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Sinking or Swimming

28 February 2012

On postcards Bergen is a cluster of tiny, white, eighteenth-century clapboard houses that charmingly tumble over each down to the sea. On postcards, brilliant sunlight streaking down from the arm of God, causes Sandviken Mountain to glisten above them. On postcards, people in tee-shirts and sunglasses sip wine on their balconies and look out to the cruise ships moored alongside the wharf. Ah yes, you may well think, this is the life I’ve been waiting for. This is just the sort of place where I can tend my garden while the children play happily by the seaside. We will take mountain hikes and camp overnight and bike along the North Sea Cycle Route. We will take boat roads through the narrow fjords and marvel at the splendor of nature.

When we first arrived in Bergen we lived in an upstairs apartment in this northern European paradise with molding balconies, crumbling staircases, and muddy attempts at lawns for four months while we looked for more permanent accommodation. Instead of cycling along the sea I found myself tramping in knee-high rubber boats through the puddles created by the uneven pavement. With the average seven and a half feet of rain per year, I cared more about how to keep my freshly-baked carrot cake from turning green overnight than about keeping a garden alive—the plants in Bergen seemed to abide by the sink or swim principle and I let nature take its course. As for marveling at the splendor of nature? “The most magnificent mountain is just over there, behind that low-hanging cloud mass,” I tell visitors.

Ah, I think, ignorance is bliss. Would I have moved to Bergen had I known what it was really like?

It has been excessively rainy here lately. I’m not even sure how to convey the sense of “excessively rainy” in a place that received 9 feet of rain last year. Perhaps today’s newspaper headline can. It reads: “Bergen flooded! Enormous amount of rain! Civil defense called in!”

I asked a friend who is visiting: “What on earth were the early inhabitants of Bergen thinking when they arrived and said, ‘Hey! This looks like a good place to settle down!’ I mean, sure, the fjords provided great trade routes, but was that really all they cared about?  Did no one grumble: ‘C’mon, guys. Let’s blow this place. There’s got to be fjords with more sun somewhere around here.’ Or maybe that’s how the Vikings ended up in Iceland?’

“I think it’s all they knew,” she replied.

That was the answer all right: the first settlers had never been to Spain.

I thought about my ten-year-old son who was only two when we moved here and has forgotten what it was like to stand at our apartment window in Toronto and stare up at the flat, blue sky, begging for rain to cool the concrete and wash the grime from the city’s streets. When we arrived in Bergen we threw him into an outdoor preschool. The indoors –a small cabin-like building – was for potties and protecting an extra pair of dry clothes. Children, it seems, also abide by the sink or swim principle.

My son has grown up thinking nothing of taking a hike in the rain, or playing soccer with his friends while its sleeting. “Oh look at this weather!” I cry. “What’s wrong with it?” he asks, and runs outside without even zipping up his raincoat.

I have always said: Look at him, he’s so Norwegian. He doesn’t even notice the rain. But last week, when we had two sunny days in a row, he came home from school and said cheerily, “Today feels like first grade!”

“First grade?” I asked. “Why?”

“Don’t you remember first grade? It was really sunny that year.”

“Was it?” I asked in disbelief. And then a crystal clear memory appeared: a day so warm and sunny that I told him to put on a short-sleeved shirt. When he had it on he looked down at his bare skin and cried out in despair, “But my arms! I can’t go outside like this!”

The key, he has learned, is not ignoring the weather, but not minding the weather. And, like every Norwegian, we are all looking forward summer when we will take our vacation “i Syden” – in the South.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Anna Minara Ciardi permalink
    28 February 2012 14:16

    Nice! I actually rembember when you arrived in Bergen. And, yes. Christopher was at about the same age as my daughter… Time flies!

    • 28 February 2012 19:38

      Time does fly. Would you believe I have a wonderful memory of sitting with you years ago in the brilliant SUN outside CMS one afternoon?

  2. kutubuku permalink
    28 February 2012 14:27

    Oh gosh! LOL

    Long before I moved to DK I saw a documentary from National Geographic about Bergen, the rainy city. I wonder how it feels like to live in a constant rainy state. Now Copenhagen isn’t too far off (grey and rainy) and it already makes me depressed. Good that you (at least your kids) are adapting (or should we call “integrating”? LOL) fast to Bergen weather.

    • 28 February 2012 19:36

      Really? National Geo? I should look that up! It might even be funny from this perspective.

      As for integrating, I’m starting to think I’ve only integrated in three ways: I own and wear “innesko,” I own and wear knee-high Hunter rainboots daily, and I do, on occasion, eat pølse.

      Oh wait! — 4 ways! I have actually started to hang our duvet out the window! It really does freshen and fluff it up!

  3. Teresa Owens permalink
    28 February 2012 14:39

    AND, Jena, you would be proud of me….I just got back from a 2 hour hike in Hjørdtland (or however you spell it) with Gro og hundene….and I have to say, I LOVED it….rained the entire time, and my boots leaked a little for the first time, but when Gro found out I didn’t apply waterproof “salve” EVERY time I wore them, she about had a cow. “OH! You MUST apply this EVERYtime you wear them!”….What a day. GREAT post!!!

    • 28 February 2012 19:33

      Hjørtland! 🙂 And good for you! Maybe you passed C’s old outdoor barnehage (Åsane Gårds og Friluft Barnehage)? It’s a red building with parking lot in the front and a barn/farm in the back. Right along the main footpath as you go in towards Hjørtland.

      But good for you for getting out! I didn’t manage it today. I actually prefer walking in last night’s pouring rain to today’s misty drizzle stuff. Bleh.

  4. 28 February 2012 17:18

    Clean water is a precious commodity in most of the world and think of the rain as washing away the city dirt. When it’s done you have a clean and green city. Just ignore the mold. Your son has a great attitude!

    • 28 February 2012 19:31

      And my attitude has improved drastically! Much of this post was a re-write of thoughts several years ago. I really do appreciate the clean, fresh air — see below in my reply to Jeff! I have a friend here who is from South Africa but also lived in Botswana. She reminds me that it is almost a sin to complain about something as wonderful and necessary as rain. I do think often of mothers in desert countries, amidst famine, or farmers in various parts of the world, who would give anything for a drop of rain. It seems unjust really. As though Norway has unintentionally stolen it from the rest of the world. (Although should add that Norwegian farmers are struggling this year too with too much rain!)

  5. Jeff permalink
    28 February 2012 18:08

    Oh the rain last night was terrible. I walked home from the gym (20 minutes), and even with the umbrella, it looked like I had stepped in the shower fully clothed by the time I got home. I don’t mind the rain too much, but I would have been slightly happier with rubber boots and rain pants last night.

    Thanks for the mental image of Toronto in the summer. Took me right back!

    • 28 February 2012 19:28

      … it’s karma. In Toronto I would get so angry in August that it refused to rain. We lived 1 block South of Bay and Yonge (just across the street from the Manulife Centre) and it was so hard to fall asleep in so much stiffing, polluted air. (We didn’t have A/C.) I should be more grateful for the fresh air here!

      Speaking of the umbrella — a friend who is visiting from Las Vegas is writing a blog while here (http://leifinglasvegas.blogspot.com/) wrote about “umbrella suicide” the other day. I loved that — she reckons all the broken, ditched umbrellas in Bergen just gave up on life. 🙂

      • Jeff permalink
        28 February 2012 21:59

        Oh wow, that would definitely be an unpleasant experience – I’d be praying to the rain gods as well! The feeling right after a good storm wipes out all the muggy air is fantastic.

        I checked out the blog, the post about the umbrella gave me a good laugh. I believe it though! When I moved to my flat, there was an umbrella at the front door from ‘den norske filmfestivalen’ in Haugesund…from 1992! 20 whole years, my god. It must have been indoors the whole time watching the other umbrellas from the window. 6 months with me and I think it will be joining the others in the ditch.

      • 29 February 2012 07:24

        You’re cracking me up! Oh my, hilarious. So nice to start the day off with a good laugh. 🙂

  6. Jenn Ladino permalink
    28 February 2012 19:20

    The first settlers had never been to Spain…indeed! Great stuff, Jena.

    • 28 February 2012 19:23

      Well, of course I really have no idea. Aidan tells me the Vikings were there. But I’m thinking more men in sheepskins … THAT would have really been not fun in Bergen.

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Jenn! 🙂

  7. 29 February 2012 15:08

    I visited Norway the first time in August 2005, and we visited Bergen for a day. It was sunny and beautiful and I was like, “I don’t know what people are complaining about. . . this place is wonderful! I’ll move here any day!” Erik promised me up and down, forwards and back, that this was a rare day in Bergen. I knew he was right, but still loved the city that day nonetheless!

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