Tag Archives: winter

Bergen, Norway

There’s no such things as bad weather—only bad clothes.

This Norwegian saying seems apt, given the Canadian winter we’ve been having. I’ve been donning my heaviest Ottawa gear, layering up each time I set foot outside. Surprisingly, even though it’s much further north, it’s warmer in Bergen. Because Bergen is on the west coast of Norway, it receives the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. Because Bergen is much further north, and it’s winter, it also has very short days.

I was in Bergen for a few days over the January-February month change for a conference at the University of Bergen. While the conference itself was a fascinating multidisciplinary international affair, here I’ll focus on the trip itself. Travelling in winter, especially north (who thought that was a good idea?), with Mercury in retrograde, one should expect travel delays. My flight from Toronto to Bergen via Amsterdam, landed about half-an-hour late. While that doesn’t sound like much of a delay, it made the difference between landing in waning afternoon light and landing in full dark. Thanks to the assistance of a man on the bus, I was able to get off at the correct stop and start walking towards the University.

Have you ever tried navigating an unfamiliar, steeply hilled, medieval city, at night, with slushy snow descending onto cobblestones? No? Well, I wouldn’t recommend it. Such cities emerged organically, so streets meander at odd angles, and signage is sometimes scarce. Walking uphill, on slippery snow, over rounded cobbles, with the extra weight of my knapsack, I kept telling myself, you must not fall! I was glad that the steepness of many sidewalks was acknowledged by adjacent metal handrails. After much effort, and many questions to other pedestrians, I found the conference site; unfortunately, by this time, it had been abandoned in favour of dinner.

After further lost stumbling, walking uphill both ways, I found my hotel. Phew! I was glad to relinquish my luggage and have a hot shower. Looking at the conference schedule, I realized that I could still make it to dinner. Exhausted, I had a cab to take me to the foot of Mount Fløyen so I could catch the Fløybanen funicular railway up to the mountaintop restaurant. The ride takes about seven minutes and includes three stops. Impressive! While I could see that there were spectacular views from this height, a howling wind was driving snow into my face, so it hardly seemed a time to take photos. I was glad to get inside the lovely Nordic restaurant, complete with fireplaces and light wood finishing, where I met up with my compatriots for some pleasant dinner conversation. I was also glad to meet someone else staying at my hotel, so we could help each other get back to home base.

Saturday morning, she and I met at breakfast (included with hotel accommodation) and wound our way up the hill towards the University. It was my first look at the city in daylight and it was awesome. Classic Nordic, with the old city nestled between mountains. It was still overcast, and barely daylight, and I spent the rest of the day indoors at the conference.

Bergen, early winter morning

Bergen, early winter morning

That evening, however, I ventured out with a couple of colleagues, one of whom had been in Bergen for several days and had discovered the secret of navigating the downtown. If one walks a couple of blocks in the right direction, one emerges from the cramped and vertical medieval streets, out onto an open pedestrian boulevard, offering lovely views and easy access throughout the city. We had dinner in the amazing Bryggen district, the historic waterfront.

In the Bryggen, some buildings are a little less than square

In the Bryggen, some buildings are a little less than square

Sunday morning—I slept in. But once underway, I had a wonderful day of sightseeing. I started by wandering the length of the Vågen, the harbour that cuts deep into downtown Bergen, on the same side as my hotel. I finally found what I was looking for: the Hekse Steinen, or Witch Stone. This memorial was dedicated in 2002 to the memory of the 350 witches burned during the Norwegian witch trials. Anne Pedersdotter and others were executed in Bergen, at this stone’s location, but it marks the memory of others who met similar fates throughout Norway, especially during the Finnmark trials further north. The inscription translates as: 350 bonfire victims to miscarriage of justice 1550-1700.

The Hekse Steinen, or Witch Stone memorial

The Hekse Steinen, or Witch Stone memorial

I spent the rest of the day wandering around the old downtown. Bergen was pronounced a city by King Olaf III in 1070. Although part of the wharf dates to 1100, it wasn’t until about 1360 that it was developed as a trading centre by German Hanseatic League merchants. Merchants developed the city and the wharf, but in 1754, the area was transferred back to Norway.

The Town Square, in the Town Square

The Town Square, in the Town Square

The buildings of the Bryggen, or wharf, are all wooden, which unfortunately has led to many fires—but they keep rebuilding. The great fire in 1702 seems to have done the most damage, but the most recent was in 1955. This dramatic history is notable in the profusion of visible fire fighting hoses, visible charring on the sides of some buildings, and information posted on one building currently under renovation. In 1979, the Bryggen was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

The Bryggen historic wharf

The Bryggen historic wharf

Further along this side of the Vågen lies the Bergenhus (Bergen Fortress or Castle), which includes the Rosenkrantztårnet (Rosenkrantz Tower) and Håkonshallen (Håkon’s Hall). Håkonshallen was built in 1261 by Håkon Håkonsson in celebration of his son’s coronation and wedding, although it has seen many purposes over the centuries. While part of the Rosenkrantztårnet dates to the same period as the Håkonshallen, the existing tower was added in 1560 to enhance the city’s defenses.

Rosenkrantztårnet of the Bergenhus

Rosenkrantztårnet of the Bergenhus

While there were other activities and museums I had considered visiting, by this time, the short day was winding down. I stopped for an early supper at Dickens, took a few more retreating pictures, then returned to the hotel to pack for my morning flight.

Dickens restaurant in the main square of Bergen

Dickens restaurant in the main square of Bergen

I got to the Flesland airport in good time for my 10:15 a.m. to Amsterdam. Unfortunately, due to freezing rain and/or hail in the Netherlands, the incoming flight was delayed, and so there was no plane to take passengers back to Schiphol airport. My 10:15 was delayed until noon, meaning that I touched down in Amsterdam at 1:25 p.m., exactly when my flight was leaving for Toronto. Unfortunately, that was the flight for the day. KLM did, however, manage to get me home.

A Sense of the Landscape leaving Norway

A Sense of the Landscape leaving Norway

After a three-and-a-half hour layover in Amsterdam, I boarded a flight to Atlanta, Georgia. While catching up on movies en route, I watched wistfully as Toronto passed by below, thinking that I should perhaps request a parachute. When I arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, I had only half an hour to clear US customs, clear US security, and get to another gate via the Plane Train, in what is reputed the be the world’s biggest and busiest airport! I made it—just as last few passengers were boarding! Point-to-point, I was travelling for 25.5 hours, arriving home on one of the last subway trains at 1:25 a.m., rather than 4:30 the previous afternoon.

So, Bergen was an adventure, perhaps a little more of an adventure than I’d planned, but definitely an adventure worth having.

Homing Penguin graffiti

Homing Penguin graffiti

© Catherine Jenkins 2015 all rights reserved



Of Chance and Choice and Christmas

December 22 at 2:40 a.m. my power went out due to the worst ice storm Southern Ontario has seen in years. Tree limbs that lacked resiliency snapped off under the weight of ice, taking power lines with them and landing on a few cars and roofs. Hydro’s initial estimate was that power would be restored within 72 hours. That’s a long time in a society so addicted to gadgets that require electricity to function, but it’s a really long time when temperatures are below freezing and when fridges are packed with perishable holiday fare. It’s a really long time for people trying to travel home for the holidays. Flights in and out of Pearson International are delayed or cancelled.

The ice storm was beautiful--but inconvenient.

The ice storm was beautiful–but inconvenient.

This Christmas won’t be the Christmas a lot of people had planned. A lot of folks won’t be able to get home. Travel plans will be changed at the last minute. A lot of food will spoil or will have to be consumed before it spoils. Barbeques will be fired up out of season. A winter’s worth of wood will be burned in a few days trying to keep pipes from freezing. Kids will spend the holidays camped out on living room floors in sleeping bags trying to stay warm. Strangers will share feasts of homemade cookies in airport lounges. Some will be disappointed. Some will think it’s the worst Christmas ever. Others will be creative and resilient and find ways to improvise. Arriving safely for Christmas is more important than arriving on time for Christmas. Even without power, tomorrow will come.

A low-light Christmas tree decorated in low light.

A low-light Christmas tree decorated in low light.

I’m lucky that my building has a back-up generator, so there is some heat, running water, and enough power for lights in the common areas and to run the elevators. This is a long way from a UN refugee camp, with multi-generational families crammed into unheated tents without adequate food or water. We are so spoiled to have been born into such privilege that we feel entitled to get angry when we don’t have everything we think we need. Yes, there will be hardships, but even if it takes a full week to get everyone’s electricity restored, we will recover very quickly.

I’m enjoying a warm cup of tea made from water heated on my fondue set. The building seems quiet without the hum of industrial systems and almost no traffic outside. It’s a little like being in the university library after exams, after the students have left, on the last day before campus closes for the two-week winter break. An eerie silence. A bit post-apocalyptic.

Monday morning 8:45 a.m. the power is still out. I’ve moved everything from the fridge into a cooler on the balcony. The building across the street from me, and everything southward, has electricity. I wonder if this is a little of what it feels like to live in places that don’t have our advantages, to look across borders and see the wasted resources. Makes me think even more about what we have and how we use it.

I’m enjoying the adventure of using my fondue set for cooking. I was getting tired of cold food, so managed to cook some noodles, as well as a cup of tea. Tried knitting by candle light this evening; it’s difficult to tell the knits from the purls. I rigged up a four-candle powered heater I saw online a couple of weeks ago (I am the child of an engineer; how could I not give it a go?). The air from the chimney was about 34°C / 94°F but I would need several to heat a space this size. The temperature in the apartment had dropped to about 17°C / 64°F and the outside temperature is going down to -10°C. I hauled out extra blankets and one of the cats cuddled up with me. Without the interference of artificial light, my diurnal clock is even louder; by about 4 p.m. it feels like bedtime and I have to struggle to stay awake until 8. It’s cold and bed is the warmest place to be. I settle in for a long night.

I'm the child of an engineer. How could I not try this out?

I’m the child of an engineer. How could I not try this out?

By Tuesday, Christmas Eve, 6:17 p.m. word is that power may not be restored until the weekend, a full week after the outage. I confess to finding a certain pleasure in the absence of the demands of electronic devices. I was seriously considering giving up my land line, but I’m glad I haven’t; it’s the only way I can contact the outside world. And I broke into the Harvey’s Bristol Cream Sherry. The cause for celebration? We were informed that we could access more heat! It’s been about 15°C / 60°F all day. That doesn’t sound so bad, but when you’re sitting in it, you start to feel it. With another cold night ahead, someone from the building came in and diddled with the radiator override, so now heat is pouring forth! Much relieved and so is my cat. Water and heat—the only convenience missing is electricity for lights and cooking.

Fortunately, a friend invited me to his place for Christmas Day, where I had good company, a hot meal, and was able to cook some perishable food before it spoiled. When I got home later on Christmas Day, the power had been restored, thanks to the efforts of numerous local and visiting Hydro crews. It was out for a couple more hours on the 27th, but generally things seem to be returning to normal.

I hope that this holiday, without reliable power or transportation, causes people to reflect on their good fortune, testing their resiliency in the face of unpredictability, finding faith in themselves and humanity, to make the holidays bright and moving, even if they are not quite as planned.

A good time for quiet reflection.

A good time for quiet reflection.

© Catherine Jenkins 2013

‘Tis the Season for…Conspicuous Consumption

Black Friday, the American phenomenon of greatly slashed prices just after the holiday celebrating the Giving of Thanks, has come to Canada. Fortunately, we do seem to be somewhat more civilized than some of our neighbours to the south. News coverage of the Eaton Centre, which opened its doors at six in the morning for the big event, showed a few dozen empty-handed people sauntering through nearly empty mall space. Meanwhile, in the great US of A, thousands of people breached store entrances before they were fully opened, grabbing stock from shelves, pummelling each other, being forcibly subdued by security, and scrambling for goods as if it was world’s end. But we’re not talking food here; we’re not talking about the necessities of life. We’re talking electronics, TVs and games; that fifth pair of boots or twelfth pair of shoes; that fiftieth towel or toy. adbusters_everything-is-fine-keep-shoppingMarking the beginning of holiday buying, ‘tis indeed the season for conspicuous consumption, and a day I prefer to avoid stores.

In some jurisdictions, the day also marks Buy Nothing Day (BND), conceived by Vancouver comic artist Ted Dave “To return the purchasing power of the marketplace to the consumer.” The notion was subsequently promoted by Ad Busters magazine, with events like a Zombie Walk, in which “The cheerful dead wander around malls, marveling at the blank, comatose expressions on the faces of shoppers” and Whirl Mart, in which “You and nine of your closest friends silently drive your shopping carts around in a long, inexplicable conga line without ever actually buying anything.” In 2011, Adbusters Media Foundation’s production manager, Lauren Bercovitch, started the Occupy Christmas movement, encouraging people to rethink their consumer habits to consider “Being ecologically aware, socially aware, culturally aware, environmentally aware…”

Choosing to participate in BND or to Occupy Christmas doesn’t mean becoming a Scrooge or the Grinch; this is, after all, and regardless of religious affiliation, a season of giving and celebration. Occupying Christmas means thinking about choice, rather than engaging blindly in consumerism, and that might still mean going to the mall for the latest Xbox release, but it doesn’t have to. Zenta 2013For me, it means making gifts. Sometimes I’ve made food items, like baked goods or homemade soups and sauces. This year, I’m trying my hand at hand soaps and bath bombs. Although I don’t have a lot of free time right now, I’ve started working on a sweater for my little nephew; knitting is quietly meditative on these long evenings and something it’s easy to pick up and put down as time allows. I may also buy some locally crafted items (I have a lot of crafty friends). The one place I do spend money this season is on charitable donations made in family members’ names. This is my way of recognizing that, although it’s fun to give and get presents, most of us lead pretty privileged lives and don’t really need very much. For me, this is a season of quiet reflection and celebrating with friends—things money can’t buy.

© Catherine Jenkins 2013

Winter 2008

Last fall, and without much thought, I found myself buying a train ticket to the east coast to spend the holidays with friends. Christmas 2007 was the first Christmas I’d ever spent without my parents. I wasn’t sure what to expect. A complete change of scenery seemed like a good idea.

I was able to get a roomette for the overnight portion of the journey. Apparently VIA has generally discontinued the use of this equipment, opting instead for more opulent double rooms and suites, but for those of us who travel solo, roomettes are still the best way to go when we can get them. Between freight taking precedence and the snow, all my trains and connections were late, but I really didn’t mind or care. I was prepared with my new MP3 player, a very thick book and my knitting. Yes, in the wake of losing my mother, I seem to have taken up knitting again.

My dear friend and fellow writer, Kathy Mac, met me in Moncton and drove me back to her new house in Fredericton where I was met by a flurry of dogs, as well as her husband, her Dad and her Dad’s new girlfriend. Still others joined us for the Christmas feast. Although I missed my folks, I also felt at home and part of the celebration. Much of the holidays were spent doing plenty of nothing. After the family stresses of the last several years, that was a very welcome change and relief. The dogs had to be walked every day, so that was a good excuse to get outside and get some fresh air and exercise, but other than that, we talked and read and just hung out.

After a week in New Brunswick, it was time to re-board the train and head back, but not to Toronto. I stopped en route to visit my friend Péter in Gatineau. Here again, I was met at the train station and driven home where I was met by the flurry of a singular dog. We celebrated New Year’s with additional friends and a sumptuous feast, enjoying the goofiness of ringing in 2008 with dollar-store noisemakers and glow sticks. Much of the week was spent chatting, showing each other interesting Internet finds, watching movies and just hanging out. Of course, the dog had to be walked, so again that was an excuse to get outside and get some fresh air and exercise.

After two weeks of lying about, I came home five pounds heavier, carrying additional luggage, and much to the relief of my lovely feline beasties. The trip was a real and necessary time-out for me, a chance to reset the dials of my daily life. With so much of my time and energy having gone into parental care throughout my adult life, especially these last few years, not having that pull takes some time to get used to. While it’s liberating, it’s also kind of strange. It’s a major life adjustment that I’m still settling into. Although I’m getting a lot more writing done, I don’t yet know how to fill all this time.

While many Torontonians have been griping about this winter, with its snow and wind and cold, I’ve actually been enjoying it. This is a real winter, a real Canadian winter, at a time when we’ve become complacent about what that entails. But come on people, we live in Canada! We do get winter! Frankly, I’d rather have this than the messy, slushy overcast we usually get. This winter, it’s beautiful to look out the window. It’s a celebration of light. And while I’m hibernating perhaps even more than usual, it’s easier to take when I can look out at something joyous.

I am very fortunate to have good friends, people who understand me and are unquestioningly supportive; people I try to be there for when they need me too. I’m grateful that I was able to spend time in the homes of good friends through what might have been a rough couple of weeks otherwise. As the years continue, I’m sure I’ll come up with new and different ways to negotiate this season, but we certainly got it off to a fine beginning.

© Catherine Jenkins 2008

Winter 2007

Winter has been slow coming to Ontario this year. So slow, that although I prefer the sun and the warmth, I was beginning to feel somewhat deprived that winter still hadn’t arrived by January. In a fit of what could only be described as Canadian winter angst, I booked a ticket to somewhere I’d never actually visited, somewhere more likely to be experiencing some semblance of winter than Toronto.

In mid-January, I boarded a train at Union Station that took me as far as Montréal, where, after a brief pause on my journey, I was able to board the train to Québec City, where, yes, there was snow! Albeit not enough snow to open all the ski resorts. Adding to the pleasure of the trip was that my good friend and fellow writer Kathy Mac was able to join me, also arriving by train, but from Fredericton, New Brunswick. Between us, we’d travelled across at least a third of the country to meet at a point roughly halfway between our two homes.

The first evening we were there, we wandered along the boardwalk of the Château Frontenac, climbed many stairs and strode out onto the Plains of Abraham, named for Abraham Martin, an early settler who once grazed his cattle on its grasses. Site of the 1759 battle that altered the course of Canadian history, this is where both Wolfe and Montcalm died (along with countless other British, French, Canadian and Aboriginal soldiers). What surprised me most on first viewing was that the Plain was not the flat landscape I recalled from reproductions of paintings in my grade five history text, but was in fact more like a mogul ski course with a series of hillocks. I was quite distressed by this apparent inconsistency between what I knew the Plains of Abraham was supposed to look like and the seeming reality.

Over the course of the weekend, we wandered about the city (including an exploration of the old lower town ending in a funicular ride back up), ate great food (including a dessert called Pears Pernod that very nearly had me licking the plate), drank amazingly good coffee (everywhere), checked out museums and took the ferry to Lévis.

From across the St. Lawrence, it was possible to fully appreciate the grandeur of the height on which Québec City is perched. Although I’d seen pictures of the cliff face, it was far more treacherous and vertical than I’d realized. If I’d been in Wolfe’s army, I would’ve thought my general quite mad! It also explains why several failed attempts were made to approach Québec.

Later, during daylight hours, we took a longer walk out onto the Plain and I was finally able to appreciate its height, magnitude (one hundred and eight acres) and flatness (which begins further from the city walls than we had walked on our previous visit). Although relics of war still scatter the Plains in the form of various monuments and Martello towers, since 1908, this site has been known as Battlefields Park. Now the centre of Québec City recreation, the park is used year-round by residents and visitors alike. As you can see from the photo, a snowman now stands guard in front of one of the Martello towers.

Plans are afoot for the park’s centennial celebration next year, the centrepiece of which will be the Plains of Abraham Epic, a theatrical retelling of the park’s 400-year history, in mid-August. (More information is available at: http://www.ccbn-nbc.gc.ca/_en/index.php.)

The world is littered with battlefields, some ancient, some contemporary. I truly wish more politicians and governments could see the wisdom of transforming our battlefields into parks where kids and parents can play together in peace. It’s a great use for a battlefield and I would like to think it improves the vibes of a place that has seen so much death and suffering.

The weekend went by too quickly, ending with a few laps around the hotel pool before we had to board our divergent trains to return us to our different everyday worlds. But it was a pleasant and necessary time-out for us both. And of course it snowed a few days after I returned home.

© Catherine Jenkins 2007