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.

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