Autumn is progressing fast, and earlier this week, I saw some early snow dusting the top of the mountains. It was only on the highest peaks, so the (now disappeared again) snow line was probably about a thousand metres above sea level, but it will return and gradually descend. I think there are many areas in the UK where there is no snow from one year to the next. It suddenly struck me as odd to live somewhere where it was inevitable that there will be many months of snow on the ground. It never really crossed my mind, growing up, that I would ever live anywhere other than the UK. I never had a burning desire to do so, yet here I am.
John bought a new car this week. He’s been driving an old banger since he passed his test, but the clutch has been slipping towards oblivion ever since he got it. He’s bought a five year old Ford Mondeo, which will hopefully be more reliable. They don’t use salt on the roads here, so there’s less of a problem with rust. The stunning autumn colours and the new car prompted me to suggest a road trip this weekend. Campsites in Norway often have cabins to rent at very reasonable prices, so I had booked one in Alta, but John called me at work yesterday to say he thought he was coming down with a cold, so we cancelled. Alta is a six hour drive, so doing it after work on a Friday night would ideally only be done with both of us fit and well. We’ll probably go somewhere next weekend instead – perhaps somewhere in Sweden – though as Triar doesn’t have a doggy passport, he’ll probably have to sit that one out.
Projects with the house are ongoing. I’m still waiting for quotations for work to be done by the builder. In the meantime, we are still putting stuff away after the move and trying to get some smaller tasks done. For example, the living room is quite large and only has one overhead light and two small wall lamps. If it was only for use in the evenings, we could probably get away with a standard lamp or a couple of table lamps, but as there are months in the winter when it’s dark almost all day, it’s necessary to provide enough light to mimic daylight, otherwise it is all too easy to go into hibernation mode. We’ve invested in some smart bulbs from Philips. Some provide different shades of white (bright and warm) while others also can be coloured. We finally got internet earlier this week, so we will be able to get Alexa up and running so she can turn the lights on for us. We’ve also found a stand to put firewood into, so hopefully we will be able to get the living room into better shape this week.
I’ve been at the abattoir most of this week. We are already short staffed, but when the call came in from the reindeer abattoir that they wanted to open for a day or two, we realised that we were going have to manage with one person less. Konstantin said he was happy to go, so though it was somewhat chaotic on Thursday and Friday, we managed to get through it. The reindeer abattoir is small and run by a Sami family. I’ve written about it before, but it’s difficult to plan around as the reindeer are often herded there on foot, rather than being transported in lorries.
Something of a hammer blow fell on Thursday afternoon. We were sent an e-mail to say that there was a suspected case of CWD in a reindeer that was slaughtered in Bjørgefjell in Helgeland. CWD (chronic wasting disease) is a prion disease, somewhat similar to Scrapie in sheep and BSE in cattle. There are two possible forms, one of which crops up occasionally in individuals. The other form is infectious and could potentially lead to huge problems and a great deal of suffering, if allowed to spread.
So for now, there are preparatory actions being set in motion. It’s likely that all the meat produce from that herd will have to be traced, but that is minor in comparison to working out all the reindeer that might potentially have been in contact with the affected one. Reindeer are not fenced in, but herded loose on pastures that are traditionally used by various Sami families. In wild reindeer, the infection can be passed on through infected saliva, and prions are very difficult to remove from the environment.
Norway is incredibly strict about disease outbreaks in animals, the consideration being that if a disease becomes endemic, the suffering over time will be worse than that caused by a cull. Back in 2016, infectious CWD was found for the first time in Europe in wild reindeer in Norway. The entire herd of over 2000 reindeer was culled in an attempt to stop it spreading. The devastation that will occur if there is an outbreak in domesticated reindeer will be cataclysmic. Relations between the Sami and the powers that be in Norway are already strained. And so, we wait for answers. Hopefully the wait will not be too long.
I wrote, last week, of frost and autumn is following fast on the heels of the drop in temperature. Before moving to the north I would have said that spring was my favourite season, but it’s so brief here as to be almost non-existent. Winter, though I love it, is too long, but autumn is sweet and still and very beautiful.
There’s a sense of battening down the hatches for the winter to come. We were driving home on Saturday last week when we saw a tractor at the side of the road in an area where wood was being crated up. We stopped and ordered two crates. As we were only a few hundred metres away, the farmer agreed to deliver, so later that day, this pile of wood was deposited in our driveway. It took some time to stack. It’s not obvious from the photo, but the stack is four layers deep. Seeing it all safely under cover, ready for the wood stove in the depths of the Arctic winter, brought a real sense of satisfaction.
It’s getting darker. We will shortly be at the Equinox and it struck me that the seasonal foods will soon begin arriving in the supermarket. No mince pies here (though our local Europris has started to stock a few Iceland products, so you never know) but rather there will be mørketids boller, which are doughnuts with vanilla cream, topped with darkish chocolate.
And as the Darkness closes in, I am often out walking with Triar in the twilight. As you can see from the picture below and the one at the top of the page, we live in a very beautiful place.
We still don’t have internet in our new home and that tends to mean I don’t follow the news very closely. It’s quite peaceful, not knowing so much about what’s going on in the wider world, other than things that are so significant that they come into conversation or crop up as a part of my job. This week there was a stark reminder of the ongoing war in Ukraine in the form of emergency readiness instructions from work. As someone performing a critical function in the food chain, I received information about what to do in the case of a radioactive incident with fallout spreading over Norway. Even if the government issues a general warning not to go outside, we will be expected to do so, and the guidance explained how to minimise the risks. I already have some iodine tablets in the cupboard for Andrew and John though, being over 50, I have no need to take them. Hopefully the tablets will gradually go out of date and will never be needed.
And I woke at 3am last night, as I often do these days, and glanced at my e-mails on my phone. There was a message from WordPress about a blog I follow, and the title of the blog was “The Death of the Queen”. Of course, I went to explore further and found that Queen Elisabeth II had indeed died on Thursday afternoon. While the news was not devastating, nor wholly unexpected, it does very much feel like the end of an era. I remember when growing up, learning a about the Queen and the Prime Minister, who at that time was Jim Callaghan. I recall assuming both were permanent fixtures and feeling shocked when Jim Callaghan was replaced. How long a year was when I was nine years old!
But the Queen has been a permanent feature as a backdrop to my life. I remember the street parties in 1977 for the silver jubilee, and going on a float in a parade. The eighties were punctuated with a pair of royal marriages, the nineties with their sad endings and the awful demise of Diana. Earlier this year, while recovering from Covid, I watched The Crown, and though I know it’s not entirely historically accurate, it gave me a broader overview of the long life and momentous events the Queen has lived through. As I watched the series, I experienced a degree of melancholy. I feel that the optimism and sense of cohesion that pervaded the UK when I was younger has gone and the Queen’s death feels like a link to that past has been removed. It will take some adjustment to having a king, though living over here, I will be one step removed. I won’t see new coins and notes with the head of King Charles (even that sounds wrong). I won’t hear the national anthem sung. Though the UK still feels like home in many ways, I am gradually becoming further and further from the realities of living there.
The Aurora visited last weekend, in spectacular style. I thought I’d share these with you, though my Facebook friends may have already seen them. Andrew called me outside close to midnight last Saturday. I had just gone to bed, but I’m sure you’ll agree it was worth getting up for.
And finally, another death. We lost our adopted guinea pig, Susie, this week. We’d had her for three years or so and she was three years old when we got her. She drove the length of Norway with John and I two years ago when we moved up here. We sadly had to get her put to sleep on Tuesday. It became quickly obvious that Brownie, who regular readers might recall we bought on arrival here in the north, was lonely and so we bought her a new friend. Meet Millie, the latest addition to the McGurk family,
Well the flat handover went slightly worse than I expected. Though I had assumed the landlord might be quite fussy and exacting, I hadn’t expected him to go into full rage mode. We looked round the flat together on Sunday evening and for the most part it went quite well. There was a moment of triumph for him when he found I hadn’t dusted on the top of a couple of very high, inbuilt cupboards and heard I hadn’t cleaned out the U-bends in the bathroom, but despite their expressed disbelief that I could have done the cleaning in two days (I was told over and over that it had taken them fourteen days to clean the three bedroom flat before we moved in) they seemed satisfied. It was agreed that I would go back and rectify the dusting and U-bend situation and so we left to go and eat as it was late and there were still three days of the lease to go.
I received a message while we were eating, to say I hadn’t vacuumed under the seats on the sofas (I had forgotten) and that we had removed an office chair (a miscommunication between John and Andrew, who had both removed one) but otherwise I was quite pleased myself. The remaining work would only take a short time to do, and then I would be free. They hadn’t taken a deposit, so I thought that if I could do the work to a reasonable level, and they were adequately satisfied, there would be no further comeback.
Andrew had offered to come and give me a hand on the Monday evening. So relaxed was I about finishing up, that I almost took some of the afternoon off work and went myself, though perhaps it was some sixth sense that protected me. I collected Andrew after school and we went round to the flat. We hadn’t even had a chance to begin, when the front door of the flat was slammed open and the landlord strode into the room and right up to us. It was obvious immediately that he was angry. He told us in a tight voice that not only had we not come close to cleaning the flat well enough, but that we had damaged three items.
I asked him to show me the items, the first of which was the board under the sink in the bathroom. There had been an ongoing problem with the U-bend, which he knew about as I had asked him how to fix it the first time it cropped up. Indeed the very first time I found I had wet feet on running the tap, I had opened the cupboard to find the MDF was already warped, and so I had concluded that it was not a completely new problem.
I politely pointed out this fact and he began to get angrier, insisting that he knew it had been fine when we moved in because he’d replaced the panel before we came. Ironic that it didn’t even cross his mind that his statement was a clear indication that there was a problem with the U-bend if he had to change the board before (without taking the sensible precaution of getting a plumber out to fix the actual problem) but by this time he was working himself up into a full head of steam.
By the time we left the bathroom, he had gone into full ranting mode. Even with Andrew there, I felt uneasy and uncomfortable. The fact that there had been a sock under the cushions on the couch seemed to be a particular point of vexation. Not sure why they found it quite so shocking. He was shouting by this time and I made the decision that we should leave, so I handed him the key and Andrew and I left. By the time we got home, there was a terse message on my phone about the fact that I was “refusing to engage with the process” with ten photographs, which included a cupboard door where the hinge at the top had come slightly loose and a photograph of the drawer under the oven, which I had opened during cleaning, to find that the base was entirely rusted through, with large rust bubbles bursting out through the black paint, which definitely had not occurred over the course of two years.
It ended up with me blocking their numbers. John went round to further tell them, in no uncertain terms, why I had left. Unsurprisingly he was met with much less aggression, as he is about four inches taller and visibly stronger than the ex-landlord. Typical bullying behaviour to yell at a woman and a young man with Asperger’s and be polite to someone who could easily take you out. I guess I wasn’t entirely surprised. A year earlier, he had randomly come out of the house and yelled at Anna and Andrew for some made-up misdemeanour. In fact, it was after that that I started to look for somewhere new to live. In the event though, it was all pretty unpleasant, and utterly unnecessary. Had he engaged in a normal fashion, I would have completed the remaining tasks and probably would even have agreed to pay a small amount for the damage under the sink. Never have I been so glad, however, that the one thing they had neglected to do was to take the sizeable (two month’s rent) deposit from me.
Anyway, with all that said, what I mostly feel is relief that we have moved out and pride in my sons, both of whom helped me handle a difficult situation. I was shaking when John came home, and he was incensed, but he had the presence of mind to take a calming friend with him. It’s a wonderful feeling every time I see something that tells me that I have raised some truly decent human beings who also love me. The best feeling in the world!
The rest of the week has gone much better. I was in Tromsø for a couple of nights, catching up with all my far-flung colleagues from around the region.
The end of the week has been really very pleasant. I came home from Tromsø to find that John had strimmed the veritable hay field at the back of the house, where the grass had obviously not been mowed for a good long time. John is likely to move back into the house (though he might stay in his caravan outside the abattoir during the long working days of the season) and it is lovely to have so much help. I’ve really wanted them all to feel like this is truly a home they can return to, should they want or need it, and it’s obvious John is enjoying working on making it a truly pleasant place to live. I would enjoy doing it on my own, but it’s even better with family to share it with.
He called me up on the way to work yesterday, to say that there was ground fog over the valley and that if I wanted to take some photos for this blog, now was the moment. And so I drove out to find that not only were there wonderful views over the valley, but that there was frost on the ground and all the leaves were swathed in white.
Yesterday was the only weekday when I was likely to have a chance to take enough time off work to get some things sorted in the house, so I had arranged for the beds to be delivered, a new heat exchanger/air conditioning unit to be installed and, most importantly, a builder to assess the work that needed to be done on the roof and (money permitting, after the roof was fixed) various jobs inside the house. It seems likely that the roof will cost less to fix than the 50,000-100,000 NOK (round 5,000-10,000 British pounds or US$) and so we will hopefully have more to spare for other things.
And all day, as I worked in and around the house, I could see that there were cows in the field across the road. Of all the domesticated animals, dairy cows are easily my favourite. They are such calm, curious creatures. I had a real feeling of “cows in the meadow, all’s right in the world”. I know that’s not a real saying, but it works for me. It won’t be long before the winter arrives and then the cows will be inside, but they’ll be out again next summer and the summer after that and the summer after that. I have a really good feeling about the move we’ve just made. Onwards and upwards!
This is going to be very short. I’m on my iPad, which makes typing and editing much more difficult, and I only have a couple of photos, a reflection of how busy this week has been.
On Monday, I got the keys to my new house. It was wonderful to see inside it again. It’s been ages since I was biting my fingernails in that Tromsø hotel room, making that bid. It was better than I remembered. When I went to the viewing I was obviously being hyper-critical, because the walls, with their textured wallpaper and holes, are nowhere near as hideous as they seemed back then.
It was my first (and probably last) time meeting the seller. She said she’d been very happy in the house, and every time I’ve visited this week, it’s given me a lift, which I hope will continue. The boys love it too. They have chosen their bedrooms and both seem happy, which is wonderful. Andrew and I took Triar over yesterday and he cantered round, then cheerfully christened the garden with his first poo. Some things never change!
So this is the view from the end of the house with the veranda:
And this is the view from the back, which you can see through the window when you sit at the breakfast bar in the kitchen.
So the remainder of the week has been punctuated with calls to internet providers, visits to furniture shops (three beds have now been ordered) and discussions with a builder about the hole in the roof, and the more pressing jobs that need to be done. We bought some paint yesterday. John’s new bedroom is currently black and mine is bright pink, so we thought that a quick makeover was in order before we move in. My colleagues have been very helpful. Trude has given all kinds of useful information on everything from where I can get a heat exchanger to be paid for over time, to where I can buy wood for the stove. Øivind has offered me lots of furniture, which is just brilliant.
Hilde was also very reassuring yesterday. I was visibly unwell at work, having spent part of the night in pain (the usual upper right quadrant/shoulder area) and sweating. (Who knew that the night sweats from (probably) a blocked bile duct can be worse than the menopause?) I commented that it would be potentially calamitous if they found something serious on my MRI on Friday. She immediately said she was sure a dugnad could be arranged. A dugnad is a very Norwegian thing, where lots of people chip in to get a job done. Often it’s a community thing, like maintaining a local park area, so I was very touched that they might have one for me.
Anyway, so far things are progressing quite well with the move. John’s friend and colleague, Bowen, is coming on Monday evening to move furniture. He has a pick-up and trailer, so hopefully we can get Øivind’s furniture, so we will have sofas and shoe cupboards and coffee tables. I have moved a lot of kitchen equipment and white goods over. Somehow, despite having lots of forks and spoons, there are only two knives, which is odd, but easily fixed. In the coming week, I hope to move all my books and the remaining kitchen stuff, and get the storage room at the flat properly cleared. It is currently in the maximum chaos stage, where I’ve taken all the big stuff and now there are just small things scattered everywhere. Fortunately we’re not moving far, so I don’t have to pack carefully, so much as fling everything into boxes, then not shake them too much!
We’re in Tromsø for the weekend. Not the best timing ever to have a weekend away, but I do need to rest, so it’s all good. And last but not least, Andrew turned 18 on Tuesday. So now all my children are officially grown up. The black forest cake I made him was messy, but he seemed pleased enough, which is all that matters. Have a good week all!
And so the months of perpetual daylight have passed again for this year. There’s a feeling of change in the air as we move towards the autumn. There’s change coming up for me too. On Monday I should get the keys to my new house. I am feeling a mixture of excitement and nervousness. The mortgage payment went out of my bank a couple of days back, and my account, which was replete with the deposit, suddenly looks very much emptier, and the limitations on what I will be able to buy and do with it came into focus. There are a few things I urgently need to fix. There was snow in the loft last winter, so the hole that let it in needs to be fixed. Also the heat exchanger (which most Norwegian houses use as a significant part of their heating in winter) needs fixing or (more likely) replacing. On top of that, we need, as an absolute minimum, beds to sleep in. My kind colleague, Øivind, has offered us some furniture, including sofas, so at least we will have something to sit on.
In addition to the furniture, there are various other things I had to do, including arranging contents and building insurance, and letting the post office and National Population Register know I will be moving. There was a close call yesterday when the estate agent rang me up in the afternoon to say that the insurance for legal problems with the exchange hadn’t been paid, by my bank, with the mortgage. This was apparently serious enough for her to suggest that the exchange might not go ahead on Monday. I presume that might have set me in breach of contract, but fortunately they allowed me to make the payment and send evidence I had done so. Everything to do with the bank is done online here, so barring further problems, hopefully everything will go ahead as planned.
It’s been a mixed week at work. The first half was spent out on the road with Gry. Always a good thing! As usual, she had some very interesting snippets on sheep farming. The most interesting, from my point of view, was that in the past couple of years, she has started breeding her first time ewes with Norwegian Villsau rams. This means that the first time they give birth, they will have relatively small but hardy lambs, which are more likely to thrive with a first time mother. She and her sons are so engaged in making improvements to the farm that it’s inspiring to hear, as well as fascinating.
The downside of going out with Gry is that it means that once the visits are finished, there are reports to write. These are relatively straightforward in uncomplicated cases, but this week, for example, I went to a farm where there were some animals with no eartags. Norwegian law is very strict on traceability, and an animal without tags is much more difficult to track. They can’t go into the food chain, and of course, if there’s an outbreak of infectious disease, it potentially makes tracing which animals were in the area at the time much more difficult.
So if there are animals without tags, and especially if there are other traceability problems, such as not updating the Livestock Register regularly enough, I have to serve notice that those animals that can’t be traced must not be moved off the farm. In addition, I have to set deadlines for the farmer to have the animals properly tagged again, and explain which laws cover the problems I found, and what they mean on the ground.
In addition to the report writing, Line sent me notice that next week, I have to go out and certify a horse which will be travelling to Sweden. I’ve inspected many horses in the past that were travelling from Scotland to Ireland. The inspection itself isn’t complicated. But back then, the paperwork was just that: paperwork. Standard forms would be printed out and filled in. Now all the paperwork has to be produced through a Europe wide system called Traces. Not only is the system itself quite impenetrable, but everything has to be registered and double checked. The importer (who in this case was a private individual) has to be put in the system at both ends, so as the person sending the horse from Norway, and the person receiving it in Sweden. Putting someone in the system in Sweden has to be done by an official vet in Sweden. We can’t do it here.
Because I have barely used Traces, Line had kindly set up a meeting at twelve on Friday to walk me through it. After a long week at work, I had been hoping to get away early to go swimming with John and Andrew. I thought the meeting would take perhaps an hour and hopefully less, but it turned out to be much more complicated than I had realised. Not only did everything have to be put in place in Traces, but there was also information that had to be added in Mattilsynet’s own system MATS. I think Line had not realised just how unfamiliar I am with the sections of MATS that I don’t regularly use, and also perhaps hadn’t realised how difficult it still is for me to work in Norwegian, in any circumstance where the language is complex or unfamiliar. She was very patient, but by the time two hours had gone by, I think we were both pretty tired of the situation. I rushed away at the end of the meeting, hoping we would still be in time for an hour of swimming, but it was at that point I found out that there was a risk of the house sale not going through, which had to be sorted immediately, and by the time that was finished, there was no time left because the pool was shutting.
Still, every cloud, as they say. Having missed the pool, we decided to go out and see if we could swim in a lake instead, so this was where we ended up.
We took some wood and had burgers and hotdogs afterwards. Obviously that doesn’t quite fit in with the low fat eating I’ve been doing for the past month or so, and I’m suffering somewhat in the aftermath, but by the end of the evening, I had certainly put the past two days at work firmly behind me.
A couple of pictures to finish up, from a walk last weekend, arranged by Ann. By next week, I should have a new house not too far from here. See you there!
It’s holiday time, and my phone keeps pinging with reminders of upcoming flights and stays. Konstantin is housesitting for me, so I know that Triar and the guinea pigs will be well cared for. Lots of other things are bubbling along. I signed the house contract this week. On first of August, I will be a house owner. So far, we have a TV and stand, a washing machine and cooker, a desk and chair, and one bed. Fortunately we have a month between buying the house and moving out of our current flat, so there will be time to rectify that. Hopefully by the time we move in, we will at least have two beds and something to sit on!
Last week, I mentioned that Ger had submitted The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic to ten publishers. So far, two have turned it down. Ger tells me this is quite normal. I believe Harry Potter was turned down by twelve publishers, so I am staying positive for now. I am in the final stages of getting the storyline for book two finished. Hopefully I will find some time to write during my holiday. Due to Covid we won’t be going out and about too much, so I will be able to escape to the fictional town of Invercorrich on the west coast of Scotland. I will also be staying with my parents for the last two weeks of the three weeks I’m taking. I haven’t seen them since December 2019, so being with them again will be truly wonderful.
Just to slightly complicate matters (as if they weren’t already complicated enough) I have been vaguely unwell for a few months and finally heaved myself to the doctors about three weeks ago. She referred me to Tromsø for a colonoscopy, which was done on Thursday. Probably the less said about the procedure the better, though I survived the process without having to have sedation or painkillers, which was a bonus.
There are flowers on all the roadsides, even around the hospital, so I will share a few pictures here.
The good news is that my intestines are in good shape. The bad news is that the doctor I saw in Tromsø agreed with what I was initially concerned about, which was that there is probably something going on with my pancreas or bile duct. I don’t have a gall bladder any more, so it’s not that. He said the next stage was an ultrasound, but given that I was going on holiday for three weeks, he decided he would do that there and then, rather than wait. He couldn’t see anything big, which is good, but he says I will have to return for an MRI when I get back. He suggested that my bile duct might be blocked, possibly by a stone or stones, which wouldn’t be that surprising. There were complications after my gall bladder was removed, and now and then signs of stones passing (a very distinctive feeling, for anyone who’s experienced it). So all that is slightly hanging over me. I know the UK has an NHS, but it would be much less complicated if I didn’t have to use it.
Anyway, all my photos this week are of flowers. I went up to Tromsø a day early before the colonoscopy and went out to explore the Arctic-Alpine Garden near the hospital. There was a cafe there, which I would definitely have stopped at for an ice cream, had I not been banned from eating anything. Next time I’m up there if it’s fine weather, I’ll definitely pop in. I began with the intention of taking photographs and taking down names, but the labelling seemed somewhat erratic, or at least some plants seemed to have spread and others perhaps died back, so I’ll just spam you with the gorgeous flowers and hope you enjoy them, as I do, without ever knowing their names.
This week has been very intense. So much so, that when I thought back and realised I had been to my first audit on Monday, it’s hard to believe it’s the same week. The long daylight hours are quite disconcerting, though they also mean that everything is growing at an enormous rate, so I’ll throw in a few pictures of all the flowers and undergrowth as I go along. The audit was in the abattoir, or at least in the meat processing plant attached to it. My colleagues Ann and Ronny carried it out and the areas that came under particular scrutiny were traceability and recall.
It was fascinating to see the planning and processes that go into ensuring that the meat that’s sold to the public can be traced, not just right back to an individual animal, but to the batch of plastic that’s used in packaging and the temperature range in the lorry that transports the product onwards. We also got to see mince being packaged, from the time they place it into a huge funnel, to it being arranged into individual squares in a grid pattern on a conveyer, which withdraws suddenly, dropping it into plastic containers which are sealed and marked. I hadn’t noticed before, but the packets are marked with the same oval mark, with Norge and EFTA and the individual number of the abattoir, that we use to stamp the meat itself when we examine it and pass it as fit for consumption. It was also interesting to see how cleanliness is achieved. We had to change our protective clothing multiple times as we passed through the different areas.
The writing whirlwind that started last week also continued. My agent is Ger Nichol at The Book Bureau and she is in Ireland. The contracts were signed last weekend and after about four days of intensive editing, she felt The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic was ready for submission. I will give you the blurb I sent her, though I’m not sure how much of this she uses, or whether she’s changed it for sending it to the publishers.
“The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic” is an exploration of the life of a recently widowed veterinary surgeon and how she deals with the consequences of a lifetime of putting her family before herself. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax). It is set in rural Scotland and is filled with diverse women and their animal friends, from the partnership between receptionist Gail and her guide dog Beth, to butch lesbian, Mags, who loves her crazy mare, Strumpet, almost more than life itself.
Ger sent it off on Wednesday to ten editors at well known publishing houses, and now it’s another waiting game. There’s no guarantee, even at this stage, that it will be picked up, but this is way further than I’ve ever got before. The Hope Meadows series was sold to Hodder before I was involved and would have gone ahead with another writer if I hadn’t been chosen. This time the work is all my own, though if it hadn’t been for Lara Wilson egging me on through the pandemic, even though I was in Norway and she was in Belfast and Glasgow, I definitely wouldn’t have got this far.
The rest of this blog is going to be about Tromsø, where I spent Thursday and Friday at a Mattilsynet meeting for all the staff in our region. In particular, I want to rave about a restaurant we went to. Regular readers will know what a foodie I am and how much I love new restaurant discoveries, and what could be better than a real Italian pizzeria in the far north of Norway?
I must admit here that I didn’t have high hopes when I discovered we were going to a pizzeria. Pizza is very popular in Norway and (as in the UK) a lot of it is adequate but by no means exciting. Casa Inferno certainly looked pretty good as I walked in. It has a steampunk theme, with a brutalist style ceiling – all steel rods and exposed air conditioning pipes. Somehow, it achieved a very cosy feel. There were a few old things scattered among the copper lampshades and retro-futuristic decor. This gramophone on the bar was probably my favourite.
We started with antipasti – selection of olives, various cheeses, hams and salamis and some most delicious red pickled onions. It was served on shared platters and looked great, though for once, I forgot to take a photo. It was the pizzas that were the real revelation though. It’s a long time since I’ve had a proper wood-fired pizza, created by an Italian chef. The pizzas were for sharing too, but by some miracle, the one that was placed in front of Konstantin and me would have been one of my first choices from the menu.
The next pizza brought to our table was even more spectacular. The Inferno was quite literally, flaming hot.
The Inferno had tomato sauce, spicy salami, olives, fresh chilli peppers, onions and chilli flakes. It looked even better, once the flames died down.
As we were waiting for desserts and coffee, I took a few photographs, including the steampunk weapon at the top of the page. It was only at this point, that I realised there was an actual wood stove for the pizzas. No wonder they were so wonderful!
The final indoctrination, and the realisation that this was somewhere I really wanted to come back to with the offspring, was with the dessert. I was going to order what I thought was a chocolate fondant, when Hilde pointed out that it was not actually chocolate fondant, but chocolate fondue. I guess chocolate fondue isn’t technically very difficult, nor is it particularly Italian, so far as I know, but it was certainly fun! And along with an espresso coffee laced with amaretto, it rounded off the meal very nicely.
I’m going to start with a couple of photos this week. I need to find a way to stop myself huddling inside through the winters here. Having just lived through my second, I have come out the other side hopelessly unfit again. Still, I have made a start, and Triar and I took our first outing up the track that leads to Kistafjellet, which I discovered at the end of autumn last year: Changing Wheels, Changing Weather
I won’t make it up Kistafjellet before I go on holiday in two week’s time, but hopefully I will when I get back. It’s a long walk, but not technically difficult and there’s a good track all the way up, so it’s a good mountain to start on. I walked for about half an hour, which isn’t that much, but the track is pretty steep. I got as far as this river, before turning to come back.
In other news, I have found an agent who wants to sell my book. Having written the Hope Meadows books with Vicky Holmes, I have been hoping to write something that would be all mine and published under my own name. This is part of the letter I sent the agent last Friday, along with part of the manuscript.
“The Good Friends’ Veterinary Clinic” is an exploration of the life of a recently widowed veterinary surgeon and how she deals with the consequences of a lifetime of putting her family before herself. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax). It is set in rural Scotland and is filled with diverse women and their animal friends, from the partnership between receptionist Gail and her guide dog Beth, to butch lesbian, Mags, who loves her crazy mare, Strumpet, almost more than life itself.
I finished writing a while back and had been looking for an agent, but hadn’t been very active in pursuing it. After something of a break, I looked through The Writers’ and Authors’ Yearbook last Friday and something about this agent caught my eye, so I sent off a submission. Since then everything has happened at high speed. Anyway, I don’t want to say any more right now as we are at the contract stage and it’s not quite complete. Suffice it to say, I think I’ve found someone I can really work with, which feels brilliant!
More pictures now. Thomas, Gry and I were driving back from a case yesterday when we noticed the almost-perfect reflection of mountains in Skøvatnet, the lake we were driving beside. It was so still and so beautiful that Thomas actually turned the car round so we could all go back and take some pictures.
There was something of an unexpected coda to last week’s post about the dead eagle. Line, who oversees our animal health and welfare team, commented on my Facebook post last week to say “Good job”. I was slightly surprised then, when she called me midweek to talk about it. She sounded a little tentative as she opened up the OK Program instructions for the year and asked me which protocol it was I’d followed. She opened up the familiar sheet with the instructions and polite dissection photos and I told her that yes, that was what I had done.
It turns out that though I had very carefully read and translated the instructions, I hadn’t given the same attention to the explanation at the top, which said that this form was for the use of hunters who found birds when they were out hunting. My eagle had been found by someone out hunting, but apparently the form I should have filled in, as a Mattilsynet vet, was actually to be found on MatCIM, the emergency monitoring channel that we use to track outbreaks and emergencies. Had I found the instructions on MatCIM, I would have discovered that there was no need to take the wing at all, and the swabs alone were enough. Still, she said, probably the Veterinær Institutt down in Ås were pleasantly surprised to have received my carefully packed eagle wing…
She apologised for laughing, but I actually thought it was funny enough to relate it to the three colleagues with whom I sat and ate lunch a few minutes later. They all thought it was hilarious too. So I was laughing for what remained of the day and was still giggling to myself as I drove home. After all, there was no harm done, it had certainly been an adventure and anyway, I love things that are just too ridiculous. The lab haven’t got back to me yet, so I still don’t know whether the poor old eagle died of bird flu, but don’t worry. I’ll keep you posted.
And finally, I’ll leave you with another midnight sun picture. Have a good week!
Regular readers will be glad to know that this week has been better than last. I want to thank the people who reached out to me after reading what I wrote. I’m still a bit short on local friends, but I have spoken online and on the phone to both old and new friends this week, which has really meant a lot. Some of my colleagues have been supportive too, and to them, thank you so much.
It’s been a busy week. I was out on two welfare inspections on Monday and another on Wednesday. The inspections themselves don’t take long, though there can be a fair bit of driving. Writing the reports and dealing with the aftermath often takes longer, though as there was nothing too challenging, the reports themselves were less urgent than checking the animals weren’t suffering. I will be going on holiday in three weeks time and there’s definitely a feeling in my head that my main aim at the moment is just to keep going until I get there. One of the things I learned early in my career was that I can continue to function on the surface, even when there’s turmoil inside, but that’s wearing a bit thin right now. I will ultimately be fine, but I’m not sure it’s good for me.
On top of the welfare visits, I received an e-mail about a dead sea eagle, which needed to be tested for bird flu. There have been a few confirmed cases up here, and most have been in sea eagles, presumably because they are at the top of the food chain. When people report dead birds, we have to go out and swab them. Up until now, I hadn’t done any, so as with any new procedure, before I could go out, I had to find out what equipment I needed, whether we had that equipment, and once that question was resolved, I needed to find out how to do it.
Because it’s a high risk infection, Mattilsynet is monitoring the situation as part of its OK program. The correct protocol, on finding a dead bird, is to leave it where it is and alert us. That hadn’t happened in this case. The bird had already been scooped up and was in the freezer of one of the council offices in our region. Perhaps I should warn you that the rest of this blog is going to be about my (to me) amusing encounter sampling this dead eagle, so if that isn’t your kind of thing, you should probably look away now!
There are a lot of occasions in Mattilsynet where we are asked to do things we haven’t done before. Quite often you will be doing it without being shown how, because we’re all so spread out that there isn’t always someone local to show you. In order to help us cope with this with regard to the OK program, there is a massive word document, updated annually, with descriptions of what samples you need to take, how to take them, how to send them off to the lab and which lab each needs to go to.
In addition to this sheet, which I quickly accessed, I made a point of asking colleagues for any tips or helpful comments. Quite often, these are not colleagues who are sitting beside me, who could come out and show me, but are sitting in an office a few hours drive away, and have their own jobs to do. Thomas was in Svalbard this week, but fortunately, he was able to tell me exactly where the bird flu swabs were. I should have known myself probably, as he and I had discussed this before, but my memory is awful at the best of times, and the best of times probably isn’t a phrase that applies right now.
Anyway, having established the fact that we did, at the very least, have the swabs I needed, I was able to get back to the man who had contacted us about the eagle. I sent him a message saying I would be out on Thursday morning and cc’d Line as she had forwarded the message to me. Line was in Svalbard as well, but fortunately she saw the e-mail and sent me a gentle reminder that I should probably ask Kommune man to take the bird out of the freezer to defrost a little.
I did give some consideration to the defrosting. This week has been quite warm. When the sun is shining in your windows for a large part of the day, it can get very hot inside. If he took the dead bird out of the freezer and put in in a warm room overnight, it would probably be quite grim in the morning. With this thought in mind, I told him to take it out on the Wednesday afternoon, before he went home.
As I said above, I am still (more or less) functional at the moment, but new things are always more challenging when you are tired. Knowing that I was, I had spent quite a lot of time poring over the instructions, trying to make sure I was confident in what I was doing, before heading out. It all seemed straightforward enough. I had to take two swabs, one from the throat and one from the cloaca. In addition, I had to remove the left wing, through the shoulder joint, and send that off too. There was a polite picture of this procedure on the sheet alongside the instructions. It didn’t look too difficult. I gathered together my kit: scalpel, forceps, swabs, gloves, facemask and forms, took them out to the car, and set off.
I always feel, that as a vet, it’s important to look competent and to approach things as if you know what you are doing, even if you don’t. This rule probably applies even more when you’re dealing with potentially deadly diseases. It crossed my mind, that before I arrived, I should stop the car and have one last read of the procedures. As I read through the text again, I realised that though I had the kit for dissecting the wing, I had forgotten to take a plastic bag to pack it into. I’ve been a vet for a long time now, and one thing I have learned is that, even if you don’t have absolutely everything with you, it’s usually possible to work around it or find a substitute that will do. Casting my eyes around the car, I realised that I had packed my disposable gloves into a plastic bag. Better still, it was a ziplock bag, so easily sealed. Thanking the gods of veterinary substitutions, I emptied out the gloves, put a few in my pocket, and continued on my journey.
Kommune man seemed very helpful when I arrived. I thought we should probably fill in the forms before we started. The required details included the GPS co-ordinates of where the eagle had been found, as well as details such as age and sex. Fortunately, someone at head office had realised the realities of the situation, so I was able to tick “don’t know” for the latter two. The dead bird was in a different building he told me, so once the form was mostly filled in, I followed him outside, down some stairs and into a garage, where there was a black bin bag on the floor, sealed with brown tape.
I unwrapped my scalpel, which was of the flimsy, disposable type, with a plastic handle. It crossed my mind for the first time that perhaps I should have brought a spare or better still a sturdy, abattoir-style, sharp knife. The polite picture of the dissection had shown a smallish bird, carefully laid out on its breast, wing effortlessly outspread, with a neat incision over the shoulder, where the cut was to be made. Those doing this gentle procedure had presumably not had to chop through two layers of dustbin bags before they began. Still, it was over an hour’s drive to get back to the office and I had to get this sample taken and sent off by two o’clock. I had arranged with Konstantin that I would send it off from the abattoir. There was no way I could go back now.
As I unwrapped the bag and started to look for the cloaca, I realised that I had perhaps made a second error of judgment. For some reason, I had thought carefully about how bad it would be if the bird was too warm overnight, but hadn’t really considered the possibility that overnight wasn’t really long enough to defrost anything left in a cool place. Any cooks among you who have been faced with a still-frozen turkey on Christmas day, will probably recognise that it takes quite a long time to thaw a large bird. It also struck me, as I contemplated the huge talons and the sheer size of the body, that the small plastic bag I had so gratefully emptied of its gloves, was not going to contain an eagle’s wing. I guess it’s probably a reflection of how tired I was, but I had seen the picture and had been vaguely visualising something with a wing that was a bit bigger than a chicken, but an eagle’s wingspan is huge. Even folded up, it was going to need something more like a bin bag. Looking up from where I was kneeling on the floor, I asked Kommune man if he had anything, and to my relief, he disappeared to get one.
It took me a little while to actually find the cloaca (where both the urine and faeces come out). There was a thick layer of feathers obscuring everything, and because the bird was frozen into a twisted position, I couldn’t stretch it out flat to see where the midline lay. When I finally did locate it, I found that everything was way too stiff to be able to insert a swab. My problems were compounded by the fact that the bird flu swabs had obviously been designed with the possibility of checking out blackbirds or maybe a budgerigar. The stalk was incredibly thin and bendy. When I tried to insert it, it was obvious that any pressure would cause it to break.
Abandoning the cloaca for a moment, I thought I would have a go at the throat and come back to the bottom end later. The instructions about where and how to swab the throat had included another polite picture, this time of a duck, its bill gaping, revealing the clean and tidy structures of the cartilage and the tissues that open and close to protect the trachea.
At least the neck of the eagle was defrosted enough so I could straighten it. It was an impressive bird, close up, and I prised open the hooked beak and looked into the throat, only to find it was filled with gunk. I’m not sure if what I could see was a part of the eagle’s last meal, but it was obscuring my view, and I began to scoop it out. There was a surprising amount of it, and I was aware the entire time that if the bird did actually have anything nasty, all this material could be contaminated. Finally, it was all gone, though it was still a very long way to the back of the throat and what I could see really didn’t look much like the equivalent structures in a duck. At least I could get the swab in though, which was an improvement on the other end, so I took the swab out of its packet, swivelled it inside and outside the tracheal opening, placed it carefully in the liquid transport medium in the tube provided, broke off the tip as instructed, and replaced the lid. Step one complete!
Changing into a new pair of disposable gloves, I decided to tackle the wing next. “Turn the bird over onto its breast and stretch out the wing to find the shoulder,” said the instructions. The obvious trouble now was that nothing here was stretching out. There were also thick feathers in the way. An eagle’s flight feathers are really quite impressive, close up, but as I grasped the weedy scalpel again, I was very much aware that I couldn’t afford to blunt the thin metal of the blade. Assessing anatomy and the position of joints is also quite easy if you can move them all. Trying to do so when the whole thing is frozen stiff and under a thick layer of fathers, not so much. Feeling around with my fingers, I made a cut down over where I thought the shoulder joint probably was, and began not so much to carefully dissect, as to hack away in the hope that I could cut the wing from the body without making a complete tit of myself. Though it took all my feeble strength to prise the wing out from the body far enough to get in underneath it, I did at last manage to slice through the frozen muscle enough to finally remove the wing. Sliding it into the plastic bag, I let out a small sigh of relief and turned my attention to step three.
The cloaca was still frozen to the point where I couldn’t get my gloved finger through it. I was supposed to put the swab inside and move it around until there were visible bird droppings on it. Even if I could get the swab through, the droppings would be just as frozen as everything else. First though, I had to gain access. It would be easier, I thought, if I could see what I was doing. And so I made a cut at the opening. Fortunately my scalpel was still intact and sharp enough. After only a few moments’ dissection, I was able to insert my finger and the swab. Pressing the swab against the thin wall of the cloaca, I was glad to find that my finger was warm enough to melt some of the bird droppings onto the swab. Withdrawing it with relief, I put the second and final swab into the medium, snapped it off and twisted the lid firmly into place.
Despite all the delays, it was still morning as I flung all the equipment in the boot of the car and set off towards the abattoir. Trude is an expert at sending off samples, and I was sure she would be able to help me with this. She has the codes for the computer and would know how to print me out a label. Doubtless, given time, I could work it out myself, but time was something that was beginning to be in short supply. Donning yet another pair of disposable gloves, I carefully lifted out the swabs and the black binbag containing the wing from the car boot and headed inside.
There were no polystyrene boxes big enough for the wing. Of course there weren’t! It took about two minutes to establish the fact that I was going to have to head back to the Finnsnes office, where I knew we had much bigger polystyrene boxes for sending off fish samples. The packages have to be both sealed so that no liquid can escape, and also insulated enough so that, with a couple of cool packs, the whole thing can remain sufficiently chilled overnight that the sample arrives without being denatured.
As I drove back to Finnsnes, I was wracking my brains about the label. You have to go online to the parcel service and select the specific service you need, which in this case was for bird flu samples to the Veterinary Institute in Ås, to be delivered overnight and arrive in the morning. It’s important that everything is correct, otherwise it’s easy for your samples to go astray. I was still deep in thought when I received a text. It was from Trude, and a quick glance revealed that she had been into the website, ordered the correct service, and sent the label to my e-mail. It struck me, not for the first time, that there were times when having truly competent colleagues on your side can make life a million times easier than it would otherwise be.
I took a photograph of the final package, which was probably the largest thing I’ve ever taken into the post office. As you can see, it takes up most of the back seat of the car and that eagle’s wing took up most of the length of it.
I took yesterday off. Monday is also a bank holiday in Norway, so I am hoping that by next week, I will be rested enough to be back on better form. Despite my eagle experience being something of a comedy of errors, I’m pretty sure the sample itself was taken adequately. I guess I’ll find out in the next few days whether it was positive or not. Anyway, I’ll leave you with some pictures of scenery and flowers. After the long winter, everything is now green leaves and rushing water. Hope to see you next week.
This is going to be a difficult post to write, not least because of all the things I can’t say. It’s been a long week, despite the fact that Thursday was a bank holiday in Norway. The case started last week with a phone call, took up most of my working hours this week, and doubtless will be going on for some time. As regular readers will know, I deal with animal welfare issues, and obviously that can sometimes be harrowing. Very occasionally, Mattilsynet’s employees have to deal with cases that are so tragic that it’s almost unbearable. Back when I started, I read a case so awful that just reading about it made me cry, and it took more than one session before I could read it right through to the end. I found myself hoping it would never happen on my watch, hoping that I could prevent it by listening to everything and acting fast, but despite all those thoughts, it happened anyway.
The police are involved, and so in a lot of ways, the case is currently out of my hands. My task (with others from Mattilsynet and Dyrevernnemda) has mostly been around collecting evidence. Thomas has taken charge, and for that I am eternally grateful. One of the oddest things has been the way the world just keeps going on. Summer is moving in and the world is filled with life and growth. I sat in the car, gazing out at a snow-capped mountain behind lime-green spring trees, as I took a break to drink some water and gather myself together between sessions in the barn. I could hear the birds singing and the gentle summer sound of sheep bells in the fields nearby and the only jarring note in the beautiful scene was the fluorescent yellow of the police car parked on the farm road in front of me.
Yesterday, I drove to Tromsø with some samples in the car and the world looked more beautiful than ever. The whole thing is surreal. Oddly enough, there was a jarring note along the way. As the sun heats up the world, the snow up on the mountains starts to melt. The water rushes down, faster and faster and I saw many swollen waterfalls cascading down the steep slopes that rose up, sometimes almost vertically from the roadside. They sparkled in the sunshine, clear water, rushing down to the sea. So when I saw what was almost a flow of mud flooding down a rock face, it gave me pause. It wasn’t a lot, but it was very different from all the other water I’d seen.
I live in a house in an area where there are obviously concerns about landslides. There are metal monitors sticking up out of the ground all along the road, and very close to the house I live in. I have read about possible warning signs, one of which was when muddy water is coming out of the ground. The problem with reading things online, as I know from working as a vet, is often one of scale and context. I think most people know that if you read about headaches online, you might easily conclude you have a brain tumour, when actually you’re stressed or dehydrated. I called a friend who is a geologist and asked if I could send a video for him to look at, but he advised me it was better to call the police and let them assess it. Better a warning for something not serious, than failing to warn when it was. Being on the other side of that equation, I know that there can sometimes be a danger in too many warnings as they can lead to complacency, but the possibility that there might be houses below was in my mind, and so I called the police and offered to send a video.
I then drove on, dropped off my evidence at the lab and checked my e-mails, only to find that the one I had sent to the police hadn’t gone. I must have taken down the address wrongly. I called my friend back – I had sent the video to him as well, but there was no reply. I had given the police the exact geolocation (thanks to a photo app that I use to record cases at work) but I had realised I had wrongly mentioned the E6, when I had left that and joined the E8. Where does public duty begin and end? Always a difficult question, and at the moment, my mind is unquiet enough to be clouding judgement. I was in Tromsø and it wasn’t far to the police station. Should I go in and correct what I had said and give them the picture and film I had taken?
Fortunately, my friend got back to me quite quickly. From a quick viewing of a four second film, he was able to tell me that the rock face itself had been blasted extensively, and was therefore probably solid, that the soil cover above the rock was thin, that the trees and plants looked young, so perhaps the land had undergone a slip only four or five years earlier and that the undergrowth was thick, which would help with stability. He said it was good to have reported it, as I had no way of knowing what was going on higher up the slope, and that it was better that it could be assessed by someone local, but that the location details I had given were probably good enough. He didn’t think there was a serious risk at the moment. How good it was to speak to someone with genuine knowledge. I was truly grateful and felt the extra weight lift from my mind.
I haven’t many photos, but I did take some driving home yesterday, including this one of a north of Norway traffic jam.
I had thought of using it as the photo at the top of the blog, but it seems unfair to lure people in with a photo of something so cheery in a blog that’s filled with troubled thoughts, so I went with a calm picture of the late evening sun over Senja. I won’t be looking at that view for too much longer, and so it seems precious right now. The dissonant feelings grew as I listened to the news flash on the radio. “Police in are dealing with a case where more than seventy dead animals were found on a farm in Mid-Troms”. My case. My responsibility. Bad enough to make the national news.
I don’t know how to deal with these feelings, other than letting time pass. Bizarrely, I felt a sudden desire to play the piano, which I haven’t really done since I left home, thirty five years ago. There was an old music sheet in the piano stool at home. My parents hadn’t bought it, at least not directly. They bought a piano, with one of those old-fashioned stools where the seat lifted and the previous owners had left some music inside. “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes” was one of them and I wanted to play it again. It’s a beautiful song and easily arranged. My sister has the piano now, and though it was a long shot, I e-mailed her and asked if that old sheet music was still there. It was.
And so she scanned it and sent it and I went to the office and printed it out, and so I sat last night on the electric piano I bought for my son after we’d moved up here, and I played music from years ago, and somehow it was a comfort. My sister and I hadn’t spoken for ages, but now we are chatting again, and that’s a comfort too. I have a wonderful family, and in that I’m very lucky.
Anyway, there’s no good way to round this off, so I will leave it here for now. Sometimes life is difficult, but the sun comes out again. All I can do at the moment is gather the best evidence I can and help the police and hope that something good comes of all of this, which it might. There will probably never be a day when there isn’t some bastard who sees animal life as expendable and suffering as irrelevant, but all we can do is keep on fighting it, one case at a time. Thank you for reading.