Monday, December 31, 2007

The Night 'Afore, or how to do the Monster Mash

I have to start with a disclaimer: I had an entire entry all lined up and ready to go, but the website conveniently decided to delete it all in a fit of techno-revenge. Bad karma? At any rate, nothing I write for the second time is as inspired as it was at first, so I am now forced to piece together what I can remember from that lost entry and fill it in with more sub-par material. I hate electronics. I have a hex.

Date Night! It had been a long time since Jonmikel and I did the real date thing, so we decided that to celebrate the quiet between a family Christmas success and a wild Scottish Hogmanay, we would have ourselves a real night out. It’s not often that I get to play dress-up, but I so enjoy trying on nice dresses, laying them all out on the bed with various combinations of jewelry, pondering and rearranging and pondering some more until I find the exact costume array that will evoke the right sense of class and confidence I’m looking for. Living first in Montana, and then as a post-grad (and trying to live as such, what with the no-income thing), I haven’t found much opportunity to do the fancy dating.

So we decide on the first (only?) Jamaican restaurant in Scotland, Coyaba. The tiny, delightfully atmospheric place is tucked neatly in the typical college-town ethnic eatery district, which also houses a Brazilian café, the Mosque Kitchen, The Buffalo Grill (complete with pictures of Chief Joseph on the walls), and various Mediterranean/Middle Eastern (I know, I wouldn’t really put these two things into one category, either, but it seems to be the norm, here) eateries. It had been a long time since I had eaten Jamaican food, since last I visited my brother’s family in Kingston. I was aiming for the jerk chicken, which I fondly remember eating from paper bags that Annie (my brother’s mother) picked up from the side of the road. I am a firm believer that the best way to really get to know a country is to eat its street food, stomach be damned. But I digress. Coyaba is a cozy restaurant, tables tucked neatly in every corner for maximum efficiency (in Europe, you learn to use small spaces as effectively as possible), the walls painted a soothing rusted red color, the décor uniquely Rastafarian. The ambiance and a pitcher of pina colada was just what we needed to escape the dank chill of a 40-degree-and-raining Scottish winter night. I did, in fact, go for the jerk chicken, much to the distress of the server who didn’t believe me when I said that I had had it before and I really did know how spicy it was. We also sampled the acci and saltfish, which was strange for me because it was what I normally ate for breakfast during my stay in Jamaica. Tasty, nonetheless.

After dinner, I convince Jonmikel to head up to George Street for a peek at the Night ‘Afore celebrations, all part of the multi-day Hogmanay (New Year's) here in town. What we found was patently un-Scottish, at least as far as bagpipes and haggis were concerned. There were multiple stages set up, mostly playing a fun, danceable mix of bluegrass music (the only bagpipe we saw was on stage along with a dance/rap troupe of hip-hop artists). Jonmikel, the previously dancing-shy gentleman, worked up his courage, and we spirited around the street as if back at the Yellowstone Music Festival. Even in my 3-inch, knee-high boots I managed to keep up. When we needed a breather, we headed down the cobblestoned street to check out the inflated, fighting dragons that filled the skies and devoured out the rooftops of George Street. Very Chinese New Year. This was the beginning of the Monster Mash parade, full of mythical/monsterish characters dressed up for maximum audience participation. Pan characters painted in silver and dancing acrobatically on stilts pranced in between laughing on-lookers, and Starship Trooper bugs attacked the audience with faux aggression, eliciting mock shrieks of terror from elderly women to the amusement of all involved. Even Jonmikel and I failed to avoid (not unwilling) participation in the jovial harassment.

Promptly at 11, the entire affair shut down. I mean, very Promptly. If the Scottish are good at one thing, it is closing times. Much of the time, pubs offer a preemptive strike against possible late closings and close two hours early, because, well, you just never know. At this point, we decided to head to our original destination, the Jazz Bar. This basement joint, dimly lit and highlighted with a red glow for extra atmosphere, was free on that night, and the DJ belted out various 50s, 80s and hippy tunes. Completely danceable, and soon the small bar was throbbing with 20- and 30-somethings enjoying a Sunday night out in true Open Doors at Casa style (for those of you who are Bobcats or of the Hocking variety). Drinks were a little on the pricey side, but that’s the cost of ambience (that does not include the cheap-gambling-machine lights of the local pubs). Here we dance the night away (literally, as we meandered home around 3:30 in the morning) with a crowd of curious Scots who thought it was fabulous that we were Americans. It’s the accent. And so the Night ‘Afore turns into the Morning of the Eve, and we prepare to do it all again the next night.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

I'm on Fire... no really, I'm on fire!

Opening ceremonies of Edinburgh's Hogmanay 2007 (8?): the Torchlight Procession. This was actually way cooler than I imagined. It was also something that could never ever happen in the States. 20,000 people (the estimated attendance for this little event) marching a couple of miles through the downtown streets of Edinburgh in close quarters carrying giant torches on fire. Public officials opening the ceremonies with shots of whisky. People carrying flaming objects in one hand and beers in the other, snaking their way through trees and trucks and trying desperately not to light up their neighbors' silly, Christmastime-cheer hats. Giant bonfires on top of a hill where the only firemen there were security guards carrying one mini-fire extinguisher a piece. A whole list of liability issues and other dangerous and worrisome things that would never fly in the US, for oh-so-many reasons. And it was utterly fabulous.

We began by picking up our standard 3-foot long wax torches (please note, that a 3-foot person should NOT, contrary to Scottish belief, be carrying a 3-foot, flaming torch) and our standard Scottish-flag beenies. The crowd, taking up most of the Royal Mile, became a blue sea of white St. Andrew's crosses and pointy wax swords. A fabulous Scottish drum group was providing a Battlestar Galactica-like soundtrack to our waiting, and important-looking city officials announced the official start of the 4-day Hogmanay with group shots of Scotch. You can't start off a Scottish holiday with anything less.

Slowly, torch by torch, the Royal Mile caught flame, and St. Giles Cathedral flickered in all it's gruesome glory. Fitting for a place known for it's hangings of blasphemers. Then we started to march. Imagine at least a mile of shoulder-to-shoulder people meandering casually on the narrow streets of a capital city, carrying fire. Imagine that some of those people are under the age of 10 and struggle to keep from lighting their neighbors on fire. Imagine the look on Jonmikel's face when he feels his jacket become awfully hot and remembers that there is a small child carrying fire just behind him... ah yes, good times. Surprisingly, I don't see anybody actually go up in flames, though I did see some awfully close calls due to either the inability of young children to be able to handle torches or the stupidity of people who just stop suddenly in a mass of people surging forward with fire in their hands.

The ultimate goal of this venture is to climb Calton Hill and, in the name of the Holiday Season, set a Viking ship and a giant stag on fire. Nothing symbolizes the New Year like forest fire! It seems they have taken precautions, however, and doused the entire area with water. Scotland is so wet, anyway, that it seems fire doesn't spread so fast, despite our earlier incident on Arthur's Seat. A samba band, complete with women dressed in a warm essence of Carnival, shaking everything they've got (or not got), greet us upon our ascent of Calton Hill, and we reach the top in time to see the lighting of the stag (the Viking Ship is already a mass of flames blazing over the impressive cityscape), followed by a wonderful (yet short and unimpressive compared to Razzi's show in Cincinnati during Labor Day) display of fireworks, which seems to be the Scottish people's way of celebrating, well, everything. The backdrop of the imitation-and-incomplete Parthenon atop the hill provided a unique and quite dramatic backdrop for both the fireworks and the sea of lit torches surrounding it.

And here's the part where I catch on fire. We head over to the remains of the ship (the pyro in me just loves bonfires) to watch people attempt to toss the remains of their torches (so many fail miserably and embarrassingly) into the mess. We take in the warmth: even from 30 feet away the scene is hot. While I'm not paying attention, a wayward spark lifts off from the fire and makes a bee-line for me, hitting my scarf at first. I'm not too worried, as I figured it would just go out, so I move to brush it off. Somehow (it still boggles my mind as to how), it manages to fall underneath my scarf (which is tightly wrapped around my neck to ward off the clear-night chill), underneath my fully and tightly buttoned coat (which reaches up to my throat) under the corduroy jacket I'm wearing beneath the coat, and into my cleavage, which promptly begins to burn. I make a fabulous screech, and jump up and down in a wonderfully soap-operatic rendition of physical-comedy pain. I almost decide to strip down my to scivvies and stop, drop and roll, but stop at removing my coat to reveal the culprit of the invasion. I have a small hole burned through my shirt at the neckline, and, though I don't realize this until we stop for dinner, the small, fiery piece of ship skipped it's way down my chest, leaving a short trail of small burns leading right in between my boobs. No worries: I'm fine. Today's blisters are a testament to a night's worth of fiery fun. I caught on fire at Hogmanay; how many people can say that? :-)

The Scots love their fireworks... These are up on Calton Hill in Edinburgh


Burning some giant, straw stag, as a symbol of... what drunk Scottish people do in their free time!

A view of the Torchlight Procession as it snakes its way through Edinburgh

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Family Time!

I shall now attempt to fit a week's worth of Christmas Specials into one entry. I have slipped behind, as Christmas (and especially hosting Christmas for the first time) is hectic, and I had no time or willpower to write any entries while my family was here. But they did, in fact, arrive. Mom and Dad have been just waiting for me to move somewhere they've never been do they can visit me. So I move to Scotland, and it becomes the prime opportunity for travel. My brother Daron and sister-in-law Cathy (pronounced Kattsee, because she's Frenchish) followed suit. It's funny, we've never been a family that prides itself on being close to each other. My parents live in Cincinnati, my brother in Vermont, our extended families live all over the country, my brother's family lives in Jamaica and Toronto, Kattsee's family in Quebec, and I am a perpetual nomad, flitting between homes in (thusfar) four different countries on three continents, and who knows where I'll be come September. But as far away as we all live from one another, holidays have always been important to us in my immediate family. Daron married a Canadian, which means all Thanksgivings he can spend with Mom and Dad. Christmases, too, have always been a time to get together, and we always try to be there. We're close, emotionally, though far away, physically, and I have a feeling it doesn't usually work like that.

At any rate, they venture across the pond to visit Jonmikel and me, and for the first time I find myself organizing Christmas. If that doesn't throw me into the throngs of adulthood, I don't know what will. We all manage to do what tourists do here, you know, Loch Ness, the Highlands, Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood House Palace, Stirling (Stirling Castle was definitely way cooler than Edinburgh Castle, and Stirling was a darling town)... tourist stuff. It's amazing how small Scotland really is. A drive the center of the Highlands takes 3-4 hours; here, a journey of epic proportions. In Montana, its called a commute. But this means that if you leave early enough in the morning, you can see Loch Ness and dally among the Highlands for a day, and return home in time for a glass of wine and general family merry-making. A brief note about Loch Ness: it seems like just a large, cold lake when you're standing on the shores, until someone says, quite simply: "This is Loch Ness." And it is. Was. Whatever. Its simple in it's mystery, so simple you don't even notice it until someone states the obvious. This is Loch Ness. And it is, and that's pretty damn cool. Oh, and also, it's cold. Seriously cold. Lake Yellowstone cold, but so incredibly deep that it cannot freeze over even in the coldest of winter chills. And the water is black from the natural peat filters; its no wonder myths and legends surround the creatures that lurk in its depths.

As for Christmas, it was a rousing success. I managed to cook! I know, impossible you say. I somehow picked up some tips from my cooking-miracle-maker friend Laura and improvised a wonderful (if fairly unattractive-looking) breakfast of apple puff pancakes and apple-maple bacon, and a fabulous dinner of blue cheese pork chops, scalloped sweet potatoes and garlic green beans (courtesy of my father), with some Sainsbury's cheesecake and trifle for dessert. Everybody seems fat and sassy afterwards, and we whittled away the time with some Wii Play, showing the old folks the wonders of motion-sensor reality.

I also took stock of my Christmas loot; what more could a girl ask for, jewelry and bath products! I bought Jonmikel a copy of a mid-1600s map of Edinburgh for his educational pleasure. I actually held an original in my hand at the mapmakers, which I would have loved to buy for him for a mere 2000 pounds. Needless to say, a mere post-grad could not afford such finery; maybe someday I'll be able to buy an original 400-year-old map. Also, I bought JM a pair of anger management boxing gloves with which the boys (being JM, my brother and my father) entertained themselves briefly before Wiiing.

All-in-all, a very successful Christmas. Sorry if this was so brief, but Hogmanay has arrived!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Norway, Day 6

I'm sure if you tell the average Tromsonian that you're getting up an hour early in order to pack up and HIKE to the airport, most of them would look at you like you're nuts, especially at 7:45 am, in the middle of winter above the Arctic Circle. But, being the penny-pinchers we are (ahem), we decided to save the $30 it would take to catch a bus to the airport and just walk. It was only about 2 miles, up and over the hill (driving, we would just go under; Tromso has a very impressive network of overly-complicated that go under both the mountains and the waterways), so we figured we could handle it. After the brilliant show on our last night in the Arctic, we felt at peace with the weather, the time-zone, and the latitude.

So we hiked. Luckily, it snowed again last night, so there was another nice, traction-yielding layer of snow on top of the ice and pack-down, slick snow. I have discovered here that the muscles one uses to balance oneself on ice are not often used, and I have funny aches in leg muscles that have, up until today, remained on tropical vacation. They're not happy to be back.

The walk is actually quite relaxing, except for the funny pain I get in my back when I walk a lot (I suspect that I have no cartilage and whatnot between two of my vertebra, which makes me grouchy on top of in pain). There's always an energy about the early morning, even when there is no sun to determine when morning actually is. It's the energy of awakening, the energy of anticipation of what the day could be, even a sluggish energy of people procrastinating the commute to work. Smells of coffee and breakfast and wood-burning stoves waft from every home, and sounds of window-scraping and car-starting are soft in the "snow quiet." Schoolchildren slip-and-slide across the roads on the way to class, and business men pop the collars of their coats against the winter morning.

We make the airport with plenty of time to spare, and hop our plane back to Oslo. We see the sun attempting to rise above the mountains in Tromso, the pinks oozing from behind the clouds and up over the peaks only to twinkle out into the darkness of an Arctic winter. Our last hurrah here.

The trip into Oslo is smooth, and we arrive in our first sunlight for a few days. I didn't miss the sun at all, and my new need for sunglasses is slightly distressing. It doesn't last long, and the sunset arrives around 3 pm. One thing must be said about Norwegians: they are hardy people. It is well below freezing here, and the women are all dressed to the nine's in short skirts and slinky tops under their fur and wool coats. And men and women both are sitting outside. OUTSIDE. In the States, when the temperature drops below about 65, cafes close-up their outdoor dining areas and make for the warmth behind windows. Here, it seems the cold is a light annoyance; people seem to wish it were warmer, but admitting a lack of control of the weather, simply give in and eat and drink (cold beers!) outside while retaining their coats and gloves. And I see it everywhere; this is no isolated incident, but a true trend. I noticed it in Tromso, also, now that I think of it. But Tromso is a young city, a college city, so some of that can be attributed to the brashness and stubbornness of college kids. I mean, I wore flip-flops year round in college; it's not a far leap to assume that I would have also frequented outdoor bars in the middle of winter.

We find our hotel, right in the middle of what seems to be a Little Cairo, full of Middle Eastern restaurants and shops and no beer. We drop our stuff off and proceed to... find a bar! It's the best way to settle in somewhere, right? We wander until we find a suitable place, Jonmikel's choice. It turns out to be a fabulous jazz bar with fantastic, slinky, sexy ambience. It's full of people who all seem to know each other, as well as a group of businessmen who don't speak Norwegian and only passable English. The bartender, like so many in Norway, slips between Norwegian and English as naturally as I switch songs on my iPod, and I am reminded once again how utterly awesome bilingual (and trilingual, and onward) people are, and how one of my greatest regrets from my schooling was not pursuing a language until fluency. Most Norwegians haven't thought twice about switching into English for me, whereas I would have to concentrate for hours to have a decent conversation in Italian or Arabic.

Have I mentioned that Norway is a phenomenal place?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Norway Day 5: Tundra Exploration

It snowed overnight. Real snow, none of this wintery mix stuff you get in the States. So there was a layer of a couple of inches on top of all the ice that had formed over the last few days, which made for 100% better traction. We had been slip sliding away to downtown, but today was a day for walking, one tentative step at a time! It's the little things that make a day wonderful here in the Arctic. It also helps that they put down loads of gravel over the roads and sidewalks for the people who have to walk to school/work, which is quite a few. The island is large, but most people sort of squeeze right into the middle of it and are in walking or biking distance of everything. It's not so bad a way to live. We have even seen people sledding to work, all bundled up over their work suits, having a grand old time. Hey, you have to adapt, right?

We wake up at our usual time to go down to breakfast (Jonmikel is having a new-found love affair with Muesli), and we putz around until opening time of the city at noon. Then we hasten over to the Polar Museum, which is more of a historical overview of Tromso and the Arctic. What we didn't know at the time was that Lonely Planet has hailed it as one of the 10 worst museums in the world. That's quite an achievement; while I haven't decided yet whether it is truly worthy of such a title, it was.... er, interesting. It's in one of the oldest buildings in Tromso right on the harbor. Looks very Fishermen Village, and I fall in love with the area. I can't help it, it has the best of both worlds: ocean (well, salt water, anyway) and mountains. Immediately, Jonmikel goes for the giant harpoon set off to the side. That should have given something away about the Museum. Granted, the place did have interesting facts on Roald Amundsen, the first (only?) guy to fly over the North Pole in a blimpy-thing, the first person to reach both the North and South Poles, one of the first to lead a South Pole expedition, and, most importantly, the first guy to sail through the entire Northwest Passage. He did all sorts of fun stuff and eventually disappeared on a rescue mission where the friend he was rescuing was found and he never was. The rest of the horrors of the museum were totally worth it for this extensive display on this dude.

Let's talk about those horrors. First of all, the put the very nice display of polar bear hunting rifles next to the children's play area. Because children like to think of killing seals when drawing pictures. Luckily, the pictures were all benign ones of boats and happy bears not being killed and such. Second, on a description of what to do if you meet a polar bear (in the days before bear spray, perhaps), it says to hold your gun at the ready, and if you are FORCED to shoot it, aim for the chest so as not to damage the head or the good part of the coat, and if you kill it, be sure to do the normal stuff in order to preserve the fur. Well, yeah, when I come across polar bears who want to eat me, the first thing I think of is how it would look under my dining room table. Then I shoot accordingly. Third, the entire rest of the museum was dedicated to the wonders of clubbing baby seals and trapping foxes. The trapping foxes would not have been so bad if not for the life-sized and life-like models of foxes dying in giant claw and wooden traps strewn strategically throughout the displays. But the baby seal thing was a little overdone. The descriptions continuously spouted information like, "Native people have been killing [baby] seals in the Arctic for almost 10,000 years, so this is a legacy we like to appreciate and continue" and "[Unfortunately] International agreements have [stupidly] banned the killing of baby seals for any purposes [the fools] and Norway was one of the first countries to sign such treaties [which is awful because now the baby seals have overrun our waters and threaten the safety of our fishermen!!!]." You could just hear the contempt for such treaties drip from the pages of English descriptions, and you could tell that the designers and supporters of the museum would really love to go out and club baby seals, in order to preserve history, of course (nevermind the fact that hunters who rely on such animals for real purposes-other than fancy fur coats sold in London-rarely kill babies because of the understanding that if you have no babies, you have no adults and well.... no adults no food). There were detailed instructions on how to skin seals, too, as well as details photographs of what seals look like when you club them, and detailed dioramas. I mean, really, do people want to see that? I can see where Lonely Planet is coming from.

And of course, what museum would be complete without a nice display in the gift shop on the wonders of penis warmers made of seal? Not the Polar Museum, that's for sure! Right next to the exit door, no less, just in case you thought about slipping by without contemplating who on your Christmas list may need a penis warmer. Doesn't everybody? Made from a [baby] seal! Seriously. But I have to remind myself that I would have never know about "The Other Guy" in the race for the South Pole with Robert Scott had it not been for the Polar Museum.

Now that I have spent extensive time on the wonders of one of the 10 Worst Museums in the World, I feel I can continue. After a quick beer at Olhallon's (of course), we headed back to our hotel to layer ourselves silly. Tonight was dogsledding! After making sure we were bundled up (without snow pants, though, which we would get at our destination, Villmarkssenter, or the Tromso Wilderness Center), we headed (slid) down to our meeting point. We had a short drive out of town, and I could just see the City Funk slipping away into clear night. It was yet too early to really see the famed Northern Lights, but the weather looked promising. When we arrived, we got situated (Jonmikel deciding to go all out and put on an entire snow suit) and took a brief tour of the dogs. There are about 240 dogs at this site, split between the two owners who in 2006 took their best ones to the Iditarod in Alaska and came in 27 and 28 places, which is excellent for rookies. They hope to qualify again for the 2009 Iditarod. The dog yard was great; it was like 240 Koanis yodeling at me all at once. Then we got down to the meat of the trip: the dogsledding (which they call "sledging" in Norway, and I can't help but wonder if it's a translation issue, and who's got it wrong). Jonmikel and I piled on a sled as our musher prepared for departure. And we were off. You can tell these dogs love to run. Just like my own husky, Koani, who loved to run when she was younger (she still does, but she's getting old and her desire to run is limited to short distances, like between her and the pigeons). They also go to the bathroom on the run, which is amazing because Koani does the same thing though she was never trained to be a sled dog. It's wonderful what can been genetically isolated and bred into dogs. When we got up over the rise, we saw it: green haze oozing up from the incoming clouds. It was just fuzz for a long time, but eventually evened out into a light ribbon of lights stretching across the entire sky. The dogs seems to know when the lights come, and their barks and whines and yodels get louder as the lights grow stronger. And that's all you can hear out there. The sleds are surprisingly silent, and when the dogs, too, quiet down to appreciate the run, all you can hear is the cold. It sounds like snow, "snow quiet" as Jonmikel called it. And what's better, it's actually snowing on us from off to the south while the lights glitter to the north. The stars are not phenomenal-too close to the city for that-but that doesn't stop us from catching the beginnings of the Geminide meteor shower, pebbles of stardust poking through the ripples of light. We don't take pictures, as the sled, while quiet, is much like a jetski on the open ocean, so we just settle in to appreciate among the "Yep, Yeps" of our musher. The ride is cold and easy-going, and soon we can hear the howls of the dogs back at the base-camp drifting up from the valley, and soon we are back, just in time for the clouds to part again and open up a new ribbon of green. The sky glows for a few minutes before settling back into silent blackness and very quickly heavy snowfall, and we head into a Sami tent, called a laavo and looking suspiciously like a tipi, for dinner. The meal is perfect and hearty and hot, broth with bread, followed by thick stew (we were hoping for Rudolph but got Lambchop instead), and then chocolate cake with coffee. Just what we needed to recoup from the chill, and just in time for a musher to come bursting in with a, "Lights! They've come back!" We all rush to put cold-weather gear back on and pile out into the night, where indeed they had come back, this time with fury.

I have seen videos of the lights, seen them in documentaries, and just assumed that the movements were exaggerated, sped up for time purposes. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I was wrong. The sparkling and the rippling effects can shudder across the sky like the wakes of a speedboat, changing from green to white to red to pink in a matter of milliseconds. It rains down streams of light, mimicking waterfalls and falling stars, and disappears only to spring up in another corner of the sky. Sometimes a band will appear, dancing from side to side, rippling in an unseen and unfelt solar wind. Sometimes the entire sky will shimmer as if neon-green paint dripped from a divine paint can over Tromso. Sometimes it rains. Sometimes it flashes out and leaves us in the darkness of the tundra. We were told not to expect much, and we had been happy with our glimpses through the clouds from previous days, and with our haze from earlier this night. We never expected to see film-quality Auroras, the kinds they put on postcards and in National Geographic specials. Our pictures don't even begin to portray how beautiful, jaw-dropping and just plain phenomenal these visions are. Not even my sunrises over the Taj Mahal or the Khmer temples of Cambodia, my sunsets over the Rocky Mountains or the open Pacific Ocean, nor any other solar miracle of which I have ever conceived can compare to what you can see in the middle of the night here within the harsh confines of the Arctic Circle.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Norway Day 4

Ah, Mondays. Even here in Tromso, they turn out to be rough. Jonmikel’s illness is roaring ahead full speed, so we spend most of the day indoors at our hotel. He naps on and off, as well as does his real-world work, and we generally take it easy. We DO, however, manage to get out to the tourist office to book a dogsled ride for tomorrow, have a quick drink at Olhallon, which was vastly less crowded than it had been on Saturday, and to pick up some bread and cheese at a local supermarket for dinner. However, today was a day of reflection for me, about Norway.

First, I feel I should say something about Tromso. It is a beautiful town (I say town, but it has a population of about 60,000, though it feels much smaller). The actual cathedral, as opposed to the Arctic Cathedral, which is just a church, is a small wooden church that is the seat of the world’s northernmost Bishop (which I count as a cathedral, though I’m not for certain). There is also a Lutheran Cathedral, which is also Norway’s only wooden cathedral. Everything is wooden here, and it adds a certain Nordic quality to the city. Tromso has the highest concentration of wooden homes in Norway, as the ban on building them didn’t occur until fairly recently. And the homes are all well taken care of. They have freshly painted siding and well cleaning trim. The lights in the windows are soft and welcoming and supplemented by Christmas candles. Each house is distinct while still remaining Nordic, almost farmlike. The colors are varied and bright, from a plain white house, to a barn-red one, to a fire burnt oranges to hues of blue and green. The city has a very New England feel to it with the ocean sites and smells, and with the homes and the pedestrian-friendly streets, it feels almost like walking around Burlington, VT. The same kinds of people seem to live here also, outdoorsy and hardy but also stylish and fun-loving. The people are friendly and happy, and nobody seems to get upset when they find out we don’t speak Norwegian. They are then patient and curious. There’s also a United Colors of Benetton on the main drag, but that’s neither here nor there.

I do, however, find Norwegian to be a confusing language. It’s a strange mixture of German and Italian techno-speak, and it’s hard to distinguish. Half the time when I hear it, my brain is convinced that it’s really English and that whoever is speaking is just mumbling. I can understand many of the words, or at least their concepts, and I’m stuck in funny-accent mode from Scotland, so it seems to make sense in some weird-brain way that Norwegians really speak English, they just slur their words together so as to make it impossible for a Yank like me to understand. Reading it, also, is odd, because when I look at Norwegian sentences, it takes a full 10 seconds for me to realize that I am, in fact, looking at Norwegian and that I should not, in fact, be able to understand it. But for those first seconds, my brain is convinced that it’s just poorly spelled English. I’ve had to actually stop reading things and just look for Os with funny slashes through them in order to decide whether or not it’s English. If its got funny Os, then I’m not supposed to understand it. I just can’t get a handle on Norwegian, especially because I know nothing about its sentence structure or grammatical concepts. With German or Italian or Spanish or Arabic or Chinese, etc, it’s easy to realize that I don’t understand because I know at least a little about those languages and how they work. It’s just…. Odd. If you’ve ever seen the episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine titled “Babel,” yeah, it’s kinda like that. For a few crucial seconds, doesn’t make sense why it doesn’t make sense.

I would also like to mention the state of the weather. There is snow on the ground, but currently is raining and turning to ice. It warms up at night (for some odd climate reason, I’m sure) and is coldest during the day, but the temperature hovers around freezing most of the time, which is much warmer than I was expecting. Back in Montana, it would be about 0 degrees F about now. We heard tell that it’s been so mild this year due to incessant cloud cover, which also means more rain. It doesn’t usually get icy here because the precipitation falls as snow, not rain. Cloud cover means warmer temperature and less opportunity to see the lights.

We did manage to hike back up to our lake to try to see some more lights, but it was just too cloudy. They may have been out there, but City Funk won out.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Norway Day 3: Where Did the Sun Go?

Our first full day in Tromso. It’s Sunday, which later proves disappointing for Jonmikel, as the Olhallon Pub is closed for the day. However, we do start it early enough; we get up for our breakfast (I should mention now that I LOVE soft-boiled eggs and meusli, so the breakfast was perfect for me!), but Jonmikel’s flu-like symptoms are coming back, so we veg all morning in the room while he takes a nap. The TV has a channel that sometimes shows BBC stuff, and a movie channel that most often plays American movies subtitled in Norwegian.

Not to worry; most stuff here doesn’t even open until 11 or 12, the lightest parts of the day. We manage to haul out at around noon (still dark outside), play in the show for a while (real snow! I knew this was a good choice) and head to Polaria, the Arctic Aquarium in Tromso. As an aquarium, it isn’t much, but they are the world’s most northerly aquarium, and they do have some interesting things. Like giant Atlantic crabs, of which Jonmikel announces that, “I usually don’t look at animals and think of food, but those crabs look like they taste amazing.” They also have an interesting panorama movie of Svalbard, a group of islands to the north of Norway used mostly for mining and hunting, though neither are currently very active. There is one town with about 700 people in it, but the rest of the “towns” are merely research or hunting stations with maybe 2 or 3 families living there. But the landscape was beautiful; next time we hit up Norway, we may have to make our way even more north. The large town, Longyearbyen, is the most northern town in the world to benefit from regular, scheduled flights.

There is, at Polaria, a collection of what they called wolf fish, these large-mouthed, almost eel-like fish with piranha-teeth. Scary dudes. They were used to being fed by people, so when you came to stand over them, they would reach up with gaping mouths at you; I almost saw a stupid tourist lose a finger to one, but I was disappointed when she appeared to be a tad quicker than I imagined.

They aquarium also boasts a family of bearded seals; visitors are welcome to watch their training session twice a day. It’s amazing how intelligent seals seem. Much more than a dog, more like a gorilla. When they look at you, they are really looking at you, sizing you up, and you can tell they find people amusing. I hear stories of people who SCUBA dive in areas with seals and sea lions (and inevitably, sharks) and how these marine buddies love to scare the living daylights out of divers by swimming up to them quickly from behind, bumping them, and swimming away just as quickly. And when you look a seal in the eye, you can see their amusement with people, you can feel them laughing at our awkward limbs and stupid grins of amazement.

A note of importance: while looking at the “wolf fish,” Jonmikel thought of their tough skins and how they would make good shoes. As we exited the aquarium and entered into the ubiquitous Exit-oritented, Don’t-Leave-Without-Shopping Gift Shop, we noticed wallets made of those same fish. So apparently, you CAN make shoes out of them. Much like alligators, they don’t look as unpleasant when they’re made into fashion accessories. Also, we noticed an abundance of slippers, etc. made from seal fur. I found this most interesting, because in the seal enclosure, it clearly stated that there were four seals, three females and a male; however, according to multiple sources, there were only three seals total there. It makes you wonder… was Sally the seal not living up to standards? How can a place built around the idea of educating people about seals go on to sell dead seal (in fact, toy seals made of seal; how ironic is that?) in their gift shop. Though, that does remind me that the Newport Aquarium outside of the Cincinnati has an extensive fish menu at their restaurant. Hey, at least you now it’s fresh.

After this aquatic experience, we found some 7/11 noodles, at in the comfort of our nice, warm hotel room, and noticed soon afterwards that it was semi-clear outside. Northern Lights, anyone? So we gathered our complicated photo equipment (our digital camera and our light-weight, cheap tripod we bought in Edinburgh) and, upon deciding that it was not quite late enough to see the lights (the earth is in the best position to receive the solar wind and charged ions or what-have-you between 6 and 11 pm), we made a hike across the waterway to the “mainland” to see the Arctic Cathedral (not actually a Cathedral, just a glorified, and very modern, church) to take some shots of it in it’s well-lit (for maximum cool-photo opportunity) glow. The entire thing looks like a stack of pointy books laid next to each other, with intricate stained glass on the back, facing the mountains. It’s pointedly visible from out hotel room, and it definitely adds a little Soviet Architectural character to the city. The best part was the walk across the bridge, which allowed an up-close from above view of a large, Russian fishing vessel docked in Tromso.

After this little outing, it was late enough to try to see the lights, though it was getting cloudy again. We checked out our handy tourist map, and found a lake up above the city located near a cross-country skiing trail that looked like a decent spot to get away from at least some of the city haze. The first time we see the Lights, it is a single strip of light green trying to hide itself between clouds and the lights of the city. Jonmikel notices it while walking up the main road, hovering just above the antenna of a house. A good sign. When we hit the lake, we are both unsure as to how far into the frozen tundra of a pond we can walk out on. But there are ski tracks across it, so we figure we can follow them. We step where we can see plants coming up from the snow (though when I scrape below the snow, I swear it is ice below us, not land) and settle next to a community of hardy bushes. Seems safe enough (we later discover from the plane on the way out that those bushes were, in fact, in the middle of the lake and were an island, as opposed to the edge of the lake). We set up camp and wait. The clouds form an inconvenient strip over the surrounding waterways, and the city itself (to the north/right of where we were) is perpetually covered by what I came to call the City Funk, low-lying clouds that manage to capture the light-pollution orange coming from bulbs that are supposed to reduce such unattractive color. But there, as we strain to see into the small, intermittent gaps in the clouds, we see green. It’s a green that, had it been cloudless, would have stretched across the entire sky in a fuzzy wave of blurred light. We struggle to get a picture in, something to prove we actually saw the Aurora Borealis, but mostly we just watch. Postcard quality, it is not, but it is beautiful. It is entirely surreal to see pale sea green where there should be just stars and night; it should be a gimmick or the reflection of a green billboard somewhere, or a green spotlight. Only, where you can see the green, there is nothing to reflect it, only blackness. The show lasts only a handful of precious minutes until the clouds close in on our theater, and the green is hidden once again behind a layer of cloudy creamsicle orange. We pack up and head home, satisfied, elated even, at having seen the Northern Lights, a spectacle that both the Weather Channel and the local tourist office predicted we would not see at all.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Norway Day 2: Northbound

Our second day in Norway begins at 4:30 am. Our plane leaves at 8, and we have to catch a train to the airport at 5:45. It takes half an hour to get there because it is 30 miles outside of the city (which is nothing, the OTHER airport, into which we flew yesterday, is about 50 miles outside of Oslo, in fact not in Oslo at all but in Sandefjord, look it up). So we drag ourselves out of bed after a horrible night’s sleep (who hides the heater on full blast under the curtains? Needless to say, we didn’t find it until it was nearly time to wake up, so we slept in a 100-degree room), and stumble downstairs. The guy at the front desk has been notified of our early departure and has been kind enough to provide us with sack breakfasts, which was fabulous because I absolutely HATE paying for breakfast and not getting it; it’s the foodie/grad student in me. As we’re checking out, a group of young college-age kids come in, smelling lightly of booze. They overhear that we are checking out, and, from what we could understand in our fluent Norwegian, they want our room. Well of course, the guy at the front desk gives them an indignant “Nein way” and send them off, to which the kids say the only thing they know in English, which is (as it is in many part of the world, unfortunately), “F*#k you.” Dutifully, the front deck guy, who has become dear to my heart already for breakfast purposes, calls the police. We have no further trouble wandering to the train station at 5 in the morning, and there is a surprising amount of people catching our train to the airport. And there are still people from the night before drinking at a bar close by. Still drinking at 5 am; that’s dedication.

So we catch our plane, and we’re off to the far north. This is Jonmikel’s first time above the Arctic Circle, and he’s giddy even this early in the morning. We watch our last sunrise, or the beginnings of it, as we fly north; the sun will never actually rise above the horizon for the whole time we’re in Tromso. If the Arctic is the Land of the Midnight Sun, it is surely also the Land of the Midday Midnight.

We touch down in Tromso too early to check into our Bed and Breakfast, so we drop off our bags and meander around town for a while. Tromso is actually on a small Island in the middle of a whole slew of coastal islands in northern Norway. The city itself stretches across 3 islands, but the downtown area is on Tromsoya, the smallest one. We walk down to the dock area and marvel at the mountains (no Rockies, but snow-covered and dramatic nonetheless; they may not have the height here in this part of Norway, but the mountains and cities here rise right out of the ocean for a very intense effect on the newcomer) and waterways, the lights reflecting off of the water (it is already–or should I say, still–dawn/dusk outside), the fishing boats harbored there. We then head toward the center of town, where we stumble upon the local winter farmer’s market. It’s full of fish and furs. I grab a glass of glogg (a spiced cider that tastes like mulled wine with more sugar and less alcohol), and we check out some of the crafts and wares. Woolen handicrafts seem to be an important part of the culture here, as not only is everybody wearing something woolen, but they also all seem to be buying something woolen. One or two tents have Saami crafts displayed, clothing and hats and shoes made from seal and reindeer skins and furs. They are soft and thick to touch, painful to the pocketbook, so we look and appreciate, but as much as I wanted those slippers, they stayed on the shelf. The rest of the shops were dedicated to seafoods of all kinds, fresh from the morning’s catch. Fish and shrimp were everywhere, and the area was saturated with the smell; not the malodorous rotten smell from day-old fish, but the salt and the cold and the water smell you can find only in fishing villages. When not selling, fishermen and their families gather around steaming cauldrons of glogg over open fires surrounded by comfy bales of hay for relaxing. It’s shoulder-to-shoulder around these pots, and for 15-20 Kroner (about $3) a cup, the glogg is the cheapest thing we will find during our stay here.

After cruising the market, Jonmikel decides we’ve been here long enough to find a beer. The world’s northernmost brewery (actually, it has been recently replaced by a micro-brewery in Russia, but we won’t talk about that) is the Mack Brewery, with its Olhallon Pub, so of course we head there. We find ourselves an English-speaking bartender (not difficult here at all) who explains to us what the beers are like and finds good ones for us both (I go with the chocolate stout, Jonnmikel with the dark pilsner) and we settle down to our drinks in a bar packed full of locals and tourists alike at noon. I am soon approached by an older gentlemen who smells like booze and cigarettes and fish, fantastic. He asks where I’m from, and guesses the UK, and then Germany, and the runs out of ideas as to where in God’s name could I be from (quoted). I tell him I’m American, and he nods knowingly, and says, “Try the Christmas beer; it is 11% alcohol,” before winking and ambling off to join his buddies, who also have the fisherman look to them: thick rubber boots, grizzled beards, and fuzzy hats. He later comes to join us again, this time asking where in the US we were from. He knew exactly where Montana was because apparently his mother was from Seattle. Who knew? He stumbled away again, satisfied with our responses. Most of the people in the bar are halfway drunk at 12:30 in the afternoon. I guess when it’s Saturday and its dark all day, the whole concept of "noon" doesn’t matter too much.

After our beers, we headed back to our B&B, a small place called Ami Hotel, which actually turned out to be quite wonderful. With free wireless internet, Jonmikel could do some of his work when Monday rolled around, plus, we got incredibly lucky and ended up with the top floor room that overlooked the entire city and the mountains in which it’s nestled. It also included a full breakfast, which for Norwegians means bread cheese, meat, muesli and other cereals, fruit, and soft-boiled eggs. We veg in the room for a while, and then head out to find sustenance, this time in the form of Chinese food, the cheapest real food we could find (at about $60). It was a nice little place, too, outside of town a bit but within walking distance. Looked out over the water. We then headed back, exhausted from the day that had started at 4:30 in the morning.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Norway Day 1: The Exodus

Glasgow has two airports. That's how this story begins. It does, two of them, and they are very far away. About $140 in a cab kind of far away. How do I know this? By accident, and let me just say that I wish I had known this BEFORE finding out the whole cab thing first hand.

So, Glasgow has two airports. I mean, Leipzig has two airports: one for the real planes, one for the discount airlines. So why wouldn't Glasgow? It makes me wonder if there isn't another one in Edinburgh hiding out somewhere around Stirling, or maybe under the Firth of Forth. At any rate, Ryanair does NOT fly out of Glasgow Airport, but out of Glasgow Prestwick International Airport (it sounds more important despite the fact that 1) it is not in Glasgow and 2) it is dinky, but does a lot of cargo runs. So we get to Glasgow with plenty of time to catch our flight to Oslo, Norway for our after-semester vacation. Plenty of time, that is, if Ryanair flew out of Glasgow Airport. But, like I said, it doesn't. Sooooo... the only way we could possibly make it there (and not have to either spend $2000 on new tickets or deal with me being in an awfully bad mood) was to take a cab. There is no direct transfer from airport to airport (why would there be? I mean, if there were, it would be too easy for a country that prides itself on its queues), so we could either spend an hour and a half taking buses and trains, or we could book it in a taxi that will cost us our first born child. Well, who needs kids?

The taxi driver was awfully nice, even went as far as to notice my grumpy pout and mention that this happens all the time, even to locals. And what's more, he gets us to the airport right as they were getting ready to close check-in, speeding and running red lights the whole way. Very New York City. And yes, I feel awfully foolish that i didn't look it up before we got there. Shut-up, Jonmikel.

And thus begins our journey to Norway. We decided on Norway for the snow and the Northern Lights, the former being the clincher, and latter just a passing hope. But we get there without further incident, except that Jonmikel's throat is sore and he may have to resort to gestures soon. Scottish pedestrians seems to enjoy hacking up a virus du jour onto passers-by. At any rate, we see our very last sunset for almost a week on the bus from the Oslo Sandefjord-Torp Airport (there are two airports in Olso, also, which I did look up before I left). It's actually one of the most beautiful sunsets (especially for one at 3 pm) I have ever seen, including some I saw over the African plains and the open ocean. It stretching across the entire sky, interrupted by small mountains here and there, and some of those broad pines that Norway is so famous for. It's cloudy, but it only adds to the blaze as we say good-bye to the sun (we're heading up well north of the Arctic Circle tomorrow in hopes of seeing the Northern Lights).

As we wander the city, all dolled-up for Christmas, looking for food, we discover something that makes our stomachs queezy: the world's most expensive food. Oslo is heralded the world over for being one of the most expensive cities in the world, and indeed the cheapest things we can find within walking distance of our hotel is a pizza place, where a pizza and a beer each set us back approximately $50. Small beers, mind you. We vow to stick to 7/11s (there is one on every block, sometimes more than one) from now on. What does set a mood, though, is the fact that everything is set up for the handing out of the Nobel Prize on Monday to Al Gore, who actually here in town as I speak. Explains why a hotel room was hard to find. We meander past Gore's hotel, but he fails to make an appearance. Off saving the environment in his big, expensive, well-lit from every angle, energy-wasting hotel. But I digress.

Oslo itself is a big mess of public transportation. Buses, taxis, trains and trams all plunge forward together on the same roads and tracks, which become awfully crowded when you add hundreds of pedestrians into the mix; but people seem amiable enough, and you hear no car horns whatsoever in the city center. Drivers are patient and alert, and pedestrians seem, on the whole, care free.

And what's more, it COLD. Not cold-cold, but cold enough that I can imagine the smell of snow in the wind, and the drops of precipitation that I can see falling in headlights ALMOST looks solid, slushy at the very least.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christmas Trees and Exams

Classes are over for the semester. Books are returned, my final paper (called an essay) and my final exam (called a paper) have been completed (the former one a week early, I might add), my brain has turned to mush... All the students that now gather in Uni areas are talking exam questions and grades, and they slowly but surely turn to holiday plans and hugs and good-byes and see-you-next-terms. It all feels quite like Harry Potter; probably because they're all British. No trains, though. No snow, either, I might add. Harry Potter sets lie. I also have to admit that the exam situation reminded me an awful lot of Harry Potter movies, which was enormously distracting during the actual exam, as I kept wanting to cast spells instead of discuss the views of the West as held by Al-e Ahmad and Sayyid Qutb and what they would fight about or how Ali Shariati uses history to further his religious-revivalist, anti-Western arguments. The hall itself was situated in Old College, a large courtyard full of almost gothic-looking (very creepy and medieval, at any rate) architecture. The inside of the hall had high ceilings and intricate arches and was wonderfully poorly lit and about 0 degrees celsius. It was long, with 20-foot windows that looked out over equally medieval-looking buildings. My mind kept wandering.

I think I did alright.

Jonmikel and I also just put up our first Christmas tree. It's a silly little fake tree, but better than what we expected for what we paid for it, and it feels festive and wonderful. It's very strange to be putting up my own tree this year instead of the behemoth of a tree my parents have. And it's strange that these ornaments are so unfamiliar; some of the ornaments on my parents' tree I have grown up with, literally, and I have put them on a giant, fancy fake tree since I could stand up to reach the lowest branches. It feels very... grown-up in a way that not even moving out and getting your own place can feel. Is it strange that a metaphor for life and growing older and more mature can be found in a Christmas tree?

It definitely gives the place a holiday feel, and I could use some holidays.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

I Thought Bowling was for us Poor College Kids...

You know, bowling, the fun game with the heavy balls that hurt when they run over your hand in the little machine when you're not paying attention. The game with the pins where you can chuck said heavy balls as hard and as angrily as you can down a lane to knock over as many of those pins as possible (or Freshmen living in your hallway, not that I ever did that). The game with the funny shoes for which they charge exorbitant rental prices so high that finally, after years of paying for them, you feel completely justified in stealing a pair of nice neon pink and yellow ones so you can have your very own (not that I ever did that, either). You know, bowling, the American sport of poor high school kids and college kids who just spent their federal loans on PBR.

So imagine my excitement to discover that they actually HAD a bowling alley in this crazy and oh-so-British city! Seriously! A few weeks back we stumbled upon it while meandering back from Ratho about 8 miles out along the old canal. So this week, we decided to see what it was like. And it was like a complete rip-off, without the satisfaction. I mean, who charges 11 pounds (approximately $22) per person for a mere TWO games of bowling??? And then you have the shoe rentals, and the inevitable refreshments and fried party foods. The bus fare home because it’s about 2 miles away and not only frigid, but raining. I mean, in the States, bowling is about $2.50 a game (at least where I come from), plus rental for the shoes which I don’t need to pay anymore because I have my very own pair of nice neon pink and yellows ones (ahem).

Maybe I should give the Scottish some credit. I mean, maybe they just discovered bowling? They’ve obviously just discovered the internet (excuse the dig, but you should really see the Edinburgh University website) and banking, so maybe bowling wasn’t that far off. But is it really $20-for-two-games new?

Needless to say, we did not go bowling. Luckily, this large, modern complex also had AMERICAN-style pool tables, so we headed directly to those and settled in for a few games. It was nice having the normal-sized and –weighted balls, though the pool cues were like sticks of cork. But you can’t have it all, I suppose. And THOSE games were only about $3 a game, so ha! It was a nice treat, but I suppose we’ll stick to the Oz Bar, which is close and cheaper by about $1.50, for European- (Australian?) style pool for regular games. And we’ll stick to the US for affordable bowling.