For years now, Bruce and I have celebrated Valentine’s Day by watching the movie Chocolat, accompanied by Chocolate in various forms from chocolate martinis to chocolate based meals, to the real deal, usually Godiva. So one of the things we really wanted to see here were the towns where the movie was filmed.
Recently, we visited the town of Flavigny sur Ozerain, which is where the exterior of the chocolate shop is located, along with the church and many of the street scenes. Flavigny is a medieval touristed town as it has many ancient artifacts well beyond it being a movie location. The factory where the little Anise flavored candies are made is located here, along with an old abbey, and a roman crypt. We had a wonderful time walking around the little village.
In the movie, the river scenes and the approach up into town when Juliette Binoche and her daughter are arriving with the clever north wind, wearing their red capes, were filmed down in the Dordogne region, in Beynac, near Sarlat. That will be a different adventure!
Lorie McMillin, Flavigny sur Ozerain, France, September, 2013
The Autumnal Equinox officially arrived in France at 9:44 Sunday night, during the time that Bruce and I were snuggled in by candlelight, watching the movie Chocolat, after our first day in Semur en Auxois. That means yesterday was the first full day of Autumn, and for the next six weeks, we’ll be watching the leaves turn gold, russet and copper, while the brisk, cooler weather settles into the Burgundy countryside. I’ve read there will be the smell of burning chestnut branches on the wind. We’ll have to wait and see about that. We’re well outfitted for the fall, with our cottage fireplace, and plenty of wood stacked beside the house. Remaining on our quest is an outdoor chiminea or copper kettle in which to burn our own little fires “en exterior”, but first, we have to figure out how to describe such a thing in French.
Sunday also marked the Equinox or halfway point of the Europe leg of our sabbatical, and my how the time has flown! We’ve been startled by how quickly the weeks have progressed, and other than missing our girls and Baby Nigel Joseph McMillin, we’re not really homesick, which also surprises me. Months went into planning each locale, things to do, places to stay and to eat, all carefully stored in “Evernote” for quick reference. Half of those notebooks are now obsolete, at least for now.
But not obsolete are the incredible memories we’ve made so far. Two delightful weeks in London along the Thames, followed by a week in Paris with our girls. We all ended that week a little worse for wear with colds, but Paris was a delight. For me, the best was the family picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens, and then sitting by the Medici Fountain with Heather while she tried to knit, but was distracted by the people milling about, and the ducks swimming about and nibbling against the moss on the wet stone, while Bruce and Hannah wandered off to the Catacombs.
A couple of days later, Heather was down with a fever, and Bruce had his own terrible cold, so Hannah and I ventured out on the Hop On, Hop Off bus. I realize those look terribly touristy, but I have to say, they are a total delight. We sat up top, watching the beautiful streets of Paris go by and completely enjoying ourselves, while having several giggles of silliness along the way, as girls are known to do. We disembarked at Galleries Lafayette so Hannah could seek out a lovely plaid cashmere scarf for her amour. I bought a scarf for myself from the same men’s section, in muted colors of navy, gray and lavender. I’m thinking it will be perfect with a pair of jeans.
On our way back, knowing that nobody would feel like going out, Hannah and I stopped for the most fabulous quiches from the little brasserie right next door to our apartment, which was also to be our boulangerie for the entire week. Hannah is not an egg person, and had never tried the “Madame Fromage” quiche I make at home, a decadent creation full of eggs, cream, bacon and caramelized onions. But she ate the quiche from Paris with gusto, and has been dreaming of it, along with the croissants, ever since. I told her that once you see Paris, it stays with you always, a longing that doesn’t go away.
After Paris, we had a quick two weeks in the Oslo, the highlight of course being the Aurora Borealis in the Lofoten Islands. Many people in Oslo, who’d lived their whole lives there, said it was rare to see them, and that we’d been very lucky. We couldn’t agree more! I won’t forget it for the rest of my life.
We had a very quick, albeit unsettling four days in Amsterdam where I fell into a tour boat within three hours of landing. But a house call from a sports medicine doctor, who declared me stable, but perhaps clumsy, helped to calm us back down. A lot of Rest, Ice, Compression & Elevation had me walking a couple of days later, although I’m still on the mend, and Bruce is guarded at all times about me being Careful. The result is that I no longer have to help lift the 270 pounds of luggage or carry in groceries! But all was not lost as we got out for a second attempt at a boat tour along with a visit to the Van Gogh Museum. We then spent three days in the magical Belgium cities of Ghent and Bruges, which are filled with fairytale canals, architecture and chocolate.
And so on Sunday, with our hopes high, we drove south into France, passing through the champagne capital of Reims, arriving at our little rented house, or Gite as it’s known in France, for the rest of our Europe sabbatical. Finally, a place to completely unpack the luggage and stop for a while.
Sunday was a trip into town for the farmer’s market, and yesterday, I literally did nothing. Bruce did some work and had a couple of conference calls, and I tried to write, but mostly, I just looked out at the river, which shimmers reflections onto the living room ceiling, and listened to the ducks and the cathedral bells, while doing some PT on my knee. Last night, with the chilly night air coming in, we streamed the movie Sleepy Hollow wide onto our living room wall with our little traveling projector, a perfect ending to a peaceful day.
In the movie “Under The Tuscan Sun”, she recommends taking your time to introduce yourself to a new house. Go slowly and get to know each other. It’s true. The house has low beams where Bruce has to duck a little, and there are steps in every direction, so I’m taking my time, getting to know the lights and the shower and the cubbies and the dressers. The house creaks in the night, so I wonder if there are ghosts or just the movement of the tide along the river. It’s all good. It’s a really nice place to be.
Today we ventured back out for a big shop in town. Our first stop was at L’Epicerie Chez Serge, a magical little French speciality shop in town full of local produce, jars and tins of everything imaginable, racks of wine, and some more cheeses. We spent some time explaining that we were renting a house for six weeks, and they warmed up to us fairly quickly. By the end, Serge even threw in some complimentary sausage for us to try and will call us tomorrow morning with the price of Dover Sole from the fish market in Dijon. He explained that sole is expensive here this time of year.
Our second stop was to the local butcher or Boucherie for a few items including bacon (porc de fume), Jambon ham, and chuck for a little Boeuf Bourguignon later in the week. The woman warmly told us she could speak English, but we tried our hardest to continue on in French. Her husband came out to cut the beef for us, turning to see if he had the right amount. As we left she wished us Au Revoir!
And then on to Auchon, a larger grocery store, where nobody seemed to speak English, but we got by with our best pigeon French. We forgot to weigh our own produce so the woman helped us out. The man checking us out kept asking for a passport, and in the end, we think he meant we needed to wait while someone was doing a price check. It was very confusing, but we made it out alive, and our kitchen counter is now full of bottles of wine and the larder is stocked.
We had planned to venture out later to see the nearby village of Flaviney sur Ozerain where parts of the movie Chocolat was filmed, but in the end it will have to wait for another day, as we’re back at our little place relaxing by the river. For lunch, Bruce roasted whole “Rose Trout”, accompanied by local heirloom tomatoes and just a little Pouligney Montrachet. After a nap, he fed our little group of ducks beside the river.
Thursday, my sister Debbie and her partner Lori arrive for four days. They’ve been in Paris for a week, and I’m sure will be ready for a little down time by the river too, along with a little drive through the Burgundy countryside.
So, as we head into the autumn, we’re very relaxed and just happy to be here. The ducks are happy we’re here too! And who knows what adventures await us next!
Lorie McMillin, Semur en Auxois, France, September 2013
I’m a reformed white knuckle flyer. I used to panic days before a flight, and would repeatedly count my little Xanax anxiety pills like Scrooge counting his coins, making certain I had them safely packed with me before we left. On a trip to Florence, Italy in 2006, my girls had to lead me by the hand like a zombie through Charles de Gaulle airport after a particularly harrowing flight over from the US. I’m told it was a sunny day and a smooth flight, so it was only harrowing for me. I don’t even know how many Xanax I popped on that flight. All I know is that I was certain that a fiery death was imminent. I’m also told it was a long walk through Charles de Gaulle, but I have no recollection of that either.
And then one day, I got over it. In 2007, I had to fly to a conference from St. Louis to Los Angeles, and it was the first time I was forced to fly alone, without Bruce, in many years. It was a stormy day, and I waited until every last soul had boarded, and I knew they would close that door soon, so I walked up to the gate, and I was Bawling. The gate agent looked at me, looked at her roster, and said, are you Lorie? Yes, I wailed. She asked if I wanted some Xanax (true story), and I said, No, I’d already had two. And then out walked the flight attendant to verify she could close the door. She was easily six foot tall, a stunningly beautiful and boisterous blond, who looked at me and said, “Come on Darling, I’ll take care of you!” So I followed her down the gangplank, and boarded the flight.
That was it for me, my catharsis, my moment. My favorite therapist once told me you can train your mind, and that’s what I did. I was done being afraid of flying. How ridiculous! I love to travel. I love to plan to travel. I memorize city layouts like a grid in my mind. I scout lovely places to rent, like finding needles in haystacks. I know how to use the public transportation before I arrive, I know which kinds of museum cards to buy, and I know which museums are the best. I spend hours and hours reading travel books, travel blogs, and just dreaming of travel. So that momentous flight was the last time I drugged myself to fly. Well, OK, except for one time in a really bad thunderstorm, but everyone on that flight was scared. I don’t particularly love to fly now, but I don’t panic anymore, and I certainly don’t let it stop me from traveling.
Our flight from Norway to Amsterdam was my sixth flight on our sabbatical, and we arrived safely on Sunday, after quite a lot of clear air turbulence, which, if I have to have turbulence, I guess clear air is my favorite kind. It should have been a sign though that something was amiss, an omen, something was tilting in my universe. I was more edgy than usual.
But then I saw sunflowers outside the airport! Lovely, strong, tall sunflowers and I thought, this is a beautiful day. The sun was shining, which for rainy Amsterdam was a good sign, and the temperatures were in the 60’s. Things were looking grand!
We arrived at the Ambassade Hotel, which is situated along the canals in the heart of old Amsterdam, consisting of a series of beautiful old connected buildings, side by side, which make up the hotel. In the olden days, the city taxes were based on street-front real estate, so they built them narrow and tall. We had booked a suite with a canal view and I was very excited until we walked in and right there, in front of me, was a tight spiral staircase heading up to the loft bedroom and bathroom. Now, it’s not that I can’t climb stairs. In fact, I’ve climbed a bunch of them on our five week sojourn across Europe, which has me feeling more fit than I’ve felt in months.
The thing is, three years ago, I tore my left ACL, which is a tiny, little bitty tendon no bigger than your pinky finger that sits in the heart of your knee, and keeps the shin bone connected to the … leg bone. Or shall I say keeps one from sliding off the top of the other. That little tendon is enormously vital, and tearing that little guy is one of the most traumatic things I’ve been through, at least physically. I couldn’t walk in the beginning, as my knee would cave in, and I will never forget the day I crawled into our house because I couldn’t do stairs, and my husband had to dead lift my big sorry butt off the floor and onto the couch, while I cried. For better or for worse.
That got me motivated, so I found a wizard of a surgeon who put a new little tendon back in there, and a merciless goddess of a physical therapist who made me balance on my wounded leg while she bounced basketballs at me, along with other tortures, which eventually led to my knee fully recovering to 100%. She is my most adored person on the planet. I owe her everything. It was a long and arduous year of hard work and recovery, and I’m very attached to my new ACL. So when I see things like spiral staircases just begging for me to fall down, I gulp, and I think, yikes, be careful.
It was well after lunchtime once we’d settled the luggage, so we grabbed our jackets and walked down the canal on our street to a little restaurant that was serving simple cafe fair of salads, sandwiches, quiches and the like. Bruce and I both ordered spinach quiche and salad, which sounded so good. But then, much to our dismay, the quiche was filled with curry powder. Sigh. I’m just not a fan. When I’m getting curry, I want to know about it well in advance, and plan my way around it. Why they didn’t list spinach curry quiche, I don’t know. So we ate our food, and departed. That’s ok, I thought, we’re just getting started.
Oh the canals are pretty, especially when the sun is glinting off of them. So we decide it would be a perfect day for a canal boat tour. We found the one we wanted to take and headed in that direction. I wanted to leisurely stroll along taking it all in, but it was Sunday afternoon and the sun was out, and the narrow streets that run along the canals were mobbed with people walking, cars trying to navigate, and hundreds, and I do mean hundreds of bicycles flying at breakneck speed and coming at you from every direction. Holy Crap! I turned just slightly to avoid a car, and a bicycle glazed me as a woman flew past, her head down, and legs pumping. She was not stopping, so you’d dang well better get out of the way! There was to be no gawking on that day and you sure as heck better not be in the bicycle lane.
We passed through narrow alleys along the way, filled with cute shops, and I took note of ones to visit later while Bruce was conferencing. We passed “coffee shops” where a familiar, pungent, sweet scent of long ago came wafting out. Marijuana is legal here to smoke, although its illegal to grow it, so how they work those laws, I have no idea.
We arrived at our boat, which was to leave in 15 minutes, and I was so excited. Bruce paid, and they said we could board now if we wanted. I have relived the next few minutes over and over now. Had we waited to board, had I briefly delayed, looking in a shop window, had I stopped to actually look inside at the people smoking pot, things might have turned out differently.
A boat is a boat, and there’s only one way to board, which is down narrow, steep, nautical steps. Many years ago, I spent one of the best weeks of my life on a 125 year old schooner, the Stephen Tabor, sailing up the coast of Maine for the fall colors tour. My bunk was in the galley, which meant down a set of narrow steps, with a ladder. You go down backward we were told, quite emphatically, and you hold onto the ladder. You never take the steps forward facing! The nor’easter woman who ran the galley would have your head on a platter if she caught you taking those steps any other way.
Why then did I take those steps forward facing, I’ll never know. They were steep, and narrow, and no railing to speak of. And I looked up, for just a moment, a brief moment, and then I felt my left foot just glaze the next step, and down it went, and down I went, a cacophony of panic, reaching, grabbing, falling, left knee going up, canting in, sharply up, pain, feeling something give. I landed in a crumble on the bottom step. “Oh my God!! I’ve torn my ACL!!”, I screamed. And I knew I had. I felt it give.
I somehow got up and stumbled to the first seat. We were still alone on that damn boat, and we were both absolutely freaking out. They say your life flashes before your eyes when you’re about to die. Well, my year of surgery and recovery from ACL reconstruction was flashing before my eyes. All that work. All that pain. Poor Bruce. He was my nurse, my chauffeur, my comfort, my Boy Friday all through my recovery. And now I fall, halfway through our sabbatical, and one week before we move to a house in France, which has three levels, with steps, and 142 stone steps up into the town of Semur en Auxois, where there are warm croissants. I chose this town specifically because I knew we would stay fit, amidst the croissants and French sauces we will surely consume.
My next thought was, I have to get out of this boat, and I’m sure my knee won’t work. When your ACL is gone, your knee caves in. So I tentatively stood, and my knee held. It was already swelling, but it held. That’s a good sign, I thought. So I hobbled up the steps, and there was a frantic blur of getting a taxi back to the hotel, and Bruce negotiating a new room without steps, a fabulous room in fact, right by the elevator, with a broad set of windows looking out onto the canal, and a bathroom with a walk in shower. Golly, I thought as I hobbled in, what luck to get this room. That’s how my mind thinks. Even in the midst of chaos, I’m analyzing the room amenities.
So the amazing thing is that while in the lobby, the desk clerk asked if he should call the doctor. Well … sure, that sounds good. Within two minutes, they called Bruce over to the phone, and he described what had happened, and the doctor said, “Well, I guess I’d better come take a look.” They make house calls? To your room?? Bruce thanked the clerk upon hanging up and said in the US, we’d have to head to the emergency room. Everyone behind the counter was shocked.
So within 30 minutes of propping up my knee on three pillows and applying ice, in comes a doctor, a kind, burly man wearing jeans and a plaid shirt, and speaking perfect English. After describing the whole sordid mess to him, he said, well, your ACL is probably fine because a new one is stronger than the old one. He then did the manipulations on my knee that I’m all too familiar with, to see if the ACL was sound, and said he thought it was ok, but he could see about an MRI, maybe by tomorrow. I tentatively asked if he’d had a lot of experience with ACL’s. It turns out, he’s the chief sports medicine doctor for the Netherlands national hockey team. What?! NO! WAY! Well, he said, I was just on call today, and I said, well, if anybody knows about ACL’s than it’s you. Yes, he said, the skates used to be less tight, but now, they’re very tight, and the only thing left to give is the knee.
He then proceeded to wrap my knee with elasto-wrap he’d thought to bring, and then he asked if I’d taken any medicine. I have some anti-inflammatory I’d taken, and he said, Oh, I have better stuff, and he pulls out a push pack of five pills. You only need one a day, he said. I looked it up later, and currently, it’s not approved in the US, but I took it anyway. So he patted my knee, and said he would be back tomorrow morning between 9 and 10 for another look. I was flabbergasted! Yes, we had to pay 150 euro for his 15 minute visit, but that’s a whole lot less than if we’d landed in the ER! AND, his fees just went on our hotel room bill, like a nice bottle of wine.
So he came back the next morning, to our hotel room, right on schedule, did more manipulations of my painful, swollen knee, and declared me fine, with a contusion, which translates to badly bruised. Not even a sprain and no MRI needed, in his opinion. He said he would write a prescription for more wrappings, which the hotel would pick up and deliver for us, and he would see about crutches. Well I never! I realize this was just a glance at socialized medicine, but in the end, my experience was a lot less expensive, and a lot less hassle than finding a hospital, and waiting in an ER, and a host of people checking me in and taking my vitals. I’m not trying to make a political statement here, and as Bruce noted, there are broader implications to socialized medicine, including fitness levels, and these people are fit here, riding bikes like the wind. There are 600,000 people in Amsterdam, and 600,000 bikes. But this was my experience, in a really stressful time, and it was great.
So although I spent my first two days in Amsterdam laid up, I would say I’ve gotten off really lucky. That 48 hours was spent worrying we would have to cash in our chips and go home. Bruce pulling out and reading cancellations policies, which at this late stage, would be a total loss. And me laying there feeling sorry for myself until my sister Jackie said, my advice to you is snap out of it. You can’t let this overshadow the trip of a lifetime. Sound advice from a sage woman! As of this morning, I was walking with a cane, and the swelling was way down. Bruce headed off to his conference and I got myself showered and dressed.
So what did we do this afternoon? We went back for a canal cruise. Crazy, right? Well, I wanted to see some of Amsterdam, and found a boat that has a little handicap accessible elevator. So we took a lovely hour long cruise through the canals. After that, I was feeling good enough that we slowly walked over to the Van Gogh Museum, to see the Sunflower and Iris paintings!
Bruce has a little more conference tomorrow morning, and I may get out and finally walk the canals just around our hotel, just a little, being very careful of steps, cars, bicycles and other hazards. Tomorrow afternoon, we pick up our car and head for Belgium.
And if I ever climb into a boat again, you can darn well bet I’ll be going in backwards!
Lorie McMillin, Amsterdam, Netherlands, September 2013
For months now, Bruce has talked about the Norway leg of our sabbatical, and his desire to go above the arctic circle. He grew up in the Michigan upper peninsula, which receives many feet of snow each winter due to its location on Lake Superior, and thus the lake effect snow, so the lure of the winter climate is deep in his roots. When he was a young man, he used to cross country ski, and as a child, had a beautiful Samoyed dog named Snow.
On my second visit to his home in Houghton one November many years ago now, I remember a snow settling in like no snow I’d ever seen. We’d flown up there on a small prop plane out of Minneapolis, which seated maybe 25 people, and I remember wondering how we’d ever get home. Bruce’s father was alive then, and he stood looking out the window for a bit before proclaiming, “It’s the start of another Copper Country winter.” He and Bruce had a jolly time the next day getting out their industrial strength Gravely snow blower, and blowing away the foot of snow that had fallen. Bruce and I made a snow woman that day, and then roasted a goose for Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a wonderful memory.
We were in Norway last year for a conference in Lillehammer, and we toured a good part of southern Norway, but we didn’t make it to the northern part of the country. So this time, it was on Bruce’s “must do” list. I spent a lot of time researching the northern cities, the options on getting there, and things to do. We finally settled on the Lofoten Islands, which are an archipelago extending out into the Atlantic on the northern part of Norway, at about the 68th parallel.
Now, when I heard “above the arctic circle”, I was picturing frozen tundra, sled dogs, and eskimos. I can be so naively wide eyed at times. Last year in Bergen, Norway, in the touristed historic section of the harbor, I bought a “Norwegian” raccoon hat, a chic and fashionable piece of apparel similar to what Julie Christie wore in Dr. Zhivago. Ah, the romance! Surely, I thought, I would need such a hat if we were going above the arctic circle. Fortunately, early in my packing extravaganza, I realized there would be no room for the raccoon hat, so it remains neatly wrapped in my closet, and someday will be part of the girls’ inheritance.
As it turns out, it was relatively mild this time of year on the 68th parallel, with daytime temperatures in the upper 50’s to 60’s. I’d put on a wool sweater the morning we were leaving Oslo, with the excitement of a kid heading out on an arctic expedition. Upon arrival at Harstad/Narvik airport, I frantically ripped off my wool sweater, right in the middle of the Hertz parking lot, and slipped on my denim shirt, which was the lightest weight item I’d brought, other than my cotton night shirt. What was I thinking? I’d watched the weather forecasts all week and knew that with menopause, one really only needs a tank top in such temperatures. But that other half of my brain, the romantic half who wanted to be Julie Christie with Omar Sharif, won out.
The Lofoten Islands are stunning. They are known as “the rock wall” due to the massive granite mountains jutting up at beautiful angles out of the earth. Many an eon ago, I told Bruce, I could picture the volcanos and the sputtering and firing and crashing as those mountains were formed. Many an eon ago, he explained, there were dinosaurs, and Norway wasn’t where Norway is now, and there wouldn’t be anyone to witness such events. That’s what I get for marrying a scientist.
We spent four lovely days touring these islands, driving north and then south and then north again as the roads wound about the mountains, across the fjords and through dozens of tunnels. We spent our first night in Henningsvaer, which retains its historic charm while continuing as a working cod fishing and production harbor. Throughout all the islands, we saw the giant wooden drying racks, which are used every winter for the hanging and drying of the atlantic cod that is to be exported around the world, often known as bacalao.
On our second night, we drove to Reine, Norway, near the southern end of the Lofoten’s. Reine is often referred to as the most beautiful place in all of Norway, and being there, it’s easy to understand why. Reine is another cod fishing village with a set of Rorbuers, which are little cabins historically rented by fishermen who would migrate out to the islands to work the cod fishing season. Today, many of these are restored for tourist rentals. Our cabin, “Artur”, at the Reine Rorbuer was a splendid and cozy space filled with tweed furnishings, well done seafaring art, and a wonderful view of the majestic mountains that completely surround the harbor.
After dinner at the only restaurant open beyond August 31st, we settled in by candlelight with our wine and our tweed blankets to await the sunset, which lasted very late into the evening. I kept believing something was going to happen as there remained a rich colored hue deep on the northern horizon, well past when the sun had set, even when accounting for the waning season of the midnight sun.
Just past midnight, with only the reflection of the candles, I told Bruce I thought I saw something so he stood behind me and suddenly said, “Oh My! The sky is completely lit up!” And just like that, the night was filled with shimmering, waving shafts of green neon light all across the northern sky! Our hearts raced up into our throats and I vividly remember I was shaking as I circled myself trying to find my coat, hat, scarf, camera, gloves, all necessary accoutrements for the bitter wind that had settled in that afternoon. I honestly don’t remember a time when I’ve been that excited by something as I was at that moment when I knew I was seeing the northern lights. Maybe a Christmas morning, long, long ago, as a little child. It was an exhilarating moment I will never forget.
We rushed out to the front of our cabin, which faced north, and was in darkness except for the soft lights of the harbor below us. The aurora shimmered and moved from left to right and back, at moments filling the entire sky, and then dipping back down to cast an oval circle above the horizon, only to expand up again with vertical shafts of green lights, like a million hands waving spotlights from below.
It’s funny the quick fire decisions you run through on such an occasion. Our neighbors in the cabin next to us had been drinking since early evening, and their party was peaking right about the time the auroras hit. I’d thought of banging on their door to alert them until we heard them singing country and western of some sort at the top of their lungs, along with what sounded like line dancing. There were at least four of them going at it like some bad karaoke dream, and I thought, No, I’m going to just let them be.
In our euphoria, we decided to run to a darker part of the grounds to mute out even the low lights of the harbor. We chased our tails like bandy roosters running all over the place squawking with excitement, and all the while me stopping every few seconds to try to take a photo with Bruce warning, “Don’t Trip! Don’t Fall!”, a mantra I’ve heard from him many times since the year of my torn ACL!
Finally, we realized that the very best place was right back on our front porch in the darkness above the harbor facing north, and so we rushed back, grabbed our tweed blankets and settled in to watch. The Big Dipper was turned such that the right side of the cup was pointing straight up to the North Star, Polaris, right above us. Every few seconds, the lights would change … “Look! Over there! That direction! Oh! Oh My Gosh! Look to the left!” As if that weren’t enough, suddenly we began to see shooting stars. A lot of them. There was a meteor shower in the middle of this otherworldly, magnificent, heavenly gift.
It was something to see…
I finally got my bearings with my camera, and using my elbows as tripods, I held my breath and began to take 4 to 6 second photos. Naturally, the table top tripod I’d hauled over here for just such occasions was back at our apartment in Oslo. But I caught some great pictures. Great for me anyway. I’m a novice with my camera and certainly with astral photography, but I’ll take my later photos, after I’d calmed down enough to think. The early photos, when the lights completely filled the sky were nothing more than green globs, unrecognizable as anything, but that’s ok. I remember what it looked like.
I could wax eloquent on our remaining time in the Lofoten Islands. I could try to describe the raw, rugged, and utter beauty of the place. The massive granite mountains covered in moss and fern, a Tolkien landscape of waterfalls and deep fjords, cast a cerulean blue by the low angle of the afternoon sun, with mountain sheep bleating at us around every bend. I could try to explain the moments we had along the way, coddling together picnics beside the water, and Bruce wading his feet at an ocean inlet in the freezing Norwegian Sea. It was all spectacular. But nothing could possibly compete with that magical night of the Aurora Borealis, above the 66th Parallel.
I have been goofing off in our apartment in Oslo for three solid days now, while my poor husband boards a two hour train to and from a university in Gjovik, which is halfway between Oslo and Lillehammer. It’s very strange to have the tables turned, since for five years, I had a daily hour plus commute to and from my former job. I’ll confess, it’s awfully sweet to hear that alarm, and know it’s not for me!
Now, to be fair to myself, I caught a cold in Paris, which announced itself fully on the morning we were headed for our flight to Oslo. It was an extremely chaotic final packing at dawn, as I handed over my Eau de Parfums, and little escargot pans, which put us within 6 or 7 ounces of having overweight luggage. There was a lot of grumbling between the two of us, and frantic reshuffling to balance the weight, plus hauling out final trash, and staring blankly at the 7 empty wine bottles that still needed to find their way down to recycling. Then there was the tiny mid 19th century elevator, capable of one person and one bag, which meant countless trips to get our stuff downstairs before the taxi showed up.
Next, I had to help haul our 270 pounds of luggage into Charles de Gaulle, where I was yelled at by a zealous French Gendarmerie on the tarmac because I walked the wrong direction. “Hey, Hey, HEY!!”, she yelled. “Follow your path! Follow your path!” I frantically looked for a path amidst the equally confused crowd around me, fearing all the while she would toss me out of the airport, and desperately trying to remember the French word for Help! There was no yellow brick road, nor munchkins singing and handing me flowers. Finally, I look down, and right below my feet was the outline of little feet going in the direction I needed to go. So like Madeline, in two straight lines, we found our path, and made it to the plane.
We had a wonderful time in Paris, but there was very little time to stop and contemplate much, other than my lovely afternoon at the Luxembourg Gardens, where Heather and I sat at the Medici fountain, and watched the ducks and the people milling all about, while Bruce and Hannah went off to the catacombs. It turns out, they had to climb down a tight, wet, stone, spiral staircase 200 feet below ground to find the miles and miles of decoratively stacked human bones. Then they had to climb back out the same way. Honestly, I cannot imagine trading my fountain for that, but they thoroughly enjoyed it!
So I’m spending my first days here in Oslo, recuperating. Monday, I couldn’t even get off the couch. Yesterday, I ventured out for a while for provisions and lunch where I accidentally ordered antipasti instead of pasta at a very high priced market. Then I shopped for wine at the Vinmonopolet, which should translate well to anyone who can sound that out. Reminds me of my days in North Carolina, which is a dry state, where alcohol is controlled. But I found some lovely wines and some beautiful halibut, and managed to turn out an Asian inspired shitake mushroom and halibut dish along with a sauté of zucchini and summer squash.
Today, well, I lit some candles, made some tea, and read my book. I didn’t even put my contacts in, which renders me blind as a bat. I did manage to get some laundry going, but I am finding that some words in the Norwegian language just don’t translate well!
We have the most peaceful place here with a large open living space, soft couches, lots of candles. lovely Buddhas, and a very comfy bed. I found this little oasis, about 5 minutes from the Skoyen train station and a tram station, so Bruce can easily catch his morning train for his commute. There’s a street that runs uphill right in front of our apartment, and it’s busy all the time, but not with cars. It’s full of people walking, biking, scootering, and running, Uphill, with virtually no effort. Norway is one of the fittest countries in the world, where people spend a lot of time outdoors, year round, either biking or cross country skiing. With my own three weeks of walking nearly nonstop, I’m feeling a little more alive myself, if you discount the cold, of course!
We head out this coming weekend for a new adventure in the Lofoten Islands, so I’m rejuvenating in preparation! If you look at the country of Norway, above the arctic circle, you’ll see a finger of islands that jut out to the west, forming a wall of mountains. That’s where you’ll find me next, trying to catch a glimpse of the northern lights!
Lorie McMillin, Oslo, Norway, September, 2013
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