The little daylight

This Recording, February 2015. Original article.

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The little daylight

I got on the plane – you always get on the plane in the end. I went to Norway thinking I could always go back to the city early if it got to be too much: the cold, the dark, the silence. I do that now, whenever I leave London: I tell myself I can go back early. Twelve years of living in the Big Smoke and it keeps getting better, or maybe I’m just getting greedier for it? For years my habit has been to always have a plane ticket waiting to take me somewhere, but lately the date of departure approaches and I don’t really want to go. London is gritty, demanding and thrilling, and the constant noise has been a backdrop to every significant thing in my life.

It’s been several days since I came to Norway now, I couldn’t really say; Scandinavian days are so short in winter. Sunset came at 3.45pm today, six and a half hours after the sunrise. Then, once the sun has disappeared, the sky seems to stay blue forever. It’s partially because it’s cold, minus 12°C today, rendering each intake of breath sharp and the air sparkling clear. I lived here for 18 years, but I don’t really remember much about winter. Until I got here a few days ago I’d forgot how the long, slow dark feels so dense once you’re in it, like being in a submarine at the bottom of the sea. The daylight is small, in length and in intensity, like there’s a light somewhere just around the bend but it doesn’t quite stretch far enough to fill up the sky.

As cold as Norway may get in the winter, I was never cold when I lived here. I’m not cold this time either, even after a week of relatively mild frost in London that nevertheless felt like a severe and personal form of punishment. The difference is that Norway expects the cold, so people accept it and prepare for it, not like the English style of remaining in denial while shivering in thin coats in drafty rooms, wondering what’s happened to the air. In Norway, you dress like a polar explorer, with double wool down the arms and legs and insulated shoes. The tricks for managing cold weather is slowly resurfacing from my subconscious, where it’s been buried all these years I’ve been away.

I don’t usually go to Norway in the winter anymore but I this year I’m between houses, so I figured my mother’s place in this small Norwegian town would be a nice place to be technically homeless. I was right: it’s peaceful and plentiful here, even in the cold. Everywhere you go is a warm room with ice on the windows. There are no distractions here, but somehow I’m still finding the hours slipping away, and suddenly the front door clicks open as my mother comes home from work. The town is sleepy under the snow covering the streets, the gardens and the porches. The roads are empty as people retreat to their wood-heated houses at night, red-cheeked from frost with hair static from wooly hats.

The night comes so early and I never quite get a grasp on the day before it slips away. The novelty of the dim light distracts me from the things I need to do, as I work in the warmth looking out at the cold, where the disappearing blue light is reflected by the snow. The whole world feels quiet here. I love London more than any place I’ve ever been, I adore the rush and the noise, and I keep thinking this silence will start to bore me soon. But for now I’m just wandering around, from the table to the tea kettle to the bed and back, revelling in the little daylight. Life feels simple here, in the way it always does when you spend time in a place that’s not your home. I was born here but it never felt quite right, in ways that had nothing to do with the light or the temperature.

Now that I’m a visitor it’s okay, it’s even a treat to spend a few days being someone I’m not. There’s a luxury in allowing myself to enjoy the dark and the cold, just for a little while. So I’m just going to sit here, watching the constant changes of the light, drinking in the silence with a thirst that won’t last for long, but right now it feels endless.

Brunost: The brown cheese of Norway

Suitcase Magazine, 2014. Original article.

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Once upon a time in Norway: The story of Brunost, a dairy rogue

What does Brunost taste like? It’s definitely a cheese, but it looks a bit like fudge and tastes a lot like caramel too. In any case, you should definitely try some if you come across it in a fancy deli, or just go to Norway, where the stuff is everywhere. In fact, the Norwegians are all over their weird cheese to the point if you’re at someone’s house for breakfast, you’ll find two kinds of cheese as standard: white and brown.

Brunost means “brown cheese”, but it’s available in plenty of shades, ranging from the dark, strong goat’s milk cheese to the light, mild variety made from cow’s milk. It all started with a milkmaid named Anne Hov, a true dairy rebel who made proper Brunost for the first time back in 1863. Anne was looking after the animals at her parents’ summer barn in Gudbrandsdalen, where she’d been making some regular white cheese when she thought to do something scandalous: she added cream to the whey. Boiling down the whey to make a sweet brown spread wasn’t uncommon, but cream was precious goods, usually saved for making butter.

Luckily for Anne her gamble worked out, as people liked her cheese. After perfecting her recipe, she started selling her invention, naming it Gudbrandsdal cheese. At 88, Anne received official recognition by the King of Norway for her discovery of one of the most distinctive and best-loved staples of the Norwegian breakfast table. Brunost is great on bread with butter, usually eaten without any other toppings because of the intense flavour. Norwegian cafés will often serve an open-faced sandwich with Brunost, or offer it with waffles. This is another Norwegian café staple: patrons are often given the choice between strawberry jam and sour cream, or Brunost for their waffles. Don’t put it under the grill though as it really doesn’t melt well, but if cooked in cream it makes a great sauce for meat or potato balls.

Norwegians are proud of their Brunost, which inspires patriotism at home and is usually the first thing to go in the suitcase for Norwegians who live abroad. While Norway is the only country in the world that makes whey cheese at scale, purists will point out that Brunost isn’t technically cheese, as this term is reserved for curd products. In any case, the brown stuff makes a great souvenir for those less keen on troll keyrings or road signs warning of elk.

And the historic whey cheese, the poor one they used to make before Anne Hov thought to add cream? It developed as well, and is now available as a paler, more spreadable sandwich topping popular with Norwegian kids: Prim. As Norwegian refer to Brunost generically as “goat’s cheese”, you’ll have to remember to specify if you want white goat’s cheese brought back from the shop, as the default is brown. In fact, if you don’t specify the variety you’ll probably get Anne’s Gudbrandsdal cheese, which still remains the most popular of all the Brunost varieties. That’s one clever milkmaid.

Oslo

Qatar Happening, June 2014. Original article.

Screen Shot 2014-06-01 at 10.50.45Oslo: A northern exposure
The capital of Norway is a breath of fresh air. Walk down Karl Johan Street and you’ll find yourself surrounded by trees and open spaces, even though you’re in the heart of a country’s capital. The Royal Palace sits at the end of Karl Johan, a modest home for a king by most standards, yet one of the grandest things you’ll see on a visit to Oslo. Like the Norwegians themselves, the capital has a practical spirit, focusing on function instead of luxury, nature instead of skyscrapers.

While cool in temperature, Norway make up its dark, long winters by delivering what seems like neverending sunshine in the summer evenings. And how many capitals can lay claim to having a forest within city limits? The Oslo Forest is great for cross-country skiiing in winter, while the summers deliver ample opportunities for hiking or cycling along marked trails, as well as canoeing or swimming in natural lakes. Largely uncultivated, the Oslo Forest will have you feeling like you’re deep in the woods, although with plenty of lodges dotted around to provide food and rest.

Norway’s most majestic fjords are located on the west coast, but visitors to the capital will find plenty of attractions also along the Oslo Fjord. Day cruises from the capital depart from Oslo Harbour. The ships pass through narrow sounds, opening up to charming bays and tiny islands, dotted with the small wooden buildings where locals make summer homes.

While Norway can be an expensive place to eat, drink and travel, the focus on nature as the star attraction means it’s possible to experience a lot on a budget. The city centre is walkable, with plenty of opportunity to relax in a park, or on a bench or cafe looking out at the Oslo Fjord. Make sure to sample a few local dishes, such as elk, reindeer or other wild game. Redcurrants make a refreshing snack, with cloudberries being more difficult to find but definitely worth a taste if you do. With a long coastline, fish is in ample supply in Norway, and you may well be able to find more exotic sea creatures, even whale, on the menu. Although the best treat to buy and take home is the brown cheese, Brunost. Try it on bread at breakfast, and marvel at how something can taste so much like cheese and caramel at the same time.

Art lovers will find plenty to like about Oslo. The National Gallery displays iconic paintings from Norway’s national-romantic period. The famous “Scream” is the pride and joy of the Munch Museum, dedicated solely to the life and works of Edvard Munch. Following on from the naturalist tradition, Munch broke with tradition when he developed his emotional painting style, seeking to express “the most subtle visions of the soul”.

Children visiting Oslo, and adults too, will be impressed by the massive Viking ships at the Viking Ship House. Having been buried in the ground around the year 800, these ships now stand as proud examples of the heyday of the Scandinavian Vikings. Another impressive sight, and a favourite among locals, is the Vigeland Sculpture Park, where Gustav Vigeland created 212 larger-than-life sculptures in granite and bronze. The centre figure is the Monolith, a 14-metre-tall column carved out of a single stone, but the best fun is probably running around taking photos with the sculptures in the park. Frogner Park provide a great spot for strolling in the summer, with 14,000 roses scattered around amongst the trees, some of which are up to 250 years old. The heated pools and waterslides at the Frogner Baths are a popular spot on hot summer days.

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Katzenjammer: The British invasion

Published in N by Norwegian in-flight magazine, January 2013. Original article here.

Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 15.26.08Katzenjammer: The British invasion
“We love coming to London!” Katzenjammer are all grins and cheer as we meet backstage at the Islington Academy, just an hour before they are due to play the sold-out venue upstairs. There’s little about the cramped, stark dressing room to suggest what a roaring, raunchy show that Anne Marit Bergheim, Marianne Sveen, Solveig Heilo and Turid Jørgensen will deliver in just a moment. The Norwegian band has a Bavarian beerhouse folksy pop sound, with a hint of circus, delivered on a myriad of instruments. And Katzenjammer’s definition-defying brand of quirk is like catnip to the Brits.

“We arrived in London this morning … no, yesterday!” Turid laughs; the group has spent a lot of time in their tour bus lately. Dressed in a white trilby and shiny black leggings, Turid is the tall blonde often found playing various guitars, but the four women continuously swap the dozen-or-so instruments around on stage, and they all take turns as lead singer. Solveig, the guitarist, drummer and sometime trumpeteer, looks a sharp contradiction tonight in her messed-up ice-blonde hair and classic tweed dress: “We feel so welcome in Britain! We’ve got something of a cult following over here, people show up and we sell out venues. Britain is happening for us now – we’re just getting started.”

With Birmingham last night and Oxford tomorrow, Katzenjammer has had a busy tour across the UK, the second this year. But what’s the draw of Britain? “It’s always been sitting there as a tough place to break, but there seems to be an appetite for our music here,” says Anne Marit, the banjo and accordion player. Solveig interjects: “The UK audience seems to really come along with us when we play, no matter which city we are in. Brits are hard to impress because they have seen it all, so they respond in a really honest way.” Marianne, whose powerful voice is complemented by armfuls of tattoos, is a fan of touring in the UK because its diversity complements Katzenjammer’s own: “We really don’t pay attention to what music or style is popular. We just play what we love.”

Katzenjammer will continue to push on with its British invasion, because as Anne Marit says, eyes poking out under a heavy fringe: “The world is a tempting place”. There’s little cheek to be found in the the four friendly and thoughtful women while in the dressing room, but this will change; some sort of transformation is clearly about to happen. Soon Anne Marit will charm the audience with her attempt at Cockney slang, and Solveig will flash her backside to the audience “because now you’ve seen it it’s not interesting anymore”. The same can’t be said for Katzenjammer.

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The Viking compass

Lionheart Magazine, Bravery issue, 2011. Original article.

lionheart1The Viking compass
We’re moving, my bike and I, the traffic around us is menacing but today it creates the perfect hum. My wheels are a butch girl called Lola, I’m a scrawny girl in woollen layers. I’ve got music in my left ear and the rush of the city in my right, I know what I’m doing here, moving through roundabouts, edging up to be first in line at the big crossings. Casual but cocky in my element, I stretch my back out as I wait for the light to turn green. This city, this country, it’s my home, I feel it in my bones, it’s there in the buzz on my skin.

I’ve lived in England for almost 12 years now, a third of my life. I was raised Viking, in Norway where it’s dark for an hour in the summer and you pay for that with blood in the winter. I was a kid then, an awkward teenager who left in a huff the first chance she had. Norway and I have since forgiven each other, but the feeling of detachment remains. There’s space between the houses up north, in the country that provided me with pale skin and fawn-coloured hair, there’s space between the people. There’s a stillness, a quiet understanding of what we are, that we are all the same. Everywhere are tall pines, wide valleys, and whitewater rivers, subdued by eight months of winter. If I never see snow again that will be fine with me.

People ask me about Norway, about the food, music and culture, but I don’t know the answers to the questions anymore. A decade changes things – I know this, because the few days a year I spend there are enough to show me, again and again, how they’ve moved on without me. There’s an irony at work here: I left because the world is such a big place, and what happened was I ensconced myself on this small, crowded island, squinting backwards with increasingly foreign eyes. When I visit them up north I drive my mother’s car to the shop and panic at the sight of another vehicle, because everyone’s driving on the wrong side of the road. The reprogramming is happening.

It took a while, but I’ve figured out how to live in England now. I have learned what clothes to wear when the weather is muggy and shifty, the art of banter and the fact that “how do you do” isn’t actually a question. I go back to where I came from and people expect me to be the same, or should I say, they expect me to have kept up with the changes, but instead the years pass and I stumble at Norwegian words. My language is rusting. I don’t recognise the people in the paper, I balk at the price of peppers in the shop, I carry my umbrella everywhere even though up north it doesn’t really rain. The air feels cold inside your nostrils, you can hear the gravel crunch underneath your shoes and life feels so slow.

The funny thing is, I never felt Scandinavian until I left. It’s only now I understand how much of me is shaped by the place I come from. How pragmatism is a national trait, not a personal one. How things so often aren’t about common sense, they are about culture. England isn’t a big leap in global terms, but it’s big enough to trigger an awareness about how the customs of the people around us shape our choices. Even now, after a decade in England, the culture around me isn’t really mine, meaning I get to choose. But every year that passes I understand a little more about this country, one discovery leads to the next, like peeling an onion. In England, the air is damp even when the sun shines, it feels different than anywhere else in the world: the constant crowds, the cracks in the pavements, the roasted foods and a language that rolls in the mouth. Everything has rounder edges, everything is patched together by people from all corners of the world, adding their stories to the tapestry that makes up this small island.

At night I pull my woolly cardigan around me, the stars are the same ones I’ve always looked at but here they’re positioned differently in the sky. I was just a kid when I got here, suitcase full of tinned fish, looking not for England but simply for something different. I’m a grown up now, and I realise the passage of time would have changed me even if I’d stayed put. There’s still a lot of Scandinavian in me – the skin that burns in the sun, the pragmatic core that borders on rudeness. Norway may have brought me up but it’s England that raised me, it’s where I’ve made my bed. I feel it every time I return, when my plane lands and the wheels jump against the runway. I know I am home, it’s the feel of you when you’re around me.