely. I might as well have been in Vancouver. I could feel every bump of that course, every little shoogly bit, every nuance, every little teaser that piste had to offer. What’s more, I was fiendishly jealous of those guys, over taken by an urge to join in and ski that heavenly long run myself. They were making it look pimps, after but pimps. (That’s the trouble with downhillers...we like to flatter ourselves, but the telly makes steep slopes a good deal less steep than they really are.) Anyway, one way and another, I was with them right down to the finish line. And now I’m whacked, my thighs are aching, I need to soak in a hot bath.

I know I’m now officially a ‘langrenn’ convert, but that does not mean I’ve lost my downhill legs. When I see a guy giving it laldy in the downhill, I do not just sit around. I’m there. And when the Norwegian decided to take the lead for a while, I was very, very nervous on his behalf.

‘Aksel’ I yelled at the telly. ‘Go’on yersel.’ He MUST have heard, because he was going great guns down the Toilet Bowl and he belted down the Weasel, but he sped up marvellously as he ‘took big air’ over Boyd’s Chin and Murray’s Hope.

Of course there was a Brit in the race too, Mr Ed Drake of Tooting, a fine specimen of a skier if ever I saw one. But he wasn’t in the running for a medal, so naturally I plumped for Aksel Lund Svindal, living proof that the Norwegians can shine in downhill, even if cross-country is their natural habitat. And why would anyone be surprised by that? They have snow, they have mountains. It’s Jo Obvious.

In the 1870’s, after 4000 years of skiing with ski bindings which let the skier’s heel lift off the ski, an extremely famous bloke from Telemark, Sondre Norheim, started to use stiff bindings that allowed him to swing, jump and generally nip about like a ballet-dancer without his skis falling off. A few years later, Norwegian students living in the Alps started larking about instead of studying, and soon they had introduced skiing to the locals. By the turn of the century, Chamonix, which had previously been a base for British mountaineers, was awash with Norwegians sliding downhill on a variety of implements.

It caught on. In 1924, it was Chamonix that hosted the first Winter Olympics. And it just so happened that the first four places in the 50K race that year were won by Norwegians.

Incidentally, Aksel, who’d skied before the sun came out and made the piste easier to read, ended up with the silver medal. Swiss Didier Defago beat him by 7 hundredths of a second. Maybe ‘pimps’ was an understatement.

Monday, 15 February 2010


I found the perfect morning. I found some time to myself. I found a frozen lake, 41 cm of ice, with a good 10 cm of snow on the top. Within a few moments of arriving at the local lake, I had my new skis firmly entrenched into someone else’s ski tracks from the day before, and I was away, straight towards the centre of this great white flatness at astonishing speed.

Let me make this quite clear. I am not Mrs Super-Fit. I am a relatively normal mother, enjoying the delights of what a friend kindly refers to as my ‘middle youth’. While this description may err on the side of generosity, it is none-the-less one I am pleased to tolerate. My exercise regime consists mainly of simple walking. I am not a marathon runner, I hate jogging and gyms. I am not a competitive cyclist, swimmer or player of any sporty games.

I am also not a stick, a shape which appears to be the norm for these langrenn types. But propelled by the thought that langrenn skiing may induce stickdom, I surged forward across this vast expanse of snow.

I have no wish to boast, but allow me a simple fact. Within 12 minutes I had skied 2 kilometres. I stopped to take my bearings, and immediately fell noisily into the snow-crust in shock. This was insane. Surely an old bat like me was not meant to be going that fast.

Once I was upright again, I realised I was at the very centre of the lake, and utterly alone. Only the TA (Technical Assistant) knew I was here, after a quick phone-call at the lakeside to discuss the intricacies of ski bindings. The exhilaration of being so entirely alone, on ice, in snow, under the brightest of suns, was nerve-jangling, but thrilling.

Boom. Longer boom. It was the ice, as though it was talking to me. Huge boom. BOOM. A haunting sound, certain to send shivers down any ice-bound spine. As the ice expanded and contracted under the morning sun, these great belting blasts rang out across the landscape, as though giant trolls were trapped in the dark waters below and were making their presence felt. I could feel my heart starting to join in.

I rejigged my sticks and ploughed ahead, determined to reach the other side of the lake. It had only taken 12 minutes, but I was hooked. Now I understood what all the fuss was about. Now I could see why all Norwegians seemed so keen to do this thing. Now I could understand my current hero, Fridtjof Nansen.

I made it, and all the way back, an easy 6K if my calculation by string and map is accurate. I pondered on how skiing had always been central to Norwegian life, as though part of a collective consciousness from cradle to grave, wrapped up in national identity and quiet, patriotic pride. I have often been told that people at the top of large organisations or prominent in public life over here are more or less expected to be ski champions, from the Prime Minister down. It’s part of being a ‘good Norwegian’. It is impossible to speculate on how much fitter the general population must be as a result of skiing.

As though to make the point, as I returned to my starting place, my icy private idyll was interrupted by a happy band of octogenarians, complete with wooden skis and poles, equipment so old it was worthy of exhibition in a museum. Each skier stepped into the skis they had been born with and sped across the lake with enviable ease, as though their life-time of skiing still had a good way to go.

I vowed that when I’m eighty, I would be able to match their speed.

Saturday, 13 February 2010


I needed new skis. It would be just plain wrong not to have the right ones. And I don’t mean Alpine.
As a Scot, I have skied all my life, the wonders of Glencoe, Glenshee, and Cairngorm being regular haunts. But here in Norway I have come to realise I know nothing about skiing, not proper skiing, not the sort of skiing the Norwegians think of when the sport is mentioned. All those years of performing perfect parallels down the Tiger and Coire na Ciste have become irrelevant. I am a novice once again.
Naturally, nowadays, the Norwegians are experts at downhill, or whatever you want to call it when you point your tips down a big steep slope and allow nature to take you to the bottom asap. But many a Norwegian only takes up downhill skiing later on in life, as a sort of frivolous addition to their skiing repertoire. So why the legend that Norwegians are born with skies on their feet?
Transport. It’s faster than walking. While the snow continues to cover the streets surrounding our house, children are making their way to school on skies as though this is the normal and expected thing to do. After all, their parents’ parents’ parents went to school that way. The Vikings went to school that way. Even stone-age kids went to school that way.
This is Nordic skiing, cross-country, or ‘langrenn’ as they refer to it in these parts. And you just can’t do it with your downhill gear. Having borrowed a set of langrenn skis and boots up to this point, I’d had a taster of it on a snowy, moonlit evening in a valley at minus 25. Two of us had the entire valley to ourselves, apparently. The peace was mesmerising, I was converted, but my ankles were wet.
Having seen the light, and knowing that this langrenn business would unquestionably be continued for the rest of my life, I needed new skies and decent boots. I also needed help.
In the sports shop, two enormously long, skinny men, uncannily resembling a pair of skis themselves, launched into this task with serious enthusiasm. Both of them were no doubt langrenn champions, so stringy and muscle-laden was their appearance. I couldn’t imagine why they had taken their medals off. Debate raged as to my exact needs. After some time, they told me I needed metal edges and patterns on the bottom.
A moment later, I realised they must mean the skis. I vigorously agreed.
I was then told to stand on a set of scales in the middle of the shop while they discussed my weight as though through a loud-hailer. We all marvelled at the astonishing number of kilos displayed around the shop for everyone to see, as if such substantial findings were fit for public wonder. Realising I was a novice at this game, their wide-eyed stares implied a vague sense of admiration, as though ‘well done, madam!’ was what they really wanted to say.
So now, I own beautiful new skies, long, sharp, fast, sleek and fabulous. It’s like being born again.

Thursday, 11 February 2010


We have been blessed.
Three years on a Norwegian rock by the North Sea, world class views from the bedroom window, award-winning sunsets over the island beyond, the moon providing a free and lovely night-light. Today, thick snow envelopes the rocks down to the sea, a sparkling blanket beneath the bright sun. Yup, it’s pretty neat. Whatever the weather, whatever the season, I have never shut the curtains on that view.
But soon, we’re heading home. In a few months time, it’s back to Scotland, so now seems a good time to start this blogging malarkey. The recession has been biting while we’ve been gone, unemployment has soared, banks are loathed and expenses scandals have raged. Brits seem cross, put-upon, fed-up, as though they can hardly recognise the country in which they are living. New, younger, more venomous versions of Victor Meldrew are springing up daily. As a General Election looms, apathetic confusion and deep frustration seem to haunt like menacing spectres. Looks like the UK voter has had it right up to here.
Comparisons being odious, I cannot begin to express my irritation at the current UK fashion for seeing all things Scandinavian as ideal. Norway is stunning, no doubt. But, to compare Scotland to Norway, a habit politicians simply cannot resist, seems like a cheap shot. Certainly, Norway does some things better than Scotland, but I’m still naive enough to believe we are not the hopeless bunch of losers we sometimes portray ourselves as being.
Many a British expat, on hearing our news, has asked if we’re pleased to be going home. Meanwhile, the media is awash with Brits, many of them Scots, trying to get away, and stay away, from the UK. They wax lyrical about the marvels of Thailand, Australia, Canada or countless other places where housing, cars, food, booze and other goodies are cheaper, better, more efficient, sunnier, warmer, easier...the list is irritatingly endless. Meanwhile, there’s a queue of Brits trying to return from Spain as the value of their dream-home-on-a-costa plummets.
Expats expect no sympathy from folk back home...they’re not idiots. Fair enough. Whether exile from the UK is chosen or work-driven, it is assumed that life abroad must be easier than it is in 21st century Britain. An expat is therefore a lush, a scrounger, a gin-soaked lardy-ass with a leathery skin from too much sun. Oh and rich, with staff, a yacht, and maybe even a mistress. And of course, I’m the lowest of the expat wife, a non-working hanger-on, a trailing spouse. I get to experience the good times through no merit of my own. And even worse, I’m an oil-wife, which is about as politically incorrect as a woman could be. Shame on me.
I am also far too much of a wimp to argue. All I know is, the next few months will be a logistical madness of where to live, how to live, what to drive, what to wear, what to chuck, what to keep. Apply for this, join up for that, close this, finish that. And then, there’s managing everyone’s psychological well-being, the unforeseen dilemmas and emotional traumas that inevitably crop up along with moving a family from A to B.
Besides all this, my job is also to savour, to remember, to cherish this place. So most days, I’ll be doing an UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING, with which to blog-you-rigid.
Norway has been very good to us. But yes, I am exceedingly excited to think that home is hovering just beyond that enticing horizon.