What do running on ice in the dark and a Rwandan restaurant have in common?

Me…and Tromsø (pronounced “Troomsuh”).  This is where Hans Einar and I spent the weekend from 3-5 January 2014.

About Tromsø

Tromsø is a group of islands located here, 350 km north of the Arctic Circle.  I live south of Oslo, about 1,200 km south of the Arctic Circle.  So Tromsø is far away.

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Most tourists visit Tromsø to view the northern lights in winter.  This is, in fact, the only way to see light in Tromsø in the winter, since there is no actual daylight.  Here is what the Weather Channel shows for sunrise and sunset times in Tromsø in early January:

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I did not go to Tromsø to see the northern lights, although I had hoped I would catch a glimpse of them.   No, I went to Tromsø to run a half-marathon…in the dark…on snow and ice.

The Polar Night Half-Marathon is in its 11th year of operation.  In addition to the 21k run, there are 10k and 5k runs (for the wimps!).  This year, 1,117 brave souls were, like me, inspired to run in this exotic destination.  I know, Hawaii is also exotic (and warm and sunny), but that is for another time.

As with the three other half-marathons I have run, Hans Einar accompanied me to show his support.  This he does well, especially on race day when I am jittery and I wonder if there is something wrong with me and he reminds me that I get this way each and every time I run a race.  He is also one of the last ones waiting at the finish line to see me cross over after most of the runners have completed the race and are already having a beer to celebrate.  And, he yells out “heia, heia” with as much enthusiasm and pride as if I were first over the finish line and, because of him, I feel as if I am.

Hans Einar and a polar bear at the Polar Museum.

Hans Einar and a polar bear at the Polar Museum.

The day before the race, we did a bit of tourism, visiting the very interesting Polar Museum that traced the polar expeditions of Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nanson.  We also visited “the world’s most northern aquarium”, the architecturally exquisite Polaria, where we stood for a long time watching two adorable bearded seals pop out of their open arctic aquarium to display themselves for us (there was no one else around so we had them to ourselves).

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Polaria – photo taken in a month with light!

Race Day

Getting ready at the hotel.

Getting ready at the hotel.

Saturday, 5 January 2104, 14:40

With woollen underwear, my favourite running jacket, my iPhone with a John Grisham audiobook queued up, plenty of energy gels and spikes on my shoes, I set off to join the other runners for a 15-minute warm-up provided by one of the local gym chains.  As Hans Einar and I approached the start area, I heard the end of O Fortuna from Carmina Burana blasting from the loudspeakers and felt a rush of adrenaline.  I wonder if Carl Orff had Halbmarathon-Läufer in mind when he wrote his musical composition.   It did the trick for me!

Pre-race ambiance...yes, the photos are dark but so was everything!

Pre-race ambiance…yes, the photos are dark but so was everything!

The ambiance

The ambiance

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Checking my spikes…

At 14:59 the countdown began, we runners lined up behind the start line and, “five, four three, two one”, we were off, through the centre of Tromsø along streets lined with well-wishers (northern Norwegians are known for being particularly hospitable).  In no time, we were out of town and on our way to the airport and the 10.5k turnaround.  The entire route was lit by candles and there was a strong contingent of race volunteers who made me feel VERY important since they stopped traffic just so I could cross the road (well, I guess they did it for all the runners but I pretended they did it just for me).

As with all my running, I use Jeff Galloway’s interval method of walk-run and I had set my handy interval timer to a 40:30 ratio (40 seconds of running followed by 30 seconds of walking).  This method has really worked for me so there was no question that I would use it in Tromsø.

Jeff is an American marathon runner (he participated in the 1972 Munich Olympics) and his walk-run method is very popular in the US.  But I have yet to find another runner in any of the half-marathons I have run who uses an interval timer.  The timer vibrates and beeps when it is time to switch intervals.  I have often felt embarrassed by the beeps and the stops and starts, as I pass others on my run interval only to have them pass me on my walk interval.  In the end, I usually end up leaving behind 5 or 6 of those runners since they run out of steam before I do, thanks to the walk breaks.  I have gotten used to the beeps and the embarrassment but I am still acutely aware that my beeper noises and starts and stops may annoy some runners.

Around the 3k mark, I had stopped to adjust my spikes and was aware of a presence behind me that had also stopped.  I turned around to see a couple who had, in fact, stopped behind me.  Kristie said “we’re stealing your intervals” in a very American English and I responded “you’re very welcome to them!” and we proceeded to run the rest of the race together.

Kristie and Ricardo had flown in from Seattle for this race and are both devout followers of Jeff’s walk-run method.  Kristie’s timer had frozen at the start of the race (pun not intended) and when I had passed them on my run interval, Kristie had recognised the timer beep and they proceeded to discreetly follow my intervals, staying behind me so as not to reveal themselves.  But when I had stopped, Kristie decided to tell me what they were doing.  From that point on, we ran together, talking a bit, stopping once or twice to take photos and, in general enjoying ourselves despite the physical challenges of running on ice in the dark for 21k.

Around the 15k mark, we ran up to another participant who was walking and eating a banana.  I said “hello” to him and mentioned what a great idea it was to have brought along a banana.   Jet (a local resident originally from the Philippines) told us that he had not brought bananas with him.  He had, in fact, run out of steam and had stopped in at a grocery store (one of only a few along the way) to get a banana to boost his energy.  Having no money, he had asked the grocer if he could have a banana with a promise to return and pay later.  The grocer gave him two bananas.  Ricardo offered him an energy gel which he gratefully took and Kristie, Ricardo and I resumed our intervals.

This was the first time I had actually run with anyone, since running has been a cherished solitary activity for me.  But I must admit that I enjoyed this run so much more thanks to Kristie and Ricardo.  We pushed each other, kept up a good pace and crossed the finish line together, with our arms raised in triumph.  I’ll save the Grisham audiobook for another time.

We met Jet again at the race end.  He came in slightly ahead of us so the bananas and Ricardo’s energy gel had helped.  Hans Einar took this photo of us, blissfully exhausted and so very proud.

Kristie, me, Ricardo and Jet

Kristie, me, Ricardo and Jet

African Oasis

Now, about that Rwandan restaurant.  As with any trip, I spend time researching the destination and especially its culinary possibilities.  I had discovered an unusual option for Tromsø on TripAdvisor; an African restaurant that had many positive reviews.  In keeping with my theme of the exotic, Hans Einar and I celebrated my victory with dinner at Afrika Oase.  Rose, the owner, is from Rwanda.  She explained to us that she was living in Luxembourg when she was offered a grant by the Norwegian government’s “innovation group” to move to Tromsø and open an African restaurant.  Norway is trying hard to internationalise and Tromsø has a large university full of international students and faculty who need to be fed.  Rose imports most of her products directly from Africa but has had also struck a deal with a few nearby farmers to raise goats for meat for her restaurant (instead of just for the brown goat cheese so cherished by Norwegians).

We ate near an open fireplace (which Hans Einar stoked every now and then since he is a master fire-builder).  I spoke French with Rose and told her about my trips to Rwanda and we discussed a bit of politics (but not too much).  We had an absolutely delicious meal of marinated goat kebabs and antelope, one of which was served with a blueberry chutney and the other with a red onion and chili chutney, friend plantains and a melon and cabbage salad.  Rose gave us a taste of every single juice on the menu (I especially enjoyed the ginger and hibiscus juices, Hans Einar loved the mango and baobab juices).  Hans Einar washed his goat kebabs down with a German white beer and I chased down my antelope (pun intended!) with a glass of red wine from Fairview, a South African winery I had visited back in 2001.  It was a wonderful way to revive my tired body.

The Day After

Because I train quite regularly, I don’t get really sore after running.  I have some small aches and pains but nothing dramatic.  Tromsø’s Polar Night Half-Marathon did a number on my feet though and I spent a few hours in the middle of the night massaging them.  While I enjoyed the race, my feet did not have such a good time.  Hans Einar and I roughly calculated the number of times my feet would have struck the hard ice…we ended up at around 39,600 strikes…OUCH!

We met up with Kristie and Ricardo the next day for a celebratory lunch that included a few of the local Mack dark beers from “the world’s northernmost brewery”.  I really liked Kristie and Ricardo and hope to maintain some contact.  Who knows, I may run into/behind/in front of them at another race in some other (warmer?) exotic destination.

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The day after

Tromsø is a dramatically beautiful place and well worth a visit.  The Polar Night Marathon organisers also run a Midnight Sun Marathon in Tromsø on 21 June each year…when the sun never sets.  Time to start training now?

Crescent moon over Tromsø

Crescent moon over Tromsø

Our neighbour is now our dinner…

Two days ago I butchered a lamb… a whole lamb…really!  This was not just “any” lamb, it was a former neighbour of ours.  Bjørn Erik is a farmer who lives 1 km down the road (I know because I run this route often and when I arrive at his farm, my iPhone app tells me that I have completed my first kilometre).  He runs an organic sheep farm and we often make a point of stopping by in May during the lambing season.   Yes, the babies are very, very cute!

This year, Bjørn Erik asked if he could let some of his flock graze on Hans Einar’s pastures, since Hans Einar and his brother have become organic farmers and this was the first year that the pastures were certified organic.  In return for the right to graze, Hans Einar asked for a lamb.  We have taken to buying more organic meat (and eating less of it) so we looked forward to a years’ worth of organic lamb.

Hans Einar brought home the slaughtered lamb and two days later, while Hans Einar was busy at the college celebrating Christmas with his colleagues, I rolled up my sleeves, put on my apron and, with saw and knife in hand, set out to confront the challenge.  I was squeamish about the task  but figured that I really should be a more responsible cook and see close-up the source of my meals.  

This is the lamb as we received it from the abattoir:

The Challenge

The Challenge

Not visible in the picture:

1 saw
2 newly sharpened butcher knives
1 meat cleaver
1 Macbook Pro with a series of YouTube videos on how to butcher a lamb queued up.  

This is the result of watching 5 videos and 2 hours of sawing and cutting and trimming…

The pieces of meat I usually buy packaged

I ended up with 1 kg of lamb mince, 12 lamb chops (French-cut, of course!), 2 legs of lamb, 2 lamb shanks, 2 breasts, 1 rack of lamb, 2 lamb shoulders, 1 neck, 2 tenderloins and a bunch of bones were boiled and made 6 outside cats very happy.

What I Learned

The process was more physically demanding than I imagined and I would have liked a better saw (maybe an electric one!) however, the most difficult part was keeping track of the various cuts so that I could label them correctly before freezing.

The most surprising bit was that, during it all, I experienced genuine feelings of gratitude for the lamb that I had certainly crossed many times while it was out grazing and I was out running…my neighbour.

Tonight we ate our first “very local” dish, a slow-cooked lamb shank in red wine with cannellini beans.  It was delicious.

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From nearby farm to table...to stomach

From nearby farm to table…to stomach

Happy holidays and may you all be grateful for whatever you will be enjoying at table.

Regret Me Not.com

From time to time, while brushing my teeth or chopping celery or running, I come to think of things I regret having done or not having done.  Fortunately, I don’t have any really big regrets: my biggest being that I was not able to continue violin lessons when I was 13 because we had moved and there was no music programme at my new school.  To this day, when I have a close-up view of a musician playing the violin, I can almost feel the instrument propped between my chin and left hand as I slide the resined bow across the strings, sometimes even hitting a good note (I played for less than a year so good notes were a big deal).

But I do have some smaller regrets, and they are almost all related to things I said or, more often, things I did not say.  For instance, I wish I had been able to tell my 5th-grade French teacher just how much of an influence she had on my life.

Madame Bartlett came to my house twice a week for about a month to tutor me in the basics of French that I had missed when, in the middle of 4th grade, I was promoted to the middle of 5th grade and had to catch up.  I still remember sitting next to her at our dining room table, she holding up a pen and saying “stylo” and then holding up a fork and “fourchette” and me repeating “stylo” “fourchette“.

Not only did I become totally smitten with the language, something I maintain to this day, I became enamoured of Madame Bartlett…so much so that I wanted to be Madame Bartlett.  At the ripe young age of 11, French language and culture became a driving force in my life and I decided that, if I couldn’t be Madame Bartlett, I would be as close to her as possible and I set my vision on a life in France…it took me only 20 years to get there.  

Of course I didn’t know anything about Madame Bartlett, I didn’t even know her first name, but I was determined to become the person I thought she was.  I continued to study French through my university years and, when I moved to Washington, DC and was looking for a job, I decided that I wanted to work somewhere I could speak French…and I ended up at the World Bank (not bad for a frustrated violinist!).  Eight years later, a friend at the World Bank sent my CV to a friend of hers at the OECD in Paris and almost one month to the day after my interview, I moved to Paris.  From May 1992 until April 2003, I was Madame Bartlett and I really liked being her/me/us!  I wish I could find her now to tell her just what an impact she had on my life.  I think she would be agréablement surprise!

I have often thought how great it would be if there were a website where we could post positive things we regret not having said to people; a website where we could leave a note of thanks, fill in searchable details of a time, place and person and hope that the Madame Bartletts of the world would search themselves and find our expressions of gratitude.

If such a website existed, what would you say and to whom?

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A Final Journey – Einar Hem

Einar Hem, my father-in-law, passed away peacefully 7 days after his eldest son’s (my husband Hans Einar’s) 59th birthday.  Einar was 90 years old when he died, having lived a full life, almost every single day of it spent on the farm where he was born.  I live on that same farm and write this from the very room in which he was born, the first son of Klara and Hans Magnus Hem on 31 March 1923.

While it is clear from the many tributes paid to him at his funeral that Einar lived a rich life in which he touched many, it is in his death that I have come to really understand the man he was.

On the day the doctors told his wife, Alfhiild and Hans Einar that Einar was terminally ill, Hans Einar offered, and his mother accepted, that he and his two brothers would together make the decisions that had to be made regarding Einar’s treatment.  Hans Einar then rang his two brothers, Torbjørn and Arnfinn, and they agreed that Einar would receive palliative care only; there would be no treatment for the illness as Einar’s 90-year-old body would probably not withstand surgery or any invasive treatment.

Two days later, Einar was transferred from hospital to a nearby nursing home, where he was installed in a private room on a floor with 6 other patients and 3 nurses to look after them.  Hans Einar and I were waiting when he when he arrived by ambulance at the nursing home and I sat with Einar while Hans Einar went to talk to the head nurse about Einar’s care.  Einar had suffered from mild dementia for some time and was confused about where he was but was very aware of those around him and was polite and gentlemanly to all the nurses who came to look after him (he always did like attention!).

Because of his dementia, Einar was not told of his diagnosis or prognosis while he was in hospital and there was agreement within his immediate family that he would be told when the opportunity presented itself.  During the time Einar spent in the nursing home, he only asked one question: “Am I going to be here for an undetermined period of time?”, to which Hans Einar responded “yes, you are here for an undetermined period of time”.  It was never clear to me if it was the dementia that prevented him from understanding what was really going on or if he understood at some level but preferred not to address the situation directly.

The staff at the nursing home were kind and discreet.  Visitors were asked to leave the room whenever they prepared Einar for bed or when he was being washed in the morning. The nurses always addressed Einar directly and it was only if he was unable to answer their questions that they turned to a family member.  The staff not only cared for Einar, they cared for his visitors.  Although Einar was not eating much at the time, his family and visitors were provided with platters of sandwiches for lunch and we were all welcome to serve ourselves from the hot dinner fare that was provided to patients.

During the 5 days Einar spent at the nursing home, a member of his family was with him from mid-morning to late at night after he had drifted off to sleep.  Alfhild was at his side every day, as were his sons and there were regular visits from those grandchildren who live nearby.  There was never any agreed plan on who would come when, but there was always someone with him.  There were no activities to fill his day; rather, his family simply sat with him, talked to him when he was awake or talked quietly to each other while he napped.  There were tears and laughter and “hellos” and “goodbyes” and “see-you-tomorrows”, and with each utterance, we were acutely aware that it might be the last one.

Einar died peacefully on 21 November 2013 at 6.30 a.m.  By the time we arrived about an hour later, the staff had cleared his room of all clutter and Einar lay in his bed, lovingly prepared by the staff for his last visitors.  The room was illuminated by a single candle that had been placed by his bedside next to a vase of roses.  His family was able to be with him, uninterrupted, for as long as they wanted.

The next few days were spent making practical arrangements for Einar’s funeral and receiving family and friends who came by to pay their condolences.

The funeral service was a traditional one, held at the local church where Einar’s parents, grandparents and one of his siblings is buried.  The church was filled with over 200 of Einar’s family and friends and, given his advanced age and the fact that many of his contemporaries have already passed, this was indeed an impressive turnout.

Hans Einar gave a beautiful speech that touched on many of the highlights of Einar’s life: his birth (the first at the farm in over 40 years), the death of his father when he was only 7, his formidable athletic career and long-distance running times that make my half-marathon times seem like a slow walk, his meeting and marriage to Alfhild 59 years earlier, his life as a farmer (he was at his happiest while riding a tractor), his activities in the resistance during the war, his active participation in local politics and, perhaps most importantly to him, his life as a husband, a father, a father-in-law, a grandfather and a great-grandfather.  At one point in the service, Einar’s grandchildren were invited to place a single red rose on his pine coffin.  During the entire service, Einar’s youngest great-grandchild ran around the church, noisily reminding us of the energy of life at a time when we are so focused on death.

Einar’s three sons and his eldest grandchildren bore his coffin out of the church.  One of his granddaughters and I accompanied Alfhild behind the coffin and we stood outside in a light drizzle to receive the warm and heartfelt condolences of Einar’s community.  I was touched by the presence of our friends and those of Torbjørn and Arnfinn who showed up to support us.

Following the church service, everyone was invited to a reception with sandwiches, cake and coffee at a nearby hall.  There were some lovely speeches about Einar, some tears and enough laughter to remind us all of Einar’s dry and witty sense of humour.  As much as the funeral was a solemn moment to say goodbye, the reception was a celebration of Einar’s life.

I already knew most of what was said about Einar, from his own stories and from the meticulous scrapbooks he maintained about the history of the farm.  A few years ago, he asked Hans Einar to give him a photo of me so that I could be a part of that history, and so I am.

But what these stories and archives do not capture is what, for me, has become the real testament to who Einar Hem was in life, and that is how he was treated in dying and in death: with kindness and respect, with little fuss, surrounded by his family, and with his final life decisions made by the children he raised to be both compassionate and practical. And, while I understand it, I am saddened that, in many cultures, dying and death have become so planned, so legal, so complicated.  I have been lucky to be a part something different here at Hem and I am so grateful to Einar for that.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEinar Hem, 1923-2013

9. Last Stop: Seattle

If you are new to my blog, you may wish to read these posts in chronological order.  I have numbered all posts to facilitate this.

Our last morning in Cannon Beach was spent sitting on a log on the beach, eating a bagel,  drinking coffee and watching the locals take their dogs to the beach for early morning exercise.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen happier dogs than those prancing around on a beach.

With our return flight only a few days away, we left Cannon Beach and my giggly, girlhood memories and headed back to Seattle.  We arrived back at Ellen and David’s place to another warm welcome and another great meal.   At dinner we recounted our tales of Indian residential schools and bike trips along False Creek; of Caffe Mingo’s meat marinated in espresso and wine, the good karma at our apartment in Portland and our meeting with Lucille and Julian; of John Steinbeck and Charley and the redwoods; of wool spinning, Indian tribal dances and Joe’s Deli; of lazy days in Bandon and job interviews at sunrise; and of chocolate-covered sea foam and bubble-gum cigarettes, Tilt-a-Whirl’s and Haystack Rock.  We obviously needed a debriefing!

But lest you think that my nostalgia trip had come to an end, there was still one more meeting scheduled for our last day in Seattle.  Debbie, my eldest sister Carolyn’s best friend from our days in Portland, was a constant presence in our family.  In fact, it was difficult to talk about Carolyn without mentioning Debbie, they were so inextricably linked.

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8. Cannon Beach

Cannon Beach was another nostalgia destination for me.  Located only a 90-minute drive from Portland, we we had visited often and I have wonderful memories of our time there.  So, we set out once again, me full of anticipation  and Hans Einar, my companion on this journey and in life, supportively helping me to navigate my trip down memory lane.

Less than 2 hours into our 5-hour trip to Cannon Beach, we passed near Florence, Oregon, home to the Oregon Sea Lion Cave . I had vivid memories of a trip to the cave during at least one of our summer trips from Portland to Los Angeles, so I did not hesitate to stop, nostaligia-tear tissues at the ready for another few steps down memory lane.

In its own words, the Sea Lion Cave is “nothing short of wild“, “a cave of wonder and enchantment“, with sea lions as the “original hard rockers” who “rock a capella style” in a veritable “sea lion jam session“.

With such superlatives, we were undeterred when the ticket seller said she could not “guarantee that we would see many sea lions”.  We paid a reduced entry fee and took the elevator on the 63-meter descent into the cave.  There was not a sea lion in sight, neither in the cave nor on any of the rocks surrounding the cave.  There was, however, a film that showed the hundreds of sea lions usually in the cave for those lucky tourists who had come at the right time.  I kept saying to Hans Einar “it’s really amazing when there are sea lions here” and “I remember the place being full of sea lions” and “just imagine this enclosed space filled with hundreds of barking sea lions”. He smiled and put his arm around my shoulders to comfort me and my dashed childhood memories of the Sea Lion Cave.

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7. Bandon, Oregon

For the last part of our road trip before our return to Seattle, we decided to take it slow and proceeded along the beautiful Oregon Highway 101 coastal road.  Our first destination was to Bandon for some rest and relaxation (road trips are tiring!).

En route to Bandon, we passed through many small and beautiful towns and I could easily imagine John Steinbeck and Charley plying these same roads.  This is a part of America where towns still have their own character and we went many miles without seeing a strip mall or a Walmart.

One of those towns, Port Orford was particularly noteworthy for us with The Crazy Norwegian’s Fish and Chips restaurant.  While we did not stop for fish and chips, I liked the description of its interior by a reviewer on triburban.com:

“The inside of the Crazy Norwegian is very um, decorated.  Imagine cramming in all your Norwegian grandmother’s memorabilia in one room and you’d be close to what this place looks like on the inside.”

The same could be said of our barn at home but that’s a story for another blog!

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Imagine cramming in all your Norwegian grandmother’s memorabilia in one room and you’d be close to what this place looks like on the inside.

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