Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Norway: Mystery Mail

When I checked my mail today, I received a curious package.

The package had been delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Papua New Guinea, and a former colleague of mine had forwarded it to me.

Inside the box was something bundled in bubble wrap and a note that read:

Send this
Cristal Clay
to – Mr Chris

Fm – Kokoda

This message was a bit cryptic to say the least. I had hiked the Kokoda Track during my stay in Papua New Guinea, and my guide was named Max. I knew several other guides as well, some by name and others not, so I had no idea who had sent me this “cristal clay”.

Inside the bubble wrap was a piece of metal. The Kokoda Track was the site of intense fighting in World War II, primarily between the Australians and the Japanese, so my thoughts immediately veered in this direction. Was this a shell fragment? Was it part of a wrecked plane? Did it come off a jeep?

When I was working in Port Moresby, Papua New Guineans would regularly contact the Embassy to tell us about war relics they had uncovered. Sometimes they would also bring them to us or post them to us. These relics included everything from dog tags to shell fragments to helmets to human bones. We would send anything that might possibly be useful for identifying a missing U.S. service member to the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) in Hawaii. JPAC's mission is to “achieve the fullest possible accounting of all Americans missing as a result of the nation's past conflicts”, and it has teams of experts constantly traveling the world excavating remains of American soldiers from foreign battlefields. JPAC gets a good share of leads for its recovery missions from tips submitted by local people.

As for the people contacting the Embassy about war relics, their motives were mixed. Some people genuinely wanted to help; some wanted attention; many wanted money; and some were a combination of the three. In addition to all the tips about war finds, we also received a fair amount of tips about Amelia Earhart and her plane. She was last seen in Lae, Papua New Guinea, before she disappeared, but most experts doubt she crashed in PNG.

Anyhow, on the rusted piece of metal I had received, there were some markings. It was stamped with the word ESJOT as well as two strings of numbers.

I googled Esjot, and it turned out to be a manufacturer of the steel protector pieces for steel-toed boots. Bingo! I was holding in my hand part of a boot. Soldiers wear boots, so the WWII angle was still alive.

Esjot is located in France, so I sent them an e-mail to see if they could shed some light on this steel plate based on the numbers stamped on it. In only a few hours, I had my answer: Esjot had manufactured this piece in November 1994!

So, some unnamed person for some unknown reason had shipped me a piece of junk halfway around the world!

I did get a few hours of fun from unraveling at least part of the mystery, though.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Norway: A Midsummer Night's Dream

It was about 10 AM when my colleague Anne Marie popped the question.

"You doin' anything after work?" she asked me.

When I told her that I didn't have any plans, she invited me to join her for a performance of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". The performance, which was by a troupe from London's Globe Theatre, was at 7 PM at Akershus Castle.

My invitation stemmed from the fact that Anne Marie had a spare ticket, and the circumstances that led to her having a spare ticket were sad indeed. Anne Marie and some of her lady friends had agreed to go to the Thursday performance together. I think there were four in the group initially, and then two backed out. That left Anne Marie and one friend who still planned to go; I'll call her Miriam. At this point, there was apparently a miscommunication. It was Anne Marie's understanding that Miriam wanted her to buy the tickets, so Anne Marie went to the ticket office and bought a pair. Things went south a day or two before the performance, however, when Miriam had to cancel. She had some work obligation or something. When Miriam cancelled, Anne Marie asked her to pony up the money for the ticket. Then things got a bit nasty. Miriam denied that she had ever asked Anne Marie to purchase a ticket on her behalf, and she refused to pay. The ticket in question cost 350 kroner (about $53) so it wasn't an insignificant amount of money. And as you might have guessed, the incident caused some bad blood between the two friends.

There was a silver lining to this cloud, however, (at least for me) because like a phoenix, my free ticket sprang forth from the ashes of this smoldering friendship.

After I accepted Anne Marie's invitation, we both had a full day of work, which started to creep past 6 PM. When we finally left the office and caught the bus down to the castle, we arrived 10 minutes before show time.

The seating for the performance was open seating, so Anne Marie and I should have been relegated to the back rows for arriving so late. This was not the case, however.

When we walked into the courtyard where the chairs were arranged, another of Anne Marie's friends, Angela, beckoned to us from the front row.

"Up here, Anne Marie!" she waved, "I've saved you some seats!"

Angela was a member of the Oslo Shakespeare Society, and I believe that she was the one who tipped off Anne Marie about the performance in the first place.

The seats that she was holding for us were front and center, and I suppose that Angela must have arrived at least an hour early to secure them.

As Anne Marie and I walked down the aisle, we looked a bit conspicuous. The other members of the audience were staring at us, probably wondering who we were, because arriving late and taking the choice seats is totally a VIP maneuver.

The seating, however, was not very comfortable. There were rows of folding wooden chairs, and the two chairs that Angela had saved for Anne Marie and me were so close together that it was impossible for both of us to lean back at the same time. Anne Marie leaned back in her chair, and I had to lean forward. She was sitting on my left, but it was just as tight on the right side, and I felt bad for squishing the man next to me.

After the usual greetings, Angela expressed a small concern about the show.

"This is the first time we've had this particular troupe," she told us. "I hope they're as good as the one we normally get."

And shortly thereafter, the curtain lifted.

The set-up was pretty intimate. There were only a few hundred people in the crowd and the stage was low and very close to the front row.

Sitting on the front row was cool, but I was apprehensive about being singled out for audience participation. At one point, a member of the audience was dragged onstage, but thankfully, the cast fished this young man out of the middle of the pack.

The show itself was excellent. In a small, but not unheard of, twist, Puck was played by a woman. She was dressed in a black leotard with fish-net stockings, like a cabaret performer. She was sassy and well-proportioned, but when she came close to me, I couldn't help but notice that her hands looked at least 20 years older than the rest of her body. Her acting was solid, though, as was the acting of the other players.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" has a few different interconnected stories going on at the same time - stories of love and magic, fairies and humans, and a play within a play - and we had many good laughes. Ole Will's still got it after all these years.

The troupe was not completely faithful to the script, however, as they sprinkled some Norwegian phrases into the dialogue now and again. The timing was perfect, though, and the Norwegians ate it up.

All good things must come to an end, though, and soon enough we were honoring the cast with a standing ovation. As the cast was bowing and we were cheering, I thought to myself, "Wow - I wish I was talented!" (well, theatrically, that is...)

Angela too was won over, and she decided that this troupe was as good as any she had seen.

While we were filing out of the courtyard, Angela invited us to the cast party which was being hosted by the Oslo Shakespeare Society. Anne Marie had a dog with a full bladder waiting at home, so she opted out. And since I didn't really know Angela on my own, I piggy-backed on Anne Marie's excuse and bowed out too. I'm sure Angela would have welcomed me to attend the party without Anne Marie, but I had the feeling that once I told the cast they had done a kick-ass job, I wouldn't have anything else intelligent to say.

Later that night, I thought about the etiquette surrounding my free ticket. Since it had been given to me with no strings attached, I was under no obligation to pay for it, of course. However, I had enjoyed the show, and I thought it might then be appropriate for me to reimburse Anne Marie.

The next day at work, I mentioned my dilemma to Anne Marie, and she was adamant.

"I gave you the ticket so it wouldn't go to waste," she told me, "and I won't take any money for it."

"Besides," she added, "Miriam's the one who owes me."

Meee-ow! Good luck collecting on that debt.