Tag Archives: Norwegian Woods

Minding the Gap with Sophia

Minding the Gap with Sophia

Herb and SophiaThis is your gap year, the year between your fourteenth birthday and fifteenth, between eighth grade and high school, between girlhood and young womanhood.

Born in late November, you, like your father and me, are one to two years younger than your classmates, a gap that was barely noticeable when you were in early middle school, but that has become much more apparent as you enter your teens.  This year abroad will help you bridge that gap, entering high school at the same age as your peers.

You are tall for your age, but still seem young among your classmates. At your graduation some of your peers crossed the platform to receive their diplomas in grownup dresses and suits with ties, already bearing the shape and heavy footfalls of the adults they will become.   You stood with your sunflower in your age appropriate white dress, an English rose in the California sunshine; the girl next to you wore a strapless white number and heels, looking as sleek and glamorous as a 26 year old, the illusion only broken when she rushed to her friends, shrieking with giggles.

in spain.pngA year sounds like a long time but here we are in May and you are three quarters finished with your gap year. Madrid, London, Rome, Geneva, Oslo…your gap year has been so packed with travel and study, it seems misnamed – Crammed Full of New Experiences Year is more apt (though unpoetical).

At 14 your passport has a lot of stamps in it; at the same age, I did not even know what a passport was, doing all of my traveling in books. At 14 the farthest I’d ever been from home was the Missouri Ozarks to visit my grandparents, where nothing much ever happened unless you count my mom (also at age 14) being crowned Carnival Queen.

girlsYou spent the fall in Madrid in full immersion language study, attending a Spanish middle school. I thought of you often during those months, wondering what life was like, totally surrounded by people speaking a language you had, at the time, only a beginner’s grasp of. I was glad your host family has a daughter your age. You shared pictures of your new friends, managing to look simultaneously reassuringly girlish and alarmingly grown up.

In your blue plaid Catholic school uniform, you remind me of my own self at the same age; our uniforms were green, but otherwise, the parochial school education I received three decades ago in the Midwest was pretty much identical to the one you are getting in Madrid this fall.

“There are no group projects, ever,” you informed us. “We just sit and listen to the teacher who stands at the front of the room and talks. “ This contrasted sharply with your progressive education in the San Francisco Bay Area, where student collaboration and leadership of their own curriculum are cornerstones of middle school education.

caceres.pngYou kept your blog dutifully if desultorily.   Your writing is direct, unadorned, reportorial rather than revealing. I suspect this is by design – you have always been a close one. You snapchat us funny selfies that show you looking leggy, unfamiliar and beautiful in your Spanish Catholic girl uniform; we send you pictures of Jake sleeping on your bed, videos of Jake romping in your beloved coastal headlands of California. In this way we stay in each other’s daily lives.

Jake misses you. If we say your name, his tail thumps, and he swivels his head toward the front door with hopeful expectancy.  While you gallivant around the world visiting the world’s largest supercollider, Picasso’s Weeping Woman, Vigeland’s Wheel of Life sculptures, Jake sleeps on your bed, sometimes with one of your stuffed animals between his  paws – usually the rabbit but sometimes the owl.  He never tears their eyes out.  He startles me sometimes, his brown head lifting up attentively as I walk down the hall very late or very early, past the open door to your room; for a second I think it is you and then remember, you will not be home for many months yet.

You have a two week respite between studies in London and Madrid, and to no one’s surprise you chose Norway, a wild landscape that seems to have captured your heart as completely as it did mine, and fits your father like an old favorite coat. It’s a lot like Michigan, he says, and indeed, with his Nordic complexion and habit of wearing all-weather gear and mountaineering boots he is mostly indistinguishable from the natives.

house2We are staying in a fairy tale house made of reclaimed wood with a traditional roof that has daisies and grasses growing from it, the Norwegian woods rising up all around us. For you this is a break from being studious, for me this is a break from working nearly non-stop for too many months in a row, so we don’t mind the pouring rain and have no particular plans other than to read in the morning and build a fire in the evening and make pancakes and coffee on the beach in the afternoon, weather permitting.

You were the only one to brave the freezing Oslo Fjord – even the Norwegian among us demurred, but, hardy herself as all Norwegian women seem to be, admired how you stayed in for a good long swim. I can’t feel my arms, you call out to us, laughing but undeterred.   In this you are like your father, seemingly able to withstand any amount of cold when immersed in something you love – not only not suffering but laughing with enjoyment.

Your sister flew in from Amsterdam to join us, and after dinner one evening we went for a walk. With your long hair blowing in a chill spring wind that brings fresh roses to your fair-skinned cheeks, the two of you remind me of Athena and Artemis taking a break from your goddessy duties to sample the rain-scrubbed air and giggle together.

In an age where parents commonly bemoan the sight of their children glued to their electronic devices, Snapchatting and watching You Tube videos, you can be found more often with book in hand than phone. Texts to you might go unanswered for days at a time, something both your dad and I find more reassuring than annoying.  You have always been a dreamy one, enjoying your solitude. At age 11, after a class trip to Joshua Tree your conversation was not about boys or what this or that friend said, but the periods of solitude in nature that you were able to find, even amongst the mob of kids.

Three years later you are not much changed in this regard; in our time in Norway, when not running the trails or visiting museums you can most predictably be found tucked away reading in a corner window seat. You are content here, the woods looming all around, the sound of the rain and wind and locusts and conversations in distant parts of the house humming just below your consciousness. In this we are alike: I spent most of my time at your age with my nose in a book, or sitting at the edges of conversational circles observing, alone but not lonely, a distinction you seem to instinctively understand and appreciate.

gulhallaI marvel constantly at your self-assurance in strange settings. You are utterly unintimidated by public transportation, and I watch with some amazement as you confidently consult the maps and route boards for train, tram, ferry, bus, subway and trolley, calmly working out the transfers and then announcing “We take the L1 on Platform 4 toward Spikkestad, or we can take the R33 toward Gullhalla then catch the Metro.”

I tell you about my own first experience with the subway, in London, with an entire crew of colleagues – some of them Ph.D. engineers – preferring to expensively taxi around rather than risk the subway, too impatient or simply unwilling to learn the unfamiliar.   At my indignant insistence that we travel as locals not tourists I strode fearfully but purposefully into Picadilly Circus and figured out the Tube, a nominal feat as it turned out, with everything color-coded so simply a child could learn. I was 29, nearly twice the age you are now, with half the mastery.

You found it hard to believe that something so naturally easy for you would be challenging for grown-ups and I smile inwardly, wondering if this is your earliest encounter in the inevitable disillusionment with adulthood all children must face: that age does not always confer wisdom or guarantee greater experience. That sometimes, the young know more than the old, and must lead the way. Watching you, I have no doubt you will be ready when that time comes.

I feel a bit sorry that she is spending so much time with old fogies like us, joked one of your gap year mentors. She is an energetic woman in her sixties, a brilliant professor who is retired now but still a tireless learner and treasured family friend. Friends are so important to kids at this age, she observed. But you have always been an ‘old soul’ in that regard, as comfortable being the only child in a room of adults as you are amongst your peers.

Near the end of our time together in Norway, before your father and I return to San Francisco and you jet off to England, we find ourselves in bustling Oslo Central Station. The platform is crowded with tired workers, newly arrived travelers and local shoppers, but you thread your way effortlessly through them to the correct platform.

norway 4It has rained steady and hard on our sightseeing day, and we are drenched and tired, the type of situation that brings out anxiety and crabbiness in most adults. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this (but more likely to simply rid himself of his last Kroner) your dad makes an almost unheard of purchase from a vending machine and we share around the booty: Snickers for him, Twix for me, you sampling each.

Wow I haven’t had a candy bar since last Halloween, you remark, then correct yourself: the Halloween before last, actually.   I reflect that perhaps this, as much as anything else, marks the end of your childhood – an indifference to candy and the American holiday that glorifies it.

We all perk up at the sugar, which helps us shake off the doldrums of a long day coming to an end.   On the trip home you gaze out the window, lost in thought, and I surreptitiously photograph you, something you notice no more than the constant furtive little glances of young men as they pass you on the street and in the shops.


You are as yet unaware of your beauty and the effect it has, another final remnant of girlhood. As I watch you, an image of you arises in my mind’s eye, your suddenly womanly form emerging dripping from the freezing Oslo Fjord, a sight whose loveliness will take the world’s breath away someday, but for now, is still the provenance of your girlhood and those of us lucky enough to witness the last of it.







In the Norwegian Woods with Sophia


ImageAt eleven, you have already traveled extensively: Tahoe, New York, London, Spain, Hawaii, Iceland.   This summer we visited friends who live in the woods on the outskirts of Oslo.  The home in all its bohemian rhapsody could not be more different from your mom’s paean to sophisticated modern luxury back home in the city. Here, the bare wood face of the house is crowned with a thatch roof where grasses, daisies, seedling trees and ferns wave to and fro in the cool breezes.   It lends this house a fairy tale air, with its weathered boards and mossy statues hidden among the wild blueberry thickets that blanket the back yard.

ImageInside the house are piled, stacked and propped everywhere towers and troves of books, oddities, treasures and antiques from the family’s travels across Europe.  Your bed for the week is a wide-bodied, elderly leather couch (Spanish) laid with an actual wolf skin (Norwegian) in front of a great ancient stone (French) fireplace where you take great delight in stoking a roaring fire each night.  Your dad and I sleep above you in a crow’s nest of a room with one wall composed entirely of a mélange of antique windows, where we drift to sleep in the flickering orange-and shadow glow of your pyrotechnics.

Although your young life includes the luck of luxury, you’ve always been a camper at heart.  By age four you were a veteran of tenting in the wilds of the backyard deck, your preferred venue for popcorn and movies. Your dad and I would creep upstairs to sleep on a bed vs. boards for a few hours, then creep back down before you woke.  I was certain you never knew, because if you woke up in the wee hours alone in the dark in the backyard like that, we’d surely hear it  through the crackling sentinel of the baby monitor.

But the baby monitor emitted only the soft sounds of your breathing, and we congratulated each other on our stealth, only to have you much later remark casually over your Cheerios, “You guys sure were gone a long time.”    We laughed and I asked you why you didn’t come up and join us in bed. “Because we were camping,” you say, with perfect comfort-is-for sissies disdain.

Since then you’ve camped in all manner of places – from beside the Blackwood Canyon creek in Tahoe, to the remote lakes alongside the rugged mountain biking trails of Downieville.  You’ve camped in Idaho, Nevada and California.   But it is here in Norway, that your jones for camping is finally, fully satisfied: outdoor life is not so much a respite from daily life as a part of it.

Our first day you are charmed to take part in a Norwegian custom of a breakfast barbeque right on the windy beach, the sound of the water lapping counterpoint to the crackling fire.  We make pancakes in a cast iron pan, the batter thick with blueberries we’ve picked from the  back yard that same morning.  You even sip the coffee percolated over the fire in a bialetti well-darkened with age.  Afterwards we swim in the fjord water, its icy sharpness snatching our breath away.

foodIt is the first of many meals on the beach, the wind sending the smoke after first one, then another of us, as we gather around the grill propped between rocks with its bounty of mackerel, salmon, peppers, and asparagus spears laid out like soldiers on the grill

The people of this house are as lovely and unique as the surroundings; we both agree that Ingvild, with her slim limbs and long, wild curly mane looks just like a mermaid. It seems almost impossible that she is the mother of four, ranging from age 8 to 20.  The boys have the famous Norwegian tow-headed beauty of the crown princess herself, the girls  with  the same thick flowing locks of their mother are sun-and-moon beautiful, one blonde, one dark.

Theirs is not a lifestyle but a life lived in natural full; the garden is an abundance of greens, herbs and edible flowers which find their way to our dinner table each night. The soaps are handmade, the jams are home-canned, and the great porcelain bowls of eggs laid at nearby neighbors’ farms.

Everything here doesn’t just look old, it is; from the metal café chairs (Greek) with the pillows softening the seats (Turkey)and the leather poufs (Moroccan) and the wooden steps that creak with Grimmish maleficence at night, the entire house is painted in a patina of time.

The bathtub is a century old; our host asserts that indeed, his wife can float within its depths, news at which you and I exchange a secret mermaid glance.

At night, the rushing Norwegian wind slithers through the cracks between the reclaimed wood walls with a hiss that makes you shiver with the ghost of winter’s past, even in the midst of midsummer, and sleeping by the leaping light of a fire I find, as you seem to, a comfort that is about more than mere warmth.

Another day finds us on another beach, where we perch on rocks above the fjord waters and eat fresh caught shrimp Norwegian style: open faced sandwiches with mayonnaise and just-picked dill, plus a squeeze lemon .   Shrimp are of the few foods you’ve never cared for, but you cheerfully twist off pink shrimp heads and tails into a pile for the seagulls to squabble over.

We wadImagee into the fjord like old pros; the water is a touch less icy here, protected as it is from the wind.  The water is clear and we can see straight to the bottom to the blue mussel shells piled amongst great moss-carpeted stones, where the white and purple starfish pulsing gently with the lapping waves are almost unremarkable in their expected magic.

Your entry into seventh grade has augured many new developments, including (what seems like overnight) an extra twelve inches (all in your legs!) and a transition in sports focus,  from soccer  to cross country.  I am thrilled to see you embrace running, which you have a natural gift for.  I made the same transition at about the same age, and nearly forty years later I’m still running and even sometimes winning, which is not lost on you or your quiet competitive intensity.

ImageYou run with a deceptive long-legged diffidence, whether the terrain is through city streets or mountains, and the Norwegian woods are no different.   Only a half mile from the house and we are running a single track deep under the dripping tree canopy, you bouncing along ahead, our feet thumping across the mossy, rocky, root-strewn trail.   Your improbably long legs cover the ground in a skipping lope that looks as aimless and effortless as a dragonfly –  an elegant deception that utterly  belies your actual speed,  which is as sure  as it is startling.  Though you never seem to even breathe hard, you are the fastest in your grade, not just among the girls but the boys too.

How far was that, you ask me afterwards, and marvel when I estimate four miles, and how the miles passed almost unnoticed.  We agree that trail running with its elevation climbs and steep descents, is nonetheless easier than track running, where the simple brutal monotonous measure of the distance confronts the runner at each step.  Already you run with the heart (and the frantic hamster wheeling mind) of a true champion.

Later we revisit the same path, this time hunting mushrooms for the evening’s meal, a sopprisotto.  We venture well off the rocky single track trail we had pounded down earlier.  Off the trail the landscape is rocky and unforgiving, boulders poking up through the thin forest soil like the humped backs of buried brontosaurs.  Our shoes and pant legs are immediately soaked in the long grasses and fiddlehead ferns still heavy with the morning’s rain.  The tree branches form a canopy overhead that drip drip drips all around us.

We find pale mushrooms and dark, small in crowds and huge and craggy loners, speculating if the ugly ones were more likely to be poisonous. We  hold out our finds to our Norwegian mermaid, who has two bags: one for mushrooms she recognizes, one for the mushrooms she’ll look up in her book back home.  You ask why they need to be separate and I tell you about the movie The Beguiled, starring poison mushrooms as the murder weapon of choice by a little girl who doesn’t want her sister to run off and marry Clint Eastwood’s Union Soldier.   You are respectful of the power of a mere vegetable, and your dislike of mushrooms is shiveringly reinforced.

The sopprisotto turns out well.   Norwegians in general are deadly serious about their coffee, and these Norwegians of ours with all their world travels are particularly deadly serious about their wine, so our sopprisotto with garden salad and roasted root vegetables – a meal we’ve assembled almost entirely from the backyard and surrounding woods –  is paired with a biodynamic wine (Argentina) poured from a fragile-looking  decanter (France)

ImageAnother day we visit a park crowded with the sculpture of Vigeland; the sculptures themselves are crowded with humanity, a tangle of arms and legs and heads tumbling together in great groaning groups and tortured spires. We try but do not find the sculpture of a monster eating children, one in his mouth, three more screaming in his arms.   We laugh at the idea of such a sculpture appearing in any American park, ever.

On still another day we wander up the road with our buckets until we find great clusters of wild raspberry bushes.  The fattest, reddest berries hang on the lowest branches and fall into our hands at the merest touch.  We wade deep into the bushy depths, you chanting in a low voice “one for the bucket, one for my mouth; one for the bucket, one for my mouth.”

A seven day vacation seemed like an eternity when it starts, but the day of leaving finally arrives.  The rains have finally cleared  and in the early morning light the sky is scalloped with salmon clouds.  The stone fountain with its silent watching angel tinkles goodbye, the lily pads in the pond undulate gently, the daisies nod at us from the roof.

Hugs are given all around and you inform you love Norway,  Typically (ever the Bridge)  you decline to list a favorite thing about it – there were too many, you say, though you quickly add “blueberry pancakes on an open fire at the beach” at the exact moment I imagine you in that same scene, bending delightedly over a cast iron pan, your hair whipping across your forehead, your rain-spattered face lit with a smile.

ImageWinding down toward the train station we note that only a few of the traditional thatch roofs can be seen – red metal seems all the rage these days. We discuss how roofs are the perfect place, really, for daisies. Your favorite flower would always be there, you say, and wouldn’t that be nice?  And I agree, having one’s favorite flower growing constantly overhead would be a fate I’d wish on anyone.  As we start our long journey home I picture it for a moment, every roof across the world dotted with daisies, a scene to rival the star-spread sky.