Monday, July 13, 2015

Final wrap-up

Our short trip to Scandinavia didn't seem like a short trip at all, largely because the bulk of our time was spent in such a rural place and we didn't have easy (at ALL) access to the Internet. We slept late and took a long daily nap, we drove around the place, we took hikes in a forest, out near the end of a peninsula, and in a glacier valley. The trip started badly, with SAS losing our luggage and taking way too long to get Marc's to us, which was a big problem primarily because it was very cold and we didn't have our coats or warm clothing until we finally got the suitcases.

What surprised us? A few things surprised us the most:

1) The lack of fish in Norway. You just can't buy fresh fish at the markets in Lyngseidet, and we were told that this is common. In the Lyngen area you just know a guy who catches them, or you catch them yourself. Magni told us with a grim expression that there are one or two corporations in Norway, now, who control the fish. Norway IS fish, fishing, fishermen (and a history of Vikings!), so this shocked us both, and I had the impression from Magni that it's a sad turn of events.

2) The huge expense. In many ways this trip was the polar (polar, hah, no pun intended) opposite of trips we usually take. Usually we go places where the main thing to do is visit produce and meat/fish/chicken markets, and usually those same places have extremely cheap and delicious food. On this trip, though, there were NO markets of that sort, and the food was extremely expensive. A beer at a pub in Tromso was $9, and a Burger King Whopper was $15. No exaggeration. In Copenhagen, our small breakfast of two cinnamon rolls and a cup of plain black coffee was $35. That never failed to shock us. Magni and Ole told us that the taxes are so enormous in Norway that it's hard on the people; food is taxed at 50%, for instance. One thing we'd read before we left was that we should never comment on how expensive everything is, because the Norwegians know it all too well already. And boy, is it.

3) The 24-hour light. I was the only one surprised by this, Marc wasn't surprised, but I was expecting that the 24-hour light would influence my ability to sleep in some way. It didn't, at all. We also thought there might be black-out curtains since we stayed in places that were set up for tourists, but there weren't any -- and we didn't need them anyway. I thought it would make it hard to sleep, to go to sleep, to stay asleep, but that didn't happen any more than it usually does for me. It did make it hard to understand what was going on when I'd wake up in the middle of the night. 2:30? Does that mean night or day? I had no easy cue about whether I should try to keep sleeping or go ahead and get up, but that's all. Of course we were jetlagged too, but I still thought it would influence me in some way and it didn't.

And then I hadn't realized that the fjords, those enormous, deep, long inlets from the ocean, would behave like the ocean. They would go out at low tide. They would lap the beaches, in places where there was a beach.

We were both moved by the beauty of northern Norway, and we were tickled by the 24-hour light. It was a bit surreal to see the sun in the sky at midnight, and it was pretty great not having to worry about getting back to the cabin before dark, since it was never dark. We were both surprised by the incredible infrastructure in Norway; even in the most remote places, the roads were beautiful and there were streetlights everywhere -- a necessity, we suppose, during the Polar Night.

These pictures capture my favorite moments, in random order:

the gorgeous beauty of Balsfjord -- and blue skies, which were unusual. North Norway to the T.
Gosh. Copenhagen. And the thrill of an accidentally great photo. :)
Listening to Dixie Land Jazz in Copenhagen.
the beauty of a European capital, Copenhagen
this beautiful river, in the gorgeous forest (below) in  Lulledalen Skogssti

and then this magnificent glacial river in Lyngsdalen/Vuosvaggi
and drinking handsful of icy cold water in the hot sun -- helped in every way by Marc
and another square, another beautiful European capital -- Stockholm this time
and the rugged remote beauty of Russelv, on the tip of the Lyngen peninsula
and being chilly and windswept together at Russelv, but at least we had our coats
and the magic of seeing the blazing sun at midnight
and Marc making us lovely dinners every night in our cabin
in Svensby, at Solheim Fritidsgard
and the soft dreamy magic of pink light at midnight, seen from our cabin in Svensby
and the picture postcard beauty of the Lyngen Alps
and the charm of the Tromso harbor
It was a very different kind of trip for us; we're not so much European travelers as SE Asia travelers, but it was a huge thrill to see those magnificent fjords, the glacier valleys, the rugged and beautiful landscape. We didn't interact with enough Swedish people to have any sense of them, but we did with Norwegians and Danes. The Norwegians we met were friendly and helpful and very proud of Norway, although Magni and Ole's comments about the economics of living in Norway moderated that pride just a tiny bit. But Norwegians love being Norwegians, and rightly so. They are proud of their beautiful country. They keep a bit of distance between themselves and you, but they are nonetheless friendly and helpful. (And as a cashier told us in Tromso, Norwegians love machines!) One thing that struck me was that I felt so much more free in Norway than I ever feel at home in the US, and I kept wondering about that. It seemed to stem from the way you can just go anywhere you like, there, and that left me with a feeling that people trust each other not to be terrible people. (And in fact, that trust seems very well-deserved.) It isn't that I walk around the US thinking I'm going to be murdered at any moment, but at the same time it's never a shock at all when our next big slaughter happens, so in some way it's in the very far corners of my mind. But there, people just trust each other and I really felt that. We are fetishistic about fighting for our 'rights' but seem to have lost sight of the right to just be free and happy, and they seem to have kept the proper order of things, in my opinion.

One thing I felt in Copenhagen was the easy happiness that always shows up in global happiness indexes. Like people in Amsterdam, they bike everywhere, no matter the weather. Everyone we interacted with was unhurried and easy, and I liked them very much.

And so farewell, beautiful Scandinavia. I had a wonderful time. I will keep reading Norwegian authors, and now I'll have a better understanding of the stories and the people and the places.

Next up on our travel itinerary, a return to SE Asia -- Vietnam and Thailand in November.

Copenhagen the beautiful

We didn't have much time in Copenhagen -- two nights and one full day -- but we made the most of it. The Copenhagen airport, first of all, is so fancy! (And it merits saying, here, that there is free wifi all over the place except in the US, where it's just another way to make a bit of money off people. But everywhere else, there is free wifi in the airports, and at coffee shops and restaurants, and many public spaces.) Baggage claim in Copenhagen is very high tech; there are electronic signs indicating how many minutes it will be before the bags from each flight arrive. It was fifteen for us, so Marc did a bit of scouting to figure out the situation with buying a ticket for the trains. I wish Newark would institute the same kind of electronic notification at their baggage claim.

Anyway. So we got our bags, navigated our way through (a) figuring out which of the several different types of ticket-purchasing machines would work, (b) buying two train tickets, and (c) finding the right train. And miraculously, given who we are, we got on the right train and made it easily to our destination, Central Station in Copenhagen -- ~15 minutes on the train from the airport.

from the back -- where all the trains come into the station
such a magnificent building, with turrets, even
Our hotel was a very short walk from the station, good planning trip planner! It was a semi-fancy boutique hotel, with all-organic everything, including a big basket of organic apples on the floor by the front door, free for the taking.
the front of our hotel -- Axel Guldsmeden
the lobby area -- furs for fancy lounging, I guess
a school across the street -- sturdy old Danish architecture
on the corner -- I'd have loved to see the lights atop that building lit up,
but we never did
Unfortunately, the wifi was entirely unreliable when it was even available, and it was hot in the room, and there was no hot water in the sink. But the location was so great it was fine. The afternoon was very windy, and cold ("We prefer to call it 'fresh,'" said the guy at the front desk) so I wrapped my scarf around my neck and put on a coat and we headed out for dinner at Kodbyens Fiskebaren, a place recommended by the 'we call it fresh' guy.

bread too salty, and unusual whipped butter to start
we shared this cabbage, which sat atop mashed potatoes and was accompanied by parsley sauce
(the small green blobs -- VERY good)
a "medium plate" -- the best fish and chips I've ever had, and in the foreground
that's some kind of mustard and horseradish accompaniment
Marc's seared mullet, with radish ribbons on top and a lovage sauce, SO good
We started with "snacks," which was a small plate of four deep-fried cod cubes, extremely delicious and presented in a newspaper cone, and two pieces of super crispy fried fish skin. We were both surprised that I ate that, but it was very good. The wait staff were all super skinny young people dressed in black and sporting tattoos -- they'd have fit easily in Austin. And the music? Benny Goodman, Stomping at the Savoy, which made me think of my kids when they were little because they loved that.

The next morning we took a canal boat tour to give us the biggest bang for our buck, time-wise, and we're so glad we did. We got to see the highlights of the city -- the parts that front the canals, anyway -- and learn a bit about the place too.

here's where we caught the boat -- such a leafy, beautiful place Copenhagen is
the new harbor, carved out by some king, which one I've forgotten by now
but he loved the look of Amsterdam, so that's what he went for

the spire there on the copper-topped building is made of four dragon's tails -- and this building
(coincidence, they wonder?) has never burned down, unlike the one next to it which burned three times
the drawbridge went up so that sailboat could come through, while we waited.
sudafed and a Tuborg to the rescue against my headache
the oldest building we saw on the tour -- 1600s, 1634 maybe? -- a brewery, which was an important building
because the navy paid its men partly in a beer ration, something like 10 liters a day. The tour guide
said that wasn't as much as it sounded, because the beer was very weak -- just slightly more
alcoholic than water, and in fact the alcohol was there to kill the bacteria. Yeah. Sure. :)
the fancy new opera house, built and financed entirely by one rich guy who donated it to the city.
it's enormous -- two football fields could fit on that roof, and it goes 5 floors below ground/water.
and this is the new theater. When it opened, the first performance, quite appropriately, was Hamlet.
the queen lives in the dark-roofed mansion on the left, but I was interested in that domed roof beyond
that Deco-styled green building used to be the terminal for the ferry to Sweden, but since they built a bridge
and tunnel, the building has been converted to hold restaurants.
This "storm bridge" had extremely narrow openings -- in fact, the boat barely squeaks through, less than an inch
on either side. This is the bridge that determines exactly how wide and long boats on the canals can be.
It was designed to limit foreigners' attacks (i.e., the Swedes) on the city.
After our boat ride, we wandered around some more and then found our way to Freetown Christiania. Squatters took over the place in 1971 and just wanted not to have to follow anyone else's rules, and they wanted to smoke all the pot and hash they wanted to smoke. The city finally just let them be after a bunch of efforts to get everyone out of there, and tourists flock there. We walked through and stopped for a batch of hummus and a shawarma sandwich.

exalting one drug and crying out against another.
There's a big beautiful church nearby -- we stopped in to see it, too:

a big, fancy organ inside -- held aloft by a pair of elephants (??)
and you can see the church's spire from so many parts of town -- and if you're a different
kind of person than we are, you can also climb the stairs that spiral it, to the top
After a rest, we did some research and found a little restaurant for our last dinner in Copenhagen -- Chez Bruno, House o' Meat (OK, La Maison du Boeuf). I had a gorgeous and so delicious vegetarian dish, and Marc had grilled tuna steaks. SO good, I especially loved mine.

there it is, next to Det Ny Teater
Marc's grilled tuna steaks, beautifully prepared
And mine -- and gosh, I wish I were eating it right now! Goat cheese and olive tapenade in phyllo, and then a
spread of perfectly cooked vegetables, with some cold cucumbers and radishes for contrast. SO good.
After dinner, we walked back to the old part of the city for one last chocolate waffle (which sadly didn't actually have chocolate in it) and an ice cream cone. There was a kind of scary busker nearby so we walked on a different street and came across the sheer wonder of a Dixie jazz band playing Sweet Georgia Brown. I nearly fainted from happiness -- what a funny world, what an easy shot of bliss. Me, a Texan/New Yorker, standing in a square in Copenhagen on a warm summer Sunday night, listening to a Danish Dixie land jazz band playing Sweet Georgia Brown. Isn't that the funniest combination?? People were dancing and the night was soft and I was laugh/crying. I love that.

As we were going to sleep, there were fireworks going off in the neighborhood of the hotel for some reason we don't know. The next morning we were up and out for the train to the airport, Copenhagen to Toronto to New York. Travel days themselves are rarely fun, and that one was no exception, though nothing truly horrible happened -- and our luggage arrived with us, a newly appreciated treat.

So I learned that I really love Copenhagen, which was a surprise. It's such a beautiful city, filled with lovely people who love to bike no matter the weather. There were a great many homeless people begging, I hadn't expected that. And of course it was expensive (though no match for Norway, nothing could be). We had two cinnamon rolls and one cup of coffee for $35, just to give an idea.

This is one of my favorite things about traveling, the way you can find new places to love.

Midnight Sun

Our last full day in Norway was such a delight because the weather turned sunny and warm. Blue skies, just a few puffy clouds, and nice temperatures meant we didn't need to wear our coats. It also meant we finally had a chance to see the midnight sun.

On our last evening I sat on the small porch to draw the mountains across the fjord,
while enjoying a Norwegian beer.
I heard the cow bells and glanced up to see this guy walking his cows. Later we had to step through
the landmines of cow poop littering the road.
When we went to pay Ole and Magni for our five days in their cabin, we had expected to do the financial transaction and be on our way; it was 8pm and we hadn't eaten our dinner yet, which we planned to do right after paying them. We walked over and Magni asked if we wanted coffee or tea, and it turned out that she had made a big plate of waffles and they wanted to sit and talk with us for a while.

So we sat, we ate waffles (made with milk from their cows) with homemade jam and brown cheese -- which I ate, and it wasn't bad just kind of creamy but tasteless -- and drank coffee and talked for about an hour. We asked how many cows and sheep Ole tended (four calves and several sheep) and then I mentioned that I enjoyed the smell of the barn, the manure. Ole and Magni both laughed, and Magni said it's a romantic smell: "farm romantic." And apparently there is a reality show that's popular in Norway that's just like our show The Bachelor, but with farmers. After a round of 'speed dating,' the show spends several weeks narrowing the field to one final man or woman. Magni said it's funny because people are so ridiculous, and I said it's the same in the US. There is another reality program where contestants have to work a farm using methods from the early 1900s, and that's not a funny show because it's very hard work.

They had a young man helping Ole on the farm for the summer, from Chechnya. This was his second summer with them; after the first summer he said the work was so hard he'd never come back, but he did come back after all. He sat with us and finished off all the waffles. Another man came by with some fish he'd caught, and then he sat and chatted in Norwegian with Ole and Magni for several minutes. We can't exactly figure out what Ole does; mainly he seemed to drive his tractor back and forth all day to and from the barn hauling manure, and one day he mowed the grass. The young Chechen boy seemed to finagle the sheep a bit. Perhaps he had land elsewhere that he farmed.

I had such a stereotype in my mind of "Norwegian farmer" based on Garrison Keillor's "Norwegian bachelor farmers" from Prairie Home Companion. But Ole didn't fit that, of course. I mentioned that I'd just finished reading all four of the Knausgaard titles that have been translated into English at this point, and both Ole and Magni kind of grimaced a bit. Magni knows Yngve, Karl Ove's brother, and both of them said that Knausgaard was not liked in Norway -- which I had heard myself. Telling the family secrets, not a good Norwegian way to be. He's very American in that way, and very un-Norwegian. But then Ole started asking me if I'd read other Norwegian writers -- Ibsen? Have I read Ibsen? (Yes, I have.) "He's a dramatist, you know," Ole said. I mentioned that I'd started reading Knut Hamsun and they both approved. Nesbø, Ole asked? I will, I promised. We'd seen their enormous library when we'd go into their house to use the Internet, and it was very impressive. So yes, Ole is a Norwegian farmer who loves Ibsen and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. I tried out my few words of Norwegian and despite it sounding to MY ear like I was pronouncing things as Ole did, he always did this kind of smirk at my pronunciation. Although both Marc and I feel socially awkward and anxious about this kind of thing, I enjoyed the conversation we had with them very much, and feel like it was such a good part of our time there.

But finally, back to our cabin for Marc to make us one final dinner, and then we waited around until about 11 and headed back to Russelv for a chance to see the midnight sun. Russelv is on the tip of the peninsula so the mountains don't obstruct the horizon, and since the sun is relatively low in the sky although still quite visible, an unobstructed view is best. We'd been there on our first day, during the day, and we tried one other midnight to no avail, but this last night it all worked:

Back at Svensby, the light was so soft and pink -- the mountains looked pink,
the fjord was pink-tinged. Just so dreamy and beautiful.
We were up early to catch the ferry to Breivikeidet the next morning, and then on to the Tromsø airport for our flight to Oslo and on to Copenhagen. Leaving Norway we had much better views from the air -- no clouds this time -- and the views were breathtaking:

an archipelago
beautiful fjords
and snow- and ice-topped mountains
but flatter and greener in the south -- Oslo below
Next stop: Copenhagen. Farvel, Norway.