On the subject of trying to speak Norwegian, I recently wrote that I feel “instantly transformed from a relatively intelligent woman to a below-average, slightly boring toddler”.(I’m Not Dumb. I’m Just Not Norwegian). Well, apparently my regressive shame journey is far from over. I have discovered yet another way for one to quickly slide (quite literally) from adult to child in this Nordic land. And this one doesn’t leave me feeling “below-average” and “slightly boring”. Oh no. There is nothing boring or average about THIS toddler. She is wild, unpredictable, and out of control.
She is learning to cross-country ski.
Why did I think that cross-country skiing meant gliding effortlessly along a smooth, flat terrain? Norway is a very mountainous country and yet I somehow imagined it would miraculously flatten out the minute I attached cross-country skis to my feet. I had created some dangerous and misguided expectations and they, along with various parts of my body, were likely about to suffer.
When my family moved to Canada, we all tried cross-country skiing. My parents stuck with it but my brother and I switched to downhill. We thought cross-country was “boring” and “too easy”. (I can hear you all laughing already). It is neither of these things. I’m too busy, trying to get the skis to do things I want them to do, to be bored. And anyone who thinks it’s easy, definitely hasn’t gone down a hill. Or up one.
I was raised in a sports loving nation (mostly hockey) in a sports loving family (mostly rubgy) but the love that many Norwegians have for their “langrennski” is like nothing else. Norway is the cross-country ski capital of the world. To say Norwegians take this sport seriously is like saying sharks take swimming seriously. They don’t take it seriously, it’s just what they do – Intuitively. Smoothly. And with style. (And, on rare occasion, if you get in their way, they will eat you.)
I love their passion. It is simultaneously inspiring, bewildering, and exhausting.
To understand this profound passion, it helps to look at some history. The word “ski” (pronounced “she” in Norwegian) actually comes from the Old Norse word “skíð” which means stick of wood. Carvings depicting skiers, from 5000 BC, have been found in the “Nordland” region and, just last year, a ski was discovered in a glacier in the Reinheimen mountains that is believed to be about 1300 years old. So, skiing has been around here for a good while, to say the least.
For centuries, skiing was used as a primary means of winter transportation in Norway. There are also many documented stories of the Norwegians use of “langrennski” during war times – “ski warfare”. This goes back to the Napoleonic Wars (1807-1814) where Norwegian ski troops were used against Sweden. The most famous example of this “ski warfare” was during the Second World War. In 1940, Norwegian soldiers used skis and sleds to reach, and eventually sabotage, the heavy water plant in Rjukan (Telemark, Norway), which was being used by the Germans as part of their nuclear research program. (If you haven’t yet watched the new series “Kampen om Tungtvanet / Heavy Water“, I highly recommend it).
The Norwegians also took skiing a step further – into sport. The first public skiing competition was held in Tromsø (northern Norway) in 1843. Since then, Norwegians have been dominating the world of winter sports. Despite their relatively tiny population, they have won the most winter Olympic medals throughout history – 48 more than the USA and 159 more than Canada. They are medal-winning sharks on skis.
There are two well-known (and dangerously overused) sayings in this land when it comes to skiing and the outdoors:
“Nordmenn er født med ski på beina” “Norwegians are born with skis on their feet”.
“Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær” “There’s no bad weather. Just bad clothing”.
Combine those two, and you’ve got yourself a nation of hardy, skillful, committed skiers.
A typical winter weekend in Oslo might go something like this:
- Friday night: Discuss weather forecast and location for Saturday ski trip. General conversation of skiing is also acceptable – How great your skis are. How great winter is. Anything about wax. How great snow is.
Saturday morning (early): Consult Norse God of Wax (the Swix thermometer), wax skis accordingly, and dress in appropriately stylish ski attire. Skiing can be discussed on the way to skiing.
- Saturday morning (still early): SKI FOR HOURS. Sweat more than you imagined humanly possible, and pause at waffle hut to eat as many waffles as you can. Talk about skiing.
- Saturday afternoon: Get home in time to watch skiing on TV. Stare at Therese Johaug’s bum in a non-creepy but admiring way. (Or Petter Northug, if you prefer).
- Saturday evening: Talk about skiing, while you watch skiing, having just returned from skiing, before you go skiing again.
- Sunday: repeat
(I always wonder if non-skiing Norwegians find their fellow countrymen a little intense. How does it feel to be a non-skier in a land known so connected to skiing? I tend to avoid asking Norwegians probing “how do you feel” questions, for fear of sounding too “Dr. Phil“, but if you’re out there and would like to share, do let me know).
The first time I tried cross-country in Norway was last winter, on a visit to the family cabin. (For those of you who read my blog regularly, you know that this cabin houses limitless ways for me to embarrass myself). I borrowed a pair of skis and boots from my brother-in-law, and we all headed out to a nearby trail. In Norway, you don’t just go rolling about willy-nilly on any little forest path. These are “langrennsløyper” – cross country ski trails – and there are literally thousands of kilometres of these perfectly groomed tracks all over the country.
Things started well. Coming around a bend, I was getting a bit of rhythm and glide.
“This isn’t so hard”, I thought to myself. “I could be really good at this”.
And you know, the minute those words have entered your mind, you’ll regret them. Painfully.
As I rounded the bend, the track descended into what can only be described as an alpine “black-diamond” run. For those of you who don’t downhill ski, black diamond is bad/hard. Very, very bad/hard. I don’t go on black-diamond runs on my downhill skis, never mind on these skinny little speed sticks that don’t like to turn. I stopped. My mother -in-law had already disappeared ahead of me down the hill in a swoosh of Nordic skill. I waited for my husband and his dad.
“What’s up?” said my husband.
“How am I supposed to get down THERE?”, I asked. “This is crazy”.
“It’s just a hill. Stay in the tracks, bend your knees and you’ll be fine”, he says.
Compared to where I grew up, this was no hill. This was a mountain. He offered to go ahead and wait for me at the bottom. Off he went, in fine form, tucked down to achieve maximum speed and maximum Norwegian-ness. He reached the bottom and I could see him (faintly) waving and moving to the side to wait.
My father-in-law offered to go down with me (beside the tracks – which seemed even more scary) for moral support. It sounded like a great idea. At the time.
We both started down, he a little ahead. I was in the tracks, knees bent, and praying this wouldn’t be the last thing I ever did. The speed at which one accelerates is impressive – in a bad way. The panic began to set in about 2.3 seconds later.
My internal dialogue was roughly this:
Oh my god I’m going fast. This is way too fast. This is crazy. TOO FAST!! Oh no, no, no. Bend your knees. Don’t panic. Oh mamma, I’m too old for this. Why do people do this? How is this fun? I’m gonna die. Oh this is really going to hurt. I’ve had a good life. What will they tell my family? Will my husband eat waffles without me?
Then the track took a slight turn and my skis started sliding to the side, out of the tracks. I panicked and stood bold upright (bad idea). I shot across the (narrow) hill and was suddenly heading straight for my father-in-law. I barely had time to shout his name before I careened into him like an overgrown toddler snow bullet. Milliseconds later, we gathered my waiting-husband in the mix, and then a large dog appeared (coming the other way, ahead of his owner) and he was now caught in the father-in-law-husband-wife-skis-poles-big-fluffy-dog-noshame-snowball.
“Det går bra… det går bra!” “It’s going okay… it’s going okay!”, the dog owner yelled, encouragingly.
I don’t know what he was watching, but it sure as shit didn’t feel like it was “going okay” to me.
As my brother-in-law says, “there’s just something wrong with adults falling like children”. I think he might be right.
Once the human/canine snowball came to a stop, and we brushed off a mountain’s worth of snow, everyone had a good laugh – dog included. The Norwegians are (mostly) remarkably good natured with beginners. But, I will say this: Don’t mess with their tracks. If you are seen walking in the tracks (I swear I haven’t done it), you might as well just pack your suitcase and head back to whatever country you came from.
Despite this rather dramatic first outing, you will be encouraged to hear that, this winter, I bought my very own pair of lanngrennski.
On the first outing, in Oslo, I did relatively well except for the 4kms of steep uphill on a very narrow trail. I fell a few times, and falling uphill provokes a special kind of rage. I might have muttered (or yelled) a fairly harsh expletive once (or twice), while threatening to break my new skis in two (or three), but other than that it was great. (And apologies to parents and children in the vicinity of my meltdown – just explain that the nice lady was born with normal feet not skis). I was then soothed with the sweetness of waffles (at the waffle hut) and subsequently managed to make it back down the 4km hill without falling. (You’re welcome body).
Last weekend, I went on my first “real” Norwegian “skitur” (ski trip). By “real” I mean, way up in the mountains, piles of snow, rustic cabin, no running water, wood stove, simple but tasty food, and wine-in-a-box. THIS, my friends, is Norway at it’s wintery finest. Just 3 hours north of Oslo, the winter was still in full swing. After wading through the snow with all our gear, we got the cabin opened, stoked up the fire, and began planning our morning ski trip. I am pretty sure that the entire night my husband started every sentence with, “So Minky, what you need to know about skiing in the mountains is…”. (This endearing yet not-so-flattering nickname is explained in a previous post).
I was witnessing my husband in his Norwegian happy-place. While I sat marvelling at the never-ending supply of wine in a box, he fussed around: marking maps for our trip, organizing and cleaning our gear, and preparing “matpakke” (packed lunch). And in the morning, as I worked diligently to decide whether to top my waffles with jam or with lemon, sugar and cinnamon (Canadian-style), he cleaned and waxed our skis, packed our maps (and compass, and knife, and a host of other mysteries) and carefully explained to me what to wear and what to bring in my knapsack, “just in case”. (I’m not sure what the “just in case” was, but it sounded ominous so I paid attention – between bites of waffle).
While skiing that weekend, in those spectacular mountains, everything about the Norwegians passion for winter and cross country skiing became clear to me. We clipped on our skis right at the cabin door, and swished along a little ways before coming to the langrennløyper. The next several hours were some of the most enjoyable times I have ever experienced in nature. The impeccably groomed tracks, twisted and turned through snow-laden forests and out into spectacular mountain valleys. Up and down I went (sometimes almost gracefully!), with only the sound of our skis piercing the silence of the magnificent Nordic landscape. The sun glinted off the towering snowy pines, and every slide of my skis and swing of my poles, filled me with immense joy and gratitude for my new life in this spectacular land.
Around mid-afternoon, dark clouds rolled in, the wind picked up and heavy snow started to fall. We were still a ways from home. We stopped for a quick energy boost, from our diligently prepared matpakke, and then continued on. At one point I thought to myself that I might have been quite nervous had I been on my own. Was the omminous “just in case” about to happen?
But, trusty Norwegian ski-shark at my side, there was nothing to fear. With a good dose of Nordic confidence and know-how, he mapped the shortest route and got us home.
With plenty of time to sit by the fire, eat dinner and drink wine.
And talk about skiing.