Wednesday, 31 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - GOING DOWNHILL


There seems to be some discussion in the mountains of the European Continent right now as to whom it was that first introduced the fabulous sport of Alpine skiing to the Alps. The Norwegians (born with skis on their feet, remember) think they did, but the Brits might have, while the French probably think they did. A spot of digging has been required.

In the latter part of the 19th century the British middle classes were about the wealthiest in Europe. Their comfortable life-style caused them to travel, to seek adventure and thrill, and they soon discovered the clear air of the Alps was enormously invigorating. As time went on, Chamonix was a particular favourite amongst British climbers and from the endeavours of these guys, a favourite haunt became a desirable spot for other tourists.

Meanwhile, the Norwegians had discovered Chamonix too, and thoroughly enjoyed the bountiful snow it provided for their cross-country skiing and ski jumping.

But two Brits arrived in Chamonix who rather put the downhill cat amongst the cross-country pigeons. Two public school boys with a thirst for speed and adventure showed up and instead of going horizontal, they pointed their skis down the Alp instead. Considering the remarkable shape of an Alp, it seems like a ‘no-brainer’ these days, but in the 1920s this was considered flippant foolery.

Sir Arnold Lunn (as in the travel firm Lunn Poly) was the main ‘inventor’ and promoter of this downhill lark, and his accomplice in trying to make the world see this was a proper sport was Sir Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle (yes, the writer himself). A Scot, Sir Arthur had been born in Edinburgh into an Irish-Catholic family. By the time he went skiing with Lunn, he had made his name, which was rather handy for Lunn.

At first the Norwegians were rather cross about these ignorant Brits tinkering with their sport. They used to suggest that downhill was for people too cowardly to jump, and too feeble to do cross-country. One Norwegian was said to have remarked, ‘how would you like it if an Eskimo changed the rules of cricket?’ Since he was not a huge fan of cricket, Lunn’s answer implied that it might be an improvement.

However, very soon the Norwegians and everyone else in Chamonix at the time, realised downhill did, after all, require a certain amount of skill and was not just a soft option. Immediately the Norwegians became mind-blowingly good. By 1936 Lunn had succeeded in introducing Alpine skiing to the Winter Olympics.

Somehow it seems a rather typically British story...invent a sport, make sure it’s accepted by the rest of the world, and then never win it. Rugby, football, golf, cricket, curling and bob-sleigh.....I could go on, but the list is too irritatingly long.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - TRAILER SPOTTING

I meant to talk about trailers yesterday, but I was diverted by a passing elk. I suppose it was the elk’s head that had started it off, so fair enough, but ever since then I have developed a curious obsession with trailers and their contents. I do hope this habit will wear off eventually, laden as it is with a train-spotterish flavour of anorakdom. But right now it’s still going strong.

Norway’s cities are currently emptying as at least half of the population heads off for an Easter holiday. A sizeable section of pleasure-seekers has gone abroad, while a far greater proportion has opted for staying within the country to ski. Inevitably, many folk are hytte-bound, and this, I suspect, is the reason for the superfluity of trailers currently whizzing around on the roads.

There are two aspects to this that have inspired my Trailer Spotting habit. Firstly, I am amazed at the sheer number of trailers. A decent trailer is not a flippant piece of kit...it requires space to store, a tow-bar on one’s vehicle (not a cheap item here) and no end of gadgets in order to make it road-worthy, safe and legal. None-the-less, a trailer seems to have reached the elevated status of a designer accessory. There are people with trailer-envy, you know.

Secondly, I am stunned at the skill of those driving these things. In Scotland, on farms, it is a sort of ‘coming-of-age’ thing to be able to reverse a tractor with a trailer (usually loaded with muck) through a narrow gate. I can’t claim to have enjoyed unlimited success in this area (I’m only admitting this for the purposes of this piece....I have no wish to prolong the boring argument about women drivers, reversing and spatial awareness, thank you). Driving a trailer is not exactly a piece of ‘kake’ as they say here. In Norway there are endless kilometres of narrow roads with a scarcity of passing places, which inevitably means the trailer-driver has to be skilled at reversing. And most of them are...I enjoyed a splendid moment in a ferry queue when a Norwegian was required to reverse his trailer down a concrete slope and then up a steep gang-plank onto a ferry, and into a miniscule space between two lorries. He did it effortlessly at astonishing speed and without flinching. I was quite cross that the queue of watching motorists didn’t burst into enthusiastic applause.

I have seen trailers with trees, logs, lavatories, generators, engines, furniture and actual kitchen sinks. I have witnessed pianos sailing along the motorway, whole collections of bicycles, windsurfers, pieces of boat, whole boats, and prawn-filled tanks. I have even spotted an entire hytte, pre-assembled and shining, sitting on top of a trailer ready for transport to a new site (it may have been a ‘Wendy-hytte’ but it was an adult-sized one). But my favourite example was a trailer with an absolute belter of a rock in it, a monster boulder clearly destined for a more worthy location than wherever the Ice Age had inconveniently dumped it. I noticed Obelix was driving.

But my favourite Trailer Spotting experience took place one wild, dark night. Despite strong wind and pelting rain, the inclement weather could not deter two Norwegian blokes from standing around in their driveway happily admiring their trailer. They were almost ecstatic. There was a large object in the trailer, a motor-bike perhaps, a mammoth tree stump or a stuffed bear...who could tell, hidden as it was beneath a flapping tarpaulin. The two guys, fully attired for a deep-sea fishing trip as usual, wandered around the trailer joyfully twanging various ropes, fondling straps and buckles and yelling ‘kjempe flott’ (absolutely marvellous) into the darkness. Pigs in their proverbial didn’t have a look in – these guys were in heaven.

Somehow, we have managed to survive without a trailer, but at least my Trailer Spotting has helped me to understand the attraction. How else are we meant to transport that folding canoe?

Monday, 29 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - SEEING ELK

I was innocently stacking the dishwasher, again, when I happened to glance out of the window to see a trailer rolling by with a stuffed elk’s head in it, complete with a pair of very impressive antlers.

‘Oh come on,’ I said to a plate. ‘Get real. This is getting ridiculous. Was that some kind of joke? Please. What kind of place is this?’

The plate just looked at me, blankly. The elk’s head was disappearing down the road while one or two people walked past without so much as blinking. Obviously it must be quite normal to drive elk heads around town.

Having established that I was not hallucinating, my imagination ran riot for a wee while as to why a bloke in a Volvo would drive around with an elk’s head in his trailer. We live in a perfectly normal suburban street, tidy and neat, complete with white picket fences and hanging baskets. It’s not as though he could have met an elk around here. Maybe he’d bought it from a nearby elk head dealer who specialised in elk heads, one for every occasion. Maybe he was rather pleased at having shot this one earlier, and was just showing off by driving around the streets of Stavanger. Maybe he didn’t even know it was in there.

Eventually I decided he’d inherited it from his Granny and he was transporting it in his trailer to his hytte where it would hang on a suitable wall specifically so that visitors could come in and ask, ‘Why the long face?’ Sure, it was an old chestnut, but the old ones are always the best and a merry time could be had by all, which, after all, is the point of going to a hytte.

There’s something about an elk that just makes me smile. They are magnificent and glorious beasts, but they are also serious.There is a road sign here that is unique to Norway...a triangle trimmed in red with an elk wandering across it. It’s a hot-seller around these parts. Elk,or moose, to use the North American name, are numerous in this country, and a real hazard to traffic. There were reported to be approximately 120,000 of them in Norway in 2008, and in addition to causing road traffic accidents, a newspaper estimated that between 2000 and 2008 around 13,000 elk had died in collisions with trains. They can cause ghastly problems, but they look so cool, I’m not in the least surprised people buy replicas of them for cuddly toys.


 
They are herbivores, so they’re not really after your flesh, but they are also extremely big and powerful, and so, if provoked, could spell danger. One octogenarian on a bike was recently cycling past a forest when an elk came out and stared at him. The cyclist, lost for words but clearly game for a laugh, said ‘BOO’. The elk didn’t reply, but charged instead. Luckily the octogenarian was a nifty cyclist and managed to pedal away at break-neck speed. It’s like something out of a comic strip, but somehow it’s also an image that seems peculiarly Norwegian.

I know these elk incidents can be really serious, and I’m glad I haven’t met one on a dark night. But when I read headlines like ‘Nursing home evacuated after elk burst through window,’ it’s extremely hard to keep a straight face, never mind a long one.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - LISTENING TO EDVARD

The thing about having a top composer as one of your national heroes is that it can all become a bit much. I mean, I wouldn’t really mind buying a Mozart ball in Salzburg if it tasted nice, and I suppose having a Venetian gondolier warbling his tonsils around a piece of Puccini adds to the atmosphere, even if it does cause a canal-top prang, but I still hae ma doots. Here in Norway I can buy a birthday card that belts out ‘Peer Gynt’ the moment I open it, I can buy a troll with Grieg’s face, and I can wear a T-shirt with the great man’s picture on it and have his luxuriant hair sprawling across my chest. So while I was desperate to go visit his house, I was a bit nervous too.

I need not have been, as this photograph reminds me.

The curious science of conjuring up the creative spirit is often remarked upon but seldom specified. For those accustomed to seeking inspiration, whether within the arts, sciences or somewhere else, they cherish certain props, thoughts, phrases, or places that enhance the imagination as they disappear to work at The Desk, The Studio, The Lab or whatever. I can't quite put my finger on why I find Grieg's desk so moving and inspiring. Despite the march of Feminism, as an expat wife and mother, convention can assume that one’s creativity would find all the expression it requires at The Sink, The Cooker and The Washing Machine. So now that I HAVE my own desk once again, I keep this shot above it in the hope of coming up with some kind of brilliant master-stroke (don’t hold your breath).

The Muse is a slippery being, as likely to strike while philosophising in some heavenly landscape as while taking out the rubbish. The trick seems to be that if one EVER has an idea, a light-bulb moment, a new thought, it is vital to find the means of recording it before it is lost forever. We can only guess at how we might all have changed the world if only we’d had a pencil to hand.

By the time Grieg had become successful, he had managed to ensure that any suggestions the Muse might make would stand a good chance of being kept. For a guy whose specific aim it was to produce the music that would encompass the spirit of his nation, there can be no better place than the one in today’s photograph. Here at this desk, in his hytte at the bottom of his garden, Edvard Grieg would sit and work. His upright piano stood against the wall next to his desk. Onto the piano stool he heaped a stash of Beethoven scores in the hope that Ludvig’s spirit might radiate brilliant sweeps of genius up Edvard’s short spine, but more practically, so that his diminutive figure could reach the keyboard correctly.

Edvard and his wife Nina had a house built for themselves just outside Bergen, and while they often spent the winters in warmer parts of Europe, they returned each spring and stayed here at Troldhaugen. He found the house too noisy to work in, and so, in typical Norwegian fashion, he resorted to the tranquillity of his hytte. The poor man was plagued by ill-health....rheumatism, gastritis, nervous disorders, anaemia, gout, asthma and recurring bronchitis in his one remaining lung. In keeping with the romanticism of his music, it could be said that he suffered for his art, but, in fact, he suffered anyway. He was known for being notoriously outspoken, if not deliberately provocative. But he was also kind, patient with children, and he gave many charity concerts for the unemployed and victims of leprosy. He once said, ‘I love Norway precisely because it is so poor.’

Norway, however, had taken several decades to appreciate him. He had struggled for years and eventually found success in Copenhagen. But amongst musicians, he was ‘the business’. Rachmaninov declared he knew of no piano concerto more beautiful than Grieg’s, Liszt attended his concerts for years, Wagner and Richard Strauss invited him to their houses, and Dvorak, Bruckner, Brahms and Tchaikovsky all showered him with praise. Eventually, he achieved rock star status, and was celebrated by kings and emperors. None of this went to his head. He returned each year to his home and his hytte, laden with honours, all of which he dismissed as ‘humbug, court stuff and bits of metal.’

The tourist industry which has built up around Grieg is inevitable, and I have ended up thinking it is only right there should be one. The music is just too blinking good. Despite illness, rejection and, at times, lack of funds, he pulled it off. He sat at this desk, looking out onto the fjord, at peace with the landscape before him, and continued to pour his heart into his music. He was said to be able to make listeners ‘hear the fall of dew’. Nobody can argue with that.

Friday, 26 March 2010

A DAY TO REFLECT

30 years ago, one of the world’s worst oil industry accidents took place off the Norwegian coast, the worst industrial accident in Norwegian history. I cannot write about anything else today.

The accommodation platform Alexander Kielland, capsized. 123 people lost their lives. A simple ‘Mayday’ radio message lasting only a few seconds, and followed by complete silence, was all that was heard from the platform on the night of 27th March 1980. The Kielland had been on the Edda field near Ekofisk. At 18.53 the nearby Edda platform logged that the Kielland was upside down. It was a nightmare that no-one at the time could have believed was possible.

The platform was situated 235 miles east of Dundee, with a crew consisting of mainly Norwegian people, with some Britons and Americans on board too. Norwegian and RAF helicopters were sent to the area but with poor weather conditions the rescue attempt was extremely difficult. 89 people were rescued.

The subsequent commission of inquiry discovered that the accident had been caused by metal fatigue in a weld on one of the braces which tied the five column supports together.

The accident left a lasting mark on Norway, and in particular within this area. Amongst the oil community, it is often thought of and remembered, and has been a contributing factor in the safety culture of the industry ever since. As an oil wife, and one who has met some of those connected to Scotland’s worst oil accident, Piper Alpha in 1988, I know that such events are in our minds more often than we might admit.

The ‘Broken Chain’ monument was built to commemorate the Alexander Kielland incident, and in particular in memory of those who died. It was unveiled by Crown Prince Harald in 1986. It overlooks the sea at Smiodden near Stavanger, and the monument, together with the story of that dark night, does not fail to move anyone who visits it.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - INDEPENDENT THOUGHTS

407 years ago yesterday Scotland’s King James VI, Jamie the Saxt, succeeded to the throne of England, thus becoming James I. This heralded the start of the Union and ever since the arguments for and against this Union have raged, boiled, bubbled and gently simmered, but have never evaporated. As we now have a Scottish Government in addition to the Westminster one, the discussion continues. And every so often, the eyes of various Scots politicians slid across the sea to an oil-producing Scandinavian utopia.

How very differently things turned out in Norway. Having become a Danish province in 1537, the country remained under Danish rule until 1814. In the same year, a Union was formed with Sweden. It was not until 1905 that Norway gained complete independence (albeit with one horrifying interruption in the form of five years of occupation during WWII). 

The later part of the 20th century saw a welcome change for both Scotland and Norway as the discovery of black gold boosted our economies. So, with both countries having similar sizes of population, perhaps it is inevitable that the non-independent Scots look to Norway.

So yesterday, when a friend asked me to reflect upon what might have happened if King James VI had not succeeded to the English throne in 1603, I felt unable to concentrate on the historical aspect of this question. It was a day when UK ears were tuned into Westminster and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling (a Scot) as he presented his latest UK Budget. As a pre-election Budget, it was always going to be more of a crowd-pleaser rather than a dose of medicine, and sure enough, it turned out to contain few shocks (unless one happens to be a multi-millionaire property-dealer with a fondness for cider). Consequently, my mind leapt from 1603 to the present day and I was awash with the current differences likely to strike any Scot who comes to live here.

The list is, of course, endless, but to spare you, I have allowed myself only a moment’s reflection, as though answering under pressure. No doubt my thoughts might be a little different tomorrow, but here is what springs to mind.

Norway has :

1. More land per head of population

2. A far smaller gap between the wealthiest and the least well off

3. A lower rate of crime

4. A far greater general understanding and use of the countryside

5. Far lower speed limits for drivers

6. Tougher rules on drink driving

7. Heavier fines for driving misdemeanours

8. More road tolls

9. Higher VAT

10. Higher taxes

11. Compulsory Military Service for men

12. Very expensive food, especially meat

13. Horrendously expensive booze

14. A functioning, means-tested and affordable childcare system

15. Greater equality between men and women at work

16. Shorter working hours

17. Better insulated homes

18. A fondness for basements

19. More snow

20. A very cold bit called The Arctic

These were my first 20 immediate thoughts. I am now left to wonder if things would be so very different if Scotland were indeed an independent nation.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - OMGANGSSYKDOM AND GOLDEN BULLETS

It seems everyone I know in Norway has had some kind of illness of late. Colds, flu, stomach upsets, headaches, sore throats, an abundance of sneezles and sniffles have been all the rage. Victims have been standing around on street corners comparing notes on their various ailments, pale faces enlivened by the very reddest of noses, coughing and spluttering interrupting the most important of meetings, the most reverent of gatherings. If you are fit and healthy you are going to be feeling rather left out.

Many suspect this is a natural course of events, and related to the changing of the seasons. The Norwegians have a special name for inter-seasonal illness, ‘Omgangssykdom’. As the air changes, and the amount of light per day alters rapidly, the body clock is thrown out of kilter and we humans are struggling to keep up with Mother Nature. At some point, the majority of us are laid low for a wee while as omgangssykdom takes a grip.

The moment I arrived in Norway, I was ordered by an American (who had lived here for over forty years) to swallow cod liver oil. Her explanation for this lay in the fact that she had been doing so for years in order to stave off depression, thereby reducing the worst aspects of omgangssykdom. She left me with the understanding that if I didn’t take large quantities of cod liver oil I would be the only person in Norway not to do so, and would suffer some inexplicable northern disease. While the taking of cod liver oil is not exactly a government order, it was apparently The Norm.

This was disgusting news. I’d tried the stuff before. I sloped off to the supermarket feeling so depressed I almost contracted a dose of omgangssykdom. Huge vats of the stuff stared at me menacingly from supermarket shelves as I wrestled in an internal debate on whether or not to make a purchase. Yeurch. Was this the price I must pay for living here?

Luckily my eye wandered further along the shelf to a little pot of golden bullets. Ah-ha! I could swallow capsules rather than liquid. The rugged face of Roald Amundsen, explorer extraordinaire, stared out at me from the tin, as though to say, ‘I am ordering you to take these.....if you do, your capacity as a human being will be boosted beyond your wildest dreams, you will be soon capable of great things and you may reach a Pole or two, you never know.’

Thanks, Roald, I said, grabbing the tin. Apparently he took this stuff with him to the Antarctic.

The question is, after three years of making sure we swallow our golden bullets, are we any fitter? Not an easy thing to measure in a family with school children in it, as we are of course subjected to the ever-present bugs that lurk about in schools. We have certainly suffered far fewer colds than we used to, but nobody can prove the reason.

However, there does seem to be something magic about cod liver oil. In the 1990’s, Norwegian scientists carried out a study of almost 22,000 people aged over 40 in which those who took cod liver oil proved to be less likely to suffer depression than those who did not. Being rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, the oil is linked to various benefits....apart from the idea that children’s brains are said to be boosted by Omega-3, there have been claims that it may reduce the risk of stroke and heart attack. However, while experts agree fish oil seems to improve cardiovascular health, it may not be a surprise to learn that healthier people are less depressed. Critics of the study warned that socio-economic factors were not taken into account....wealthier people tend to be healthier and have less depression.

Our bodies need fatty acids to repair skin, and to help the nerve and immune systems to function. Essential fatty acids are vital in the formation of cell walls, and play a part in allowing nutrients and other chemicals to pass in and out of cells.

But, there are two types of essential fatty acids ; Omega-3 and Omega-6. The trick is to achieve the correct balance. Our western diet contains way too much Omega-6 (by 20, even 30 times) due to an abundance of certain vegetable oils. This can make blood thicker, and so blood vessels are more likely to go into spasm and clots more likely to form, increasing the risk of heart attack and other forms of cardiovascular disease. If you get enough Omega-3, but not too much, you can counteract this effect.

So, what to do? The UK Department of Health advises us to eat two portions of oily fish per week....so sardines, trout, herring, mackerel, or salmon. Or a handful of walnuts. Nice if you like them, not so easy if you don’t.

I am not one for popping pills unless instructed to do so by a medic, but while I have a family of fussy eaters, I reckon the golden bullet route is not doing us any harm.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - SPRING WITH GRIEG

As the weekend delighted us with the Equinox, I’ve been listening to a man for whom the arrival of Spring was always big news. Thus, my heart has been singing and aching simultaneously.

The man, of course, is Norway’s greatest composer, Edvard Grieg. The longer I live here, the harder it is to look at Norwegian landscape without this guy’s music running through my head. At first, this was as a result of being a full-blown tourist, and experiencing ‘The Hall of the Mountain King’ through a loudspeaker on a tour boat while chugging up a fjord. How kitsch can you get? But now, it’s either my Ipod or just me...Grieg’s music and Norwegian landscape are inextricably linked.

I was rather hoping that, with a name like Grieg, we Scots might be able to claim a little part of Edvard. As it turns out, we can claim one eighth. His great-grandfather was fed up with Scotland after Culloden, so decided to emigrate from Fraserburgh to further his business opportunities as a fish merchant in Norway. (Grieg was apparently rather proud of his Scottish heritage, and always carried his watch-chain with a seal on it displaying the crest of the Scottish Grieg family.)

Edvard was born in Bergen, and grew up in the comfortable home the fish business could provide at the time. His mother was a gifted pianist and taught her talented and no doubt compliant son to play the piano too. (Warning: don’t try this at home unless your son is both of these and you have nerves of steel.)

But Edvard’s childhood was by no means idyllic. He was remarkably small and weak, and so was bullied ferociously at school. His lack of friends meant he found comfort at the piano keyboard, and soon he began to compose.

There are certain moments, short blips in time, when something happens that changes the course of one’s life. It doesn’t always do to ponder on ‘what if that hadn’t happened’. But when Grieg was 15, one such moment occurred. One of his father’s friends in Bergen was the violinist Ole Bull, whom we have already met. While visiting the family, Ole heard the 15 year old Edvard playing some of his compositions. ‘Kjempe flink’ he cried, by which he effectively meant, ‘Well, stone the crows, this kid’s on fire’. He persuaded the parents to send the boy to Leipzig to further his studies. It was a lucky break , and Grieg later said he knew one thing at that moment, ‘that a good fairy was stroking my cheek and I was happy’.

Leipzig was certainly an opportunity, but it wasn’t exactly heaven either. He was bullied and abused by his teachers and fellow-students, and was said to have wept continually. He later admitted his four years in Leipzig left him with nothing but tuberculosis and painful memories. The fish merchant career loomed once again. However, a private loan enabled him to go to Copenhagen where he met his cousin, the equally small Nina. She was a singer, and after playing duets together, they were soon engaged.

Ole Bull was in Copenhagen at this time too, and through him Grieg met his great and truest friend Rikard Nordraak. Ole and Rikard turned Grieg’s attention away from the pedantic classicism of German composition and towards the folk music of Norway. But no sooner had the two young men forged their friendship when Nordraak died from tuberculosis, and Grieg was left in a grief-stricken rage.

And so, with Grieg’s ‘Last Spring’ playing along in my mind, with its sensation of ice melting, snow vanishing, and the promise of new life, I can only marvel at the sound-track this man managed to create for his country. His life was not an easy one, but his melancholy and sense of loss, added to his intense feeling for Norway, undoubtedly contributed to the music he conceived. There is nothing like doing a spot of Norwegian rock-based-sea-gazing with Grieg in your ears. And if you listen to something like ‘Last Spring’, I challenge you not to weep.

Monday, 22 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - TAKING OUT THE RUBBISH


It’s not hugely glam, but I am spectacularly interested in rubbish. Garbage, trash, surplus, waste, whatever you might wish to call it, it is ‘stuff’ we don’t want and there’s too much of it. 

As I sit here, I am excitedly anticipating the welcome roar of the bin lorry as it arrives to pick up our household rubbish. When one is trying to organise a house in preparation for a move, the picking up of rubbish becomes a manic preoccupation in an effort to ensure that every pick-up opportunity is properly used to maximum potential.

This all started because the first time our rubbish was collected, I noted the amount we had produced was less than half of the amount we had been producing at home. I was already a recycling dictator back home, intolerant of any family member who did not strictly adhere to the recycling opportunities offered by our local authority. So how come my bin in Norway was so much emptier? We were consuming the same amount of food and other goods, and yet the rubbish we put into the ‘general’ collection barely covered the bottom of the bin. At home, our general rubbish bin was almost impossible to close, and needed mammoth force and weight to ram the lid down.

We know that Norway has a reputation for being rather good at recycling, so perhaps I should not have been surprised. There is the threat of being fined here, if you do not recycle correctly, so one pays attention. As a result, we have a small room more or less devoted to rubbish, with a variety of slots, boxes, bags and bins for accuracy of processing. A part of every weekend is devoted to dealing with our rubbish.

The system here is complicated, so I won’t go into details... you have a life to live, and the intricacies of Norwegian waste disposal could fill a three volume novel. Suffice to say, even after several weeks, I still had to consult the rubbish instruction manual on a regular basis to ensure I was folding my milk cartons at the correct angle.

Eventually, however, I got to grips. I promise to be brief. A kerbside collection revolves around various coloured bins. Grey is for general rubbish (fortnightly collection), brown for organic waste (fortnightly), green for paper (monthly) and a specially provided bag for plastic (monthly). We then dispose of glass and tins, old clothes and shoes at various collection stations which are conveniently placed in various car parks. Electrical, toxic and other complex items have to be dealt with separately and with care.

None of this sounds very different from home, so far. But there are one or two subtleties, the most pleasing of which lies in the hilariously named system of ‘pants’. I know it is childish, but hours of mirth have resulted from this curious word, which means, as it turns out, ‘deposit’. Various bottles and cans have a ‘pant’ mark on them, so a stash of these can be stored until some lucky person, usually a child, finds it. The ‘findee’ may take it to the supermarket, feed each item into a machine and receive a most satisfying voucher for the shop. Why we don’t have this system in the UK is beyond me, although I have been reliably informed it is too expensive and unworkable to initiate.Hmm.

The Brits have always felt like the poor relations as far as recycling goes. But my rubbish obsession and careful study over several years has led me to believe that most Brits are not really so very bad at recycling. Many are as obsessive as me, and find the notion of it strangely pleasing. I am convinced that if a system is provided to recycle, the majority of Brits will do it. The problem seems to be that we create more rubbish in the first place, much of which is packaging, so not entirely our own fault.

I haven’t even started on the ‘going to the dump’ experience here in Norway...it’s too big a topic to include for now, but, if you can stand it, I may come back to it. For now, I am interested to read that a Scottish Government ‘key target’ is to have no more than 5% of municipal waste going to landfill by 2025. So I have something to look forward to on my return to Scotland then....after three years of being away, will my bin lid need to be squished down using force, or will the bin be as empty as it has been in Norway?

Such are the thrills and excitements of moving home and country.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - RUNNING

It’s no use. I can’t delay this moment any longer. I’m going to have to stir myself.

Sport Relief has been gripping Britain this last week, with some most unlikely characters forcing themselves to bizarre extremes in order to raise cash for good causes. As long as I install myself on the sofa with phone, credit card and TV remote, then it’s so much easier to feel a part of it all without having to move.

But couch-potato bliss is NOT ALLOWED. I’ll have to move....I just have to. With street-level snow finally vanishing, all sorts of lycra-clad sporty types are emerging into the almost-spring-like air. Every time I look out of the window, yet another athletic Norwegian is whizzing past at an admirable pace. Ice-free, grit-free pavements have been restored to their former glory, it’s not raining, there are fabulous paths all around which afford glorious coastal views, and so the moment has come. I’m going to HAVE to go running.

Let’s be quite clear about this.... I can’t stand running. I can’t imagine what kind of spoil-sport ever thought running was a good idea, but they must have been enormously persuasive. It is ‘a truth universally acknowledged’ that a person of my vintage 'has to do something', and running seems to fit into one’s day better than other forms of exercise. The cross-country skiing was doing the job splendidly, but the snow upped and left, so that was that.

I blame Norway entirely for putting me onto the uncomfortable horns of this running dilemma. Running is all the rage here. Before I came to Norway, it never occurred to me to go running, my former efforts being so pitiable they left me in the safe and secure knowledge that running was best left to the experts. I was the wrong shape, I didn’t have the right clothes, the shoes were too high-tech for a normal person to understand, and it was just horrible. And anyway, running is for skelfs. Skelfdom is not part of my natural being.

But Norway MADE me take up running. I was innocently minding my own business on a plane flying to the North, happily ensconced in a riveting and frantically useful magazine article about how to pitch a tent on snow in the Arctic in a Force 8 gale. Due to language difficulties, it was taking me longer to read than it would to pitch a tent in an Arctic blizzard, so I was oblivious to the irritating queries of my fellow travellers. I vaguely said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, ok then,’ by mistake, to shut up whoever was annoying me.

It was only later on that I discovered I’d agreed to be entered into a race...a running race....the 4.2K part of the Tromso Midnight Sun Marathon. It seemed the TA would be busy with the 10K so who was going to accompany the offspring in the 4.2 if I didn’t? As usual my plans for a relaxing, book-filled, gluttonous, lethargic Arctic Circle experience had been smashed to ice crystals. I was going to have to run in an actual event.

I know 4.2K is a pathetically miniscule distance to most people, and you are no doubt snorting lustily right now. Well, thanks for the sympathy. All I can say is, we ALL managed. And we ran, we didn’t walk. (I might go into details at a later date, 4.2K being a longer story than you might think.)

It’s an extraordinary thing, but after having a race thrust upon me, I mysteriously became hooked on something for which I was definitely not designed. Obviously it’s an appalling sight, so I only run in total privacy, and often in the pitch dark. Or in disguise. But those of us who are not natural runners now have a champion, a non-skelf super-hero in the form of comedian Eddie Izzard (who looks a wee bit Norsk, actually....maybe he had a Viking ancestor). Eddie’s astonishing achievement for Sport Relief must certainly rank as one of the maddest running plans ever. But he did it...he ran over 1000 miles, 43 consecutive marathons in 51 days.

So, I’ve decided, one day I might do The Balmoral. For now, I’m off for a jog along the coast. Don’t watch.

Friday, 19 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - FIDDLING

I have a secret passion, one in which I am obliged to indulge only when there are no other humans or animals present. If any such being is nearby, they will be sure to suffer frightfully, and then scarper in haste.

I like fiddling. No doubt it’s some kind of midlife-crisis thing, but the joy of fiddling is one that was only thrust upon me in adult life. And make no mistake, everything you ever heard about someone trying to learn the violin is true. It is tortuous, obnoxious and very painful on the ear. But it is part of my plan for later on. I fully intend to while away my retirement jamming in pubs with unsuitable fiddlers in some of the more remote parts of Scotland.

It seems to me the fiddle is a truly excellent instrument for those who happen to live in remote places, so perhaps this explains why the instrument should lie at the heart of traditional music in both countries. Living in the countryside of Scotland’s North East, it is almost impossible to avoid all the fiddling that goes on there. And in Shetland, they are famous for it.

As in Scotland, geography has played a part and so Norwegian playing varied in style from region to region. With the fiddle being such a portable instrument it was used wherever it might be needed. In the past, for example, a bridal procession would be led by a fiddler, down a mountainside, across a fjord, the fiddler being almost as important as the bride herself.

Who knows why all this wasn’t enough. Maybe it was the dark winters or the remoteness, maybe they just got bored, but for some reason some Medieval Norwegian joker came up with an instrument that was so hard it took fiddle-playing to a different, even more fiendish level. From my own experience, I reckon the instrument is quite difficult enough already, but, nope, they had to make it even harder. So they invented the Hardanger Fiddle, known in Norsk as Hardingfele.

It’s a nightmare. In addition to the usual four strings, they added four more(and sometimes five), known as ‘sympathetic strings’ as they sit underneath the original strings and resonate like crazy. (The word ‘sympathic’ in this context seems rather ambitious, if not cruel.) The result is an extraordinary, beautiful and eery sound which left some people believing that many good Hardanger fiddlers were taught to play by the Devil himself. It is a sound that has influenced composers ever since, and was recently used in the soundtrack to ‘Lord of the Rings-Two Towers’. Nowadays, the Hardanger Fiddle, with its highly decorated bodywork and unique, haunting, mesmerizing sound, is considered to be Norway’s national instrument.

All this fiddling created a rich folk tradition from which many glorious players emerged. But there is one that must be mentioned here. Ole Bull, born in Bergen in 1810, was a musician who took violin-playing to a new level and to an audience far beyond the borders of his own country. After meeting Paganini in Paris, Ole began an ambitious series of concerts around Europe, and soon made his mint. His fame matched the rising tide of Norwegian romantic nationalism at the time, and he championed the idea of a sovereign state, with Norway being separate from Sweden.

So with Ole Bull taking Norway to Europe and Alexander Rybak bringing Europe to Oslo, one could say fiddles have been instrumental. Personally, I’m rather keen on all things that help our nations to understand each other. The ties that bind through music, the connections that are made, whether between people, over time, across borders or between cultures, give me the heebie jeebies.

But it’s very inspiring. Luckily everyone else is out so I think I’ll go and have a quick twang and scrape.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - DANCING TO RYBAK

Why walk from dishwasher to sink when I could dance? Why traipse to the cooker when I can do a soft-shoe-shuffle? Why open the fridge door without a dramatic flourish, as though it’s my latest tango partner? And why wouldn’t I pretzel with a pretzel? Since the kitchen is the place I end up spending too much of my time, I see no reason not to enjoy myself while I’m in there. So, obviously, duh....if last year’s Eurovision winner Alexander Rybak comes on the radio and blasts out ’Fairytale’ I’m going to be giving it the Full Fandango.

How was I to know there were four lugubrious teenagers watching me, open-mouthed, through the kitchen window? I didn’t know they were going to show up just then, did I? And anyway, that boy Alexander Rybak, he knows a thing or two about how to make a person dance.

Obviously people as ancient as me are not meant to dance around the kitchen. It’s appallingly hideous. But the open-mouthed teenagers made me realise something....they have absolutely no idea that anyone older than 21 would even CARE about how to dance, sing, or perform.

The current teenage mantra, ‘I want to be a popstar/singer/performer’ is so increasingly regular, it is becoming almost painful. So often those who say ‘it’s my life, it’s all I ever wanted to do, it means the world’ are forgetting that they might have to learn HOW to do it first. (Do I sound like an old bag? Excellent.)

In the week that the British public has voted for the UK entry into the Eurovision Song Contest 2010, Alexander has been on my mind, as well as in my ears. As last year’s winner, he has ensured that Oslo will host this year’s event. Personally, I think it’ll take quite a bit to improve on last year’s winning entry. Not only did he achieve 387 points for Norway, the highest tally any country has achieved in the history of Eurovision, but he came up with one of the catchiest tunes of the decade.

Now I admit some people might find the impish Alexander mildly irritating. His relentless, cheeky-chappie cuteness is on the very edge of being too much. But don’t let that image fool you. I reckon Mr Alexander Rybak knew EXACTLY what he was doing down to the last peg on his fiddle. If ever I saw an all-round song-and-dance man, it is he, from his dinky-dimples to his twinkle-toed tootsies. This boy knows how to entertain. He knows how to use his cuteness. And he knows he knows.

I appreciate it’s a bit off, but the reason I am smitten is because he is just so very good. I find it enormously refreshing that a young person who wishes to thrust themselves into the limelight should have bothered to learn his art first...call me ‘old-fashioned’ but it makes sense to me.

Alexander, originally born in Belarus, which in 1986 was still part of the USSR, was the son of a classical pianist mother, and a father who was a well-known violinist. Music was natural, and sure enough, the four year old Alexander picked up his first fiddle just as the family moved to Norway. By the age of 10 he was studying at the Barratt Due Institute of Music in Oslo. The fiddle was always his thing, he was utterly at home with it tucked under his elfin chin, and he could do anything he liked with it. So what did he do? He supplemented his fiddle-playing with a natural flair for singing, acting, dancing, and writing music.

In assessing the talent shows of this world, he decided to win one. He entered Norway’s equivalent of X Factor in 2006 and reached the semi-finals. He then entered his own song, ‘Foolin’,’ into the next one, and played the fiddler in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ at the Oslo Nye Teatre,.for which he won an award. As Eurovision approached, he jotted down an award-winning song, picked up his fiddle, and off he went. If ever I saw a young man who knew exactly how to command the stage and hold an audience in the palm of his hand, it is Alexander Rybak.

So as Oslo awaits the madness that is the Eurovision Song Contest, for me Alexander’s win has rather shone a light on the whole industry. His years of learning his craft and his natural talent mean he is in control, and not necessarily at the mercy of record companies and style gurus...he can do exactly as he likes, and I predict he’ll carry on performing as, where and whatever his fancy takes him.

But his story is more than just a straight-forward triumph. It is a lesson in how to ‘dumb down’ intelligently. If popular culture must be subjected to an endless stream of talent shows and contests, it would do the hoards of hopeful contestants no harm at all if they ‘wise up’ and learn how to ‘dumb down’ properly.

So, with Alexander on my mind, polish your shell-likes. I’m in the mood to talk Norwegian music.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - BEING POLITE

It’s a well known fact that Scots, and indeed all English-speaking people, are brought up to say please and thank you at every opportunity. By the time they are adults, this is automatic and more-or-less non-stop. I sometimes wonder if we use ‘politeness’ words as a kind of filler-in, so as not to have to suffer the agony of any embarrassing silences between other words. Brits often take this to an almost ludicrous extent, so that if someone bumps into them in the street causing them to spill their shopping all over the pavement, it is always the ‘bumped-into-person’ who will apologize and possibly even thank the bumper for the experience. However, until I came to Norway I had no idea how engrained this manic politeness is....it is sewn into the very fibre of my being.


So, can you imagine my surprise when I first started to learn Norwegian and discovered there was no word for ‘please’? I couldn’t think how a language could evolve without ‘please’, how on earth the Norwegians had managed to communicate at all, never mind ask for something. (There is the word ‘behage’ which is a verb and so means ‘to please’....so it doesn’t do the same job) And didn’t they feel annoyed when everyone was so demanding and direct all the time? How was I going to manage?

If you see a Brit in Norway in a paroxysm of agony at a supermarket checkout, this is the reason...they are wondering how on earth they are going to say ‘please’ when there is no word for it. They are flummoxed. Their internal workings are tied up in knots trying to plan what on earth to say. Assuming one would normally say ‘please’ to the cashier at least seven times, an alternative strategy is required.

The day I came up with my alternative strategy, I was mightily relieved. At last, I could go to the supermarket and not come back in gut-churning confusion. I decided that where there should be a ‘please’ I would just say ‘thank you’ instead. I was thrilled at my brilliance. Norway was my oyster.

My ingenious strategy worked splendidly for about a year, until I realised I was saying it wrong. Instead of a short, sharp ‘takk’ (which means thank you), I was saying a long-drawn-out, very English-sounding ‘tak’(which means roof).

So, my conversation, for a whole year, ran thus.

‘Hei, hei.’ You have to say this twice. Nobody has ever explained why, so I assume it makes one come across as doubly friendly.

‘How are you today?’

‘Great! Roof,’ I announce with unrivalled conviction.

‘Nice day. Been outside?’

‘Yes, roof. I’ve just been out for a walk.’ I beam heartily.

‘Excellent. Go anywhere nice?’

‘Yeah, roof, down the beach. It was lovely, roof.’

‘Mm, nice. Will you need a bag for your shopping?’

‘No, roof, I’ve brought my enormous set of catering baskets, roof,’ I reply triumphantly.

‘That’s four hundred and fifty two kroner.’

‘Oh, yes, roof,’ I say with lucid comprehension.

‘Do you have two kroner?’

‘Erm, yeah, I do actually. Here you go. Roof,’ I say helpfully.

‘Fantastic. Do you need a receipt?’

‘Yeah, roof, that would be grand. Roof, roof, roof,’ I smile gratefully.

‘Ok, see you soon. Bye.’

‘Bye, and roof,’ I yell with a cheery little wave.

I would just like to point out, the Norwegians are so polite they didn’t mention any of this to me for quite a long time.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

UTTERLY NORSK THING - SEEKING OLEAGINOUS JUICES

This morning, if I want to buy a barrel of oil, I’m going to have to pay 79.7 US dollars. But this price is more than just a simple figure. The ever-changing oil price is the reflection of a long and complex story. Today Brits are furious at the cost of petrol at the pumps and fuel for heating their homes. The cost to the consumer never seems to be reflected in the oil price itself, and that makes people mad. But the route to finding and extracting oil is so much more complex than most people realise, and the costs are hair-raising. The story in Norway was one from which even a hardened gambler might shy away. And, it is certainly worth knowing, because it nearly didn’t happen at all.

Way back in 1752 a bloke who rejoiced in the name of Erich Pontoppidan mentioned that the North Sea might contain ‘bituminous and oleaginous juices’. Pontoppidan was a theologian and scientist who had spent many a happy hour inspecting the natural history of Norway. But when he wrote that ‘it was probable that...here and there in the Sea, ..... runne Oil-Brookes or Streams of Petroleo’, people couldn’t be sure one way or the other.

Much later, in 1958, in preparation for the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea, the Geological Survey of Norway was asked to look into the possibility of oil in the North Sea. Its conclusion was clear: ‘The chances of finding coal, oil or sulphur on the continental shelf off the Norwegian coast can be discounted’.

So that was that then. Pontoppidan knew heehaw.

Until four years later. Quite what form of mule-like stubbornness it took to go against this 1958 statement has yet to be determined. But way out in Bartlesville, Oklahoma some geological pedants thought differently. Gas had been discovered onshore in the Netherlands in 1959, and the guys in Oklahoma looked at a big map and thought, ‘Well I’ll be darned if there ain’t some kind of thang goin’ on between those Dutch reservoirs and that Big Ol’ North Sea.’

And so the search was on.

There are two main things needed when searching for oil. Number One, The Patience of Job. Number Two, Extraordinarily Large Sums of Wonga. Without patience and money, nothing will happen. Have faith, my friend, your geologist MIGHT be right...but only after you’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars and twiddled your thumbs red raw.

So in 1962 a request for an exclusive licence to explore for petroleum was lodged with the Norwegian Government. 1965 saw the first offshore licensing round, and the North Sea boundary lines with Britain and Denmark were agreed. Then everyone just sat around while the guys offshore got on with it.

Nothing happened. Then nothing happened. Then nothing happened for a long time. By 1969 people were getting seriously disgruntled, not to mention skint. This little game wasn’t funny any more. Someone was having a laugh. This was a wild goose chase, a needle in a haystack, a monstrous waste of time, an immoral waste of money. A total of 29 wells were drilled and proved to be dry, dry, dry. Optimism drained away like water into sand.

By the end of 1969, Phillips Petroleum Company were the only people who had not lost hope, but even they were being worn down. A decision was made to drill one last time, one more well, one final chance.

It was Christmas Eve 1969 when –BINGO- oil was struck. Known forever more as Norway's Christmas Present, a giant oil field was discovered, Ekofisk, and history was made. Only JUST inside the boundary line with Denmark, Norway’s fortunes changed overnight and forever. Ekofisk proved to be the biggest oil field in Europe, and is still producing ‘oleaginous juices’ to this day.

And where does all Ekofisk’s Black Gold go? Every last drop is exported to a refinery in Teeside, UK.

Monday, 15 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - DUSTING ROCKS

Two Scottish ladies, Jinty McGinty from Glasgow and Sadie McBraidie from Aberdeen, met for a scone in Scone.

Mothering Sunday had brought on a bitter-sweet twang of nostalgia, both of them having recently experienced the empty nest syndrome for the first time. They realised this was foolish, since their wee boys had grown into big galumphing students, and were happily ensconced in their studies away from home at university. None-the-less, the two mothers were in need of comfort and solace.

‘I don’t know,’ moaned Jinty between buttery mouthfuls. ‘I can’t help worrying. I mean...geology. Really! What kind of a subject is that for a young man to choose? And he would have made such a lovely doctor too?’

Sadie raised her drawn-on eyebrows. ‘Whatever do you mean, Jinty? Geology is a noble subject, and tells us all sorts of helpful and useful things. I’m sure he’ll find it most diverting.’

‘Oh, it’s alright for you, with a sensible boy doing engineering. But honestly, geology. It’s all because he likes the hills. Never stops picking up odd bits of rock. And I’m the one who has to dust his collection, you know. It’s awful boffinish, don’t you think? And he’s simply bound to end up with one of those big hairy beards...they all do, in geology. And he was such a bonny wee lad, too.’

‘Pull yourself together. You're havering,' said Sadie, replacing her floral teacup firmly into its saucer. ‘He’s not a bonny wee lad any more, and he can grow a beard if he must. You’re allowed to do strange things when you’re a student. Now dinna fash yersel and think what a lovely career he’s going to have.’

Jinty emitted a small screech. ‘That’s just it...what sort of career can he have with geology? It’s all about very old rocks...I can’t see the sense in it...seems to me it’s an absolute dead end.’

But Sadie had her head screwed on, and blessed with the strong work ethic typical of folk from the North East, she basked in a practical vision as far as careers were concerned. She leant forward into the table and eyed Jinty meaningfully. ‘Well, that just goes to show, dearie, how much you know about the Scottish economy. Haven’t you heard about the oil industry? Don’t you know they are crying out for good geologists...even now?’

Jinty was a wee bit peeved. ‘Well I don’t see what that’s got to do with it? After all, what sort of career will that give him? And it’s so unfashionable these days, what with all this talk of being green. And anyway, surely the oil’s bound to run out soon, isn’t it?’

‘Well you may say that, but it’ll take a geologist to tell us,’ whispered Sadie in triumph.

Considering the significance of the oil industry to the Scottish and the UK economy, it is astonishing how little interest the Scots themselves take in it. Outside the North East of Scotland, and of course, Shetland, where everyone knows very well what oil has done for us, there is still an enormous ignorance of an industry that has generated more revenue for Scotland than any other in recent years. We do live, after all, in the Oil Age, so one might think it would be front page news on a daily basis. But as legitimate and urgent concern for the environment is quite rightly occupying our thoughts, the riches oil has provided and the technological advances it has nurtured seem to be rather underplayed.

Guess what...this is not the case in Norway. With 50% of Norway’s revenue currently being created by the oil and gas industry, everyone from Kristiansand to Hammerfest is thoroughly well-aware of what the industry is doing, and has done, for this nation. The general public realise that Norway has around 50% of the oil and gas reserves of Western Europe, one of their biggest customers being the UK. Norwegians have witnessed the enormous changes this oil wealth has brought, and they understand the need for technology to drive the industry forward.

For anyone who, this very morning, woke up in a warm house, washed, put on clothes, ate breakfast, touched any kind of plastic, used motorised transport or fiddled with an electronic device, they should know that oil is easing their every move. It made the very screen you are looking at now. The likes of Jinty McGinty from Glasgow are not paying attention. Has it never occurred to her that the expertise and brains harboured by the oil and gas industry could well offer a way forward in the search for alternative energy?

Discuss.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - WEEKEND ANTICIPATION

If someone yells ‘God Helg’ at you, don’t be alarmed. Pronounced ‘Go Hell-G’ it can be eyebrow-raising for an English-speaking visitor, and confusing as it is invariably uttered with such wholesome, rosy-cheeked cheeriness.

The well-wisher is, in fact, being friendly, and wishing you a ‘Good Weekend’...they are not telling you to naff off to somewhere painfully hot where you will fry. They are hoping your weekend will be full of fresh air, healthy exercise, some first-class meals, good entertainment and excellent company. And if you’re really lucky, another hytte visit.

I have noticed Norwegians start employing this friendly greeting from around Wednesday afternoon onwards, in a fevered anticipation of the thrills the weekend may bring. I have never been in any country where the effort to ensure one’s leisure time is used to achieve maximum enjoyment, and therefore benefit, is so concentrated. 

An enviable network of roads, tunnels, bridges and ferries is available to transport the weekend pleasure-seeker to mountain, fjord, hytte, a choice of 21 national parks and some extremely serious wilderness. It’s as though someone decided, way back once the Viking era had finished and there was no need to indulge in battle any more, it was the government’s duty to ensure that the entire population remained ‘frisk som en fisk’. So fitness-freakery was on the national agenda.

Over 1000 years ago (so roughly when the Vikings were deciding to pack it in and put their feet up) some wise guy came up with the idea of ‘allemannsretten’...’every man’s right’. Later on, they sharpened this concept up a bit and created the Norwegian Outdoor Recreation Act (Friluftsleven) which states that everyone is legally entitled to hike or ski across wilderness areas, including outlying fields and pastures. You can camp anywhere for up to two days, provided you are more than 150m from a dwelling, and mess about in boats on all rivers and lakes to your heart’s content.

However, with this generosity of spirit, there are one or two obvious rules. No litter, no damaging of plant or animal life, leave cultivated areas intact, and keep the wilderness as pristine as you found it. Seems like a pretty good deal to me.

This freedom to roam is taken very seriously, and I have often been amazed to see bunches of complete strangers in our garden...while they haven’t actually sat down for a picnic, they were none-the-less entirely happy to wander willy-nilly through my lavender and rosemary.And I don’t mind in the least...I know they will be careful.

I admit I have seen one or two bottles and cans left lying about, but it is so infrequent I feel like making a note in my diary. So, on the whole, this liberal attitude to access works, and I THINK almost everyone respects their countryside. I’m not too sure the same can be said for the entire population in Scotland.

I once overheard a forthright Brit commenting on this habit of embracing the outdoor life to his long-standing, and no doubt, patient Norwegian colleague. ‘You’re country is basically just one great big country club,’ he said.

There was a sharp intake of breath, followed by a lengthy silence. The two colleagues concentrated very, very hard on their work for an hour, and then went to lunch separately. In the canteen, they sat at different tables, stealing glances at each other from time to time in unspoken combat. The Norwegian went out for a little lonely walk and did some rock-top-sea-gazing for a wee while.

Finally, both of them were sitting at their desks again.

‘You know,’ said the Norwegian. ‘What you said earlier...’

‘I know, I’m sorry. I didn’t really mean....’

‘I think you’re absolutely right.’

Friday, 12 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - THE COST OF BOOZE

Hurrah, it’s Friday. Let’s go for a couple of swallies down the pub.

As students in Scotland, it was always a joke....how to spot the Norwegian student’s room....it’ll be the one with the most alcohol sitting on the window-sill.

It’s not even funny, is it? And what’s more, it’s a bit rich coming from a Scot. The image of the drunken Scotsman is well-established, and seems to be permanent. If you happen to be from Glasgow, like me, it is assumed you must be related to Rab C. Nesbitt. It’s hilarious, but it’s also troubling and saddening.

I am sitting here in Norway with a glass of tap water and watching the Scottish Parliament wring its collective hands over whether or not to increase the price of alcohol in Scotland. From here, the sight is surreal. The arguments against price increases are strong. Surely alcohol costs enough already? And there’s a recession so a price increase would cause job losses, brewing and distilling are vital to our economy, pubs will suffer even more, and then the city centres won’t thrive. And the middle classes won’t like it because of course they only drink in moderation, don’t they?

Och well, if we can’t raise the price we’ll just add to the taxpayer’s burden instead. And anyway, they can get statistics to say anything they like, can’t they?

So I looked at a bunch of stats. Hold onto your hats, chaps...it’s enough to drive you to drink. A 2008 Scottish Government paper on alcohol concluded that the estimated indicative total cost to Scottish society of alcohol misuse in 2006/7 was approximately £2.25 billion. Meanwhile, another study discovered that in 2006/7 an estimated 111,200 GP consultations concerned alcohol misuse, a contact rate of 20.6 per 1000 population. And there was more....we Scots drink 25% more alcohol than people in England and Wales, and we are 8th in the world for alcohol consumption per head of population. Just a wee cocktail of random facts.

Well, it’s Friday, so let’s go down the boozer for a few swift ones while we discuss this a little further. Anyone care to tag along?

Scotland: aye, sure, I’ll be there. I really fancy gettin’ absolutely blootered the night. I deserve it.

Norway: maybe some of us might look in for a moment. But we’re all quite busy and we were there last week too, so it won’t be for long.

Scotland: I’ll buy the first round.

Norway: we always get our own.

Scotland: mine’s a pint, so that’ll be about £3.80 if we’re talking Aberdeen, a wee bit less in Glasgow.

Norway: I’d like a beer, one 0.4 litre beer, so that will be 68 Norwegian kroner, which is, with the current exchange rate, £8.

Scotland: Allow me, it’s nae bother, that was a round for 5 folk...here’s a twenty pound note.

Norway: I met this hilarious Scottish guy in here once...he’d just arrived in this country, so we let him buy the drinks....150 quid later and he was cancelling his holidays. Funny...haven’t seen him since.

Scotland: How many’s that? Well, I reckon I’ve had about 5 by now....but I can squeeze in a few more. Line them up, man.

Norway: I’ve had two, so if I have any more I can’t drive in the morning.

Scotland: Fancy joining me for the footie tomorrow? I’ll have the car so I’ll pick you up nice and early so we can get a few bevvies in before the kick-off.

Now I’m not saying the Norwegians don’t like alcohol...they love it just as much as any Scot. Nor am I saying all Scots are a bunch of uncaring alchies (the last Speaker in the House of Commons, after-all, was a tee-total Scotsman). But as the Scottish Government debates this pricing issue, I just can’t help noticing that Norwegians think about drink in a far more calculating manner. With controlled availability and far more stringent drink-driving laws, they seem to be genuinely scared of the cost and the consequences.

At least until they go abroad.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - SKI BOOT DREAD


So, you thought it was time to put all the skis away, huh? Snow slowly melting? PAH! Don’t make me laugh.

I thought I might sort out the ski cupboard, in preparation for any downhill we might fit in before the season finishes. There may be slush on the doorstep, but there’s plenty of snow in the Norwegian mountains. Even in Scotland, the ski season is still going strong, with Scottish ski resorts having enjoyed one of their most successful winters ever. We need to keep this up.

As I inspect my downhill ski boots, a sensation of pain races from foot up to shin and beyond. It’s the opposite of a panacea. The very sight of a ski boot acts as a spur to the painful memory of squeezing the wretched things on, feeling depressed at the discomfort I am about to face. It’s a love/hate thing, a dread that lies at the very heart of a day’s skiing, and I do believe every skier recognises it. But men have never been known to admit it.

Seriously, why on earth do we go downhill skiing? What’s it for? Sliding down a mountain on two planks is not sensible. I am invariably plagued by this thought at the start of a day’s skiing....the pain, the inconvenience, the maddening search for all the right stuff, the idiotic expense, the stupidity of getting up in the dark to force my poor tootsies into these horrible boots and then hobble around like a drunk in a fat-suit before piling outside into a freezing blizzard. It's stupid.

Then we have to go and sit on a chairlift, way up high in the sky, where the temperature, supplemented by the wind-chill factor, reaches a bitter minus 28 degrees. Then the chair stops, as though someone down below wants us to be properly tortured. The thing swings in the howling wind while ice particles are fired into any exposed flesh like mini arrows. This is astonishingly sore. Talk about exfoliation...it’s more like sandblasting.

We swing and creak 40 feet above the ‘sastrugi’. This is a Russian word which refers of the windblown icy peaks I see beneath me, ridges of hard-packed crystals like a giant slab of frozen meringue sweeping across the mountain-side, a film-set made of Baked-Alaska. What am I doing here, in mid-air, cowering from the cold beside my chair-lift partner, a complete stranger?

I watch my iced-up, anonymous companion, his frozen nostril-hair stiff as pine needles in the blast. I’d quite like to snuggle up close, but I suppose he’d be shocked. He’s bound to be Norwegian, judging by the manner in which he stoically sits there, unmoved by the ice piercing his leathery face, defiant against the aching cold. He’s becoming whiter by the moment, a sculptural, silent, solid mass....in fact, is he dead? Perhaps he froze to the seat, and he’s been there all night.

I sit there, trying to persuade myself this is fun. Norwegian skiing, like Scottish skiing, is not for sissies. Sure, we can all go to an Alp and pose around in glorious sunshine in our designer-ski suits, enjoying the gluhwein, topping up our suntans, hearty chalet girls with home-made cakes all over the place, glam ladies in fur coats tripping by with dinky pug dogs trotting along behind them...these are Alpine treats any old softie can enjoy. But proper Scottish skiers and their hardy Norwegian cousins have no need for the winter-chic lip-gloss and butt-hugging salopettes enjoyed by those on a more southerly slope. We’re here to tackle a piste with proper pride and perfect parallels whatever the weather.

Eventually, we reach the top, attack the piste with gusto, and it all makes complete sense once again. I belt down a vertical ‘black’ run (they’re the hardest, for those not acquainted with the piste-rating system....just thought I’d point that out). I'm flying, chugga, chugga, chugga, my skis are rattling, my thigh muscles expanding and contracting as the moguls demand, the throbbing thrill of dealing with this mountain acting like a drug. There is nothing to compare.

And that’s the addiction of skiing.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - NORWEGIAN FEELING FOR SNOW

If you pretend to be Inspector Clouseau from ‘The Pink Panther’ for a moment, say this:

‘Bonjour, Monsieur. Erm, do you evv enee snow?’

Note your pronunciation of the word ‘snow’. Say it slowly, in a lingering manner, with considerable emphasis on the vowel sound, your lips in a petulant pout a la Peter Sellers. You may think the noise you are making is French, but actually, it’s Norsk. It is spelt thus : snø.

For the last three years, whenever I have said ‘snow’ I just can’t help thinking I am Inspector Clouseau. Which is unfortunate, what with him being a complete twit. But anything to keep the chickaninnies amused.

We are well into the eighty-first day of snow by now, and it’s still here. But the snow is in a state of flux, it is gradually ‘smelting’ (melting) and turning into ‘slaps’ (slush). Every day starts with a concentrated through-the-window inspection of the current state of the snow....what’s it doing? Snø, smelting, slaps, snø, smelting, slaps, and so on.

Before a Brit visits Norway, he has a general impression of the place being permanently snowy. Neither logic nor imagination can disabuse him of this preconception, and no-one told him there is a warm and very light summer here. He thinks every Norwegian is born with a powerful love of snow and all things cold. I wonder. For a country with its top end in the Arctic Circle, the question is, do Norwegians themselves really like snow or are they just pretending?

I suspect occasional lapses. I suspect there is subversion. I have heard dark mutterings in corners, quiet admissions of impatience. I even heard one woman, out for her morning ice-stroll, openly complaining that she had had enough now and would it all please just go away.

Meanwhile, in Bergen, up the coast from here, they are really quite annoyed. This lovely city, resplendent in its Hanseatic history, is a stunning, hilly place with many high, beautiful buildings. But Bergen is famous for rain, not snow. They don’t like snow there, and they don’t want it. So this year, with great dumps of the stuff being chucked onto them, there have been reports of stray litter bins, abandoned cars parked at curious angles on steep hills, and warning signs as roof-top ice poses a threat to passers-by.

Thankfully, my faith in the existence of the stereotypical Norwegian has been restored by Nansen himself, a man who positively ached for proper snow on an annual basis. Fabulous Fridtjof was originally from an area outside Oslo, or 'Christiania' as the city was known at that time. There he had developed an insatiable love of skiing which was to define his life. After just one year at university, he took a job as curator of the zoology department at Bergen Museum, partly to escape his domineering father, and partly because the set-up at Bergen allowed him more freedom to pursue his scientific research. There he was able to achieve great things, furthering our understanding of the nervous system. (For the swots amongst you, he eventually discovered that the nerve fibres ‘bifurcate’ into ascending and descending branches....this was of enormous importance and led to these nerve fibres being known as ‘Nansen fibres’...his findings provided the foundation for our understanding of the spinal reflexes).

But as Christmas approached, Bergen’s lack of snow was really getting on his nerves.

Bergen and Christiania are on different sides of Norway, with a mountainous wilderness in between. Nonetheless, fed up with the lack of snow in Bergen, Fridtjof decided to go home ON HIS SKIS. Going by ski meant several days of appalling hardship traipsing over the very big, cold, dangerous Hardanger Plateau, which, as we have learnt, is the highest plateau in Europe.

While most 21 year old males are known to be annoyingly gung-ho about danger, somehow this particular endeavour seems exquisitely Norwegian. I know students get annoyed from time to time, but to shove your skis on and stomp off home in a huff across one of the most arduous terrains in the world was fairly extreme. And he didn’t even just try it once. He did it several times, finding that blizzard and wilderness simply egged him on.

So, if ever I hear a Norwegian moaning that they are fed up with the never-ending snow, I’m just going to think they are indulging in platitudinous small-talk.

Monday, 8 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - HOISTING FLAGS

So, you like the flags? The TA’s been doing some over-time. He’s a bit of a one for a decent flag. Of course, it would be preferable to see a Saltire if someone pings on here from Scotland, but the system does not allow for these subtleties, and so I have helpfully provided a happy-snappy of one instead.

This very day I am unfurling the Norwegian flag, ready to post it onto the house at dawn tomorrow. There it will stay until sunset, when custom obliges me to remove it. It will signify a birthday within the household, and will flutter happily for the day, an indication of the festive revelry that will be taking place inside.

You might ask why we are flying the Norwegian flag if we are Scots? The answer, apart from the fact that one is discouraged from flying flags other than the Norwegian one, is that our Saltire doesn’t fit the flag-slot. However, aside from the practicalities, the Norwegian flag is every bit as beautiful as the Saltire, and it is a delight to watch it dancing in the breeze. And anyway, it’s only polite.

When I first arrived here, I immediately set up a flag alarm system. It turns out there is a total of sixteen days each year when one is officially meant to fly the Norwegian flag (fifteen in a non-election year). Apart from Christmas, New Year’s Day, Easter Day, Constitution Day, and more, there are numerous royal birthdays to be marked. Added to this number there are personal dates, birthdays, baptisms, confirmations, and simply paying homage to the fact that the householder is in residence (presumably after some absence). So the flag alarm system is programmed for dawn on whatever date, and whoever is on duty according to the hoisting rota will be required to rush outside and secure the flag into the correct position.

This ardent flag-waving in Norway is impressive, but it is also delightful in that it is done with an attractive national pride and a quiet celebration of peacefully achieved independence. After all, it wasn’t always like this.

It is a long and complex story, so try not to glaze over while I attempt a very short summary. In the Middle Ages, amongst other things, a series of inter-Scandinavian royal marriages had led to closer political ties with Denmark and Sweden. In 1397 the union of these three crowns was formalised at Kalmar in Sweden. By 1537 Norway had become a Danish province. This was to remain the case until 1814 when a new Norwegian constitution was adopted at Eidsvoll. But Norway was still united with Sweden, and remained so until a referendum in 1905 led to the end of that union. The Swedish King who had overseen Norway’s independence predicted that bureaucratic incompetence would soon result in Norway wishing to return to the union, a view that could be said to have acted as a spur in ensuring that independence was going to work. So the flag is important, and is flown with reverence. 

The trouble is, it’s such a groove of a design that people can’t resist it. Various fashion designers have struck upon it as an ideal motif with which to adorn all manner of trendy clothing. I was waiting at a bus stop when a youth showed up, complete with the requisite voluminous trousers delicately balanced around his bony hips, and only JUST staying up. His back view involved the obligatory sight of his underpants, but instead of a subtle strip of lycra, he was displaying great swathes of the stuff. It was most unsettling to see. Maybe it’s the maternal instinct in me but the desire to rush up behind him and give them a good hoik up over his hips was only just suppressed. You have no idea how desperate I was to cry out, ‘Pull yer breeks up, man, it’s minus 18 ....you surely can’t be doing the family jewels any good at all.’

But the worst thing was, my discomfort was added to by the fact that his underpants were decorated with several dozen Norwegian flags. As he climbed onto the bus ahead of me, I was treated to a full-on close-up, complete with builder’s crack, the memory of which has slightly skewed my delight in the Norwegian flag ever since. Taste-free, or what?

Sunday, 7 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - SHOPPING FOR SUNDAY


If it was 3 am on a Sunday morning and I had an over-whelming urge to purchase a teeny-weeny bolt for my bicycle, if I required a roll of designer flock-wallpaper, if I fancied an iced-bun topped with hundreds-and-thousands, if I yearned for fringed indigo bootlegs with a spangly motif, if I hankered after a high-potency-pamplemousse-and-ginger body rub, if I became livid at the paucity of my Gregorian chant CD collection and sought to augment it, or if I simply couldn’t go on without consuming a Whopper-Lip-Smacking-Gut-Buster, with cheese, none of this would pose a problem in Scotland. I could go to a shop at any hour on any day of the week.

How very different things are in Norway. They have shops here. They have specialist shops here. They have big shiny shopping centres here. Norwegians know how to shop, and do so with swift efficiency and careful discernment. But on a Sunday, you wouldn’t know it. On a Sunday, no shop is open. Doors are locked, shutters pulled down, gates blocked. Aarrgghh....even IKEA is shut on a Sunday. You are not going to go shopping on a Sunday. You’re just not.

When foreigners arrive in Norway from the retail-addicted rest of the world, they sometimes go into a kind of depression over this issue. One poor bloke was sent over from Yorkshire for a couple of weeks work, but nobody told him about the Sunday thing. Nor did he realise everything would be shut for days because it was Easter. Mercifully, petrol-stations have a small selection of mind-blowingly expensive foodstuffs on offer for real desperados. By the time he was on his eighth day of non-stop hotdogs from the garage, he was a bit miffed.

I’ll never forget arriving in a picturesque coastal town one Sunday afternoon, simply aching for a decent cup of tea (laughably British, I know, but really, it’s not a complex request). We padded the streets, we peered into windows, we stalked round the back of buildings....not a chance. Rien. Ingenting, (Norsk for ‘nothing’). There wasn’t even a living soul to ask. Talk about ghost town. I felt I was in some kind of Hitchcock movie. But I couldn’t help thinking, as we retreated to the nearest garage to relieve ourselves of last month’s salary, that somebody was missing a trick here.

It’s a shock for people nowadays....how are they meant to manage? How will they feed their families? And even more worrying, what the blazes will they find to DO on a Sunday?

Well, I for one have had a conversion. I’ve seen the light and got the message. I love NOT shopping on a Sunday. I like having to stock up in advance. I adore the fact that if we don’t have it in the house, we’ll just have to wait until Monday. It’s verging on the Hair Shirt School of Life, I know, but ‘Sunday Closing’ creates a situation that calls for creativity. It works the imagination no end. If a child announces on Saturday night, ‘Oh, by the way, my homework is that I need to built the Taj Mahal for Monday morning and I don’t have the right stuff,’ then you just have to get busy with the recycling stash (although I couldn’t help asking at the time, ‘couldn’t you have picked a slightly less intricate building?’)

I’ve also decided that Sunday Opening makes me feel bullied. In Scotland, if find I have some time at the weekend, I feel I’d better fill it by rushing off to a DIY store and painting the kitchen ceiling. Or hauling in eighteen bags of ingredients order to embark on a cooking marathon and fill the freezer. Oh, and the back bedroom needs new curtains, so I should really find some fabric and get stuck in with the sewing machine. And the garden...blimey....the garden needs more trees, a new fence, a replacement paving stone, and a small mock-Victorian sculpture of Judith Slaying the Dragon. The list is endless, so by Sunday night I’m ready for a seriously long weekend of recovery.

We’re forever hearing that Brits work longer hours than any other European nation. Not true. We work the average number of hours, with only 13% of us working more than 48 hours per week. The difference is WHEN we work...Britain has the highest percentage of people working Saturdays, Sundays and nights, the reason being, we are a low-manufacturing, high-service-sector economy.

We all know that work-life balance is important, but if the ‘life’ part of it cannot provide a chance to recharge the batteries and attend to the soul, then the balance ain’t working.

Incidentally, the Taj Mahal turned out just fine, so we went for a walk in the sun.

Friday, 5 March 2010

UNSPEAKABLY NORSK THING - WAVING AT CHOPPERS

Yet more snow tempted two of us oil wives out for another lake-top ski. As we slid across the crisp expanse of white, the peace was broken by a familiar, far-away hum. It became louder and louder, and soon there was a chopper drumming overhead, a fat helicopter belting its way home with a bunch of rig-spent oilmen.

‘Quick, give them a friendly wave!’ I cried. ‘They’ll think we’re two gorgeous, fit young Norwegian girls out skiing. They’ve been off-shore for two weeks...they’re not fussy. They’ll be really impressed. It’ll cheer them up no end.’ We waved frantically at them, and then got back to work, piling along the ski tracks in a goddess-like manner, like we did this every day.

Those choppers. They are a daily part of our lives here. There isn’t an oil-wife on the planet that doesn’t look up at those things with very deep, intense feeling as they carry their precious cargo to and fro from the rigs.

As we realised this one was heading home, we knew how it would have smelt. The interior would contain a near-toxic mix of wildly-clashing aftershaves and deodorants as our gorgeous partners returned to their wives and girl-friends after a couple of weeks of sweaty, monastic rig-life. We knew they’d be sitting up there in that chopper rehearsing their Ps and Qs, preening their feathers and polishing their digits, toning down the bad language, swotting up on civilized conversation and reminding themselves not to put their elbows on the table at home.

I have often wondered if people in this industry ever become used to the continual round of partings and reunions that is inevitably involved. Whether they are on a rig or away in Houston, Siberia, Baku, or PH (Port Harcourt), it’s not necessarily easy for those left behind. People find different ways of putting up with it.

There is an old house in Stavanger where two wally dugs used to sit in the window. A pair of ‘wally dugs’, otherwise known as matching china dogs outside Scotland, were quite the thing when it came to gracing the interior of many a well-kept home in Britain and beyond. But this particular pair were famous. They sat with their backs to the street, but they carried a potent message. The sight of them meant the master was at home and all was well with the world. However, from time to time, the dogs were turned around, so that their spaniel-faces were gazing out to sea. Now they were waiting for the master to return from his latest fishing trip. Everyone knew this..... apart, it seems, from the master himself.

They represented a means of survival. For this charming home, with its dainty steps and elegant windows, was known as a ‘house of ill-repute’. If the master was at sea, the dogs implied an open invitation to those who sought a little comfort while their own partners were similarly inconvenienced. The dogs were a subtle sign that it was time to party.

This was way back, when Stavanger’s main industry was fish rather than oil, and the wally dugs are long gone. But the memory lingers on. Any town or village that made its living from fishing required methods of surviving the absences the industry imposed, albeit this particular habit was the choice of the minority and by no means universal. This was an upright, Lutheran population, after-all.

From the Viking era onwards, there have been times when women have had to be independent, able to survive for weeks, months and sometimes years by themselves, their incomes uncertain, with no knowledge of when their loved ones might be home. Nowadays, it’s slightly different. Separation is not without contact, and families can be left without wives and mothers, never mind their men-folk. There are women out there on that North Sea too, female engineers, drillers, geologists and everything else. It’s a very familiar story for many Scottish families where work has driven people apart. It’s not every relationship that can survive it. But if people can survive, it says something..... separation makes for a very strong-minded, close-knit, resilient population.

It’s hideously uncool to admit this, but.... after the lake-top-ski I was driving to the airport to pick up a certain oil man I happen to know, when the gravelly tones of Barry White started mumbling softly into my ear. ‘I never take anytheeuung for granted....only a foool takes theeuungs for granted....but you know, girl, I love you just the way you are.’

And so it is with these oilmen.