In the Northern Room

Norwegian mountain road
From each of three red candles on a table, rises a sinewy line of smoke. Each smoke-line curves ever so slightly, in perfect unison with the other two, bending, turning slowly in a meditative dance choreographed by the opening of a cupboard door, a puff of wind, the slightest movement of people. The table is pine and polished, plain, and there’s a narrow linen runner of red squares down its centre. On it there’s a simple basket of red napkins ready for crumbs and spills, and a few plates with unfinished gingerbread and morsels of home-baked biscuits that dissolve with buttery sweetness on the tongue. There’s a plain sofa in cream, with a blanket folded lovingly over one arm, neat and ready for a nap or to cover cold. Later there’ll be coffee, in petite cups, for it will be filtered, strong and biting; later there’ll be chocolate, quietly removed from that small china dish which is mysteriously always full. The northern room is a little inviting, and warm.

The floor is timber, covered only with the odd rag-rug. The walls and ceiling are wooden too, tightly fitted to ensure insulation, with the miniature eddies and swirls of the elements of nature visible in the grain. There is a white fireplace, angular and straight, with a few logs stacked in formation waiting to be burnt; and the metal instruments of flame-stoking hang from a small iron stand, awaiting the delicate craft of a fire-surgeon. Yet even with the warmth of the fire, we need woollen socks on our feet and slippers: for the Norwegian mountains know the meaning of winter.
The warmth of winter

The fire, the candles on the table, smaller clusters of candles around the room and a few lampshades speak softly: painting the room in dull yellow, radiating shadow-patterns, flickering, fluttering in a conversation of light.

The many ornaments speak of a time before time. There’s that creature of legend the troll, tricky, malevolent and humanlike. Here, it’s a small statue hewn from wood: with a big belly and a foreboding brow, shaggy hair almost as a lion’s mane and oversized furry feet. The many types of troll belong to Norway. They are said to lurk on its hillsides, behind its waterfalls and in its caves: this one wears overalls with basic patches on each leg and a tiny hole at the back to accommodate its stocky fur-tipped tail. One wall is guarded by a witch, a hideous wart on her hideous nose. She sits on a broomstick, riding upwards, looking determined, and on another wall is a tapestry in white and brown, catching in its weave tempting shapes of ancient form.   

The windows each have two glass panes, for halfway up their length, outside, a wavy line of snow exhales silence. Beyond them, in the black thickness, you can just make out the scarred white trunks and scraggily stark fingers of a few bare birch trees. It feels as if the world is not yet born.
Among the birch trees

The room is small, with just enough space for a dining table and a sitting area, for the cabin it belongs to, what Norwegians call a hytte, is, by tradition, small. Hytter can have no electricity, a basic water supply and often feature a toilet that is just a hole in the ground with a seat built over it: but of course the bathroom is inside the building because of the winter cold. It’s not that Norwegians can’t afford conveniences – Norway indeed has one of the world’s highest living standards, but in their hytter they choose not to have them. Like Bangladeshis, Norwegians have it easy to remember tradition and the natural world around them: a touch of the essence of where they are from and who they are.

The small hours of night are filled with talk of northern things. There’s discussion of the day’s hiking or cross-country ski trip along the valleys, over the hills, across the frozen lake. Perhaps there were reindeer, or a shy fox. If it were autumn there could have been a brief pause to feast on a small bush of treasured cloudberries, those diminutive clusters of yellow delight. Such discussions are shaped in the undulating melody of the Norwegian language, with its many valleys and hills of accents, enough to rival even the variety found in Bangla. 

There’s a catalogue of life that’s spoken of: the incrementally always-changing seasons, the colour of autumn or the heat of summer; of dinners at the usual 4.30 p.m.; of careers and concerns and absent family members held dear. There’s talk of the world too, from a Nordic perspective, in peaceful mountains even the smallest daily annoyances can’t seem to scale. And of course, there’s always analysis of the weather: colder this year, more snow, less snow, the need to shovel snow off the roof in the morning, and the exact degrees-Celsius right now (minus the minus, which in winter need not be said). Outside the window hangs a thermometer for conversational precision in such matters.
Shades of light

It might sound strange, but even in the northern room it’s easy to remember the Bangladeshi south; it’s easy to think of other rooms back in the gram. For just as Bangladeshis travel to their gramer bari whenever there is time, Norwegians use their hytter in the mountains for memory making, storing family lore, for passing weekends and holidays and festivals, like Easter with its daffodils and decorated eggs, or the freshly cut pine trees and colourfully-wrapped presents of Christmas. For Norwegian families, hytter can create a necklace of tiny precious moments, reminiscent of the long histories of family and community you can find in the gram.

In the gram, conversations can be bright and bold and boisterous, like the Bangladeshi sun, with liveliness and expression to float across the sky, and in the Norwegian hytte, conversations can equally inspire with their subtlety and curiosity: the stillness of a snow blanket across the land.

The Norwegian language is a little overflowing with understatement: great things are ‘a little good’ and moments shared are ‘a bit fun’. For if everything was fantastic, how could it be expressed it if things got even better? Let fantastic hold its strength, a word for rare use, and for all the many good things, those quiet hytte-evenings, let’s keep it small. Hytte-talk is three red candles on a table. It’s a little illumination to turn the coldest night a bit cosy.
The northern room

Some of us are lucky, in the twenty-first century, for we can build a modern house, Bengali style, with the heart. It’s a type of home that rests not on walls of brick or tin or mud; it needs no mortgage or ownership certificate and has a value money cannot measure. With foundations that lie within us, and passports and planes to take us and bring us, the modern house can span continents; it has endless rooms waiting to be discovered and re-discovered. One of the finest rooms in the house, as I have yet found, is the northern room.

Of course there are people who don’t appreciate the modern house. There are those committed to impenetrable walls, who seek self-unity in others’ division. Sometimes they bear slogans like security and national interest, mantra like the ‘clash of civilisations’, but at the end of valid concern remains the usual, age-old intolerance. I suppose it’s a base fear of stepping into an unknown room. It’s a pity, for the beauty of the modern house (with its hole-in-the-ground northern toilet) is great, and it might be a better aim for the world to increase the number of people who can enjoy it.

Outside, if you brave the minuses, wrap yourself in soft jumper, thick jacket, striped scarf, waterproof gloves and woollen hat, if you step out of the hytte, the sky above can dazzle: fifty million stars gaze to Earth in wonder at our smallness. The crunch of snow beneath your feet sounds as a lorry in that place thick with silence, and sometimes the sky grants an added surprise: the aurora borealis, those sheets of Arctic light that curve and twist through the night, slipping away again without notice into the darkness at their desire.

With a dart of breath the candles are out and the hytte is dark. The bedroom windows are open, for the minuses to creep inside and grant sound sleep, under the warmest of blankets. And after the eyelids close, the mountain imagination is a little free to send small and pleasant dreams.

Winter sky


If you like north, see just how far north Norway goes.  Or perhaps a little more haste is in order, in a jaunt across Scandinavia?

This article is also published in Star Magazine, here: In the Northern Room







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