Thursday, June 30, 2011

NO - Åndalsnes

June 30                 Thursday                             Norway                                Åndalsnes          

I woke up with the Donkey Kong Country song stuck in my head.  It’s the song that kind of sounds almost like a musical box at first, with the jungle drums kicking in a few measures later.  I don’t know why it was in my head, but I was singing it as I woke up.

It was a dreary day & at long last it stuck, with the cycling weather pattern I’d noted yesterday now transforming into a consistently gray day.  Of all days, it was when I supposed to take a spectacularly scenic journey… bah.  But as I’d noted before: it’s best to try and reframe such weather as just another photographic tool.  The clouds are a diffuser; and their low altitude would help to frame things into a gloomy state… and considering the troll theme of much of the geology I’d pass through: perhaps this would even be appropriate.

I left my baggage at the desk to explore the town a bit before catching my train that afternoon.  I just revisited many of the same sites I’d already taken, but tried to vary my route a bit to take in different streets.  By the time I caught my train I felt that I’d taken pretty much every single street in the entire city center, including along both sides of the bryggen.

My train took me first to Dombås before changing into the Rauma Railway (Raumabanen) as it travels to Åndalsnes.  The first leg of the train ride was rather uneventful, with the highlight being my eating of breakfast.  The panini (if that’s what they want to call it) was quite lacking, though the cookie was tasty.  Amusing part was that the train’s café was actually rather reasonably priced… at the least on-par with any stationary convenience mart.

The Rauma Railway was definitely a delight, but again I’d love to see it in better weather… but I tried my best to use the gloom to my advantage.  The railway is famous for its civil engineering marvels as it tackles some pretty major grades, at one point bridging back and forth over streams to try and make the grade before eventually going into a tunnel that spirals & double-backs over itself – opening directly onto a pretty phenomenal bridge.  It was definitely worth the trip.

Upon arrival in Åndalsnes I decided to give myself a quick tour of the town.  Despite the backpacks & knowledge that I had a decent walk to my hostel, I also knew that this was my only chance to really see the town; and I knew it’d be a small enough town that it would only take a couple minutes.  And sure enough: I was soon on my journey out to the hostel.  I’d checked out the town on Google Maps the night before, which was all it took for me to get to my hostel flawlessly.  Thank you, Lonely Planet, for not giving me a map… no map is better than a bad map; it forces me to pay more attention & learn the layout of towns rather than think I can use the map as a crutch.

Along the way I’d kept pace with a guy who was clearly having some trouble with his rolling suitcase, but he kept up his speed just enough – and I’d slowed just enough with my frequent photos – that I’d never caught up with him.  At the hostel, however, while chatting with my new roommates he came in several minutes later and immediately recognized me as the guy who had been behind him.  His name was Dominique, hailing from the south of France, & he’d come to be a recurring presence in my trip.

Similarly, another recurring presence would be a tour group whose guide I got to chatting with – an older English guy who’d been living in Norway for years & ran tours catering to Ukrainians.  So sure enough: the tour group was formed of Russian-speaking Ukrainians from a town between Kyiv and Bila Tserkva… there’s a good chance I’d gone right by their hometown during my trip in 2008.  I came to love the Russian language during that trip & really like the Ukrainian people, so I was excited to have such a group around.  But even better: the tour guide helped me plan my route to Bergen… he had time tables of buses & knew their routes, which was fortunate considering that my initial plan followed paths which didn’t have any bus routes.  Surprising considering how direct they seemed & how large the towns were… who’d have thought Lom would be so underserved by buses?  His group was headed in much the same direction as me, so we’d be tagging along together the next day.

I’d arrived into the hostel just seconds before two full tour buses pulled in, turning the quiet farmstead into a wildhouse of folk… one bus contained the Ukrainians & the other bus had a Chinese tour group.  I was quite relieved to have arrived just in time to check-in before that cacophony struck the reception desk.

In addition to Dominique, my roommates consisted of two German guys – one about my age (bunked below me) and another seeming in his late-30’s or early-40’s; I couldn’t tell if he was a friend, coworker, or even father to the guy my age.  There were two other French guys who I chatted with briefly & I’m drawing a blank on who occupied the other bed; I don’t think I got to talking with him at all.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

NO - Trondheim

June 29                 Wednesday                        Norway                                Trondheim                         

Rejoice- the sun has returned!  It’d been such a dreary span of days that you could tell Trondheim was excited to revel in the warmth and light.  The street market was jam-packed; as were the tourist sites.  My first stop was the Nidaros Cathedral, which unfortunately prohibited all photography on account of when they allowed no-flash photos… people kept using flash.  Bah… I hate when people who don’t know how to work their crappy point & shoots ruin it for people who actually know how to use a camera.

As I waited to ascend the tower I took a moment to write out a prayer… well, not really a prayer so much as just a muse I figured someone out there might enjoy: “Evil is necessary for Good to find meaning.”  I kind of wondered if they’d read that aloud; I wondered if someone might find some meaning; if I might spark some great reformation which would only know to attribute it to some anonymous signatory “Bossi”; and I’d be thinking in total modesty… that’s me!  I started the reformation!  …Or they might just toss it out since it’s not a prayer request.  Oh well.

Within the same wait I took to looking at some of the stained glass windows near the tower entrance.  The one immediately right of the entrance, at the top of the window, totally has a Wookiee in it.  Sure, the girl managing the tower tour assured me that it’s Jesus; but I still assert that it’s a Wookiee.  Jesus wasn’t that hairy, even with the most hippie-esque of mangy beards.

Up the tower I snapped some photos, and soon I was being advised it was time to descent… too short a time to appreciate the view, but at least I got pretty much all the photos I wanted.  But my favorite part was probably the journey itself: first you ascend stairs at one of the church corners, then you cross over to another stairwell nearer to the center of the church.  That crossover is along the wall overlooking the cathedral’s open interior: answering my question as to whether those were passages or just aesthetic openings as I looked upon them from ground level.  While they are indeed passages: they sure placed a definite size limit on would-be visitors to the tower… while I have some bulk to me, I’d certainly not consider myself fat… but here I could just barely fit.  Granted, my backpack had some part in that.  We lost a few folk who had to turn away on account of being unable to clear this corridor.

From the cathedral I moved next door to the Erkebispegården, or the Archbishop’s Palace.  There really wasn’t much of interest… ruins and statues, for those who are enamored with such.  By this point I’ve seen so many ruins, statues, and museums that I think I just had a tough time appreciating even more of them.

That said: what do I do next?  Go to another palace, of course.  But while the Archbishop’s Palace was definitely more museum in nature; the Stiftsgården (Royal Palace) was more palace-like.  Granted, it still plays its intended role on rare occasion that the royal family makes a visit to the city.  Our tour guide wasn’t the most sociable or able to engage the crowd, but he certainly offered some interesting information.  Such as why there were two small bedrooms on each side of the main party hall: for those who pass out to recover.  Firstly there was the general drinking at a royal party, but that included a Norwegian custom to toast to every single person at the table individually.  That’s a lot of sips even before the party starts.  Add in the heat of the heavy layers of noble clothing, the oxygen depleting corsets on the women, and some other things I surely forget… and yeah: rooms for relocating those who pass out.

Tangent time… I write this now really just because I took a photo of it to help jog my memory; and that photo just syncs in at this point in the narrative.  Opening plastic bottles in Norway.  I’m quite convinced it’s impossible to properly open them… the bottlecap never fully separates from the little plastic strip that’s usually left on the bottle.  The perforated edge seems to fail each time… and it’s not just me; I’ve seen discarded bottles all over the place with the perforated strip still dangling from the bottle cap.

Also, while I’m on tangents… Scandinavians rarely walk on escalators, cross on Don’t Walk, nor even speed despite oppressively slow speed limits.  Just like the Germans: their patience is phenomenal.

I sauntered around the city a bit more, at one point passing by a fitness club whose doors was propped open by a lone shoe; an alarm faintly sounding at this long-term opening of the door.  That single shoe (I caught myself: I nearly said sole shoe… HA HA GET IT??) got me thinking about the Rapture.  I know; a perfectly natural thing for one’s mind to wonder to.  If everyone’s Raptured & they leave their clothes behind, I can only assume that they’re arriving in Heaven naked?  So if I were to end up there, too, and be delighted to find that my heavenly reward consists of lots of naked women; do I run the risk of getting kicked out on account of the sin of lust?  See now this testosterone-influenced tangent comes with greater theological meaning, as my wandering mind is wont to do: can one truly indulge in any of their promised heavenly rewards without committing a sin and getting themself booted right out?  This reinforces my belief that we’re all going to Hell; everyone’s gotta go at least once; so we might as well look forward to the trip.

Trondheim has an extensive bike-sharing system.  Well, so did Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo.  Stockholm had lots and lots of bikes all over, but I rarely saw any actual stations for them; and when I did see a station they were almost inevitably empty.  Copenhagen had a decent mix of usually having bikes & empty spots at each station, but I didn’t come around many stations where I’d have expected them.  The station placement seemed a bit more suited to the locals in-the-know rather than tourists trying to hop from sight to sight.  Oslo had a phenomenal amount of stations (or at least they sure do in the downtown reaches) and they were almost consistently a mix of bikes & empty spots… perfect.  Trondheim doesn’t have as many stations, but still a good coverage & good mix of bikes and empty spots.  So basically… good job, Norway!  Except their bike infrastructure is otherwise eons behind the Danes and Swedes.

Still on tangents: I’ve come to find that Scandinavians seem to have a fondness for either really small dogs (as is common or urbanites on account of limited living space) but also really HUGE dogs.  There have been several St. Bernards and quite a number of dogs that look very similar.  While there are some medium and other large dogs here and there, it’s not nearly of the same caliber as in the Germanic areas… but, of course, German Shepherds clearly have a bit of a presence in those areas.

I absolutely love the clouds over Norway.  While today was overall sunny, it did partly follow a trend that’s been around for several days… basically the weather changes every 10-15 minutes.  It’s sunny, then cloudy, the raining, then sunny again, and repeat.  Sometimes the rain and sun even overlap, with the tiniest of clouds actually being small rain showers.  With the mashing ocean currents to the west, interplay of seas to the south, colliding air masses of the temperate & Arctic, and the mountains jamming it all upward: the clouds over Norway end up being unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  Basically it’s a huge scattering of clouds which at sunset really lights up almost like a decorated Christmas tree.

Dinner was at a kebab shop just a couple doors down from the hotel.  It was tasty, quick, and freed me to enjoy my comfy room more.  By this point I’d hit everything I wanted to see in Trondheim and felt like I’d covered everything I needed to cover.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

NO - Trondheim

June 28                 Tuesday                               Norway                                Trondheim                         

The bus from Røros to Trondheim was rather noneventful… the day was dreary and I slept through large portions of the drive.  The landscape this far east of the mountains was rather bland: rolling hills at best.  I did appreciate the farmhomes, though.  I’d come to find that many of the farm structures throughout Norway are painted in a dark red – I believe traditionally it was ox blood, but I’d wager they use more modern paints these days.  Alongside the barns are often rather modern but still traditionally-styled farmhouses; they were quite beautiful.  The rest of the developed areas, however, are rarely too endearing… the small towns are often conglomerations of modern buildings; the large towns are often larger conglomerations of modern buildings.  The exceptions are the bryggen areas; the historic working-class wooden buildings preserved in a couple cities.

I was staying in the P-Hotel, and I was quite fortunate in that the bus just happened to have a bus stop only a block away.  Granted, the hotel’s location is excellent considering that even without that bus stop: the train/bus station is only a couple more blocks away; and the hotel is right within the city center.  Not just that, but as far as hotels go: it’s comparatively cheap… and the room I got was large and gave me a queen bed.  Add in that you get breakfast hung on your door knob the following morning – great considering I’m rarely awake for the official breakfast time at other places – and I was dearly impressed by the quality & price of the P-Hotel chain.

The reception suggested I grab food at a place called Graffi.  I got a garlic burger and was quite surprised… it was actually an American-style burger with an amazing garlic sauce.  The fries weren’t too shabby, either.

Walking up through the pedestrian area, I came upon a group of buskers in Native American garb performing traditional tunes.  It always cracks me up to see them in Europe – in this trip I’d come to see them in Copenhagen, Trondheim, and Bergen – and yet I can’t recall ever seeing them back in North America.  You know; where they come from.  This only reinforces my general theory that they’re not entirely genuine… first, beneath the costumes & makeup they more often-than-not look far more Asian to me than Native American.  While both tend to have high cheekbones and share Mongolian roots, Native Americans tend to have a squarer face; whereas Asians tend to be rounder.  Next: I highly highly doubt they are actually playing the music… this was especially reinforced by my experience a couple days from now, in Bergen, where the group wasn’t even playing half the time you heard the instrument… and when they started playing: you didn’t hear anything change in the sound.  Also half the time their apparent drumming was off-beat from the music.  So yeah: I think these groups are usually just rip-offs… good for only some relaxing New Age tunes if you want to sit nearby and eat.

There was some street market going on, and from some posters and handouts I’d gathered it was a multi-day affair.  Most of the stalls were tourist trinkets, t-shirts, and sausages, but I did happen across a stand of armaments.  I saw a coat of chain mail and expected the worst: masses of replicas and fake crap intended to rob clueless tourists of their money.  What I found was actually the opposite: about half were medieval replicas, but the weapons were mostly full-tare… that is: real weapons that you could use to hack somebody apart, if you so desired.  Even the modern guns I’d thought were just airsoft until I picked one up and found it was actually a fully functional firearm.  Then a couple 20th century blades caught my eye… an SS ceremonial sword, an SS dagger, an SA dagger, and a Chinese bayonet.  Now I have a small obsession with both hand-to-hand combat weapons and also World War II… I bought up all but the SS dagger.  I figured the sword served that niche well enough & the SA dagger was still related and also in better condition.  Plus the SA dagger carried a more legible manufacturer’s mark & date (1938).  Of course, this now meant I had to carry these through the rest of my trip & then figure out how to get them back across the ocean…

Going back to my earlier mention of bryggen: thanks to Trondheim for finally making Norway feel like Norway.  That is: the Norway I’d always envisioned… colorful wooden buildings right up along the shoreline.  Sure enough, Trondheim’s riverfront features rows of exactly that on each side: precisely the photogenic stretch I’d been pining for after my let-downs in the pair of small towns from the last couple days & even Oslo, the latter quite lacking in buildings that really define Norway.

Oh, a side-note… for some reason I’ve had Disney songs stuck in my head as I walk around.  Except every single song keeps turning into “Prince Ali” from Aladdin.

On the other side of the river is the Trampe.  That’s not some half-hearted attempt to be more classy about deriding a woman; it’s a bicycle lift for ascending a steep hill.  I took lots and lots of photos and then some more… but not one person used it.  Lots of people huffed directly up the hill under their own power; most taking a break at the top and possibly wondering why they didn’t try the lift or perhaps absorbing their pride in conquering a hill without need of the lift.

At the summit of the hill is Kristiansten Fort, offering great views over the city.  The main building didn’t seem to be open at this point nor on my visit two days from now, so I’m guessing it’s not accessible to tourists.  But the rest of the fortress was free for roaming about the walls.  The only open building was a café.  I smiled at the sight of the cutesy ice cream ad standing immediately in front of a row of artillery… it was a great contrast.

One nook has a memorial to resistance fighters who were executed against the wall… it was eerie to turn with your back toward the wall, looking at the very last sight of those who died there; or heading up the slope to look back at the wall as one of those who took those lives.

It was about this time when I had to rush back to my hotel to tend to laundry.  The lack of clothes had been a growing issue, with me now rewearing shirts for a third time (I’m OK with rewearing a 2nd time when backpacking; but 3 times crosses over the stench line).  The deal was that the laundry room – conveniently located just steps from my hotel room – closes at 8pm, so I was aiming to be back at 6pm to make sure I could wash and dry in time.  I made it back at 6:30, but that didn’t matter as an exasperated receptionist shared that she’d been trying to find the key, but was coming up empty-handed.  We went up to the laundry room and noticed that it sounded like something was running in there… but we never did sort out who was running the machines or where the key was.

She ended up letting me use a washer down in their basement, but I had to hang everything to dry up in my room.  I had just enough hangable space to store all my clothes, so it actually worked out quite well.  This laundering would also be enough to carry me through the rest of the trip.  Of course, I wanted to get the most out of a laundry load as I could: so as I followed her down to the basement I was clad only in my pajama pants and my jacket.  The sole button on my pajama pants’ fly is not a perfect device, as I took heed of whilst quickly descending the stairs… I slowed my pace the rest of that descent.  I shared that I’d be in for the night on account of no clothes & unzipped my jacket a bit as testament… I never saw a woman’s face become so visibly enamored before; so that was… interesting.  Except despite being the sole two folk in the basement & my being a click away from nudity: my mind was on my rather unsanitary condition & need of clean clothes; not on trying to seduce a hotel staffmember à la some late-night Cinemax flick.

So my lack of clothes kept me in for the night.  Combined with no need to get up early & a dearth of planning to do for the next few days: I was up quite late into the evening… late enough to watch as the bars closed & some dude decided to pee right outside my window.  I was raised several stories up and had a lovely view as he stood in the middle of an empty parking space & let loose, except he wasn’t close to any of the adjacent cars… he was just sort of right in the middle & slightly oriented toward the sidewalk.  So when a pair of women passed by one of the adjacent cars: they were greeted with fat guy dong.  That was a fun shriek, immediately followed by a pair of giggling female voices… except in the guy’s inebriated state he seemed totally indifferent; just wobbling about as much as he did before the flashing surprise.  Like any good person: I snapped a couple photos… even used the flash a few times just to see if he’d react.  Nope.

Monday, June 27, 2011

NO - Røros

June 27                 Monday                               Norway                                Røros                                   

Catching a train is easy when you can roll out of bed and be halfway there.  Today’s destination was Røros, to which I probably could’ve taken a bus for a much faster, direct, and cheaper route… but the thought crossed my mind about 5 seconds after buying the train ticket.  Oh well… another slow but relaxing ride later I’d arrived in Røros – the gem of Norway, or so I’d gathered from my guidebook.

At my transfer in Hamar, I seated myself within the quiet car… the silence broken by a woman on her mobile phone.  Go figure.  It was especially ironic considering the Scandinavians really aren’t major mobile phone users… especially compared to the rest of Europe or even America.  I rarely see anyone talking or even texting.

I made my way around Røros’ train station and down toward my hotel.  While Lonely Planet had my hotel – the Idrettsparken Hotell – placed on the wrong end of the street – a 5 minute walk off – signposts fortunately guided me the rest of the way.  However, I soon learned that it wasn’t the most convenient location thanks to the train station itself.  The train station only accesses to/from the north, so if you want to get to the south side: a 15 second direct walk becomes a 10 minute meander around the end of the station and back again.  It made me really miss the former Soviet Bloc, where there wouldn’t be any walls, fences, or any other type of barrier… if you get hit or electrocuted: you probably should’ve paid more attention.

The town has one major pedestrianized street and another somewhat major parallel street that’s open to traffic.  Then there’s a perpendicular road following the railroad tracks which serve as the main route through town.  The two parallel streets were rather pretty, but absolutely not what I was hoping for.  I ended up getting more joy out of its root cause for existence: the remains of the mining town’s smelting operations.  Large mounds of rock made for a some very quick and easy hikes with some decent views over town, but the rooftops weren’t nearly as endearing as many other villages I’ve been to.

I grabbed lunch at the Kaffestugu Cafeteria.  My burger had an oddly shaped beef patty… shaped a bit more like a pancake than your standard burger.  Its beef was apparently some local breed of cattle, contributing to a rather unique taste… with a slightly crispy edge, it was actually rather tasty.  Though its bun kept up something I’d noticed in Norway & would continue to have issues with: their bread crumbles very easily.  Fortunately the cupcake I got for dessert – cherry-flavored – was quite tasty and had a great texture.

With plenty of energy in reserve, I walked northwest out to the Kvitsanden: mounds of sand deposited by glaciers in eons past.  I’d thought I’d made it to them when I turned back, but on my bus ride out of town the next day: I’d spot a small mountain of sand just over the crest of a hill where I’d thought I’d made it.  It was exactly the sort of mound I’d have quite liked to scale… oh well.  The walk itself was nice.

On my way back I took a path which wrapped around a small lake.  A footbridge crossed above a gravel path which continued out toward the air strip and I paused briefly to watch a plane take off in the distance.  Two girls were fiddling about to my left, and from the looks of it I gathered there were gearing up for an amateur photo shoot.  No diffusers or reflective discs, but they definitely had a couple changes of clothes and a rather large blanket which they certainly weren’t rushing about to set on the ground for a picnic… besides, apart from right on the bridge, there weren’t any grand vistas to be had for a picnic.  They also didn’t have any food.  So I knew something was up… especially because just as I walked off, they dashed a couple meters into the trees; I heard giggling emanating from behind me as I continued my walk.

When I found that the path didn’t seem to be taking me where I wanted to go, I turned back to the bridge, where I could make my way down and follow the other trail back to the road.  Sure enough: I was right on the whole amateur photography session.  However, ideas that were floating about in my head suddenly manifested themselves into reality as I came across one girl with a camera and one flesh-toned girl posing beside a tree.  As I type this, I feel like I’m writing a letter to Penthouse...

They clearly hadn’t heard me returning, as the girl’s face flushed with color immediately; but she followed with embarrassed giggling rather than a shriek of terror… so that’s good.  At least they knew the risk of their location choice.   So now it was a matter of how to treat the situation… walk off and leave them embarrassed?  Start chatting and risk being really sleazy and keeping the embarrassment going?  Or option 3… I am carrying a decent-sized camera and just happen to have a full lens kit with me.

I said don’t worry: holding up my camera I said “It’s nothing I haven’t seen before.”  Noticing that the one girl had a low-end SLR and a basic kit lens: I pulled my f/1.4 out of my pocket and offered if she’d like to use it.  They were also shooting at an odd angle to the trees and light… while it was cloudy, the nature of the trees still created some degree of lighting differential.  So for the next several minutes I lent my lens and helped coach on some good shots.  I’d hazard a guess that the girls were born after 1990… I’d guess legal, but I didn’t want to risk photographing anything illegal nor did I want to overstep the delicate social line that had already been laid out.  Plus thanks to the internet: who needs photos of random girls, anyway?  They did a wardrobe change and within perhaps 10 minutes or so I was on my way again. At least by the time I left she felt much more comfortable… so I guess I ultimately handled it well enough.

And that pretty much wrapped up the night.  I’d felt I’d done Røros in its entirety and there was still plenty of daylight out.  I spent the rest of the night battling internet in my hotel room… throughout all of Scandinavia: internet has been an issue at pretty much every place of lodging.  These countries need a serious influx of techies.  Granted, in this particular case it didn’t help that the couple running reception didn’t seem to have much interest in service.  It’s not that they were rude or anything; they just simply seemed highly distracted… like their mind wasn’t on helping their customers.  They seemed confused by the whole check-in process, confused when I wanted to buy an ice cream bar (my first one of the trip!), and confused when I tried to explain that they needed to reset their router.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

NO - Lillehammer

June 26                 Sunday                                 Norway                                Lillehammer                     

My departure from Oslo went more smoothly than my arrival, with my knowledge of the city now letting me forego my Lonely Planet map and get to the train station in one smooth motion… though I was a bit dismayed that my local Bagels & Juice was closed along with pretty much everything else.  Scandinavia totally shuts down on Sundays.

I watched the world go by a little bit at the train station whilst I waited for my ride.  My eyes generally focused on the line for the rail company’s information desk, which was a bit bustling considering the severely cut rail services starting today (I’d noted yesterday that track work prompted the closure of almost all rail service for the summer, starting today).  As I watched the desk it made me recall how between Sweden and Norway (and I think Denmark, too): Scandinavians really don’t have much concept of queuing, in sharp contrast to England.  They instead grab a number slip & wait around until their number is called.  This can be problematic if you don’t realize this or if you can’t find the machine… the latter of which can often be the case when someone decides to stand right in front of it.  Of course one perk is that you can roam about a little bit & there’s not much need for managing where the lines form & wrap about.  It does feel like it moves a bit faster if you have other things to occupy yourself with, but if you don’t: it can feel a little like waiting at the DMV.

While toying around in a convenience mart getting breakfast (a mini-pizza; breakfast of champions!), it also occurred to me that cherry cola has been absolutely lacking in Scandinavia… but then again, I can’t recall how frequently I’ve seen it in the rest of Europe, either.  But one thing that’s definitely lacking in Scandinavia is water with gas… that is: seltzer.  This contrasts with Europe as well as my own tastes, as I’m really quite fond of it, but it’s tough to find as so many stores are predominantly loaded with still water.  This means I keep finding myself with, essentially, flat water.

I also got to watching the low-wage workers in each of the shops.  You can tell a lot about a society by who works those jobs.  In Scandinavia it’s been about ¾ young white folk, but about ¼ old Asian folk.  I’ve found the latter form a surprising population of the homeless, too, or at least the folk who roam about in the trash bins… I guess I can’t say for sure whether they’re homeless.  It seems odd that Asians would come so far to live such a life.  Especially with the stereotypes we have back in the USA of them starting out with restaurants & drycleaners and raising genius children.  But the Chinese restaurants here are mostly high-class affairs (or at least they seem so) and clothing-cleaning businesses of any variety are remarkably rare.  So really I’m still intrigued by it all.

It was only 10 minutes or so of waiting about before I figured I’d check into how I’m supposed to catch a bus outta town from the train station, as it occurred to me that the bus station was another several minutes away if I needed to go there.  I figured they’d either direct me to the bus station or perhaps to some side of the building, so it I was a bit intrigued when they sent me to Track 19.  I hazarded a guess that it was along the side, and sure enough it was the last track… but heading down to it I still didn’t see any side where buses could pull up.  Guides kept directing me down the track, and sure enough near its end the right side gave way to a street… a street with a bus that I could board right away!  Woo hoo!  Off to Lillestrom I went.

Of course, the early bus ride meant I just had more time to wait at Lillestrom for my train… I suppose it was a good thing to make the first leg early just in case something would’ve gone wrong had I waited in Oslo, but the problem with Lillestrom was a dearth of seating.  Fortunately backpacks make great backrests and a hiker isn’t too concerned with dirtying his pants from sitting on the ground.

The train ride went smoothly enough, though it was at a slow pace… Scandinavia really kind of sucks at transit between cities.  I’d dare say it’s only marginally better than in the USA; I only take trains because I dearly love trains.  In practice it’s seemed that buses tend to be better in so many cases… they go more places, travel more frequently, are cheaper, and sometimes even get there faster.  But hey: trains are comfy… want to get up and wander around?  Sure, knock yourself out.  Want to feel like you’re not crammed into a vehicle like cattle?  Trains are plenty roomy.  But this ride was so slowww…

The destination was Lillehammer, host of the 1994 Winter Olympics.  I really like its name… lilies just sound so peaceful & pretty; and hammers make me think of Thor and Vikings.  It’s a fun contrast.  Sure, neither of those has anything whatsoever to do with the town’s actual etymology, but nuts to that.

I made great progress upon arrival in Lillehammer, especially because my hostel’s reception was in the train station.  What more, I was sleeping in the building immediately adjacent to the train station, bordered by the rail platforms on one side and the bus station on the other side.  Most convenient hostel ever.  It even gave free linen and had a bath within the room of two beds… really it was more a budget hotel room that I might share with a stranger; not shabby at all.  I enjoyed hearing the bus & train announcements while awake but worried they might be bothersome overnight, but with the windows closed: the soundproofing was phenomenal.

My first destination was the ski jump.  Indeed, here in Lillehammer, that’s pretty much the only destination.  Plus I thought I didn’t have too much time left before they started closing things down, but in yet another testament to Norway: I’d later discover they extended their hours in the summertime, yet again another indication that Norway is one of the few Nordic countries to have a decent share of places operating with a bit more regard for the amount of sunlight.

On my way… heading uphill from the hostel, passing by some of the roads running along the hill, feeling like I’m on track, and then… the road ends.  OK, there should be another road just over here… nope; that’s a driveway.  Check just to make sure… yep, just a driveway.  Effing Lonely Planet.  In a town this size: how can they screw up the map?  Seriously, how do you get it wrong when there are only a dozen roads??

Thankfully I backtracked a bit nearer to the tourist track and soon spotted a sign which, while in Norwegian, clearly directed to the Olympic Park.  I knew that had to be the best option at this point: trust the town; not the book.  That worked out great… it was a quick & easy hike up to the ski jump, though the warm weather wasn’t the most helpful.  I point to the warm weather as my scapegoat for taking the lift up rather than the stairs, but really it’s just that I was feeling lazy at that point… I totally could have made it up if I really had the will.

Speaking of things I could do if I had the will… the ski jump wasn’t nearly as steep as I’d thought it would be.  Back in the Mid-Atlantic, its slope would just be a single black diamond… in a region with some real ski slopes it’d just be intermediate.  I could totally do that.  The only caveat is the “jump” part, where I’d do fine with the gravity-assisted take-off but would likely have issues with the gravity-assisted landing.  But a small part of me wanted to try it.  Fortunately there was a simulator included with my ticket…

I descended down the steps and hopped into the simulator.  It showed a downhill slalom and a bobsled run… no ski jump; I was kind of bummed.  Also I’m pretty sure it was running off a VHS.  The video quality was horrendous, with the slalom being especially jerky… I can (and have) recorded better videos of my own skiing, including my 20-second dash straight down Tussey’s Utah.  Hey it’s not the most dazzling of mountains, but it was a solid video.  The bobsled was a bit more watchable, but even then I can’t say I’d really recommend the simulator… its lacking video quality really detracted from the rest of the experience.

Downtown Lillehammer was cute, but like I said: it’s a small town.  There really wasn’t much to it, and I found myself a bit bored pretty quickly.  Granted, with it being Sunday much of the downtown was shut down, anyway.  But overall I’d suggest that unless you’re an Olympic or skiing guru: it’s a town that can absolutely be passed over.  It’s not bad on the eyes, but it’s not the prettiest town by any means.

As I chatted with people along its pedestrianized street: was amused at how many people thought I was Swedish.  I always like to try and blend in with the culture that I’m in.  Within a couple days I like to be good enough with the basics to fool people into thinking I’m a local; or at least until they realize that I can’t hold a conversation any longer than two sentences.  Well, I’ve at least gotten people in Norway to think I’m Swedish… so I think that’s a start.  But one problem is that I when Norwegians are talking: I can’t quite tell it’s not English until they finish talking, and I look back and realize that I have no idea what they just said.

I ate dinner at Blåmann, located in a very scenic spot above the stream.  While it’s location was the best in town, its food was decidedly less so.  I ordered fajitas and certainly received fajita-inspired food, but it was a good lesson in trusting a British guidebook’s definition of what good Mexican food is.  The salsa had as much flavor as water, the beef was a bit chewy, the chicken felt like it was relying on its inherent chicken flavor rather than any spice or marinade, there were no tomatoes, and worst of all: I’m pretty sure the lettuce had been pickled.  It wasn’t even sizzling when it came out… seriously, that’s a staple of fajitas: it’s still cooking when it arrives to your table.  But at least I choked it down to the tune of a babbling brook.

It was a bit odd to return to my room to find a key in the outside of the door… and entering I found an old guy in his skivvies.  It was an odd first meeting & I’d thought I was spending the night with a crazy dude for a roommate.  Fortunately, as we talked I actually came to find he was a pretty cool guy… in his 60’s or possibly 70’s and hailing from a small town in Bavaria near to the Austrian border: he was a retired police detective traveling on his BMW motorbike up and around Scandinavia.  Starting a week after I began my own trip, he first went through Poland and the Baltic States, continuing up along the Arctic Ocean from Finland into Norway, now headed from Trondheim down to Oslo, onto Copenhagen, and back home.  Given his profession, I suggested he stop by Christiana while in Copenhagen… figured he’d have an amusing take on that community.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

NO - Oslo

June 25                 Saturday                             Norway                                Oslo                                      

The day began with an alarm, despite not having to be up early… but I really wanted to see as much of Oslo as I could within a single day.  Of course, since the Scandinavian tourism industry doesn’t seem to start prior to 10am, I still got to sleep through a decent share of the morning.  Breakfast was at Bagels & Juice, once again grabbing a tasty smoothie as well as a multigrain bagel with MIGHTY PHILADELPHIA CREAM CHEESE.  Oh how I’d been craving it ever since seeing it in my roommate’s cache back in Göteborg.

From there I returned to the Akershus Festning (Akershus Fortress) to get a glimpse of its interior and also to get some shots of the lovely scattered clouds across the otherwise blue sky.  Overall, the interior of the castle really wasn’t too spectacular… but the audio guide did offer some neat tidbits of information, so I’d still say it’s a worthwhile stop on a tour of Oslo.  But really the winner was the Resistance Museum.  This tiny building packs in a phenomenal amount of information that’s very well presented, even moving one woman to wailing tears.  While I didn’t feel any of it was necessarily depressing in the sense of Schindler’s List, I suppose it can still spark memories in feelings in some people who were far more affected by the war than I. 

Following much the same track as the previous day, I swung around the fjord to the harbor area by the Rådhus (city hall) and this time found the gay pride festivities to be in full swing, with folk dressed up in fancy costumes & cross-dressers aplenty.  There was a big showing of punk girls, though a noted absence of punk guys.  The beats from Oslo Live were quiet when I’d initially passed by en route to the fortress, with sound checks occasionally sending a few words or booms across the harbor; but now things were in full swing… with Kaskade currently taking stage & sending a steady flow of great beats through the air.  Giving how amazing the day was, I couldn’t help but lose myself for a few minutes and break out in dance, joined by quite a number of others outside the gates who were doing the same.  It’s amazing how easily you can meet European girls if you just move your body a little bit…  but it’s something I don’t do often; the combination of a beautiful day, contentedness with the city, love of the music, and a touch of exhaustion from several weeks of traveling… it all combined to get me to move in such a way as I haven’t done since college.

I toured the Nobel Peace Museum, originally not among my top destinations but it seemed like something I should do considering I was already right next to it.  Basically: it wasn’t too spectacular… I think it’s quite a bit more kid-friendly than adult-friendly.  There were some neat technological gizmos and a nice photography exhibit, but by and large I cruised through the museum pretty quickly.

Moving onto the Rådhus: it felt very much like Stockholm’s city hall in the layout and feel of most of the rooms, though it certainly lacked some of the flair that Stockholm had in rooms like its Golden Hall.  Considering I could tour it at my own leisure, however, and I’d say I liked this one a touch better.  While Stockholm bestowed upon us a great tour guide; your typical tour group really just isn’t my style.

Hunger informed me that perhaps it was time for lunch, and upon exiting the Rådhus there just happened to be a Burger King.  Once per trip I like to give in to a standard fling with Americana just to see how it compares with back home.  Usually it’s McDonald’s… mostly because foreign McDonald’s actually tend to be half-decent, in sharp contrast to the inedible fare in the USA.  But I was actually kind of craving BK… perhaps because the Scandinavian take on burgers – while not necessarily bad – wasn’t quite the American way.  Not to say Burger King is a huge improvement, but at least I know I can eat them back home, so I should be OK here.

Ultimately: the food was the exact same.  Except I got it in perhaps the worst BK I have ever been to in my entire life.  While the server missed entering in my onion rings, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt & say that it was lost in translation.  But the rest of the place had no excuse… the straw box was empty, with people grabbing straws out of a plastic bag haphazardly placed on the counter.  The counters themselves were filthy, smothered in ketchup, mustard, and a mix of sodas; and the stairs to the next floor up were covered in similar goo.  Queues formed all over the place, with most not realizing that you had to queue to order then queue again to pick up your food… causing too many queues all over the place & too many people having to shuffle about when they missed the second queue (which I almost did, too).  No ropes, signs, nor other guides to inform people of this (lack of) order.  Even my tray was sticky… and when I decided to forego the tiny ketchup cups & just pour it onto my paper mat: I decided to slosh a bit more onto the sides of the tray just to try and ensure that they’ll actually clean the thing before putting it back out again.

Now one might concede that the place was busy… it certainly was, and yes: they seemed to be dearly understaffed.  But that’s not an excuse: that means they need more staff.  I’ve been to places far busier than that who’ve managed to keep things quite tidy.  Heck, McDonald’s in Russia is the place to be in every city, with each one packed & flowing out the doors… yet they were still surprisingly tidy.  Granted, I’d hazard a guess that wagers in Russia are quite a bit lower than Norway… hence it’s easy to hire more staff… but still, that doesn’t change the fact that this place was falling apart.

I stopped by the city’s art museum… while I knew it’d be a bit lacking in Danish art given that the nature of Norsk-Dane relations was a bit more favorable to the Danes, the museum nonetheless had some nice pieces; but really it was Norway’s more modern artists which were what people wanted to see.  Munch, much maligned by the hipster critics of America, is actually an artist I’m OK with.  While there are some pieces I’m not fond of, there are others – such as his self-portrait and his Scream which graces so many college dorms – which I actually quite like.  Yes, even Scream … it always reminds me of Home Alone.

There was a painting by Christian Krohg of Leif Erikson Discovering America which I was amused by.  It showed Leif himself pointing excitedly from the deck toward a small glimpse of land on the horizon, as if he’s screaming “Look!  There it is!  Over there!  I found it!  Me!  I saw it first over there!” … whereas surely his deckhands up along the mast – whose job it is to keep a lookout for things on the horizon and have the altitude advantage – would have seen it first… I think they would have been the ones so excited, with Leif hopefully being a bit more nonchalant about it all.  Or at least I’d dearly hope that my Captain wouldn’t get so worked up about hearing such information… that’d raise some serious concerns about his capabilities to keep a clear head when time demands.

Next up was the Vår Frelsers Gravlund, a cemetery north of the city center.  I was hoping for something either fantastically unkempt like in Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery or something with pristine order such as Arlington back in DC (don’t bother telling me how it’s not technically in DC… I know this).  What I got was a bit more Arlington-like… but not nearly on the same scale.  It was a pretty wander, but it didn’t offer nearly the photo opportunities that I’d hoped for, keeping my stroll comparatively short.  It was among the peace and tranquility of this graveyard where I first took heed of a police helicopter hovering overhead… I’d later come to discover why.

As I explored the graveyard I got to thinking, as I am wont to do in such situations… that is, any sort of relaxing and tranquil place; but then again my mind already wanders enough as it is when I’m ambling about busy city streets.  I figured that when I die, in the usual manner of my family I’d expect to be cremated and strewn out at sea… but I still want a large sculpture of myself planted into a cemetery somewhere.  It’d be a life-sized Greco-Roman masterpiece, replete with idealized ripping muscles and tight curly hair.  An epitaph would read “I am not here: feel free to cheer; but don’t dance upon the sea, lest you might join me.”

Examining the tombstones I thought back to how many cemeteries I’ve visited which include side-by-side graves of husbands and wives.  Except they apparently miss the “until death do you part” bit of their vows… when one of them dies: that’s it; they’re not married anymore.  So really they’re just friends at that point… and it’s a little weird to bury yourself so close to your friends.  There needs to be some buffer space.

I departed the cemetery and made my way toward the botanical gardens.  En route I passed by Damstredet, a small cobblestone street upon a hill.  It was certainly a pretty highlight of Oslo, even if it took only a minute to travel along.  At the Botanical Gardens (Botanisk Hage), it was once again more of a pleasant stroll than an endearing journey through a world of color.  The greenhouses had closed by this point, but looking through the windows it didn’t seem like there was much which I hadn’t already recently seen at past gardens.  The park did have a nice assortment of plants from throughout the world, located alongside a stream… but even that was only slightly interesting.  I did notice that the helicopter was pretty much directly overhead & still hovering about.

Swinging by the train station, I’d hoped to nab a few photos of trains as well as get a better feel for the area while I wasn’t burdened with backpacks.  My previous venture through here – upon my initial arrival to Oslo – did not go so well thanks to my rather lacking Lonely Planet map.  Now I finally knew where things were & how it fit in with the rest of the city.  Except I also learned that Oslo is closing their train station starting tomorrow in order to do some major track work.

How does a European capital close their train station?  I mean, how could there not be other options for trains?  How could there seriously be only a single track available, especially on the line linking to the airport?  And how are they closing it for the entire summer??  Seriously, if this happened in the rest of continental Europe… geez, if this happened in Italy you’d have a revolution.  I’m pretty sure closing a capital’s train service is unheard of in Europe, barring the occasional outbreak of a world war.

Replacing the trains out of the city were buses out to the end of the track work, where people would then transfer onto trains.  I was dubious, but it ended up being my best option for the next day’s trip to Lillehammer.

I swung back to my hotel and got some info on Indian food.  I’d passed by a place between the cemetery & botanical gardens which got the cuisine stuck in my mind… and sure enough reception recommended a place just about where I’d gotten the craving.  I’d wondered if it was the exact same restaurant, but it ended up not being the case.  So I started my trek to the restaurant, but it only took about two blocks before my Lonely Planet guide had me lost.  I decided to just go with it… I wasn’t immensely hungry yet & frankly: I enjoyed wandering the city.

Along the way I met a punk girl who had been at the gay pride festival down at the waterfront.  She offered me some white pills and felt dearly embarrassed when I declined, insisting that they’re just mints from the festival and not drugs.  I simplify things as I write here, but I really did believe her that they were just mints; I just simply didn’t want any.  But just as we were starting to chat a bit: we turned a corner and she exclaimed “Oh my God, the police!” and went dashing ahead.  I’d soon discover why she seemed to be concerned rather than curious, and I’d also find out why the helicopter had been overhead all day.

As I approached I found a row of police vehicles blocking a street, with another row on the other end of the block.  There was a crowd of punks – various ages between teens & 30’s – within the adjacent plaza as well as a small group within the police barricade.  Tempers were flaring, with those within the barricade visibly angry but just yelling, and those within the plaza testing the police presence… some dashing forward; most yelling.  My first guess was that it was your standard European anarchist movement, but apart from a black flag carried by one of the folks within the barricade: they definitely looked more punk than anarchist… yes, to the layperson it can be tough to tell, but if there’s a subculture I affiliate with best: it’s punk.  While most anarchists come from punk roots; not all punks are necessarily full-fledged anarchists.  It’s sort of that square / rectangle dealie.  But my anarchist theory did get some boost considering that this was all happening right in front of a police station.

I snapped away with my camera from right in the middle of the action, shoulder to shoulder with mostly other tourists or local bystanders.   I watched as the police would periodically march forward, dispersing the punks, but the folk would move right back in as soon as the police retreated back to the barricade.  One officer, in particular, was with a K-9 and seemed to be a bit of an instigator… while the dog seemed to think it was all dear fun, it was clearly visible what the dog’s role was whenever he got close enough to one of the punks.  Several surely had some teeth marks to tend to by the end of that day.  The officer himself shoved the punks on several occasions, almost each time being met with loud screaming & several other punks rushing forward in defense… and ending with 1 or 2 being arrested each time.  The police were quick to use their batons, and even after things would calm down again: police asserted their presence by slamming their batons on the ground to retract them – making a loud clapping sound.  If this were America: a lot of those actions would result in a lawsuit, costing the police quite a sum of money.

It was somewhat surreal being able to be right in the middle of it and be left along.  Dressed I was, I clearly wasn’t one of the people the police were interested in; and likewise punk culture – as scary as they may seem to the average person – really isn’t about picking fights with strangers.  They look tough; but they’re not going to bother you as long as you don’t harass them to begin with.

A couple girls hopped up beside me, with the cutest one grabbing onto me for support.  I got to chatting with one of them and, given my extra foot of height, fed her information on the status of people being detained within the barricade.  I discovered that one of the girls – a girl in purple – was her sister; she was clearly concerned for her.  Through this girl I got some of the history of what was going on, confirming it’s not an anarchist movement.

So there’s an abandoned building next door to the police station, and I really do mean next door.  There are two buildings on that side of the block: the police station and the abandoned building; that’s it.  So it was a short trip for all involved.  Apparently most of these punks had been squatting in the building for some time, but the police arrived last Monday to evict them from the building.  The group obtained a permit for a party today – which I’d later come to believe had been permitted to occur in another nearby plaza on the other side of the block – but apparently they violated their permit and spilled into the streets, reoccupying the abandoned building about 30 minutes prior to my arrival.  So the police responded to kick them out of the building again & shut down the party for violating the permit.

As soon as two officers arrived on horseback: things moved into motion… the police lined up and began marching down the street, sending a couple officers down one parallel street & the horses along another parallel street.  All I could think of was how it’s the classic pincer move: send your cavalry out along the side to flank your enemy… a thought echoed by some of the other folk watching it all unfold with me.  As the officers advanced, completely ignoring the crowd just watching, I wondered about what’s so different with those of us observers… if I was wearing black, studded leather, or patches: would I be chased away despite having no relation with the events at hand?  Just because I’m wearing a bright red t-shirt, does that make me seem harmless?  Like I said, I actually affiliate quite considerably with much of the punk ideology…  were it possible for me to get passionate about things, I could quite possibly see myself right there with them with my fist in the air.  But I was left alone; and so were the lot of us standing around taking pictures.

We followed in behind the officers’ advance up the street Torggata, civilians in a war between our guardians and our counterparts; two sides we see as our kind.  It was at the road Hausmannsgate where the advance halted, with police stationed on one side of the street & the youths milling about on the other side of the street.  After some more photos I eventually gave in that not much more was likely going to happen, returning to my initial task of finding the Indian restaurant.  Fortunately, the police advance put my only a block away from it.

I ate at Delhi Tandoori – a place I’d certainly recommend.  As my hotels’ receptionist put it: everytime he ate there he ate too much.  That sounded perfect to me!  And sure enough, I lived up to that claim... the samosa was OK (could’ve used some more spice), but the naan was quite tasty as was the meal itself (I forget what exactly I ordered, but it was per the recommendation of my server and he chose well).  The mango lassi helped keep the meal’s heat quenched, though that didn’t stop me from downing almost a full pitcher of water.   I was absolutely stuffed by the end, with my stomach feeling overloaded right up until I fell asleep.  The service was also quite pleasant, with the two guys running it both quite enthusiastic about ensuring I was pleased with everything.

I returned outside just in time to see groups of the punk folk turning around the corner – including the girl I’d been chatting with earlier.  I had wanted to give her my card in case they had any interest in the photos & videos I’d taken, but she disappeared into a building just moments before I was within range to get her attention.  There were two buildings they had been heading into – one just beside my restaurant and the other just across the street.  Both were absolutely covered in graffiti and were tough to discern whether they were abandoned or not.  The one across the street appeared to be a disused theater, and a few minutes later I overhead a passing couple remark – in English – that the girl had once seen a play there.  I caught up with a guy covered in studded leather and asked if he knew whether they’d be interested in getting copies of my photos/videos, but he suggested I just not make a big issue out of it.  Fair enough; I didn’t inquire any further.

When I say that the buildings were covered in graffiti, I actually mean that as a good thing… this was some really cool graffiti; the type I actually appreciate rather than the petty tags that I loathe.  There were so many neat designs & messages, all of which helped shape the identity of what the local punk movement represented.  I’d basically say that like their counterparts in other cities and countries: they were pro-drug, pro-love, anti-war, but not pacifists… willing to stand up and fight when so provoked.  They were also pro-bike.  Very pro-bike.  A large portion of the graffiti was actually pro-bike and anti-car.  Awesome.  Now that’s something I haven’t noticed among punk movements before...

I returned to the scene of the chaos to find a pair of officers still parked in front of the abandoned building.  I approached them and found myself chatting with perhaps the two nicest police officers I have ever spoken with ever.  They affirmed the exact same information I’d gotten from the girl earlier: they were just enforcing the party’s permit violation.  I did learn that the street where their advance had stopped was actually defined in the permit as how far they had to go in case they were dispersed by the police.  I learned that the actions of the K-9 officer were perfectly legal within Norway’s police system, though they did seem to get my hint that it likely further provoked the situation rather than help resolve it.

From there I pretty much made my way straight back to my room… while I had the energy to explore the city well into its evening, the healing process from my surgery back in Stockholm meant that things were itchy.  Incredibly itchy.  I remember this from my splenectomy 20 years ago: of my three biggest memories of that period, I remember playing Ms. Pac-Man, eating all the ice cream I wanted, and I remember the wretchedly itchy healing scar.  And given the location of the itching at the present: it was something best addressed in the privacy of my hotel room rather than indulging myself with nice deep scratches right there on a public street.