Another excerpt from the forthcoming book, Global Mom, A Memoir.
Here, I have been advised by my new Norwegian friend, Johanne, to enroll our two barna (children) at our local branch of barnepark, Norway’s ubiquitous outdoor preschool. This is early January, an American’s season for hibernation, hunkering down. But this is Norway, where weather is only the poorest excuse for escaping.
Besides, after a full week in this new country, I’m already feeling compelled to go native.
I’ll let my children go first.
Global Mom, A Memoir.
Before petitioning the barnepark, as Johanna had suggested, I first set up a stealth surveillance post. Atop a hill and from behind a pine tree close to Blakstad barnepark, I hunched behind my steering wheel, warm in my down sleeping bag and earmuffs. Parker and Claire wore their hats and coats and were wrapped in a massive feather comforter while they read books to each other in the backseat. I dissected the social experiment playing itself out before me.
From this outpost, I spied a trio of red-suited adults (only later did I discover that they were women) standing sentinel amid fifteen to twenty or so small bodies that played in hip-high snow and chased snowflakes with their tongues. The women in red stood there, removed from the activity in the snow. Unless there was real trouble like the random child stuck head first in a snow bank, limbs flailing wildly for help, the women stood far away, stamping their boots every so often, clouds of breath rising from their faces. Occasionally, they would sip from thermoses or slap their mittened hands on their thighs. This same silent movie repeated itself all morning long, the sun never really rising very far into the sky, dusk a constant backdrop on those limpid midwinter days.
At midday, and with the ring of a hand-held bell, all the children would gather into a small wooden barrack for an hour. After the hour, they emerged again. Repeat of silent movie. All afternoon. I would later learn that this was the pattern, day in and day out, sleet, hail, snow, hell or high water, all year long, for three years of these children’s lives.
And everyone in Norway did this? Everyone?
Just watching the ice slides made me choke on my swig of peppermint tea from my big green Land’s End thermos. Some of those kids were whizzing so fast down slides packed so hard with gray ice, they looked like upholstered torpedoes shooting out of polished marble barrels.
One tiny figure in particular (to whom we still refer today as Hannah the Human Bullet) seized my attention. She might have been three, but a small three. Her snowsuit was red as was her little knitted cap that looked just like a strawberry, green twig stem and all. From where I huddled in my unmarked car, I could just make out her mounds of cheeks; two buffed pinkish apples in a grocer’s crate. She was either intrepid or on Phen-Phen. Circuit after circuit, she hiked the slick path to the top of a handmade precipice where she flopped herself prostrate, planted her mittens to get some traction, and like a teensy pebble out of a sling shot, exploded down the steep incline. Sometimes she landed on her belly. Sometimes on her back. Always, she caught some air. No one, least of all Hannah, seemed to flinch at the peril, the astronomical potential for lawsuits, the sure threat of injury. I, on the other hand, was left winded and jittery just keeping up with her above my dashboard.
Kids were roaming about, gluey noses scarlet with cold, all those clouds of breath hanging over their heads like empty thought bubbles in a comic strip. The tall red suited adults only piped up every half hour or son, maybe, while all the children kept doing normal kid-in-snow things like pelting each other with snowballs, grabbing the littler guy’s shovel, constructing elaborate fort and tunnel systems.
When they were whonked over the noggin or got stuck in the frozen tire swing, no one came rushing with theatrical rescues and apologies for the misery of it all. No one came most of the time, in fact. Generally, a tall person’s hooded head raised itself a bit, I would hear the faint holler, probably reciting a rule, and the child maneuvered itself to safety or self-consolation. Once or twice a big person split up a knotted wrangle of clawing cubs, barking in about four syllables something that shut down the scuffle like a lid over fire.
This? No-sir-ee-sir, my two would never survive.
I had raised Parker and Claire — my treasures, my snoogly-wooglies — to be softies. Like me. Accomodating, even obliging, sensitive. Freaked by speed. This Nordic system, as I watched it agape and gasping, would make them hardy, that’s for sure. But in the process it would give me a heart attack. Putting them here would be like tossing them into a doggoned menagerie, I shuddered, more of a farm, even, than any well-organized playpen. I second-guessed myself. I second-guessed the Norwegians. I was back to second-guessing Norway as a whole.
After a couple of days of playing driver’s seat anthropologist from an unmarked Saab, I slipped into my best jeans which I tucked into my fancy red cowboy boots, a big hit when I’d worn them in New York City, and they made me immediately identifiable as The Girl From Utah. I pulled on a padded but flattering and therefore actually not so padded and therefore totally useless down parka, and checked my foreign newcomer smile in the mirror while drilling my Norwegian lines. I’d written them out phonetically while Johanna had coached me over the phone. With a prayer in my heart and one bundled child on each hand, I waddled gingerly all the way down the slope to the Blakstad barnepark barrack.
It might have occurred to you that the soles of cowboy boots are meant to slip easily in and out of stirrups, an advantage while roping calves in rodeos. The relative slickness of the soles helps cowgirls slide in and out of stirrups with ease, even elegance, so they can win big trophies and custom-made chaps. But this engineering factoid never crossed my mind before I stepped out onto my first Norwegian iceberg. Lesson learned? Aerodynamically designed boot toes and high-gloss soles are no help on a 70˚ angle of black ice.
Slush-splattered, a massive bruise forming on my left hip and limping lightly, we arrived. I’d timed our entrance for noon, knowing this was the children’s lunchtime, a prime opportunity to beg for dagbarn plasser. A few whacks on the wooden door and a very tall, attractive brunette woman wearing several layers of woolen sweaters under a lumpy red snowsuit unzipped to and gathered at her waist, opened to me. Her pronounced, flushed cheekbones pointed right to her broad, sympathetic smile. Behind her shoulder I caught sight of a spartan but cozy interior filled with a whole picnic table of ruddy-cheeked children, most of them toe-headed, leaning over small bundles of what must have been sack lunches.
In silence they examined their strange, shivering visitors.
Two other blonde women, also in half-zipped red jump suits, appeared to be manning the lunch break. The interior looked so soothing after the piercing cold outside. Claire, shy and clingy in new situations, was gripping my brittle fingers so desperately I thought they’d break. And both children really needed a toilet. I was afraid. Afraid for them. Afraid for me. My feet were searing with pain. My rump was soggy and sore. I searched inwardly for my first line. This is where my years as an actress kicked in, shoving me through stage fright.
The woman waited, smiling.
I was frozen on all levels.
I licked my lips to defrost them, but they remained immobile.
Out of a mouth that felt like two stacked Goodyear radials I forced a smile and the following in halting Norwegian:
“Good day. Sorry that I disturb. We are Americans. We inhabit house not far. We freeze. Have you dagbarn?”
Tall, gentle tante Britt, as I later learned was her name, responded in Norwegian-For-The-Learning-And-Hearing-Impaired, and drew me at once into the barrack and into a wobbly but warm conversation. All this was done while the two blondes, (whom I was later to know as tante Eva and tante Anna) invited Parker and Claire over to sit on a bench and sing nursery songs with the others while I beat my hands back to life. They smiled, my two, a bit stiff with fear of separation and all-eyes-on-us self-conciousness. But that lasted less than five minutes.
My hands began thawing. The palms started itching like crazy. I watched my two wriggle into a place between other children on the bench. Claire’s cheeks a flaming shade of fuchsia, Parker’s bangs matted and angular after he tugged off his thin American beanie. A spot in my lower torso felt ignited, heat-filled, by the sight of my two crammed in between a girl, maybe four, and another, not much older. The first sat next to Claire and secretly put her hand on Claire’s thigh, smiling, whispering something Claire of course could not understand, but to which Claire nodded a bit sideways. This is where that torso hot spot took quiet flame. I honestly felt warmer. My eyes must have been defrosting, I knew this, because they were leaking down both cheeks.
But my fingers remained concrete. I never did get blood to them, in fact, but I nevertheless managed to sign, in runic alphabet, the sheet of paper that admitted our two as dagbarn the next morning.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.