Saturday, November 3, 2012

Flekkefjord, Norway

I always was a loner in highschool, said Bea, and she was right. While I had friends, just a few were close friends, and of those I'm only in very sporadic contact with one or two. When I first moved to Portland - when was that again? It was just after I spent time in South Bend looking after my grandmother, who'd had a series of strokes. The years blur together sometimes for me and I don't remember things clearly. Bea seems to remember everything that she's done over her 80 years, and my god has she done a lot - anyway, when I first moved to Portland I found out the guy I had a crush on in junior high was also there, and he got me in contact with Bea Couchman, née and now Bettyann Rynning-Tønnesen, who moved back to her native Norway after retiring from teaching French and German at Ashland Senior High. She invited me to visit, and here I am, or rather there I was in Flekkefjord for a week.

I arrived at the Oslo airport in the late afternoon and took the train in to the central station, waiting for the overnight to Stavanger which stops at Sira, not far from Flekkefjord. The outskirts of Oslo are like most other city surroundings, filled with graffiti-covered walls ("DRUBA GROBA" proclaimed one) and warehouses filled with unknown goods ("BARNROOMS BELLYSKAG" said another). A very nice hotel across the street from the train station let me log on to their wi-fi and for the price of a glass of wine ($16) I had four hours of profitable freelancing before the train left. I settled in to my seat, unwrapping the light fleece blanket, inflatable pillow, and eye mask that the NSB kindly left on each seat, and we headed south and west along the coastline.

The train left the outskirts of Oslo near midnight, so I didn't see anything of the countryside as we chugged along, but I could get glimpses of the water and the fields in the almost-full moonlight now and again. And I could feel the train curving from side to side as we traced the contours of the coast all the way down to Kristiansand. We pulled head-in to the station there, and then backed out to vee up to the north and west to Sira. At this point the engineers who designed the line apparently got tired of dealing with all the fiddly bits along the fjords and just started punching holes in the landscape, and my ears kept popping with the change in air pressure as we dove through tunnels and in and out of deep cuts. It was snowing in Snartemo, a dark quiet village between two of the longer tunnels on the route, Hægebostad (5th longest railway tunnel in Norway) and Kvineshei (4th longest). There were no announcements of stations, but the conductor came by to alert the passengers who were getting off at each stop, a relief to me as I had no idea when Sira would appear. It was snowing in Sira, too, but Bea braved the roads with her non-studded tires (apparently it was an early and unexpected snow) and we arrived safely back at her apartment at 7:00am and immediately took a nap.

Bea still teaches, only now it's Norwegian, to medical professionals and their partners/wives at the hospital. There are more German and Danish and Polish and Portuguese doctors there than Norwegian ones. She took me on the bus with her and instructed me to get off farther up the hill, and to walk back to get a sense of the town, and so I did.

I didn't ask Bea why the Red Cross is located beneath a mountainside, though I thought perhaps it doubled as a bomb shelter or something like that, from the WWII era. The town was incorporated back in the early 1800s, but I couldn't tell which, if any, of the buildings dated back to that era. There is a fair bit of new construction going on, though the shipyards closed ten years ago and fishing isn't really an industry any more. The hospital has gotten a good reputation, however, and there are several schools. And there are grocery stores and a library, and several shops that sell yarn. I bought some "Peer Gynt" wool in dark green and started knitting myself some socks.

I didn't check the exchange rate for krone before I left, and when I got to Oslo and used an ATM, I saw that 100kr was the minimum for a withdrawal, which didn't really tell me much. 100kr is approximately $17 at this point, as I now know, but rather than worrying about how much things cost in dollars or euros - I had heard that Norway is a VERY expensive place to live and travel - I just asked Bea if the price of something was reasonable or not. The yarn was on sale for 50% off, so that was a good deal, and the food prices were not outrageous, at least for what I bought: gluten-free Wasa crispbread and lox, for my first night at Bea's, as she had a previous engagement in Kristiansand to hear Anne-Sophie Mutter perform, and left with friends midafternoon. I was so tired, though, that after eating my fish ("MILD OG GOD SMAK" said the package proudly) I went to bed, and was asleep before 7:00pm, not to wake up until 9:00am the following morning. I have continued to sleep well on this trip; obviously the noise of the traffic outside the apartment back home is more disturbing than I thought. I will have to figure out what to do about that.

I like going into grocery stores in different countries to see what they have. Of course, American food brands are usually widespread no matter where I am (Mexican food in Mission and El Paso cans and jars is popular) but bacon specifically for lutefisk was new to me. I had lutefisk once, at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, my freshman year. Dried salt cod soaked in lye and then boiled, it was served there as a sort of lukewarm jellied dish, light green and smelling of low tide, and it was really quite nasty. Bacon would probably have helped.

Bea made dinner one night, her own riff on Portuguese bacalhau but with fresh fish instead of salt cod. Here's the recipe: half a large white fish, skinned and boned in a filet, and cut into pieces; four potatoes, peeled and sliced; four onions, peeled and sliced; two small boxes/cans of diced tomatoes; four or five long sweet red peppers, sliced; two cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped; one cup of olive oil; salt. Layer the potatoes, onions, fish, and tomatoes in a large casserole, salting the layers as you go, top with the chopped garlic and pour the oil over all. Bring the pot to a high temperature until you hear bubbling noises, then lower the heat and cook on the stove until the potatoes are tender (about 40 minutes). Serve with flatbread, by candlelight.

Bea and I talked and reminisced in the evenings, and watched the news, and read; in the daytime we talked more over coffee and toast in the morning, and in the afternoon while Bea was teaching I was working at the internet cafe on the corner. We did one day trip up into the mountains, and another to Stavanger, and pictures from those trips are coming next. But none of it would have been possible if Bea hadn't generously opened her house to me, one of hundreds of students she had over 18 years of teaching at the highschool, and made me as welcome as she once did in Ashland, as if these 30 years had just been a single yesterday. Tusen takk, Bea!

1 comment:

  1. As another loner student of Bea's, thank you for the update!

    David Smith