Monday, July 9, 2007

A day in the country

Friends of ours and their two young boys venture back to the UK each summer for about a month of holiday time with his family. Last summer, they generously offered to loan us their car, in exchange for watering their yard and housesitting the boys' pet: Fluffy the hamster. While I am still not sure it is a fair agreement, we decided the luxury of having a car for a short time was enough to convince us that watching the Fluffinator wasn't a big deal. The ironic thing about the Fluffster is that the parents bought it to appease their children, and were told to give it about a year. It's been at least two. Fluffy isn't as resiliant as he was last year, but kids prodding, lack of a clean cage, and little loving care don't seem to have diminished his instinct for survival.

While Fluffy enjoyed the cleanliness of his cage and the sanctity of our living room, we decided to make the most of yet another rainy weekend and ventured out for a day in the country, somtething a bit easier with the luxury of a car. After realizing that our options for an exciting Sunday excursion, with rain coming down no less, were quite limited, we opted for Moss, a small coastal/agricultural community about an hour's drive from Oslo, where Tobias had previously visited a gallery. This is a typical story of life in countryside Norway.

With no traffic delays, we make good time to the small gallery called F15, situated on a large farmsted between the coast and a forest. It is the countryside's answer to the urban oasis, and so Norwegian. It is a place for the city folk to pay a visit and claim to have experienced something cultural, while in reality, they have done nothing more than dawn rubber boots and a rain parka and head out for their usual weekend walk, passing quickly through the gallery en route to the cafe, and taking a few deep breaths of good country air on the way back home. The gallery is lacking in art, instead is supported by the sale of cinnamon buns and carrot cake and bad coffee. I shouldn't discount the exhibit, which showcased sketches and lithographs from the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Apparently, the guy acquired quite the knack for sketching more than navigational routes on his journeys and his works weren't half bad.

We seemed to have beat the weekend walking crowd to coffee, so upon our early departure, we we decided to stop at the neighboring farmsted advertising garden stuff and antiques. When we passed earlier, there wasn't a whole lot happening, but as we approached, there seemed to be loads of cars attempting to park and adults swaddled in gortex, walking with baby carriages and Norwegian nuggests abound. We became wrapped up in figuring out what could be happening and parked the car. First, we passed a "butikk", seeminly doubling as a parking lot for the strollers. Next, we passed a smattering of farm buildings in typical red and white, advertising antiques and art and even chocolate. Then we came upon a stand in the yard selling the o-so-tasty Norwegian concoction called Lapskaus, the Norwegian answer to stewed leftovers, served with flatbread. There was no lack of coffee and cakes being sold further back, and the yard around this area was filled with wobbly small children noshing on raisin balls. Finally, we came upon the reason for the presence of so many small children. It was a summer kiddy production of Norway's answer to Bob the Builder, the Gray Tractor. As the outdoor theater opened and family after family rushed by, we opted for a quick exit. On the way out, we passed the pig pen, or rather, the home of the largest hogs in history. Perhaps an exaggeration, but really, these ladies were bigger than any I had seen in my 4-H days in Nebraska.

Those of us trying to make a fast getaway, the pensioners and us, were backed up in traffic for kilometers. And then... as if it could have been any more comedic, I chose the wrong line at the toll booth. The machine didn't seem to be accepting any coins so we just sat and sat, until finally someone had enough sense to run inside and inquire for help. And we continued back through the rain, back to dreary Oslo, and back to the coziness of the sofa where we passed the rest of the day with wine and bad Sunday television.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Adventures in inaka

Before departing Japan, I headed east to my old stomping grounds for five days of catching up with friends and rehashing previous adventures in inaka (AKA the middle of nowhere).

I have to admit that while I was very much looking forward to seeing old friends, catching up with the Japanese takes energy. After trapsing around the tourist haunts with my guests, I was afraid my supply would have been depleted. However, I managed to relax on the long shinkansen ride from Osaka to Furukawa, which was made much more pleasant with a few beers and some bad trainstation sandwiches. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the lush green rice fields and condensed urban areas, seemingly connected by endless stretches of sagging powerlines, roll by.

I was hosted by my friends, the Sugawara family, as seen above. The mom and dad are hardworking farmers who grow flowers, rice, and the best vegetables in all of Miyagi prefecture. During my days in the Fu, they kindly kept myself and numerous friends healthy with ample supplies of the above. In turn, we shared big meals together, usually with me introducing a new and "strange" way of eating their vegetables, lots of drinks, and humorous conversations peppered with a unique variety of the local dialect and our special usage of the other's language. Communication was never an issue, nor was eating!

We had always talked about having a kind of homestay at their house, so it seemed like a nice chance to actually do so. I think they were also happy to have a daughter in the house again. Their older daughter, Yukiko, (pictured above), is newly married and expecting their first child, and their other daughter, Akiko, is also recently married to a Canadian and living in Vancouver. I really appreciated being able to relax in a familiar place and open the window at night to hear the croaking frogs before falling asleep. Even their dog, Jiro, seemed happy to see me.

Each day presented a reunion opportunity: friends, my former school, F-Mate club, even old friends in Kogota, the neighboring town. I also had the chance to catch up with my friend, Lucy, and her beau, Takeshi, who live even further out in inaka. No visit among ex-JETS goes without a gossip session and naturally there had been enough drama to keep us chatting for hours. Lucy and Takeshi are tying the knot in September and I wish them all the best up in the tambo.

I have been back in Oslo for just over a week now and I think I am acclimated to semi-urban life in northern Europe. At least I am able to go to bed at a normal time and sleep past sunrise at 4:30am. Unfortunately, the Scando summer I had hoped for is not in the cards. There has been nothing but rain and cool temps, which has indefinitely postponed boat rides to the islands and swims in the fjord, cycling along the waterfront, late night bbqs, and lounging around in any greenspace in hopes of acquiring a tan. Ever the optimist, I am hoping it will pass, making way for clear and sunny skies, happy balcony tomatoes and chilli peppers, and prime tanning weather.