Christmas on the Russian Border

As with every time I travel somewhere, I have many, many things to report and I’m not entirely sure where to start. It doesn’t quite help that I’m still in the midst of my travels and often a little distance from these things gives you some useful perspective (‘No, Jenny, the slightly odd sayings on the salt and pepper packets that were given to you on the Norwegian airplane were not actually the ‘funniest things ever’ and you can probably safely leave them out of your blog post’). I’ve got a whole post in me all about language and conversation and other highly intellectual matters (which I will manage to stranglehold into something much more pedestrian and Bridget Jones-like), but I think I might leave that until later.

Instead, I’ve been inspired by all the ‘sun and seafood’ Christmas photos popping up in my Facebook feed to tell you a little bit about how I spent my Christmas Day in far North Norway.

First of all, the big day in Norway is actually Christmas Eve. You have your big dinner around 5-6pm, then dessert, which is followed by a whole hour in which Norwegian parents ritualistically torture their young children by forcing the whole family to ‘sleep’ or ‘rest’ BEFORE you are allowed to open your gifts. Or, at least, that’s what my Norwegian friends tell me it was like to be a Norwegian child. Of course, we’re all adults now and an hour’s ‘rest’ before presents is well and truly achievable. Just.

So, that was all very wonderful and ‘koselig’ (the best and most important of Norwegian words. It kind of means ‘cosy’, except that it’s so much more than that. I imagine it is like being blanketed in love and comfort and warmth and happiness and loveliness and pretty things and it is a way of life in Norway – you must never stop searching and striving for everything ‘koselig’). I experienced a lot of these traditions when I was in Norway the first time around (2002), but it was very ‘koselig’ and very special to do it all again. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and though I do see the loveliness of an Australian Christmas (family and friends being one of the many benefits), I just think a dark, wintery Christmas is that bit more magical. I mainly blame Christmas lights. They sparkle so much more prettily in the dark and the snow than in the sun. I’m sorry, but it’s just true.

Leaving this controversial topic behind, what was terribly exciting this year was actually what was happening on Christmas Day. When I first arrived in Kirkenes on Friday, my host sister had rung up from Oslo to ask whether or not I would be interested in going to a Christmas day mass in the church that stands on Norway’s border with Russia. Her boyfriend wanted to go and she thought I might also be interested. I was. It got better, however. Not only could I attend the service, but the road to the church was closed during winter, so we would be driven to the church in Norwegian military vehicles. See picture for details:

Bandvagn 206. Found at www.wikipedia.org

Bandvagn 206. Found at http://www.wikipedia.org

Ah ha ha! Amazing! But, wait, there was more! After the church service, we would go to the beach (yes, there’s a beach up here!) and at the beach, the officers would take the traditional Christmas Day swim in the Barents Sea. And if that weren’t enough, we would then be served cake and hot drinks at the Military Station on the way home. And the cost for this incredibly amazing, totally unbelievable and also oddly ‘koselig’ experience? Completely and utterly free. We were the guests of the Norwegian military, which is apparently the friendliest, most cocoa-generous and gingerbread-rich military in the world. I was most definitely in.

Preparations had begun in the days before. The clothing I had brought from the UK was inspected and found wanting. As were my shoes and gloves. I was instead newly kitted out with jacket, lined shoes, doubled-up mittens, extra pants and also hand and toe warmers (little heat packs that you can hold in your hands or put in your shoes – not widely used in Norway, but popular in Canada and Japan, and we all felt that as an inexperienced Australian, this was probably something else that would be useful for me to have). When I woke up on Christmas Day, the thermostat was at minus 20 celsius. I took a picture, just to prove it. In the end, I got into the car dressed in both my pairs of thermal leggings, tights with windproof sports pants over the top; a thermal skivvy, long-sleeved top, old woolen English navy jumper plus a ski jacket; two pairs of woolen socks and lined shoes; wool mittens with waterproof and windproof mittens over the top; a scarf and my completely useless synthetic hat that doesn’t so much as protect you from the cold, as remind you where a proper hat would be protecting you from the cold if you were actually wearing it, by sort of occasionally softly brushing your ears with light synthetic fluff (considering the attention I paid to all other parts of my body, I am surprised I expected the hat to be in anyway useful. Stupid hat).

Anyway, we found our way to the pick-up point, which was a (relatively) warm minus 17 celsius. Of course, our vehicles weren’t ready yet and, much as it would have been an authentic Norwegian military ‘experience’ to wait for Norwegian military vehicles in minus 17 celsius, myself and my traveling companion decided to wait in the car. With the heat. And no wind. Eventually the trucks arrived with our Bandvagn 206’s on the back and we loaded ourselves in. We had hoped to get a seat up front, but because we didn’t have the correct ear wear (the machines are very loud), we had to jump in the back, just like real soldiers. It was all terribly exciting and for about five minutes I though, ‘ooh, how amazing! This is just like being in a film! Maybe I should join the army!’ But then I remembered that for real soldiers, their trips in  military vehicles don’t end in lovely Christmas masses in lovely Norwegian churches, but at horrible battlefields with guns and killing and bombs. And that, unlike my call-centre job, I wouldn’t be able to just say, ‘Ah, I think I’ve made a terrible mistake’ and back out of it all after 8 hours.

But, still, it was quite exciting and wonderful just as it was. There were only a few little windows which kept getting iced-up, so we didn’t get to see a lot of the scenery, but we saw enough. It is currently ‘Mørketid‘ in North-Norway, which is literally ‘the Dark time’ (see how magical that sounds????) and Mørketid himmelen (Dark Time Heavens/Sky) are the most beautiful. Think of the loveliest sunset you can imagine and then stretch it out for 3 hours. That is Mørketid himmelen. And that was all over the sky as we traveled to this obscure and lonely church on the Russian border.

I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t all amazing. I was getting pretty travel sick by the time we got out at the church. The wind that greeted us when the military boys opened the doors of the vehicle was hardly ‘koselig’. In fact, I tried to take a picture of the church and the wind that blew around the side of the building was so strong it actually turned me around. Instead of a picture of the church, I got a blurry diagonal one of the ground. But, then we walked up into the church and the military boys were there with hot water and asking us if we wanted hot chocolate or coffee and offering gingerbread and everything seemed alright again. I had a fairly difficult time following the service (but, then I have a difficult time following most church services, even if they are in English), but that really didn’t bother me. The thing I was most glad about was the carols. We were handed a ‘Norsk Salme Bok’ (Norwegian Psalm Book) on the way in and I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m not going to be able to sing, because I won’t know the tunes.’ But, it turned out they sang mainly the same carols as back home, just with Norwegian words. And, as I know how to read Norwegian words, and I had been provided with a book of lyrics, I was perfectly able to sing along. It was a beautiful experience. It’s strange, and something that I’ve noticed before, but for whatever reason, sometimes when you only understand a little of what’s going on, many different experiences, and especially music, can be much more powerful. I think it’s because when you’re just learning a language, you only understand the very basic meanings of words and don’t have an understanding of them that is deep or multi-faceted, or that’s complicated by years of use, bias and personal/social/cultural history (it’s also one of the reasons humour is so hard to translate, because it relies so heavily on specific metres, sounds, word plays or double meanings that are unique to one language AND culture). Anyway, I was going to save all this for another post. The point is, I understood enough of the language to understand the broad brushstrokes of feelings and sentiments in the songs, but because we were singing about ‘Gud’ instead of ‘God’ and ‘Ye-sus’ instead of ‘Jesus’, the songs didn’t have the same slightly uncomfortable connotations for me. I was just able to enjoy the loveliness of the carols, of singing together with a group in a ‘koselig’ setting.

Then, of course, was the really, truly exciting part. We were divided into groups who wanted to go straight back to the station and those who wanted to go to the sea. I had no intention of bathing, but I certainly wanted to see other people strip off and get wet in such inhospitable weather (it must be the German in me), so off I went to the harbour. By this time, it was pitch black (even though it was only 3pm) and I stumbled towards the beach using the the sounds of the waves crashing as my main guide (until my companion found his head light and turned it on). A huge bonfire had been pre-built (and doused in petrol) and this was lit before the first of the brave boys stripped off and ran towards the water. Let me just state again, that it was minus 20 degrees outside. There was snow and ice on the beach. A gale was blowing, that made it feel like it must have been at least 10 degrees less than what the thermostat was showing. And off went the boys (and two girls) into the water with nothing on them except their body hair to keep them warm. There was a large group of us standing around, wrapped in our clothes and carrying cameras, just… watching these people strip naked and run into the water (the girls left their underwear on, which I can understand, but I feel that having wet underwear in minus 20 degrees weather was probably not worth the modesty it afforded). It felt more than a little odd. Many people were taking photos, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, despite one or two of the officers looking like off-duty Norse Gods. My traveling companion also managed a quick dip, but did it when no-one else was watching, which I can also understand, but I was disappointed to have missed all the excitement and the opportunity to yell words of encouragement from the sidelines (he had threatened to throw me in fully clothed though, so maybe it was best I avoided him the whole time we were on the beach).

After a quick warm-up by the fire we were packed back into the military vehicles (we were given a seat up front this time, despite our lack of ear-wear, I can’t rightly say if it was because of my friend’s bravery in the water) and taken to the military station. There was cake and coffee and warm air and it was all very ‘koselig’. Of course, I sat opposite four people from England and despite a little bit of conversation on the lack of tea, we didn’t let it go on too long. I think we all felt like talking to another English-speaking person whilst out on the Russian border would ruin the whole experience for us. I know I was disappointed to hear them talk, so I can only imagine they felt the same about me.

That’s about all for the moment. I’m on a deadline, because we have to get dressed and ready to go visit the Ice Hotel. It’s exactly what you think. It’s a hotel made out of ice.

Yay!

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