I mentioned last week that I would be working at the abattoir all this week and that one of the compensations of working there was the beautiful autumn scenery on the journey there. As you can see in the featured image at the top of the page and the picture below, this weeks addition has been a sprinkling of snow on the mountains.
Alongside the chilly mountains, there have been some wonderful sunsets. In the depths of winter, when the sun doesn’t make it over the horizon for weeks on end, one tends to imagine impenetrable darkness, but I am told there is still twilight. Obviously there will be more snow, but as I watched the sun going down a few days ago, I found myself wondering whether it might sometimes look like this.
I am getting better at meat inspection, in sheep at least. My colleagues have been very patient as I have asked them to check when I am unsure of something. Next week there’s a chance I will try my hand instead at a different animal. Our region covers an abattoir that is exclusively used for reindeer. It is owned by a Sami family who are also herders and run shops to sell their produce. It will be interesting to find out more about the way this much smaller enterprise is run.
One of my favourite comedies in recent years was W1A. It was a send up of corporate newspeak and ineffectual pomposity at the BBC and featured Hugh Bonneville as “Head of Values”. Sarah Parish starts series one as “Head of Output”, but during series two is promoted to the newly created position “Director of Better”. To give a taste, this is the job description for that role:
“The Establishment of a Director of Better represents a turning point for the BBC by placing the idea of betterness at its core going forward and beyond.”
“Working with a range of internal placeholders at a senior level, this is an opportunity to re-set the dial for the Corporation either by shining a new light on that dial or by shining the old light but with a new bulb so that no-one can be in any doubt about where the dial is or can have any excuse for not being able to read what it says.”
Imagine my delight then, when the announcement came this week that Mattilsynet’s new health and safety incident recording system has been optimistically named “Better”. Most of the computer programs we use are named using very workmanlike initials, so this is quite the departure. We can only hope that the new, confident branding of health and safety will ensure that we all strive for improvement in this area. Or as Siobhan Sharpe, the BBC’s Brand Consultant in W1A might have said, with commendable exuberance, “Lets nail this puppy to the floor!”
I’m spending more and more time at the abattoir as the season progresses. Next week, I will be there every day. It’s acknowledged that it is a high risk environment. There are big metal hooks overhead, which require helmet use at all times. We wear chain mail to protect our vital organs from errant knives. The knives need to be sterilised as well. This is done by placing them in hot water whenever they are not in use. Despite having read a plethora of H&S documents and watched videos about the risks from the sterilisers, in the first couple of days on the sheep line I managed to lean on the hot metal plating a couple of times. So now I am branded on both hips like an old cow.
I’m working exclusively on the lamb/mutton line for now. Pork and beef inspection are more complicated and there’s no time for me to learn. Though I am starting to feel more confident, at the beginning it felt surreal as I strode up and down, marking the meat that had passed with that all-important EFTA stamp that means it can be sent out into the world for consumption. I was reminded of a chapter in a children’s book: Time Tangle by Frances Eagar. Though it’s an old book, I know it from cover to cover, having read and reread it as a child, then read it aloud to my children every year in the lead up to Christmas. There’s a scene in it where Beth, a girl dealing with some difficult emotions over the yule period, is unwillingly visiting a friend’s house. She is pressed into helping her friend’s mother to make mince pies, and to get through it, she imagines herself in a busy mince pie factory, slapping the pastry lids onto the pies. She also imagines being praised for her prowess and speed. Her bubble bursts when it becomes apparent that the reason for her speed is that she’s forgotten to add the mince filling.
Like Beth, I was rather enjoying working on the sheep line. There had been some doubt over whether I would be ready in time, but the vets I worked with had all been positive, which of course was encouraging. I had my empty mince pie moment though at the end of last week when at the end of my shift, Ronny the Official Veterinary Surgeon (OVS) took me aside and showed me a carcass that I had stamped that I should have condemned. Several of the joints were massively swollen and she was very thin. It was doubly frustrating as I had noticed she was thin and had taken a very brief second look, but instead of stopping the line, or sending her to the side for a better look, I had allowed her to pass.
I was shocked when Ronny showed me. I had known I was rather distracted as it had been a difficult day in other ways, but even so, I ought to have seen it. A short time after that, right at the end of the day, the man in charge of the line called me over and asked me whether the carcass should be placed in the chill room where the emergency slaughter carcasses are placed for inspection. I agreed that it should, then he looked me up and down, then back at the sheep. “I know you missed it,” he said, “but do you see the changes, now they’ve been pointed out?”
Seeing as the joints on both front and hind legs were not cut through clean and straight, as they should be, but instead resembled a pair of seventies bell-bottom jeans in shape, I half wanted to snap back that of course I could see it. Only an idiot wouldn’t. But in the circumstances, that would have been rather churlish, so I muttered, “Yes,” and to my relief, he began to slide the carcass off in the direction of the chill room.
And mortified though I was to miss something so obvious, the good thing, of course, is the comfirmation of something I’ve known for years.. Experienced technicians (and it applies equally to veterinary nurses in practice) know way more about almost everything than vets who are just starting out in any completely new area.
There are some compensations to working in the slaughterhouse. The world around me is turning to gold and the drive there takes about forty minutes. Back in Rogaland, where I spent my first years in Norway, there wasn’t much autumn. The trees would start to turn and then there would be a storm and by the time the wind and rain stopped, the trees would be bare. Up here though, there’s less wind and as I have to drive through miles of forest every day, the changing colours have been wonderful to watch.
And Andrew and I had a wonderful surprise last weekend when we popped out in the garden to “air the dog” as they call it here in Norway. As we stood there, we noticed there was a green tinge to the sky. We weren’t sure at first, but as it brightened and began to dance, we realised that for the first time, we were properly seeing the Northern lights. It was a wonderful moment.
Autumn is arriving here in Northern Norway. The leaves on the trees are beginning to fade and on sunny mornings, mist swirls over the lakes and the fields along the valley floor and swathes the mountain sides in ribbons of white. The lower slopes are wooded with silver birch and rowan trees and within the next week or so they will turn to gold.
But for now, it’s still warmish in the daytime. Today it’s 12°C and raining and it was similar on Monday morning when Hilde suggested the possibility of a trip. She had mentioned during my first week that we might go out one day and cook hot dogs (or pølse, as they are called here) but nothing had come of it. I had written it off as one of those conversations where I had perhaps misunderstood something on a subject that wasn’t important enough to raise it after the event… but here it was again.
We were drinking coffee at the time: several of us, sitting together. There was some discussion about the weather as we all looked out of the window, but Hilde was sanguine. “It’s going to clear up this afternoon,” she declared, and held out her mobile with the weather forecast on Yr.no. Though it showed the symbol with the sun peeping out from a cloud, she seemed confident that this was good enough.
And so at twelve o’clock, when lunch was finished, we set out to drive to Sørvika.
It seemed a pleasant place. There were flat meadows where you could pitch a tent, alongside grassy woodland. The sound of waves told me we were close to the shore. But for now, we lifted wood and bags of food from the boot of the car and began to make our way to the place we would light our fire.
Being outdoors is a very important part of Norwegian life. There’s a definite sense that one should not be put off by the weather. But that goes hand in hand with an acceptance that the weather exists and though many of its effects can be offset by the right clothes, sometimes additional protection is needed. The sky overhead was still grey and so I was pleasantly surprised to find that we would actually be lighting our fire inside a little shelter.
Ronny, who had driven Øivind and I to the site, began to pull bark (to use for kindling) off the wood we had brought and within minutes, our fire was burning brightly. He pulled out a kettle, filled it with water, and balanced it on the stones at the edge.
Hilde in the meantime, had helped unpack the bags but had then wandered off. When she came back she was carrying a stick and a knife, so I went to investigate. Any Norwegian schoolchild would have recognised what she was doing. They hand out whittling knives to six year olds here. Most of them survive and by the time they are adults, they have excellent knife skills. But to me, the uninitiated, it was a mystery.
“It’s for cooking the pølse,” she explained as she showed me the long stick she was holding, the end of which was stripped of bark and whittled to a point.
She stopped and inspected her stick, and seemingly satisfied, she nodded, then to my consternation, handed me the knife. “It’s your turn,” she told me with a smile.
I confess that I wandered quite a way off before I found my stick. Hilde had explained that I would have to cut it from a tree as it had to be fresh so it wouldn’t burn. It also had to be long enough that I wouldn’t burn myself and thick enough to hold a hot dog without bending so much that it was in the fire. Quite apart from that, I didn’t want anyone to watch my fumbling efforts with the knife.
Though it wasn’t easy to clip my chosen branch from the tree, the whittling itself was curiously satisfying. The knife was properly sharp and used lengthways with the grain, it didn’t take too long to carve my stick into a reasonable shape. Though it wasn’t as elegant as Hilde’s stick, it certainly did the job.
As we began to cook the hot dogs, and Ronny grilled some burgers, it began to rain. I had half expected that the shelter would not be adequate, but to my pleasure, the roof was perfectly sized to keep all those sitting inside dry. It was very cosy sitting there as the rain dripped outside. The fire was burning bright and warm and there was no wind.
The hot dogs tasted delicious, as you would expect, as did the burgers. And afterwards, when the rain had cleared, we walked through the trees and down the steep path that led to the beach. It truly is a beautiful place.
It was, all in all, probably the most satisfying afternoon I’ve ever had at work. There’s no doubt that doing these things helps to build friendships within the workplace. I will be going back to Sørvika as well. I want to share it with John and Andrew, and Anna my daughter when she comes home for Christmas.
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?
It’s always an advantage in a new job to make a good first impression and so I arrived on my first day determined to do just that. I am working for Mattilsynet, which is the Norwegian Food Safety Authority. Mattilsynet has a wide remit. As well as working to ensure Norwegian food and drinking water are safe, Mattilsynet oversees all aspects of food production from farm or fjord right to the point of eating. People in Norway will be familiar with Mattilsynet’s Smiley Faces that indicate that the kitchen in the restaurant you’re about to eat in is clean.
My new boss, Hilde, welcomed me into the office at 8am, and introduced me to some of the other staff. Everyone seemed very friendly and the day began with coffee – which took me back years to working in large animal practice in Scotland. The surroundings were much brighter and more modern though, which will be important in winter. As well as the friendly critter at the top of the page, the office has a massage chair, attractive pictures of local scenes and on that Wednesday, in honour of my beginning, there was a large chocolate cake!
There is always a lot to remember when you start a new job and this one was no exception. I was soon knee deep in complicated Norwegian words about how national and local government works, but Hilde had put together a very comprehensive introductory programme to work through, which was reassuring.
The start of day two was marginally embarrassing. I had been given an electronic key fob thing to get in the door… and I had forgotten it. One of my new colleagues let me in with a smile and it was quickly pushed aside. More complicated Norwegian and a lesson in how to book one of the office cars followed and I made up my mind that on day three, all would go to plan and nothing would go wrong.
I had decided to walk in on the third day. One of my aims is to get out and about more and it seemed like a good way to start the morning. I set out at seven to walk down and arrived about half an hour later, feeling pleased with myself. I had remembered everything today – the little electronic fob was in my pocket and the sun was almost shining.
It was dark inside when I opened the office door. I was slightly surprised as I hadn’t expected to be the first there quite so soon. Still, I remembered that Hilde had explained that I shouldn’t turn on the main lights if I arrived first as some of my colleagues liked to have a nice peaceful start to the day. I knew there was an alarm system, but it hadn’t gone off, so I assumed there was someone around. I took a step further into the building and realised my mistake as the bleep, bleep of the alarm system kicked in.
Despite not knowing the code, I still felt very calm. Hilde had sent me a message about getting in the day before I started work, so I put my coat and bag down on the floor, pulled my phone out of my pocket and scrolled quickly up. But though there was a message about getting in, it was about accessing the computer system, not the door.
My heart was beating a little faster now, but I reminded myself it could all be sorted out. All I had to do was call Hilde, but the bleeping was accelerating and within moments, it was wailing loudly enough to deter even the most determined of thieves.
Though I couldn’t remember any code, one thing I did remember was Hilde telling me that if there was an accident with the alarm, there was a phone number on the keypad and in order to stop any further action (I presume it may be linked to the police, or some kind of security firm) I had to speak to someone. Taking a deep breath, I typed the number into my phone. I could call Hilde afterwards, I thought. Better that than having someone rush out and then charging a fee. I put the phone to my ear and could hear nothing due to the screech of the alarm. I would just step outside the door, I thought. Then I could have a conversation. I could remember what I had to say. I could sort all this out and still be sitting at my desk by the time Hilde came.
To my relief, the call was answered quickly and I explained what had happened. The noisy alarm went off and with a sigh of relief, I ended the call and returned to the door… which of course had locked itself behind me. I reached into my pocket… only to realise that I had put down my jacket and bag and everything I was holding on the floor. The little electronic fob was now inside the building and I wasn’t.
Walking back out into the open air, I leaned against the wall and pulled out my phone. There was nothing left to do but wait.
So much for good first impressions! Only day three, and so far, I hadn’t managed to get into the building without assistance. Fortunately Hilde arrived first, and if she thought I was an idiot, she didn’t let on.
And despite all that, my new job shows every sign of being every bit as interesting as I hoped when I first read the advertisement. One of the tasks in my comprehensive introductory programme was to look through my colleague’s calendars, see what they are doing, and perhaps ask if I can go along with them to find out more about what they do. The most interesting item I found was tantalisingly entitled Status Bjørn, so I decided I would ask about it next time we had coffee.
Despite the interesting title, I was half expecting Status Bjørn might be a boring exercise, or similar, but I listened in amazement as Hilde explained that there was a bear in the region, which unfortunately has got a taste for eating the local sheep. Moreover, she is a mother bear with two large cubs. Shooting her is not an option and so the only possibility is to sedate both her and her young and move them to another area where there aren’t any farms for her to raid. This is, however, a very complicated exercise, and one that Mattilsynet, in the shape of Hilde and Thomas (another colleague) are involved in to ensure animal welfare is prioritised.
So there you go. It’s only my opinion I know, but I don’t think veterinary work gets much more exciting than that. Next week I will be doing some work in the slaughterhouse, which is less romantic, but equally essential. Making sure an animal is treated well is just as important at the end of its life as it is at the beginning. And so here I am, aged 51… and on the cusp of what is looking like an interesting and challenging new career.
Wish me luck!
*I thought I should add in sunrise/sunset times and day length at the start of each post. It’s already changing fast and I want to give a sense of that.
We arrived at our new apartment late last Saturday. Arriving without Kiwi was a sad blow, but we set to and unpacked first the car and then began on the boxes, which had arrived several days earlier. We hadn’t seen the flat before. Due to coronavirus and lack of time, we had only seen pictures and a film that Jørn Inge and Ann Helen (our new landlords) had made for us. It turned out to be everything we hoped for and more. This is a picture taken from the back garden – a view we can see from the dining table and the sofa.
Of course, as we’re in Norway, we couldn’t do any shopping on Sunday. There are strict laws here about Sunday opening. John had suggested that we should make life as easy as possible by having washing baskets in everyone’s room (does anyone else have a sock monster that unpairs all their socks and eats half of them?) and of course, as Susie was now alone, we had to think about a new companion for her.
We managed to find a television on Finn. Finn is the go-to website in Norway. Finn literally means find, and you can find almost anything there from jobs to houses, travel tickets to stuffed animals, and even a date, if you feel that way inclined. We drove out to the house of the people who were selling the television and noticed again, as we drove, that there was still quite a lot of snow on the mountainside on the shaded side of the valley. In spite of the summer greenery, the thought leapt into my head that winter never really goes away here. Instead it temporarily retreats into the mountains with the summer sun.
Sunday passed and Monday came round and all the shops were open again. With thoughts of a new guinea pig, we careered round the necessary tasks with a happy end goal in mind. Though I am reluctant to buy pets from a pet shop, there had been an absolute dearth of local guinea pigs on Finn, and so we had decided to buy a baby.
We were aware that it might be hard to find things in Finnsnes. The population is under 5000 – though it is quite spread out. What hadn’t entered our heads was that the rather lovely pet shop would have quite so few animals. There were fish in aquariums, but the small furries section seemed to be filled exclusively with dwarf rats. When we asked after guinea pigs, we were told it was likely they might not have a female guinea pig for a long time.
We retreated home, feeling a little bruised. We had been looking forward to choosing a new friend for Susie, but what now? I rechecked Finn. There were no guinea pigs in the area. Not for hundreds of miles. In desperation, we searched for pet shops a little further afield. Tromsø is a little over two hours away. I didn’t particularly want to start driving again, but Susie seemed sad, so finding her a new friend was a priority.
The pet shop in Tromsø looked good online, but with our recent experience high in my thoughts, I decided to call the shop before we drove all that way. I was glad I did. They had three female guinea pigs… and two of them were already reserved. Feeling breathless, I put a reservation on the last female guinea pig in Tromsø and then headed off to walk Triar.
And so, on Tuesday, we drove to Tromsø and brought home a new addition to our family. This gorgeous little critter is Brownie and she’s a real livewire.
My younger son, Andrew, arrived on Wednesday. He’ll be going to school here in Finnsnes, but that doesn’t start until next week. I began work on the same day and so far, everything bodes well, but more on that in my next post. For now, I will leave you with some pictures from the Polar Park, which as well as being the home of the Worcester Red Socks (as I discovered when I did an online search) is the world’s most northern animal park. Well worth a visit!
Lofoten is a wonderful place to visit. We had a pleasant day exploring, and even managed to fit in a trip on a replica Viking ship. Lofotr museum was fun. As well as sailing around the lake, we tried archery and axe throwing. We didn’t sample the lapskaus cooking in the cauldron outside, but it was interesting to see inside the reconstruction of a Viking chieftain’s longhouse.
The ship we sailed in was a replica of the Gokstad ship that is in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. She went surprisingly well. I was interested to see that unlike the yachts I have sailed in before, which had a boom that swung across, the sheet hung before the mast, forward on one side and further back on the other. When we went about, it was pulled forward on on the other side. She had ballast under the boards – lots of rocks to keep her stable. The guide explained that if she capsized, the rocks fell out and the boat didn’t sink. Not much of a problem when the ballast was stone, less good on the voyage home after a raid on Scotland, when the rocks had been replaced with whisky.
Having looked at the weather forecast, we knew the grey skies were to clear in the afternoon, and so we drove down to Å, at the southernmost tip of the island. There were mountains and lakes, fjords and islands, but for now, I will let the pictures speak for themselves.
And now our journey to the north was almost over, but our new life is just beginning.
Does clearing and cleaning a house ever go fully to plan? It never has for me, and this time was no exception. Having loaded most of our worldly goods into the moving van the day before, we realised that we had wildly overestimated how many things we could fit in the car alongside a large dog cage and a guinea pig hutch. Not only that, but in a moment of wide-eyed horror, we discovered we had forgotten to empty the tumble drier. Inventive as ever, John piled the clothes into boxes, and the guinea pigs ended up on a pedestal. Unbowed and undeterred by the lateness of the hour, we set out at seven o’clock on Friday evening and drove to Flekkefjord.
We had stayed there back in February, with no idea that the world was about to be turned upside down. I also had no idea then that almost six months later we would use our knowledge of all the local back roads to find a place to camp.
Despite the long hours of daylight, it was well and truly dark before we began to set up our tents. Feeling our way around in the light of the car headlamps, we bent our tempers and several tent pegs, but finally everything was complete.
The green tent in the front housed me, my son John, and Triar the dog. He slept remarkably well. The blue tent housed… the guinea pigs, Kiwi and Susie. Clearly we were intent on camping decadence (although John’s allergy to hay might have played a small part in the decision). Washing hanging in the background gives a homely feel… but reflects the disorganisation that occurred when I put the washing machine onto a short cycle after work… quite forgetting the (still accidentally full) tumble drier took four hours and seven minutes that we didn’t actually have.
Before going to sleep, I went outside. Looking up through summer trees, the sky was bright with stars. A soft breeze cooled my skin. Somewhere in the distance, the gentle clank of a sheep bell sounded. Retiring into the tent, I lay down and felt Triar slip into place beside my feet.
Day two began well, with a walk in the sunshine. We realised though, as we repacked, that the complex jigsaw we had created the night before, slotting a guinea pig cage on top of boxes, would rapidly become untenable. Rolling down the back windows and dropping things in as they were raised was not a great long-term solution. We drove on to Kristiansand, looking out for a pet shop.
Spotting one, we parked in the shade and took Triar out of the car. We needed someone to charm the staff, and he seemed the most likely. We bought a new, smaller travelling cage for Kiwi and Susie, and with Triar’s inspirational waggyness, managed to persuade the staff to dispose of the old one.
It was something of a relief to find that Kiwi and Susie seemed perfectly happy in their new cage, as well as in the car. Indeed I can recommend a cavy road trip. Sitting at head height behind us has finally convinced them that we are mostly harmless.
I don’t have many photos of the early days of the trip. We made it as far as Oslo on Saturday, and found a place at a campsite. Although the lack of bedrocks was an advantage, there were far too many people around for my liking, not to mention a plague… of mosquitos. Eaten, but not discouraged, we drove on the next day to Trondheim, stopping only for some pastries, and then later to look at Ringebu Stave Church.
Unfortunately on Sunday evening, the fine weather began to break up. Clear skies were replaced with ominous clouds. Abandoning the tents seemed a good idea, but as we were turned down by potential rental hosts, one after the other, we began to despair of finding a roof over our heads to shelter from the impending storm.
We were rescued by a local schoolteacher. Sending us his phone number in a clandestine code (private lettings being forbidden by the website we were using) he offered us the use of his family hytte. Lots of Norwegians very sensibly have a weekend retreat situated less than an hour from home. We were a little nervous as we followed his car up the longest unmade track in the universe… after all, who knew if he was actually an axe-murderer? Scandinavian horror films must surely be based on something or other…
We needn’t have worried. He took us to the most wonderful cabin, complete with a turf roof, candles and a wood stove.
There was running water and electricity too… not always guaranteed. The composting toilet in the little shed out the back only added a little aromatice piquancy to the situation… but at least it was painted a very calming blue.
And Triar very much enjoyed the garden, even though it was still very wet by the next morning.
Though we were reluctant to leave, we dragged ourselves away this morning and turned back onto the E6 northwards. The southern farmlands gave way to tall pine trees. We spent the day driving through a forest that spread in every direction as far as they eye could see. The mountains grew higher too, wild and rocky as we drove up to Mo i Rana, where we are staying tonight in another rented house.
I’m not sure when I will be able to write again. I had hoped to update a little more often, but this evening is the first time I have had the magic combination of simultaneous electricity and internet.
It’s been a wonderful trip so far, and as we go further north, and the motorways near Oslo become a distant memory, we plan to take our time a bit more. After all, I don’t start work for a week… and there’s so much more to see. It all depends on the weather.
Tomorrow morning, we will reach the Arctic Circle. It’s all very exciting! But for now I have to go to bed.
“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 government veterinary service 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.
I had expected a phone call or e-mail from the person who had interviewed me. Instead, a contract arrived. No explanation: 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.
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.
Things have changed since I last posted. So much so that this is the first time I have been able to sit down and record it. On the calendar downstairs, back on the 24th March, written in pink felt-tip pen, is the name of my nearest veterinary clinic. To distract my mind from my echoing e-mail box, I had wandered in off the street and asked (in my best Norwegian) whether I could come in and “see practice”, just for a week or two. The smiling receptionist, looking bemused promised to get the boss to call me, and I left, feeling, to be honest, like a bit of a tit. After all, I could have made that contact over the phone couldn’t I? Still, later that day, I received the call, and at 9a.m. on Monday morning, I presented myself.
I confess that the first question confused me somewhat. Peering into a cupboard filled with uniforms, Kari Anna (practice nurse) asked me whether I was a small or a medium. How to reply? I was obviously neither. Promising me that the medium was VERY stretchy round the waist (yes but what about the bum?) she handed over the medium overalls and commanded me to change. Shovelling me into a pair of green clogs (more on those later) she started to show me things on the computer. Obviously it was all written in Greek… or maybe Latin. Actually I might have understood those bits, but the rest was a mystery. Being me, I set out to solve it, and armed with a trusty pen and a post-it note, I gradually began over the course of a fortnight to decipher the runes.
I also made some new friends. So much for the much-fabled Norwegian stand-offishness; we spent the next two weeks laughing. And on the Thursday of the second week, I was offered a job. Dagny, the scary boss lady said I should talk to my husband… who of course said “What are you waiting for. Get signed up immediately!” So I did, setting out to work two days a week. The past fortnight has been a whirlwind of bank accounts and tax office visits ( yup, I didn’t have the former and have never paid the latter here) and getting the paperwork together to try to get myself authorised to carry out veterinary work in Norway. Currently I’m working as an assistant, which suits me down to the ground as I am helping out without having to consult (without knowing all those crucial anatomical words) and in the meantime, I am gradually picking up more Norwegian, though there is the terrible temptation to revert to English, especially as some of the clients immediately start to chat to me when they find out where I am from.
It’s a wonderful feeling, picking up the reins of something I used to be good at. Some things come back so quickly. Others are filled with fog. I suspect that when it comes to real knowledge, I have always been very reliant on books, and for the moment, I don’t have the right ones to hand. The BSAVA Manual of Emergency and Critical Care was my constant companion for all the years working in the emergency clinics. It’s at the top of my shopping list as even though there aren’t so many emergency cases during the day, I seem to recall it had a lot of fantastic tips on how to work cases up in the first instance. I’m slowly regaining knowledge, refilling the blanks, remembering the things I was never good at (I can take a mean x-ray, but I have never been on a course to learn to use ultrasound). I am learning new things as well. Who knew that it was illegal to castrate a dog or spay a bitch in Norway without good clinical reason? Apparently they have to be allowed freedom to explore their wild-side, though how that works when using drugs to prevent ovulation I have no idea. Bang goes the idea of opening a spay clinic in my nearest city!
This week started badly. I tried to anaesthetise a dog without having the machine fully switched on. Never a good idea. Worse still, it transpired that the green clogs actually belonged to the boss lady. Well I always did like to walk in shoes that were hard to fill. I’ve bought my own now. And Dagny has not yet used the whip on me that I took in for Irene (fabulous receptionist) to use on Jan-Arne (crazy vet).
Been out walking (the picture at the top is taken from south of our village, looking up the coast) and skiing, both downhill and cross-country. I would like to say that I didn’t fall over once, but sadly I can’t. Still things are looking up on all fronts. There might even be some movement on the book, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself so I’ll leave that for next time.