Dear Christmas letter recipient,                                                                                             Pathetically well past Christmas 2008, as per usual


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Once again we look around and find ourselves living in Norway, doing pretty much the same things as we were last year, but Lord knows that’s never kept me from going on and on about it to you in the Christmas letter.  The expat life means a certain amount of disengagement from the surrounding foreign culture and so there is less to fill up one’s life.  We’re so grateful for a good church that helps fill our lives and give them meaning, but at times the expat life does seem to be isolation interrupted now and again by the unbelievable travel opportunities which are much of the compensation for living far from home.  We have been away from Calgary four years now, and in Stavanger for 2½.  In theory we’re about 18 months away from moving back to Calgary and turning our daughter over to the corrupting influence of some University somewhere, but we shall see.  Other possibilities range from taking another overseas assignment to selling apples on the street, given the recent economic angst. 


Barb continues to make the most of her years in Europe.  During the last year she got on a plane and ran off to both Venice and Prague with her expat lady friends.  I don’t know what they did there, and I probably don’t want to know, but they seem to have enjoyed themselves without running up significant credit card bills.  Not having learned her lesson from previous years, she volunteered again as glowering chaperone on the church youth’s mission trip to Thessaloniki, Greece.  There they worked on a number of projects meant to improve the lives of Afghani and Gypsy refugees living in that historic Biblical city.  She got seriously back into walking this year with the help of a couple of other ladies who also don’t mind trudging head-down through driving sleet.


The year 2008 began ominously for the family as my last fully-functioning brain cell succumbed to whatever it is that makes me this way, and I decided to sign up for a ski marathon.  Attempts at intervention were made by loved ones, pastors and mental health officials, but it was too late.  I had been captured by an unquenchable yearning to experience the wonder and mystique of….The Sesilåme.  ‘What’s that?’ you yawn.  Well, the Sesilåmi is a time-honoured and traditional method of Norwegian torture involving a 52km (33mi) trek, crossing the Norwegian cordillera in one day on skis.  Over 1,600 people this year were sufficiently addled as to participate in this.  From the Setesdal Valley on the other side of the mountains, the rugged track climbs over 500m (1600 ft) in elevation up onto the barren ‘vidda’ or tundra plateau, crosses more than 25km of arctic wilderness  and then descends to the Sirdal Valley near our home.  Professional ski racers – which means just about anyone with Norwegian citizenship – can do this route in 2hours 15minutes.  You read that right.  One group of racers was going so fast when they passed me that the suction in their wake actually removed two of my dental fillings!  However, it took me ‘slightly’ longer to finish.


Convinced we both were doomed to collapse and die hideous deaths in the frozen wastes of the plateau, my friend Simon Churchfield and I nevertheless began training months in advance.  All too soon we found ourselves at the start line in Setesdal, toying with the idea of a last-second bolt for the bus and a comfortable ride home.  But then the starter’s gun went off and we were swept westward in a surging tide of Norwegian testosterone.  Simon, who is younger, (and if the truth was known, cheated by exercising regularly and living a healthy lifestyle prior to the race), soon faded into the falling snow ahead of me.  I then realized it was now Me vs. The Wilderness, mano a mano.  Valiantly I forged ahead, slicing across frozen lakes, skimming over snow drifts tens of metres deep until I joined the line of skiers ascending the precipitous pass.  And then…The Top…O! The exhilaration of reaching the mountain pass….the halfway point after only 3½ hours!  Perhaps Barb would not become a penniless widow after all.  But then…disaster struck!  Weather and snow conditions atop the tundra plateau were the worst in 30 years and even the professionals were reduced to a miserable, shuffling crawl.  No one’s waxes would grip the treacherous crust.  It was like 1,600 pigs on ice.  Nevertheless, on I bravely struggled, hour after hour, mile after mile across the trackless wastes.  Until 11km short of the finish I collapsed in exhaustion.  Well, actually I succumbed to red tape.  It turns out there’s a rule that you have to stop at 4:00 pm and take a snowmobile the rest of the way if you haven’t finished.  And so….oh, the shame, the humiliation of it all….I finished the last 11 of the 52km on my butt in the back of a sled pulled by a snowmobile.  If you check out the Sesilåme website, I am one of 46 wretched contestants listed as ‘brutt’ or ‘failed.’  But though I am bowed, I am not beaten.  I will prevail in Sesilåme 2009, even if it (gasp!) takes eating less junk food (occasionally).


DREADED EUROPEAN VACATION RECAP PARAGRAPHS:  Safety regulations in Norway require that all residents evacuate the country for at least two weeks every winter.  These laws are quite strict and were enacted in order to protect residents against the terrifying mental effects of spending an entire 8 month period without seeing the sun or sky.  Therefore it was our duty in the interest of public health to go to the Canary Islands for a week in February.  The Canary Islands are a province of Spain, just 100 miles off the northwest coast of Africa named not for annoying yellow birds but because it was rumoured they were inhabited by ‘canis’ or dogs.  Truth in advertising would probably suggest we rename them now as the ‘Pasty-White-British-Tourist Islands,’ but that’s not my call.  We stayed on the island of Tenerife, away from the beach resorts in a quaint little village high on the slopes of the central volcano, Sierra Blanca, which forms the island.  Nothing exciting…good food, a little exploring, a couple of impressive wildlife and Sea-World type parks.  Just nice to have the sun more than 5 degrees off the horizon at noon.


Over the summer we were forced to find a new house to rent and enjoyed 3½ months of anxious house hunting in a tight market that kept us stuck in the city.  And so to Katherine’s great relief there was no epic Paukert driving vacation (you’ll have noticed gasoline prices dropped sharply in July when we didn’t use as much petrol as world markets had anticipated).  But once we finally found a house we took a couple of short holidays while Katherine was away at camps.  I just love the U.K. and miss living there, so we went over to see the western bits they call Wales and Cornwall, which are the only areas we hadn’t seen yet.  I pretended I was having a mid-life crisis (oh, wait, I am) and rented something exciting for once…a little red Peugeot convertible.  Thereupon we wended our way west on country roads lined with hedgerows as far as Land’s End and up through Wales, staying at my favourite….old stone country inns with coal fireplaces, squeaky wooden floors covered by paisley carpeting, lounges with overstuffed furniture and restaurants that serve steak pies and call desserts ‘puddings.’  I could wander around Britain for months this way and never get tired of it.


Continuing with my history of rakish, devil-may-care forays into lands fraught with danger, we decided to spend Christmas in the Holy Land.  Sneering at danger we rented a car in Tel Aviv and began a self-tour around the fascinating sites of Israel, both ancient and modern, including Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee, the Golan Heights, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and the Dead and Red Seas.  Meanwhile, people started heaving bombs at each other in Gaza, only 25 km away at one point, and we witnessed the sobering sights of tanks training along the highway and fighter jet contrails in the air overhead.  But the highlight of the adventure was visiting Bethlehem in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank on Christmas Eve.  After a fantastic meal of hummus and falafel, we enjoyed the celebrations in Manger Square and the twinkling lights blanketing the Judean Hills at night.  Then, shortly before midnight we made the unwitting mistake of trying to cross back into Jerusalem on foot at the military checkpoint….a definite no-no which caused a number of Israeli Defence Force gentlemen to get all shouty at us and also suddenly very attentive to their machine guns.  There I stood, with my family on Christmas Eve, hands raised in surrender as the gentleman in the balaclava yelled at me in Hebrew and Arabic (I suppose)……Here’s a tip you won’t find in the guidebooks:  You have to take a taxi across.  And a very Happy Christmas to you too, Sergeant!       


And now, because someone is going to have to continue churning out this drivel after I die, we give you The Katherine Paragraph:


So I'm supposed to write about how my year has been and stuff, but I think most of it was probably in the vacation part of the letter.  I did go to Euroventure in the Swiss Alps last summer again, which was pretty awesome with extreme sports like rafting and a really huge zip line over a gorge.  We also did some rock climbing and what they called abseiling, but is actually rappelling.  I went to Malaga in southern Spain with the school trip again, and the beaches were very nice.  We also went swimming quite a lot and learned some Spanish.  For Spring Break I went on a mission trip to Thessaloniki, Greece, which was really fun, but seems like a long time ago.  We cleaned up a playground covered in weeds in a Gypsy camp, did some singing on the street, and we got to go to a really cool hotel on the last day, which happened to be the only day I was sick.  So those were my three main trips.  I’ve been pretty busy with IB, (International Baccalaureate which is for Grades 11 and 12), which is pretty hard, and I recommend to anyone who does not have an IQ above 200 that they do not take higher level math.  Lastly, I have everyone at youth group pretty much addicted to the baked goods I make and bring every week.


Our continuing offer of free Norwegian bed and board will very likely expire in June of 2010, so don’t delay, book today.  We hope your Christmas was wonderful and you have abundant reasons to thank God for his many blessings in 2009.  (Barb, alert the media, I finished short of two pages for the first time!).


Love, Gary, Barb, Katherine & Chaco the Wonderdog.


P.S.:  This year’s predictably over-exposed Official Paukert Christmas Photo was taken just down the street from our house, overlooking Hafrsfjord, an arm of the North Sea, where we have determined that aliens have established an underwater command centre and are planning to emerge one night and attack the city, except we’re safe because the aluminium foil covering our windows makes our house invisible to them.  Uhm, perhaps I’ve said too much…