A Call to Suitcases ~ An Austrian Adventure

“Boots!”

“Check!”

“Rain gear!”

“Check!”

“Pants?”

“Who needs those?”

“You need to get off Twitter. Undies!”

“Check… and check.”

“I’m not even gonna ask. Socks!”

“Che.. ahey, those aren’t mine! Catch!”

There are certain advantages to raising military brats. One of them is that they can mobilize with the speed of a SEAL team, going from lounging leopards pawing tenderly at iPads to tossing socks and unmentionables across a hallway in 2.26 seconds flat. Another is that they have been hammered, honed, and tempered in the forge of military moves, and thus are capable of assembling basic necessities (Toothbrush! Favorite T-shirt! Snacks! Plush Eeyore!) without assistance or prompting.

There are drawbacks, too. First and foremost there is the Laissez-Faire approach to packing. Aka “If it won’t fit I shall make it fit!” Aka “Mom really doesn’t remember why she even owns an iron.” Aka “Come over here and sit on this!’ – “Did you just call me fat?” Secondly, it requires naught less than a crowbar with a steam engine attached to divert them from their mission. Once the hosiery and toiletries are airborne, mother can only dodge and evade; any and all appeals to help retrieving an errant shirt from the happy dog fall on deaf ears.

Right. The dog. Travel bowls? Check. Leash? Check. Squeaky duck? Che… I sure hope they weren’t planning on bringing those pants. Wait, didn’t she have a shirt earlier?

Road Dog
Road Dog

We’re horrible at planning. Abysmal, lousy, harrowing. We are the unchallenged Queens of the Very Last Minute, flying by the proverbial seats of our pants while our aircraft is cheerfully shedding screws and the odd bit of wing.

As the merry mayhem progressed upstairs and I was absentmindedly squeaking a disheveled chew toy, I wondered, wistfully and a bit enviously, how our sweet neighbors do it. I wouldn’t call them organized to within an inch of their lives, but they always manage to tell us two, or four weeks in advance when they need a dogsitter. They have itineraries, lists of good restaurants and interesting sights. They have their clothes washed, ironed, and packed the day before departure, they have a tank full of gas and a plan.

We have bright ideas.

Such as the one that started this latest upheaval. The email had been sitting in my inbox for a week, largely ignored. A 30% off coupon for a fancy hotel with horses and a spa. Horses and a spa! Well, it’s October and the weather in the mountains of Austria is likely somewhere between abysmal and depressing. But … horses! Spa! 30% off! If you take the horsey 3-day package, you even get another discount. But… we did have plans. Of a sort. On this glorious, rare 4-day weekend, elder daughter was going to visit some friends while younger and I would park our resplendent selves on the couch for a “Vikings” marathon and only move under duress (YOUR turn to order pizza!).

Yet as the date drew nearer, so did the feeling of “Ugh. Boring” increase. But what to do? Summer season was long gone, winter not even a blip on the radar yet. Rain, that’s what was on the menu. More rain. One sunny autumn day, followed by … yep, rain. And the Lion King musical was sold out, when mother peeked online – just in case. Prague? Rain. Berlin? More rain. Spain? Too short notice by now, plus we’d practically have to leave again soon as we touch down. Couch? Pizza it is.

Bright ideas happen randomly in this family, as do odd food hankerings, and left-field interjections during perfectly normal breakfast conversations about politics and astrophysics and Kirk vs Picard.

“Voting for this guy would be like flying into a quantum filament just to see what happens. Positively Kirk-esque recklessness!”

“I want Kaiserschmarrn!”

“Me, too. Let’s go to Austria. And vote for the other guy.”

“Agreed. On all counts. With quince jelly.”

It took about an hour to find the email, call the hotel, find the lady who spoke English, find out they had an opening, several actually, and if the ladies would like a suite it’s an extra 10% off the package (off-season you understand), whip out the credit card, and book a holiday starting… today. T minus 6 hours.

Let the melee commence.

 

 


Inspired by and written for Wander.Essence‘s beautiful “ANTICIPATION & PREPARATION” series. Check her out, she not only has the most amazing pictures, but she has Plans!


 

The Austrian Adventure continues here: Mountains, cows and coffee!

 

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The Lay of Ægir’s Daughters ~ The Denmark Saga, Verse IV

Find part III of the Saga here.

 

“You think we should make a sacrifice of some of these shrimp?”

“Might have better luck with some beer.”

“Fair enough. So, what’s the protocol?”

“As long as it doesn’t involve dancing without your undies on, I’m open.”

“I think it’s more of a – H’OH BOY that one was close – matter of singing and waving your arms about.”

“We are doomed. No offense sister dear, but you couldn’t carry a tune if – whoops, there go the lights again – your next dinner depended on it. Mother? Any thoughts?”

“Mmmfmmmf?” (they are good shrimp).

Kommandorgarden Restaurant

Picture it: Rømø, 2016. A lone isle off the coast of Denmark, just after dusk has fallen. Not that you’d know, unless like the Allfather’s Ravens you rise above the clouds and see the sinking sun lingering in the west. Because beneath those clouds, night reigns supreme. A night filled with mighty thunder and lightning and torrents of rain. To stand beneath, or run through, this deluge might appeal to a Newfoundland Dog, or mayhap a lobster. The humans for their part huddle in the hotel’s hyggelig restaurant, some of them still sporting the look that one of said dogs might have after traversing the sea from Canada to Greenland. Where they linger, random puddles form on the hardwood floor, tirelessly chased and mopped up by Pierre the Softspoken. No, he shall not permit one of the gentle guests he cares for so diligently, clucks over like a mother goose with but one chick, to slip and fall into the Æbleflæsk. Least of all shall he allow harm to come to the shining young Valkyrie whose majestic stature and hearty laugh have captured his romantic’s soul. Considering how enthusiastically the ladies decimate tonight’s “Danish Delights” buffet, his task is not an easy one.

“Thor!” Pierre murmurs to the three lovely, if rather damp ladies in the corner, leaning on his mop and gesturing at the mayhem beyond the windows. Since all three have their cheeks stuffed like hamsters after a famine, they only answer by nodding in unison. The old boy is indeed busy this eve, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr making a mighty ruckus as they pull his chariot across the skies. Probably a bit late now to offer a fine sacrifice of assorted seafood and ale. Even if the rødspætte is fit for Gods. Once more the warm lights flicker, and but a heartbeat later the thunder seems to rise from the earth itself, sinking into bone and marrow and setting it to vibrate in sympathy. Soft curses in Swedish sound from the next booth over, where other horse people wait out the divine wrath.

At least they made it just in time. Not that the havoc wreaked upon the isle came entirely without warning. When the Valkyries and their new friends embarked on the magical Sønderstrand tour this second afternoon, temperatures had gone from yesterday’s “For fanden! This is my third shower today!” to all out “For helvede! This weather is fit for coconuts and parrots, not mighty Danish warriors!”. But it was less the tropical air which creased Olaf’s brow and made sweaty horses eye the horizon with a mixture of hope and foreboding. They knew, the moment the winds shifted. Which was, of course, a full hour into the tour. The dreaded “point of no return” that every pilot knows, when all you can do is push full throttle and hang on to your underpants. One forgets, in Bavaria’s gentle hills, how rapidly the weather may change near the ocean. How a sky of Caribbean blue can fill with ominous black clouds, racing afore the storm, in what feels like a heartbeat.

It was a charge worthy of song and story, down that vast expanse of sand and seawater, hooves thundering and manes flying like banners. Led by Elder Valkyrie, whose defiant “Forth, Eorlingas!” had the unforeseen side effect of proving that their dignified German companion not only has a sense of humor, but is capable of riding at full gallop while laughing herself into a hiccup. They outraced the tempest, the brave companions did. Barely. For no sooner had they fed and rubbed down their noble steeds and returned them to the herd, than lightning rendered the air in the west and the first fat drops of the deluge formed craters in the dry earth.

600 yards can feel like miles if you’re running into the gale, but they made it. Piling into the restaurant a sodden mess, but they made it. With the kitchens not quite officially in business yet but already turning out the first delights of the evening, and kind Therese rustling up a stack of towels, the gallant riders decided that the Nornir had the right idea. And thus it was that the waterlogged arrivals of the second hour (those few, those valiant few) were greeted by a half-dried bunch in riding attire and towels, already digging into the feast.

“So much for the Seal Safari tomorrow, I suppose.”

“Never say die, sister mine.”

A mighty gust of wind pushes against the windows, and Pierre the Softspoken casts a rueful gaze at some plastic chairs tumbling past outside. The wreckage of a brightly colored parasol bounces behind them, barely visible behind the veil of water.

Mother Valkyrie has spied the dessert emerging from the kitchens and decides that if they are to brave the roiling seas tomorrow, she might as well have some extra Rødgrød on her ice cream. And a glass of that rum. Maybe two. What could possibly go wrong?

(Denmark Lesson the Fifth: Thou shalt seek to emulate the Dane’s Unruffability in All Things. Weather report somehow missed a massive storm brewing? Patio furniture halfway to Sweden? A restaurant smelling of caramel and berries and wet horse? Break open a few bottles and bring out the old guitar. Watch an American teaching a Swede and a Dane the words to “Barrett’s Privateers”. Tell sagas of old; of daring seafarers and dynastic feuds. Have another glass.)    

Picture it…

Havneby, 2016. Silver-grey skies spit a fitful rain down onto a small group of tourists. Last night’s raging tempest has spent its wrath by dawn, but the wind still tugs hard on hair and clothing, and churns the ocean waves. “Det blæser en halv pelican,’ as Olaf notes with a wink of mischief before unloading his three Americans at port. All the same, the faithful little ferry calls for its passengers with an urgent honk. Last chance to back out.

“I have a weird feeling about this.”

“If mother can do it hung over, we don’t exactly have a good excuse.”

“As long as she doesn’t sing about wishing to be in Sherbrooke again, I think I can handle it.”

“Children…”

“Yes?” – “Ja?”

“Never mind. My hair hurts. Shall we?”

“Yo ho and a bottle of rum! I mean, sure.”

Bára, Blóðughadda, Bylgja, and Dúfa; Hefring, Himinglæva, Hrönn, Kólga, and Uðr, all of old Ægir’s girls are out to play. Tossing the stout little ferry this way and that, like kittens with a ball of wool. Somewhere starboard of where mother Valkyrie attempts to find her sea-legs by letting the wind blow the fuzz out of her brain, a green-faced fellow passenger leans over the railing, contemplating the unfairness of the universe. Elder Daughter calmly strolls the deck with a rolling gait, keen eyes scanning the horizon. A sudden downpour shoos everyone inside, but as the ferry bobs and bucks her way into List harbor, a few tentative rays of sunlight peek out behind the clouds.

Well and so. There she sits, the charming old wooden fishing vessel of Seal Safari fame. Swaying cheerfully in her berth, awaiting the last batch of her passengers. Aside from the Americans and the lively Briton, fellow rider and mother’s worthy rival at the breakfast buffet, there are two Germans with skeptical expressions and a half dozen Danish teens with a harried elder in tow.

“Moin!” Helga’s German counterpart Rieke ushers her flock on board, scarcely pausing for breath as she explains the itinerary, ascertains just how many languages she needs to use today, and intersperses with nautical speak and random orders to the placid, amiable captain and crewman.

“Deutsch? Nein? English for you four? Ja gut. Uweeee! Machma hinne!”

“??!”

Taciturn the small crew may be, and move without undue haste, but there can be no doubt of their competence, for in short order the little vessel with the bright red hull plows into the waves. It may be wishful thinking, but it feels to mother Valkyrie as if frothy Uðr is about to call it a day. Not that it helps much when playful Dúfa yet tosses the little boat hither and thither, making the delighted teens tumble over one another with shrieks and laughter, while the stately German couple wrap themselves into Friesian Martens. They appear to be on to something, for the rain has returned in earnest. Out into the endless ocean they venture, water from above, water below, steel grey and cerulean blue. Every now and then excited teens point at motion in the water – an inquisitive porpoise! And there! Was that a dolphin? No, the sturdy young Dane with tawny hair plastered to his temples declares. That was a porpoise calf! Mother will take his word for it, she’s too busy wiping the rain out of her eyes to see aught but glossy humps emerge from the waves.

Roughly an hour and a half at sea and the downpour turned drizzle, Rieke gauges the time right to pull up a few rather startled creatures from the ocean’s bottom to commence the educational part of the journey. Crabs, mussels, snails, and an annoyed starfish are gently lowered into a shallow glass basin for us to fawn over. Of course the Billow Maidens choose this time to sound their final charge of the day. Coming up hard from port, Hefring gives the valiant vessel a playful push and before mother Valkyrie’s bewildered eyes, eight teens and a German journey to starboard in a tangled pile of limbs. Not that the silver-blue eyed young Dane seems much put out, having taken the opportunity to gallantly let himself be landed on by the smallest of the Valkyries (“Lucky,” spake the Elder “what I land on stays landed on!”).

Alas, even as the winds abate bit by bit to a fussy breeze, the rain falls again in fat drops. Not that the seals seem to mind. For yes, there they are, at last. Silvery white and freckled tan Harbor Seals, doughty Grey Seals with broad snouts and quizzical expressions. Lounging on sandbanks, dozing, playing, obviously familiar with the funny red boat bobbing on the gentle waves, winding its way through their territory. A few courtesy barks greet the lively group of waving and shouting biped youngsters. No two arm spans from the hull, a few heads pop out of the water. Lustrous black eyes examine the funny humans, then disappear again.

Drenched nigh to the bone for the second time in under 24 hours, Mother Valkyrie decides it was all more than worth it.

Seal Safari I

(Denmark Lesson the Sixth: Thou shalt not believe the tales that there is such a thing as waterproof clothing. Unless thou ventureth forth in a wetsuit, thou shalt get wet. From the crown of thy head to the soles of thy feet. Yet never fear, for if you don’t like the weather, just wait a bit. An hour, a day, ten minutes. The seas shall rise and calm again, the winds shall scuttle the clouds and then bring new ones. And there will be rainbows, and all the shades of blue and grey you can imagine, and a few more besides. Don’t bother with an umbrella, though. Sweden has already declared they’ve more than enough of them, thank you kindly. Even if the Briton’s fancy orange one was rather fetching). 

Seal Safari II

It is, naturally, on the way back to port that the skies clear for long enough to peel out of oilskins and not-so-waterproof-after-all jackets, and expose damp shirts and sodden hair to the summer sun. The utterly smitten young Dane briefly loses his capacity for speech when the slender youngest Valkyrie reveals her “Screw the prince, I’ll take the horse!” t-shirt. Unless “Wstfgl!” is a Danish sound of appreciation for white cotton plastered to an unexpectedly feminine shape.

If mother had been asked, she would have placed bets that at least one of the lively teenagers shall take a bath before the day is done. Not that a bit of extra saltwater would make a great difference by now. But as the little vessel glides back into harbor on only playfully ruffled seas, and all the passengers reach dry land safely, it is once more proven that she’d make a lousy Völva. Yet the Fates are not so easily cheated. All it takes is a bereft Briton, mourning the ill fortune of his second favorite umbrella, and an inconvenient bit of concrete waylaying said distracted traveler, pitching him inexorably over the edge. And a charitable Valkyrie with a trained warrior’s reflexes and the grace and elegance of a one legged goose.

It is astonishing, mother muses while treading water, how cultured even the most vicious curses sound in that accent. It is however difficult to determine whether he is protesting the fact he was safely, if firmly, deposited on terra firma on his hind end, or feels wounded in his sense of chivalry. Maybe both? Just as mother opens her mouth to apologize for the rescue gone slightly awry, Elder Shieldmaiden waves from above, her expression somewhat unsurprised.

“Nicely done, mother. That half spin with minor lift was inspired.”

“I was aiming for a Rittberger, but thank you. Now would you mind…”

“Coastguard is coming. I don’t want to disappoint the guys, they look so happy someone fell in right in front of their noses.”

“Ah. Can’t have that, can we.”

“Also, I heard they give people grog after they fish them out.”

“I knew I raised smart children.”

 

(The legend, it turns out, is quite true. While usually not applicable to someone who merely fell into the harbor on a valiant errand, the good Captain of the Pidder Lüng was amused enough to make an exception. This, combined with the beers which the fine British gentleman insisted on buying for his impromptu rescuer, made for a rather jolly ferry-ride home to Rømø. And lest it be supposed that the younger Shieldmaidens are heartless and unmoved by their dam’s plight: They’re just used to it. “Can’t take her anywhere, but she’s got the credit cards” used to it). 

Seal Safari III

Vafthruthnir spake:
“In an eagle’s guise | at the end of heaven
Hræsvelg sits, they say;
And from his wings | does the wind come forth
To move o’er the world of men.”

 

The Saga will continue as the dauntless explorers once more set out across the isle, with steeds of steel and those with hooves. Facing untold dangers from land, sea and air, they walk the Allfather Óðinn’s path and learn an awful lot of things. Mostly, what not to do.

Where the Viking Horses Roam ~ The Denmark Saga, Verse III

Find part II of the Saga here.

 

“Welp, that’s one way to stand out.”

Thus spake the youngest Valkyrie, her lambent eyes dancing with mirth. For so it was, that the three fair ladies were garbed in cloth unlike that of other riders come to choose their noble steeds. Not tall boots nor fine linens, not helmets black as raven’s feather. Of the far West their colors sing, of lands beyond the waves…

Hej! Olaf’s Americans?”

“I sense a theme here.”

“Hush, you. Yes, ma’am, the very same.”

“No madam. Just Helga.”

“Oh, like Floki’s…”

“Sister heart, if you start humming the Vikings theme song I shall clobber you with the poop rake I see hence!”

“It is well,” spake fair Helga “I rather like the series.”

“I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!”

Gleði
“For Fanden, it’s hot today!” – spake Gleði the Horse

Picture it: Rømø, 2016. A sunlit courtyard, a dozen-and-four horse people milling about, taking in the beauty of their surroundings. Barns and stables painted a cheerful red, a little house containing a break room and another which holds the saddles, bridles, brushes and myriad minutiae of the horse world. And an Olaf. One who, unbeknownst to the happily exploring ladies outside, is picking three cards from a shelf to reserve the horses pictured thereon. With the solemn gravity of a warrior preparing for battle, he checks stirrups and reins, saddle pads and girths.

The ladies meanwhile are busy admiring the 60 horse strong herd beyond the barns. Dozing or lazily nibbling at the grass in the afternoon’s heat, there are Icelandic Horses of every color known to man. A Shire Horse, peeking shyly at the humans from behind a cluster of little Vikings half her size. Two familiar donkeys, heads buried in a pile of hay, their clever eyes picking out the apple-donating humans from earlier. ‘No bicycles with baskets’, one admonishes with a swish of his tail. ‘Still’, the other thoughtfully twists his ears ‘one never knows with bipeds. If one falls down, check for carrots. But quickly, before the horses catch on’.

Effortlessly switching between three languages, tall Helga with the eyes blue as summer skies sorts the bipedal herd into three groups: beginner, intermediate, advanced. Shiny black boots, sturdy paddock boots, and a lone pair of Wellies attached to a sprightly Briton shuffle obediently. Who needs longboats and axes when you have a Helga with a cheerful smile and firm contralto voice? The Americans, already set apart by their cotton shirts and soft, worn jeans falling over robust Western boots, are gently herded towards the tack room. “Olaf has the halters for your ponies. He does advanced group today.”

Advanced. Oh, dear.

Mother’s meek protest dies in her throat as the youngest Valkyrie drags her onward by the elbow with a satisfied harrumph. She for one hasn’t come to sedately plod along the worn paths. Oh, no! It is adventure she seeks, elated flight across the endless horizons! Older daughter, once more the image of her grandsire’s equanimity and aplomb, follows with a quiet smile. This should be interesting.

(Denmark Lesson the Third: Thou shalt not underestimate the Dane’s capacity for mischief. Even if your trusted coach called ahead to inform her old friend of your riding abilities and preferences. Especially then.)

“So, little one. You take the little stallion. He’s a very nice boy. And you, you have Happy. Not so fast as your mare back home I think, but who is?”

Two down, mother yet to go. Two cards are laid out on the table, one depicting a sleek black horse with proud eyes and a mane that would make a Friesian eat his own halter in a fit of envy; one showing a tall, flaxen-maned chestnut with a cheerful expression. Incidentally, all three cards bear a small red mark on the back. This can’t be good, can it?

“For mother I have Little Red. She likes quiet hands. Then she flies like a greased owl.”

“I’m not sure I want to know what that means.”

“You will.”

The third card is unveiled. Another chestnut mare, blonde mane over auburn coat, and the devil in her eyes.

(Non-Horse-People note: Quiet Hands as opposed to Loud Hands describes a rider with a light, calm touch on the reins, and a tendency to give subtle cues rather than wave brightly colored signaling flags while the horse is shouting “I heard you the first time dammit!!”. Not surprisingly horses tend to prefer Quiet Hands, and it has been mine own consistent and often only saving grace when otherwise I’ve annoyed my horses in each and every other way possible).

1st Ride
Everyone follow me, I’m the person with the least clue where we’re going!

Greased Owl (/ɡriːs aʊl/): Not a nocturnal bird of prey after an encounter with a vat of butter. Rather, a five-gaited equine exhibiting an ability to fly low and at great velocity, giving the impression of gliding across the landscape like a merciless hunter, while any fortunate and/or terrified passenger holds on for dear life. Reaches full Grease potential in the Flugskeið on account of smoothly achieving speeds to which the Laws of Physics shrug and declare “Don’t look at us, we had nothing to do with it!”

1st Ride II
“I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it” – (Act II, Scene IV)

It is a small group that leaves the courtyard under the guidance of fair Olaf and his jovial grey gelding. Having properly introduced themselves to their fine steeds with a friendly brushing and a careful pre-flight check under Helga’s approving gaze, the Valkyries have saddled up and mounted. They are joined by two more riders, an elegant German lady and a merry Swede with an amazing gift of foresight -he brought snacks!

A slight breeze from the east ruffles hair and manes as they turn inland, seeking the shade of tall trees. A crosswalk specifically marked for horses allows them to cross the main road, indulgently watched by Danish drivers. As their small group leisurely walks and tölts through groves of Scotch pine and birch, mother Valkyrie begins to relax. The harmony between elder daughter and her spirited mare is obvious, and youngest bringing up the rear with her lively stallion is glowing brightly enough to put the summer sun to shame. A match made in Valhalla, those two are. Or rather, two bundles of mischief who have found their soulmate. Mighty Loki himself better hold on to his shirt, for those two would steal the apples straight from his pockets and leave him in the dust.

Of course, mother should have known better than to dismiss Murphy and his Law quite so quickly.

(Denmark Lesson the Fourth: Thou shalt not fall asleep at the reins! Not even if you’ve gotten along with your horse in such spectacular fashion that the bold little mare seems to respond to a fleeting thought. Especially then). 

No sooner does the merry group emerge from the trees onto a flat expanse where tall grass sways in the lazy breeze, than Olaf turns in the saddle with a grin, and six little horses prick their ears. Some words float through the air that seems to shimmer in a warm, golden light – “…ok to pass,” it sounds like in Olaf’s pleasant baritone, and “…line up again at dunes”. There might be more words, but they’re drowned by a triumphant yee-HAAAW and the sudden thundering of hooves as something sleek, black, and fleet-footed whooshes past mother Valkyrie. Proud Sörli Jonakrson and his Shieldmaiden, it seems, did not need to be told twice.

Meanwhile, mother’s noble steed gives a few experimental canter hops, and when no negating signal from her nonplussed rider counters her initiative, Little Red concludes it is Go Time. As in, “I’ll show that swaggering stallion how it’s done!” Go Time.

There is a sound one makes, usually involuntarily, when sudden and unexpectedly rapid acceleration occurs. The kind of acceleration that presses you into your seat as a jetplane’s engines roar full throttle at liftoff. The kind that makes you instinctively and desperately seek a deeper seat in the saddle as a five gaited Viking ignites the afterburner and switches to Flying Pace. No, not this sound. The “HHNFFNNNFFF!!” one. Somehow, some way, it must have sounded like “Hraðar!”, or “Hurtig!” To the fiery blonde, already vexed by the sight of five luxurious tails waving in front of her, it is all the encouragement she needs. And besides, her rider’s seat moved into excellent alignment upon the switch to flugskeið, so she must be in full agreement that more speed is called for. Right? Right.

Somehow that plain looked a lot larger 10 seconds ago. And where did the other horses go? The black one is still there, and the chipper pinto with his Swede is just ahead… never mind. Was ahead. As mother finally wraps her head around the idea that a gentle tug on the reins might not go amiss, a bunch of hardy shrubs that looked a lot smaller 15 seconds ago loom larger and larger with worrisome speed. In order to overtake the proud stallion who is so joyously stretching his legs, Little Red must swerve just a tad to the right…

“Shrub!” the laughing elder Shieldmaiden warns from somewhere not far behind.

“Aih know!” Mother Valkyrie attempts to holler back, but opening her mouth at this juncture was precisely the wrong thing to do. As impromptu snacks go, Danish shrubbery leaves somewhat to be desired.

Little Red for her part has elegantly ducked beneath the twigs and is now expressing her extreme satisfaction at having her nose level with stallion’s withers by ways of a cheerful snort. Absentmindedly chewing on a leaf, mother realizes several things at once:

Those dunes look awfully close.

This is what Olaf meant with “greased”.

This is a fast horse.

I am an idiot.

Awfully close.

Right. Reins. Tug. “But I almost had him!” (reluctant reduction of speed) – Sternly brace lower back. Tug. “Unh, fine. Don’t come crying to me when he gloats, though!” (smooth transition to tölt, walk) – Relax. Praise. “That’s right. I am the wind, the flame, the buttered owl! You may worship my magnificence!” (soft snort, nod). 

It is astonishingly easy to come to a gentle halt to await the arrival of the rest of the cavalry once one remembers how to ride, rather than be a delighted yet utterly befuddled passenger. With twigs in her hair.

“Shrubs to left of her, shrubs to right of her, volleyed and thundered…”

“… boldly she rode and well, into the jaws of … uh, shrubs.”

“Children?”

“Yes?” – “Ja?”

“Shut it.”

First Ride III
“You go ahead, then you have no horse bum in the photo, eh?” (-Olaf)

Picture it…

Six horses, an endless beach, hooves splashing in the surf. A little stallion prances and nickers playfully. The riders are chatting and laughing after an hour long trek along the coastline, cantering, trotting, walking, tölting. There has been another brief race, and a most welcome break in the dunes when a smart Swede handed out cookies (instantly becoming elder Valkyrie’s new best buddy) and Olaf produced bottles of water and paper cups from his saddlebag (instantly becoming mother Valkyrie’s hero). Far too soon, it feels, they are turning back. Through another copse of trees, through meadows, eastwards across the isle, down another beach.

“So. Greased owl, huh?”

“With extra grease” Olaf smiles, “when she likes you.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

The mighty Dane with the golden beard shrugs. “Last one she put in the roses.”

Now he tells me.

First Ride IV
Good people, watch out for the mud! The mud, I say! Oh dear…

“Glath and Gyllir, | Gler and Skeithbrimir,
Silfrintopp and Sinir,
Gisl and Falhofnir, | Golltopp and Lettfeti,
On these steeds the gods shall go
When dooms to give | each day they ride
To the ash-tree Yggdrasil.”

 

The Saga continues as the fair Valkyries continue to explore the isle, brave mighty storms and Thor’s own wrath, discover priceless treasures, and somehow find the time for mead, song, and romantic interludes characterized by much confusion, Bells and Alarums, and in one case, an unexpected bath.

Winter Has Come

(I do apologize for the blatant GoT reference while simultaneously stating that I do not own any rights to the trademark or franchise, nor, sadly, a Direwolf.) 

 

Winter. Once upon a time that season was greeted with dread. Winter meant a struggle to survive. A slow and agonizing death for those who did not have enough food put away during the time of plenty, or who did not ration wisely, or were simply unlucky. For some, a quicker death if you got caught in a storm, or an avalanche, trying to supplement your dwindling rations by hunting. And if the snow and the cold didn’t get you, disease and exhaustion and malnutrition were just waiting their turn.

Since the advent of central heating and supermarkets, with airplanes flying in fresh apples from New Zealand and 18-wheelers carting guacamole even deep into the Great White North, “Winter Is Coming” has lost its terror. It is even anticipated with joy – at least it always was by me, perhaps not so much by my dad, who every year dragged the snowblower out of the shed while mumbling astonishingly creative bad words (under his breath of course, so I would not hear. And of course I did, and marveled at his artistry).

DEFCON cucumber, aka “throw on another layer and the BIG hat!”

Winter meant pond hockey, hot chocolate, and a magical forest covered in glittering white.

Maybe that’s why ‘Snowflake’ is deemed such a cute insult. Who fears Winter? Well, maybe Texas does, considering the “The End is Nigh!” panic on social media and every single Interstate as soon as an errant cloud accidentally drops some deadly crystals.

Anatomy of a Snowflake

This particular insult has puzzled me since the first time I heard it, and in the beginning I only derived from the context that it was, in fact, meant as a slight. I mean, they’re pretty, right? Awww you think I’m exquisite, and intricate, and I refract light in tantalizing ways, and I look awesome in closeup pictures? Why, thank you!

A short while ago a young man decided to vent his frustration with the world at large and the female population in particular in the direction of my older daughter. What started as clumsy attempts to get her attention and assert his masculinity by wolf-whistling and strutting around like a rooster with to basketballs pressed to his chest (the latter earned him a “Ru would be proud” comment from the target’s younger sister), quickly deteriorated into becoming an all out nuisance. The unholy trinity of familiar bullshit, from mocking the very physical traits he had glorified earlier (aka “If I can’t touch this radiantly magnificent bosom, I shall now declare I never liked it in the first place”), to questioning the attached young woman’s character (aka “Only a mean and stupid woman would reject me!”), to the carpet bombing of blaming everything and everyone other than himself (aka “If not for evil Feminazis and Liberals my crude advances would be enthusiastically reciprocated!”)

Well, no. Like her mother, the young lady with the Mae West figure and the brains to match the cleavage, does not respond well to rudeness. Unlike her mother, she remained serene in her responses. And was declared a “Snowflake” for telling the young man that he was being vulgar and hurtful.

It got me thinking.

pucksmiley

A 17 year old military brat (and if you’re not familiar with the slang, ‘brat’ in this context is a tender endearment), a hockey-playing, horseback-riding cowgirl who could shoot the wings off a gnat at 300 yards but cries when a dog dies in a movie, a soul so gentle she lets her mother win at Monopoly every damn time, who bakes Christmas cookies for soldiers who are away from their families and unable to get home for the Holidays, who could have planted this rude boy on his hind end with one good shove but chose to politely point out that he was being an equus asinus … is a snowflake.

Well. Alright.

To be sure, this one’s a Northern Snowflake (“You better get your scarf and mittens, dude, where I come from the snow don’t play” – sic) . The kind that rides a blizzard down from the Arctic and delivers a few Canadian pines to your doorstep before settling on your roof along with a few billion buddies. Best get shoveling before the cousins show up. They look fluffy and harmless and very pretty, but only until that roof caves in. Do trust me on that one.

A Tale of Ice and Fire 

Now, my stalwart teenager may not have solved her ‘persistent bully problem’, but her wintry cool response allowed me to look at the situation from a different angle.

Here I was, ready to cover my baby’s six at her “Need backup!” call and breathe fire and doom upon that hapless lad smaugwho felt entitled to her attention, and resorted to increasingly crude and abusive tactics when it did not materialize (cue Smaug: “I am FIRE! I am DEATH!”). Here was my younger daughter, channeling her Norse ancestry (95 lbs of Viking fury sounds funny – until it comes straight at you). Here were the high school teachers poised to intervene and chastise the luckless suitor turned bully, and last but far from least, my daughter’s friends and teammates, ready to unleash a blizzard that would warrant a state of emergency in 47 States (and at least an annoyed “Eh!” in Canada).

It was not needed.

Because there is something terribly sad about the “Suck it up, Buttercup!” and “Fuck your feelings!” crowd. About the raging and ranting and the “I’m just blunt and you can’t deal with it!” cries. There is a hurt in there somewhere, a helplessness, and – so my daughter mused when I expressed my marvel at her composure – perhaps a fear of those feelings we’re supposed to ‘suck up’. A fear that allowing yourself to feel, to have empathy, to show but a flicker of insecurity, would instantly deflate the carefully constructed facade of strength. And then one would see the boy who simply doesn’t know how to talk to the adored young lady, who’s terrified of rejection, and whom noone has ever taught about honey and vinegar. About the courage to show your softer side, and the strength one finds at the heart of vulnerability.

Image result for elsa frozen
Perfectly harmless Snowflake

It’s so much easier to double down on the bluster and the anger than to deal with the feelings of “I wanted her to like me but I’ve hurt her”. So much easier to shift the blame to the perceived ‘snowflake’ for not being able to handle a strong, masculine personality. So much harder to admit “I was being an ass to her, and that’s why she doesn’t want anything to do with me”.

I might not be able to summon the same compassion as my Snowflake for this angry, rude young man. I still think he would greatly benefit from a right ding behind the ear, preferably administered by the collected works of Lord Byron. But I can see where she’s coming from. Or rather, where she stands. On her frozen plain, being a lovely, glittering bit of frozen water, and quite content with it. Just don’t insult her on the other ice. The one where pucks fly. That’s when all bets are off and she will surpass her grandsire’s creativity in unleashing utterly majestic expletives. In three languages.

Let it Snow!

It’s -14ºC in Germany today, or about 6ºF. For three ladies hailing from the Adirondacks, that means one extra layer of flannel, and the good boots when walking the fluffy dog.

A fine, crisp cold that nonetheless creeps into your bones and reminds you why our ancestors didn’t mess around with Winter. That even with our sturdy walls and readily available fuel to heat them, even with our internal combustion engines that tirelessly bring food and supplies, even with mighty power plants, we are not quite so safe as we like to think. When the sap freezes in the trees and only the bitter wind breaks the deadly silence of the forest, that bright white blanket of snowflakes is still beautiful. But you don’t feel inclined to call it harmless.

Said the youngest of the ladies, her breath forming small clouds in the crystal clear air: “This ain’t no joke, brother. Yegawds. You two keep going if you want, the dog and I have enough brains to go home and hide under the furs. Auf Wiedersehen!”

February 2018 - Snowlflakes

 

 

 

The Ballad of the Valkyries ~ The Denmark Saga, Verse II

Find Verse I of the Saga here

 

“Have you no shame, woman?”

“This is Denmark. Keep your shirt on.”

I am wearing one. Which is the issue, as it were.”

“You’re such an American!”

Thus I awoke, on our first morning on the magical island of Rømø, to a friendly squabble between obviously well rested teenagers. Teenagers frolicking in the morning sun, out on the patio. Wait – we have a patio?

Denmark I
The things one discovers at dawn’s first light…

Picture it: Denmark, 2016. A midsummer morning dawns over a charmed little island in the Wadden Sea. Skinfaxi of the Shining Mane has only just gotten underway, but the sunlight is already trickling into the cozy little room where an American mother of two lively teens blinks with bemusement at the unfamiliar sheets of a large and fluffy bed. Very fluffy. One could bury a horse in here and never find it again. Through the open backdoor the sounds of other early risers filter towards her ears. Seagulls, mostly, apparently protesting the teens chasing one another across the grass. Once again there is a smell of roses, and the nearby ocean. Still feeling the past day’s long journey in her bones but ready to seek adventure and coffee (not necessarily in that order), Mother of the Fiery Mane rolls out of bed and lands with a soft little thud.

They had expected a hotel room, the three scions of proud Scandinavian warriors and sailors. What they got was a little apartment with kitchen and bathroom and living room and two bedrooms – one with a solid wood bunk bed right out of a Danish Dream – , spacious yet cozy. The place is past its glory days, that much one can tell. Yet what makes the fine German couple next door frown and harangue the amiable staff, is precisely what the three ladies love. That “Je ne sais quoi”. That elusive magic between nostalgia and rustic charm, between Scandinavian simplicity and playful whimsy. The wood panels, the patio with untended, scrappy rose bushes. The creaky but criminally comfortable couch. The complimentary coffee in the cabinets!

Coffee!

Mother has a mission. While older daughter (She with the fine stature and stopping power of a Shieldmaiden) consents at last to cease frolicking in her shorts and bra to appease younger daughter (92.3 pounds of distilled Viking energy), an aging appliance coughs and gurgles its way towards producing a heavenly brew. Books and covers. Judge not.

There is a breakfast buffet already available, but the ladies have not yet discovered the marvels it offers. Far, far from Continental horrors, the sunlit room with tongue-in-cheek overdone maritime decor holds Denmark’s most prized firstmeal treasures. The traditional round breakfast rolls of course, with assorted jams, jellies, and local honey. Local is the cheese as well, and so is the wienerbrød. Cereals, assorted fresh fruit, ymer. Tiny, piping hot sausages. One might think the kindly staff is expecting the Æsir to pop by for a spell. With a couple of hungry giants in tow.

Since they do not yet know of the feast awaiting in wood-paneled Nóatún, the caffeine-fortified graces go exploring. Their curiosity and the never ending call of new horizons will not let them linger any more. What lies hidden behind the screen of shrubs that protects the little island of grass behind their rooms from the eternal wind? Well, what but the sea?

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A smattering of red and white cottages to the right, a little pasture to the left. Hello, Mr Donkey, was it you who serenaded us to sleep last night? (“I shall call him Eeyore!” – “Because he looked as if he was going to say ‘Thanks for noticing me’ any moment?” – “Ah, you noticed, too!”) A little further down the sandy path they stumble across an assortment of travel trailers – that bright yellow teardrop one is without a doubt the literal highlight – and some fellow tourists wave sleepy “Good morning” greetings.

Then after scarcely 400 yards, beyond more wild rose shrubs and patches of sweetbriar, a riot of blossoms in dozens of shades of pink draped over lush greens, the hardy grass gives way to white sand and black mud. Very clingy black mud. What in Hel’s name is this stuff?

(Denmark Lesson the First: Thou shalt not look for seashells striding barefoot through unknown mud! It may smell better than Gorilla Glue, yet surpasses the latter’s adhesive powers by an order of magnitude!)

It’s a merry little trio that walks back towards the hotel. Bathed in mid-morning sunlight, clutching their pretty oyster shells and resembling friendly Mud Monsters, or at least escapees from an unconventional spa. Their growling stomachs would suggest Monsters. Yet there’s nothing for it, a shower is in order lest they want to practice saying Undskyld! for the rest of the day for leaving squishy onyx-colored decorations wherever they go.

Well scrubbed and positively ravenous, they enter the hallowed halls of Rømø breakfast battles, and though they be late for the party, there is hardly a dent in the abundance. This, of course, must be rectified immediately.

(Denmark Lesson the Second: Thou shalt go easy on the spicy little sausages if you’ve a 2 hour trail ride planned that afternoon. That, or bring a pack horse with waterskins)

“They keep feeding us like this, we’ll need a freighter instead of a ferry to get us back over.”

“So be it. You’re still going to eat that …whatever it is?”

“Yes. Hands off. Say, weren’t there little black bicycles outside? Can you rent those?”

“Sister mine, I like the way you think. Wonder how expensive it is. Mother, you should inquire. Ow! Fine, I’ll get my own food. Hello? No don’t take that away yet. I mean, hvis du vil være så … not take. Jeg sulten… yesthankyou. Tak. Tusind.”

(from this day forth a young Danish man shall be so utterly enamored with the tiny Viking cousin from afar, he will staunchly defend the buffet tables from being cleared until the fair maiden signals she is fit to burst. Either that, or he cannot believe it is possible to eat one’s own weight in ymerdrys every morning). 

Denmark II
“Sancho”, faithful metal mount, survivor of many a battle and carrier of cookies

A pittance. That’s how expensive it is to rent three bicycles in Denmark for a week. A “one loaf of bread and a carton of milk” pittance. Of course, they’re the Volvo of the two-wheeled world: sturdy, reliable, no pointless shenanigans. A big basket for shopping, though. Which leaves a small dilemma: Until it is time to saddle up, shall the three graces soak up the sun and frolic in the pool, or shall they descend upon the nearby supermarket for an impromptu raid? Shall they explore? It is getting rather hot again …

Once more, the call of the horizon wins. Must be something in their DNA.

Onward, faithful two-wheeled Rocinante! (yes, mother has drawn the bicycle farthest past its prime). Gosh, I hope that supermarket takes American credit cards, I’m perishing of thirst.

Picture it…

Two stunningly lovely young ladies, riding dusty black bicycles down a dirt path towards the sea. Laughing and trading amiable insults. At a slight distance behind them pedals a third lady, muttering savagely elegant curses under her breath. Her sweat soaked auburn hair is plastered to her temples, her vehicle squeaks and groans in protest. If the young graces are shining Valkyries seeming to float above the path in the bright summer light, mother Valkyrie resembles a disheveled fox freshly pulled from Allfather Óðinn’s mead barrel.

The baskets on their bicycles are stuffed to the brim with essentials – water, cookies, milk and bread, apples and pastries, some exotic Danish delicacies. They have decided to take a small detour on the way home, to pass by the horses and scout the place they mean to honor with their presence a little over an hour from now. Behind a row of the ever present wild rose shrubs and hedges, two donkeys eye mother Valkyrie with skeptical expressions. Wise old creatures, they know this will not end well. As the mumbled foreign curses move beyond the shrubs, and Rocinante emerges along the fence, they sagely nod to one another and waggle their long ears. Wait for it…

There are potholes, and there are potholes. Then there are badly disguised portals to Jǫtunheimr. It is one of the latter which mother fox enters unwittingly. Just as the young Valkyries have effortlessly evaded the yawning crater, their dam effortlessly finds the spot of maximum calamity (what can I say, it’s a talent).

Only a perplexed “HNFF!!!!” followed by a suspicious thud alerts the young graces that something is amiss – that, and the lone wheel bouncing towards them, free and unfettered, unburdened of the rest of the bicycle. Or unicycle now, as it were.

Less than glorious mother Valkyrie may be, but she’s a wily fox. One who has fallen on her face and every other body part, literally and figuratively, so many times it has become second nature. So she’s quite fine as she sits in the dust, mumbling and surveying the wreckage of her unicycle. The bread hasn’t fared quite so well, having been landed on, and a few of the apples have sailed far enough for the taller donkey to make a bid for them through the fence.

The young Valkyries come coasting back, suppressed laughter on their faces as they contemplate the carnage and make certain mother is truly and well unharmed beyond her dented pride. “Dearly beloved,” intones the younger “we are gathered here today to bid farewell to Rocinante…” – “I seriously thought you were going to go with the spilled milk!” declares the elder. – “Naw. Too obvious. But really, mother. That one was at least a nine point four.” – “Thank you, daughter mine. Now would someone get the apples before … never mind. Velbekomme, Mr. Donkey.”

 

Fully prepared to pay for the damage, mother was informed by kind Therese that this “happens all the time” and insurance is included in the rental. But watch out for potholes, they’re everywhere. Now she tells me. 

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“The eleventh is Noatun; | there has Njorth
For himself a dwelling set;
The sinless ruler | of men there sits
In his temple timbered high.”

 

The Saga continues here as the Valkyries finally are introduced to their noble steeds and boldly ride towards new adventures. Inclement Weather Warning: Some adventures may come without pictures due to non-submersible phones/camera equipment.

We Go North the Rush Is On ~ The Denmark Saga, Verse I

Picture it: Germany, 2016. A gleaming white ICE rushes towards the majestic Hanse city of Hamburg. It has departed ancient Nuremberg in the early hours of dawn, its nose unerringly pointed north. For over 300 miles it has traversed the country; rushing through Frankonia’s hills and vineyards at breakneck speeds, carefully navigating the forested highlands of Hesse, and finally barreling into the flat expanse of Lower Saxony like a very German and thus sleek, efficient, and air conditioned Bat out of Hell. By now the midsummer sun stands high in the sky. Black and white blobs dot the green landscape basking in the heat- they might be cows. At 170 mph it can be hard to tell. One of the three lovely American ladies who are firmly ensconced in the on board café gives her empty cappuccino cup a mournful look. Is there time for another?

“Guys, I think we’re slowing down.”

Hamburg
Ooooooh we’re halfway theeheere

 

And so they are. Coasting into fair Hamburg, city of elegant mansions and merry red-light districts, rowdy soccer fans and obscenely rich merchant nobility. Canals and harbors, sailing ships and mighty container vessels, and of course the busy Hauptbahnhof.

Picture, if you will, the three Americans confidently grabbing their eclectic assortment of bags and suitcases, some of those emitting a faint aroma of horse. One by one, they spill out onto the platform, bright eyed, bushy-tailed, and their necks craning like baby owls’ to take in this new, unknown place in all its fascinating details.

They’ve drawn a bit of attention on their journey, those amiable ladies (being Teutonic attention of course it was mostly discreet). Whether it were the distinctly military looking duffel bags propped against a sturdy red Samsonite (which by the looks of it is the only one to have seen a war zone), the mentioned equine scent, or their animated chatter in a foreign language; they are exotic this far from any of the Army bases tucked into Bavaria’s deep forests. Which is not a bad thing, as it turns out.

They have traveled the world. They have safely navigated some of the planet’s largest airports, and at least one of them is equipped with a carrier pigeon’s sense of direction. Surely, they can find their way from one train to another?

Maybe not. Where is Ariadne with her wool when you need the old girl? A map wouldn’t go amiss, either. Golly, I swear I just saw Dr. Livingstone.

“Do the ladies require assistance?” A “Hanseat” appears, as if conjured out of a stereotype parallel universe, complete with smart suit and affable dignity. Utterly charmed, the ladies nod in unison. Why yes sir, they do. They do indeed.

Perhaps they still tell tales of the three American ducks following the Hanseatic swan. Hamburg is a harbor city, and sailors love a good story. “The Soldier and the Merchant Prince” has a nice ring to it. Or so the young ducklings would have agreed, if not for the stubborn mother duck being more interested in food and that wretched train. A magical romance, withered beneath the German summer sun before it could blossom.

We’ll always have Hamburg…

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It’s quite a different train that takes the urban German from the bustling metropolis out to the coast, and onward to the fabled island of Sylt. Chugging along at a pace sedate enough to identify the black and white blobs as large, gentle Holstein cows; crossing rivers and seemingly endless plains, one lazy hour after the other. It is nearly mid-afternoon when one of the hitherto peacefully dozing Americans sniffs the air and strikes a heroic pose (as heroic as one might, hemmed in by luggage and German bicycles haphazardly piled upon one another) and declares: “Thálatta!”

Riding a train through the Atlantic Ocean sounds rather more dramatic than it is. The Hindenburgdamm, while a triumph of German engineering I’m sure, does not inspire much awe from actual Germans. Yet it is a sight. A teenage Teuton is happily explaining the history and geography of the region to the youngest American, while outside the windows eternity seems to stretch on in a thousand shades of blue. All too soon the ocean gives way to dunes and scrappy heather. And then the Americans spill out onto another platform, bushy tails looking rather a bit more travel worn by now, yet their spirits remain undimmed.

Moin!” Once more, the travelers are proving exotic enough to alert their Taxi driver that these are indeed The Americans She Is Looking For. And thus they are gently shepherded into the Mercedes that will take them North yet again, to the harbor and the ferry. Clear across the island, past the windswept dunes and the summer villas of the rich and famous, past the simpler yet infinitely more charming dwellings of the locals, past Chanel outlets and trendy bars.

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At a place located at 55°0′N 8°26′E, the heat should not be permitted to be this oppressive. Even the breeze from the open ocean provides only little relief. After bidding their kind driver a fond farewell, the travelers shoulder their luggage which seems to inexplicably have gained 50 pounds since Hamburg, and meander their way through flocks of tourists and inquisitive seagulls. The older teen is the first to spy the Dannebrog flying high above the ferry that sits on the picturesque little harbor’s outer edge. Vikings of old have shown less enthusiasm storming towards Paris than these three Americans do charging towards this second to last leg of their long journey. They probably didn’t sweat so much, either. 

Ferry
Yes, but why is the rum gone? –  (overheard at the Duty-free)

 

It’s the loveliest part, and thus of course the shortest. Propelled across the open water by powerful engines, the little ferry crosses the distance in less than an hour.

At first it’s only a pale smudge on the horizon. Then a dancing mirage in ivory and green. At last, the coastline of Rømø, stretching out under an almost ridiculous postcard-blue sky.

Velkommen til Danmark.

The Americans disembark amidst a flurry of automobiles and bicycles. The hotel is supposed to have arranged transportation for the final leg, but much as they strain their aching necks, they cannot locate a bus, or anything resembling a shuttle service.

Horse people know one another. It’s a constant in the universe, one that has been proven time and again. Thus the tall, bearded descendant of mighty warriors has no trouble honing in on the three ladies walking in bewildered circles.

“Hej! Hvad så! My Americans, ja?”

“What gave us away?”

“Away where?”

Thus they are piled into a sturdy old Land Rover. At long last, exhaustion and heat take their toll; or perhaps it’s the soothing aroma of horse and saddle soap that permeates the Rover’s interior, but the three ladies soon resemble a baroque painting. A slightly odd one, with three graces in jeans and t-shirts languidly draped over horse blankets and assorted tack. Still, they instantly become alert when Olaf mentions a seafood buffet just as they come to a stop after what felt a mere five minutes.

Dusk has fallen by the time the three graces stumble from the magnificent little hotel restaurant, having done their ancestors proud by executing a flawless raid of every dish in evidence, and going back for seconds. Then thirds. You better believe I have room for dessert. Their room awaits, as does their luggage which kind and thoughtful Olaf has already deposited there. After 15 hours on rail, road and sea, they are ready to postpone the adventure of Denmark until dawn.

But it finds them first.

As they round a corner, the sun dips below the western horizon and warm lights spring to life, illuminating a path to the pool and the front door of what will turn out to be a charming little apartment. A breeze from the ocean rustles the trees, carrying a scent of salt and roses and horses with it.

“This is it. I live here now.”

A donkey somewhere behind the trees brays his agreement.

Romo Hotel

Vafthruthnir spake:

“The father of day | is Delling called,
And the night was begotten by Nor;
Full moon and old | by the gods were fashioned,
To tell the time for men.”

 

The Saga continues here: Horses, bicycles and assorted calamities connected therewith. More pictures.

 

 

Tu Felix Austria

Picture it: Austria, 2017. An aging BMW is moving through the autumn chill, past fallow fields and silent, mist-shrouded mountains. Having left the noisy Autobahn with its monotonous roar of traffic behind, the sturdy, faithful vehicle is navigating ever narrower roads, climbing, climbing. A couple of gentle eyed cows with heavy bells around their necks give the passerby a glance before returning to their task of nibbling at the tired grass. Here and there a brightly colored leaf still clings defiantly to a barren branch, but as the BMW draws near its destination, the brooding shapes of pine and spruce dominate the landscape with their rich, dark greens. Then the teenager stretched out sidelong in the back of the car, one long leg languidly propped against the passenger seat, breaks the companionable silence with the age old question dreaded by parents far and wide.

“Are we there yet?”

Brenner Pass

 

“Not quite my darling, not quite”

“That’s what I get for asking that question, right?”

“She said darling. We’re not at DEFCON sweetheart yet” pipes up the sister teen in the passenger seat, swatting away a playful foot poking into her shoulder.

“Speaking of threat levels. If we don’t find coffee for mother soon, we’ll have a Situation.”

“Mountains to mole hills” nods the elder sagely “with extra craters and blue smoke. Oh look, more cows!”

“I hear they don’t explode well. Say, those 5 seconds when I had cell reception earlier, I found a cafe. About 4 klicks southwest-ish”

“Which would put us…”

“2 o’clock! Now now NOW!” with the honed reflexes of the military child, younger teen barks the order and braces herself against long suffering sister’s shoulder, split seconds before the vehicle decelerates rapidly and swerves right.

“Impeccable timing,” proud mother declares as the BMW coasts towards a small parking lot in front of a – Google be Praised – charming little Viennese-style Kaffeehaus.

“Tu Felix Austria,” nods the youngling in the back “even though they have no kangaroos.”

“No what now?”

“Oh, don’t worry. I took a picture.”

Austria

 

 

 

Little Vikings and Wounded Warriors

“Leave the thinking to your horse, he’s got the bigger head!”

This advice, delivered in a merry voice and translated almost 1:1 from an ancient German proverb, floated towards my ears in the middle of yet another standard leg-yield exercise gone awry (for non horse-people: a sideways walk that looks easy and is in fact not too challenging for a decent rider, but can turn into a hilarious turkey-trot performance if said rider overthinks the thing. Drastically overthinks, like an engineer fixing a carburetor trying to apply quantum physics).

And so I had. Again. For the umpteenth time. Adjust speed. OK, his head is at the correct angle. No, just a little more. Now the shoulder isn’t moving right. Too slow. Shoulder

turkey trot
Think how exciting this would be with four legs!

good, now gentle pressure to the … cue the Charleston music, we’re off to the dance! It is a testament to the Icelandic Horse’s renowned amiable and good-humored nature, that my dear friend the “Night-traveler” did not unceremoniously dump me into the sand and waltz off to find somewhat more interesting to do. Possibly a root canal.

But coach’s equally good-natured advice snapped me out of the vicious circle of tension and thinking and planning, of angles and posture and watching every twitch of my horse’s ear, analyzing every change in his gait, every tremor in the reins (I am convinced that his half-sideways nod is nothing other than an equine eye roll, especially when accompanied by a distinct, deep-throated huff).

Leave the thinking to your horse. Coach might have said “Stop treating him like a finicky bit of technology that will blow you halfway to Russia if you get it wrong, and just bloody well GO with it!” but she didn’t. “He’s got the bigger head!” He’s a living being with thoughts of his own, let him do his part. Let him carry you. STOP overthinking every damn thing. Wasn’t that why I had gotten back in the saddle after a long hiatus in the first place?

The long road back

It’s supposed to be like riding a bicycle. Due to muscle memory and “once learned, never forgotten”, you’re supposed to pick up where you left off, and canter into the sunset. Maybe for some people that is true, but my experience was rather along the lines of “once learned, relearning everything”. Some of it certainly had to do with the switch from Western to English Riding, and from steady, eager, happy-go-lucky Quarter Horses and Appaloosas to five-gaited “Devil May Care” miniature Vikings with a quirky sense of humor. But there was also, perhaps mostly, the difference in the rider herself.

There were, in essence, two separate riders.

The Force of basic, fundamental trust we develop (or don’t) in infancy was strong with the teenager who considered climbing out of yet another shrub somewhere in the Northern Adirondacks just another adventure (do not blame Binky, I should have known Image result for horse lover stable mindbetter than to ask such a sharp turn of him when he was distracted by the charming chestnut mare). The immortality and invincibility of youth, combined with a deep-rooted sense that it’ll all turn out alright in the end, that the annoying broken leg will heal before long, that the bruises only mean you had fun pushing another limit, and that there were always people who would pull you out of the shrub and slap a band-aid on your arm (but dammit, that was my favorite ratty old shirt), left little enough room to doubt myself. Or the world I lived in, for that matter.

Horses were boon companions, as were dogs and bunnies and chickens and whatever critter dad brought home to nurse back to health any given day (mom drew the line at that baby wolverine though, much to my dismay). Being smarter than most humans, the 1000 pounds of muscle I fed and brushed and saddled on a regular basis picked up on that cheerful confidence with ease, and responded in kind.

Many years, several deployments. and far too many close encounters with the darkest, most hateful and vicious side of humanity later, that cheerful serenity had been replaced with a wary cynicism on a good day, hypervigilance and obsessive situational awareness alternating or concurring with emotional detachment and numbness on a bad one.

It’s not that the US military hasn’t learned some hard lessons from the past. There is help available. Nor is the stigma of seeking said help as prevalent as it once was. Like as not I’d have cowgirl’d up eventually either way, because once your ability to get the job done becomes compromised, all excuses are feeble. I wasn’t raised to make excuses. “I don’t like shrinks” and “I’m tougher than this” doesn’t fly when you’re responsible for other people’s lives.

But it does help if your superiors support you in your decision to fix a mild issue before it becomes a major one, rather than take your admission of being less than 100% as ‘unfit for duty’. And it certainly helps to have other people in similar situations covering your six. Thus the slightly unconventional suggestion to seek out a barn in the beautiful Middle of Nowhere, Bavaria. “You had horses as a kid, right? I know this place where they do amazing physical therapy with veterans – no EAP per se, but…” “Horses?”

Well, my dog has been my reality check and guardian against nightmares more times than I can count. So, why not let horses help me to remember a simpler, more innocent time? Help me reconnect with the teen of days gone by? What could possibly go wrong?

I should have remembered how much smarter they are.

Murphy’s Law of Combat 5.1: If it’s stupid but it works, it ain’t stupid

Contrary to what you may have been told, the Icelandic Horse doesn’t care if you call him a pony. He doesn’t even care if you treat him like one, as long as it involves carrots. He is, Related imagehowever, as tough as his Viking ancestors, and about as easily persuaded to deviate from a chosen course. Unless of course you’ve managed to gain a measure of respect (or have a limitless supply of carrots available).

Fortunately for me, the barn in Nowhere, BY is run by one of those legendary women who can take you for a 20 minute walk across a pasture with 45 horses and then match you to your partner based on how the herd reacts to you. Which, in the beginning, was a gentle, playful bay gelding by the name of Náttfari.

I’ve never been one to subscribe to the notion of signs and omens and secret meanings. It’s quite likely my buddy with the rockstar mane and the smooth gait was named for the legendary first permanent settler of Iceland, rather than the literal “Night-Traveler”. But it felt apt all the same. If the little guy had a knack for navigating dark places, I’d not turn up my nose at the help.

And so he did.

Bit by bit, week after week, rain and sun and wind and snow and ice, the brave little Viking horse shouldered the responsibility of teaching a wounded human how to keep moving forward. How to take the dark and the light as equal parts of life, and that watching your step in the dark doesn’t mean weakness, but translates to common sense. That keeping a vigilant eye out for predators doesn’t mean you can’t graze and flirt and play. That trust doesn’t mean you’ll never fall, because stupid rocks and slippery mud can pop up out of nowhere. That if you just keep moving, there’ll be unexpected carrots along the way.

In the arena and on the trail, he kept murmuring those lessons to me. Kept moving through setbacks and dense fog, always carrying the weird but pleasant enough human along. Remember. Remember. One step after the other. I got you. Remember. Trust. Feel. It’s just a shadow. Trust me. Remember.

The Path Untraveled

The day that my equine pal and expedition guide so kindly refrained from dumping me, aka “this overanalyzing nuisance on my back”, into the dust was not a quantum leap event for my riding. Rather, it was one in a series of events big and small. Some of them inching me along, others gaining 100 yards at a time, but until that moment always trying to move towards the “Rider that Was”. The one who never had nor ever needed formal training, because a horse is a horse, right is right and left is left, slow is slow and fast is YEE-haw. The one who knew in her bones that it’s never the reins he follows, but the human saying “I got this, buddy”.

It was the day I realized there was no going back to the First Rider, much as I wanted to leave the tense, overalert Second one behind. Because life doesn’t work that way.

The lesson my quirky, amiable Viking had tried to get into my stubborn head all the while suddenly seemed so simple. I could have sworn that for a moment the famous light bulb did not so much appear over my head with a cheerful ‘ding!’, but rather hit me with the ‘whoomph’ of a 1032 ergs solar flare. Remember, silly human. Forward is the way to go. You knew this, once. What you were, what you are, has brought you here. You are the First Rider, you are the Second, both of them will be part of the Third. Let’s go see what she’ll be like. And she better bring carrots.

Related image
My work here is done…

 

It’s been a year and a season since.

And even as my little buddy has moved on to help others while I’ve been exploring the New Rider with two other, quite different horses, I often find myself drawn back to him. If only to stand near the pasture gate for a while and watch him play. Or for those moments when he comes strutting up to blow warm air into my face and nuzzle my hair.

“Looking good, funny human. I saw you with that feisty mare yesterday. Not bad. Did I mention I have a bit of a crush on her? That swish of her tail when she tölts … oh, brother! Hey, remember when we ran into that patch of mud and Snöggur fell on his bum? And you got out the saddle to help his rider up, and then you both fell on your bums? Did the four of us ever make a picture. But anyways. Got carrots?”  

Confessions of an Accidental Liberal, or: Speak Softly and Have Air Support on Standby

I should have listened to Nancy.

“Just say no!”

But like millions before me, I saw no harm in a little curiosity, some entirely legitimate

Mrs Reagan and 99 Luftballons?

scientific spirit of inquiry, and I tragically misjudged the slippery slope that my wide-eyed, guileless poking at the unknown should lead me onto.

The unknown of differing political viewpoints, that is. Radical, exotic, tantalizingly extravagant viewpoints. Elitist, even (don’t blame me, elite sounds so charmingly French! How was I to know the word that once meant ‘choice’ and later meant ‘of great quality’ is now yet another bad thing)?

Honestly, I thought I could quit any time. Even as my descent into flower-powered liberaldom was already painfully obvious to innocent bystanders, I still firmly believed myself the poster-child of the Moderate Independent. You know, the girl who goes both ways. The reasonable one who balances the scales and chooses political candidates not based on party affiliation but on (oh, dear) common sense.

It took nothing less than a full frontal intervention by a trusted buddy for me to see the terrifying truth. Engaged in the time-honored military maneuver known as “Hurry Up and Wait” we were completing a tactical analysis (debating which Hollywood movie contains the biggest FUBARs in terms of depicting the military), when Murphy (don’t ask)  declared in a matter of fact tone: “You’re such a Liberal!”

Naturally, my response was a decisive “Am NOT!”

“Are, too!”

“Am SO not!”

“Are so, too!”

Yes, we’re the people entrusted with your safety.

 

And it all had started out so well

Granted, mom has always been a staunch Democrat. The proud blue collar daughter of 3rd generation German immigrants (add a generous dash of Louisiana French for spice, and of course there’s great-uncle George the cranky Alaskan but every family needs one of those) has always been pro unions, pro reasonable taxation in exchange for social safety nets, and has some rather fierce views on healthcare. Yet to many of her fellow Democrats in the Empire State her political leanings tend rather a bit too far right of Mr Bill Clinton, disqualifying her from the “Centrist” label by 20 degrees starboard of fiscal responsibility. And please don’t get her started on Mrs Clinton. Or Mr Sanders, for that matter.

One wonders how she ever gets along with the Republican she married -holy cow – in 1967. Or perhaps not, seeing as the gentle Scandinavian bear, self-chosen blue collar son of a white collar East Coast clan, declares himself a Moderate Republican (when he can be bothered to have any label affixed to his broad shoulders). Far, far out of right-swirling waters in matters of environment and education, he was (and is) nonetheless the poster-man of Reagan voters (“Bad actor. Good president”), and still champions supply-side economics and much of the Gipper’s free-market philosophy. Dad also quite reasonably decided that voting for Bush the Elder and (less enthusiastically) the Younger, gave and gives him license to exercise his 1st Amendment rights at his leisure by offering mild rebukes and occasionally scathing commentary on either’s performance in the White House. Please don’t get him started on Mr Trump. Seriously. Please don’t.

So what happened?

How does a child destined to walk the moderate, centrist ground of politics suddenly find herself tumbling out of that comfortable, stable middle ground and slide headlong into the rabbit hole of the (gasp) Libertarian Left? cartesian plane with horizontal left-right axis and vertical authoritarian-libertarian axis

As a good Snowflake/Hippie/[insert insult of your choice here] should, I blame my parents. That’s right, the ex-Catholic (aka Agnostic with an Attitude) Democrat and the laid-back Protestant Republican, who huddle snugly in the political middle. The couple who for over 50 years now have made an art of not merely coexisting with a different opinion, but celebrating their differences (admittedly, that celebration sometimes involves ballistic kitchenware from the Democrat and pithy retorts worthy of a Spartan warrior from the Republican).

On the political compass it’s astonishing just how close these two warring lovebirds are –Image result for churchillboth are floating companionably near Winston Churchill in the middle to lower left of the blue, with mom but a bunny-hop and a skip left of dad on the economic scale, and him (my goodness) beating her and any other self-respecting Republican on the social scale with a noticeable southward drift. “Must have been the porn questions” spoke the Viking and went to stack some firewood.

Mother dearest disputes this conclusion and places the blame squarely on his insufferable feminism. Sometimes I really can’t tell when she’s joking.

And I guess therein lies the rub. They don’t fit the stereotypes. Despite loud (or laconic) protestations to the contrary, my parents are fierce individualists, liberal in the literal sense of the word. The “Believer in Liberty” sense. The “Freedom and Pursuit of Happiness” sense. Each of them may have chosen to align with a party that most closely resembles their views, but within that framework they refuse to be pinned down, corralled, labeled, or herded along party lines.

How did they end up raising a scion who snuggles up with Nelson Mandela (not that I’m not mildly flattered, if bewildered) in the green square?

I believe it’s because they’re Americans. Yes, you read that right. Solid, patriotic, “Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground” honest Americans. Firm believers in

Image result for statue of liberty
Looking good, old girl!

the First Amendment (please don’t get them started on the Second, though. The last time that discussion happened we had to evacuate half the county and apologize to Canada for that friendly-fire teacup), in self determination and inalienable rights. Including their daughter’s right to be a gun toting Hippie, a grown-ass woman in uniform who volunteers for animal rescues and pesters the commissary for more organic food (I draw the line at kale, though), who believes that putting her hind end on the line for her country means she damn well can argue for renewable energies and better health care. And don’t get me started on minority rights, or protecting my beloved rivers, lakes and mountains. Seriously, don’t. My weapon was made by the lowest bidder.

The Oxymoron resolved

How does this individualism square with the lovebirds’ relatively high scores on the authoritarian scale, and mine own willing endurance of the most hierarchical command structure available?

I recall asking dad many years ago, before donning my own uniform, how he had resolved the dilemma for himself. Thusly spoke the Viking: “Freedom isn’t saying no to authority just because it’s authority. It’s saying yes when and because you choose to. Now go help your mother with the horses.”

Yes, dad.

 

 

 

A Soldier’s Christmas

It sucks not being home this time of year.

There are perks – amazing ones – to being stationed in Germany, rather than tracking Santa via NORAD from another sandbox. All throughout the Holiday Season there are distractions galore. Magical Christmas Markets beckon. Small towns and major cities engage in a quintessentially German competition over who has the best decorations, the most whimsical attractions, the finest foods, the most awesome events. You can tell they’re German, because they’d rather traverse the Arctic in pink satin shorts than be caughtImage result for romantic christmas market regensburg doing anything tacky, overblown, … *coff coff* American *coff*. No, it’s elegant understatement for the Teutons, or if you have to go all in, do it in a playful, not quite taking yourself seriously way. So you get rows of miniature log cabins decorated with intricate woodwork and tasteful lighting, serving food and drink and selling handmade toys … right next to a bunch of donkeys with Santa hats. Yes, live donkeys, and a rather bored looking cow. Do watch your just purchased Lebkuchen around the longears.

With Gluhwein and Bratwurst Semmel warming your insides, and your new best friend Josef the donkey searching your pockets for leftover crumbs, the pangs of homesickness are just that. Little bittersweet specks of frost in the warm glow.

But it still sucks.

The native population – an attraction in their own right – will not let you dwell, however. Not once they’ve adopted you, like one would a friendly, if rather quirky and not very bright puppy. Now that you’re theirs, you’re dragged to ski trips, beer league hockey games, and cheerful gatherings at the local inn. These will resemble pagan revelry and involve the lighting of candles (unless Ms Sabine accidentally burns down the wreath Related imageagain), a mildly inebriated Mr. Florian playing the Zither (or a three man band in Lederhosen bringing the house down), and ever more fantastic dishes. If you thought you knew Bavarian cuisine – you ain’t seen nothing yet, brother.

You will also be introduced to the Jagerbomb’s big older brother – the Jaegertee. Do not let the sedate name fool you – this stuff is made for Bavarian stomachs fortified by pigs’ feet and fiery horseradish, and it will end with bewildered Americans stumbling from one snowdrift to the next while caroling like lovesick moose (meese? mooses?).

But it still sucks.

Because as Christmas Eve rolls around wrapped in freezing mist and all grows quiet, as the base falls into a watchful doze with those who were lucky enough to catch a flight home long gone, as the natives retreat into the loving or at least drunken embrace of their families, you look around and see those familiar faces.

The Ones Who Stay Behind

They’re not the same every year. PCS is part of military life, and the guy you worked with and had beers with last year is sending a Christmas card from Benning this year. But they are familiar in that they all have familiar expressions. Some slightly forlorn, some melancholy, some determined to make the best of it, some just grateful for a bit of peace and quiet, some settling into the routine of holding down the fort. All of them with nowhere else to go.

I’m one of the luckier specimens, with two dependents and sufficient rank to live in a nicer military housing area. We didn’t go home this year for various reasons, and my two military brats have been in this situation more than once. They take it in stride. And they, too, see those members of their tribe who got the shortest end of the Christmas tree. They’re as familiar with them as they are with the smell of lived-in ACUs, muddy boots, and DoD schools.

So a few years ago we started our own Holiday tradition. We call it Christmas for simplicity, though we’re neither Christians nor attend mass, but in a nod to our Scandinavian ancestry we have a tree and lights and a fine feast (we’re also stubbornly trying to import the Jólabókaflóð – so far with limited, but mildly encouraging success). And on the 25th we’re gathering up the stray members of our tribe. The young single soldier and the divorcee without the money to go home, the grizzled war horse who stuck around pulling duty so those with families can catch a break, the unattached SGT with estranged parents. Bring your friends. Yes, that quirky 11Bravo can come, as long as he doesn’t try to puppy-nap our dog again.

The Longest Night

Take away the ornaments, the reindeer, the carols and the shopping craze for the perfect gift, and I still believe we would huddle together as the days grow short and the light Related imagewanes. We’d still seek out our families – blood or no – and draw close to the hearth fires. Because somewhere in the ancient, primal parts of our brains that howl at the moon and don’t buy into the modern gimmicks just yet, we feel the cold claws of winter coming to take the most vulnerable of our pack.

Is it a coincidence that Christianity picked the time celebrated as the return of the light for as long as humanity has existed for their own expression of hope? And deep down, does it matter as long as the message is carried onward?

Even the longest night ends. The world keeps turning, the seasons change. The circle of life keeps rolling on. And in Ned Stark’s words: “When Winter comes the lone wolf dies, but the pack survives”. So gather your own and raise a glass to life, roast that bird and sing a song, because we’re all in this together.

It sucks not being home. Home with your first tribe, your family and old friends. Home, where everything is familiar and comforting. Even drunk uncle Harry and his hopelessly ancient and out of tune guitar. Maybe especially him.

But it’s OK. It really is.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly

Mother and children and a fluffy dog, 14 uniformed personnel decidedly out of uniform (though that ugly sweater should qualify as psych warfare), 1 DoD civilian and a stray spouse, one large turkey, a-wassailing they go…

Christians, heathens, a SGT declaring himself the mandatory Jew and cheerfully drowning out the “Jingle Bells” crowing atheist (yes they do exist in foxholes) with an off-key rendition of something with a Dreidel. “Die Hard” and “Miracle on 34th Street”. Surprisingly little shop talk. A happy dog gorged on ham and bird. Stories of home. Bittersweet.

We’re OK.

A Happy Yuletide to All, a Merry Christmas, Joyeux Noël, Peace and Hope and Chocolate!