The Killer Lambs: And Other Norwegian Truths

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When we arrived in Norway, nobody told us to beware of the sheep.

The fjord region of Norway is a magical land; a combination of Ireland’s rolling green hills, Switzerland’s picturesque red houses, and Canada’s snow-capped rockies, all situated along endless weaving water inlets. Pick any spot at random, and from there you can admire at least two waterfalls. Sure, it’s cold. So cold there is a Norwegian saying: We don’t have a summer– only two months of poor ski conditions. So cold the setting of Disney’s Frozen is based on a real fjord village (Undredal: population 112). So cold, when we switched trains in the mountains, hail beat down on our faces– in the middle of June. But damn, was it beautiful.

We arrived by ferry in Aurland at 4pm. It was the first partly cloudy day after a series of wholly cloudy and rainy days, so we decided to take advantage of the rare peak of sunlight by going for a hike. We chose a short-ish route, estimated to take about an hour and a half. Although it doesn’t get dark in Norway until midnight, there was no need to be heroes. An hour and half was about all I wanted to invest before hunkering down with a $16 beer. (Oh yeah, dollars are about as valuable as Monopoly money in Scandinavia.)

The route took us along the shoreline, straight up the mountain, along a ridge, and back down the mountain to our bed and breakfast. A no brainer.

We nailed the shoreline walk. Not one mistake made.

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But after two and half hours of wandering the mountain forest, we accepted that we maybe-possibly-probably-okay definitely were lost. We made this decision after our makeshift trail ended at a fence so tall and wide we couldn’t circumvent it without serious Spidey skills.

We turned to assess our options, and that’s when we saw them.

The blood thirsty momma sheep, and her two creepy lambs.

They approached us directly, with intention, as if they knew us. As if we had slighted them. As if, in a previous life, we were shady car salesmen who sold them a lemon whose brakes failed and sent them over a cliff, and they’d waited two-hundred years for this opportunity for revenge. As if they were the wolves and we were the lambs.

The sheep charged. You might be thinking– what’s the big deal? They’re sheep. Just kick them away. But sheep are animals. Big(ish) animals. They have teeth, and cloven hooves for boxing gloves. At 250 pounds, they are pretty much Anderson Silvas on four legs. We froze. When the ewe was within eight feet, she growled. And when I say growl, I don’t mean a cute little baa-baa-black-sheep croon. I mean a wild dog growl.

(Don’t bother googling “sheep growl” in order to see what I’m talking about. You won’t find it. I’ve tried. The Internet will surface a video of an amenable woman getting shot in the butt with a hot dog gun (true and horrifying story), but it is completely devoid of any authentic sheep growl. I blame it on some underground mastermind sheep PR campaign. The same campaign responsible for the definition of the word “sheepish”. Lack of self-confidence, my potential-hot-dog-target ass!)

With small, hesitant steps–no sudden movements!– we skirted past them, leery of the drop at our backs and the possessed mammals at our fronts. But once we eased by them, they followed us– and snarled. So we retreated, and they cornered us against the fence.

“Are sheep dangerous?” I asked Phil from the side of my mouth.

“I didn’t think so,” he said, in a tone that implied he was now rethinking all his previously held beliefs about farmyard animals.

“What do we do?”

“We make a run for it.”

And we did. We sprinted past the sheep, up the very steep hill, aiming toward what appeared to be a road in the distance. I felt the breath of the brutes on my heels, and I couldn’t help but notice that Phil never once looked back to confirm I was not being torn to pieces by those woolly beasts (are we sure they aren’t descendants of woolly mammoths?).

Fearing the monsters at our backs, we never expected what lay beyond the hill crest.

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The monsters’ homestead.

“We have to hop the farm fence and get to the road,” Phil said.

“But what about the sheep??!” I cried.

He gripped my shoulders. “We have no choice!”

Phil cut himself hopping the barbed wire fence, and helped me over. Then we climbed up a hill so steep we had to claw at it with our hands. We fled with the ferocity of Dr. Grant running from the Gallimimus.

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The exertion triggered my asthma.

“I can’t make it!” I cried between wheezes. “I need help.”

The sheep were closing in. Phil extended his hand. “Come on!”

Since I am here to tell the tale, you already know we made it out of there alive. We did, and saturated with relief and gratitude for our escape.

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But the experience left us changed. For instance, I now wonder if, all these years, we’ve misunderstood that notorious childhood rhyme. Everyone talks about Mary and her little lamb like the animal was her faithful friend. Everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go. It followed her to school one day, etc. After this experience, I’m pretty confident that lamb was stalking that poor girl, and when the children laughed and played, that was just an example of nobody taking Mary– the victim –seriously.

It’s time we finally listened.

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Paris’s Finest

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We’d schlepped thirteen miles from one side of Paris to the outskirts on the other end, and the Tour de France by foot transformed us into les miserables.

We’d walked that far partially because my mother heard about a church that was somehow associated with Joan of Arc and assumed that’s where she was burned at the stake, and partially because we’d seen a flyer emblazoned with the Brazilian flag that advertised a Capoeira (Brazilian martial art) meeting. Since my brother Greg, a Capoeira enthusiast, was, and remains to this day, convinced that the best way to experience another culture was to experience how that culture experienced Brazilian culture, and since we’d soaked in enough museums, cathedrals, statues, basilicas, palaces, and tombs to weary a French historian, my mother decided to throw Greg a bone. A bone that landed thirteen miles away.

Both purposes were a bust. The first stop on our pilgrimage landed us before an uninteresting building far from any other tourists, in a seedy neighborhood that convinced me, if a Joan was murdered there, it wasn’t the saint– it was Joanie from le block who ran with the wrong crowd and was shot in gang related violence. Otherwise, if that truly was the site of Joan of Arc’s burning, we three and some French pigeons were the only living things in the world to know about it.

Greg and I collapsed into the lap of a Joan of Arc statue while our mom poked around the premises, sure she’d discover a plaque that would validate her conjecture. But all she found were cigarette butts and empty bottles of Bordeaux, because even French thugs have a sophisticated palate.

We continued our journey to the address indicated on the Capoeira flyer. A park. A park which, of course, was vacated. Either the ninth rule of fight club was that flyers should misinform, or the Capoeiristas fled when they saw our sorry asses approaching– feet dragging, mouths slack, eyes deadened, limping toward them like a trio of slow, but ravenous, zombies, straight out of Le Walking Morts.

Now, in the middle of Nowhere, France, after a fruitless expedition, dizzy and aching from exertion, our choices were: 1) Kill each other or 2) Eat. Since we were too tired for the former, we looked for a restaurant.

As recent college graduates, Greg and I were frugal, and when you convert frugal from American dollars to euros, you get a couple of two-bit Scrooge McCheapos. We managed to sniff out the most inexpensive eatery within hobbling distance.

A very charismatic Frenchman seated us in a very empty restaurant– which, considering the French appreciation for food, should have been our first red flag. But in our defense, we weren’t looking for red flags since flags waving in France tend to be white.

We’d been dining at these low-cost establishments for several days, and were well versed in the strategy of ordering a selection, knowing odds were at least one item would be inedible. So it didn’t take long for us to relay to the friendly waiter that we’d take the chicken, fish, and beef.

“Oh, no. You don’t want the beef. You want an extra order of chicken. The chicken is very good today. Very good,” the waiter said, his head bobbing as if his nodding affirmation might hypnotize us.

“Thanks for the recommendation, but we’ll take the beef,” we said.

“Really, believe me. Go with the second chicken. You don’t want the beef,” he said.

“Thanks. Again. But we’ll have the beef.”

“Okay, we don’t have any beef,” he said, his smile now strained.

While we waited for our food to arrive– two chickens and a fish– I asked our waiter to direct me to the bathroom.

“You don’t need the bathroom. It’s better if you don’t need the bathroom,” he said, his smile so fixed and forced it seemed his face was seconds from exploding.

The bathroom was downstairs at the bottom of a long, narrow, and steep staircase– the type Indiana Jones might have descended carrying a torch, a torch which would have come in handy considering the area wasn’t powered by electricity. The only modicum of light was the flickering of a votive candle at the end of the tunnel, whose flame danced on the bathroom sink in the catacomb below. A blind person would have navigated the space better, guided by his heightened sense of smell.

But the blind man’s heightened senses wouldn’t have served him later, when the food arrived.

The quality of the food was immaterial, beside the point. We were so hungry and tired that commenting on, let alone complaining about, the leathery meats or flavorless sides would have been as absurd as a Rottweiler pausing before his bowl to request a pinch of salt. We ate, not for enjoyment, but for survival.

It was Greg’s turn to pay, but he was out of cash. Luckily the window of the restaurant displayed stickers for Visa and American Express, so he handed the waiter a credit card.

“Oh no. Believe me, you want to pay in cash,” the waiter said.

“No, thanks. I’m going to use this credit card.”

“It’s much better if you pay in cash. Trust me. It’s better,” the waiter said, insisting.

“No, really. I’d prefer credit card,” Greg said.

“Okay, our credit card machine is broken.”