Part 1 – Arriving in Lillehammer
The distance from Oslo to Lillehammer is only 170 kilometres, about the same as between Mumbai and Pune. Unfortunately, I had to stick to the speed limit, and what would normally take us a couple of hours from Mumbai to Pune, took me three here! While heavy snow drifts lined the flanks of the road, the lanes themselves were remarkably free from snow and ice. I passed two or three “salting” trucks, spraying the road surface to keep ice from forming.
I reached Lillehammer and found my hotel to be the one furthest up the hillside, set amid a large flat platter of pure white snow. Morten at the desk was really helpful. He gave me a couple of leads for ski instructors and I managed to book a lesson online (oh the wonders of the internet!) for the next afternoon, Friday. It suited my plans fine because I planned to return to Oslo on Saturday.
Friday dawned, overcast and grey. I put on my ski pants which are basically fancy pyjamas with suspenders, the waist band coming almost upto the ribcage. It is not a dress I would recommend one to wear and look at oneself in the mirror. Seen Obelix in the comic strip “Asterix and Obelix”? Aah. I leave the rest to your imagination. And before you say it… NO! I am not FAT!
Part 2 – Learning to ski
The ski school was at Hafjell, twenty minutes down the highway. In my eagerness to get started, I landed up there a full hour earlier than required and tramped around in my new boots, trying to find the deepest, softest snow to give them a thorough workout. Net result, my feet remained dry and warm but people in the cabins in the area probably reported a madman tramping around without skis.
As the gondola moved up through the clouds, it burst upon a scene of controlled frenzy. The slopes were filled with people speeding along on skis, appearing to move out of harm’s way at the very last minute. My instructor, Erik, was a cheerful soul, dressed in a red ski suit. He told me skiing was very easy and all I had to do was make sure I put my weight on my whole foot and did no lean back. Along with the fact that my skis were 2mm wider in the front than in the middle and 1mm at the back, I should find it child’s play. Well, in the hour-and-a-half long session, he taught me how to “fishbone” uphill, how to glide downhill, how to “walk-slide” on the flats. But however hard he tried, he could not get me to “plough” to a stop. Now this requires your feet to go pigeon-toed, pushing the front of the skis together without touching while splaying out the rear ends. I finally decided there was one failsafe way of stopping. Coming to the end of a slide, I’d shout “Yippee” and fall over gracefully on my left. It worked every time! I took consolation from the fact that I did see a couple of Norwegians too using the same method but I am sure I fell more elegantly than they did!
After all this strenuous exercise, it was a pleasure enjoying the sauna in the hotel. There were only three guests in the entire hotel that could hold maybe a hundred and only I was using the sauna. But it was promptly switched on for me when requested.
My original plan was to drive back home on the Saturday morning – Christmas eve. But the weather forecast at Hafjelltoppen, the ski centre, was marvellous. Eight degrees below zero, meaning firm snow, and bright sunshine. I weighed the options. I could go home or I could stay on and go skiing again. My skis were waxed with “blue super” which was supposed to be good upto three below zero. I had another “blue super extra” suitable till five below zero safely left behind back home. Another lesson: to be a true blue skier, you have to carry atleast five waxes around all the time – that’s what all the pockets on the ski suit are for! A little research on the internet and I convinced myself that the wax would work fine, it would only give me more grip. After all, with the 2mm – 1mm fuss, I was sure this was just another crazy Norwegian thing to politely nod my head at.
So I decided to stay on. And considering there were only three of us in the hotel, they obliged. Interestingly, I only saw the other two at breakfast which probably meant that the three of us were not only in separate rooms, but in separate buildings, each having some thirty odd rooms!
Part 3 – Going solo
The next day I trundled back up to Hafjelltoppen. Like a seasoned pro, I changed my shoes in the car and hobbled in a little more dignified way to the gondola. The scene on top was like a page taken out of a fairy-tale book. It was clear across the valley and the dark conifers formed a chequerboard with the snow. I put on my skis and after a few warm-up slides, started down the trail. It was the enchanted forest in reality. The white path lay amidst dark conifers, their branches groaning under the burden of the snow. The sun-kissed tops blazed in gold and the silence and peace was thick enough to cut with a knife. Even the squeak of my ski poles seemed sacrilegious in this cathedral. I dropped the “Yippee” from my patented stopping procedure.
As I glided through the woods, or more accurately, puffed my way through them, I realised why skiing was so popular. It’s not only good exercise, but it helps you enjoy a kind of peace and solitude made especially profound by the damping effect of the snow. Some might find it eerie but to me the sound of silence there was almost ethereal. I reached a bridge spanning over a small gorge. The expansive view from there was amazing, the proverbial icing on the cake. I covered a little over two kilometres before reaching a crossroads and deciding to turn back. The last slide down was fast and furious, ending with the by now perfected side-stop. The ski lift operator had seen me perfecting this manoeuvre earlier and gave me a big grin.
I walked over to the café and had a hot Irish coffee. When I came out again, the sun was already low on the horizon and the entire world seemed to be bathed in a golden light. The slopes were now completely empty. I waked back to the gondola station. But the gondolas seemed to be going the wrong way – down into some sort of cellar! I saw a couple of employees drag some cartons out of the café and up to the gondolas. Excuse me, but how do I get down? I asked timidly. Oh, but the gondola is now closing. OK, you can ride with us down in the last one, but if you’d been even a minute later, we’d have left. And how would I have got down? Oh, you could ski down in about twenty minutes. Really? Down a thirty degree slope on cross-country skis?
Eight of us got into the last gondola down. Tor, Tron, his son Ruben, Yasin, Julia, Laura and Kassi. And as we glided over the steep slopes, everyone looked down and offered their theory of how I could have made it down – none of which filled me with any confidence. I just thanked the powers that be for not spending even a minute more in that blissful solitude! Well, the talk turned around to what an Indian was doing skiing in Norway. And someone asked me how I was going to celebrate Christmas. I replied that I’d probably repeat the sauna-pizza routine and type an email to my friends. They were extremely upset – how can you be alone on Christmas Eve. No way. You must come over to my place, said Kassi, we’d love to have you over for dinner. Now I’d learnt that Norwegians believe in celebrating Christmas Eve with their family only. So I politely declined, thinking it was sweet of her to offer. But then I learnt another important lesson. A Norwegian will not say something unless he or she really means it. And they will not invite you home only out of courtesy or politeness. No need to read between, over or under the lines. Take them at face value.
Part 4 – A Norwegian Christmas
Well, Kassi insisted on getting my number, gave me her address and insisted that I come over. She followed that up with an sms later, saying she’d checked with her mum and they would be delighted to have me over. Now the mad rush began to find a gift. You don’t carry bottles of wine or sundry gift articles on ski trips. And being Christmas Eve, everything… and I mean EVERYTHING, including the toilets at the gas stations, was closed! Morten to the rescue! I managed to wheedle a bottle of wine out of him. And with a little bow made out of the red paper napkins from the pizza dinner the night before plus the tape from my first aid kit, a fairly presentable gift was conjured up.
The drive to Kassi’s home took about forty-five minutes, the last few kilometres over some truly dark and winding roads. Add to that the slick surface and I decided that if it were not in Norway, I’d seriously doubt whether I had not been taken for a ride… literally! I cannot describe the house from the outside because it was too dark to see. But the inside was like everything one would imagine a Norwegian farmhouse to be. Large wooden rooms with a warm glow from the candles, a fire crackling in each room, either in an iron stove or an open fireplace. Every room was meticulously decorated for Christmas. A beautiful Christmas tree stood in magnificent isolation in one room with gifts piled high below it. I was warmly received by Kassi’s brother, Tor and introduced to the entire family amid a lot of handshaking, warm welcomes and outrage at the fact that I would plan to be alone on Christmas Eve. I seemed to have stepped straight into the happy-ending part of a Charles Dickens’ novel.
Tor happens to be one of four master chefs who have started The Flying Culinary Circus. They fly to various parts of the world to prepare some of the finest feasts for royalty and the rich and famous. But I am sure that none of these banquets would rival the special dinner he had made for his family that night. After having heard about it from many of my colleagues, I finally sat staring at a Smalahove, a sheep’s head. It had been cut perfectly in half and now it lay there on my plate staring balefully at me out of its left eye and snickering at me with its tongue jutting out between the jawbones. It was delicious – including the eye – the meat on the cheek being so tender, it simply melted in the mouth. The only part I left behind was the outer covering of the tongue which seemed to taste of old leather. And then there was the pinnekjøtt, pork ribs, and potatoes, and a sour cabbage and sausages and… I forget the rest.
So from the prospect of a lonely pizza for dinner (and even that, come to think of it, might not have been possible considering everything was closed) I was stuffed with a traditional Norwegian meal cooked by a master chef and served in a three hundred year old house to the accompaniment of much laughter and gaiety.
After dinner, there was more gluhwein, more chatter, more shifting from one room to another, opening of the presents, some singing to the accompaniment of an accordion or a guitar, lots of warmth and merriment in an atmosphere that I had never imagined I would be a witness to. I returned to the hotel at four in the morning having struggled the whole time to keep my eyes dry.
I am now convinced that Norwegians wrongly berate themselves for not being hospitable. Here was a stranger from a foreign land, totally unknown to anyone in the room, invited on the spur of the moment to share the most sacred family tradition on a day Norwegians strictly celebrate with their family – not even friends.
Maybe this is a special family, maybe I shall be hard put to find another one like it. I don’t know.
A rationalist would argue that it was merely a set of coincidences. I don’t know.
What I believe is that God’s angels walk amongst us and however hard we may struggle to hide it, however hard we may deny it to ourselves, they can read the truth in our hearts. I have experienced it many times in my life and I am sure, if you think hard enough, you may do so in your own.
That day, my angel met me in the last gondola down from Hafjelltoppen. And for me the miracle of Christmas came truly alive.
And to echo Tiny Tim, God bless us, every one.