Lightening Up a Bit

Last night, my witty traveling companions and I set out to rename Santa’s Reindeer.  Why? Because in our daily lecture, we learned that male reindeer shed their antlers before winter sets in and that’s when female reindeer grow them.  So if the reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh had antlers, Rudolph was not among them!  And assuming that Dasher, Dancer, Prancer and company were also guys, they weren’t pulling that sleigh either!

Accordingly, we propose that a certain well-known Christmas song begin as follows:



You know Daphne and Francie                                                       and Nancy and Kristen                                                                                                            Charlotte and Scarlett                                                                                                                                     and Heidi and Tristen.                                               But do you recall . . .  the most famous reindeer of all?    (Ta da, da da)

Rhoda, the Red Nosed Reindeer . . .  

Rudolph and Rhoda

Reindeer in December.  Rudolph (l) and Rhoda (r)

I haven’t acted silly in a long time.  Silly felt good.

This morning, as our ship pulled up to the tiny town of Finnsnes, we were greeted by about  sixty schoolchildren jumping up and down, waving, smiling and cheering.  They sang and danced throughout our twenty minute stay fueled by the enthusiastic response of  an appreciative crowd packing both open decks of the ship.  As the ship pulled away from the pier, we returned their shouts and waves until they shrank to tiny points of light and then disappeared.


Shortly after this delightful serenade, we cruised about forty miles further north to the beautiful town of Tromso which is situated on an island separated from the mainland by an inlet of the Norwegian Sea.  Here is a stock  photo of our ship, Midnight Sun, entering the inlet.

Midnatsol in Tromso

We decided we could experience most of what was included in the ship’s $150 guided  excursion on our own for a fraction of the cost.  A quick cab ride to the mainland took us to the stunning Arctic Cathedral.  Then we took a delightful walk through a residential neighborhood to reach the Fjellheisen, an arial tramway up the face of a 1200 foot cliff.  Just for fun, I tallied up the makes of the various vehicles parked in the driveways along the way:

Subaru              5                                            BMW              11                            Audi                 1  Honda               3                                            Suzuki             2                            Mitubishi        4  Volkswagen    26                                           Hyundai          4                            Toyota             9  Nissan                4                                           Mercedes        4                            Peugot             8  Porsche              1                                           Mazda             2                             Volvo               9  Ford  (Fiesta)    7  (Who knew?)                 Tesla                2                            Skoda               2

Not a Suburban, F- series truck, Escalade, or Hummer in sight!

Our ride up the side of the hill took just four minutes but was oh so steep. As I stepped from the gondola, I gave thanks for the yellow cable wheel that kept us from becoming human puree at the bottom of the shaft. It seemed awfully small for such a big job!


The summit offers spectacular panoramic views.  Looking from the mainland back over over the inlet you see the town of Tromsø, surrounded by islands, fjords, mountains and the open sea. In the other direction lies the majestic mountain Tromsdalstinden, which rises almost 5,000  feet above sea level.


Such a lovely day!




66 Degrees 33 Minutes

This is the latitude of the invisible border of the Arctic Circle that crosses through mainland Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland, and a small island claimed by Iceland.  Traveling north just off the Norwegian coast, our ship made the eagerly awaited passage into the Arctic Circle at about eight o’clock this morning.

As we neared the 66° 33’ parallel, the expedition team called our attention to tiny Vikingen Island just off the port side.  Its only structures are a small lighthouse and a striking marker featuring an iron globe.

Almost There      Arcric Circle Monument

                             Almost there!                                                                        There!

A blast of the ship’s horn heralded our passage into the Arctic Circle. And it was actually quite a moment. My friend Nancy, who was moved to tears, described her feeling this way.

Nancy at the Arctic Circle


The Arctic represents mystery and adventure to me. All my life I have read and dreamed of the explorers and the inhabitants of the North . . . the Vikings, the Sami and other indigenous peoples, Admiral Peary, Thor Heyerdahl of the Kon-tiki.  As I reached the Land of the Midnight Sun, I felt their spirit, their courage, and their quest for knowledge.  I realized how blessed I am to have this experience and how  much more of the world I want to explore.  



The ship’s Powers That Be encouraged us to celebrate. They announced that champagne was available (for purchase) and that a postal official to would spend the morning on board to stamp outgoing mail (and our passports!) with a commemorative post mark. (That precipitated a mad dash to the gift shop to buy postcards and stamps to receive the postmark.  It was, of course, a very good day for the gift shop.)  King Neptune showed up on deck to perform on-deck baptisms into the Arctic via a ladle of ice cold water. Instead of salvation he offered shots of Schnapps. (Pass!)

king-neptune-e1561224657976.jpg                                          Baptism

During all the festivities, the ship was moving forward and at midday we docked at the town of BODØ.  The next two hours were profoundly moving in another way.  The BODØ City museum offered compelling and dismaying evidence of the terrible devastation visited upon Northern Norway by the German army during World War II.  I had always assumed that because Norway remained neutral, the German occupation was relatively benign. So wrong!

Clearly, neutrality meant little to the Germans.  They needed Norway’s safe harbors, and a northern approach to the Soviet Union. They also wanted to ensure that Norway did not fall under the control or the British or the French, and sought to build a notion of a  “German empire.”  Therefore, they reduced much of it to rubble.

BOBO bombing                               Bodo after bombing

The town of BODØ during and after the bombing by the German Army, May 25, 1940.

Today was a day of profound contrasts. We experienced excitement and new adventure, but also images of  death and despair.  We experienced the silly as well as the profound.  We were overwhelmed by exhilarating beauty and evidence of mind numbing destruction.  The best and the worst of humankind.


Ship Legs

We are getting into the groove aboard the Midnight Sun.

Our excursion today was to the town of Trondheim, founded in 997 by the Viking King Olav, and the home of the world’s northernmost Gothic Cathedral.  We decided to walk to walk to the Cathedral from the ship.  The so called 20 minute walk was more like 45 but it was a beautiful sunny day.  We enjoyed the walk and made a friend along the way.  🙂



Nidaros Cathedral is sometimes referred to as the Notre Dame of Norway.  There are some superficial similarities in architecture (see below) but Nidaros is actually the older of the two; its construction began nearly one hundred years before that of Notre Dame.

Nidaros Cathedra                                         Notre Dame

Nidaros Cathedral (1070-1300)                     Notre Dame de Paris (1163-1345)

The interior is beautiful and, not surprisingly, features stunning uses of wood. It is more elegant than opulent and inspires reverence and respect.  Its history is fascinating and the fact that it even survives is remarkable.  Catastrophic fires in 1327, 1531 and 1708 destroyed all but its exterior walls.  It sat on the verge of collapse until 1869 when sufficient funds were found to begin a 132 year restoration project that was finally completed in 2001.

As we headed back to the ship I was keenly aware of a few gaps in my traveling wardrobe.  The most serious omission was blue jeans which I had understood to be an absolute no-no anywhere in Europe. Well jeans are omnipresent on the decks of the Midnight Sun and the white capris I brought (what was I thinking?) would have looked absurd. So after carefully briefing my traveling companions on the route back to the ship in time for its scheduled departure, 45 minutes hence, I peeled off to find jeans.

The first store I visited wanted $300 USD for a pair that was about two feet too long. (“Petite? What’s that?”) I was about to give up when I spied a shop (up the street and around a corner) that looked like it might have what I needed.  Time was running short, but I searched until I found a great pair of jeans and was so encouraged that I also poked around for a much needed sweater.  As I was checking out, I noticed that I had 20 minutes to make it back to the ship.  Easy.  I knew the route.  Except I didn’t!  The directions I had so confidently given my companions were from a location up the street and around the corner.  Nothing looked familiar.  I took out my phone and asked Google for directions to the pier.  Bingo.  Relief.  Pier 1 was just 10 minutes away.  I walked briskly and reached the pier.  Pier 1.  No ship. NO SHIP.

Looking frantically up and down the waterfront, I spied our ship far in the distance.  Rechecking my phone I discovered that my ship was at Pier 2.  Pier TWO.  Eight minutes to go and .8 miles away.  The last time I ran a 10 minute mile was in 1985.  But I was driven by the knowledge that delaying departure by showing up late is the worst sin, other than jumping into the sea, you can commit on a cruise. And it shames your traveling companions.  So I ran like I haven’t run in 34 years.  And gasping for breath and sweating like a Florida tennis player in July, I  stormed up the gangplank and shoved my ID at the steward at 2:59 for 3:00 departure.

My reward was dinner.  And what a dinner!  Just when you thought you had all the lingo right, along comes a new term.  In this case it is “short-traveled”, which, at least for the Hurtigruten fleet, is the new “locally sourced.”  Whatever it is, tonight’s meal may have been one of the best I have ever enjoyed.

OK the barley soup with parsley oil was not among my top 100, but the “Short traveled Norwegian salmon from Aukra with lukewarm potato salad, whipped sour cream, dill and lemon” made me want to lick the plate.

Salom for dinner


And the Tjukkmjolkpudding (thick milk pudding with raspberry sauce and hazel nuts) rivals any dessert I have ever tasted. Ever.  I devoured it before I thought to take a picture!

God Natt!





The Mail Run

Greetings from the library of the MS Midnatsol, (“Midnight Sun”) part of the Hurtigtruten cruise ship fleet based in Bergen, Norway.  This is the first full day at sea on a twelve day round trip up and down the Norwegian coast.  Here is the current view from my library table.

Big Library View

Contemplation Mountain

Since my decision early this year to take this trip, I’ve been referring to it as The Mail Run. And with good reason.  Norway’s very rugged 780 mile western coastline makes overland travel difficult and much of the transportation of people and freight takes place by sea. Toward the end of the 19th century demand was high but service was random, slow and unreliable.

Enter Captain Richard With, who showed up in the port of Bergen in 1893 with a steamship hoping to establish a regular sea link from Bergen (the southernmost) to Kirkenes (the northermost) port on the cost.  He named his company “Hurtigruten,” which means “the fast route.”  His ship stopped at scores of towns and villages along the coastline delivering mail, medicine, groceries, and people.

The shipping company flourished, but the ambitious Captain With had even bigger plans.  In 1896 he transported a prefabricated hotel from the mainland to a choice island spot with stunning views that he named  “Hotellnest” (Hotel Nest).   Shortly thereafter he procured a second steamer in order to offer a “Sportsman’s Route.”  So began the recreational dimension of his business. Today the Hurtigruten fleet consists of fifteen vessels offering educational and adventure voyages throughout Europe, Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, Alaska, the Northwest Passage and, most recently, South and Central America and the Caribbean.

So back to the Mail Run.  My friends Nancy, Claire and Martee and I are following the original Hurtigruten route up the coast.  It has been described as “the world’s most beautiful voyage”.  Even if that distinction was bestowed by Hurtigruten’s marketing team, it certainly seems defensible. Norway’s stunningly beautiful coastline is nearly always in view.  Snow-capped peaks, many with sparkling waterfalls cascading down their faces, give way to emerald green valleys dotted with quaint looking villages.  The sky is constantly changing.  We have already enjoyed bright sunshine, dense fog, pelting rain and six (I think) breath-taking rainbows.

Rainbow 3                         rainbow-2-e1560868285708.jpg

In addition to marinating in the beauty, we spend our time on board reading, enjoying lectures on the history and geography of our surroundings and discussing aspects of our lives and our world from the profound to the silly and everything in between.

Our journey will include 34 stops to drop off mail, medicine, consumer goods, and people — just like Captain With did in 1893.  A limited number of passengers use the ship like an auto train.  (No theme from Star Wars yet thank heaven!) Space permitting, they pay for passage between two ports and our vessel can carry 20 vehicles.

While most of our stops last no longer than 15 minutes, one stop each day is long enough to allow for excursions into the port town and surrounding areas.  We made our first such stop today in the town of Alesund.  It is one of Norway’s newer looking towns since it was almost completely destroyed by fire in 1904.  Today it is the home of Norway’s most important fishing harbor.

Our trip ashore was short lived.  We disembarked hoping to see the lone wooden structure that survived the great fire, but found a rain shower instead and returned to the ship soggy and cold.  But a scrumptious meal of clipfish carpaccio, leg of lamb with a vegetable-horseradish stew, and carmelized apples with ice cream made us feel much better.

Our last views before heading to sleep:


The Suitor

Seven Sisters

The Seven Sisters (l), who dance playfully down  the side of the  mountain, and The Suitor (r), who flirts from directly across the  the fjord.



Midnight Sun

19. Happy New Year

The four months since I last posted to this blog have been tumultuous, excruciatingly painful, and thankfully, punctuated by unexpected blessings.  On this first day of a new year, I am ready to start writing again.  There are still some stories to tell about Oxford, and various other adventures and misadventures.  But today, at the beginning of a new year, a metaphor.

Loosen the grip on the racket.

During the last few months, for the first time in my ten year tennis adventure, I have been plagued by injuries.  I had to take a seven week hiatus from playing, which was awful. Because I hate all other forms of exercise.

On my first day back on the courts, still nursing the remnants of a bruised rib, tennis elbow, and sore knee, I was hitting just about every shot out of the court . . . ground strokes, volleys, chips, lobs, ugh!  “What’s wrong?” I whined to my coach.  He replied with words I had heard before.  But for some reason this time I heard them more clearly.  “Loosen your grip on your racket,” he said. “The tension in your grip is transferring to the ball and launching it into orbit.” He went on to explain how a softer touch is far more capable of producing controlled power — a formidable weapon.

So I finally relaxed my hold on the racket.  I also dropped my shoulders . . . and jaw. My knuckles went from white to pink.  And with a softer and, hence, more precise touch, almost every shot off my racket was better.  Way better. Wow.

A metaphor for life?  Perhaps so.  I spent the worst hours of my 64 years one night last March.  Never mind the details.  Except to say that I was lying on the floor in a beautiful, but empty room, in my beautiful, but empty home. I screamed at the ceiling as I contemplated the impending loss of my marriage, my life as I knew it, and my family as we knew it.  I was consumed with rage. And grief. And fear.  And the pain of rejection. I was near despair. I’m not sure how long I marinated in my misery, but in an effort to ward off sheer panic, I picked up the daily devotional book that I had been neglecting and turned to the entry for that day: March 24. This is what it said:

This is a time in your life when you must learn to let go: of loved ones, of possessions, of control . . . As you relax more and more, your grasping hand gradually opens up, releasing your prized possessions into My care. You can feel secure, even in the midst of cataclysmic changes . . .  and as you release more and more things into My care, remember that I never let go of your hand.  Herein lies your security, which no one and no circumstance can take from you.  

Loosen the grip.  Let go.  Of the rage.  The fear.  And the grief.  This will not happen overnight.  I’m still reeling and deeply wounded.  But it will happen.  For me, and for countless others, known and unknown, who suffer in body, mind, and/or spirit. I pray that we can loosen our grips. Let go. And find the controlled power that will keep our shots in the court.  And peace in our hearts.

Happy New Year.








18. Winding Down

This last week is relatively easy.  With our papers turned in, the pressure is off, except for the stress of waiting for our grades.  As previously reported, our Oxford tutors said they are grading us according to Oxford standards and will use the Oxford grading system which is designed to keep students humble. Only Shakespeare gets 100% and it would be preposterous for a student to aspire to touch the hem of his doublet. And then of course there are lesser beings like Austen, Tolkien, Lewis, Carroll, Joyce, Wolff, etc etc. to occupy the 80’s and 90’s.  Sooooooo

70 and above is the equivalent of an A.

65-69 is an A-.

60-64 is a B+.

55-59 is a B.


The irony is that for most of us here this summer, the grades don’t matter. About a quarter of the students are seeking credit for their work here from their home institutions.   The rest of us are doing this for personal enrichment.  But we do care about the grades. A whole lot.  Stay tuned.

Fun fact: JK Rowling applied to Oxford and didn’t get in. But in 2014 they made her an honorary fellow.

So we still have lectures, in-class exercises, and discussions this week, but we also have plenty of time for shopping, last minute sight-seeing and sadly, preparations for departure.  In one of my first posts, I wrote about the rough time I had with baggage upon arrival.  The thought of dealing with two unwieldy bags again has been giving me heartburn. Sooooo . . .

Ticket to Oxford Botanical Gardens                                                                  8 pounds

Oxford University Sweatshirt                                                                           30 pounds

One less suitcase to carry home                                                                        Priceless!

Bye Bye Bag

Dragged this thing .6 miles to the Oxford Pack and Send. Bye Bye Bag!

17. Smells and Bells

2018.08.06  On my first two Sundays here, I attended Hillsong Church Oxford, and, on both occasions, was richly blessed. The relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, lively and enthusiastic worship, and a life application message were needed and appreciated.

But last Sunday, I felt the need for a quieter and more contemplative experience.  And  a strong desire to celebrate my Roman Catholic and Anglican liturgical roots.  Of course, there is no shortage of liturgical churches in Oxford and I killed two birds with one stone  by choosing the Anglo-Catholic Church of St. Mary Magdalene – just around the corner from Exeter College.

St. MM Sign

Oxford-St-Mary-Magdalene church







I was told that worship on the site began in 1000 AD but that construction on the current “new” building did not begin until the 13th century. LOL  So last fall, my cousin Steve Johnson and I, wth Annie’s help, found  the headstone of our 14th great-grandfather, John Johnson, who left Kent County, England and arrived in Ipswich, Massachusetts in 1632 and died in 1683. We thought his headstone looked pretty old . But it looked positively new compared  to what I saw in the 13th century churchyard.

John Johnsons headstone

Old Gravestone 1







Pretty Old                       


                                                                                                                    Really Really Old


So about the service . . . of course it wasn’t a service at all, it was a Mass. And although it was in English instead of Latin, the altar was placed in such a way that the priest’s back was to the congregation. Like in the old days. And not a single word was uttered that was not part of the liturgy.

Now let me be clear. I am ALL for making liturgical worship as easy as possible to follow. For everyone in the congregation. Especially newcomers. Having said that, it was quite lovely to be fully immersed in the ancient rituals, beautifully and formally worded prayers, and perfectly intoned chants, complete with holy water and incense. With no interruptions for mundane matters like page numbers or instructions for communion. This is certainly not the only way, and maybe not even a very good way, to create an atmosphere of reverence, but on this particular morning it moved me in a way I find difficult to describe.

I was probably the only visitor that morning and was approached by several “regulars” at the conclusion of Mass.  Including ninety-year-old Father Thomas. This delightful gentleman insisted that we have a coffee together and shared some of the church’s history.  He also apologized for the absence of the choir (“they are all Oxford music students and tutors, but they are all on Holiday”) and the sub-par performance of the congregation.  Well I’m sorry I missed the A-Team, but the organist that morning was one of the best I’ve heard in a long while. And the congregation sang on key, with noticeable enthusiasm and plenty of volume. If that was a mediocre day . . .

I spent the rest of my Sunday working on the third, fourth and fifth drafts of my two capstone papers.  Our little campus was the quietest it’s been since we all arrived.  Because everybody else was working on their papers as well. I can hear Maggie Smith telling the summer creative spell-writing school students. “we grade to HOGWARTS standards!”