2014 will be a great year for travelling, apparently

Happy New Year! I’m writing this from Norway, where I’ve been for nearly two weeks without my laptop. Frankly, it’s been lovely not trying to keep up with all the blogs, forums, Twitter feeds and catch-up TV that has somehow become a major part of my life over the last few years. Considering how successfully I gave up using Facebook last year, I am thinking about seriously cutting back on the amount I use forums and just generally waste time online this year. It’s not exactly a resolution but more of a continuation of something that’s sort of happened on its own lately.

Anyway, enough of the introspection and onto what you have all been waiting to hear about with bated breath and sparkling eye: the great Norwegian New Year tradition of running around the outside of the house wearing jewellery made of glowsticks and carrying suitcases, in order to ensure lots of safe and exciting travelling for the coming year. OK, let’s be honest here: it’s not a great Norwegian tradition. I haven’t heard of it being done anywhere else, actually. I think it’s just this family. And it works! Of the five people who actually live here and aren’t just occasional holiday interlopers (i.e. the ones who are not me), two are studying abroad and one is planning to. Between the three of us perpetual students, we travelled over four thousand miles to be here for Christmas (mostly because Kris flew in from Glasgow via Seattle).

There were also Christmas traditions which were a little more common to the rest of the country. Naturally we spent most of the Christmas period eating, usually with at least half a dozen members of the extended family. I generally tucked myself into an innocuous corner at these gatherings; as the English-speaking vegan visitor I was welcomed in a warm but possibly slightly bemused manner. I’ve been amazed and gratified by how much effort everyone has made to accomodate my awkward dietary requirements, particularly in a country where the national Christmas dish is decomposed fish. Everyone seems to speak excellent English too; my Norwegian is limited to a very basic written comprehension, some educated guesswork when listening to people speak and a miniscule spoken vocabulary which I apparently speak with a Danish accent, so I am equal parts grateful and embarassed when people talk to me in my own language.

On Christmas Eve, which is the main day for celebrating here, we skipped in a ring round the Christmas tree and sang Norwegian carols. I recognised one of them from the church service earlier that day and managed to join in with the aid of the service sheet, which had the words on. Then we ate, with dessert not being the British norm of fruit-cake based stodge but a sort of rice pudding mixed with whipped cream (for me and Jens, who became vegan out of solidarity for the duration of my stay and has, I suspect, caught it permanently, the cream was made from coconut milk – delicious!) which was itself the leftovers from a traditional meal on the 23rd before we put up thhe tree (chopped down and hauled home from the family cabin). We were all served a bowl of rice pudding, one of which contained a single almond. The person who got the almond won a marzipan pig and was monarch for the evening. It reminded me of the French galette for Epiphany – odd how ideas pop up around the world.

Probably my favourite example of the way things move and adapt is the fact that it is a beloved and apparently universal custom in Norway to sit down on the evening of the 23rd, after the rice pudding, and watch Dinner for One, a 1920s British comedy sketch filmed in Germany in the 60s, and still watched there on New Year’s Eve every Year. I had only seen in by chance in the UK because my stepdad likes old comedy and has Swiss family, so I was pretty much flummoxed to find it is so incredibly popular. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a watch and I believe is available on YouTube.

In two days, providing the suitcase-running has done the trick, I’ll be heading back home for a few days’ preparation before my Physiology exam on Tuesday, followed by three weeks of lectures. Then I have two reading weeks which will be something of a moveable feast since I’m visiting all my parents and Cambridge during that time, and possibly having visitors myself. Once that’s done, I will start my first proper placement in the hospital, working full time hours and whatever shift pattern my mentor works. I’m a bit concerned about my ability to cope with thirteen hour shifts and night shifts, but now seems like the time to test it!

This will probably be the last time I spend Christmas abroad for a few years. Next year and third year I will be on placement at this time of year and even if I don’t have to work the actual days, I won’t have two weeks to take off to another country. In any case I have found myself missing the trappings of a British Christmas; the mince pies, the carol singing, the bumper Radio Times full of things I want to watch but always manage to miss, the midnight church service and the quaint tackiness of crackers. They aren’t better than Norwegian traditions, but they are familiar. And as my mum said over Skype earlier today, now that I’ve coped with a Christmas surrounded by family members I don’t really know and who speak a foreign language, I can probably cope with my own extended family!

2013 was eventful without being particularly dramatic. It ran basically to plan, and my biggest wish for my own life in the coming months is that they continue to be eventful but undramatic. My appetite for the unexpected was rather exhausted by 2011, to be honest.

Advertisements

A Basket of Apples

This time of year is my favourite season, and we are in the middle of my favourite academic term. When I said that to another student they said “it’s the furthest we are from exams” but that isn’t really the reason for me, although it helps. I love the anticipation of a new year; I enjoy starting my new subjects and meeting my new supervisors. The weather isn’t perfect, but it is still light in the early evenings and the air is crisp. I like scuffling through fallen leaves and walking along in my new winter coat, enjoying the warmth compared to the chill of the air. I like the slowly-building excitement as we move towards Halloween, Bonfire Night, Advent and Christmas. November is probably my favourite month ever – even though it is often my busiest, as the writing group I run kicks up a gear for NaNoWriMo and my academic work continues to roll along. Choir gets more demanding with carol services and extra rehearsals, and the days get shorter.

Next week British summertime officially ends. My summer ended the day I landed back in the UK and walked off the plane into my favourite season: autumn. I don’t miss the hot days and the bright sunshine at all. Instead of air conditioning and camping I have fruitful harvest of the choir’s annual apple-picking expedition, ready for an industrious morning tomorrow of quince jam-making and apple-crumble baking. Friends come to visit: this weekend it was KT, and in a few weeks I will be heading off for the weekend myself, to spend some time with my mum and her almost-unbroken wrist. I’ve already got the Christmas vacation almost planned, with train tickets booked back north and a definitive date for my Norwegian friend Jens to arrive for Christmas itself. In a fortnight I will pack up a picnic lunch, find my bike helmet and cycle off with Heidi, another chapel warden, to visit a National Trust property on its last open Saturday of the season. The week after I will dig out my waterproof trousers and help to preserve some of the local fens. The last Saturday of term heralds what might be the most peculiar choir commitment of the year: a wedding followed by a trip to Brighton beach for fish and chips, almost certainly in the pouring rain. And then term will end and it hardly feels as though it has started.

Autumn does have its downsides. I don’t enjoy the dark evenings, or walking through a mist so heavy it might as well be raining. I have to dither every morning over whether or not to wear my coat for the two-minute walk to the faculty building, and I suddenly seem to need even more sleep than usual. But there is so much to look forward to, and so many things which are just on the horizon that I’m constantly feeling anticipatory. It feels as though the world is holding its breath, ready for winter.

Vacating

Well, I’ve left you all on that cliffhanger for quite a while! It’s been a busy few weeks. The G&S Ball was great fun, the amount of detail that must have gone into planning it was incredible – everyone had tiny little golden pencils and cute little dance cards with a gold cord to fasten it to your wrist, the food was amazing, the dancing was very cleverly organised (old-world dance names like cotillion and galop, but simple ceilidh dances with a caller) and the orchestra was brilliant, playing magnificently-arranged G&S medleys. My feet were in a total state by the time I got home, I couldn’t walk comfortably for two days (don’t dance in heels, girls) but it was worth it.

After that, the choir tour got going. We had a whole string of 13-hour days with concerts in Kent, London, Lichfield, Cambridgeshire etc. One of the London concerts was an NSPCC Benefit in Southwark Cathedral where I met Floella Benjamin! She was so friendly and lovely, and chatted to me and my friend Emma for ages – we only stopped because we were dragged away to get the coach home. I loved the Hullaballoo videos as a kid which is why I was so desperate to meet her, but she has done all kinds of incredible things as well. It’s been a good year for meeting my heros.

Some other highlights from the choir tour: carol singing in the freezing cold marketplace to raise money for the America tour, lots of giggling with New Kristie, Disney sing-a-long on the coach, hilarity/panic when four people got themselves stuck at Letchworth Garden City, “electrifying” singing in Lichfield Cathedral, amazingly delicious food in Kent… the list could go on for hours.

By last Sunday I was exhausted and had a stinking cold, complete with hacking cough for extra fun. I cleared my washing up cupboard for the first time all term (noteworthy event) and packed probably way too many clothes for seventeen days.

Monday – Friday I was in Manchester, which was bitterly cold and full of excellent people. On Thursday we went to a boatyard and helped steam two planks onto a canal boat, which probably doesn’t sound like much fun to most people but was fantastic. I’ve met a whole bunch of cool people this week.

Now I’m at my dad’s house for a few days, which always means lots of lounging around and watching films and wearing pyjamas. Last night we went to see the new Sherlock Holmes film. I think I remember the old one being rather better, but it was exactly what we were hoping for – totally devoid of plot, full of ridiculously overblown fights and snappy one-liners, and gorgeous costumes. We were at the Rex cinema in Elland, which is one of a handful of cinemas left that still has an Intermission in the middle of the film, and on Tuesday evenings has an organist who plays during silent films. It’s a great place and I was quite sad to see that there were maybe a dozen people there. But it’s still going against all the odds, and its ticket prices are the lowest in the area.

Today I’m off into town to do some last-minute Christmas shopping, and maybe drop in on my foster family on the way back. It’s very odd being back in the town I did most of my growing up in. I feel this way whenever I come back; I never do see anyone from school, and if I did I doubt we’d recognise each other anyway, but I still feel a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand it’s familiar and I already know I’ll end up back here when I’m older. Yorkshire is in my blood, I think.

A good week for winter sports

Yesterday we went skiing, today we went skating! At first we tried hiring skates from the little hut next to the open-air rink (a wonderful idea, new to me, where you don’t have to pay to go on the ice and can stay on as long as you like) but they were really dreadful skates, it was like trying to skate on spoons. They were sufficiently bad that we went off to find a sports shop and I bought some new skates – my old ones which were actually pretty new have gone missing somewhere – and got them sharpened. Then I went back and skated for a while, and Jens sat and drank tea and read about philosophy. Then we had to run like mad for the train, which we caught by ten seconds (and paid a staggering £11 for a thirty minute train ride).

I’m currently trying to deal with all the money I’m owed by various groups, most importantly the various flights which I need refunding. I don’t know if I have already mentioned it but when I checked to see if BA had refunded me for the cancelled flights I discovered that they had booked me inexplicably onto a flight to Munich for January 2nd. I have no objection to being given random flights in theory, but I would quite like the money back from the cancelled flights and I have no intention of going to Germany on the 2nd (I will be in London that day and then going home).

Speaking of London, final call for anyone who might be around and want to meet up, other than the people I have already arranged to meet up with! I’m going home on the evening of the 2nd now, because I’m off to Paris on the 8th, but I will be in London on the 1st to meet the Paris family so could grab coffee with people then.

Hope you’ve all had a good Christmas, have a good New Year too!

Photos from Norway

This post has been neatly slotted into place using the miracle of wordpress publishing dates. It’s taken me over a month to get round to sorting out my photos but here they are!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

These are the hotel rooms I stayed in – the fancier one is the Rathbone, the one with the enormous bed is the Holiday Inn. It is not easy to tell from the picture but the Holiday Inn bed is so large that I could lie sidways across it with my arms above my head and still not touch both sides. It was wider than it was long.

This is the frozen lake which Jens and I skated on. We had to dig through two feet of snow to reach the ice, which took longer than we ended up skating for but it was fun! Sorry for the lack of light; I did try increasing the contrast to make the picture less gloomy but this is how it really was so I decided to leave it.

Digging! It ended up about four times this size, after a lot of effort from both of us.

Putting on my skates ready to go. Sadly none of the action photos were any use and all the ones I took of Jens were incredibly blurry but I’m sure you can imagine the two of us swooping round on the ice. Or rather shuffling round and occasionally falling over a lump.

Also, bonus cat:

He was the fluffiest cat I have ever met! I spent a lot of my time there cutting clumps out of his fur with a pair of scissors, which he wasn’t very keen on.

 

 

Edit: I realise that the tiny ice rink and cat photos have somehow appeared in the hotel room slideshow but I can’t work out how to fix it, so I guess you get to see them twice!

Skiing!

Today has been pretty awesome so far. We all got up really late, and had a massive sort-of breakfast (sort of because it was twenty to two) and then Jens, Liv, Harald and I went skiing (Liv is Jens’ mother, Harald is the little brother). I have never been skiing before but it was a lot of fun and actually not as hard as I expected – maybe because it was cross-country and that’s a little like ice skating? Anyway I am now aching all over and covered in damp patches from where I fell over and couldn’t get up without help. Jens left me lying there for ages saying it was something I had to learn to do, but in the end he took pity on me. Good job really, or I would probably still be there.

Kris, Jens’ sister, and her boyfriend Tom just left for the airport as they’re flying back to Britain (Kris studies in Glasgow, Tom in Bournemouth). I would have been going with them but I managed to move my flight so I am heading back on Thursday instead, so we’re going to see the newest Narnia film tonight. Tomorrow I’m hoping we can go skating, as the weather has improved a lot and it’s hovering around -6 instead of -23 at the moment. The ice rink is outdoors so temperature is pretty important!

It seems amazing to me that people in this country can just pick up their skiis and go out and ski whenever they feel like it in the winter, instead of having to pay thousands of pounds to fly to another country and then join a huge queue of other holidayers to slide down a mountainside. On the other hand they do have to cope with the fact that there is a good two foot of snow everywhere, which is surprisingly not much of a problem. If Britain had this much snow I expect people would be having breakdowns trying to go to the supermarket, and there would be car crashes everywhere.

I’m hoping to Skype with my mum tonight. We’ve been trying every day since Christmas day but somehow we keep missing each other despite emailing about times. Maybe today will finally work out! I should also be getting a phone call from the lady in Paris tomorrow to sort out the final details and arrange meeting up, and then I will know for certain that I am going to France! It is pretty much settled already I think, but I won’t feel completely safe until I am actually there and getting stuck in.

It is currently twenty past five pm and it is pitch black outside. Sadly we’re too far south to see the Northern Lights.

God Jul!

Festive greetings from Norway! I finally arrived on Tuesday night, after a remarkably smooth and prompt flight. We set off on time and arrived early, and all in all it was a very uneventful journey. Just what I needed to restore my faith in airlines after such a long and ridiculous wait for a flight.

The five days I spent stuck here were actually quite interesting, and I met and chatted to a lot of people I would never have spoken to otherwise. Some of the most notable were a girl who had flown from Chicago and was trying to get to Frankfurt for Christmas, but who eventually gave up and went back to Chicago because she was concerned about getting stuck in Germany and missing the start of term – can you imagine spending Christmas alone in an empty American dorm? Then there was the lawyer who evidently spent a lot of time flying around and who was used to staying in 5* hotels courtesy of his firm, but who opted to go to one of the airport hotels out of curiosity (it was the same one I stayed in the first night, and in my limited experience of luxury hotels it was pleasant, clean and unremarkable), and the lady who I met in a queue for a hotel booking agency who came with me to the extravagent Rathbone Hotel. It’s quite a good job that we travelled together really, since I think if she had been travelling alone she would have ended up on completely the wrong train. And then there was the fantastic waiter in Pizza Express who chatted to me for ages about the philosophy of food and gave me the titles of two books about eating according to your blood type and so forth.

Since I arrived here I have discovered that even twelve year old Norwegians speak English better than I can ever hope to speak any other language, I have drunk alcohol-free Christmas beer, walked through Oslo in -23 degrees and thought my cheeks were going to fall off, learnt the Norwegian for blueberry, parrot, poisonous, double-sided tape and exit (all have proved varyingly useful) and today gone to some food shops to buy Christmas food at staggering expense. The transport here is slightly more expensive than in London; the food is about twice as expensive.

Any Newnhamites will have got the email from the JCR President about an alumna who is looking for an au pair – it looks like that au pair is going to be me! We spoke on the phone today and have exchanged a few emails and providing we don’t hate each other when we meet in London next week, I will be going to Paris for six months at the start of January! It has all been extremely sudden but it honestly feels like an opportunity sent directly by God just for me. I am almost waiting for something to go wrong because it sounds so perfect so far.

Because of my impending departure from the UK, I am slightly juggling my post-Christmas plans. I am hoping to be returning from Norway a few days later to make up for the days I missed, so I will probably be getting back on the 29th or 30th, going to Anna’s for New Year, possibly staying at KT’s for a day or two and meeting up with anyone who happens to be in the vicinity of London and wants to see me, and then going home on perhaps the 4th to wash all my clothes, repack everything I own and go to France.

I expect I will be back for weekends at some point, so I still hope to swing by Cambridge in February and I want to visit my Yorkshire family at some point. But at the moment I have no idea how things will pan out! It’s all very exciting.

This will probably be my last post before Christmas, maybe even before I go back home, so have a wonderful Christmas everyone and I hope the snow isn’t too much of a hinderance. See you all as soon as possible!

Fury and other emotions

Well, I’m not in Norway. I arrived in London on Thursday night and went to a Youth Hostel (first mistake). Then I went to the cinema which was extortionate, and saw The Social Network. Quite good, but not worth the chaos it caused.

I didn’t sleep at all in the hostel because it was far too hot and there was a really annoying woman who was on her computer until well after 2am, which lit up the room and was really noisy. I got up at five to go to the airport by Tube (second mistake).

I arrived Heathrow Terminal Five two minutes too late to check in (third, massive mistake). I hadn’t realised I had to check in 45 minutes before the flight – I’ve always checked in online before, so I just didn’t think. The Tube had been slightly delayed and the airport was in chaos so I stood in a queue to check in just a couple of minutes too long.

For the rest of the day I queued for eight hours in total, first to reschedule my flight and then when that was cancelled to reschedule again, and when they announced they weren’t rescheduling any more flights to get a hotel. Luckily I did manage to get a hotel voucher, so I went to a Holiday Inn with the biggest bed I have ever seen, and ate a huge meal courtesy of BA. I woke up before dawn to re-reschedule my flight for that evening, then ate another huge meal and went back to the airport.

By lunchtime it was apparent that my flight was going to be cancelled again – around four inches of snow had fallen in the same number of hours and all flights had been cancelled until 5pm. Mine was meant to be at 5pm but unsurprisingly that was cancelled. I couldn’t get a voucher this time so I made my way back to the centre of London and bagged one of the last two rooms in The Rathbone Hotel (painfully expensive, but I can claim back the cost from BA if they ever answer their phones). While I was waiting for the train from the airport, I rang my dad who booked a new flight with SAS for me, for Sunday night. By this point I had paid three times for a flight that hadn’t happened – once for the one I missed, once for the rescheduled ones, and once for the new flight.

Sunday morning I woke to the news that Heathrow was essentially closed. I went there anyway, because there was no other way to check if my flight was cancelled or not – the SAS website is not very useful. It was cancelled. Terminal Three was like a war zone, far worse than Terminal Five had been, with people lying all over the place wrapped in foil and no one with any idea what was going on. Ever so often people wandered past shouting down the phone and looking angry but mostly there was an air of accepting despair. I queued for another hour to use the computers and booked yet another flight with BA (maybe the fourth mistake…) for Tuesday. Then I decided to go home.

So here I am, back in Shropshire for a day and trying to do something about the staggering amount of money I need to claim back – the cost of the upgraded cancelled flight was about £385, the SAS flight was a further £255, the hotel was £180, and I spent about £35 on food and travel that day. In theory all of that money is reclaimable and also I’m insured, but in practice no one is answering their phones and although they direct you to the website, I can’t do anything online and am just redirected to the phone lines. I am very glad I have such a good overdraft, but even so I am very worried as I’m now utterly broke and I still have to get back to Heathrow tomorrow morning.

I’ve been growing increasingly determined to get to Norway for Christmas, and hopefully I’ll be able to move my return flight a couple of days so that I don’t have to miss half of my holiday. That does mean that I have to replan the various trips I was going to make when I got back, so to anyone who I’ve arranged to meet in the next few weeks, I’ll get in touch with you when I know what I’m doing.

Man. This has turned out to be a much more eventful trip than I thought and I haven’t even got there yet. I’ll be adding more to this post (including photos of the amazing hotel rooms!) once I’ve dealt with all the money issues.

Time Warp

I was lying awake last night thinking about time, and I realised that I go to Norway in one week (yay!) and that I turn twenty in eight weeks. How is this possible? I don’t feel remotely twenty. I feel more like 15. I don’t think it helps that since I got back here I have not met or spoken to anyone under the age of 40, and mostly they were over 60.

Last night we went to a whist drive. Mum and John go quite regularly but this was the first time I’d gone and I really wasn’t sure I wanted to. It wasn’t too bad but as I’d expected everyone except myself and my mum was grey-haired and most of them spoke in Welsh, and they all played very well and very fast and I felt a bit out of place. I did win a Christmas pudding in the raffle, though.

I was planning on going into town today but I didn’t wake up until 11 and the buses go at 10.30 and 3.30 so maybe I’ll just go tomorrow. I will spend today making plans for what I’m going to do in London! I want to see a film and a play and eat chips and eat pizza and eat Subway sandwiches and Burger King and I want to walk down Bond Street and visit Notting Hill and go on a river boat cruise and skate and basically I won’t actually have time to do all of these things so I’ll have to go to London again soon 🙂 It seems mad that it’s as cheap and easy to get to London to do these things as it is to get to Shrewsbury.

There is something in the attic above me which is buzzing miserably. It might be a wasps’ nest, which is why I am not opening the attic hatch and trying to let it out.

A Silver Lining

I’ve been sleeping a little less well since I got my new curtains, because they haven’t got a very thick lining and I wake up at about 7.30 when it gets lights and my mum is getting ready to work. Last night I wore one of those mask things that people wear in films and which look vaguely comical but it actually helped a lot and I woke up after 10 feeling much less tired. I guess I’m not totally recovered after all, but I don’t nap in the afternoons any more so things are improving.

And I am very grateful not to be in this situation. Things could be a lot worse!

I’m starting to get a bit antsy with not much to do. It doesn’t seem like they’ll be interviewing me for the hospital job before Christmas, and then since New Year falls on a weekend there’ll be two bank holidays so it probably won’t be before the 4th January at the earliest. Which is good because it means I can definitely go to London etc, but it also means I won’t be working before March at the earliest (I have to be CRB checked by the hospital before I start, so even if I am successful at interview it’ll be another month before that comes through and then there’s a couple of weeks of training). Grr.

Today I’m going to try and get Christmas presents wrapped. There are some very oddly-shaped things that need wrapping, and one person’s present comes in about twenty different pieces, which seemed like a good idea at the time but is going to be rather time-consuming to wrap…