“All Norwegians are born with skis on their feet”
I can see crops of skis propped against shoulders all over the station platform.
I like that.
These people don’t go for the casual Sunday stroll.
Fourteen minutes till the T Bane to Sognsvann. A gateway to the forest on the northern outskirts of Oslo. I lie my skis against a wall and they slowly slip on the tiles under their weight before the tails halt in a crack filled with pale mortar. Sitting on a long wooden bench dotted with people perched from end to end, I stare at the loop of advertisements, shown on the screens across the track. The ridiculous images of children with parents holding up vegetables and fruit with enthusiastic smiles entertains me for a minute or two.
An equally animated family are standing to the right of me. I listen to their conversation with the little Norwegian I know, searching for key phrases and words, trying to catch the gist. Little Fredrik is wearing a strawberry topped hat, being fed a sandwich by his mother. His sister, Greta is waiting patiently for the train. His Pappa is consulting a map.
Each have a pair of skis and are dressed in bright green and red.
I sit up straight and I look down at my own boots. Two sizes too big for me. Given to me by my uncle before I flew over. I look at my skis and flick the switch on my bindings once or twice.
I picture the tutorial video I skimmed through twenty minutes previously and revise the very little I know about cross country skiing.
It can’t be that hard.
Turning my head, I see a small figure on the stairs to the platform. A little grey man dressed in hooded blue overalls and a torn baseball cap. He sifts through the crowd. I watch him. Padding along the edge of the platform repeating a verse to each new stranger with a thrust of his tattered cup. His eyes are shaded. Some of the people offer him loose change. Most are stony faced, pretending not to see him. He remains persistent. My view is suddenly obscured by the blur of the train coming into the station. I shuffle on, making sure to pick up all my belongings. I find myself a seat by the far window and turn to see the beggar. He shifts his gaze suddenly and our sights meet for a split second before I shoot off and disappear into the darkness of the tunnel.
Sognsvann is packed.
I can see Jon, Sigmund and Maggie standing at the exit steps. They introduce me to Haakon who is the most experienced of the group. We wax our skis on a picnic bench at the foot of the trail. Figures flit through the trees in every direction. Voices echo in the trunks and fall silent upon the dense cushion of snow. Everything is clear and close, the sharp air touches my eyes. A man with a cockney accent shoots past me, out of control, “Bugger!” as he lands on his arse in front of a troop of blonde pony tails. They slide around him and continue on without any acknowledgment. He struggles to get to his feet.
“This isn’t so bad.” I say, and we move along the deep ruts, cut by a winters worth of skies.
“Yeah its fine, you can pick it up pretty quickly.” Haakon tells me.
We talk as we slide through the forest.
“Man, I could do this every day!” I say. At this point, before my knees and shins start to ache, I truly believe it.
“We’ll come across that lake there on the way back…” Haakon pans his ski pole across the landscape at a great white clearing to our left.
Floating on the lake, a pale mist rests below the tree line. It rises and curls from the pristine matt of snow on ice on water. I can feel my stride extending, deeper into the woods.
Once we arrive, panting, at Ullevaseter we each order some coffee and share broken conversations about how the skiing went. Maggie is interesting. She has a friendly face. Haakon seemed distracted, perhaps eager to get going. He was only here for the skiing. I can’t say much for the others.
We leave the café and ski back down the hill as the sun starts to drop. At times we encountered traffic which for the beginners meant slamming into hard polished snow in an attempt to give way. Lying in a twist of my own doing, toddlers would slip past with blank expressions as they follow their parents lead home.
We eventually arrive back at the station and I part ways with my companions. I sit back rosy cheeked in the carriage, confident enough and with enough endorphins to smile on my own.
I try to repack my bag as I get off the train, standing next to the same bench I rested on this morning. I see the beggar man approaching in my periphery while I duck and stretch to pull my hat from the base of my rucksack. He gets within talking distance and I turn to face him with a smile. He prays to me and comes a step closer, cup outstretched. I respond with a bewildered apology for the language I still don’t understand. He leans forward and speaks to me in scattered English. I can see his eyes, pale – clouded. I drop a 20krone coin into his vessel.
He says he was born in Trondheim, and came to Oslo to work as a young man. He starts to tell me that he worked hard once. Many years ago. He worked long hours for a questionable income. He was a welder in a yard. He could pay his way to keep his own shelf stacked. I gathered that he’d seen a bleak side to Norway, in the decades leading up to that fateful moment when thick black oil trickled from the bed of the North Sea.
One day he slipped and he fell from his post and his brain bled. He was found in a critical condition and he later lost his job. With no income and no family he had nowhere to go. He dropped from the rope. Over thirty years ago. He tells me he always feels a sharp pain in the side of his head. He points with a mitten to the deep purple dent above his right temple.
I lose myself for a second and give him whatever coins I have left in my pocket, if only I had something to say to him…
He nods at me with supposed gratitude and sees that I have nothing more. He leans back towards the tracks and tells me that he is going to die soon, he knows this because the doctors refuse to see him.
He was born with skis on his feet.