Thursday, March 4, 2010

An apology for the premature death of my blog (Tromsø, Norway)

. . . and a guest writer!

But first: I'M SORRY. I've received several e-mails of blog-related concern ('Irene, your blog has been quiet, does this mean that you are in need of rescue?') and think it's time to explain myself to you, maybe-not-so-faithful-anymore readers. The past month has been full of travel, wonderful, adventurous and often cold, and I've preferred embracing real, solid objects to withering before the cold glow of a computer screen. Computers just make me feel gross. My eyes and restless nature complain. And since I probably won't have the chance again to be as disconnected from cables and satellites as I am this year, I'm taking advantage. Actually, I'll be shipping little Toby (that's my computer) home in about a week in preparation for my travels in Peru and Chile, so my blog posts will be even fewer and farther between! But I probably will never be in need of rescue. DON'T WORRY.

In the past month, I've learned to hitchhike, and have used this mode of transportation to get to Kiruna in Sweden (where I saw snowmobiles doing back flips off a jump -- did you know this was physically possible? I'm still skeptical), and Kautokeino and Alta in Norway. Kautokeino is an important Sami town (the Sami are the indigenous population of Norway, Sweden, Finland and part of Russia), and I learned there than in the Sami language, time does not go; it comes. There's always more of it, not always less. Ha! Stress! Try to get me now! I think it's a thought-worthy philosophy (language is philosophy, no?) for reasons not related to stress-bashing, too.

I also went to southern Norway. As much as it shames me to admit it, I was a passenger on board the Hurtigruten, which sounded, when Katarina and I were buying the tickets, like a romantic and adventurous and educationally valuable (for its historical background) experience but ended up being . . . a cruise. Trapped in a giant floating hotel. NEVER AGAIN. But the coast of Norway is, as the brochures claim, breathtaking, and I'm glad to have seen it. Tonight I leave for Svalbard, where I will find the global seed vault and applaud long-term planning and preservation of biodiversity (yes, I will actually clap my mittened hands, maybe also nod approvingly), and on the 13th will fly to Oslo, on the 15th to Santiago, on the 16th to Lima, and on the 17th to Cusco. Phew. So much space between my feet and the surface of the earth for so many hours!

People have featured as prominently in my life the past month as places. Kristin remains a friend, as do Abbas, Maryam and their son Salman, Fatima and her husband Armin, and Atiyeh, all of whom I met at one birthday party! Another Watson fellow, Laura Candler, visited for a few days before going up to Svalbard herself and was my hitchhiking buddy to Alta for a few days after, and the time I spent with her was just wonderful. (She's the guest writer, and if you're sick of this dry update, you should jump ahead to the italicized work of art below.) The people who picked me up when I was hitchhiking were all great -- so generous, so kind, soooo talkative -- and, if there weren't over fifteen of them, I'd list and describe them all. Katarina and I stayed for a night with Jessica, whose blog I referenced in my last post, in Bergen, and we talked Minnesotan to each other. Who else can I mention? Surely I'm forgetting several dozen people.

I've grown to love Norway, and not just its government (the one that takes care of its people!), which awed me at first, but also its inhabitants and mountains and weather and celestial spectacles of light, and the way people gasp in assent -- this last merits explanation. Months ago, I was talking with an elderly woman who, every few seconds, would inhale sharply between sentences. 'The weather has been nice recently -- (GASP!!) -- Looks like it's going to snow again, though.' My first thought was that she might have some sort of breathing problem, and I jumped every time, mentally preparing to run for help if she collapsed clutching at her chest. She didn't seem distressed, though, and I never had to run for help. Later I heard from two Germans in Sweden that the people in the town where they lived did it, too, and that it was the bizarre Scandinavian way to say 'yes.' I thought, 'Noooo. Whaaaat?' A few days later, though, this wacky claim was confirmed by Kristin, a Norwegian herself and no liar, and she furthermore explained that the gasps were simply inhaled 'ja's. Instead of wasting precious warm breath on gap-fillers in conversation, Norwegians and Swedes continue to speak while breathing in. It's the charmingest thing you could possibly imagine. If I could marry a cultural behavior, this would be it. Our children would inhale entire sentences.

All right, I should stop before I get teary-eyed. My time in Norway flew -- but, the Sami would say, it flew towards me, not away. (GASP!!) Here's Laura's guest blog post:

Tall Pines in Georgia stands for more than trunks and needles, resin and fire-signalled seeds. It is a song. And a song can be with you anywhere without the weight of a pack slung around in turbulent flights. Songs pass the time without pages or folded corners, and bus stops reverberate splendidly in dry winter air. Crisp, clean, clear.

One morning while waiting I envisioned a man saddle a horse and cross the Blue Mountains through tall, dark pines filled with mockingbird mimicry - all the way to the Allegheny, and all for love. The same day showed me Sweet William and Lady Margaret flowering beside a bench in musical ignorance, oblivious to seasons, to sunlight. It was winter in the air, on paper and peoples' faces, but nevertheless, Tall Pines in Georgia clung to their needles white-knuckled and didn't mind being the only ones in green. They grow on.

And the song. The song stays in my head like stars in the Arctic darkness, hiding above clouds that pass by below but there all the same, all the time, light years away, and fills me with warmth. The clouds today are lithe, stretching thinly over the Barents like a furrowed field of Mama's white hair. Sometimes the earth needs a gentle covering; sometimes the stars shine too sharply. The ocean needs its islands, as much as it abuses them. And empty bus stops call out for songs from travelers' mouths, even if only in passing.

by Laura Candler.

Her blog can be found here:, and I highly recommend it! She's studying curious clouds this year, and the way and extent to which people include the skyscape in their sense of place. And she has great eyes that see beautiful things, and fingers that can play the guitar while she sings.

I don't know when I'll update my blog next, but in the meanwhile, be well and, if you're reading this, I probably love you. Looooooove.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A post inspired by someone else's blog (Tromsø, Norway)

Norwegians are, I guess, famously reserved, which I failed to notice until I read this blog post by Jessica, the younger sister of one of my good friends in Minnesota, who is spending a semester in Bergen. I thought, "But people here have been so friendly! But they've helped me when I've been lost!" Then I thought, "BUT. BUT I HAVEN'T BEEN IN A SINGLE NORWEGIAN'S HOME." (Brynjulv's apartment doesn't count, because, being a CouchSurfer, he's not, you know, normal.) And then, even worse, "BUT I HAVEN'T EVEN DONE ANYTHING SOCIAL WITH A NORWEGIAN." No coffee, no walk, no romp through the snow.

This was a blow to me. My impression that people here are, in fact, friendly and helpful, even friendlier and more helpful than the people in Bergen whom Jessica describes, was backed up by several other people, some of whom said, "Well, it makes sense! The southern parts of the country have been relatively densely populated for a long time, but in the north, many people have come from other places to work, and the help-thy-equally-lost-neighbor legacy lives on." I've experienced the present-day version of help-thy-equally-lost-neighbor, which is help-this-equally-lost-foreigner. On the streets and in cafes, fellow foreigners just talk to me, or vice versa. I've met people from Eritrea, Iran, Gambia, and other parts of the world in public places; we are magnetically attracted to one another. (And it's not hard to find foreigners here; over half of Tromsø's residents aren't originally from Tromsø.)

But we repel Norwegians, who are friendly and helpful, but, I guess, famously reserved, even here in Tromsø. They will show me how to get to the library, but they won't ask where I'm from. And they will smile back if I greet them, but wonder if I'm a little off my rocker. It took me a long time to understand the distinction between friendliness/helpfulness and openness. Sometimes I still mix them up.

(Writing about this, I'm reminded of a hilarious incident in Pavel's dorm kitchen. He had just moved in, and we were having lunch at the table, discussing Norwegian reservedness, when a tall, Norwegian-looking guy walked in and started preparing his meal. Pavel asked where he was from. "Here." Then Pavel asked, "And do you think Norwegians are reserved?" And the Norwegian said, "Maybe . . . maybe we are reserved. But I don't know why." Then: SILENCE. End of conversation. He turned his back on us to finish doing the dishes. I think this was the real answer to the question.)

Fortunately, some Norwegians break out of the reservedness mold! They crack the shell of reticence! They smash the wall of polite disinterest! I was lucky to meet TWO of these in the past week. One I've mentioned already: Kristin, whom, it seems, I was fated to meet. We first met on the street when I asked a man walking by Brynjulv's apartment how recycling in Norway works (it's great! five colors of bag, each for a different material!). This man is Abbas, and we became friends while we walked into town. This was possible because we are both foreigners and therefore magnetically attracted to each other. He is from Iran, but has been studying engineering in Norway for a few years. Walking with us was his son, Salman, and behind us came his wife, Maryam, and Kristin, their friend and neighbor. I explained to them what I was doing here; we agreed to have dinner sometime; I hoped to see them again.

And a few days later, I did see Kristin again! On Wednesday we both attended the first meeting of Tromsø's chapter of Save the Children, and I discovered that she speaks near-perfect Spanish. That night we took our relationship to a whole new level when we facebook-friended each other, and I learned from her profile (how much more intimate can you get?) that one of her favorite books is Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, which has long been my all-time favorite book in the world. This boded well for potential friendship. On Sunday we spent the whole afternoon together at the Tromso Museum and later at Salman's 5th birthday party (about which I'll write in another post -- this one is supposed to be just about Norwegians), and actually BECAME FRIENDS. She's coming over for dinner on Thursday -- this is, in case you don't know, something FRIENDS do -- and at some point in the near future I'll be allowed to enter her apartment. She insisted that it was too messy when we stopped by there on Sunday.

My first Norwegian friend! And an invitation to a Norwegian home! The second invitation came later on Sunday night, at the TIFF volunteer party, which I spent entirely with Maiten and a Norwegian woman named Tove, fellow volunteer at Fokus Kino from Monday to Wednesday of last week (again, I'll write about the film festival in another post -- this one is about Norwegians). Tove is kind and tolerant of my obsession with the northern lights, which I've still only seen twice, and she invited me to eat with her sometime next next week. This is particularly exciting because her children are all much older than I am, which means that she is much much older than I am, and I love spending time with People Who Are Not My Age (and who are usually calmer and wiser than People My Age, myself included). There's just so much to learn from everyone.

So: This week was groundbreaking. I was invited to TWO Norwegian homes -- I didn't even have to threaten them! -- and made friends with the Norwegians who live in them.

Yesterday I said that I had to write about people, movies, and Norwegian culture. This is the "Norwegian culture" post. I will write about "people" and "movies" sometime soon, but probably not today. My plan for today is to go for a walk in the snow, read and people-watch in the library, and eat dinner with Katarina and two of her friends. It's amazing that I manage to stay so serene while leading such a stressful lifestyle.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A couple of welcome-backs (Tromsø, Norway)

Oh geez. This is one of those intimidating blog posts -- the ones for which I first write an outline (the outline for this post has thirteen bullet points), which, instead of giving my writing any structure, makes me a little bit twitchy with stress and raises my heart rate. So much has to be reported! So many people have to be described in full detail! So many adjectives have to be employed! Fortunately for me, as soon as I start the next paragraph, I'll forget about all about my outline and write about, oh, say seagulls, which are not one of the bullet-pointed items.

The seagulls:
They have come back! I noticed them when I was walking into town last week, and thought, "Have they been there all along? Had I become desensitized to their loud, insistent cawing the way I'm deaf to the hum of the refrigerator? Did I just wake up from a silent dream? Does anyone else see them? Are they really there?" Just before writing this paragraph, I asked Katarina the first of these questions, and phew! my sanity appears to be intact. The seagulls, which fly south for the winter, seem to have returned north for the winter. I'm really not sure if this is normal -- it has, after all, been colder and snowier in the south than usual, and warmer and rainier in the north -- but even if the poor birds have gone loony, I'm glad that they're making a racket by the seashore again. The other prominent winged inhabitants of this island -- magpies -- have given me the creeps ever since I watched one of them knock a featherless chick out of a nest, peck it to death while it squirmed on the ground, and eat it in a park in Madrid. Ungh.

The arrival of the seagulls almost coincided with the return of that most beloved celestial object, Mr. Sun, to the skies above Tromsø. I'm pretty sure that nobody else was as excited about this as I was -- I squealed and bounced and thought it appropriate to stare directly and meaningfully into it for a while, while my retinas thought, "Whoa whaaaat?" -- but on January 21st, some stores sold solbolle, and this past Sunday was SUN-day (cute) at the Tromsø Museum. There was a presentation on the northern lights (for which, of course, we can thank our own Mr. Sun and his unpredictable temper) and a choir concert with a sunny repertoire. The songs were in Norwegian -- shocker! -- and Swedish, but Kristin, a new friend, translated some of the lyrics for me, and the melodies were so upbeat that everyone walked out smiling. Yes! This is a happy time! In olden days it was an even happier time for schoolchildren, because they had January 21st off from school, but at least they can enjoy bread and music. And, you know, SUNSHINE.

I've made it sound like it was dark until, suddenly and hallelujah, the sun rose above the horizon and all was brightly lit and glorious -- like a revelation, or a lamp -- but actually the days have been getting longer since December 21st, and weeks ago already the daytime hours lived up to their name. It's strange to think that the days will soon start encroaching upon the nights, and that in a few months the sun won't set at all. I think of it as a pendulum -- here, the arc is almost a semi-circle, with light on one extreme and dark on the other, and the farther south you go, the smaller the arc becomes. Surprisingly, several people I've talked to aren't so thrilled to be swinging back to the light. They call the winter "cozy" and "calm," the proper state for a winter land, and complain about insomnia in the summer. Apparently Mr. Sun slacks off when it comes to warming this part of the world, too, so that even when it looks like a summer paradise, it feels like, oh, Norway. Never-hot-Norway. I can see how that would dampen some already sleep-deprived spirits.

I've addressed only one of the items in my bullet-pointed list (the sun concert) so far, and lightly touched on another (new friends -- Kristin is one), but the oomph, the oomph is GONE. I'll post this now and tomorrow write about people, movies, and Norwegian culture. Ooh, when I put it like that, it's not intimidating at all! I just have to write about three things! Very doable. Hardly a challenge. TOMORROW.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A shortie about the SUUUN (Tromsø, Norway)

I am just writing to say (ahem):

1. The sun will rise tomorrow. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
2. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
3. The meeting with the nun (in the singular -- Sister Hedwig) on Sunday was WONDERFUL. Amazing. Life-changing. I am going to write a full report tomorrow morning and send it to the convent for a blog post go-ahead. Then I will go ahead and post it in my blog.
4. Between "morning" and "and" in the last sentence, somebody called Katarina to tell her that the northern lights were putting on a show. We ran outside to look at them. My first time! !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
5. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
6. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Please excuse me while I go and have a heart attack.

Nun report forthcoming! On a day with SUN.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A reason for breathless anticipation (Tromsø, Norway)

In about thirteen hours, I will be attending mass at the Carmelite convent in Tromsø, after which my new friend Pavel and I will eat breakfast with the nuns and then talk with them about time. WHOA WHOA WHOA. This was Pavel's idea, and, because 1. he speaks Norwegian and English (among other languages), 2. the nuns speak Norwegian (among other languages) but do not speak English, and 3. I do not speak Norwegian but speak English (among other languages), he was my interpreter during our first visit and will be translating all of tomorrow. For this and other personality traits, I am convinced that he is an angel. And I'm so excited to meet the nuns and learn about their lives! I'll give a full post-meeting report.

Pavel is a friend of Katarina's, my new housemate, who is also wonderful. He spent a few nights with us while he was looking for an apartment, and every evening the three of us drank industrial amounts of tea, chatted into the night, and sometimes engaged in less mature activities like balloon soccer and phone book-ripping (after I explained the theory to them, they both ripped a phone book in half -- the hot dog way!). Katarina is from Slovakia and Pavel is from the Czech Republic, both of which I have added to my List of Places to Spend Time in Before I DIE.

Now Pavel is gone (sob), but I hope to see him a lot in the next two months. In the past week, Katarina and I have watched three Tromsø International Film Festival movies (Mid-August Lunch, Same Same but Different, and 35 Shots of Rum -- recommended, not recommended, and not recommended, respectively), and I have watched another (Alle Anderen -- highly recommended) with a fellow passer-through, Maiten, a Dutch girl who is making a documentary on the polar night. We get in for free because we're volunteers! While waiting for Katarina in a cafe one night, I met a very nice man from Eritrea, Mateo, with whom I had tea two nights later. He has been in Norway since 2005, a refugee from religious persecution. I hope to see him in the next two months, too.

What else to tell? Well, I suppose I should apologize, faithful readers, for failing to write in a whole week, and then writing such a booooooring post. Your head is probably nodding as you read these words. Your eyelids are heavy . . . your chair is so soft and squishy . . . your feet are so warm . . . But there is a reason I haven't written! The reason is this: Katarina and I are STEALING wireless internet, which we know is bad and for which the technology gods will surely punish us, but which has also introduced a new personality into our household: IngerOnline. Inger is our mysterious neighbor, the victim of our wireless internet theft. Katarina and I joke that someday, we'll run into Inger while we're taking out the garbage, and, after introducing ourselves, we'll blurt, "BUT WAIT! Is your last name Online?!" And if it's not, we won't have to feel guilty. Inger Online -- a faithful companion for those lonely winter days.

But not that faithful. Inger Online sometimes TURNS OFF her wireless unit (the nerve!), and even when it's on, reception is so weak that we can only connect to the internet on the windowsill of Katarina's bedroom, which is at about chest level. This means that every second we spend on the internet is another day we'll suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome in the near future. This, combined with my general aversion to screens (which naturally prevents me from writing this in a text editor in a more comfortable place and copying and pasting it into my blog at the windowsill), is the excuse I present for non-communicativeness and a booooooring post (who can write inspired words standing at a windowsill?).

I'll write more, and better, about my new acquaintances, friends, and activities soon. And the nuns! I'll write about the nuns! But for now I'll spare my wrists.

Until soon, then, Inger Online permitting.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A resource for young'uns (Tromsø, Norway)

"Young'uns" is a category into which I, being under the tender age of 25, fit, so I didn't feel too creepy yesterday afternoon when I walked into Tvibit, Tromsø's youth house, even though in spirit I've been an old granny for years. I walked past several tables of hip-looking teenagers engaged in relaxed conversation over cups of hot coffee (of which, I noticed, there was a full and free-for-the-taking thermos nearby) and made my way to a sign in the next room that said "Information". Oh, but what information! What enlightening clarification!

Once again, Norway takes the cake for public resources. Here is an excerpt from Tvibit's website:

At Tvibit anyone can arrange events, concerts, exhibitions, plays, dance performances etc. free of charge! All you need is an idea, and we will help you getting started. As long as the event is in Tvibits spirit, we enqourage it (this means that we don’t throw parties, birthdays etc. here). We will help you with equipment, rooms, people and other things you might need to make your event happen.

This was all explained to me in more words by the smiling woman behind the desk under the "Information" sign, who also told me about Tvibit's free health center, where anyone can drop in for a consultation with a doctor four days a week, and existing clubs (writing, photography, international, and, of course, I could start my own if I wanted to). There was a cafe downstairs with computers available for my use, and, if those were occupied, several computers in this room and in the project rooms with which I could surf the net, write a paper or plan a project. If I needed video equipment, I could check it out of the film house, and if at any time I had further questions about anything, I shouldn't hesitate to drop by and ask. I half expected her to offer me a trip to the Balearic Islands for inspiration -- but she didn't.

I'd walked by Tvibit's two glass-walled floors many times and seen groups of young'uns chatting in map-lined rooms equipped with computers -- now I know what they were up to! They were SOWING THE SEEDS OF CULTURE. For fun and with government funding. I just think that's the goshdarned greatest thing in the world. Don't you?

Yesterday I also had my first encounter with the Norwegian educational system. I hope to audit a class at the university called The Sami Nation, and, prudent student that I am, attended the informational session mentioned on the web page. This was all fine and dandy, except that the informational session was in NORWEGIAN. Who knows why?! I had sat in the middle of my row and couldn't get out without breaking some kneecaps, so I settled into my chair, pulled out a book of plays by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and perked up whenever I recognized a word (the toughies, like "historie" or "klasse" or "bok", e.g.).

I never feel so klutzy as when I don't understand what people are saying to me. I've been missing Berlin recently -- I think because Tromsø is more like it than any other city I've visited this year, which is not to say that they're at all similar -- and one major difference between my stay there and my stay here is that, there, I was the one who had to make the extra effort to communicate. I was the one speaking in a foreign tongue and saying things like, "Now we must make goodbye" or "Excuse me, I have to go inside the toilet." In Norway, I cringe whenever I say, "I'm sorry, I don't speak Norwegian. Do you speak English?" Of course almost everybody does, but it feels unfair to force them to go through the discomfort of trying.

Three more things to tell:

1. I took another ice bath this afternoon, this time IN THE DARK (the group's usual meeting time is 5:00). You know, no big deal. Just had to dig a hole in the snow to put my things in. Managed to get dressed with frozen lumps for fingers. Same old, same old.

2. I went to the Tromsø University Museum today, where there is a temporary exhibit on homosexuality in animals. I almost teared up when I saw the pair of lesbian swans who had mated for life (and were still together in death, taxidermied and romantically posed). Did you know that lesbian swans raise cygnets together? And sometimes lay eggs in the nest of a pair of male swans so that they can raise cygnets, too? Did you know that homosexual behavior has been observed in over 1,500 species, and some species are almost entirely bisexual? Did you know that male flamingo couples can actually raise more flamingo chicks than male-female couples, because they have control over more territory? (The English translations were poor, and I read over and over again that the gay flamingos could "raise more chicken" until I laughed out loud.) They are called "super-fathers". There are also "super-mothers". I want to be a super-mother! The museum website asks: Is it reasonable to use the word "unnatural" about homosexuality? I think the correct answer is NO.

3. Tomorrow I move out of Brynjulv and Ellen's apartment and into Katarina's living room. A new temporary home! A new housemate! Oh, the potential.

It is snowing fingernail-sized pieces of fluff. Ten points for Mother Nature!

A blue sky! (Tromsø, Norway)

As I type, I am looking out the window at a BLUE(ish tinted with yellow) sky. IT LOOKS LIKE DAY. Oh glory be! Now I know that my real enemies are the clouds; the sun and I are on speaking terms again.

In the time I've spent sitting in front of my computer looking up the idiom "on speaking terms" (in a relationship close enough for or limited to friendly superficialities OR in a relationship of open, willing, or ready communication -- the sun and I are "on speaking terms" in the former, and limited, sense of the idiom), clouds have crept across the sky and it has started to snow lightly. Coastal weather. What a crusher.

But I know that there is a blue(ish tinted with yellow) sky behind those clouds! And the snow is very pretty.

Soon I'll write a rave review of Tromsø's youth center, which is almost as amazing a resource as the library.

The snow is gorgeous.