I took Anna and Andrew to the airport on Monday morning. They will be away for another week and a half, staying with Charlie down in the more southern regions of Norway. John and I have spent more time together. As well as the visit to Roasters, we spent some time exploring the southern end of Senja and have also taken a couple of walks up around the local ski area, which looks very different without snow. I haven’t much by way of commentary. There must be bloggers who can tell you all the names of the flowers and the mountains, but I am happy for now just to gaze and wonder… and share the photographs with you in blissful ignorance.
I’ll start with the ski slope. It’s small, I believe: just one tow. Next winter, I hope that Andrew and I will get season tickets, but for now, it’s open for hiking. Triar was with us, of course. When is he not?
While Anna and Andrew are away, John and I are hoping to get a night or two away camping. Weather permitting, I still hope to take a midnight hike up one of the easier hills on Senja. We found a possible campsite as we were driving down to Roasters. It’s down by the edge of the fjord, by the side of a river. Wild camping is allowed in Norway, so we hope to make our base here.
John, Triar and I also went for a wander around Stonglandseidet and back to the beach where Thomas and I were taken on our reindeer hunt.
Stonglandseidet has a lovely church. It’s spread out around flower meadows, between two stony bays with a mountainous backdrop.
After a short stroll there, we went back to the beach, which is also surrounded by velvety meadows and grass verges, stippled with flowers.
And finally, this is possibly the happiest photograph of Triar I’ve taken. He really brings a huge amount of cheer into my life.
It’s getting lighter very fast now. We have an hour more daylight today than we had last Saturday. We took Triar for a run on the beach last week, and these pictures were taken at around four in the afternoon.
We finally have some snow. It’s been falling on and off throughout the week and it makes the world seem much brighter as well. Back in Scotland, growing up, it generally snowed a couple of times each winter. It was usually around zero when it happened and often the flakes were huge. They landed on the ground and stayed there.
Snow at minus ten is quite different. I have occasionally seen bigger flakes, but they’re mostly much smaller. If there’s any wind at all, it carries them effortlessly. Sometimes they move so fast horizontally that I wonder if they’ll ever hit the ground. Driving at night, the snow skitters and dances across the road in the headlights. When lorries pass, they create clouds of it that seem to go on for miles. Of course, if there’s a lot of snow and some wind, you can get dangerous drifts, but so far it isn’t deep and nor is it windy. It has, though, covered over all that ice, and to enough depth that it is no longer treacherously slippery.
There is, as yet, no obvious heat in the sun. It finally made it over the hill to hit the house on Tuesday. Odd how heartening it was to see it, though it was gone a moment later.
It was rather misty as well that day. I was fascinated to see the bridge to Senja had become a bridge to nowhere. I took two pictures. The first is at the top of the page, when the sun was turning the fog a wonderful pink colour. Moments later, the sun was diminished as the cloud thickened, and then it stopped looking warm and colourful, but was beautiful nonetheless.
And now it’s Saturday morning and John is home for the weekend and wants to take Triar out. It’s half past nine and already light, so who am I to say no! I will leave you with a picture of the cloudberry liqueur I picked up yesterday at the Vinmonopol. We tried it last night and it tastes of honey and late summer warmth. Cheers!
Another interesting week at work. On Monday, Thomas and I made a visit in response to an anonymous “Concern Message”. I was nervous as we drove out. This was, in part, due to the nature of the visit. Obviously nobody wants to be reported and it’s quite possible that some of the recipients might be angry. But it was also because I was unsure whether Thomas would want me to lead the inspection and interview. He had shown me how to print out the point-by-point sheet which we use to guide us through and I went in clutching a clipboard. However, by the time I had struggled into my tissue-thin jumpsuit, huge white foot covers (tied with a bow) mask and gloves he had already begun and so I followed him round, listening carefully as he asked questions and noted down the replies.
I felt much more relaxed on the return journey. The presence of my clipboard was explained when he told me I should fill it in on our next time out as he pointed out having two separate records rather than one makes it less likely that anything will be missed. Next time out, I will also ask any questions that come into my head. There were some I thought of while we were out that I didn’t ask. With hindsight they were genuinely pertinent and could have been useful.
Back in the office, Thomas helped me through the next stage, which was writing a letter to the owner explaining the results of the inspection, and any actions considered necessary. This was another first for me, though I was aware of some of the rules we have to follow. These include all sorts of factors, such as ensuring that every action we ask the owner to take is backed up with the exact clause in Norwegian law that we are relying on, making sure the wording is simple to understand and perfectly clear, and ensuring the language we use is factual and not a value judgement. For example, we can note that an animal has been urinating and defaecating on the floor, but should never state that the house is disgustingly dirty.
I also discovered, as I worked through the response process, that there are many checks and balances in place to ensure we get things right. Once the letter was finished, we sent it to a Norwegian colleague to ensure the language was correct. After that it will be sent for official assessment by a dedicated group… and after that, it will be sent to Hilde, in whose name it will be sent out, assuming she also feels it passes muster. Though this sounds intimidating, I’m very glad that there will be plenty of help ensuring that I don’t make any errors due to the fact that Norwegian is not my mother tongue.
On Tuesday I drove out to meet Birgit, who works in the Storslett office. Our task was to blood sample forty goats to check for brucellosis as part of the annual OK Program. Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that can pass between animals and people and can cause long term fluctuations of fever, joint pain and various other nasty symptoms. As in Britain, there is currently no brucellosis in Norway and hopefully it will stay that way.
While I don’t think I have blood sampled many (any?) goats before, I spent several years in mixed practice in the UK. Back then, all mature cattle were tested for brucella every four years and I found myself quickly falling back into the rhythm of it. The test tubes we use come with a vacuum. If you push the needle through the rubber bung in the top and allow air to be sucked in instead of blood, then you waste the test tube. Brigit seemed very pleased with me as I managed to complete forty samples without losing a single one. On my part, I felt delighted that the skill I learned many years ago was finally being used again.
We are now almost at the end of the first week of the polar night. As you might have spotted in the windows in the picture above, it is not completely dark all day. Indeed for a short time between eleven and half-past one, it feels very much like full daylight. I stopped to take a photograph on the way back from the blood test to share here. This was taken at about 1pm, though a very short time afterwards it started to snow heavily, and the darkness drew back in.
On Thursday, we put up the Christmas decorations in the office and Andrew and I brought out a few of our decorations at home, though the tree will wait for Anna’s arrival on Monday. Most workplaces in Norway put up some decorations. Like the Danes, Norwegians take a lot of pride in encouraging comfort during the dark winter months.
I was struck afresh, when I looked at the photographs, that in some ways they are quite different from British decorations. Pigs play a big part here. A stocking is surely not complete without a marzipan pig. And the little hatted “nisse” are a regular feature. Nisse look a bit like garden gnomes and shouldn’t be confused with Santa. According to tradition, you have to feed the nisse creamed rice or other treats or they will play tricks on you.
On Friday I was on the early shift at the abattoir. We live close to the coast and even this far north, there is some warming effect from the gulf stream, but just a forty minute drive inland can mean a ten degree difference in temperature. I met John in the evening after work and we went out for a pizza, but as the restaurants didn’t open for an hour after we finished, I stopped to fill the car up with diesel and was struck by the beauty of the ice formations that the frost had etched onto the car. And so, being me, I grabbed my phone and took a photo to share with you. Have a lovely weekend.
The days are getting very short now and in only one month, the sun will go down for the last time on 2020. It won’t come over the horizon again until almost the middle of January.
Monday started well with another elk sighting. This time, since the snow hadn’t yet arrived, I pulled in quickly and managed to take a photograph, though it’s not the clearest. Difficult to capture a moving target in the pre-dawn twilight.
In other news, the snow arrived properly on Thursday. For the past two days, I’ve had to factor in scraping it from the car before I set off in the morning, though so far I haven’t had to clear the driveway. . Even in those two days, I feel I’ve learned a lot. For example, it’s clear that you should never rent or buy a house in the Arctic Circle that doesn’t have a garage. Equally, if you apply for a job where you are expected to use cars daily from a car pool… make sure you don’t choose a workplace without some kind of covered parking. I expect I will get very efficient shortly, doing it at least twice a day. More if it snows while I’m at work!
Today has been rather lovely. Andrew and I set out this afternoon to go to Silsand on Senja Island. We go there some evenings and there’s a pleasant enough walk up to a lake, but to our surprise, the car park, which is usually empty, was full. Rather ominously, there was a sign up which said “Testing Senter”.
Recalling that I had read somewhere that a specialised centre for COVID was being set up in Silsand, we beat a hasty retreat, then drove north for a short way. A sign directed us towards “Woodland Lodge” and we drove down a little track, which to my delight led to a tiny pavilion and a stretch of woodland.
Andrew found some animal tracks. At first I assumed they were a dog’s, but if they were, it had gone for a walk alone. So we began to follow them. When we got down to the waterline, we found the lovely little jetty pictured at the top of the page. And though we never found the Halloween wolf… or whatever it was, all three of us very much enjoyed roaming around in the snow.
On Monday, Hilde drove me over to the abattoir where I will be spending a good chunk of my working days over the next few weeks. With the short summer and long, hard winter, most of the spring lambs will be brought in before it’s time for the remaining animals to be moved into their winter housing. Vets play an essential part in the process. The health of the animals must be checked before they are humanely killed and the welfare and conditions are carefully monitored.
Afterwards, a team of vets and technicians inspect the meat to check whether it is fit for consumption. This is another chance to check health and welfare. All the information from the checks, both ante and post mortem, is recorded. Nobody could claim it’s glamorous work, but as well as ensuring the animals are treated well in the abattoir, the findings are used to assess whether there might be problems on the farms where the animals were raised. If the animals are too thin, have overgrown feet, or show significant signs of illness, then a message is sent back to the local Mattilsynet office, where their vets will contact the farmer and take measures to improve the situation.
On Monday’s visit I was fitted out with a uniform, boots, a locker and a card to open the door. Hilde brought cake again, and I met a few of the staff.
On Tuesday I drove through again with Thomas. I had met him on my first day at work and he seemed friendly, but I hadn’t seen him since. Now he was to give me my first taste in working in an abattoir in northern Norway.
For my part, I was most interested in the inspection of the live animals. It is hard to spend much time on the internet without seeing horror stories, but my impression over the course of the first week has been that most of the animals coming through are very relaxed. Though the pigs all had balls in their pens to play with, most of them were sleeping when we went to see them. Some of the sheep were more skittish than others, but many of them came and were nibbling on my wellington boots. All animals have fresh water in their pens and any cows that are milking are milked if they are in for any length of time. The surroundings are quite similar to those you’d see on the farm and most farms here in Norway are small, so a lot of the animals are used to being handled.
The slaughter process itself was quick and efficient. Thomas showed me how to time the interval between stunning and bleeding. With the cattle, we checked the animal was unconscious before being moved on to the next stage.
It’s a forty minute drive to get to the abattoir and the road is dotted with warning signs for moose. Thomas told me I would see more of them in the winter, though for now they are elusive. The filling station near the E6 has leaflets explaining what to do and who to call if you hit one. I hope it never happens to me, though it is possible I might be called out to do meat inspection on those too if they are injured and have to be shot.
It’s cooling towards autumn now. It was 4°C when I arrived at work yesterday morning. Though the trees are still clinging to their leaves, they are beginning to fade. The ground flora is wonderfully colourful and intensifying as a multitude of berries appear.
There was only one near miss with technology this week. Thomas handed me over to Ammar on Wednesday and he suggested some reading material. The season (as they call it) will begin very soon, and by then I have to be up to speed with meat inspection for lamb. Back in the office, I had chosen a pin code for the printer. You send your file, retrieve it and then put in your number. I assumed the process was the same in the abattoir, and so I went through the retrieval process and began to put in my four figure number. Luckily Ammar stopped me in time, before I set the printer in action printing out *9250 copies of an eight page document on red meat.
Friday afternoon was rounded off with waffles. In Norway they are traditionally eaten with strawberry jam and soured cream. It took me a while to get used to this combination, but now I love it. And what could be more Norwegian than a mountain of waffles to round off the week?
“Pure ‘Northernness’ engulfed me: a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity… and almost at the same moment I knew that I had met this before, long, long ago. …And with that plunge back into my own past, there arose at once, almost like heartbreak, the memory of Joy itself, the knowledge that I had once had what I had now lacked for years, that I was returning at last from exile and desert lands to my own country, and the distance of the Twilight of the Gods and the distance of my own past Joy, both unattainable, flowed together in a single, unendurable sense of desire and loss….” C.S.Lewis.
I wonder how life would have gone, were it not for COVID-19. I can recall the fascination I felt, back in late January or early February, searching on social media for information from Wuhan. I watched with interest: those alarming films of people dropping in the street, reading that China (of all places) had gone into a lockdown so tight that people were not allowed to leave their homes.
It filtered through to me, as I watched those posts unfold, that something big was happening, though back then I had little sense of impending doom. That came later, as the virus began to spread. One by one, day after day, new posters appeared at work, telling us how to cough, to wash our hands, to use gel as we entered, notices in Norwegian and English and several other languages I didn’t understand. The canteen shut and then the borders of the country: closed to anyone who didn’t live here.
And as I watched the figures fall in Norway, I watched them rise in the UK.
I miss my parents. That is undoubtedly the worst in all of this. I had been looking for a new job for a while with no success. But with spring, the realisation came that I was no longer tied to Rogaland for my son’s schooling. And in the midst of a wave of homesickness and fear for my parents, who by now were locked down themselves, with no obvious end in sight, the grand idea came to me that perhaps now was the time to return to the UK.
But it was not to be. Though I found a wonderful practice close to my parents, who wanted to employ me, they were unable to make me an offer. They had sold the practice a year earlier to one of the corporates, and the corporate had a moratorium on taking on new staff due to … coronavirus.
But by now anyway, the insanity of a move back to the UK was starting to hit me. With the increased border security, it was unlikely I would be able to get the dog into the UK, let alone the guinea pigs. Juggling quarantine requirements would mean I would have to find somewhere to stay when I returned to the UK. It would need to have furniture, as mine would take a while to arrive. Likely many shops were shut, and even if they weren’t, I probably wouldn’t be allowed to go. Quarantine with no bed and no TV…
In the midst of all this chaos, a job popped up in the North of Norway. Mattilsynet (the Norwegian equivalent of the UK Food Standards Agency) were looking for a vet. The duties were very wide ranging, as often happens in remote places. Lower population often results in less specialisation… and that has always suited me. Easily bored, I love doing different things. And so I applied.
The interview was tough. I’d had a few by then in Norwegian, but it didn’t get much easier. I’d applied for an old job that I’d done part time before, and had been turned down, I was told, on account of my language skills. This time round I was prepared for the type of question. I had even thought up some possible answers. But explaining the concept of working as part of the management team of a fast growing chain of emergency clinics, covering all the complaints without the expertise of the best (and only specialist) veterinary insurance company in the UK because my boss wanted to prove to them that we could manage without them, is not the easiest thing to translate, not least because veterinary emergency clinics are unheard of here.
Then there was a medical question about cattle. I was sent a text with a scenario and had to answer questions around it. Despite having ten minutes thinking time, I translated one of the words wrongly, and therefore gave a confusing as well as incorrect answer. I think it was at that point I considered just blurting out that there was no point in continuing, because it was obvious we were all wasting our time.
So I wasn’t particularly hopeful. Still, I had a job which was almost full time. We weren’t on the streets, or likely to be. And then, to my astonishment, a contract arrived. No explanation, no welcoming phone call: simply sign here if you want the job.
I signed it of course. It was so precious I didn’t want it to slip through my fingers. And then I contacted them about accommodation and about moving and about how I wouldn’t be able to start on the day that was written on the contract because, with the best will in the world, I couldn’t start there the same day I finished here, because there was 2000 km in between.
All that happened only three weeks ago. And in one week’s time, I will be driving north to take up my new post. It’s a thirty hour journey and I will be taking it with my son John, our dog Triar, and a pair of guinea pigs.
We will be camping! I hope the weather holds. John is planning on walking and lake swimming. I’ve bought a new car to take us up there… well I say new. She’s seven years old, but my first BMW… all wheel drive. I wanted something that could tackle snow.
I am about to move up into the Arctic Circle: Land of midnight sun and interminable darkness.