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An introduction is in order

Many, many years ago, in another life, an old friend came to visit me in Anchorage, Alaska. We spent a week or so travelling around, me showing him my world while catching up on what was going on in his. He left one day while I was at work. When I came home, there was a box on my kitchen table with a note thanking me for my hospitality.

JDEANI opened it, not quite sure what to expect. I’d not had a present from him since he’d chipped in to buy me a framed poster of James Dean’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams for my 21st. [I still have that, on the top of a wardrobe at home, one of the many things I’m sure my mother wishes I’d take with me next time I’m back.] I read the note in which he told me that he wanted introduce me to ten old friends, friends he thought I would enjoy. I opened to box to find ten books by authors I’d never read. Some, like Edith Wharton and Anais Nin, I’d heard of. Others were complete strangers – names I can’t even remember now. I read them all and from memory, enjoyed most of them.

I’ve done the same a few times – sent ten of my favourite books to avid readers who have opened their homes to me – it’s a lovely present both to give and to receive.

A quick search of the almighty Google shows that there are about 5.8 million published authors in the world (this includes those that are self-published, about two-thirds). Enough said. There’s way too many to be current on all of them. And while it’s relatively easy to familiarise yourself with those publishing today, the gems from yesteryear worth searching for.

Last year, I met Penelope Fitzgerald. When, in 1938, she graduated with a First from Oxford, she said that she’d been reading steadily for 17 years and now it was time to start writing. But it wasn’t until her twelfth (and final) book that she achieved fame in America – she was 78. The Blue Flower was the ‘most admired novel of 1995′ featuring as it did on 19 lists of Best Book of the Year and winning America’s Book Critics’ Gold Circle award. Four of her books were shortlisted for the Booker Prize; one – Offshore – won it. I  met her through the good auspices and fine taste of the lovely MC. I started with the shortlisted The Bookshop and read it with delight. Everything in it – every character, every happening, every observation, does something. Its covers are quite close together so it’s readable in single afternoon/evening and once you start, you’re pulled into a world you don’t want to leave.

I followed this with the prize-winning Offshore and again was struck by the simplicity of it all.

Everything that you learn is useful, says the 11-year-old Martha in Offshore. Didn’t you know that everything you learn, and everything you suffer, will come in useful at some point in your life?

And, having reminded myself of her genius, I’ve interrupted this blog to order Innocence  and At Freddie’s.

Fitzgerald was first published at the age of 59. I read that little morsel with the same hope-inducing satisfaction I feel when I hear of someone older than I am marrying for the first time. She was a some woman.

If you’ve not already met, an introduction is in order.

Seeking cold

I went in search of cold weather. It was 16 degrees when I booked my flight but by the time I got there, temperatures had soared. I landed in Oslo to 27 degrees and wasn’t at all impressed. Then I discovered that beer (which I don’t usually drink) was about €10 a pint and that a glass of wine could be more expensive than a meal. And that’s where the disappointment ended and the infatuation began.  Oslo – I’m sold.

IMG_6520 (800x599)What is not to like about a country where, every June, you get 12.5% of last year’s annual salary as fun money – for your summer holidays. And where each December, you pay half the normal income tax. And where if your bus is more than 20 minutes late, you can get a taxi and reclaim the fare. Imagine a country where the minimum wage is €15 per hour, you work 35.5 hours a week and get 5 weeks paid vacation. Not to mention free education and health (ok, so if you’re paying taxes it’s not exactly free). And yes, Oslo, as the country’s capital, has its fair share of problems – rape and murder being the two that come to mind. And yes, there were parts of the city where I didn’t feel comfortable. But that said, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

IMG_6510 (800x598)That Oslo is on the water is a huge plus in my book. Anywhere that has a promenade or a boardwalk automatically rates high marks. That everyone speaks English and Norwegian and the Lord only knows how many other languages makes life as a tourist so much easier. And that the people are so hospitable, friendly and helpful… well, it made me wonder if I’d stumbled onto the set of some utopian dream.

IMG_6765 (800x600)When I can navigate a city within a day without fear of getting lost, that’s a miracle. When I can plan to leave at 7.53 and arrive at 8.07 and know those times to be exact, that feeds my OCD. And when I can eat fresh fish, all day, every day, with a mayonnaise that (dare I say it) is as good as Hellmans, that makes me stop and wonder whether I’ve died and gone to heaven.

IMG_6527 (800x600)I’ve been missing Alaska a lot lately. Perhaps it something to do with catching up with my Alaskan mates on this recent US road trip. Perhaps it has something to do with craving some decent cold weather. Or perhaps it’s the remoteness of it all that I long for. Although I didn’t venture further than Oslo, and by all accounts it only gets better once you cross the city limits, I felt an immediate affinity with Oslo that transported me temporarily back to Anchorage.

To be fair, had I not had a well-read, well-informed, and multi-talented guide in FC, I might be thinking differently. Seeing a city from the perspective of someone who lives and works there is so much better than leaving it in the hands of a travel-guide writer who may never have physically set foot in the place themselves but relies instead on what others have written.

IMG_6509 (600x800)IMG_6504 (600x800)Like my intrepid guide, Oslo has attitude. Even its street sculpture has something to say. Around every corner, there’s something new. It reminded me a little of Bratislava in that sense. Some might say that there’s not much to see – a few main attractions and that’s it – but once you start looking, really looking, the city is like one big box of assorted chocolates there to be savoured or devoured, depending on the mood. It’s certainly not cheap, but if you do it right, get the weekly travel pass, visit the supermarkets, and watch for the lunch specials, it’s doable.

 

The best of two seasons

If you’ve ever driven the Richardson Highway between Valdez and Anchorage, Alaska during the couple of weeks when the leaves turn, you will know what I mean when I say that the scenery is like a painter’s palette. I’ve heard of people going to New England for the Fall to see nature’s mesmerizing display and since Alaska, while I’ve seen nice autumns, I’ve not experienced anything quite like the drive through the forests of Tranyslvania.

For a thousand years, up until WWI, Transylvania was associated with Hungary. Back in the 10th century, the Hungarian Székely settled in what is still called Erdély (‘beyond the forest’ – the literal meaning of Transylvania). With two-lane roads wending their way through the mountains, the colours were breathtaking. Passing few cars and seeing no-one but a series of lone, chain-saw wielding men, it was as if we had the place to ourselves. The higher we went, the colder it got and then we crossed over – from autumn to winter – that wonderful moment when it is neither one nor the other but a bit of both.

Given the choice between hot and cold, I’d go for cold any day. There’s a limit to the amount of clothes you can take off and if you’re not near the sea or a substantial body of water, heat is miserable. But cold – especially contintental cold  – that’s more than doable.

We were trying to get to Saint Anna lake but as we dodged fallen, snow-laden branches, pragmatism won out. The lake will have to wait for another day but the legend, and its swans, reminded me of the Children of Lir.

Way back when, even before the 13th century, two brothers lived in the area. One day, a stranger, driving a beautiful chariot with six horses, called to one of the brother’s castles. They had a party and in a gambling game of some sort (probably dice), one of the brothers won the stranger’s chariot and horses. The other brother, not to be outdone, found a better chariot and went to the village to find the 12 most beautiful women, to pull it. [I wonder if this might be the source of that Irish saying – she’s a horse of a woman?] But the chariot was too heavy for them. They couldn’t move it. The brother became angry and started beating them to death. Before she died, the most beautiful of them all, Anna, cursed the castle. A terrible stormed brewed and the castle sank into the earth. A lake appeared in the crater and on it swam 12 swans. When the birds touched land, they changed back into girls and all but one went back to their village. Anna stayed and built a small chapel and stayed there til she died.

Pilgrims still come in their droves and many young people come in the hope of finding a partner. Again, I’m reminded of Ireland and that childhood prayer: Holy St Ann, holy St Ann, send me a man as fast as you can. Definitely worth a trip back in the spring.