Zero Point

Sunrise over the Nitelva

Besides, just as the heart might be found unexpectedly inhabiting some distant delta, the cogs of the brain might turn their first in a snowy land. 

In the free hours in those initial weeks in Norway, at the zero point, I’d taken to exploring and found that up the street from the Rælingen house suburban Oslo gave way to open country which at the time of year was decked white.  There were deep pockets in the landscape of fields and in one I found an impressive oak tree.  Against the grey skies of the Eastland the stem patterns seemed to mimic the shades and arcs of light in the house and the flicker of the candles.

There was a small pine forest and having grown up in a land of eucalypts I was excited to clamber through it, up the icy slopes with a leg occasionally falling deep into a random hole of snow.  I had all the wonder that Bangladeshis do when they say they’d one day like to see snow, and touch it.

Lillestrøm Town Centre
I was wrong about Gunborg and Olav.  Theirs was not a bingo existence; the Rælingen house was no retirement village.  Perhaps I appreciated that best in the summer, because although I was staying in the Westland by then I continued to visit whenever I had the chance to reach Oslo again.  To my astonishment, that summer Olav sprang about the lawn in his sports outfit.  He leapt and stretched as we played the badminton he’d proposed.  It was tiring.

They were members of a swimming club so we’d swum; they liked to walk so we went to see the wild birds in the river flats a little to the south of Lillestrøm town.  They were members of a pensioner’s ski club and one day we all went cross country skiing.  I was part of a team with an octogenarian leader and all other participants over seventy.  There must’ve been at least some arthritis for them to contend with, but the pace was altogether suitable for an Australian skiing novice.  Maybe it was really me who was seventy.

Meanwhile the oak tree had been busily changing its dress, not into a sports outfit but donning a light green hairdo for spring, a mature deep green summer crown and a short-lived autumn cloak of yellow and brown.  It wasn’t only Gunborg and Olav I came to visit in every season, but the equally active oak tree.

But I get ahead of myself.  In the initial days Gunborg and Olav, ironically, spent some amount of energy concerned that I was bored, despite my saying I wasn’t.  They proposed the museum trips and the National Theatre for a play.   They organised for me to spend one weekend with their eldest son Torgrim and his family; but unfortunately, because of the language difficulties, I hadn’t understood that plan.  Just as we were leaving there was a sudden fussing because I hadn’t packed any clothes.  I had no idea I needed to.

When it became apparent I wasn’t going back with them on the same day, I was quite upset about it, though I said nothing.  I thought I must’ve done something wrong.  I was sure they were bored with me.  And I don’t know what their son thought because I was sullen and consumed in thoughts about what bad and probably Australian thing I might’ve unthinkingly done.  It was only when we went down to their tennis court on the next day that it properly dawned on me, that they thought I would enjoy the change.  Their son’s wife Frøydis asked, ‘Didn’t you bring your tennis shoes?  Didn’t they tell you we’d be playing tennis?’  So I played tennis, embarrassed, in bare feet.

Eventually I challenged the Nitelv.  With courage built I followed footprints through the snow covering the ice of the river, thinking I could turn back if the tracks suddenly stopped by a hole; yet without incident I reached the far side.  My Australian parents would’ve been more than a little concerned; but Gunborg had watched calmly from her kitchen window.  She knew the exact temperature from the thermometer affixed outside the glass pane and from past days she knew the ice was thick.

Walking on ice was a skill to learn, not only on the Nitelv but on the footpaths too; and it came in handy, later, in Hatiya, when fearlessly negotiating the muddy back roads of the monsoon.  There’s something similar about the stepping lightly and placing your body weight with care.

There was one morning they managed to tell me to be sure to take warm clothes as it was six degrees.  I thought I must’ve misunderstood.  Six degrees was hardly that cold: a winter’s night in Sydney might be as low.  I asked several times and surely they were saying ‘six’.  Pleased, I thought I might escape the full horse of clothes and sneak away to class in just a jumper; but I didn’t make it three steps.  In winter Norwegians don’t always vocalise the minus in the temperatures, I learnt. 

Of all meals in Rælingen breakfast was my favourite.  We ate slices of brown bread with paté and gherkins, herring in tomato sauce, Gunborg’s homemade apple jam, cold meats and cheeses: there was Jarlsberg with the holes, ‘key’ cheese with the little crunchy brown pieces in it, goat’s cheese and the soft caramel tasting brown cheese for which Norway is famous.  We’d swallow a teaspoon of cod liver oil washed down with milk, orange juice or filter coffee. 

The evenings shared were often given to pointing at things, with me repeating the Norwegian name; not unlike what would later occur in the tea shops of Hatiya as the villagers taught Bangla.  Sometimes we used dictionaries and Gunborg made sure there was a pad by the kitchen table to supplement with doodles the communication struggle.  I practiced the basic phrases from class and learnt new vocabulary.  They also asked things: Olav once enquired if when one had had enough to eat it was possible to say, ‘no thanks, I’m fed up.’  It was the dictionary that divulged why Gunborg’s food was as it was: she’d spent her working life as a home economics teacher.

And it was truly remarkable to have these new, varied and detailed Norwegian memories.  I’d even seen Ingrid from their optometrist business, a tradition their younger sons had continued, appear on a love match TV game show and I hoped she’d find someone nice.  It was strange that I cared about anything so specific occurring at the far end of the world.

I used to wonder about the simplest differences: the thoughts behind the habits and the décor of Rælingen.  Why was the Norwegian concept of how a room should be altogether different?  How had light taken its Norwegian meaning?  What of more complex ideas? 

It is the caveman drawings of my thoughts I write of, the zero point.  Thoughts are culture shaped and predictable most of the time; they’re barely ours.  But in Norway there were thoughts in the curtains, in the spreading of butter upon bread and in the lacing up of boots by the door: new thoughts to be had, everywhere.  And those first days in Rælingen were for my thinking as the fabled first primeval steps of prehistoric animals, from the swamp onto the land.

Sometimes I consider that although my body had been born in Sydney eighteen years earlier, my thoughts are creatures of the icicles that crunched underfoot and dangled from the lampposts at old Fornebu Airport, in Oslo, on that first evening when I met Olav. 

As it happened, like the Brahmaputra's, my journey started with ice.

** Photos from later visit in Autumn 2006.

And speaking of the Clauses, there's no forgetting the brave fisherman, the mother bear from Goldilocks or the riders from the north.

This article also published in Star Magazine, here: Zero Point

Norwegian Light: Article Index for articles about Norway
Free counter and web stats