The snuggle-car goes north

Wow. This really is an amazing country. We got back yesterday from Geilo (pronounced yeilo), which is in the Hardangavidda national park. The snuggle-car did us proud, and drove us over a snow-covered mountain plateau, over mountain passes and through twisting, winding tunnels (one was a spiral, and another was 25k long!), along fjords, frozen lakes, alpine meadows, cherry blossom and rushing streams. It was amazing how quickly the landscapes changed, how rock and lichen would appear as the snow began to melt, how you could drive out of a tunnel into another world. Michael’s parents loved it too, and I got to practice my German (rather rusty, I’m afraid, though I understand a lot and they seem to understand me). Below are some of my favourite photos. I’m going back to Leeds tomorrow, which is sad, but I’ll just have to make the most of it (and get lots of work done). By the time I come back, it will be nearly June, and the tiny leaves, which are still just hesitant sketches on the trees, will all be grown, and open, and covered in sun.

A birthday picnic

Michael’s parents arrived today from Germany, with plenty of birthday loot (can you spot the chocolate?).

We ate banana cake by the lake.

Tomorrow we’re heading up to Hardangervidda, a national park north of here.

And there’s birch leaves, too, if you look closely.

Les Murray and ANZAC Day

I’m tired. And tired of computers. Today I finished a draft of a chapter on the Australian poet Les Murray, and emailed it off to my supervisors. I always find deadlines stressful – I need them to force myself to get things done but they’re not pleasant. Anyway, the chapter is well on the way, and I have expanded the 2000 words of the conference paper I gave earlier this year to 15,000 words, which with a bit of tweaking will make a chapter.

Today is ANZAC Day – which for you non-Aussies celebrates the landing of the Australian and New Zealand forces in Gallipolli in 1915. And all wars Australia has been involved in since then. Les Murray is ambivalent about the role of war in cementing a nation’s identity – though I suppose it’s a pretty global thing. He compares it with human sacrifice, such as the Aztecs practiced. Dying in order to give a nation an identity doesn’t sound much fun to me either.

Coming from a family (on both sides) of conscientious objectors, ANZAC day has never meant much to me apart from being a public holiday. This is despite the fact that my great uncle (who was English) died in World War II when his plane disappeared. There was never any mention of sacrifice or bravery, just a sense of overwhelming tragedy and even shame (he left behind his mother, his sister and his fiance, who all adored him).

My chapter is about Les Murray’s use of medievalism to construct notions of belonging in Australia. This means the way he uses images of and ideas about the Middle Ages in order to form images of Australia and establish connections to it. This sounds like a pretty batty idea, but it’s not actually as strange as it first appears – it’s about the way we all use history as myth, to construct our own identities and homelands. As I’ve worked on the chapter I’ve realised that Murray does not only use the Middle Ages to establish a sense of belonging in Australia, but also to explore notions of not-belonging. The not-belonging I’m talking about here has to do with his Christian perspective of ultimately belonging in the next world rather than this one. The Middle Ages can be useful here partly because that’s the way people thought back then, and partly because it’s easy to imagine the Middle Ages as a sort of lost world, which can then be used to imagine a promised land, waiting beyond death.

ANZAC day is also about using history as myth. All these ideas have been swimming around my head today. How in some ways the soldiers are supposed to have died to help people to belong, but because they’re dead, the soldiers don’t belong, they belong (perhaps) somewhere else. And what about the awkward belonging felt by those who refuse to fight? The picture, culled from The Advertiser, shows the dawn service at the war memorial in Adelaide. It’s near the University. I’ve always liked the angel.

Happy Birthday Roby!

It’s Mum’s birthday tomorrow, but tomorrow comes sooner in Australia than it does here, so I thought I’d better write this now. Happy Birthday! Here is a hug sent through time and space.

Reasons why my Mum is great: tireless proof-reader, poster of manuscripts and grant applications, well of encouragement, walker round duck-ponds, fryer of pancakes, dear friend. And she has her own life too! When I was in Canberra using the National Library earlier this year, she came over for a few days and bought me lunch everyday which we ate by the lake.

This photo taken at Brimham Rocks is perfect of Mum: camera in hand, she always wants to see round the next corner and over the next hill. I want to wish her all the best for a happy day tomorrow and for a new year full of adventures. And I had to include this photo too, taken on a hike through Bronte country, cos it’s such a nice one.

Return of the snuggle-car

The snuggle-car is back in action! For its untimely demise, see clunk cluck clunk. This next photo is proof of how happy we were before it broke down last Saturday:

We got it back yesterday, the third day the mechanic told us it ‘might be ready’. Luckily it finally was, and now we can drive to nice places with our bikes and have picnics.

And we can drive to shops. Such as the big garden shop, which has quite a remarkable collection of fake flowers and plants. Such as these lovely green blobbles.

Horror Movies

Until this month, the only horror movie I’d ever seen (well, more precisely, hid in the sleeping bag and tried not to hear the possessed animals tearing up humans or whatever they were doing) was Pet Cemetery one and two. That was during a sleepover when I was fourteen, and it was a very long three hours, I can tell you. But the lovie has decided I need an education (or maybe he just likes hearing me scream).

Obliging girlfriend that I am, I have sat through several hours of nastiness this month, and didn’t even cover my eyes (much). To start at the deep end, we watched The Descent, which had already given me nightmares when Michael told me about it the first time. A group of young English women go down a cave in America to get devoured by slimy pale humanoid creatures, a bit like Gollum but nastier. It had an interesting background story, and was truly terrifying. Then it was time for Saw one and two – also scary, though not as much gore as you might expect, psychological thrillers. I coped by pointing out medievalist references. They’re very Dantesque, especially the second one. Oh, and here’s my favourite – 28 Days Later. I really did like this one – the characters, the dialogue, the storyline, the scenes of an abandoned London. Pretty good sound-track, too.

And here’s the ones I didn’t make it through: Dog Soldiers (came in a box with The Descent and 28 Days Later, another British movie). It was just a bit blokey for me, and there were a few too many slippery intestines. The Evil Dead. Complete rubbish. The hair styles and close-ups of goggling eyes made me think it was a parody, but it’s not. Five American students get possessed by the evil dead, one by one, which basically means they get pale clown-faces and shake and growl a lot, and gurgle blood. And one of them gets raped by tree roots. Ugh.

So, some of them are worth it, some of them aren’t. I also recently watched Pulp Fiction for the first time (yes I know I’m out of touch) and absolutely loved it. I think I would like it even more on a second viewing, when I know when to close my eyes.

So have I been converted? Not likely. Give me The Little Norse Prince any day (Japanese anime fairytale, complete with friendly squirrels and bear cubs, awwww).

Halden and Mt Gambier

Halden’s pretty cool. It’s surrounded by lakes and pine forests. It’s got a seventeenth century fortress, a river, a harbour, a paper factory, and a nuclear reactor. What more could a town want? Here’s a picture I took this evening of the fortress, or festning, from across the harbour.

And this one’s looking back down the river towards our house. You can see the chimney of the paper factory in the middle of the shot (that’s clouds behind it, not smog). The paper factory is powered by steam from the reactor. If it was a wide screen photo, you’d see the fortress on the hill to the right.

We live directly under the fortress, next to the river. On the other side of the river is the paper factory, and behind that, hidden in the mountain, is the nuclear reactor. So we’re right in the thick of things.

It reminds me of another little town I grew up in – Mt Gambier, South Australia. Mt Gambier has pine forests and paper mills, and a lake, and even a tower on a hill.

When I lived in Mt Gambier, I always had the sense it was dreaming of somewhere else. The pine forests and the green paddocks – these weren’t Australian. The ground is volcanic, laced with caves and sink-holes – a secret world beneath your feet. In summer, the crater lake is this unearthly blue. The tower, perched on its hill near the lake, is visible from all over the city. It had to be ancient. It had to mean something. (Okay, stick a lonely twelve year old in a country town, and this is what she comes up with.)

Maybe it was dreaming of Norway – a land of lakes, and pine forests, and ancient towers. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m pretty enamoured with Norway. I read somewhere many years ago that Scandinavia is the dream-centre of Europe, and that has stuck with me. Norwegian landscape is somehow very clean, pure, archetypal. Simple words describe it: mountain, forest, river, lake. These are the words of fairytales. When a fairytale says ‘forest’, it means a thick dark pine forest. And when it says ‘lake’, it means a deep, cool, watery lake, ringed by the forest. Not a pale, baked expanse such as Lake Eyre or Lake George.

I’m not saying European lakes are better than Australian ones, although they continually shock me – such an abundant excess of water. I just spend so much time analysing Australian medievalism that I thought I’d indulge in some.

Norway: the good, the bad and the ugly

The Good

  • mountains, rivers, lakes, sunshine, little rocky islands
  • summer
  • brown cheese (sweet caramel coloured cheese you can eat with honey or jam. i’m in heaven.)
  • the slow pace of life
  • pedestrian crossings (the drivers stop even before you step on them)
  • bread
  • public holidays (the Easter break starts Wednesday lunchtime. nice.)

The Bad

  • the price of everything (five pounds for a beer????)
  • winter
  • the sheer awkwardness of getting anything done. car insurance, for example. and opening a bank account. and getting a mobile phone. our british bank cards keep freezing because of fraud protection.
  • road tolls
  • the slow pace of life (can wear a bit thin when you just want to pay for your groceries and get home)

The Ugly

  • Norwegian teenagers in a Swedish McDonalds on Easter Thursday (Michael’s colleagues couldn’t believe we went to the Swedish shopping mall on Easter Thursday. ‘Bad idea. The Norwegians go there to get drunk, it’s tradition. There was supposed to be riots…’ We didn’t see riots, just annoying teenagers with American cars. It seems England doesn’t have a monopoly on hooligans, after all.)

Ice and Fire

This is a memory. But it’s a pretty young memory, so I thought I’d write it down. Also, ever since it happened, I’ve been wanting to write about it, and have written about it, in fragments, in emails, but here is the space to tell it properly.

Three or four weeks ago I was out on my regular ride along the lakes. It’s actually one enormous long lake, but it seems like lots of different lakes, because you keep reaching it at different points through the pine forest. On my way out, as I passed a sandy shore of the lake, I noticed a crinkling, crunching sound, sort of like the roar of the sea, but different. I didn’t think much of it. But on the way back, I saw it. The ice on the lake had begun to melt, and washed up around the shore in glittering shards. The fragments rubbed against each other in the movement of the ripples, and made this incredible sound – the sound of water, and ice, and sunlight.

I stood there for a few moments, and then went on my way. That evening, we lit the wood stove in our apartment. We left the door open for a bit, to watch the fire sing, and surge, and crackle. And that’s when I noticed. It was the same sound as the ice on the lake. I had not known that sheens of flame and ice crystals spoke the same language.

Clunk clunk clunk

Well, it started well. We took the snuggle-car out for a spin. We decided to drive down to Ikea in Goteborg. That’s right, a real Swedish Ikea! Goteborg is about 180k south of here, so it’s about the same distance as Oslo but a much nicer drive. The plan was to get a futon and some bits and bobs to finish off the spare room. Which we did, plus some other bits and bobs, and some more, and ended up getting far more than we came for… All sorts of fun. Easy to get carried away when you have a huge van to stow it all in. We even drove down to the other Ikea in the south of Goteborg cos we’d got our hearts set on this beautiful mirror…

We were just over half way back, and I was thinking what a luxury it is to have a car. You can go where you want when you want, you can put things in it, you can zoom around like the kings of the road. And when it’s your car you can feel at home in it, it’s like a little house on wheels. I was making a shopping list so we could stop by for groceries at the big cheap Swedish supermarket on the way back. Suddenly there was a bang and a crunch and a shuddering. Great, we thought, pulling over, sure that we’d blown a tyre. All the tyres were fine. The car definitely wasn’t, however, so after a few minutes of stunned disbelief, we drove it (limped it, rather) up a side road to put ourselves at the mercy of the locals. It went clunk, clunk, clunk.

Luckily there was a man in his garden playing with his grandchildren, and he spoke English, and he called a mechanic for us. The mechanic happened to live quite close by, so he turned up quickly, though he was rather smelly. After a brief diagnosis, he decided to drive us, and the car, back to Halden (he had one of these big trucks you can put cars on). The problem was something inside the wheel – a ball-bearing, maybe? Anyway it was broken and grease was leaking out the middle of the wheel. I wish I had got a photo of our little red van being pulled up onto his big red truck. Though probably the funnier photo would have been the expressions on our faces.

And that wasn’t the end of it. The hour long ride back to Halden was an adventure in itself – the cabin of the truck was even smellier than its owner, and it only had two seats, so I had to perch cross-legged on a glorified armrest. The hairier moments included when swedish-mechanic decided to shuffle through some papers, look up a number on a business card, talk on his mobile and note something down all at once while he continued to steer with his elbows. As I crouched beside him with no seatbelt, no shoes, and nowhere to put my feet, I tried not to think about what would happen to me, and the little van, and its ikea loot (especially our lovely mirror), if he had an accident. Instead I considered how I would write this blog. A nice thought, because by the time I was telling the story, it would all be over, and I would be snuggling at home with a cup of tea and my laptop…

500 Nowegian kroners later, he dropped us off at the Ford dealer. It was 6:30 by then, so no one was there. The car dealers are a little way out of town, so it was an hour and a half walk back to our house. Of course the futon and the mirror couldn’t come with us. But we saw a couple of deer scampering into the pine forest. And the sun always looks incredible on the fortress in the late evening. And we even made it to the supermarket ten minutes before it closed, so we have bread and milk for tomorrow. We have to be lucky sometimes.


We hired a car over Easter and did two trips down the Swedish coast, one trip to the islands near Fredrikstad, and one trip on the ferry across the fjord into central Norway. Halden is right in the south east corner of Norway, next to Sweden. It was good to finally explore the area further afield than you can reach with a bicycle! We also spent an eminently horrible day trying to look at used cars in Oslo (me in charge of directions, not a good start…). Unfortunately the weather, which had been glorious, turned a bit nasty on us, but it wasn’t too bad.

The rocks on the Swedish coast are amazing. I love bleak landscapes – bare rock and sea and sky. It’s why I love the North York Moors, and the Dales, and the Australian desert. It was fun to get away from the pine trees. Unfortunately it was too windy for ground-handling (paragliding practice where you try to get the glider above your head and keep it there), but that didn’t stop Michael trying, resulting in several frenzied efforts to fold it up again before it blew us away.

And then on Sunday it snowed! You can see it through the windows of our flat. Snow on the spring branches of the tree outside, snow on the riverbank and the rooftops, snow on the little car.

Northern Light

The light is different here. It’s glassy and pale and smooth. That’s not to say on bright spring days it’s not golden and gleaming, it is. When I look out the lounge room window the street shines as though it’s been varnished. But that’s the difference. In Australia, in summer, the light hits objects and your eyes directly, it’s almost an assault. Here, light polishes things – the hills, the river, the pavement.

I noticed the difference of the light in England, too, when I first moved there. Especially in winter, the tedium of its greyness. But you can get used to it. Its gentleness. The way it caresses things, the softness of the clouds. And when spring came, I thought – ah, this is why poets write about spring.

When we first arrived in Norway in January it didn’t get light till nine and it was dark before four. Now the sun rises by six and doesn’t set till after eight. And the twilight lasts forever. Last time I was home in Australia evening always caught me by surprise, as though someone was drawing the curtains and switching off the lights.

I’m thinking about light and about twilight because I just got back from an evening walk along the river. And I thought – well, perhaps this isn’t a bad way to start. I thought this might be a good way to stay in touch with my friends, who are scattered all over the world, and also to keep myself in one piece as I dash back and forth between countries. So, let the story begin.