Wednesday, 9 June 2010


As one door closes, another one opens.

Our final day in Norway, so my last post from this side of the North Sea. There are heaps of subjects I have not yet tackled with regard to this great nation, but perhaps some of them might crop up once I start blogging from across the sea, in a ‘compare and contrast’ kind of a way.

On the other hand, I’m wondering what sort of topics might strike me as worth writing about over there in Scotland....what will astound, astonish, annoy, irritate, delight, or surprise me once I return home? Promise me, if I start going on ad nauseam about pot-holes in the road, litter, bad driving or people stuffing their faces with chips while in the street, you will let me know I’m boring the proverbials off you and tell me to put a sock in it. Readers at this here stopping place are way too precious to risk the onslaught of ennui with the minute frustrations of life.

However, I do know that returning to one’s own nation is not always all it is cracked up to be. One might assume that going home would be easy, that slipping back into one’s old life would be a doddle. I mean, you know where stuff is, you speak the lingo, you've driven there for years, you know what the food is, and you’ve got friends and family there....what could be simpler? But that’s the thing about living in another have a very different perspective, you become frustrated with aspects of life that never occurred to you before, you can’t help feeling that they do certain things better abroad. Heated bathroom floors, for example.

I know many Scots who have returned home and found life surprising in both good and bad ways. Likewise, I know many Norwegians who say the same thing once they have returned to Norway from elsewhere. I suppose it all goes to show that we learn from each other and that, thankfully, ‘nobody is perfect’.

So, I’ll be doing some weeping at the airport later on today. Just ignore the snivelling wreck you may spot at’s all part of the moving process. Once home, I may take some time to get things in order. The TA, amongst other things, is under full instruction to pay urgent attention to one’s electronic communication systems, but nobody can tell how long this may take. So if I don’t post a blog for a wee bit, it’s not because I’m not thinking about you. Seriously, you’re in my heart for keeps.

Of course I have to quote our national bard Robert Burns here, and the most ‘weel kent’ lines from his poem ‘To A Louse.’

‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us,
To see oursels as ithers see us.’

Thank you Norway, it’s been a blast.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010


If you sat down one morning and read your own obituary in a newspaper, would it change the way you went about living the rest of your life? For one famous Swede, just such a scenario took place, an event he later viewed as a sort of blessing. His actions, as a result of this curious incident, turned out to be a gift to the world too.

Alfred Bernhart Nobel was born in Stockholm, Sweden in 1833. He became a successful chemist, engineer, and innovator, with 355 different patents to his name. The trouble was, his most well-known invention happened to be dynamite, which, although useful, caused mayhem on a massive scale....certainly not a blessing to humanity.

It was in 1888 that Alfred’s brother Ludwig died, and a newspaper made the mistake of thinking Ludwig, rather than Alfred, had been the one who had made his fortune from dynamite. The headline read ‘The Merchant of Death is Dead’ and condemned him for his deadly invention.

Nobel was horrified, and became determined to alter the legacy he was leaving behind. He left most of his vast fortune to the setting up of the various prizes that are now awarded by the Nobel Committee in Sweden....physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and economics. But it is perhaps the most famous, the Nobel Peace Prize, that is awarded annually in Oslo on the anniversary of Nobel’s death, 10th December 1898.

In 1895 when Alfred Nobel drew up his will stipulating the rules of the prize, he insisted that the responsibility for the Peace Prize should be delegated to the Norwegian Storting (Parliament). Ever since the first Peace Prize was given to Jean Henri Dunant in 1901, the Swiss founder of the Red Cross, it has been awarded in Oslo.

Nowadays, when someone like Barack Obama comes to Norway to accept the Nobel Peace Prize, the world watches. Over the years, it has been awarded to Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Lech Walensa, the 14th Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela to name just a few. The Prize Committee has a serious job on its hands in making a selection each year, and I wonder if such a responsibility has any kind of effect on Norway as a nation. Having survived five years of Occupation within living memory, ‘Peace’ is highly cherished. Norway is a wealthy nation, but it is also a small plays a valuable role within international relations and takes a keen interest in how to solve problems in the world’s trouble spots. Norwegians were involved in peace processes in Sri Lanka, El Salvador, Sudan, Nicaragua and the former Yugoslavia. In 1993 the Norwegian contribution to the peace process in the Middle East led to what has become known as the Oslo Accord between Israel and the PLO.

You might think that a small country has no real political weight within international politics, and that for any one individual to try to work towards peace is naive and ridiculously optimistic. But I’ve been reading a book that proves every individual effort is not only worthwhile but necessary. A friend pointed me towards ‘A Billion Lives’ by Jan Egeland. Despite growing up in a comfortable home in Stavanger, Egeland was well-aware of the difficulties other people faced across the world. As a teenager he became involved in campaigning for human rights, and before long had established a career for himself. Described nowadays as a ‘veteran peacemaker’, he became the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and worked in Darfur, Eastern-Congo, Lebanon, Gaza, Northern Israel, Northern Uganda and Colombia. He is now the Director General of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, and was indeed the initiator of the Norwegian channel between Israel and the PLO that lead to the Oslo Accord.

Egeland quotes Henrik Ibsen at the start of his book : ‘A community is like a ship. Everyone ought to be able to take the helm.’ But it is a remark Egeland makes himself that fills the reader with hope, despite everything.

‘For the vast majority of people, the world is getting better, there is more peace, more people fed and educated, and fewer forced to become refugees than a generation ago. So there is reason for optimism.’ Egeland’s story is a testament to the fact that one person, despite their privileged background, can do a great deal of good. Go read.

Monday, 7 June 2010


Have you ever seen the Northern Lights?

I’ve seen them several times from Scotland, but not from Norway, as yet. I have a few days left and it’s June and I’m in the south of Norway, so my chances are virtually nil right now. But I have my spies, so I’m sure I’ll see them a few more times before the century is over. The best time to catch them is meant to be between October and March, and the further north you go, the better your chances.

But nothing is certain with ‘the Tricky Lady’ as she is called. We humans have no definite way of forecasting when this extraordinary phenomenon is likely to appear.

Now, here’s the scientific bit.....just so you know. The Aurora Borealis is caused by streams of charged particles from the sun, the solar winds, flowing past and elongating the earth’s magnetic field in the polar regions (if you happen to be in the southern hemisphere, you’ll obviously be looking out for the ‘Aurora Australis’ instead). Since the field curves in a sort of halo surrounding the magnetic poles, the charged particles are drawn down towards the earth. As they react with electrons in the upper atmosphere, around 160K above the earth, energy is released which creates a visible ‘aurora’. It’s estimated that during a time of high activity, one single ‘aurorial storm’ can produce a trillion watts of electricity.

If anyone can think of a more extraordinary natural sight, I should like to know what it could be...perhaps it is the fact that you are not guaranteed to see it that makes the Aurora Borealis so thrilling. If you are lucky enough to witness it, you might see great streaks of vibrating light, pillars, wisps, and haloes of pale green, light yellow or rose. In times of extreme activity, the colours can be deeper green, a brighter yellow and crimson. Great sheets of pure colour waft about in the sky, and if you didn’t know it was a naturally occurring phenomenon, you might well be terrified out of your wits. Even the most sceptical of humans cannot help thinking that seeing such a sight feels like a genuine gift from some sort of higher power. Over the centuries, all sorts of beliefs, myths and legends have grown up around the aurora, and however the science might enlighten us, I cannot think that people will ever cease to wonder at it.

Er, did I have a camera with me each time I saw the Northern Lights? Nope. You’ll just have to believe me. But I refer you to a fellow blogger, Kjetil Skogli, a photographer and tour guide based in Tromso, and an expert on the Aurora Borealis. I could never compete with his photographs which will take your breath away. Find them at

Friday, 4 June 2010


It’s a hot topic right now, over here. It’s been in the news again today. It’s also one of the most beautiful and unbelievable places I have ever seen.

Lofoten is the name of a string of islands that stick out of the north-western coast of Norway like a crooked finger pointing into the Norwegian Sea. Until we went there, I had no idea of the scale and majesty of the place. It’s as though someone thought, ‘hmm, let’s have a big, cool, high mountain range that sticks right out of the sea and slap it onto the side of Norway.’ Did someone move the Alps, or what? These are seriously big, steep mountains that you really can’t believe when you just see a photograph.

Not everyone would choose to go inside the Arctic Circle for their summer hols, but this time of year is a great time to go, thanks to the Midnight Sun I mentioned the other day. The mountains have scatterings of snow on them, and fall down to open meadows and glorious kind of beaches, with nobody else is on them. You are more or less sure of having the beach to yourself, which is useful, because you must not miss the opportunity of swimming in the sea within the Arctic Circle and you might want to do some very loud screaming.

Right now, if you happen to live in Lofoten, there’s a very good chance you make your lolly through fishing. If not, you will no doubt be indirectly involved in an industry that has created a vibrant economy for the area for centuries. Rich fishing grounds have been created by the meeting of the warm waters of the Gulf Stream and the icy Arctic Ocean, creating an excellent habitat for spawning arctic cod from the Barents Sea. The cod stocks have dwindled in recent years, but as you can see from the multitude of drying racks on which the fish are ‘hung out to dry’, this is still Lofoten’s largest industry. The product, known as ‘stock fish’, is sent to Spain, Portugal and Italy to make ‘bacalao’. Meanwhile, the cod heads are exported to Nigeria where they are boiled with peanuts and hot peppers to make a soup. Lofoten children can earn a krone or two by removing the cod tongues which are, at a later date, boiled up in salt water and served with gravy. Something to try on a dark night, I guess.

It is an industry that has survived for centuries, but the future is uncertain. So now, a very different industry is being discussed, hence Lofoten is in the news. Several oil and gas companies are waiting for the area to be opened up to allow them to drill. They estimate there could be rich pickings, and that a whole new way of life could support the local population and the Norwegian economy as a whole. However, with the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico on everyone’s mind, the environmental lobby has stepped up its argument against drilling off Lofoten. They argue that should such a disaster ever happen here, it would not only be tragic for the ecology of the area, but icy waters and dark winters could make an oil spill even harder to clean up.

It was around this time of year that we sat on a Lofoten beach at midnight, each of us wrapped in a reindeer skin, watching our children dart in and out of the punishingly cold sea with the sun never quite disappearing but bouncing off the horizon like a ball. Time concertinaed into nano-seconds. Stone Age Man, Viking children, medieval fisher-folk, whaling families must all have done exactly the same. The sense of time and space that such a place can present is awe-inspiring. It was as though those Vikings and all the others had only just left the beach...who could guess what might be coming along next?

Wednesday, 2 June 2010


Today I gazed upon the face of Roald Amundsen. It was a picture of a statue, I admit, but all the same, it was enough to remind me of the man’s steely grit. I was flagging on the cleaning front, having packed up the house and being left on cleaning duty, it was becoming DECIDEDLY BORING. Luckily I came across Roald’s craggy stare just as I was wondering how to skive out of the housework, and he more or less ordered me to stop lounging around on the lawn and get on with it.

Roald Amundsen was of course famous for being hot on leadership, and famous for being hot on leadership in very cold places. I, meanwhile, am particularly unhot on cleaning, but unlike Roald, I had not been planning this as my vocation since childhood. So he had a head start, you might say.

Little Roald was born at Borge near Sarpsborg in 1872 . Despite the place being situated on the southern coast of Norway, from an early age he was interested in properly freezing places and dreamed of being a polar explorer. He read every book on the subject he could get his fleecy mitts on, but his Mum was having none of it.

‘Oh Roald, why seek the North West Passage?’ she asked. ‘Just because Sir John Franklin failed to do it in 1845 doesn’t mean it’s up to be a good boy and go study medicine.’

Which he did. Until she died. And then he immediately began studying for his master’s licence (he had already decided that most polar expeditions failed as a result of poor leadership). By 1897 he was sailing to the Antarctic as the first mate on a Belgian expedition when the ship froze into the ice and the captain fell ill with scurvy. Amundsen took command and over the next 13 months, with the ship encased in ice, he successfully displayed his remarkable leadership skills along with his famous grit.

In 1903 Amundsen set sail from Oslo to realize his dream of finding the North West Passage. After two years of taking magnetic readings, studying the Inuit and learning how to drive dog teams, they sailed on and successfully navigated the North West Passage. Tick Number One. Something to write on Facebook, at least.

So the next goal was to reach the North Pole, but just after persuading his good friend Nansen to lend him is ship ‘Fram’, Amundsen heard that Robert Peary had just reached the Pole. ‘Oh bother,’ said Roald as he turned his attention to the South Pole instead.

As he set off in 1910 he heard that Robert Falcon Scott had come up with the same plan and a British expedition was already underway. The race was on. Amundsen’s party arrived at the South Pole on 14th December 1911. And, as every British school child knows, Scott’s party arrived at the Pole on 17th January 1912, only to find the Norwegian flag already there.

I find the stories of both of these extraordinary men and their expeditions very moving. Scott’s was tragic, not just because he had failed to reach the Pole first, but because he and four other men died of starvation and cold on the route back. But he has also gone down in history as being one of the great leaders of the last century, and the story of his ill-fated expedition is gripping. For some reason, Amundsen’s achievement has been felt by historians to have made the expedition look too easy. Well, I’d like to see THEM try. Others have argued that perhaps Amundsen, having studied the Inuit and learnt how to work with nature very closely, was better prepared than Scott, and that Scott was also unlucky.

The real point is that both of them displayed exceptional leadership skills, and both of them did reach the South Pole. It was a great moment for the newly independent Norway, and we Brits all know what the Norwegian flag looks like when planted in snow as a result.

This particular statue of Amundsen is in Tromso. I was wondering why the tourist shop up there doesn't sell 'Amundsen Grit' in little bottles. It's useful stuff.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010


These light, light nights. June has arrived, and the main question is, how on earth do we get the children to go to sleep? These days, 10 pm feels like the middle of the afternoon and I’m more or less ready for a cup of tea and a macaroon. Nobody is tired, nobody can imagine why they should be sent to bed, and unless you happen to have curtains that cut out the light with maximum efficiency, you might as well try to sleep in broad-daylight. Once again, the body clock is going awol.

But how puny are our efforts compared to those who live in the far north of Norway. The human inhabitants there are experts at looking after their body clocks, whereas we tourists, up there one June a couple of years ago, we were absolutely useless.

We were north of the Arctic Circle. ‘Anyone fancy dinner?’ I vaguely asked when I happened to observe the time was 11.30 at night. I had no idea when we had enjoyed lunch, but meal times had even less relevance than bedtimes.

I suspect those who live in the Land of the Midnight Sun are extremely strict with themselves. This was clearly demonstrated when I happened to find myself in a hotel bar in Tromso on the evening of the Midnight Sun Marathon. I was quietly congratulating myself on my very feeble effort in the shortest race of that great event (ie, I had skilfully avoided having to take part in the WHOLE marathon....frankly the fact I was even in town when such a thing was taking place was a personal best in itself....I think it is fair to say I am the opposite of everything a runner should be, but I didn’t allow that fact to get in the way of a good race).

However, having completed the course, I was enjoying a small and ruinously expensive beer in a Tromso High Street bar, and I felt it my duty to sit at the window and admire the passing marathon runners....they were the Real Thing in that they were running the full marathon which had started at about 8pm. We were enjoying the spectacle, and trying to guess what sort of music each contestant might be playing to themselves by the pace it was setting for them, when a huge Norwegian barman started to close the blinds, very carefully. What form of madness was this, I asked myself. He was going about it in a very business-like manner, and not taking any flack from anyone.

I was astonished. Clearly he had no idea that the customers over whom he was reaching were engaged and entertained by the drama taking place outside the window. The whole bar was glued to the marathon could he possibly want to blot out the view?

When he arrived at our window, I mildly enquired just what the blazes he thought he was up to...he was, as I say, immense, so I made sure I was being polite.

‘Is it absolutely necessary to close the blinds? We’re watching to see if our friends go past...they’re running, you know, in that marathon outside.’ I mean honestly, how many marathons does the city of Tromso have in a year?

‘It is 11pm,’ he said very firmly, without a flicker of emotion crossing his very serious face. ‘We always close the blinds at 11pm. It is too light. This is very important. We will not feel tired.’

I was FAR to scared to argue. I’d never lived north of the Arctic Circle...what did I know?

‘All this light,’ I remarked, ‘it must be rather a contrast to your long, dark winters, I suppose. I think I might go mad if I lived here.’

‘Exactly,' he growled. 'We could all go mad at any moment. We have three solid months of no light at all in winter, and now we have THIS,’ he pointed aggressively in the direction of the sun.

I shrank back into my ignorant tourist mode. Eventually I managed to pluck up enough courage to sneak a few peeks at the runners by forcing a wee viewing hole in the slats when the guy wasn’t looking. Luckily, I wasn’t caught.

But in a way I rather admired his attitude. It was as if those who knew how to live within the Arctic Circle were more finely-tuned to nature than the rest of us....they knew something everyone else had forgotten, that humans need to sleep in the dark, and it is therefore a natural human activity to make sure it IS dark, even when the sun is blazing away like crazy outside.

Good night and sleep tight, wherever you are.