Tag Archives: Norway

A Jacuzzi with a View

Sunrise/sunset: 02:57/22:36. Daylength: 19h39min

This week marked the official change in Norway from the old Animal Health Law to a new version. The changes stem from changes in the EU’s legal requirements. Norway isn’t in the EU, but we do follow their rules and these particular rules are mostly based around the protection from, and prevention of, infectious diseases in the animal population. The regulations cover everything from wild boar to fish, and even extends to bees.

My own special interest this week was goats. Mattilsynet have designated hobby goats as a particular point of interest this year, following an outbreak of sheep scab (caused by mites) in small herds of pet goats. Movement of pet animals tends to be much less well controlled than with larger, commercial herds, where professional farmers are generally more aware of the law. We had an animal health and welfare team meeting planned for Thursday and Friday at Malangen. The intention was to carry out inspections on traceability and TSE (Scrapie) on the way to the conference centre, have a lunch to lunch meeting, then do more visits on the way home.

Thomas and I were to do these inspections together and Thomas was busy, so on Monday I set to with planning. I started by printing out information sheets about the symptoms of Scrapie and the legal requirements goat owners had to follow if their animals died unexpectedly. There’s a whole lot of official paperwork involved in any visit. It was only when I was halfway through this project, with seven TSE inspection kits underway, when I realised that the law changes had not been updated in MATS, the computer system we use for recording such inspections.

I rang Line, who was arranging the team meeting, and asked her whether there were any contingency plans in place, to which she replied there weren’t. She asked if I had time to look at it, which fortunately I did. So then, my task for the week was to try and work out how to manage the situation, and then explain it all to the rest of the team, so they could do some inspections on the way home, even if they hadn’t been able to do any on the way there.

And so, I spent the early part of the week tracking down the wandering regulations. Norway has tended to be ahead of EU law anyway, in terms of keeping out infectious diseases and in biosecurity on farms, and what I found was that most of the law remained exactly the same, but was now in a different order.

Whenever we carry out an inspection, we have to relate it to one law or another: we can’t just go out and give our opinion on whether things are being done right. If the animal owners are complying with the law, then we don’t give much detail on which laws we checked in the reports we send. If we do observe something illegal, we have to quote the section of law which covers it, explain what it was that we saw that we consider breaks the law, and lay out what the animal owner has to remedy. In some instances that’s quite straightforward. If the law says that all goats have to have ear tags by the time they are a week old, and there are adult goats without ear tags, then the solution isn’t difficult. But the finer details of those laws are currently covered by the Animal Health Law and all its supporting regulations, and now I was unable to use those laws because the system was out of date.

Assuming there must be a back-up plan, I fired off an e-mail to our local advisor on such topics and then carried on setting up the packs I had begun. I was hoping that someone else had started to put something together and I could be pointed in the right direction. If I dived in blind, it seemed likely that I would end up duplicating work someone else had already carried out. I got a reply back quite quickly, pointing me not to the specific situation I was dealing with, but on some more general considerations about what to do if you found something that broke the law while the new law was not yet in the system.

The general instruction was, that in the absence of specific Animal Health Laws, we should use Matloven – the Food Act. This is a more reasonable suggestion than it might appear on first sight. Much of our law around animal health is governed by the fact that many animals end up in the food chain: in order to produce safe food, you need to deliver healthy animals.

The downside was that compared with the animal health law, the Food Act is very non-specific in terms of animal health. I spent a lot of time reading through, and though it gave overarching instructions, it was low on detail. I was still tempted to go ahead with the inspections. After all, it wouldn’t really matter too much… but then I realised I was assuming that all the visits would go well. If we discovered a significant problem, we would find ourselves trying to to bend a law designed to safeguard the consumer by ensuring the traceability of a pack of hot dogs to the specifics regarding the ages of animals when their ear tags should be in place.

Further complications were brought to my attention when it was pointed out that, to be covered by the Food Act, the animal owners had to be from registered premises where they were sending their produce into the food chain. That doesn’t cover people who are keeping their goats as pets! And so, after three days trying to find ways and means, I concluded that the health of the hobby goats of mid-Troms would be better left uninspected until our systems are updated.

I was of course, slightly concerned. Line had confidently written in the meeting plan that I was going to update everyone on the checking, and now my update was that there was to be none, at least for now. I needn’t have worried. As I am gradually realising, the one constant when working for Mattilsynet is that any plan you make is likely to change from one moment to the next. In a minor twist, I had discovered that though Norway’s law had changed, Svalbard’s has not. My suggestion in the meeting, that we should simply relocate to Svalbard and do all our routine testing there was greeted with smiles. Our region is, after all, Troms AND Svalbard. Unfortunately, nobody seemed to know if there are any hobby goats on Svalbard. Moreover, we had the sauna and jacuzzi at Malangen booked for Thursday evening. So, with everything considered, we reluctantly concluded we would just have to do the inspections later.

Malangen Resort was lovely. Now that the Covid restrictions are lifted and we are able to meet in person again, I am discovering that there’s a definite advantage in working in a location where there are so few of us covering such a large area. In smaller regions, everyone would drive to a central office and meet there. Here, because of the distances involved, we tend to meet in conference centres or hotels, and some of them are in stunning locations.

So this was my hotel room overnight, and the view outside. Just wonderful, although in true Norwegian style, there was no decaffeinated coffee or milk with the beautifully arranged coffee cups.

Of course, I could have asked for milk, but I was too busy enjoying myself in the jacuzzi and sauna. Thanks to Line for arranging it all. I should say, we paid for those ourselves – my job is stressful, but even in Norway, there are limits!

There may not have been milk for the coffee in the bedroom, but the food was modern, with a definite flavour of Norway. Reindeer stew, reindeer carpaccio, cod and mushy peas, and lemon cake.

Much as I loved the hotel and the views and the jacuzzi, the best thing about the lifting of the Covid restrictions is getting to meet people again. Always difficult to say at what point colleagues become friends, but even with the wonderful surroundings, the best part for me was the conversation and companionship. In a tough job, those things are beyond price.

Birgit and me, enjoying the water and the view

Winter Whites

Sunrise/sunset: Down all day.

It’s snowing again today. Perhaps later I will feel like going out, but for now it seems like a good time to huddle indoors and wait for the return of the sun. In theory, it should reappear over the horizon five days from now, but I know it will take a little longer to reveal itself because of the mountains that surround us.

My difficult case is still ongoing, and now a bewildering array of other people are being brought in, some to assist with the investigation, others for the purposes of troubleshooting. I am tired, but very grateful to Hilde, Birgit and Line who have been giving unsurpassed support throughout, as have the rest of the team.

I worked a couple of days at the abattoir this week, which gave me a couple of days of calm, though getting up at four in the morning to check whether it has snowed overnight (it had, both nights) doesn’t tend to result in peaceful, unbroken sleep. Rather, I wake often, worried that I have missed the alarm, or perhaps forgotten to set it. It takes twenty minutes or so to clear the car and the driveway, a little over five minutes to drive to the office, another five to ten to defrost and clear the Mattilsynet car, then round forty to forty five minutes to drive over, depending on the driving conditions.

There is some pressure, because the abattoir cannot legally start working until a vet has checked the live animals. If they notice I’m not there by six (when I officially start the check) then call me at that point, it would take me a minimum of an hour to get there if I was still sleeping. I do, however, get to drive home before it gets dark at two in the afternoon.

On Tuesday afternoon I also took a detour to Rossfjordstraumen on my way home, to carry out meat inspection on a moose that had been hit by a car. It was an unusual way to spend my birthday, but it’s a beautiful drive in the snow.

On Monday, all being well, I will be meeting Team Dyrego (the animal health and welfare team) at Nordkjosbotn. Definitely something to look forward to. I have at least two reports to write, information to send to various different people, and another case lurking in my inbox. Still veterinary work is always like that. Some days, there’s very little to do, others can be overwhelming. It’s easier to cope psychologically than it was when I was young, but my body isn’t as reliable as it once was. Swings and roundabouts.

I will leave you with a few more images from my life. I long for a garage, and if my car had a mind, I’m sure it would too. The boot has so much ice and snow stuck to it that it is getting heavy to lift when I’m opening it. John very kindly chipped away the ice that was covering the sensors that warn me that I’m about to reverse or drive into something. This was a great relief as before that, there was a siren going off inside the car every time I reversed out of the drive.

Icicles on my car bumper

Though the weather is cold, the water in the sound remains warmer, due to the gulf stream. This means that it tends to stay warmer here than inland, but also means that sometimes fog rises up from the water. This can be very beautiful.

Night fog rising up from Gisundet around Senja bridge

Sometimes I can watch as the snow clouds head towards us from the northwest.

Blue-grey storm clouds over Gisundet

And the last one is John, whose beard has turned prematurely grey after a skating session! Have a good week everyone!

John with an icy beard

Mørketid

Sunrise/sunset: Down all day.

So here I am in my second Polar Night. Mørketid is the Norwegian name, which I love. A direct translation would be Darkness Time and the word “mørke” must have a common ancestry with the English word “murky” which seems appropriate. Not that it’s dark all day, of course. You can start to see twilight by half past eight in the morning, but by two in the afternoon, the light is fading again. In between, if it isn’t cloudy, there is this wonderful clear blue light that makes for very unusual photographs.

Icy road on the way home from Storslett

Coronavirus seems to be closing in again, with omicron making appearances all over Europe. Norway seems to be sticking to the plan of keeping everything as open as possible for those inside the country, though the rules for entry have been strengthened again. Our Mattilsynet Troms og Svalbard departmental gathering was this week on Thursday and Friday, and I was delighted when it went ahead. I guess when I say “department” most people might be thinking of a traditional business department, probably made up of lots of people who use the same building, but our “department” is diverse, and also very spread out.

We cover the whole of Troms and Svalbard, although there are no permanent staff on Svalbard. Troms is a county that is round twenty percent larger than Wales (a bit bigger than New Jersey for anyone checking in from the US, or Nova Scotia if you’re in Canada). We cover everything from animal welfare to drinking water, from three separate offices in Finnsnes, Tromsø and Storslett and this year’s gathering was in Storslett, which is the furthest north.

There was some discussion a couple of weeks ago about cars. We have three lease-hire cars available, and Øivind and Ronny quickly signed up two of them. Marit, who works with fish health and welfare then signed up the third, with another colleague, Eva, and designated it the “kvinnebil” or women’s car. So that was the one I signed up for, and despite Thomas’ suggestion that he too should travel in the kvinnebil, Eva, Marit and I drove up together. It was lovely getting to know them better.

Marit and Eva on the journey home

I’m not all that fond of meetings, and meetings in Norwegian are even more of a challenge, especially when those from the upper echelons begin to introduce buzzwords, like “sustainability” (bærekraft). But one thing Norwegians do very well is social events, and this meeting was no exception. We had received a cryptic message a few days earlier, telling us to bring warm clothes for sitting outside: clothes that, in addition, could stand some wood smoke. Though this sounded appealing to me, I was slightly concerned. Such an instruction could mean anything from sitting round a campfire roasting hot dogs to a five kilometre hike in the snow. I could handle either of those things, but they do require slightly different outfits.

In the event, it was a five minute walk along the road to a Sami lavvo (a wigwam type tent) where there was locally produced gløg, along with traditional dried meats, cheeses and flatbread, all served in candle-light around a huge wood fire. I’m not sure how local the grapes and olives are, but it was really very tasty indeed.

I’ve already included a couple of pictures of the return journey. Marit drove, so I was able to take a few photographs along the way, before the darkness descended again.

We took a short detour onto the Spåkenes Peninsula, where we found a very chilly bench as well as some glass igloos with an amazing view, which you can stay in overnight. Obviously I immediately added doing so onto my “to do” list.

There will be another advent update tomorrow, with more pictures from the trip, so goodbye for now. I hope you all have a lovely weekend.

Concerning Welfare

Sunrise/sunset: 09:01/ 16:00. Daylength: 6hr58min

Back in June I wrote a post about complaints from animal rights organisations about Mattilsynet: Trouble in Paradise. Last weekend on my Facebook feed, I found a post from a colleague with a link to a new article from NRK, Norway’s public services broadcaster. It contained the stories of whistleblowers from within Mattilsynet regarding the distress its inspectors are feeling about their inability protect the welfare of the animals they are supposed to oversee.

Link to article in Norwegian: We have to close our eyes to suffering animals. *See note below for translation tips

One of the things I have noticed in my job is that almost every other week, changes are introduced to policies and protocols. There’s a lot to learn in any role and a year in, I feel I’m still picking things up, which would be enough already without the feeling that anything I learn might shift again next week. Then there’s the “paperwork”. Most of it is digitalised now, but there is a whole load of report writing, which often takes up far more time than the actual visit.

I am catching up gradually with some of the politics, and it seems that the current concentration on bureaucracy relates to criticism from the official Norwegian Auditor General in 2019 regarding the poor quality of case processing. It was stated that Mattilsynet lacked good tools and systems to deal with the animal welfare supervision it had to carry out, and that the result was that serious breaches of the animal welfare laws were not being followed up. It also said that Mattilsynet employees were not using the tools they had to penalise those who broke the law, and that it took too long for those who didn’t take proper care of their animals to be banned.

There’s a certain irony to what is happening now as a result of these accusations. I haven’t been here long, but one of the major constraints is the computer system we have to work with when processing cases. We use a system called MATS. I don’t know how old it is, but it is so complicated to use that it slows everything down. It sets out protocols and you have to work through the elements in order and tick off certain actions before you can proceed to the next. So if I receive a message from the public regarding a concern about animal welfare, it comes to me in MATS. I have to process that message and work through various stages on a list, and then at some point I will come to the end of that segment and have to move onto the next.

Once you click through to the new section, you can’t go back and change anything in the previous section if you’ve made an error. Thomas always tells me I have to be very careful before I click onwards, and I often check with him. But as I am trying to stand on my own feet a bit more, there have been cases where I have got as far as writing a report or a response to an animal owner who has asked for permission for something, and then had to go right back to the beginning as I realised I had linked the case to the animal owner’s personal file, and not to their business, or some other easily made system error that cannot be rectified.

MATS is also clunky in other ways. Almost nothing is automatic. Before we leave the farm or home, following an inspection, we have to write a “receipt” with a summary of what we have checked and what our assessments were. This used to be on paper, but now most of them are sent electronically. So we type our observations into an app. This would be very useful if there was an integrated system. If the observations we recorded in the receipt were transmitted automatically into MATS, and then perhaps used in the report, then it would be truly useful. As it is, we have to open MATS and the receipt and copy and paste all the information from one to the other.

The report itself has to comply with strict parameters in how it is set out and before I can send it to the owner, I have to run it past a colleague, and then afterwards past a control team, all the time making amendments, and then often sending it back and forth multiple times until everyone is satisfied.

Instead of rebuilding the system, they are adding things like the receipt system (and another system that allows us to add photo evidence) before the problem of MATS has been addressed. It seems to me, that they are trying to tweak something that is so fundamentally flawed that they are actually making the situation worse instead of better.

Of course all of this really comes back down to funding and monitoring. The argument is that they can’t afford a new system, though not affording it is probably costing millions. I have watched similar events in the public sector in the UK. The health service and school systems have both wandered into this territory where funding is reduced, then criticisms are made, and rather than improving the situation, new systems for monitoring are introduced, which increase the workload in ways that do nothing to correct the problems, but increase the cost of the operation. That the Norwegian government is paying veterinary surgeons to copy-paste long lists of observations and check and recheck whether the reports we write comply exactly with a template, which could presumably be automatically applied if the will and funding was there, seems brainless to me.

In addition, there are certain routine visits we carry out, for example those to check the farmers are following the rules with regard to ear-marks, disease control and traceability. Common sense would suggest that if no breaches of the rules are discovered, the feedback report could be generated automatically. Not only would that save direct work for the vet who did the inspection, but it would sidestep all the report-checks for compliance and would ensure their other aim – that everyone is dealt with the same way, wherever they are in Norway – was met without any effort whatsoever. Reducing the time it takes to process cases would free up time so that we could carry out more inspections. It seems like the system is set up in a way that prevents us from doing the most fundamental part of the job, which should be getting out and checking whether the animals are okay.

Anyway, I’m not going to comment any more on this for now. Our area is actually better off than those in the report, for which I am grateful. The report mentions an area where the inspectors have been told they can’t take on any more cases until the old ones are cleared up and we haven’t reached that stage. Thomas often tells me of his frustration that we are firefighting cases, rather than preventing problems before they start. Because I’ve only been here a short time, I can’t compare it with how things used to be, but he feels things have become more difficult. I am also aware of how much Thomas takes on, in comparison with what I can do at the moment. Though I help as much as I can, I know he is taking responsibility for the worst problems, as I work to follow what he’s doing and ensure the case timelines are kept in order. I am learning a lot about how cases should be handled, but even writing up the timelines shows me how frustrating the system is. There has been a change in government in Norway and the new government is more left-leaning, so I can only hope that some of the budget cuts, that have been happening forever, start to be reversed.

*****

Though the snow has gone for now, it was beautiful while it lasted. Triar and I followed the same trail last Saturday as we had the week before. There were amazing views as I reached the higher ground and I went a little further than last time, though I think I was still only about halfway along the trail to the peak. I need to find someone to go with me before attempting the whole walk.

Looking back at the snowy trail up to Kistefjellet

And on Tuesday evening, there was a snowstorm. Though it was windy, the temperature was around zero. When it’s really cold, the snow is powdery, and when the wind blows, it doesn’t stick to anything. But this snow stuck to everything. I went down into the town centre to get something, and had to stop to take photographs of the trees as they were so beautiful against the overcast sky and the streetlights.

I am looking forward to winter now. Though snow can be inconvenient, I still feel a childlike excitement when I wake up to find the world has turned white. And in a month, the polar night will be here. I hope you will follow and share it with me.

*If you want to read a Norwegian article in English (or any other language) you can paste the URL into Google Translate (set the languages at the top). A link will appear in the “Translation” side. If you click on the link, it should take you to a translated version of the article.

Hazy

Sunrise/sunset: Up all day.

We’re into July now. Time seems to be passing almost too quickly. In a couple of weeks, the twenty-four hour daylight will be past. In August, I will have been here a full year. I only have one week of holiday booked this summer. Norwegian holiday laws are odd. For some reason, you are paid holiday pay in arrears, the year after you took the holiday. As I only worked from August last year, I’m only entitled to ten days of paid holiday this year. Last year, my only holiday was the ten days I spent driving up here, so it feels like a very long time since I’ve had a break. Anyway, given the continuing COVID restrictions, I thought it would be appropriate to use my week in August to travel up to Nordkapp, right up at the top of Norway. I will then have driven the full length of the country.

I had my COVID vaccination this week on Wednesday. Though Norway is a little behind the UK, everything seems to be moving along now. John had his on Thursday and Anna will have hers when she returns from Rogaland. I’m not sure what is happening with under 18s yet. I hope that Andrew will receive his in due course. The UK seems to be about to head into crazy territory. Allowing the virus to run rampant through the young people, knowing how easy it is for the virus to mutate, seems like a very strange pathway to choose, given that there’s a viable option to vaccinate.

I don’t have much else to report. I saw some moose on the drive to work and yesterday came across a gorgeous reindeer wandering about on Senja, but as usual, photographing wild animals proved more difficult than taking pictures of the scenery!

In the depths of the polar night, the light was bluish and very clear. Now in the height of summer, there’s a haze hanging in the air that lends the distant mountains a sense of magical unreality. And then there are the flowers. They are everywhere. I’ve taken a few photos as usual. Hope you enjoy them.

Dyrøya from Senja.
The mountains of Senja from my back garden.

17th May


17th May is Norway’s national day. On this day in 1814, the Constitution of Norway was signed at Eidsvoll in Viken County. All round the country, and indeed round the world, Norwegians celebrate.

Outside of coronavirus times, the children march through town centres and teenagers in their last year at school don special «Russ» costumes of varying colours. After a month of pranks and dares, both inside and outside of school, they join the parades for their special day. There are various Russ outfits, the most common being dungarees with a Norwegian flag inside the front panel. The straps and flag are often left hanging and the trousers are decorated with slogans and pictures, as you can see with the green-dressed clarinet player standing at the front of the band. Red Russ is the most common, but some wear green, some blue, black or white, often depending on what course of study they are following.

Brass bands are very popular, and as well as the above band playing in the square, there was a marching band which came along the main street before the motor parade. The marching band includes school children who are provided with instruments and lessons after school in return for playing during celebrations.

Russ celebrations have been muted this year and other than the band, the children didn’t march here, but there was a parade of vehicles through the town centre. The emergency services turned out, as did many members of other industries. Ambulances, red cross, farmers and firemen drove through the streets along with motorcyclists and car enthusiasts.

And everywhere, the smart red, blue and white of the Norwegian flag.

Usually there’s a gathering afterwards, perhaps in a community hall, but this year we went home for our hotdogs.

And to top it off, a kransekake.

Happy 17th May everyone!

Mixed

Sunrise/sunset: 02:50/ 22:44. Daylength: 19hr 54mins

Last week, I sent the manuscript of a new book I’ve written to a friend. It’s always a nerve wracking moment, showing something you’ve created to another person. Lara is very well read and I was optimistic that if there was any storyline or character that was completely off key, she would tell me.

It’s been a tough project. I started it a couple of years ago in a lull between the last two Hope Meadows books. It’s about a veterinary practice in Scotland: partly wish fulfilment, I think, but also an exploration the life of older women. In this modern world, where women are supposedly able to have everything, they often end up juggling job and family and find themselves trapped in situations rooted in decisions made years ago when their children were young. I was aiming for a cross between James Herriot and Sally Wainwright (the scriptwriter behind the TV series Last Tango in Halifax and Happy Valley) and I hope I’ve achieved it.

To my intense joy (and relief) Lara loved it. Practically minded and knowledgeable, she also pointed out one or two technical points about veterinary practice and rules and regulations. Once I’ve ironed those out, I will be faced with the search for an agent.

In the UK, it’s close to impossible to get a novel published without an agent. In this age of computers, so many people write that all the major publishers have inserted a buffer between them and the great writing public. They will only look at fiction sent to them by an author’s agent, so now I have to look for one. Those who have followed my progress for a very long time might know that I was with Peter Buckman at the Ampersand agency (he put me in contact with Victoria Holmes, who led me through all six Hope Meadows books) but he admitted before we set off that Womens’ Commercial Fiction (which is what I write) wasn’t really his thing, and so at the end of Hope Meadows, we parted. He has since contacted me when he got wind of another vet project, so we remain on good terms, but what I really need is someone I can bounce ideas off, so that is what I’m going to look for.

John has been home for the weekend for the past three weeks and as it was lovely weather yesterday morning, I took the afternoon off and we went out with the dog on Senja. Serious walking is out for the moment. The deep snow on the mountains is beginning to melt. Water begins to run underneath it, and so as well as being slushy and almost impossible to walk through, there’s also a risk of avalanches. So for now, we contented ourselves with a stroll near Vangsvik. We found a lovely little harbour where the water was so clear that both John and I thought it would be a lovely place for a scuba dive. Though we have some kit in the flat, it’s so long since I’ve been that I will need to contact a club for retraining if I decide I want to jump back in.

I also stopped on the way back to take some pictures and was delighted to find the start of a hike which I had never noticed before. At four hours (probably five or six at my pace – Norwegians walk everywhere much faster than I do) and with a well marked path, it sounds perfect.

If the view at the beginning is anything to go by, the outlook from the top must be stunning. In a few weeks time, we will have 24 hour daylight, and even though I’ve woken to snow again this morning, it can’t last forever. Though spring is still trying to hide, there are definitely leaf buds on the trees now. Maybe a midnight hike will be in order. Roll on summer!

Boxes

Sunrise/sunset: 05:12/ 20:29. Daylength: 15hr 17mins

Anyone else love hotels? For me there are few things more pleasurable than travelling somewhere and checking in to a hotel with a comfortable bed with clean white sheets. Better still is waking up in the morning to a lovely breakfast someone else has cooked. I will add that if you have spent a long day working out on farms in cold weather, then stepping under a powerful shower with sweet-scented soap to wash away the chill and the farmyard smells is blissful.

The only imperfection for me, was that I had forgotten to take my book. I am trying to cut down my internet time and take up reading again. There is something about escaping into the world of a book that can never be simulated by online conversation.

Things are, of course, slightly odd at the moment. I spent Thursday night at Vollan Gjestestua (pictured above) with five colleagues from the DyreGo Team, which covers animal health and welfare. Business travel in Norway is limited at the moment, but there is a certain amount of work we have to carry out over the course of the year. The area we cover between us is too large to do it easily and then drive home afterwards. In addition, lockdown and working from home is increasingly wearing, so although we had to all sit at separate tables in the restaurant and communicate by lip reading and sign language, it was good for my mental health to see my working colleagues in the flesh and not just on a screen. Yesterday we had a similarly distanced meeting.

Birgit, Thomas and Anja. Astrid was to my left and I couldn’t fit her into the photo – socially distanced pictures are hard to take!

I read a blog entry earlier in the week by Iceland Penny. It draws attention to some of the contradictions in life, things she came across that held both good and bad/beauty and ugliness. Both/And by Iceland Penny. I was reminded of the post by a discussion in the meeting we had about technology.

I have come to Mattilsynet at a time of upheaval. Some of it is driven by the drive to use less paper and more technology, but the process has been speeded up by coronavirus. If you hand over a pen and paper for a signature, you increase the risk of infection.

When we carry out a visit, whatever the reason for it, we summarise our observations on a Tilsynskvittering. This is an outline of the visit and what was checked, split into different sections related to Norwegian law, stating whether the things we saw fulfilled the legal requirements. This receipt, until very recently, was written on paper, which you then photographed before handing it over to the owner. But since December, we have moved over to using an App.

Astrid pointed out that the new technology could be rendered useless if, for example, you were in an area with no phone signal. I would add that with the small screen on a mobile phone, it is hard to do a lot of typing. In theory you could take along your laptop and connect it to the phone, but then you are still reliant on being connected and anyway, there comes a point when you have to remember to take so many things that the entire process becomes unwieldy. “There’s a lot to be said,” she commented, “for pencil and paper.”

I guess this might be partly influenced by age. I mentioned escaping into a book upthread, and said I never managed to escape into another world online, but I know there are immersive games where my children manage to do just that. But most of the DyreGo team, like me are upwards of fifty.

While I can see that all this new technology has benefits, I also see that it’s challenging when change is brought in so fast. There was an older farmer we visited last year who had been asked to make a number of improvements and Thomas had asked him to send photos once he had done so. Having not received any, Thomas arranged a revisit, assuming the work had not been carried out. When we arrived, Thomas was delighted to find out that it had. When he asked the elderly farmer why he hadn’t sent the proof along, the farmer told us he didn’t have a phone with a camera. I think when we are so connected ourselves, sometimes it’s easy to forget that others are not.

Personally I am on the fence. There is increasing connectedness that I feel ought make us more free, but instead sometimes ties us down. In the meeting, I found myself thinking about the issue of traceability in farming and food production. When an outbreak of food-borne illness breaks out, it’s an advantage that we can find out more easily where it came from. But there is an enormous amount of work in ensuring all the information is put into the system within a very short timeframe. To me that seems like a lot of pressure on farmers who grew up in a time when most of the connections were with family, local farmers and the vet, and the only technology was your machinery and the weather forecast on the radio.

There are periods when I find myself hankering after pre-internet, pre-mobile phone times. It was way easier to go “off-grid”. Anyone else remember those announcements on the wireless (BBC Radio 4) appealing to people on holiday to get in touch as their relative was seriously ill?

I worked in large animal practice, and once you were out on your calls, there was a kind of freedom, though of course that could be inconvenient if you went all the way back and then found there was another visit in the same direction. I think there was less pressure in practice to be right all the time and to know everything. You built up knowledge through experience, through speaking to colleagues, through reading books that were probably already out of date as they had been sitting on the shelf in the practice for several years.

Nowadays, if you know where to look online, there are answers to be found and groups you can join. Anaesthetists discuss the intricacies of different protocols, breed and species differences and how to achieve perfect pain relief. There’s good and bad in that. Better specialisation, increased cost. Some things are lost as well, in this new world. A safe path can be equally well achieved with long familiarity with drugs and techniques, built up over a lifetime of experience. Sometimes I feel everything is now moving too fast.

That said, I can’t put aside the positives. I wrote six books while living in Norway with a co-author in Somerset for a company based in London. Victoria Holmes and I batted ideas across the ether in e-mails in a way that allowed thinking time without excessive delays. We couldn’t have done that over a traditional telephone line or in letters. I am also connected to friends I went to school with and teachers who would otherwise only be a pleasant memory (hello Mr Gorski!). I would never have heard from them again without it.

Even so, despite the positives, I find myself wishing that we could insert a grandfather clause into modern life. A grandfather clause, for those who don’t know, is an exemption from following new laws if doing so would be too costly or difficult. The most obvious example would be with building regulations that require new business premises to follow certain rules with regards to toilet provision, but don’t require that older buildings are brought up to the same standard.

I can’t help feeling that if staff who have worked adequately for years with a pen and paper are retiring within the next ten years or so, they could be allowed to continue without it doing a great deal of harm. It would save them a lot of grief. There is an aspiration that wherever you are in Norway and whatever your business, Mattilsynet will assess and deal with your case in the same way. I can see the value in that when it comes to assessing whether legal requirements are fulfilled.

But whether the report is sent online or on paper? When it really comes down to it, that doesn’t make a whole lot of difference, in the grand scheme of things.

Big Red Barn

Sunrise/sunset: 06:18/ 17:38. Daylength: 11hr 20mins

If you were raised in the United Kingdom, as I was, you might occasionally have found yourself wondering why all the barns in picture books and on those alphabet pictures on the wall of your classroom were painted red. Barns in the UK tend to fall into two types. Traditional farmhouses often have a yard surrounded by byres or a steading where the animals were kept before farming was industrialised. They are often constructed of brick or stone, depending on the area.

Those traditional buildings are often now used for stock which require a lot of close attention, for example calves that need to be fed twice a day, cows that are about to calve, or which have recently done so, and animals which are sick.

The newer barns, which have been built to house the main herd or flock, tend to be huge affairs, built high, with solid walls at the base to reduce draughts and open spaces or slats higher up to allow good air circulation. Red paint doesn’t feature in either the old or the new.

I had concluded, when I thought about it, that the red barn picture-book phenomenon was probably a US import. But why were so many barns painted red? They certainly look attractive, but how did the tradition begin?

When I moved to Norway, one of the very obvious differences from the UK was the way houses are built. Here, most houses are made of wood. Nowadays, they are painted many different colours, but in contrast with that, most barns are painted red. One of my neighbours in south-west Norway explained to me that traditionally houses had also been painted mostly in two different colours: red and white.

A white house was a sign of wealth. White paint was more expensive, red was cheaper, both because the paint was less expensive and also because it was less obvious if it became dirty or discoloured. Quite often, the houses of well-to-do farmers would be painted white, but the barn continued to be decorated with the cheaper red paint.

And so it seems likely that the reason barns in the United States are red is because the tradition (and the methods of making paint or stains) were taken over from Scandinavia. Presumably red barns in children’s picture books will remain that way, even if the tradition stops. They are, after all, much more distinctive and picturesque than modern barns in the UK.

Anyway, I have been meaning for a while to get photographs of some of the barns I see as I am driving around as I work and yesterday I took the afternoon off to do it. They are a very distinctive part of the landscape. Some of them are old, some look newer. Unlike most British barns, they are built on different levels and as you will see, many have a kind of bridge through which you can enter the upper levels. Building to fit the steep, mountainous landscape is definitely a feature.

I have been saddened to find that quite a number of these barns are no longer in use. I hope that they will not gradually disappear, although I confess I have seen a few which are falling down and in a state of decay, they still hold onto their romance and beauty. I didn’t get any photographs yesterday of those, but hopefully at some point, I will.

Anna was with me on my trip and she couldn’t resist taking a snap of this buried van with its tiny house and the wonderful backdrop.

And though today it is snowing again, this was the sunset behind the gathering clouds as we drove home from our trip yesterday. The mountains of Senja taken from Sørreisa.

The Log Cabin

Sunrise/sunset: 07:20/ 16:42. Daylength: 9hr 22mins

One of the things I liked about living in Scotland was the good condition of the major roads and its relatively small size. Sure, if you drove from Jedburgh to Dunnet Head, it took about six and a half hours, but living in central Scotland, as we did for a while, it was easy to explore other cities on weekend trips. When the children were young, we may have spent more time running around castles than city centres, but the point remains; it was easy to find budget hotels in all kinds of different places within a three to four hour drive.

On the first weekend we arrived in Norway, our friendly landlord invited us to his cabin. He had a beautiful house in Stavanger, but had kept his mother’s house on an island in Flekkefjord after she had died. Though Flekkefjord was no city, the idea seemed similar, if not better. This was the chance to escape to a different area, weekend life on an island with a boat and as many crabs as you could eat. We learned that it was common in Norway to have a second home. Sometimes they were inherited, but not always. It offered the chance to escape to the sea or the mountains. Not that those were particularly lacking in or near the cities I’ve visited in Norway, but the idea of travelling to somewhere distant and different resonated with me. Cheap hotels like Premier Inn or Travel Lodge, where you can comfortably fit a family of four in a room are definitely not a feature in Norway.

But as I lived in Norway longer, I began to find out that it was quite common to have a cabin much closer to home. People would have a weekend home only half an hour from where they lived. I confess this seemed bizarre to me. Surely the idea of a weekend break is to explore somewhere different? Perhaps eat out in a restaurant you haven’t tried before or go to a museum you haven’t visited two or three times already? But with time, I began to understand it better. Eating out in Norway is becoming more common, but it’s still an expensive treat and not a weekly event. Your cabin is somewhere you go to relax, probably enjoy the outdoors, and simply to have a change of scene. Unless you specifically want it near a ski resort or in a particular area, why not have it only half an hour’s drive from home? Better still, if you have it fully stocked with clothes, there isn’t even a need to pack.

For now, having my own cabin is only a dream, but with coronavirus still at the forefront of every travel opportunity, we decided that a weekend away would be a change of scene. Andrew was away, so John, Anna and I made our preparations. Rather than choosing a city to explore, with a long drive, we decided that comfort was key. What could be better than spending some time in a cosy cabin with a wood stove, Norwegian curios on the walls and sheepskin rugs on deep cushioned sofas?

And so last weekend, we drove about an hour from home to spend the weekend in a log cabin on a husky farm.

The husky enclosure

Our arrival at the farm was wonderful. We stopped the car and climbed out into the silence of a Norwegian winter in the middle of nowhere. There were snow filled fields all around and the log cabin with its warm yellow wooden walls looked just as inviting as it had in the pictures on the website.

We had brought Triar along and so we rushed round to the boot of the car to let him out of his travel cage. Though the sight of a car and humans had been greeted with silence, on Triar’s appearance, the huskies began to raise their voices. And what a wonderful sound it was, howling and yodelling, a wonderful crescendo rising in the crisp still air.

We felt even more at home as we explored inside. The range in the kitchen had been lit and it was wonderfully cosy. There were pans on the walls and a huge table. The range was complemented by a modern cooker, coffee machine, toaster and kettle. John and Anna were with me and I couldn’t resist starting to cook on the range. It reminded me of a friends farms back in Scotland, where the kitchen was the heart of the home. There was always a huge kettle on the Aga on the edge of boiling so family and guests alike could grab a hot drink at any time of the day or night.

There were loads of quirky features. As you can see, there is silver birch trunk holding up one of the beams in the kitchen. The little twisted staircase in the corner leads up to the living room where there is another wood stove and wonderful couches with animal themed cushions. Off that room there was a bedroom that Anna and I shared.

It truly was a wonderful place. It was minus ten outside and Espen, who runs the farm with his wife Delphine, had advised us to light the stove in the kitchen as soon as we rose each morning. The house was built upwards, so heat rose from the kitchen, up those rickety stairs to the living room and from there into a quirky loft bedroom under the rafters. Life somehow slows down when you have to feed a wood stove all day.

Our only trip was a visit to Bardufoss to buy John some warmer trousers. John and Anna humoured me as I stopped on the way back to take some photographs of a rural church with its snow-covered graveyard. You can see it was cold. The halo of light around the sun here, and in the pictures of the house, is formed by tiny ice crystals in the air.

It was good to have some time away. Easy in these winter months and lockdown times to stay at home more and more. Lovely though the view is from the windows of the apartment, it was great to have a change of scene. And perhaps in future, it might provide a wonderful backdrop for a new novel.

The weather changed over the weekend. The wind began to rise and the snow began to drift, but we stayed cosy and warm inside. As I lay in bed on Sunday morning, listening to the wind gusting against the thick wooden walls, I contemplated calling to see whether we could stay another night.

But I was due to work on Monday, and even if I didn’t have to put in an appearance in the office, it wouldn’t be possible to combine work with packing up and going home. And so reluctantly, I pulled myself out from under the covers and began to get ready to depart. But I hope to return in future. The farm runs dogsledding trips, traditional food in a Sami lavvo (similar to a wigwam) and tours to meet and make friends with the huskies. We will definitely be going back one day.