"You're going to visit Norway in February?" My friends are aghast. "That's going to be really cold."
I figure it might be a bit cold, but February is a slow time for my business, and there are a lot of winter sports I've always wanted to try. Plus, I grew up in New England, so I should be able to handle cold and snow. I agree to visit my good friend, Finn, in Norway for the month of February. My friends keep getting confused and think I'm going to Finland since I'm visiting Finn.
"Finn is just his name, he lives in Norway, not Finland," I explain.
"Yeah, right," they tell me.
Norway, Finland...it's all one big, cold place, way up there, near the Arctic Circle. Actually, Norway cuts right through the Arctic Circle and keeps going. North. Reindeer. Northern lights. Nights. Long nights. Boy, I sure hope the skiing is good.
My main agenda item in Norway, other than catching up with Finn, is cross-country skiing. I've never tried it, and figure this is the place to check it out. My first two weeks in Norway are cold, alright, with cloudy skies and little snow. Finally, we get a nice snowfall on a Friday afternoon. The next morning brings with it clear blue skies and sunshine. To go with about a foot of new snow. We decide to go skiing. Finn outfits me from head to toe. Almost. As we get ready to walk out the door, he asks me to grab a hat. He has a basketful of wool ski caps.
"Uh, I'm bringing the Statue of Liberty," I tell him.
"The Statue of Liberty!" he exclaims. "No, you can't wear that. That's not Norwegian. People will laugh at you."
"Well, it's my favorite," I reply. "And so what if I look American? I am American." My one and only wool cap is a snug beanie that has points on it which resemble the Statue of Liberty's crown. People always stop me on the street when I wear it and say "cool hat!" Finn relents and I trudge out of the house behind him in my six layers of clothes, wondering how I will be able to move, much less ski.
We drive about fifteen minutes north of Oslo's city center and are in the Nordmarka, a seemingly endless forest with ski trails galore. Pretty convenient. We park, put on our skis and head over to a trail at the end of the parking lot. It takes a bit of effort on my part to get used to the rhythm of cross-country skiing, the glide. Finn shouts pointers in my direction, but I'm more interested in watching other people and scoring some style points. I get the hang of things relatively quickly, which surprises both me and Finn. The scenery in the Nordmarka is beautiful and a lot of other folks are on the trails enjoying the fine weather and excellent conditions.
After nearly an hour of skiing, we get to a crossroads of sorts. There are signs pointing in various directions announcing Tryvannstua, Skjennungstua, Ullevaalsaeter. "What's going on?" I ask.
"These are some of the lodges along the way," Finn tells me.
"What kind of lodges?"
"You know, where you can get something to eat and rest your feet for a while."
"So what are we waiting for?" I have come to realize that cross-country skiing is fun, but a lot of work. A break sounds good to me.
"Well, let's go a little further and stop at Skjennungstua," Finn says. "I think you'll like that one."
Finn tells me it's about half an hour away, but it turns into an hour at my beginner level. The last 500 meters or so are uphill. I'm sweating by the time we get there. We take off our skis and rest them on the side of the small, wooden structure. As we walk over to the front of the lodge, I am taken aback by the view. Snow-covered trees as far as the eye can see. A handful of people are sunning themselves on log benches scattered around the lodge, soaking up the sun and the view. We head for the lodge. It's three in the afternoon and there is a line out the front door. A small sign near the door tells me the hours are 11 to 4, so we've arrived in time. A larger sign next to it has a boy and girl's face etched into the wood, with the words "Hanne og Bjorn" underneath.
"Are they the owners?" I ask Finn.
"Probably the managers. These places are owned by the government."
When we finally get in the door, I am captivated. I feel like a kid in a candy store. The long counter on the right is chockablock with cakes, breads and sandwiches. Pretty plates are piled high with yellow and orange and brown cakes, icing dripping everywhere. It's much more than I expected, and looks much better. This is ski food, after all. I'm used to greasy chili and greasier french fries at the finer U.S. ski resorts. I lapse into my usual stupor at moments like these and can't seem to make up my mind. Finn, like everyone else, is interested in keeping the line moving.
"How does this look?" Finn says.
"Good," I say. I'm trying to read the menu, in Norwegian, and match the words to what I'm looking at. It's not easy. I spot "brownie" on the menu and match them to the only thing resembling brownies on the counter. Brownies? I'm in Norway. In the woods. I don't get it.
"How about that one?" I ask Finn. I've pointed at what looks like a large slab of chocolate cake with a shiny layer of white icing on top.
"Okay," Finn says.
I keep pointing, and Finn keeps grabbing. Our plate is soon heaped with five desserts and something resembling a piece of quiche. "Why did you take that?" Finn asks, zeroing in on the quiche. "That doesn't look very Norwegian."
"Well, it looks good. It reminds me of a Spanish tortilla."
I look around at the other trays being pushed down the counter. Ours has the most food on it, by far. Finn and I look at each other in silent agreement. As we wait to get to the cash register, I notice another sign, this one on the wall across from the counter.
"What does that say?" I ask Finn.
"It says `matpakkes okay, drinks are not.'"
I've already learned about matpakkes in my two weeks in Norway. I think I learned about them on day one. A matpakke is a homemade sandwich pack -- the word translates to "food pack." Finn taught me exactly how to make one. You cut a thick slice of bread from the loaf and put something on it, usually meat or cheese. Then you put another thick slice of bread on that, and pile on some more stuff. You continue creating this tower until you think you have enough. Then you wrap it up in wax paper, carefully folding in the corners so the whole thing doesn't unravel. Finally, you pop the pack in your backpack. Everyone in Norway has a backpack. A friend of Finn's had told me that matpakkes are indispensable to most Norwegians. "You never know where you might wind up, and you don't want to be without food," she had said. Maybe the Vikings started this. I'm sure they didn't know where they'd wind up. In any event, Skjennungstua is willing to let matpakkes in the door, which sounds good to me.
Once we get to the cash register, I notice the fellow collecting the money is wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words "New York City." I figure he's been to the States and might speak some English. Most Norwegians do, anyway. I ask him the one question that's on my mind.
"Is everything baked right here?"
"Yes," he answers eagerly, pointing toward the kitchen behind him. "My wife's from Boston."
"Really? I lived there for a couple of years." Small world.
Finn orders a cup of hot chocolate and some apple juice and we pay up. Our total is 135 kroner, or about twenty-one dollars. I hope we're hungry.
We head for a long table near a window and take a seat. People are staring at our mountain of food. I start with a piece of lemon cake that is moist and tangy. Finn goes for the brownie and breaks off a bite for me. We continue to sample our bounty and find everything just right. The boller, a traditional Norwegian sweet roll, is chewy goodness. What looks like a cinnamon roll has just the right amount of gooiness, not so much that your fingers stick together. Even my quiche is tasty. Finn doesn't try the quiche. We take turns slurping the hot chocolate, eating off the homemade whipped cream with our fingers. Our table has small votive candles running down the center, and a vase of flowers. Tulips, which are already in season.
"The fresh flowers are a great touch," I say to Finn.
"They're not fresh," he says, "they're fake."
"Oh, yeah? Touch them."
Finn reaches over to the vase and smiles. "You're right."
"This place is cool," I continue. "There are a lot of neat things in here." At least to a city girl like me. Old snowshoes on the walls, old pictures of guys skiing in knickers, old signs pointing to this or that destination. Plus the requisite animal heads with long antlers, and animal skins. Big animal skins which had to come from some very big animals. A smaller skin acts as a large placemat for the round table in the center of the room. Every table has candles and a bouquet of fresh tulips. Most every person in the room is wearing a beautiful sweater. Norwegians have the best sweaters, thick and colorful and in lots of interesting patterns. It's a sweater festival.
"Norway must be a great place to buy a sweater," I say to Finn.
"Not really," Finn tells me. "Most of them are made for them by someone they know, their mother or someone else." Finn's sweater was made by his mother. The sweater he lent me was made by his mother, too. I start to wish she'd make me a sweater, although I hardly know her.
People continue to stream in and out of Skjennungstua. The afternoon sun pours in through the windows. A group of chairs is pulled up close to the large fireplace at one end of the room. The folks sitting there look like they'll never leave.
"I could spend hours here," I say to no one in particular.
"You can, you know," says Finn. "You can always come back."
I resolve to do just that.
I return to Skjennungstua several days later, by myself. I get there in the morning so that I'll have lots of time to hang out and talk to people, including the woman from Boston. And to sample a couple of the things I'd missed on Saturday. It's vinterferie during this particular week, which is a midwinter school break, so although it's a Wednesday, the place quickly fills up with kids as well as their parents.
I get a cup of coffee and a piece of prinsesenkake, which is the Norwegian name for the cinnamon roll. It translates to "princess cake." It's only a name, but it makes me feel special. I take a seat at a corner table so I can see the comings and goings in the big room. A mom and her young son and daughter ask if they can join me. I happily oblige.
"Why do you come to Skjennungstua?" I ask the mom, suddenly thinking I'm Lois Lane, cub reporter.
"Well, maybe because it's a small place," she tells me. "It also has a nice view...and they have good boller." She opens up her backpack and pulls out a matpakke, setting it on the table for the kids to help themselves. She also pulls out a large Thermos and a couple of paper cups. Into the cups streams a purplish liquid. It's steaming hot. I can't figure it out.
"It's soft," Mom tells me. Then I get it. It's Soft, which is a berry-flavored syrup that many Norwegians add to their water to make it taste better, not softer. Finn had opened up a bottle at dinner a few nights earlier and asked his kids if they wanted any. They all poured it into their water, then looked at me. Feeling the peer pressure, I decided to try some. I concluded that plain water is very tasty, especially in Norway, where it's ice cold right from the tap.
"So what do the kids like to eat here?" I continue. Mom and the kids huddle, in Norwegian.
"Rasmus says the boller is better here than at Ullevaalsaeter, but Mathilde doesn't agree." Hey, they're siblings. They won't agree on anything for a long time. Rasmus is a cutie, chubby pink cheeks and long blond hair falling into his eyes. He clutches his boller protectively. They sip on their Soft. And then it occurs to me -- Mom is breaking the rules. The sign said "matpakkes okay, drinks no." I'm not about to call her on it. They seem so nice. They finish up, bundle up and head back out to the forest. I finish my cinnamon roll and start thinking about what I'll have next. Instead of another piece of cake, I pop into the open kitchen behind the counter to talk to the woman from Boston. It's pretty obvious which one she is. She's all of five feet tall and appears to have wings on her feet. She is flying around the kitchen. I catch her in midflight and introduce myself, and tell her I'm from Boston.
"Yes, I lived there for twelve years, in Walpole," she tells me.
"So you're Norwegian?"
"Yes. My parents moved there when I was two. There were some doctors they wanted to see and they...uh...boy, I'm having a lot of trouble with my American today..."
"What?" I ask.
"I haven't spoken American in a while." American? I thought I spoke English. Maybe there is a difference. I have noticed that many Norwegians speak English with a charming British accent. They seem to understand me anyway, which is a good thing, since my Norwegian is lousy.
I take a quick look around the large and tidy kitchen. It's baking heaven. A tall rack behind me has trays filled with plump muffins. I think I spot some blueberry and cranberry muffins. The huge double oven is filled with bread pans. A large mixing machine is filled with creamy batter. Boller are rising on another rack. There is a big island in the center of the room where two young girls are busily making open-faced sandwiches. It all looks like fun.
"I have to bake another fifteen loaves right away," Hanne tells me. "We ran out of bread yesterday." The woman from Boston is Hanne, half of the "Hanne og Bjorn" sign I had seen on my first trip to Skjennungstua. The girl on the sign looked like Heidi. Hanne is much more glamorous. Her long blond hair is swept back and twisted with a colorful hair band. She is wearing a snug-fitting wool sweater and knickers. A wide white belt cinches her tiny waist. She is wearing sneakers, all the better to fly around the kitchen. I decide to test Finn's theory.
"Did someone make your sweater for you," I ask.
"No, I made it myself. Actually, I also made a matching skirt, nice and wide, so that when I have to ski into town for the theater or something like that, I'm ready to go." Now that's resourceful. Hanne goes on to tell me that this is a particularly busy week because of vinterferie, but that once she's done her baking, she'd be happy to sit down and have a cup of coffee with me and talk about Boston and other things. I can take a hint and slink back out of the kitchen and to the other side of the counter, where I decide to sample a blueberry muffin along with another cup of coffee. I think twice about having more coffee because the only bathroom at Skjennungstua is an outhouse behind the main house. I checked out the outhouse when I came up with Finn. It was pretty cold, although the view out the small window was lovely. I order the coffee anyway and return to my corner table. I've barely touched my muffin when Hanne comes over and takes a seat at my table with her own muffin and a cup of coffee.
"That was pretty fast," I tell her.
"Yeah. Now I can rest for a few minutes." Hanne has so much energy I find it hard to believe she ever rests. I ask Hanne how she wound up at Skjennungstua.
"What can I say? We were two romantics. Bjorn and I thought it would be fun. No one thought we would last here. My parents thought maybe half a year tops. I had never even baked! Maybe a mother's day cake. But I've always been creative and I like making things, so I learned. Before we knew it years had gone by. And now we own it."
"You own it?"
"Yes. It's one of only three hyttes that is privately owned. It was quite a fight. The owners wanted to keep us out, but we collected six thousand signatures and finally they sold it to us."
"Has it always been a ski lodge?"
"These used to be houses a long time ago. All the old heroes like Fridtjof Nansen would ski through, and the old lady who lived in the house would come out and milk her cow and he'd get a cup of milk. So this tradition lives on." Although I'm sure the food is much better these days. I ask her what people like to eat the most.
"The muffins are probably the best sellers. And the yeast bakery, the boller and prinsesenkake." I remark that a lot of the food looks American.
"Yeah, about half of what I bake is American. People like it."
"I didn't expect to see cranberry and blueberry muffins in the Norwegian forest."
"Those aren't cranberries, they're tyttebaer. It's similar to a cranberry, but smaller." I had found something in Finn's refrigerator called tyttebaer syltetoey. It looked like cranberry sauce so I tried it. Turns out there are no cranberries in Norway, only tyttebaeries. I think they're just as good.
I decide to ask Hanne about the menu board which I had tried valiantly to decipher on Saturday. The first entry especially caught my eye. Something like "elg", which made me think of elk.
"Oh, yeah," she tells me. "It's moose. We make moose soup, it's very popular. We usually get one moose a year. The government gives it to us as part of their effort to control the herd. It's a very clean meat. We eat it all the time -- moose pizza, moose spaghetti sauce..."
"Is that a moose skin over there?" I point to the largest skin in the room.
"What's that one?" I point to the one over Hanne's head.
"And that one?" I motion toward the small skin acting as a centerpiece for the large table in the middle of the room. Hanne hesitates for a moment.
"That's Bambi." I wince.
Hanne continues to tell me about her life at Skjennungstua. She and Bjorn have four large dogs, two Alaskan malamutes, a greensland dog and a German shepherd. They are trying to build a dogsled team. They are serious. Hanne is serious about a few other things, like the one and only rule she has felt compelled to put in place at her lodge.
"People seem to forget that this is a business. I can't just let them come in here with their own food and sit for hours without buying anything. So I thought that allowing the matpakkes was a fair compromise. I figure they're going to buy a hot drink and a cake, because the cakes are good." No doubt about that. I think that Hanne's rule is incredibly fair, something I'd never expect to see back home. Yet people still have a hard time following the rule. No sooner are these words out of Hanne's mouth that she jumps from her seat and zips across the room to ask a woman to put away her Thermos. I can't understand what she's saying, but it looks like a stern lecture from the lady of the house. The customer doesn't say a word and puts the Thermos back into her backpack. Hanne comes back to my table.
"I have to do that two or three times a day and I hate it. I think people feel like kids when they come in here and think they can do whatever they want. I pretty much let them. I even let them bring in their dogs, and then they won't even pay attention to them. I have to walk at least one dog out of the kitchen every day."
"Sounds like you're the den mother."
"Yeah, but that's not a popular job." Hanne jumps back up from the table, a worried look on her face.
"I think I'd better check and see how things are going in the kitchen. I've been out here a long time." With that, she disappears back into the kitchen, her untouched muffin still on its plate.
I decide that vinterferie should be called vinterfoodie, at least at Skjennungstua. I start to wonder whether most people prefer skiing or ski eating. Skeating. It could be a new sport, maybe not an Olympic sport, but just as much fun. My daydreaming is interrupted by another mom, this one with three small girls. She asks to share my table. I'm delighted they've chosen my table, so I nod my approval. The girls all look about the same age, maybe seven. Two of them have brought a dessert to the table, and one has an orange. The mom returns to the food line. The girls stare at me suspiciously and eat in silence. There are all sorts of questions I want to ask, but I don't think my young charges are likely to be fluent in English at this age.
The mom finally returns with a cup of coffee and takes a seat at our table. She pulls out her matpakke. This matpakke looks boring. Some cheese on the bread and nothing else. The girls wait a while before they help themselves. Not only is no one speaking to me, my seatmates are not speaking to each other, either. And they don't have a language barrier. I surmise that the mom has had a fight with these little girls and everyone is sulking. In due course, the mom pulls out a Thermos. Then three paper cups. She pours hot purple liquid into each cup and passes them down to the girls. Hanne must have eyes in the back of her head, because she appears out of nowhere to tell the mom to put the Thermos away. The mom says nothing. When Hanne walks away, the mom slides the Thermos to the middle of the table. Then she pours more Soft into the paper cups. She looks pissed. Must have been some fight. They all finally get up and leave, adjusting their caps and scarves and wiggling back into their ski boots. I breathe a sigh of relief.
I look down at my watch and realize it's nearly four in the afternoon. Almost time to go. As I start to collect my things, a tall man in his 40s comes over to my table and asks to join me. I mumble my usual "uh-huh" and he must detect my American accent.
"Oh, you're American!" he exclaims.
"Yes, I am."
"I just sent a fax to Phoenix, Arizona yesterday."
"Oh, you do business in the states?"
"Yes, I also do business in Connecticut." His English, or American, is flawless.
"Do you get up here much?" I ask. I wonder what kind of business allows him to ski on a Wednesday afternoon.
"This is only my second time skiing this year. I've had a bad back. Last year I skiied maybe twenty or thirty times." I ask my new friend what he likes best about Skjennungstua.
"This is a typical Norwegian hut," he tells me. "I like the cookies. And it's friendlier than some of the other places." He pulls out a matpakke and an orange from his backpack to go with his cookie. A tall, red-haired woman about his age comes over to the table.
"May I join you?" she asks us both. "I heard you were speaking English and thought I could practice mine." She takes a seat next to my new friend. Her body language tells me she wants to practice on him. The businessman finishes his matpakke and gets up to leave.
"I need to ski down to the center. Someone is waiting to pick me up at the train." He excuses himself and leaves me with the English student. She opens her backpack and pulls out a matpakke...and an orange. Her matpakke looks appealing.
"What's on your matpakke?" I ask.
"Well, there's leverpostei and roedbet and some cheese." After nearly three weeks in Norway, I'm catching on. Her matpakke has liver pate, beet salad and the dark brown cheese that most Norwegians favor. It's a colorful sandwich, for sure. The student is chatting away as she digs into her matpakke. She seems friendly enough, and geniunely eager to improve her English. I try to oblige.
"You know," I ask her, "it seems that everyone here eats the same thing, a matpakke and an orange, and maybe some dessert. And Soft."
"That's right," she tells me. "That's what we usually have. Norwegians are very traditional. They all eat the same thing. If someone were eating something different, we'd look at them and wonder why." I ask the student why she likes to come to Skjennungstua.
"Because it's small, and it has the fireplace, and a nice atmosphere. It's just more personal here. Like the sign says, `everything is made from the heart.'"
The student has reminded me of one of the signs I saw on my first visit here with Finn. It was at the front of the long food counter. It was written in Norwegian, but I was able to decipher most of it.
"It says `it's from the heart,' doesn't it?" I had asked Finn.
"Right," he'd told me. "It says `everything is made from the heart.'" Right away, I had felt that this must be a special place. And I was absolutely right.