“Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!”
I send you these festive wishes and a new post from a very lazy Sunday as I relax and nurse my legs after having run 10 kilometres over snow and ice around the southern coast of the island yesterday for Tromsø’s famous annual ‘Mørketidsløp’ (Polar Night Run).
Joined by over 500 other runners (some braver souls taking on the half marathon) from over 30 different countries and all set with spikes on my shoes, a good bit of dancing around the main square in town to warm up and a nice lot of sponsorship (going to the student campaigning network ‘People and Planet’) behind me, we gathered under the clear and starry (but unfortunately northern-light-less) Arctic sky and counted down to go… klar…ferdig…løp!
The run was in fact a lot more enjoyable than I thought I might be. Jogging alongside a lot of other people, along a track lit by flicking candles, a large crescent moon watching over us, the oh-so-familiar shape of the mountains rising up around us –stark and black against the deep blue sky, like a child’s cut and paste picture. The first 5k really was very enjoyable, awash with that frequently occurring feeling of astonishment that I can truly be living here. The last 5 were a bit more of a push but the final sprint at the end – speeding up under the Christmas lights strung over the street, a friendly crowd jostling around the finish line, motivational music reaching my ears from the speakers – definitely made up for any earlier pain!
So now we are one week in to 2011 and it is the final day of what has been a wonderfully memorable winter break for me.
On December 23rd, my friend – Helene – with whom I was to spend Christmas with picked me up and drove about an hour into the mainland to her family home. There I spent three incredibly lovely and cosy days surrounded by welcoming people, good food and lots of Norwegian practise! I felt very touched at how easily they made me feel at home and part of the family despite only being with them for a short time and at such a family-centric time of year. And of course I was very happy to get a little view into the traditions of a Norwegian ‘Jul’…
On the 23rd evening we ate ‘grøtt’ which is the typical sugar and cinnamon coated rice-pudding eaten on this ‘lille julaften’ (little Christmas eve). Similar to our custom of a penny in the Christmas pudding, one whole almond is added to the mixture and whichever lucky person finds the almond in his/her bowl gets a present – normally something made of marzipan. In fact, no one found the little hidden nut in our family this evening…so we all shared the prize (though it was found the next day as someone tucked in to some leftovers!).
I awoke on the 24th to find a ‘julestrømpe’ hanging on the handle of my bedroom door packed full of sweets from the ‘julenisse’ – otherwise known as Santa. Particularly surprising as I wasn’t sure if he would find me this year, and he even did so a day earlier than normal! I guess this finally solves the secret of how he manages to deliver such delights to so many people… After breakfast we wandered down the road to visit Helene’s Grandmother before making a trip with all the family to the nearby cemetery to leave a candle by the grave of her Grandfather. Making a visit to deceased loved ones is a common thing to do on Christmas Eve here. Christmas ‘officially’ begins at 5pm on ‘julaften’ (Christmas Eve) and so, not long after that I came to the decorated table to join the Christmas dinner with Helene, her parents and her two younger siblings. They ate the very traditional ‘pinnekjøtt’ (dried lamb meat) while I had salmon and for desert was another very traditional dish of cloudberries (a Norwegian delicacy) in whipped cream. After dinner we flopped onto the sofas around the tree and dug into the enticing looking pile of presents clustered around its trunk. I was very happy to receive such treats as a jar of marmite, a packet of marmite-cashew nuts and a set of marmite fridge magnets (so the family could truly see quite how much I love the bizarre stuff!), a very cosy pair of handmade mittens from them and best of all – my mum’s masterwork in the form of some brightly coloured self-knitted socks (particularly special as I never knew she could knit…! Thanks Mum 😉 ). Another highlight of this evening was introducing them all to Christmas crackers which initially caused much confusion (trying to pull the snaps out first) and then much hilarity.
The 25th was a very chilled affair with a long brunch and several hours of relaxing on the sofa with my book (which happened to be a re-reading of Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’, just perfect!), a wee skype chat home and most excitingly Husky dog sledging ride! Helene’s dad owns eight Huskies which he often takes out, as a hobby, on long weekend sledging tours around the mountain huts… I was lucky enough to be treated to a ride, which felt like the most magical thing I could think of to do on a Christmas day in the Arctic…and with my head in the world of Lyra and dust and dæmons, it couldn’t get much more magical!
Following on from this memorable Christmas experience, I had an equally enjoyable new years time…
I booked again the same university-owned cabin that I have talked about visiting before (last time with Ellie) for the last few days of 2010 and put word out among the few students that I knew were still around as well as sending a message round the Tromsø ‘Couchsurfing’ group (Couchsurfing, for those who don’t know, is a website in which travellers can link up with other travellers or dwellers in the area, either just for meeting up or to spend a night on their couch). We ended up with a group consisting of 4 Belgians, 3 French, 1 Brazilian, 1 Swedish and myself and the trip worked incredibly well considering I had only met two of the above before! One thing which is really fantastic about being with a group of travelling souls is the ease with which people can be together. To see how ten people who don’t know each other can create such an friendly and relaxed atmosphere is one of those things which renews my faith in the human spirit!
We were back in Tromsø by New Years Eve and I waited to welcome five English couchsurfers who I was hosting at my flat for a couple of days. They arrived in the evening (having driven for 5 days the whole way) and we had a great night, joined by some of the folk from the cabin trip, involving a five course dinner, one or two drinks…, fireworks and an hour long snowball fight before ending up at a party where we were offered lots of ‘very nice wine’ which turned out to be port.
With this last week full of films, sledging, welcoming back the old international students and volunteering for the introductory programme for the new international students, I think I can safely say that 2011 has kicked off to a pretty good start.