Norwegian Light

follow the footprints

Besides, a journey cannot be a journey without a beginning….

I remember ice. It was a winter’s night we walked across the car park of Oslo’s old Fornebu Airport, when I was eighteen.  Oslo had a light as I’d never seen, of a soft cloudy grey variety delivered in small parcels by the illumination of the lampposts.  It was a light of punctuation rather than words.  The trolley slid and I slipped a bit as I followed my new host father to the space he’d found for the car.  I felt my chin freezing.  Along with the astonishment of being for the first time beyond Australia I held a minor measure of disappointment.  My host father was old.

All the Rotary exchange students from Australia had been met by their families, where we would billet for the first three weeks in an Oslo satellite town, Lillestrøm, in order to attend an introductory Norwegian language course before travelling to our final destinations across the country to spend the year.  I was the last to be met and I wondered if they’d forgotten me, whoever they were.  When he did arrive he was tall and slim, Olav, with cotton thread hair in white and a red glow about his cheeks.  He was the clean cut younger brother of Santa Claus.  Olav wore glasses and must’ve been in his seventies.  I imagined playing bingo in a retirement home. 

He’d brought a jacket I had to put on, doing up the zipper then the outside studs until the collar pushed the underside of my chin.  He’d arranged my scarf and there was a beanie and ski gloves.  I was more clad than at anytime previously for that journey across the car park.  We loaded my belongings into the boot and I walked to the front to get in.  There were barely words in any of this for Olav spoke little English, though he tried.  When I opened the car door he abruptly stopped, eyeing me with surprise, and upon looking in, I realised that by instinct I’d gone to the driver’s side.  They drive on the right here, I scolded myself.  Finding the other side where Norwegian passengers sit I unrobed for the heating.  Off came ski gloves and beanie, jacket studs were unclipped, jacket zipper undone and scarf unwound.

The first glimpses of Oslo were enticing.  There were old buildings of large stone blocks, grey or painted in pastel yellow or light blue and the footpaths were made of bitumen; they needed round blue street signs with walking people outlined in white to direct cars not to go there.  Suburban houses were wooden and starkly painted in red, yellow, blue or black and the road tunnels under the city centre were not neatly tiled like the small number of examples that Sydney had, but rough, cavernous and suitable exactly for the inhabitation of trolls.  The simplicity of train platforms, the ice on the Oslo fjord and the billboards of foreign disposition, especially if they featured the extra letters, with an ‘æ’, ‘ø’ or ‘å’ in them, were marvellous.  There would’ve been a conversation of interest with Olav had there been the means.

But the excitement of the evening scenery was outdone by something unexpected: the driving.  On icy roads it is to be imagined the car would slide a bit but it soon became apparent that the unsteadiness in the weather was more than matched by the unsteadiness in Olav’s steering.  In the forty minutes it took to cross the city we nearly had a few accidents and when Olav changed lanes other cars honked at us, the ones we were set to collide with, causing him to get nervous and swerve jerkily back the other way.  I found myself holding onto the door, no longer embarrassed about having gone without thought to the driver’s side.  It might’ve been the best option. 

I wondered if his lenses were sufficiently thick, not knowing he was an optometrist.

My new home in Rælingen, across the Nitelv River from Lillestrøm proper, sat midway up a small hill at a swing in the road.  It’s not there now. But the house was large, white and wooden with red window frames.  As Olav took a few automobile charges in battlement with the hill, which turned out to be normal for conditions of ice, I held my breath.  He insisted on it: scarf re-wound, jacket zipper closed, studs clicked, beanie and ski gloves on, for the few short steps to the front door.  I found a small area inside with racks and coat hangers and a heated metal stand for shoes, but as I had no knack for tapping boots together to loosen snow, my snow was left to melt inside.  Then all the extra clothes came off again. 

My host mother Gunborg waited.  She had a wrinkly round face and permed brown hair such that she could’ve been Santa Claus’s sister-in-law; and she wore an apron when she cooked.  She spoke no more English than her husband; I suppose it wasn’t the lingua franca of the North Pole.

As usual she’d whipped together some culinary masterpiece in anticipation of our arrival; soon enough I looked forward to every meal.  There were boiled mountain potatoes as a rule, dripped with melted butter.  There was fish or meat, sometimes both, with matching creamy, garlic or gravy sauces.  I liked that the soft drinks were chilled on the veranda to save fridge space.  I liked the taste of deer.

Apart from the white walls, the living room was of deep colours, burgundy leather, heavy cream and browns.  The rich patterns of rugs and the art: the photos, handmade woollen tapestries and prints of classical Norwegian paintings on every wall wherever there was space, gave to the house warmth.  In Australia our living room was painted yellow and had just one painting in it. 

At meal times Gunborg lit a candle in an old candleholder they’d bought in Pompeii, a Roman replica.  In Australia most rooms were lit by just one or a few ceiling bulbs that cast undeniable light across the breadth of space and in Hatiya, I would see later, kerosene lamps and candles held ground from their being no other option.  But in Norway each room had numerous light sources.  There were lamps with metal skeletons that could be bent in strained configurations for reading or sewing, table and free standing lamps in classical or modern design, of ceramic, copper or glass, and candles, regularly lit, on shelves, tables and windowsills.  On the ceilings as often as not were no lights at all.  My Australian father was forever telling us to turn off lights as we left each room, to conserve electricity.  It wasn’t the environment he wished to save but the bill, and candles were out of the question save for blackouts since they would burn the house down when we forgot about them.  In Norway nobody cared about either.  ‘It is dark in winter,’ they said, ‘We need light.’

The Norwegian way of light was initially annoying, absent of the convenience of a single switch, especially when looking for something in luggage for example; and because every lamp seemed to have its switch in a different place.  But after a while I reconsidered.  The grades of shadow from lamp to lamp, the meeting of light arcs and the flickering ceiling patterns of the candles were like people gathering, mimicking the changing shades and arrangements of life.  Light in Norway was a continuous conversation.  Outside, with the night sky turning a soft pink from the reflection of the snow, to such arrangements Norway gave a nod.

Snuggled under the doona on that first evening in Rælingen, on the fold down velvety couch that was my bed, I was ecstatic.  Picturing a globe in my mind I was quite in awe I was now at the top of it.  ‘Norway,’ I repeated to myself, ‘I’m in Norway.’  It was reassurance I really was.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Norwegian Light

We need light

▲ North ink black sea ice

              East ►
                                      fire dance water snake

            the scientific centre

                 ◄ West
                              cloud mountain green life

                                                             drums street rhythm move South ▼

                            Like a Portuguese explorer

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