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Chasing The Scream: 48 hours in Oslo

Many moons ago, I wrote my A Level History of Art dissertation on the amazing, angst-ridden Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, and ever since then I've longed to see his paintings up close and personal. So, after six years in Sweden, I felt it was time to pay our respects to our Norwegian neighbours and make a little weekend trip to Oslo.

A six hour train journey from Södertälje later, I dragged my family through howling wind and incessant rain to the Munch museum, thrilled at the prospect of finally getting to see works like Madonna, Young Woman on the Beach, the Dance of Life and, of course, The Scream.

Postcards from the gift shop: the closest we got to seeing any of these paintings

We queued up and paid our money and worked our way round the exhibition "The Swan Princess: Russian Art 1880-1910", which was full of paintings by Russian and Nordic artists like Mikhael Vrubel, Carl Larsson, Anders Zorn, and, yes, the odd painting by our man Munch. But no Evening on Karl Johan Street, no Summer Night, no Jealousy and very definitely no Scream.

In the final room I asked the guard "Is that it?" "Oh, you want to see The Scream", he answered wearily. "Well, yes, that would be nice, but also all his other paintings." "They're in storage in the basement," he helpfully informed me. "But you can see them next year when the new Munch museum opens. And you can see another version of The Scream and some of his other works at the National Gallery." "Great, we'll go there then."

But before I dragged my distinctly unimpressed family back out into the rain and over to the National Gallery, I checked their website. Closed until 2020. 25 years of waiting and I was a year too early. I did a little silent scream and moved on to see what else Oslo had to offer.

Oslo highlights:

  • Street art. Oslo has a slightly rawer, more edgy feel than Stockholm and some fantastic street art, particularly around the Tøyen and Grünerløkka districts.

  • Kon-Tiki museum. If you've never read the book or seen the film about Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl's epic crossing of the Pacific on a balsawood raft, The Kon-Tiki, do it now. A truly inspiring adventure.

The actual raft used by Heyerdahl and his crew on their 1947 expedition

Ferry across the Oslo fjord to the Bygdøy peninsula and museums (Pic: Joe Maclay)

  • Palmyra Cafe Masala Dosais and mango lassis at this great value Sri Lankan restaurant in Grønland were a taste of the tropics on a rainy day in Oslo.
  • Vigeland Sculpture Park. An easy walk from our Airbnb in Majorstuen, I didn't expect my children to get too excited about a load of sculptures but actually they loved it (possibly because of the nakedness).
  • Holmenkollen Ski museum On our last day, we took the underground (which is mainly overground) up into the hills to the north of the city, past suburbs of gorgeous wooden villas with views over the fjord, to Holmenkollen.

After admiring the terrifying downwards views from the top of the slope and out over Oslo from the jump tower and watching tall, fit Norwegians dashing about on cross country skis for a while, we walked about half an hour up to the restaurant at Frognerseteren which is worth a detour not so much for the food as the views and the traditional, tar-scented wooden building.

Oslo: you were a delight in the winter sunshine but you've left me not only pining for the fjords but screaming for my Munch hit. I'll be back.

Hunter vs. farmer

Can we talk about mental health for a moment? Two of the people closest to me have a diagnosis - one of bipolar and one of ADHD and autism - and over the years it's made me question my preconceived ideas about, well, pretty much everything.

I've spent countless hours in meetings and counselling sessions discussing how to make these beloved people "better" or to "fit in". So much time and money spent diagnosing, labelling and attempting to medicate (not on my watch). So much energy spent trying to bash a square peg into a round hole. A child who can't sit still in the classroom, a partner who can't handle too much routine or domesticity... "They" must be wrong, because "we" are right.

In his book Attention Deficit Disorder: a Different Perception, Thom Hartmann suggests the hunter vs. farmer hypothesis that makes a lot of sense to me. Most or all humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers for hundreds of thousands of years, but this gradually changed as agriculture developed in most societies and more people worldwide became farmers.

Most humans adapted to farming cultures, but Hartmann speculates that people with ADHD retained some of the older hunter characteristics - apathy towards social norms, hyperfocus, poor planning and organizing ability, impatience, attraction to variety, novelty and excitement, and impulsiveness. These days "hunters" are seen as reckless and irresponsible and we try to force or medicate them into behaving like farmers.

If you're an organised, routine-loving farmer like me, living with a hunter isn't always easy. A hunter won't compare car insurance policies to find the best deal, they won't always say or wear the "right" thing at a family gathering, they could never hold down a "normal" office job and nine times out of ten they'll turn up at least half an hour late for any appointment.

They will, however, definitely be up for a skate in the moonlight, skiving off work or school to go cliff jumping on a perfect autumn day, building an epic den in the woods, telling you the painful truth and really all the things that make life actually worth living.

Whether or not the hunter/farmer theory is true, I think it's a helpful way of understanding that we can be different without being seen as wrong, lesser or abnormal. Imagine your child's teacher saying: "Well, of course your child finds it difficult to sit still all day at school, he/she is a hunter", rather than "your child has ADHD and needs to be medicated."

I also believe it's important to talk about mental health and different ways of being in a neutral, accepting way. I went to a fantastic talk about addiction and co-dependency by Swedish journalist Sanna Lundell last year and she mentioned something that really stuck with me.

No one ever asks children who have parents with mental health or addiction issues how they are or discusses the issue with them in a concerned but neutral way, as they would if they had a parent with cancer or heart disease. And it's exactly the same thing. But there's still an underlying, sub-conscious belief among many people that mental health or addiction is the person's own fault, unlike physical illness.

Let's try to get past our very British/Swedish embarassment and and talk about how we are, how we really are, and how we really want to live. No shame, no judgement, no labels and a willingness to embrace all kinds of normal - hunter, farmer and a million things in between.

 

A good book and a hipster brownie

I had high hopes of fulfilling my intentions of embracing winter these past couple of weeks and writing inspiring things about wholesome activities like long-distance skating, cross-country skiing and ice bathing.

However, an absent spouse, grey skies, a broken washing machine, too much/not enough snow and a nasty case of head lice have put the kibosh on that so instead I'm going to write about the two things that are really getting me through the days at the moment: books and brownies.

These rawfood vegan brownies (or hipster brownies, as Joe calls them, slightly disparagingly, before scoffing another one) are ridiculously quick and easy to make and the best thing is my children don't like them enough to eat them all in one go, so there are plenty left for me. Here's what to do:

Whizz up 200g pitted dates, 3 dl oats, 1 dl cocoa, 1 dl nut butter, a teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of salt in a food blender with enough water (about 1 dl) to make the mixture soft enough to spread out into a shallow dish.

For the icing, don't bother to wash up the bowl, just chuck in another 80g of dates, 1/2 dl coconut oil, 1/2 dl cocoa and 3/4 dl water. Blend together, spread over the brownies and let it all chill in the fridge for an hour or so before sprinkling over some sifted cocoa, sea salt and/or dessicated coconut. Grab a handful and retire to a quiet spot with a good book.

My current bedside table book tower is in danger of collapsing and, while Marie Kondo may not approve of the storage method, all these books are sparking plenty of joy so I'll share my tips before dismantling it:

  • Half Of a Yellow Sun is set in Nigeria during the Biafran War in the Sixties. It's skilfully written, touching and heartbreaking.
  • I recently re-read The Poisonwood Bible and am now working my way through Barbara Kingsolver's back catalogue. She writes brilliantly about nature and particularly the effects of climate change in Flight Behaviour.
  • The Hidden Life of Trees is funny and fascinating. You'll never walk in a forest or look at a tree in the same way after reading this.
  • If you only ever read Steinbeck as a set text in school, give The Grapes of Wrath - and all his other books - another go. His female characters aren't particularly positive or inspiring on the whole but he's a master storyteller and his themes are just as relevent today as they were in the Forties. In my top ten books of all time.
  • Even if you're not a fan of spiritual/self-help books, everyone should read The Power of Now. And then re-read it regularly, whenever you need some perspective or your ego's getting a bit out of control. Life-changing, literally.
  • Swing Time: Love Zadie Smith. Her books make me nostalgic for London and her characters are funny and real.
  • A Little Life: I can't decide whether I enjoyed this or not. It's long, traumatic, difficult to read and I couldn't relate to any of the characters but I couldn't stop thinking about it for ages afterwards.
Fear of flying and a Japanese spa

Wanderlust and climate anxiety is a frustrating combo. I want to see the world, and show it to my children - but how to justify jetting around the planet when I'm destroying it for them in the process? We've recently come back from a month-long trip that involved flying across the Atlantic, thereby using up our carbon allowances for pretty much the rest of our lives, so no more foreign travel for us any time soon.

(Have you ever used an online calculation tool to measure your carbon footprint? Even if you consider yourself fairly green I guarantee you'll be shocked by the result - check out the WWF's one here, if you dare.)

Anyway, instead of getting too morose about all this, I've decided to focus on making the most of the Swedish winter (and not just by getting "mysig" by an open fire, but really getting out there and embracing it), as well as finding ways to experience the world without leaving the country.

First stop, Yasuragi Hasseludden, the Japanese spa just outside Stockholm. I'd visited once before about fifteen years ago, but it's had such an extensive revamp since then that I barely recognised it. The Japanese theme and aesthetic runs strong throughout, from the walkway up to the building and surrounding Japanese gardens to the food (there are three different Japanese restaurants and a sake bar), the yukatas (cotton robes) that all guests wear and, of course, the spa.

I must admit I'm not a massive fan of spas per se. Too much hush-hush, dodgy music, unripe fruit and icky things floating in hot tubs, but Yasuragi's new spa area is on a whole new level. It's the shogun of spas, the emperor. There are indoor saunas and hot tubs and cold plunge pools and salt scrub steam rooms and three outdoor hot pools and an outdoor sauna and a sparkling water pool and it just goes on and on. You could sauna and bathe here for hours and barely park or dip your bits in the same section twice.

If, like me, you get a bit claustrophic in saunas and hot baths, the outdoor pools are the highlight, especially in the winter. Sitting emerged in atmospherically steaming hot water with your face exposed to the cold, fresh air and a view out over the icy water and snow-covered Scots pines and villas of Hasseludden is a pretty hard experience to beat.

The whole place is gorgeously designed in a modern Japanese/Nordic aesthetic with masses of concrete and panoramic windows and everything felt sparklingly fresh and clean - partly achieved, I would imagine, by giving all spa guests brand new, complementary (and rather flattering) black swimming costumes to wear and instructing us all on the proper pre-spa washing ritual. I expect state-of-the-art filtration technology plays its part, but either way I'm happy to report I didn't spot a single unidentified floating object or rogue body hair.

Since I've never visited a Japanese onsen (hot spring baths) I don't know how Yasuragi compares but there's no getting away from the fact that it's huge, with some 600 rooms, and a lot of conference guests. But the size and design of the spa, together with the the fact that everyone is dressed in anonymous swimmers or the yukata you're given to wear at all other times, including meal times, means it never feels too crowded or corporate. There's also a ban on using mobiles in all public areas, which is a revelation in phone-obsessed Sweden (and explains why these pics are all high-quality press images and not my own iPhone snaps).

I'm planning on an annual winter visit, at least until someone invents a zero-emissions way to fly to Japan. Keep an eye out for their special deals and an overnight spa package can be surprisingly good value. Definitely cheaper than a return ticket to Tokyo in any case, plus better for your skin and easier on the conscience.

By friends for friends: feel-good Christmas shopping

Just to be clear, I'm no Scrooge. I'm crazy about Christmas and gaily embrace a mishmash selection of all my favourite British and Swedish traditions: candlelit Lucia services, the smell of warm glögg, mince pies with boozy butter, turkey and stuffing (more on the controversial topic of Swedish v. British Christmas food another time), watching Elf for the 87th time, making wonky gingerbread houses, fresh snow and frozen lakes - bring it all on. I am full of the spirit (does Baileys count as spirits?) But one thing that brings out my inner Grinch more and more each year is Christmas shopping.

The thought of all the pointless tat bought and chucked away makes me want to hide in a silent retreat until January, so this year (*friends and family spoiler alert*) I've decided only to buy handmade presents from people I know and like. Handily, there are plenty of creative souls in my area making beautiful things that I (hint) - and hopefully my loved ones - would love to receive. Here are just a few:

Anyone who's been specially good this year should add one of Lina's glorious hand-dyed organic silk kaftans to their Christmas list. She used to live with us so I've seen first-hand how much work goes into creating each kaftan, kimono, poncho and scarf she makes. Each one is hand-dyed using natural dyes such as avocado, raspberry, coffee, rust and rose petals and they're true works of art.

Sonja has a pottery workshop and studio in the old engine sheds in Gnesta and makes throwing beautiful pots look ridiculously easy which, having taken a couple of her evening classes, I can tell you it most definitely isn't.

Karolina of Kajsys hand-makes all her own skin care products using organic oils and other ingredients. My brand-new baby nephew will be getting a big jar of "Snällkräm" with jojoba oil and beeswax, and I'm hoping her "Skäggolja" beard oil with apricot kernal oil and rosemary is going to transform Joe's facial hair vibe from Mr Twist to Mr Clooney.

My old school friend Molly was always the best at art in our year and she's gone on to create a successful business making her own design block-printed textiles, wallpapers and other very lovely products.

Jules walked into a North London playground and my life fourteen years ago when our two eldest boys were just babies. She somehow combines being a highly successful art director with being wonderfully scatty, a single mother to two boys and running her new art advisory service. You can hire her to transform a blank wall into a tasteful and personal gallery wall or just buy one of the hand-picked prints and paintings from her online gallery (the black and white photographic print on the left is by my extremely talented husband, Joe Maclay)

Last year was the first year since moving to Sweden that we had a turkey for Christmas lunch (our first year here we killed and ate one of the neighbour's geese by mistake, but that's another story) and finding a higher welfare bird in this country was no mean feat.

Mission Happy Turkey involved a long search and a random handover rendezvous with a lorry driver in a petrol station car park off the E4. This year, I've sourced the festive (pasture-raised, organically fed and on-site slaughtered) bird from friends who run a permaculture farm in Värmland and make monthly deliveries to Stockholm and Järna.

I've just realised pretty much all these businesses are run by women; not intentional - I'm just lucky enough to know a lot of amazing, inspiring, creative women and I'd rather support them than add more money to the likes of Jeff Bezos' bulging coffers any day.