“I don’t remember who said this, but there really are places in the heart you don’t even know exist until you love a child.”
– Anne Lamott,Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
Just as Week 35 of my pregnancy began, I woke up that weekend to an attack of horrible itchy rash on my pregnant body. The angry rash spread all over without mercy. I went to my doctor during the week, who put me on antihistamine and ordered some blood tests. When I asked her about relief from the itching, she said perhaps I could try cold water or ice? She sent me home with an appointment to see her the next week.
Those two weeks were the worst thing I have experienced. I couldn’t sleep, because I would wake up in the middle of the night to terrible itching, and sit for hours with ice packs over my raw skin, because nothing else helped. The antihistamine did not work, even though it came to a point where I was taking three tablets a day. I tried aloe vera gel, oatmeal baths, oatmeal paste, none of which worked for beyond a couple of hours. I’ve never missed calamine lotion more in my life. In the summer, I was cold and shivering most of the time, from ice packs and cold showers. This went on for about ten days till I found myself sitting on my couch one morning, applying another ice pack and crying. If I couldn’t deal with this, how was I going to deal with labour and motherhood?
“We must have a pie. Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie.”
― David Mamet
1. House hunting in Oslo
It all started with an innocuous little idea of wanting more space when the baby comes. Much as I did not enjoy the idea of having to, once again, in little over a year, shove all my belongings into boxes and move them one by one to another place, which will be my baby’s first home, this should’ve been easy and simple, right? Turns out not so much, not when you live in Oslo.
The rental market in Oslo is awful, and I’m sure I’m putting it mildly. C’mon Oslo, I was willing to put you on the top of my list of favourite places. I was willing to dethrone North Wales for you. Okay, we both know the probability of that happening is rather slim. But still, you can’t give me a home without putting me through the wringer? You are beautiful and lovely, but when it comes to renting flats, you have a lot to learn from London.
And for god’s sake, when you have so much space, trust me you do, put a second bathroom in your flats and houses already. Don’t look at me as though I’m fussy. I’m not. Oh yes, everything is expensive here. But I want value for my money, and good quality doesn’t have to cost a limb and a leg. And give me a break, will you? I’m trying to have a baby here.
When I went to the GP for the first time after I found out I’m pregnant, she did some blood tests. The results showed that I might have a problem with my thyroid. So she referred me to an Endocrinologist, who ordered another round of complete blood work. They took so many blood samples, when they were done and they placed all the tubes with my blood on a holder, it looked like a Ferris wheel! I went to see the Endocrinologist on Tuesday to get the results.
She walked me through it and she was clear about the diagnosis: I have Graves’ Disease.
“The world was full of dangers now that she was pregnant: mercury in tuna, hot tubs, beer, secondhand smoke, over-the-counter medicine. Not to mention crazy baby-abducting fairy kings.”
– Jennifer McMahon
Thirteen has always been a lucky number for me. It feels strange to say that because I don’t believe in lucky things or numbers. On 13th December 2014, I was far away from Oslo at my parents’ house. That morning, I decided to pee on a stick. It came out positive. I peed on one more stick, you know, just to be sure. That turned positive as well. I calmly walked up to my mum in the kitchen and told her I might be pregnant and I need to do a blood test to be sure. My mum told my dad who wanted to call the whole world that very moment. Fortunately, she talked him out of it.
I had travelled thousands of miles to my parents’ house so I could see my one-year old niece for the first time since she came into this world. My brother asked what was going on. I told him that the sticks I peed on say that I’m pregnant. He told my sister-in-law. We had a hug fest.
The person I wanted to tell first, the person I wanted to share the joyous news with the most, was the one person who wasn’t around. My husband. K was traveling that very day from Oslo to join me. Now you don’t tell a man over the phone that he’s about to become a father, do you? No, seriously, I asked that question. I wasn’t sure what the protocol was. Do I call him? Do I wait till I see him? It seems wrong to tell him over the phone doesn’t it? But how can he be the person who doesn’t know? After a lot of back and forth, and with a little encouragement from my sister-in-law, I called him. He was just about to board the plane from Oslo airport. He sounded excited to hear it. He said he was happy about it. I asked him later what he thought about during the almost 12-hour journey. Did he ponder over impending fatherhood? He is yet to give me a proper answer!
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
― Maya Angelou
When I was in my early 20s, I made a list of things I wanted to do in life, sort of a bucket list. Right at the top of that list were two things I wanted to try at least once in my life – bungee jumping and sky diving. I wrote the list, put it away and didn’t really think too much about it, until recently.
This summer, my cousins visited me in Oslo. One of things we thought might be fun to try was the Oslo Summer Park. It’s a climbing park where you walk on ropes between tree tops at varying heights, following set routes. Some of the routes also include zip wires. You get some basic training before you get to try out the actual courses in the Park. So at the training level, I climbed up a short rope ladder to a wooden platform. I had a harness that secured me to the safety line above. I was a little over five feet above the ground. I stepped onto the rope. The rope shook violently and I froze. I couldn’t take one more step.
“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add colour to my sunset sky.”
― Rabindranath Tagore
Ever felt like your day was beginning to look like an overcast autumn day? You know, the kind of day that makes you remember the time someone told you that humans eat eight spiders on an average every year and you wonder if you have had your year’s share that morning because your head is so full of cobwebs that every time you move your head it feels as if your brain is bouncing off stringy webs like an excited kid on a trampoline? Well, yesterday turned out to be one of those days. I was beginning to imagine the taste of that last spider in my mouth and trust me, you don’t want to try it.
I sat down to write and I could feel my brain struggling against the cobwebs. I wrote a few lines. I stopped. I read what I wrote and stopped. So essentially, I was stuck in a write-stop-read-stop-repeat cycle. Why is my tone all whiny? Well, the number of hours spent writing a few lines is inversely proportional to the irritating pitch that can only come from griping. As the day went by, I realised I had to find a cure. And I’m happy to report that I did.
So if you are in a similar rut, here’s what I did. Mind you, if this doesn’t work for you, you should probably never come to Oslo. It wouldn’t do you any good, really.
I picked up my camera, a Nikon D3000, and walked through the streets of Oslo to capture the autumn colours. The chilly air nipped at my fingers. I walked along the coast, the water a murky grey with the wind sending ripples through it. I had no set route to follow, my head was too cloudy to undertake such planning. I just started taking pictures.
I could recite all the shades of green, yellow, red, and brown, but I’m not sure that would cover the colour riot I witnessed. Dry leaves littered every surface. The golden yellows, ochres, maroons, fading greens, they danced on the remaining rich green grass and the concrete pavements with equal joy, unfettered by where they were, untouched by the bleakness in the sky. A distant hill covered with trees, stood in stoic silence amid the grey water. It threw every shade of colour it could at me. As the slope rose towards the sky, its expanse seemed to heave with the vibrancy that only an autumn day can produce. That distant hill seemed keen to cheer-up the sky, as if goading the sun to steer clear of the clouds and show its bright face. Another hill, much closer, loomed behind the white Opera House. The brilliance of the orange, yellow and apple green rendered even the the old houses with red roofs dull in comparison.
I caught the last of the summer colours in scarlet flowers drooping from green leaves, purple flowers sticking out of nondescript flower pots, baby pink flowers blooming from dark vases high up on building walls, proof of summer’s defiance of making way for autumn. I looked up, and under the canopy of bright greens and yellows, I could barely see the grey sky beyond. Streets with mundane traffic looked as if someone had scrubbed it clean because all my eyes could see were the trees, sticking out their radiant branches as if they want to give everyone on the road a big, warm hug.
As I walked, I ended up in the grounds around Akershus Fortress. The last time I visited it, not too long ago, it was the poster child for summer. But now, it had switched its allegiance. Rows of towering trees rolled on as I walked through the grounds. One of the high walls in the Fortress was covered with crimson leaves. Between the lush grass peaking out of dry brown and yellow leaves, and the ancient grey stone walls behind, the wall of red seemed like autumn was flaunting.
As I headed back home, I came across these berry plants tucked away from the road.
I have no idea what they are, or if they are edible. But their medley of purple, white and green made me smile. And I realised, with each photo, a string of that maze of cobwebs in my head had come undone. The webs became wisps and melted away among the colours around me.
So the next time you have a cloudy day, take a walk among nature and irrespective of how the weather is outside, you will find the sun shining within you. It is that little ball of fire within each of us that makes us feel like a glowing star and that’s the sun that really matters. Because that sun can keep us going even in the harshest of winters. And everyone I meet these days keeps telling me “Winter’s coming”. So go out and stock up on your inner sun and kick those cloudy days goodbye.
What’s your cure for a cloudy day? Share in the comments.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been surrounded by news of violence, past, present and future. The Israel – Palestine conflict in Gaza is escalating with inhuman consequences, while Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine last week killing all the 283 passengers on board. Two days back, on July 22, it was the third anniversary of the Breivik terror attack and mass murder here in Norway. And today, I woke up to the news of warnings that Norway might be the target of a terrorist attack in the next few days. There are times I’m not sure how to make sense of all this violence. So I’m writing for peace.
This poem is for all the people who have lost loved ones to violence, who have suffered or are suffering in violent conflicts all over the world. My heart and prayers go out to you.
We hide from the dark,
So we hide from the light.
If one is too deep,
The other is too bright.
The perfect world, where is it now?
Look around you,
This one we have, it still has life.
Arms we bear,
But what do we fight?
A thin line separates,
Justice from pride.
Right is wrong,
When innocence is lost.
Whatever the cause,
Does every life matter not?
Oh, the wretched irony,
Wielding violence for peace.
All that it leaves are,
Shattered lives with hopeless dreams,
Broken bonds buried in bloody memories.
Who is to blame,
We ask again and again,
The answer is plain,
Humans kill each other,
We just give it different names.
We hold our own,
Within fences and walls,
Their only fault,
They walk tall,
When we want them to crawl.
Divided we are,
By who owns what,
The land we won is already lost,
With rotten flesh and congealed blood it’s clogged.
Story so far: We travelled from Oslo to Myrdal through Finse, the highest station on the Norwegian rail network. From Myrdal, we boarded the Flåmsbana. Read Part 1 – 1222m Above Sea Level. The Flåmsbana took us through the most idyllic scenery that resembled Tolkien’s Rivendell – they even had gelato! And I had to resist the urge to move to Flåm 🙂 Read Part 2 – Finding my Rivendell on the Flåmsbana.
Part 3 – Through the Waters of Sognefjord and Back
“Bad, or good, as it happens to be, that is what it is to exist! . . . It is as though I have been silent and fuddled with sleep all my life. In spite of all, I know now that at least it is better to go always towards the summer, towards those burning seas of light; to sit at night in the forecastle lost in an unfamiliar dream, when the spirit becomes filled with stars, instead of wounds, and good and compassionate and tender. To sail into an unknown spring, or receive one’s baptism on storm’s promontory, where the solitary albatross heels over in the gale, and at last come to land. To know the earth under one’s foot and go, in wild delight, ways where there is water.” ― Malcolm Lowry, Ultramarine
At Flåm, we queued up for the Express Boat to Bergen. It was supposed to leave at 15.30 but we were still on land. Soon people boarded the boat and within minutes we were off on our five-hour boat ride through the magnificent waters of Sognefjord.
Our Express Boat, called Vingtor, was divided into two levels. The lower level had two sections of seats in the front and the back and a little café with snacks and drinks. The upper level had lesser number of seats. But it more than made up for it with a large open deck at the back, which quickly filled up with photo hungry travellers.
The boat spewed tonnes of foamy water in it’s wake as we left behind the emerald slopes and distant ice-covered peaks in Flåm. The Norwegian flag on the deck danced in the wind, proud of the beauty it represented. The sun reflected in the waters with such brilliance, we had to run in and fetch our sunglasses. After a photo frenzy, we settled in for the long ride ahead.
We realised that Flåm is close to a number of other scenic locations. Right next to it, is Aurland. The Aurland Shoe Factory there has been producing their distinct kind of loafers since the 1930s. It’s about a one and a half hour bus journey from Flåm. If you would rather bask in the glory of nature, then not too far from there is the Stegastein Viewpoint, a viewing platform about 650 m above sea level. The platform is 4 m wide and 30 m long and it’s made of laminated wood and steel. It extends 30m out from the mountains with spectacular views of the Aurlandfjord. You can reach it through Aurlandsvegen, a scenic mountain road that runs between Lærdal and Aurland. It’s also known as the snow road – it has snow along the road most of summer. Along with bus trips and various tours, there are plenty of hiking, cycling and adventure sports options available in this area to explore the Aurlandsdalen valley. We even saw some paragliders swooping over the mountains near Aurlandsvangen.
As the turquoise water and forest green mountains rolled beside us, the boat took us through a number of stops along the way. Cabins and houses were little specks on the mountain slopes. The deeper we ventured into the fjord, the terrain changed with the sun. The places where sunlight were hard to come by, the rugged mountain surface jutted out looking all craggy. But when the greenery reappeared, it was the brightest shade of green, nature’s very own golf course. Faraway ice peaks returned to keep us company. Wind howled on the boat deck. Waterfalls peeked out from jagged rocks often. It was amazing to look at the broad views as the boat travelled through the fjord. There were layers and layers of mountains, each a different shade of green and brown, all bound by the shimmering water. We made stops at places such as Lærdal, Balestrand and Gudvangen. The Magical White Caves near Gudvangen sounded magical. The Jostedalsbreen National Park, which is close to Balestrand, has tours to walk on a glacier! But alas, we had to leave them to another trip.
After some time, as the boat stopped and introduced me to little villages tucked away from anything remotely frantic, the photo monster in me calmed down. I still took many pictures, but it became more about spending time with the fjord in silence. I saw hills on islands that reminded me of the Shire that Tolkien described. The undulating greens were just the right size and shape for hobbits to live on. I almost expected to see Bilbo and Frodo’s round little door peeking out from behind a lush green hill. That’s when I realised that throughout the trip, I’ve been making references to Lord of the Rings. Other than being a proof of my geekiness, it sums up how fantastical the trip was. Luckily, every time I mentioned something Lord Of The Rings related, my husband understood exactly what I meant 🙂
Though the sun was far from setting – it’s not in vain that Norway is called the Land of the Midnight Sun – the wind became chilly and we soon had to wear our thick jackets. We decided to venture into the front of the boat. Well, it was so windy that standing in a single spot was impossible and I was worried I might fly away with the wind along with the hood on my jacket, which refused to stay on. Oh, and did I mention that when your hair is as curly as mine and gale-force winds hit you on your face, the sensible thing to do is run back through that door that you thought might be fun to open and explore just because it leads to the front of the boat!
I must confess when I started writing this post, there was a moment when I thought my words would never be able to do justice to the beauty I witnessed on that boat. I could use adjective after adjective to describe them and run out of them. To truly understand it, you have to experience it. The boat roared through the waters, it was full of people. But all I could hear was the calm of nature. Philosophers advice that inner peace is only the peace that truly lasts. But for most of us, it takes a lifetime to achieve. But the journey through Sognefjord is one of the best ways to experience the peace nature provides.
After five hours on that boat, we reached Bergen, also known as the Gateway to the Fjords of Norway. We spent the night in Bergen and caught the train back to Oslo the next afternoon. Bergen deserves to have an entire blog post of its own and that’ll be my next endeavour 🙂 By the time we reached Oslo late at night around 22.45, I knew I would have to find a way to go back to see the fjords again soon.
But next time, we’d prefer to walk/hike/ cycle through the mountains and perhaps drive down to the nature trails. Though we enjoyed the trains and boats, what I saw made me want to get a closer look, to walk through those ancient mountains, touch the icy waters, and experience the breath-taking views from some rock high up above the fjords. I would like to say I want to ski through the snow there, which, considering I’m yet to learn to ski, is highly ambitious. Hmm, I think I’ll go work on a plan to do that right now!
Story so far: We travelled from Oslo to Myrdal through Finse, the highest station on the Norwegian rail network. From Myrdal, we boarded the Flåmsbana. Read Part 1 – 1222m Above Sea Level
Part 2 – Finding my Rivendell on the Flåmsbana
“He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
The moment the Flåmsbana pulled into the platform at Myrdal, I was transported to another world. The train and all its interiors had an old world feel to it. The roof was curved with wooden panels. The lighting was soft. The only thing that made the vermillion seats modern were their ability to fold up when no one was sitting on them. There was a video screen near the exit on each end of the carriage. It showed the route the train takes and gave us updates on where we were on the route. It also gave details of every village or stop we passed by.
The train left Myrdal station at 13.27. As it picked up speed and began its downhill descent, so did our cameras. Snow covered mountain-tops stretched into the clear blue sky with fluffy white clouds and they followed us throughout our journey. The large windows in the train could be lowered from the top, which really helped when we wanted to take pictures. I had my face near the window and as wind brushed my face, I began to understand why dogs feel so happy sticking their face out of the car window 🙂
Flåmsbana is one of the steepest train lines in the world. The maximum gradient on the journey is 5.5%. It takes you from Myrdal, at 863m above sea level, to Flåm, which is at sea level. It’s a branch of the Bergen train line that connects Sognefjord with the mainline and goes through the picturesque valley of Flåmsdalen. The train runs along the Flåmselvi river down to the Flåm valley. As the train tracks turned and twisted over the mountains, we got a glimpse of the old carriages rattling along the rugged terrain. Though we went through 20 tunnels along the route, the greenery and the mountains never stopped. Bright red cabins stood out among the fresh green trees. We saw rivulets and waterfalls flowing down the mountains at every turn, the melting glaciers still at work, sculpting every surface they touch. Deep valleys and sheer cliffs surrounded us.
We made a stop at Kjosfossen, a waterfall with a free fall of 305 ft. The thundering waterfall from green moss-covered mountainsides frothed and created turquoise hues as it flowed beneath the bridge we stood on. While we took pictures there, a haunting melody echoed through the area. As mist from the water covered our eyes and lenses, a woman in red appeared among the ruins of a stone structure beside the waterfall, dancing to the music . When she disappeared, another woman emerged from the wet rocks further below, dancing close to the water. The music gave us a feel of the bygone times and people who might have lived there.
As the river winded around the floor of the valley, so did the train. We kept close to it. The water was so clear, we could see the bottom of the river from the train. The colour of water changed by the minute in the warm sun. Only nature could mix those shades of green and blue to such perfection. Water, like thin threads of confetti, poured from the peaks at every turn. Water seemed to live in every nook and corner of that valley. A few red cabins were scattered around the valley. We even found a group of campers with their tents set up by the river bank and they waved to us as the train passed them.
I felt lulled by the serenity around. And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the train came around a bend and there it was, the Flåm village, with the river flowing through it with little white ripples. The village was a collection of colourful houses and a little bridge across the river. The video pointed out the village church which has been around since 1670. In fact, it was built there to replace an older church that existed on the same sight before it was destroyed in 1670. There were roads and farms. Grassy river bank, with clusters of trees and bushes. The sun shined so bright on the valley, the only darkness and shadows were high up on the mountains. It was so picture perfect, I wished I could jump out and walk through that idyllic village. If I ever thought that the world of Elves that Tolkien wrote about could exist on Earth, then that valley and the village would be my Rivendell. But we were on a train and it had to keep moving. We followed the river to the railway station at Flåm and to the end of our train journey for the day.
The station was right next to the harbour. We had some time before we took the boat through the waters of Sognefjord to Bergen. So we walked around the area. No words could do justice to the views there. When I saw cabins line the mountains around the harbour, the writer in me wanted to move there. I imagined a beautiful cabin, waking up to those views everyday, and writing among such natural beauty – what more could I possibly want? What more could anyone possibly want? I started pointing out cabins that I could see myself living in. My practical husband – thank god one of us is – quickly reminded me about the lack of jobs and grocery stores. Where is that portable food replicator when you need one?
I think my husband was prepared for it. The last time we were around water and mountains, we were in North Wales among the tall peaks of Snowdonia. We had travelled to Wales by car. On our way back, just as we crossed into England and the plains became flatter and less green and I couldn’t see anymore woolly little sheep, I told him we should move to Wales. Even now, everything and anything from Wales makes me go all dreamy-eyed and I sigh wistfully. I’ll soon have to write a separate post about that trip and revel in all things Welsh.
You might think it’s crazy to compare Tolkien’s Elf world with a real little village and its surrounding valley. But to me, a Tolkien fan, Rivendell is the best possible description I can give of the beauty I saw before me. The imaginary world became real. And the fact that they had gelato there only made it more appealing.
‘I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy”.’
― Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I feel like a hobbit sometimes. Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with my short stature, much as people like to remind me about it. I could easily see myself living the simple quiet life in the countryside. Perhaps it has to do with adapting to the easy pace of life in Oslo. But come summer in Norway, even hobbits would want to go on adventures … em … if we had any hobbits in Norway, of course.
My call to adventure started when my family made plans to visit us in Oslo. We all agreed, ‘It’s summer. Let’s go see the Fjords.’
There are more fjords in Norway than you can count, each breathtakingly beautiful. We researched many of them. The result: I now have a list of fjords to visit and the very thought of visiting each of them makes me skip around my house in joy. Some useful links if you want to get yourself some fjord: Norway In A Nutshell; Visit Norway; Fjord Tours
We discussed how long a trip we wanted to make, what mode of transport to take, which hotel to book, where to book the hotel … As the questions piled up, we were running out of time. Over many Skype calls, emails and exchange of links, we finally decided on our adventure. We were going to Sognefjord for two days!
Sognefjord is Norway’s longest and deepest fjord. It’s 1308 m deep and 204 km long. It’s the second longest fjord in the world and is considered one of the most beautiful travel destinations in the world.
Trivia: The largest fjord system in the world is Scoresby Sund in East Greenland, which is more than 350 km (217 miles) long.
We went back and forth between taking a train and renting a car. Renting a car is a much cheaper option. But we are yet to try driving on the “wrong side” of the road in Norway – driving on the right side of the road here will take some getting used to – and we had to wave goodbye to the idea of a long road trip for now. So we chose the train. We found the Norway in a Nutshell tours helpful. This was going to be our introduction to the fjords and we could not have picked a better way to get introduced, despite the expensive tickets.
A note to those new to Norway: Everything is expensive here. Constant griping about how expensive everything is in Norway is not just expected, it’s rather appreciated. All the locals do that. So just join in. It could earn you some friends.
On a Thursday morning, we boarded the Bergen train from Oslo. We were travelling on it till Myrdal. The train left Oslo S at 08:00 in the morning. The journey from Oslo to Myrdal was a precursor of natural bliss we were to experience on this trip. The weather gods were kind to us. As the train rolled on, so did the lush emerald green hills and shimmering lakes and gurgling streams. Dots of yellow stood out in those green farms, as though they were showing off a pretty polka dress. I took photos after photos, unwilling to miss a single scenery, each a painting waiting to be captured on some artist’s canvas. Soon we saw snow covered mountains at a distance. Tall trees on gentle slopes were replaced by rugged mountains. Yet, we saw a scattering of bright coloured wooden cabins all along the route, houses oblivious to the solitude around them. The water turned aqua green, a lovely contrast to the rocky terrain. Mountain sides garnished with ice against the blue sky with puffy white clouds reminded me of scoops of chocolate sundae in a deep blue bowl.
The train made a few stops during the journey. But the most memorable was the stop at Finse, which gave travellers an opportunity to take in the picturesque sights around the station. Finse is a mountain village that sits at a height of 1222m above sea level, which makes it the highest station on the Norwegian railway network. The mirror-like clear waters of lake Finsevatnet seemed to reflect the soul of those ancient ice-covered mountains. A handful of tiny cabins and lush green grass littered its shores near the station. Despite the ice, the sun warmed me to the core. The train blew its whistle and I had to drag myself away from the lonely village which seemed to bask in its own silence, disrupted only by photo-mad tourists like me.
After Finse, Myrdal wasn’t too far. As the train went downhill, the spectacular sights went past too quickly. Myrdal station, at a height of 863m above sea level, is a junction on the Bergen Line. We got off the train at the station around 12.40 in the afternoon and went into another photo frenzy. We had over an hour to catch our next train, The Flåmsbana. In sixty minutes, the Flåmsbana transported us from Myrdal to Flåm, along with haunting music and mystic dancers, through such panoramic views that certainly made me feel like a hobbit on a quest.
“An ivory tower is a fine place as long as the door is open.”
– Darby Bannard
This week I met up with some fellow writers from my writers’ group, The Oslo Writers’ League. We sat in the beautiful green surroundings of Frogner Park. We feasted on strawberries, chocolate truffles, water melons, cheese and crackers, and more picnic goodies. As we relaxed on the lush green grass, we got our creative juices flowing with a micro-fiction exercise where each of us would start a story, pass it on to the person sitting to our right. That person would write a middle for the story and pass it on again. The third person to the right finishes the story. At the end of the exercise, we read out all the stories. We even had hungry seagulls and sparrows as our feathered inspiration! You can read our creations here.
Since I joined this group, I’ve realised what I’ve been missing. This is the first time I’ve ever been part of a writers’ group. The support and encouragement I’ve found in the group is amazing. We have writers of all levels and we inspire and motivate each other. I’ve even got ideas for stories from conversations with other writers in the group. This experience has only reaffirmed my belief that art should not be a lonely pursuit. The image of an artist toiling away in a cabin in the middle of nowhere may sound idyllic. But how long can someone sustain that?
“Putting out something that’s new in the world requires temporary removal from it.”
– Sarah Lewis
Writing, like most art forms, requires intense concentration and persistence. Writing a novel or a story when you are distracted by emails, tweets, Facebook updates, and family commitments can be exhausting and annoying. Just as you lift up your head to answer a spouse’s queries about dinner, you catch a glimpse of the tail-coat or skirt hem of your muse fleeing away from your mundane life. You make a desperate attempt to grab it, but it’s too late. The idea is gone, your spouse is upset because you snapped at them to chase that fleeting idea/muse which they obviously cannot see, and worse, you have to move on to make dinner. Easier to just live in a hermit’s hut you think? Trust me, that doesn’t work.
We humans are social creatures and art is a means of communication and self-expression. So who are we communicating with if we don’t want to be around anyone? Temporary isolation is essential for an artist. But the problem with complete isolation is that we give up on having a support system. Artists are prone to depression, self-doubt and self-loathing because we have been led to believe that we can do our best work only in absolute isolation. Being social does not mean you should stop in between your painting or writing to tweet. You don’t build support systems that way, you only manage to procrastinate. What sustains us are meaningful relationships formed with supportive and encouraging people. The alternative: You run out of ideas, inspiration, and life, while you wait in that idyllic cabin on your own to create that all elusive masterpiece that refuses to happen. And you end up alone, without anyone to listen to you gripe about it.
I’ve found that being a part of lovely group of fellow writers (or artists) has many benefits. You have others who go through similar struggles as you do – trying to find time to write, fixing a plot or characterisation problem, searching for references for a historical or scientific fact that you want to include in your story. They understand, and they generously help and share their wisdom.
It can be terrifying to trust other people who do what you do and open yourself to criticism. I’ve met some artists who avoid talking to other artists because their biggest fear is that someone would steal their ideas. It’s sad that we are constantly told that we live in a competitive world and the only way to “win the game” is to not share what we know with others. Of course, there are people who do steal others’ ideas, who like to put down others to make themselves feel better. But they are not the norm. They don’t realise that it’s much more fun when we share what we know. Sharing knowledge helps us learn from each other, learn from each other’s mistakes.
As a writer, it’s great to have people who can poke holes in a story you’ve written and be objective about it. It’s certainly helps to find problems in your story before you approach an agent or a publisher who really don’t have the time to help you learn. The benefit of having a fellow writer read your writing is that they don’t just read as your audience, they read it as a writer. So they can tell you about ways to improve it and they give you a different perspective, which adds depth to your writing. Since I’ve joined the writers’ group, I’ve had more “Aha! I didn’t think of that” moments than I can count. I get to learn and I get to share what I know. And I’m glad that I have people to help me, and I don’t have to do it alone.
Are you an artist who likes to interact with other artists and how has it helped you? Share your experiences in the comments.
“I think you travel to search and you come back home to find yourself there.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
When someone asks me where I am from, I hesitate. My answer varies depending on what I think they really want to know about me. Sometimes I say I’m from London. Sometimes I add that I grew up in India. When I meet someone who is familiar with India, the next question they ask is where am I from in India. I pause. I hum and haw. With an embarrassed smile, I tell them it’s difficult for me to answer as I’ve lived all over the country and I couldn’t really call one place or city home. Now I’ve moved to Oslo and it’s not getting any easier to answer. And just yesterday my husband asked me if I’d ever want to live in New York!
Though I grew up in India, I’ve moved so much there, I’ve never felt a sense of belonging anywhere. I’ve studied in over five different schools and lived the longest in a city I got used to but never really loved. I’ve nursed a secret envy for people who have childhood friends, the ones they’ve known since kindergarten. As a child, it was easier to think of our move as a game. I got to see a new place, meet new people, learn new languages and experience new cultures. What’s not to like? I got to learn so much everywhere I lived and I’m eternally grateful for that. And somehow, never once did I question where I belonged. “Nowhere” seemed like a perfectly good answer.
When I moved to London, for the first time in my life, I felt at home. I missed my parents but I was surprised at how quickly I adapted to my new life. It’s not meant to be that easy, is it? Perhaps because I was in love and I got to enjoy life as a real adult (you know, living in your own house, cooking, working, paying bills) and I got to share my life with someone great, everything felt right. I guess I had fine-tuned myself to jump from place to place. I was right to question the ease I felt. It didn’t last long. The crash came soon enough when I struggled with my career and was drowning without a sense of belonging. The flood gates I had held tight shut were thrown open when I least expected it. The waves kept hitting me and I shattered under it’s force. I could not avoid the question anymore. I had to brave finding an answer or face the risk of losing myself completely. Slowly and painfully, I sifted through my life and I realised that the sense of belonging I was looking for does not come from a place or from certain people. It had to come from within. Rather than belonging to a place, I found that when I was happy with myself, I belonged – with my life, with the people I love and who love me, with everything around me. That feeling of love and contentment within made me feel secure. That is home after all, a place where you can be yourself and feel safe.
So when we thought about moving to Oslo from London, the decision to move was a leap of faith that my husband and I decided to take. We wanted to experience living in another city and Norway is great for work-life balance. We knew Oslo would be a big change from London. But, Oslo surprised me.
There is a notion that Norwegians are not friendly and they are reserved and not open to new people. I don’t know how true that is but since I’ve moved to Oslo, I’ve met some amazing people. I’ve lived in London for years and hardly seen my neighbours. The day we moved into our flat in Oslo, every single person who passed by were friendly and welcoming. I joined the Oslo Writers’ League – a writers’ group predominantly made up of expat writers from all over the world. Some of them have lived in Norway for many years. I met fellow writers who are warm, encouraging and generous. As luck would have it, they were in the process of publishing their second anthology. And the themes for the anthology: Crossroads and Identity! So I submitted my poem, “Vulnerable”, and it was included in the anthology. On May 20th, we had the book launch for the anthology, All the Ways Home ( available on Amazon US, Amazon UK and The Book Depository). I heard some of the writers speak about their writing process and their story or poem in the anthology. I was surprised how much all us have in common. Each straddling different cultures and homes, all bound together by our passion for writing. Some called two different cities home, while some, like me, realised that living in different places has changed them in so much that they don’t feel like they really belong in any one of those worlds perfectly. Fitting into a single world is not meant for us. As our editor very wisely put it, we are figuratively homeless and we search for identities and homes that extend beyond a place. For some, home is where the heart is. But if your heart lies spread across countries, a firm sense of “This is where I belong” becomes a journey of exploration.
I read the book and every tale took me on such a journey. A woman who had a miscarriage and felt relief that she could finally have a career, a poet who paid tribute to a friend who had committed suicide, a writer who saw her life as chapters split between Lebanon and Norway, a writer who never felt at home anywhere – the stories kept coming and I was drenched in their emotions. And when I finished reading it, I knew I wasn’t alone in my search and that I had others to share it with. In life, it doesn’t matter where we start or where our destination lies. The journey is what matters. Our identities are not bound to a single place. It’s decided by our experiences and how we see ourselves through them. It helps us learn more about ourselves and who we really are. And with every lesson, we find our sense of belonging within ourselves.
All the proceeds from the sale of this book is going to Utdanningshjelpen, a charity in Norway that sponsors education for children in countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique and Ethiopia. Everyone who was involved in the making of this book, volunteered their time and talents to make it happen.
So go ahead and buy it, because the stories and poems in this book will change the way you look at where you belong.
My poem “Vulnerable” was published in Oslo Writers’ League anthology, All the Ways Home. The themes of the anthology were ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Identity’. I submitted this poem under ‘Identity’.
All the proceeds from the sale of this book is going to Utdanningshjelpen, a charity in Norway that sponsors education for children in countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique and Ethiopia. Everyone who was involved in the making of this book, volunteered their time and talents to make it happen. If you want to read soulful and poignant stories and poems by some very talented writers, do go buy the book and support a great cause.