The next two minutes and thirty-one seconds will be the some of the most bizarre you've ever spent thinking about Oslo. GoPro cameras have enabled humans to make some pretty incredible videos. My favorite is, of course, Lions - The New Endangered Species? Lion group hug! This vid is less cool (how could it not be?), but more relevant to my blog. Watch as Eirik Helland Urke hops on a city bike and pedals around town. He swings past a number of sights mentioned in my post about jogging through the city yesterday, too. I love the way Stortinget looks!
If you're considering a visit to Oslo, I doubt this video will have much impact on your decision. But Oslo in Motion: 12,000 Photos in 5 Minutes might inspire you!
At six o'clock in the morning the streets of Oslo are almost empty. An overcast sky shades every corner, every park, every closed cafe patio gray. The light breeze is welcome after several consistently hot weeks. Leaves are still tightly bound to the branches of the full, green, summer trees. It's just me out there. Me and the city I call home.
I've never seen Oslo like this before. Oh, I've seen her empty. On Easter weekend. Or after catching the 1 a.m. train home from the airport, rolling our suitcases up the hill from National Theater. But never like this. Behind every closed door and Stengt sign comes the buzz of potential energy.
I am running. Downhill first. From Inkognitogata to Henrik Ibsens gate, through the heavy construction at Solli plass. Asphalt peeled back to reveal old tracks and new track. Rust at the joints. Workers in neon vests sip coffee. All this downhill is a gift to me. It's tough enough to motivate myself out of bed in the morning. To lace up my old sneakers (new shoes will be my reward for successfully completing the Oslo Half Marathon in September). My footsteps are quick and even.
Down Dokkveien to Aker Brygge. No cars on the road. I pass the Nobel Peace Center, cross Rådhusplassen. I am alone with the statues, the fountains. Fishy smells waft up from under the piers on the fjord. The bells in the brick towers don't chime. It's only been a mile. It's only been ten minutes. My breathing is more labored than it should be, but I'm used to that by now. It's the first mile and a half that's hardest for me. A breaking in. Breaking through the wall and finding a healthier part of my spirit.
I skirt the perimeter of Akershus Fortress. No cruise ship parked where I expect it, so the fjord view is open to me. Islands. Sailboats. Ferries. Rounding the corner, I see the Opera House. It is an iceberg. Pristine. Not a single person on the terraced roof. And faster than I expect, I am running along Operagata. Three men exit a beige sedan carrying musical instruments in bulky, black cases. Cyclists whip past me wearing black spandex, neon vests, helmets. They are on their way to work.
I am suddenly anxious. This is where my path will deviate from what I've run before. As a reluctant runner, I find blazing new trails joyless, even stressful. But this is a necessary part of my training. I'm piecing together the half marathon course one segment at a time. Nordenga Bridge rises ahead of me. I run up. It's another deal I make with myself. Never walk uphill unless I must, but if I run up, I get to breathe at the top. Not sure who enforces these rules. My subconscious?
I take the stairs at the far side of the bridge. Carefully. My knees wobble. Platous gate, then Tøyengata. This is what I"ve been preparing for. The new segment circles Oslo's Botanical Gardens, and that's a climb. For me. Seventy-odd feet in less than a mile. On race day, it'll be about Mile 10. I predicted it would crush my soul.
At a supermarket bakery in Bardufoss, Norway, Jonathan and I shared a baguette and waited for the pizza joint across the street to open at noon. The eating area at the Coop had quite a few tables inside. Older men chuckled and chatted in one corner, at a table which, I imagined, they've staked out for decades. I selected a table near the windows where we could people-watch.
A middle-aged man with shaggy blonde hair and glasses crossed the street toward the Coop. He wore a garish, oversized, Pac-Man sweater.
"Look," I said. "Inky, Pinky, Stinky, and Bob."
"Close," said Jonathan. "Inky, Pinky, Blinky, and Clyde."
On the black, metal lip of the window before us, a moth the size of my thumbnail flapped in vain against the glass. His antennae tested the air, full of fresh bakery smells--yeast, butter, cardamom--and the damp closeness of strangers escaping a light rain.
As we ate and triple-checked the bus schedule, the moth struggled and fell. Struggled and fell. Over and over again he was defeated by the window. A hanging basket of pink flowers suspended from an exterior hook beside the market's sliding double doors seemed to be his objective.
Jonathan offered me the last bite.
The moth slumped over--like a sailboat taking on too much water--and lay on its side. Still, the antennae twitched, if half-heartedly.
Not long ago, I read an article on BuzzFeed which caught the attention, once shared, of a large subset of my friends. Titled Why I Miss Being a Born-Again Christian, the op-ed related the Jessica Misener's journey from accepting Christ as her personal Lord and Savior at the age of 16, through high school youth group events, into college and its influx of both knowledge and doubt, etc. For some, the idea of reading about such a predictable "Jesus phase" might sound boring and tedious. For the rest of us, the article was like a walk down memory lane. Ms. Misener is also a gifted writer. A couple of my favorite lines:
To use the jargon of my former life, I became a "believer" in Christ shortly after my mom "got saved" -- the term evangelicals use to mean a conversion to a very specific kind of Christianity, the Billy Graham and gay Teletubbies kind that preaches Jesus as the only path to salvation.
Once at a college party, I tried to convince people not to drink by asking them to think deep existential thoughts about why they drank. (A beneficial thing to ponder, probably, but not one undergrads are dying to muse on between keg stands.)
Yeah. it's familiar. Which, after a chuckle or two could have been the end of it. But a friend of mine from high school sent me an email in response:
That Buzzfeed article you posted a few days ago about the girl who misses being an evangelical got me thinking. I also identified with much of her story, and lately I've been debating whether or not I still want to claim the "Christian" label. I've definitely distanced myself from evangelical culture and flat out reject a lot of the views typically associated with evangelical Christianity (inerrancy and divinity of all scripture, beliefs about gender and sex, etc), but since that's the brand of Christian I've grown up in, I'm not quite sure how to be a Christian without being an evangelical one. I know a lot of things I don't believe anymore; I'm not sure what exactly I do believe. I do know that I miss feeling connected to a church community, and the sense of purpose and belonging and connection to divine that comes with it.
So I'm curious: you said you would still call yourself a Christian, and I'm wondering what that means for you, or how that plays out.
A perfect set of questions. Stuff Christians should, in my opinion, always be asking themselves and each other. The following is my reply:
Though we're currently celebrating America's Independence Day in Oslo for the fourth time in a row, and though we're watching soccer as part of that celebration, Jonathan and I do miss lots of things about being home for this wonderful holiday. I rooted around through our photo bank for a few of the things we miss the most (and made myself terribly homesick in the process):
Every year, our home church puts on a BBQ. This includes food, games for the kids, music, and a car show. Jonathan participated in the car show for a couple of years, showcasing his beloved 1990 Jaguar XJS V12. Pretty sweet ride. Sometimes we miss that car.
The July 4 BBQ is all about relaxing and being a kid again. This includes juggling. My man can juggle anything, even lawn flamingos. This also includes water wars. Somehow I was always a target in these super soaker battles, and I unfailingly ended up drenched to the bone. That's young John Cromie on the right, looking every inch the BBQ nightmare scenario he was for me.
In high school, I had a poster taped up in my bedroom that read:
You run like a girl. You hit like a girl. You throw like a girl. You serve 60 mph in their face like a girl.
Which, I think, is why I kicked so much ass.
But this is not to say I didn't understand that "like a girl" was meant to be an insult. As a child, one of my favorite movies was The Sandlot, a film about a troop of best buddies playing sandlot baseball over one amazing childhood summer. In a key scene, the sandlot players are confronted by a bike-riding crew of Little Leaguers, and the two sets of eleven-year-old males trade insults. They say some pretty sick, plausibly child-imagined stuff. But the crescendo, hollered by Ham--the heavy, freckled catcher--is, of course: "You play ball like a girl!" Someone snort-laughs.
The boys shoot one another panicked looks. As though, with this, Ham might have gone a bit too far.
It never got to me. Because I was one scrappy chick. I ran faster, hit harder, threw longer than any boy in my neighborhood. When I watched The Sandlot, I was Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, not his little sister. Not the main character, Scotty Smalls, who can't catch a baseball to save his own life. Sure, when my hormones began sparking, I developed a crush on Benny, but in my daydreams, I never sat in the bleachers to cheer him on. I was on the field, too.
I gifted myself two hours of reading time today, over lunch. At hand was Twice Eggs, a new essay from Alex Johnson, one of my mentors at Lesley University, and a writer I deeply admire. Approaching her new work, I looked forward to hearing Alex's voice again--that effortless intelligence and poetry, manifested in a shrewd eye for detail, and a light-handed delivery.
Twice Eggs is the story of Alex's return to southern Italy after years away to visit the family of Giorgio, an old flame. As much as Giorgio and his current desires to leave his homeland figure into the narrative, the heart of the piece lies in Alex's relationship with Anna, the woman who, had things worked out differently at that long ago crossroads, would have been Alex's mother-in-law.
Perhaps it is fitting that I began reading over lunch: one hand clicking through the pages on my Kindle, the other collecting spilled sesame seeds with my fingertips and bringing them to my tongue. Food is everything in Twice Eggs. It fuels the narrative from the opening glimpse of Anna's garden, "planted with nightshades--eggplant, tomatoes, firecracker red peperoncini hot peppers whose oil is drizzled over warm waxy potatoes." And everything we see and learn of Anna revolves around her garden and her kitchen. Alex's return to this kitchen triggers every kind of sensory memory, both for her and for the reader.
We all have those moments, coming into contact with the scent or taste of a place and time so distinct in our past that our minds drop everything else and leave the present behind entirely--the olfactory gland being the secret to time travel. Then, often, once we have found that rain-on-the-blacktop middle school quad or that milk-sour corner of Grandma's kitchen in the back of our minds, we wish either that things could have turned out differently or, sometimes, that they could have remained exactly the same. Regret and nostalgia spring from the same soil.
Alex's return to Viggiano, a village "deep in the Mezzogiorno, the instep of Italy named for the blinding mid-day sun," recalls her earlier visits to the same place, on the arm of young Giorgio. A time of almosts. Of younger motivations. Of instant gratification and ecstasy and a reproving potential-mother-in-law. Alex makes her reader feel the danger and beauty of Viggiano. It is a hot, dry place. The hillsides are barren, remote, hard, deceptive. It is not ground I expect much from, but when locals scour the same hillsides, they come up with honey. It is in this sun-baked village that she might have made another choice, turned a down a different road.
Crossroads are the main concern of the narrative, and Twice Eggs does what solid, powerful essays are supposed to do: present something in common with the reader in an uncommon realm, then slice open the moments and places and interactions for observation, and set them out to dry in the sun under crystals of salt. Such common ground in this case includes the beauty of being chosen and accepted by another family, the impact of myriad superstitions on everyday life, and, even in the contented present, finding your gaze trailing backward toward the what-ifs of doors long closed.
Read it. Revel in the way Alex deftly drops out of chronology for quixotic asides about history, geology, religion, and drama. Wander the streets of this village in southern Italy, where Alex was warned not to travel alone since the waves of Tunisian refugees began to wash up on the coast. Realize the weight of life and slowness of time in a region which has experienced Fascism, leprosy, and the wiping out of Pompeii. And then want to go there, with every fiber of your being, with every taste bud of your tongue. Always, somewhere in the room, you'll find a platter of "tissue-thin salami flecked with fennel or shot with Senise pepper."
Alex Johnson is the author of The Hidden Writer, which won the PEN/Jerard Award for nonfiction. She is also the author of Leaving a Trace. Her personal essays have been included in several anthologies, including I Always Meant to Tell You and To Mend the World. Her essays, reviews and travel pieces have appeared in numerous national publications, among them: The New York Times, O, (the Oprah Magazine), The Nation, Ms. Magazine, AGNI. Her work has been featured frequently on National Public Radio, including on "Talk of the Nation" and the "Diane Rehm Show." She has taught memoir and creative nonfiction at Harvard, Wellesley, and in Lesley University's MFA Program. Twice Eggs is adapted from The Saint's Laundry, a memoir in progress.
Ploughshares Solos is a digital-only series of stories, essays, and novellas published by Ploughshares Literary Magazine in Boston. Previously, I hadn't heard of Ploughshares Solos, but it will heretofore be something I seek out, perhaps with a bit of an insatiable reader's desperation. Three cheers for excellent writing in the short form!
Fate is nothing; fate is everything. I find it hard to believe in chaos, even when that's what whirls and crashes all around me. Probably because I'm a writer. My serendipity sensor is on overdrive. Not only do I notice the details of life--the scent of the roses, the placement of their thorns--but before my eyes, they arrange themselves in patterns. Like crop circles. Like fairy rings.
My trip to Ireland last week was a literary one. It was my reward for winning the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award here in Oslo, last March. Three nights in Dublin, courtesy of Tourism Ireland. I was giddy with excitement on the plane, armed with a checklist of bookish things to do in the homeland of Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Stoker, O'Brien and Enright. Again, what we accomplished (saw, learned, basked in, drank, explored) is far too weighty for one post. Here, I want simply to relate something fun that happened our first evening in the city.
I'm home from a bookish, whiskey-laced, World Cup-ful week in Ireland. There are far too many wonderful bits to blog all at once. Suffice it to say, the trip ticked every box on my Perfect Vacation List. This is a list which has evolved over the years and now includes this shocking item: Finding time and space to go for a run.
You read that right. My on-again-off-again relationship with running is, well, on again.
My shins are fickle. My attachment to my couch profound. My wheezy lungs as good an excuse as any to move at a snail's pace through the majority of my life. But when I run regularly, I do enjoy it. Particularly the bit just after the initial fifteen minutes of hellish breaking-in which my body is bound to undergo every single time... and just before the devastating throb of my lazy heart as The Blerch pops up to tell me I should stop immediately and buy some ice cream instead. If I can drown out The Blerch's protestations with the help of Beyoncé or Ira Glass, I inevitably finish my run glowing (sweating, actually, but glowing just sounds less sticky, slick, and gross), breathing deeply, and proud of myself. Every time. Proof: This photo of me, post-run, posing with my favorite Georgian door in Dublin, number thirty-three, and the same shade of bright red as my poor, little, panting face.
Which is why I've signed up to run the Oslo Half Marathon in September this year, partnered with fellow American expat blogger Corinne to train for the race, and even managed to complete two training runs while on vacation!
When Jonathan and I trained for the Disneyland Half Marathon in 2008 and 2010, we did our final tapered runs in Anaheim the night before the big race. We did the same thing in Death Valley before the 30K we ran in 2009, too. But just plain going for a run while a tourist in a foreign city is something I've never tried before. It almost didn't happen, too, because when I Googled around for advice about jogging in Dublin, I saw the same thing over and over: Don't do it. Running on city streets in Dublin is, apparently, very tough to do. They're crowded. The intersections are terrible. (And if you're not a local, it's easy to forget which way to look when you cross the street, too!) Thankfully, the advice I found went further than that. If you want to run in Dublin, choose one of the many beautiful, safe little parks in the city, and do laps.
This spring, I was invited by Editor Michael Sandelson to write a series of pieces for The Foreigner, a website for Norwegian news in English. I accepted at once! After all, writing about life in Norway is already what I do for fun. Why not spread my reach a little?
So far I've authored three pieces for The Foreigner:
Alone on the 17th of May (May 2014)
Norway's Constitution Day arrived suddenly my first year, as international holidays do to those who aren't used to celebrating them. That was three years ago. Looking back now, I realize there'd been plenty of signs in the weeks leading up to it. Planter boxes suddenly overflowing with freshly planted tulips, their yellow heads the size of coffee mugs; and, of course, an onslaught of teenagers in cherry-red pants. But I'll get back to that. Continue Reading...
Digging-in (May 2014)
Each spring, the tenants in our Oslo apartment building come together for an afternoon of voluntary, community work. This is a dugnad, a Norwegian tradition in which a bunch of people join forces to spruce up their shared, public spaces. Like a barn-raising, but on a smaller, less sweaty, less Amish scale. We'd been living in Norway only a month when our first dugnad notice showed up in our mailbox. At first we didn't know what to think of the typed, unsigned page requesting our presence on a Thursday afternoon in late April. Google Translate helped. Unfortunately, allusion to a small fine, owed if we chose to skip out on the dugnad, tainted the notification. We marked the date on our calendar and began to dread it. Continue Reading...
The Ski-in (April 2014)
Native Norwegians make cross-country skiing look like a glide-stepping walk in the park. As expats in Norway have heard a thousand times, this is because Norwegian babies are born with skis on. An atrocious thought, sure, but if you visit any cross-country trail in the Oslomarka on a sunny day, you'll see how plausible it is. Children as young as three zoom right by you: without poles; without fear. Only kids who are too young to walk get away with being too young to ski. I hopped on the cross-country skiing bandwagon with both feet, our first winter in Norway, and promptly slipped and fell into the snow. Continue Reading...
The Foreigner is a subscription-based website, but you can access a few articles each month without paying the fee, so please stop by and read these and let me know what you think. Hopefully you'll find something there that makes you want to stick around and/or check back more regularly.