Thursday, September 28, 2017

Norway: A Magical Lady -- Antidote to Midges

I’m in a magical place...

 ...having arrived here wet and weary up the Sognefjord in miserable weather. 

See my poor luggage on the express boat improperly protected from the rain while waiting. Why or why didn’t I bring covers for them??

And… landed in the lovely Kringswy Hotel I Balestrand.. The hostels were all full so I’m paid a hefty price but boy was it worth it! 

Look at the view from my room!

Quiet, warm, and all to myself. Soon I’ll have to share with a 6 bed mixed dorm hostel in Bergen. But for now, there was… peace. Free bountiful breakfast. And plastic covers for my luggage, compliments of the clerk who is buying his family Hotel.

What is so magical about Balestand?

Well, I picked it because the end locations on this fjord were fully booked. Yep-- I guess Norway is a prime location for vacationing Americans and English in the summer.  (The Norwegians go south to warm beaches.) For some reason this town had an opening. Yay! And the perfect place!
It has a history as a tourist town, fed vacationers only by boat, since the late 1800’s. It is on the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. I don’t really see how anyone could make a living here except by tourism. The west coast of Norway was responsible for most of the 800,000 Norwegian emigrants to the US!

Look at this little farms slanting down the mountain side. How are these hay fields mown, much less how can the cows walk on them? 
Beautiful beyond words but highly impractical for habitation.

The boat trip up the Fjaerlandsfjord from Balestand tells you why this is the perfect spot to make home for a few days. Magical! To the “book town” of Fjairland, bus to glacier museum and glacier, and boat home. Peaks and waterfalls and clouds dissolving, mist and tiny towns, improbable farms and tiny churches…. The stuff of storybooks. Probably trolls too.

I didn’t want to give any of it words as the boat glided along.. 

It was all about the form and formless and the interplay of rock, rock moving, ice, ice moving, water flowing, mist changing… All about what we think of as time embodied in landscape.

Until the words were given to me at the Pilgrim Restaurant.

I was attracted to this yellow house with a globe-top by the menu out front. Reindeer stew, troll soup and the best dessert ever! That and the attached art gallery of the married owners Bjorg and Arthur. Something special about this place! And after a week of midges, ticks and slugs I was ready to be treated!

Troll soup? Everyone I texted a picture to asked for the recipe. 

My best guess was mushrooms, onions, carrots and lots of butter. Bjorg said the recipe is secret but it definitely contains two trolls!  The reindeer stew was accompanied by lingon berry sauce.

But the very best was the "best dessert ever!" 

I was stuffed but how to could one pass up a description like that? I nabbed her as she wandered by the table. looking as colorful and as on the move as a gypsy. “And what makes it the best?” I asked before ordering the unnecessary calories? "Well, it was judged the best in the 1970’s by a TV station." Really? "First you make a yellow cake which is very rich with egg yolks. Then on top you make a meringue with the egg whites and sugar. Then you bake it – but it takes just the right level in the oven so that they each cook correctly. (Sounds like a lot of trouble to me!) Then, when it is cooled, you cut it in half and  put one half upside down on the other."

 Voila! And boy was it good enough to win that prize in the 1970s!

But the best part was the Bjorg, the magical lady. 

I kept asking her questions as she drifted by. "What is the Pilgrims Trail that you are building? What is a troll? What do you love about this place?"
The last answer first—the light here is special. The fjord takes a bend here, making a wider area, the mountains further apart, and more light can enter. And the artists did flock here to paint.
The Pilgrims Trail is not yet complete, having to conform to the EU’s standards, even though Norway is not in the EU. 
And a troll is a stone if the light hits it. Kind of a back-wards answer.

And then she took center-stage, telling us how Norwegeians get through the long winter, grey and cold, by thinking of the spring. That is when she paints, when the Restaurant is slow, and she needs to remember the fragrance of summers. And here she is!

After passing out free birthday calendars containing her lovely watercolors, she invited several tables to her secret room. We obediently followed. One key hidden in an old telephone box opened one door. The inside was dark, but voila! Christmas lights appeared and holiday decorations! I felt like her grandchild! But how to get out? 

A second key did not work for a second hidden door. So she passed out water-colored renditions of a Norwegian Christmas song, in Norweigian, and the other American couples and I did our best. Voila! The door opened and we climbed into a crystal dome overlooking the magical lights of Balestrand’s sunset. (How do I end up in these places?)

On the way out I questioned her chef husband Arthur, an equally talented artist, whose specialty is naked women in water, in trees, in light…. In his write-up he acknowledges that people mistake his art about just being about naked women. "It isn’t sexual," he insisted!! "Women understand water more than men do! Water is spiritual. Women are spiritual, the earth mother, creativity, movement!" (My favorite art piece stated that "Holding onto love is trying to hold onto water.")

So, are there really words for the magic in this place? Maybe only art and song, lights and secret keys. 

Midges have been forgotten. And if the weather and biting insects ever get me down again, just like Bjorg in the winter thinking of spring, I will think of Balestrand, Norway.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Norway: Where is home? Or rather what is home?

Where is home? Or rather what is home?

I’ve been wandering Europe for months now and my feet, butt and head are asking those questions.

Feet—"OK, Kathy, where do you wipe me? Where shall I return to after a day of sightseeing, getting lost, finding food…?”
Butt—"Where in the heck can I find a chair on which to park, much less to get on wi-fi and type on the ipad?”
Head – “And where is the pillow on which to lay and rest, perchance to dream? Quiet would be nice too.”

At my farewell “launch party” in Florida my friend Judy gave me this experienced advice. After all she too had traveled for a year, painting as she went. “Kathy – home is where your stuff is.”

OK, suitcases, emergency food, bottle of water. This is home?

After sleeping in a 4 person hostel room right next to the noisy kitchen/dining room/living room in Bergen and traveling in the rain by taxi then boat to the island of Mjoima, I needed home! And there it was in the person(s) of Rebecca Smith and 16 month old Linden. They were waiting for me at the boat stop so we could board the bus together to her island of Byrknesoy… Ah… welcome for the weary traveler…

The week I spent with them and  became more and more "home."

I had my own room – quiet except when Linden woke at night. I could prop my butt against the pillows and type. And there was a much used mat on which I could wipe my feet (gum boots.)

Home became where I could play with the children. Take Mirren to the beach, admire her seaweed mermaid and playground accomplishments. Walk Linden to kindergarten in his pram and watch him point out lorries, sheep, seagulls and flowers. (Children with British accents sound so smart, don’t they?) 

Give them gifts of  stuffed-animal dragons after telling Mirren the legend of Perseus, the Argonauts and his killing of the Ljubljana dragon in the marshes, before reconstructing his boat and returning home with the Golden Fleece. Watch a puppet show. 

Celebrate the construction of a duck house. 

Eat new potatoes unearthed by my over-eager weeding.

Home is where I gave the Istanbul airport gift of Turkish delights, which Mirrin apologized for not liking. Tasted new Norwegian delights of open-faced sandwiches of cheese and Marmalite (British), garnished with cucumbers and red peppers. Codfish casserole, which she loved!

And watched  Mirren and her father Ryan compete over their shared cravings for tinned mackerel in tomato sauce. (Really?) “It tastes lovely,” claimed Mirren.

Home is where we can complain about the weather, rejoice in a bit of sunshine and dry our laundry in the living room. Where I am asked for stories of Florida and about hurricanes, alligators and crocodiles. And am told of Mirren’s nightmare that America started a war. (Where does this come from?)

And home is where I am told I will be missed before I board the bus to take me to the boat to the hotel in Balestrand. 

For a short week the village of Byrknes was home.

And proof of that is Ryan’s special dessert to celebrate our shared time – fresh strawberries, cream and Cocoa Puffs.

Home, I’ve learned, is where the heart is. Even if for a week.

Thank you!!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Norway: Midges, ticks and slugs .. oh my!

 It was my choice, I confess. I picked the west coast of Norway to start my August sojourn.

Why, you might wonder? Well, because the rest of Europe is hotter than blazes in August. So… I assumed that Norway would be comfortably cool. And that the west coast was as good as anywhere to start, considering I knew nothing about Norway. No travel guide, no research, flying by the seat of my pants. (Actually folks, before you judge my non-planning strategy – when you're having a great time in Slovenia it’s really hard to think about the next destination!) Well, in retrospect it might have been a good idea …

To my planning credit, I did get on the Permaculture Europe and Permaculture Norway Face-book. That is a big step for a woman who has never done Face-book! And I came up with a lovely site for a volunteer permaculture position on a very small island on the west coast. Living with a family, working on the land, eating tons of vegetables and shaking the city vibe out of my system.

Sounded perfect. Right?

Well, the boat ride was gorgeous as you can see here. Islands, nestled houses and boats, occasional bridges, rocks and crashing waves… the stuff of travel brochures. Then when I disembarked Rebecca and 16 month old Linden were there to greet me and help me board a bus, over a one-lane bridge, and to get off at their driveway. A perfect welcome for a weary traveler. 

With Linden helping to haul my luggage up the drive-way.

It has been a good week. I feel a part of the family. 

I help walk  Linden in the pram to kindergarten. 

I take the 6 year old Mirrin to play at the beach and admire her mermaid made of seaweed and sand. We pick bilberries together. 

And the generous family introduces me to Norwegian cuisine of pickled herring, codfish casserole, crispbread, rice pudding (a staple Saturday lunch) and open-faced sandwiches of cheese topped with cucumber slices or pepper. Mirin’s favorite is tinned mackerel in tomato sauce!

                                                                A truly cultural experience. And the permaculture? 

Rebecca is extremely well-educated, both initially as an ecologist and then in permaculture design. She has thought out well the set up of the gardens, called Seversgarten on the island of Byrknesoy. See her initial plan. 

It was and will continue to be a challenge! I certainly don’t share these particular planting parameters. Wind from the south, impenetrable granite creating poor drainage, rich boggy soil  that discourages earthworms, a short growing season and pests. Her accomplishments include composting from the toilet, a budding forest garden on the rocky ledge behind the house, wind-breaks and fruit trees in the front, vegetables which struggle in the wet and flourishing plantings of potatoes. Ryan, her husband, is a super father and supportive of the projects. 

As for my part in it? I was more than willing to work for my room and board. 

And I could have contributed mightily, I hoped,  except for … the weather!

What I didn’t know or look up or plan for was the rain! It always rains in Bergen! I had to take a very expensive taxi ride from the  hostel to the boat just to protect my luggage! An old Bergen joke concerns a wet tourist who asks a young man – “Does it always rain in Bergen?” “I don’t know,” he replies. “I’m only 13.”

To my credit, I did help build a duck house, … in the drizzle. I did weed potatoes ... in the drizzle. And the one day it didn’t rain I did help chop branches from felled trees for kindling. But really, not enough for room and board.

And then there were the midges, ticks and slugs, oh my!

As for the midges? Clouds of them! They come out whenever it is damp and the air is still. We pray for a breeze, not to mention sunshine! I even emailed my friend Suzanne for an aromatherapy recipe to deter them. Hand creme and lavender deters their biting for an hour but they still invade the eyes,  ears and lungs. Prams even have midge covers!

Ticks? No deer hosts for deadly ticks here but apparently the wandering sheep host the ticks that carry Lyme disease. So each night Rebecca checks the back of my legs for the freckle-sized demons. Yep – three ticks extracted! In spite of being totally covered and wearing boots!

And slugs? Well, I’m not the struggling gardener here but the fall-out for me is that there are no salad greens. Plenty of potatoes through. And we can’t mulch to keep down the weeds because that attracts the slimy little buggers. Lack of mulch means more weeding of the potatoes. At least I can be glad Florida doesn’t host these greens-munching predators.

(It does sound like I’m anti three whole species of animals. I have to confess that nothing would make me happier on this rainy midgey afternoon than if they would just go extinct! But then maybe the polar bear would wish the same for global-warming humans…)

I know it sounds like I’m moaning, folks. And I guess I am. 

It’s a great place and please come to volunteer. It’s not Rebecca’s fault – I just came in the wrong month!

On the up-side, I’m glad I came—this is a lovely little island. 

Roads are one-lane wide except near the schools where a side-walk is added. I actually saw a stand-off between a bus and car until the bus backed up to the turn-out area. We walk to the kindergarten, neighbors and island store. You could call the latter a very small Walmart that reflects the unique needs of a Norwegian village. 

Sheep fleeces next to the ice-cream freezer. Sewing machine oil in the notions section. (I think they sew and knit a lot during the winter.) And on the gardening shelf? Gum boots for the rain! (That’s rubber boots for us Americans.) Actually,  I had to borrow a too-large pair from Ryan for the duration and found it strengthened my legs while walking the moors.

Ahhh.. the moors… Worth the trip! 

They remind me of Connemara in Ireland. Or Dolly Sods Wilderness in West Virginia. Something about the stone, heather and bog. (Maybe the granite that doesn't drain well?) Beautiful, even desolate in the mist. 

But it makes it difficult to do agriculture here. That and the midges explain to me why the West Coast Norwegian Vikings went to sea! Trade for fruits and vegetables,  plunder for riches to buy midge-masks and abduction of slaves to weed in the rain! 

So, I’m leaving the gardens a few days early because of unforeseen environmental factors. 

Rebecca agrees I'm not able to accomplish much in this rain. Am I a wuss?  Yep! I’ll just spend the money I didn’t save on free room and board on a fjord cruise and some hiking and make up for the cost in Nepal. 

Remind me not to complain of mosquitoes in Florida? As for now, midges—good riddance!