BRUNOST IN BERGEN

BRUNOST IN BERGEN
[SEPTEMBER 2019]

Pit pat! Pit pat! The rain falls gently upon my umbrella. Crunch! I feel the uneven gravel underfoot as I trudge through the tranquil avenue. Earlier this morning, I had been looking out from the ship at a dusky blue sky over a dusky blue ocean, a scene devoid of all warmth, yet still welcoming; icy, yet enticing. I am in Bergen.

After walking a short distance from the car park, I arrive at the Edvard Grieg museum, where I learn about arguable Norway’s most well-known composer. During the tour, I am astonished to hear that Grieg was in fact very sickly, even contracting tuberculosis, which caused one of his lungs to collapse. Such suffering seems to stand as a stark contrast to the creativity of his compositions. As I amble through the house Grieg spent his summers in, I am surprised to see how sparsely furnished it is. I can’t quite explain why, but somehow I expected more extravagance. Maybe this is due to the opulence now associated with classical music. Kings would have their courts laced with the beautiful notes of this art form, yet the artists themselves were often mere paupers. With that said, there are touches of beauty, in particular, the magnificent Steinway piano, received by Grieg as a gift in 1892.

After exiting the pale-yellow Villa, I make my way towards the deep red Composing Shed, in which Grieg would, I am guessing, compose. The scent of the surrounding forest is pleasing, which is more than I can say for the slippery, staggered steps down to the shed. Gripping the cold, wet rail, thoughts race through my mind. What if I slip? Are my finances in order? Most importantly, if I fall, who will care for my beloved soft toys? I reach the bottom without incident. Well, that’s anticlimactic. Snapping some selfies beside the building from which creative brilliance burst forth, I begin the deadly climb back up. I live.

The finale to this tour is an incredible concert, held in a grassy-roofed hall looking out over the lake. The first song, a lyric piece called “To Spring” is as unpredictable and changeable as the Norwegian weather, while the last, “Tempest”, is a roaring, chaotic dance of notes, its melody lost in the whirling winds of noise. I love this nature-evoking style of music. Alas, it is now time to depart. Rather reluctantly, I leave Grieg’s holiday home and meander back through Bergen.

Whoosh! Water is unleashed from silver skies and I run almost by instinct to the nearest coffee shop. Browsing through the delicious goodies, I settle on some bread and cheese. I should very much like to inform my readers that I proceed to make the purchase in fluent Norwegian. But I can’t, because I don’t speak Norwegian. Instead, I resort to the universal language of taking a photo of the food, showing the barista and smiling desperately. Thankfully, she understands and I am soon eating my bread and “brunost”. This champion of cheeses is brown in colour, sweet in taste and soft in texture. The bread, in contrast, is chewy, stuffed with raisins and lavished with butter. I don’t know what heaven is like, but it must surely contain this delicious duo.

Later, I walk briskly up the gangway back to the ship while from above, rain pelts down upon the walkway awning. Pit pat! Pit pat!
Safely on board, my thoughts turn back to Grieg, whose life of sickness and success stirs something in me. Though we may suffer, our suffering does not define us. Rather, trials can spark flames of determination that, by the breath of God, may burn brightly for eons to come.

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NAUTICAL NORWAY

NAUTICAL NORWAY
[SEPTEMBER 2019]

Majestic. Magnificent. Massive. These three words barely capture the awesome presence of the cliffs surrounding Sognefjord, Norway’s longest fjord. At over 200km long, it is sometimes called “The king of the fjords”, a well-earned title in my opinion. Switching from monochrome to colour, back to monochrome on my camera, I try to capture the essence of this jaw-dropping vista.

As our enormous cruise ship leaves the quay, I sit by the window, watching, wondering. A kayak – barely perceptible from this distance – paddles about on the emerald expanse. Dotted about the landscape are tiny wooden houses the colour of red wine. Slowly, the dramatic landscape drifts by. Seagulls swoop and soar above the foamy spray. They are the acrobats of the air. Our vessel floats from port to port, never staying long but usually long enough. There are over a thousand fjords around the country, but ships of this size only see around ten. Still, I can hardly complain.

Docked in Nordfjord, I climb into a hot tub on the top deck, watching the mists being lifted like a lace garment from the mountains. The fields seem to rise and fall like waves, with custard-coloured buildings drifting in the leaf-green landscape. Eventually, I climb out of the hot water and stand shivering in the frigid air. It’s cold. Very cold. Like the glaciers that reside amongst these glorious mountains. Majestic. Magnificent. Massive.

STUMBLING THROUGH STAVANGER

STUMBLING THROUGH STAVANGER
[SEPTEMBER 2019]

“You guys are lucky” our white-whiskered tour guide smiles. “Some people come to Stavanger and experience brilliant sunshine, but you get the experience the real Stavanger.” I don’t feel lucky, I feel wet. Very wet. Even with an umbrella, my clothes are soaked and part of me would prefer to be back on our warm, dry cruise ship, only a short distance away. Still, I am here on the coast for only a few short hours and would like to see some of Houston’s sister city. We wander along in the “regn” (that’s Norwegian for rain), admiring the beautiful boats in Norway’s third largest cruise port, the surrounding air cool and refreshing.

Throughout the city are many works of art – from bronze coloured statues to a colourful composition on the side of a building that is definitely, 100% not graffiti, honestly… the idea is apparently to make you stop and reflect on life. I can’t help but think that might be a slightly vague goal, but if I need somewhere dry to sit and do my contemplation, then at least there seem to be plenty of cafés.

As we wander along the uneven cobble streets, the sun emerges from the cloudy skies, enveloping us in a warm embrace.
Near some fresh fish restaurants that colour the air with their nautical aroma is a huge metal statue of a shrimp, donated to commemorate the lives of those lost at sea. Indeed, Norway owes much of its prosperity to the sea. And oil. How can I – or in fact, anyone – visit Stavanger and not mention this source of immense wealth? Apparently, Ekofisk, one of the North Sea’s largest oil fields was first discovered here by the Philips Petroleum company, with the news being announced on Christmas Eve, 1969. Talk about the gift that keeps on giving.

Eventually, after climbing several high hills we arrive at a bright, colourful café, where our large group is able to rest. Helping myself to coffee, I cautiously sample a thin slither of brown cheese. It is exquisite. Smooth, with a hint of nuts and almost caramel-esque taste, it is both sweet and savoury all at once. Our guide informs us that this delectable delight is formed by boiling the whey from cows’ and goats’ milk, meaning this is technically not a cheese, but a by-product of the cheese-making process. Munching through this magnificent morsel, I am treated to some waffles, with sweet jam and thick, sour cream. Savouring every bite, I could remain in that café for hours. Our guide, however, urges us on and we leave the warmth feeling rather refreshed.

Throughout the city, I am astonished to see people of all ages using scooters to get about. Although I myself love the convenience of a scooter, back in the UK these micro modes of transport are looked down upon as being little more than a toy for children. Maybe I should move to Norway…
Before heading back to the ship, I stop at a large café to grab a coffee, for which I am charged 40 Krona, or about £4. Well, Stavanger is one of Norway’s priciest locations!

Ambling back along the pale streets, breathing in the sweet scent of seaweed, I do, at last feel truly blessed to be here.
Sometimes, we must face the storm to feel the sun.

SERENITY ON THE SEAS

SERENITY ON THE SEAS
[SEPTEMBER 2019]

Klink! I hear the sound of cutlery being dropped. Crash! A large white object of porcelain has now become a multitude of smaller ones, spread on the floor. I smile, grateful that this mishandling of crockery is, at least this time, no fault of mine. My friend and I stare out across the harbour, whilst working our way through a world-class buffet. We are cruising on P&O’s flagship Britannia and, despite still being anchored, are already worlds away.

I finish my spicy curry and meander back through the counters, marvelling at the huge variety of morsels available – British, Chinese, Mexican, a dedicated salad counter… it’s a truly epic and slightly overwhelming experience. I sample some sour but delicious blue cheese, with some sweet, fresh salad, before indulging in some formidable, bitter coffee. Holding my tray in both hands, I excuse myself a hundred times as I make my way through hordes of people; it’s hard to achieve that elusive balance between respect and assertion.
The Horizon, a buffet-style restaurant, is apparently open all day and provides an incredibly relaxed ambience, in contrast to the rest of the ship. Upon entering Britannia, I was met with a majestic portrait of our Queen, looking very regal. Hanging through decks 5 and 6 is an enormous chandelier, while boutiques sell Kipling handbags, Omega watches and other items of incalculable value. My friend and I decide to indulge in this luxury and buy a Britannia t-shirt each. Just as classy.

As we explore the decks outside, the damp weather and brisk wind provide a pleasant breath of fresh air – both figuratively and literally. Over at the Sunset Bar, we relax on softly cushioned wicker chairs, sipping ice cold water. The sea is an unending expanse of shimmering teal, stretching to the horizon. Over the sapphire waves, gulls sour silently, like paper planes.

Maybe I lack a certain je-ne-sais-quoi, but the obligation of dressing up for dinner truly baffles me. Still, I do my best; select an elegant dress, pair it with some new shoes and – oh no. They squeak. My shoes squeak. Walking swiftly down the corridor, I catch the questioning glances of a family in front. Still, I force myself to walk on, head held high, hoping to look more confident than I feel. It’s fine. I’m sure Coco Chanel experienced at least one “misstep” in her glamorous career! Eventually I develop a technique that reduces the likelihood of squeaking. My friend and I pose on the regal staircase, get our picture taken then wander through a crowd of monochrome suits and sparkly dresses. Over dinner, we somehow succeed in making polite conversation with a few other guests. I bite into a dark chocolate. It is deliciously bitter.

As the night creeps in, I slip away to my cabin, where I sink into soft, welcoming pillows beneath a blanket of prayer. From a white mug with smooth, curved grooves, I sip a warm tea. Even in the midst of madness, one can find serenity on the seas.

SUMMER SENSATIONS

SUMMER SENSATIONS
[AUGUST 2019]

Swoosh! A myriad of water fountains from within the pale stone of Southampton’s esplanade spout large torrents of water. At least, they probably seem large to the young, tottering child who chases clumsily after a mini red football. To the left, Arundel Tower, part of Southampton’s Old Town Walk, looms in the midday sun. My sister and I wander through the chlorine-scented area towards West Quay’s temporary “Sensory Garden”, which we had been seeking out for what seemed like hours. Tired, we sat down to rest on a wooden bench, covered in gorgeous foliage which seemed to transport me to some far-away garden in paradise. It would have been easy to remain there a while, forgetting we were only a stone’s throw away from a bustling shopping centre. Up near the shops, the air is dominated with the smell of pizza and onion, while down here, it is more like a swimming pool thanks to the water features.

As we enter the exhibit, my sister notices small bubbles drifting towards us. We sample them. They are sweet, tasting and smelling like strawberry laces. Walking on, we stop at a piano, which my sister plays. I am not quite sure why it is here, as it doesn’t really fit the garden theme, but I suppose a piano is always welcome. Further on, there is giant bird cage and nearby is a double bed laid with flowers instead of sheets, which looks as if it could have been made for the dryads (tree nymphs) of ancient Greece. It is all so tasteful and delicate.

Later, I meet up with a friend for some afternoon tea. This tradition dates back to the 1840’s, however scones were apparently only introduced in the 20th century. Oh, how the early partakers of this wonderful British pastime missed out! Sitting on wooden benches beneath parasols, munching on sweet, sticky, apricot scones with thick, zesty cream, while sunlight streams down and children play all around, it feels like I am in another world – one where daily cares and concerns are far, far away. The hot, surprisingly decent coffee and the friendly, personable service help to complete the experience.

Overall, the Sensory Garden is small and intimate, perhaps designed not to “wow” potential visitors, but to gently entice them. It is all too easy in an increasingly virtual and superficial age to lose touch with the tangible, the real and the present. Such diversions from daily life can therefore remind us that it is more important than ever to stop and smell the roses. Or the strawberry bubbles.

TIMELESS TRANQUILLITY

TIMELESS TRANQUILLITY
[OCTOBER 2018]

There is something magical about garden centres.
As you enter, the enticing aroma of mixed spices beckons you away from the outside world.
Further into the store, a myriad of candles freshens the air with delightful fragrances, while soft, indistinct music plays in the background.
There are multitudes of jars lining the shelves, containing chutney, marmalade, jam, all shades of red and orange. What sort of preservative do you fancy? One for toast in the morning, or one for cheese after dinner?
Perching on milky white shelves are mugs, aprons, notebooks and a variety of other knick-knacks.
You don’t need any of these things, but you want them anyway.
This cup adorned with small birds would make a lovely gift for someone, while that frame with inspirational words could look splendid on someone’s wall.

There are memories here too; memories of walking around stores like this in December, picking out Christmas decorations with grandparents.
There are memories of parents discussing how tall the Christmas tree can be; Mum thinks the bigger one will fit, but Dad is not so sure.
Sometimes the memories are as clear as the glass jars on sale, others are flaky, like the soft bark of the yucca tree.
You can make new memories too; memories of chatting over bitter coffee with friends, of sipping creamy hot chocolate with family, or of glancing through a newspaper over a flavoursome cheese sandwich.

Garden centres are anomalies in space and time, taking you out of the cold, sometimes scary present, back to the warm, comforting past, where you could curl up on the sofa with a cup of tea and watch the world go by.

EMERALD EDEN

EMERALD EDEN
[JUNE 2019]

In southern Cornwall far from home
Eden’s lost world is born anew
Filled with knowledge, some old, some new
Right here in see-through biodomes

Wooden carvings adorn the domes
Animals smooth and good to feel
Bright fruit which begs our hands to peel
While cafés boast ginormous scones

Streams wind gently under footways
While torrents pour down itching skin
Humid air sapping life within
As sunlight streams in burning rays

Gardens filled with wondrous flowers
Where yesteryear white clay was mined
Now multicoloured life you’ll find
Drenched in Cornish sun and showers