Friday, June 24, 2011

NO - Oslo

June 24                 Friday                                   Norway                                Oslo                                      

It was a pretty easy journey to the train station: walk toward the river, hop on the tram, and hop off pretty much right at the station’s entry.  Fortunately the train station and bus station where in a single continuous building, making it easy to work out an Oslo trip whether it be by bus or by rail.

I was a little surprised to learn that rail wasn’t going to be an option… apparently there was track work en route to Oslo, requiring that rail transfer to a bus midway through the journey.  So while it was technically an option, Swebus offered a bus which was cheaper, faster, and I could stay in the same seat the whole way.  So that won out, letting me immediately hop right onto the bus as soon as I’d bought my ticket.  Very little waiting required.

Overall Göteborg had shown itself a bit better than my initial impression, but I was leaving a day sooner than I’d originally guessed I might spend here… it just wasn’t the most endearing of cities; I’d say Stockholm was certainly the better.  While Göteborg certainly isn’t pretentious in the slightest (whereas Stockholm kind of is), its working class roots were still a bit strong in that it just wasn’t a city that geared itself toward tourists too well.

Oslo was different.  I got to take a bit of a tour after leaving the bus station because I went the wrong way… and then after backtracking from my initial northern trajectory I ended up going southwest… so I had to correct myself again to get further north.  All I wanted to go was go due northwest, but my Lonely Planet map was so incredibly inaccurate that this proved to be quite difficult.  Fortunately, despite the burden of carrying my full kit: Oslo’s pretty streets kept it rather bearable.

My lodging was at the Hotel Bondeheimen.  For the price I was paying: the room wasn’t nearly as luxurious as I’d hoped it would be… it was really just a room and naught much more; but it was very central.  Exceedingly central.  Really its location was pretty tough to beat.  So I tried to put the price of the rooms behind me and just accept it for what I now had.

I unloaded my gear and immediately went in search of dinner.  This ended up being Italian at the Trattoria Cappuccino located just behind the cathedral.  It was a linguine dish consisting of very thin homemade linguine & exquisitely tasty, but the serving was a bit on the small side.  While I usually do just fine with the smaller portions common in Europe (indeed, I actually appreciate it), this was a bit small even by European standards.  I suppose it was just incentive to indulge in dessert; a thought which I hadn’t considered until I’d already left.  I’d have actually rather liked to try their tiramisu.

The reason I’d completely forgotten about dessert was that I got to chatting with my waitress: a very beautiful girl who seemed to be quite interested in conversation.  She had remarked on my saying that I’m from America, noting something that’s always bothered me… I’m from America just as much as Canadians are & anyone from anywhere south of the border.  Of course, few Canadians will call themselves American simply because of the connotations that would bring… we kind of joked about that, but it was a Segway into learning that she’s originally from Costa Rica, hence her American remark.  She’s technically American, too.  I inquired as to how she ended up here & learned that she has Swedish parents (I may have misheard; she may have said Norwegian; clearly Swedish parents still wouldn’t completely explain being in Oslo).  She was also heading to Rome soon as a volunteer with the UN.  Here’s a girl with a strong international background, an ethic toward helping people, great at conversation, about to go to one of my favorite cities in a country that I hold dear, and she’s stunningly gorgeous… not even going the bottle blonde route like so many others in Scandinavia.  It wasn’t my favorite of moments when she was called away & we had to cut the conversation short so I could vacate and she could return to work.

I next made my way southward toward the Akershus Festning (Akershus Fortress), but not before first stopping at a place called Bagel & Juice just around the corner from the hotel to grab a rather tasty strawberry & mango smoothie.  At the fortress I did a quick tour of the Norwegian Armed Forces Museum.  I had 15 minutes to tour the museum and did it in 10… it had some interesting stuff, but overall it really wasn’t something that needed an immense amount of time.

Crossing through the gate and past the walls, I’d followed just in the footsteps of a guard only a few paces ahead of me.  As she returned to her post from her brief patrol across the bridge, I couldn’t help but be amused at her faint smile upon her realization that I was snapping several photos of her.  She had this look on her face that was clearly the desire to want to smile and pose for a photo; but unable to given her duty to remain stoic, composed, and alert.

The tourism information building was originally just going to be a brief pause for me to ask about the Oslo Card (which wasn’t available there), but I ended up spending considerably more time there after a passing glimpse at one of its informational signs turned into a full-fledged reading of every single one.  There were some amazing stories of convicts who had ended up at the prison for one reason or another, including a few who kept coming back after each time making an escape.  I suppose it doesn’t matter if you’re not very good at evading capture if you are good at getting back out again.  I was just approaching the last sign when I caught a figure out of the corner of my eye oriented directly toward me… the poor girl manning the desk was patiently waiting for me to finish.  While she insisted I keep reading, with the time at 17:05 and on a Friday evening: I dearly didn’t want to keep this young 20-something waiting; but I really was grateful and amazed at her patience in this tourist who insists on coming in right at closing time & then lingering about reading everything.  I was the kind of person that every employee despises :)

The fortress’ interior had closed, but I was still free to roam about its outside.  The winner here was the great views over the city, where despite the light drizzle the clouds were quite amazing above the city.  I’d come to love the clouds over Norway, where the effects of mixing ocean streams, rising mountains, and the clash of temperate and Arctic air all combine to create some amazing cloud formations; the like I’ve never seen.  Just beside the fortress was a massive cruise ship at dock.  I couldn’t help but smile at the cannons pointed directly at it, with the cruise ship’s multitude of openings upon its side seeming almost as if a massive battery of armaments aimed directly back.

I exited the castle and crossed along the harbor toward Aker Brygge, a pretty new waterfront neighborhood that I’ll come back to in just a second.  Along the way, in the harbor area by the Rådhus (city hall), were two concert areas… one I’d come to learn was for a gay rights celebration the next day; and the other was for Oslo Live, a concert series in its 2nd to last day.  From the flyers I came to realize it was drawing some pretty huge acts.  The beats from the Oslo Live venue could be heard all the way into the center, and as I walked alongside its northeastern fringe the bass felt like it was moving blood through my body with more energy than my own heart.  It was some good dance beats, but I didn’t recognize them nor the artist… but it did cause me to slow my pace down a bit to appreciate the tunes.

Continuing on into Aker Brygge I reminisced upon all the waterfronts I’d seen thus far…

  • ·         Reykjavik’s isn’t really built up much, but for what there is I’d say it’s mostly industrial.
  • ·         Stockholm’s had a continuous tourist presence through most of it, but a lot of it was fronted by boats and such… while there were some plazas, I didn’t really feel that it actively engaged with the water so much as just look upon it; the private boat-bars more detracting from the public appreciation of it (although the boats tended to be rather vintage, so I’m not necessarily complaining; vintage boats can make for lovely photos regardless of function).
  • ·         Kalmar embraced the water a bit more, with Kalmar’s Castle and adjacent park providing a nice waterside view and a pretty harbor; but like Stockholm not really working with the water rather than just looking upon it.
  • ·         Karlskrona definitely used its resources, with several public plazas and parks offering plenty of opportunity to relax & appreciate the water; but not many businesses which actively engaged with the water.
  • ·         Århus had a totally industrial waterfront.
  • ·         Copenhagen kind of ignores the water, not really having many buildings of interest fronting the water with the exception of a few spots along the canals, except even then the focus tends to be more on the parallel walkways and not as much on the canals… not too many benches & too many boats (but again: in some cases the boats made for great photos).
  • ·         Göteborg takes bottom rankings: pretty much covering its entire riverfront with nothing but industry.  I’d have expected more out of Sweden’s second city.

But then there’s Oslo.  It has its industrial fringes along the fjord (though I seem to recall reading that this bit technically isn’t a fjord), leaving its waterfront near the city center open for the tourism industry.  Of the three sides bound by land, there’s the castle/fortress on one side, the Aker Brygge neighborhood on the opposite side, and the harbor in the middle.  The harbor just serves bar-boats; none of which seemed to stay docked too long… they were bars that actually cruised around; not just sit there at the docks like in so many other cities.  This freed up the view from the promenade to look down the fjord, and the nature of the promenade offered plenty of room to avoid feeling crowded & also a number of spots to sit down.  The fortress likewise gave a great elevated view, really sparking one’s appreciation of the sea.

Now for Aker Brygge.  This is a mixed use development which replaced a bunch of warehousing and industry (which still remains just beyond the couple blocks of development).  With mid-rise buildings (about 6-10 stories) and ground level retail & restaurants, it definitely served as the place to be both by day and by night.  The restaurants tended to be a bit higher-end, but this was definitely where both the casual & fine dining seemed to be for most folk.  There were plenty of benches about and a number of water features in addition to the fjord and a canal, of which the canal was home to a line of boats on one side and the fjord-front hosted larger yachts geared toward fjord tours; but even then the view toward the fortress was still unimpeded from most points.

Even away from the docks, the interior of the neighborhood had a pedestrianized area… and I specifically enjoyed the architecture of the buildings themselves.  First, the were visibly modern but had a hint of traditional Nordic touch.  You could see the modern Scandinavian designs in the very geometric shapes, but somehow there just seemed to be a bit of classic influence in there… I’m not an architect so I can’t pinpoint it much better than that.

I especially liked the balconies, a component which I feel American design woefully misses in so many developments.   The balconies were varied, helping to keep the upward views from being monotonous; and the balconies also provided enough room for the residents to actually use them.  That might sound a bit trivial, but there’s a trend among architects in America to add balconies that are only 1-2 ft wide… they’re really just large windows at that point.  You can’t walk out on them; you can’t look down; you can’t appreciate or engage with what’s outdoors in the way you could if you could put out some chairs and a table.  With great views from each of these balconies, they all helped offer an “eyes on the street” that can not only make it more engaging from a civic perspective; but also help deter crime by making any would-be perpetrators feel that they’d be more likely to be seen.  And there’s the monotony element – something architects are guilty of worldwide whereby they just copy the same exterior over and over again.  With the varied shapes of the buildings, my eyes were continuously drawn upward just as much as the ground also engaged my senses.

So basically… I really liked Aker Brygge.  The only thing that seemed to be missing were some good cultural venues… but it could just be that I didn’t spot them.  A local theater space, perhaps.  Or even a school; but I also don’t know the Norwegian word for school… so maybe I just didn’t see that, either.  There were a couple statues & other art pieces which were pretty neat, including a rather odd piece that contorted the landscape at one of the central plazas.  Within the same plaza was also a statue of a relaxing nude woman… I wasn’t sure if it was vandalized or if was an approved art piece, but it’d been painted over with colored shoes, lipstick, and… pubic hair.  Without that latter coloring I probably wouldn’t have thought much of the differential between each of the legs, but with the coloring it suddenly became quite pornographic to view the statue from a certain angle.

Now back to those bar-boats in the harbor at the center of the fjord.  Just a slight interjection before I continue on with my day.  As I walked along one of the piers I couldn’t help but notice something peculiar about the crowds on each boat.  Every single woman… I mean right down to every single one… that is: 100% … so all of the women on each of three boats along the pier was a bottle blonde.  Not one brunette among them; not even someone who may have been a natural blonde.  Bah… not that I’m inherently against bottle blondes; but I just see people who have to change themselves so thoroughly as being people with some self-identity, esteem, and confidence issues… and more often than not I tend to be right; and more often than not they tend to be heinously annoying.  Now there are exceptions; and I’m good friends with some of those exceptions; but none of these women looked or sounded like the type to prove me wrong.

So in general, Scandinavian women have been at their prime in their 30’s.  Granted, by the time they hit 40: they start to look like your standard over-the-hill Cali-Mom: great body but a mummified face.  In their teens and 20’s, they just come off as too ditzy/trashy-looking; whereas they eventually become a bit more dignified, classy, and respectable… but these lasses on the boat – largely in their 20’s and 30’s – didn’t give much credence to my little theory.  The guys weren’t much better.  In line with what I said a few days ago, the guys on these boats just looked like a bunch of fratboys.  Though fortunately, the guys off the boats have tended to seem a bit more normal; not quite the Danish thugs or as much like the Swedish fratboys.  Bummer… I’m such a fan of Swedish backpackers; I just can’t stand its urbanites.

While I’m nitpicking over these things: I’ll also take a stab at the Norwegian’s sunglasses.  So aviator-style sunglasses are huge here, apparently.  I’m mixed on aviators… I love their look on, you know, aviators and other enforcement-type folk; but on your general layman they reinforce that whole fratboy persona.  So I’m ultimately not a huge fan.  But what bothers me here isn’t my inherent aversion to them so much as they the sunglasses they’re wearing are about 50% larger than they should be.  It makes it seem like they have very small heads; it’s an illusion that really bugs me.  And running with that: I’d still say it’s better than Americans’ current sunglasses obsession of wearing these huge round things that make them look like bugs… seriously, Americans have no fashion sense.

So I’m on a roll here, I’ll keep this rant going.  Fashion sense.  So back to women: if I had to pick a single physical trait that best defines Scandinavian women – yeah, I’m being a male pig here, I know – it’d absolutely be their legs.  Now normally I’m an arm guy… not because I’m sexually aroused by arms (that seems kind of weird), but because I find arms to be such a great signifier of the rest of the body.  You can tell if a woman is too heavy, too thin, if she’s very lean and toned, or if she’s just a good size.  It’s always been a consistently good indicator.  But here… Scandinavians have been quite thoroughly turning me into a leg man… partly because they show so much of them; partly because they’re all quite well toned; and partly because they somehow make them seem so incredibly smooth and long.  It all seems weird as I write it but makes perfect sense in my head.

And top it off with the jeans… firstly, European women know how to wear jeans.  Heck I’ll also credit European men with pulling off jeans.  Americans of both genders fail at both, and I take no shame in saying that I’m among them.  Not only do we wear jeans which don’t look nice to begin with – what’s this crap with pre-faded, pre-holed, pre-whatever – but our flabby excesses just roll on out with the ever-endearing term “muffin-tops”.  You flat-out don’t see those in Europe.  Every time I have seen them, 95% of the time they’ve ended up being American and 4% of the time Canadian; with the remaining 1% being the folk among the various European sub-cultures who could care less or even embrace bad fashion (this is pretty much where I’d count myself).

Basically: Europeans are much more fit to begin with, but even those who are a bit heavier wear jeans cut to hide it a bit better… in many cases they wrap along the waist higher, which with the right top makes it seem just fine.  Of course, with the wrong top you look like you’re stuck in the 80’s and have a massive rear-end… I have seen this on many occasions in Europe, where there’s definitely a larger proportion of people stuck in the 80’s (or at least early 90’s) than we have in America.

But no more ranting; back to the city!  I continued northward into a really pretty neighborhood.  This was the highlight of Oslo, but really in general: Oslo has been the first city that has really had the European joy of just wandering and getting yourself lost, with each street having a unique character.  Granted, this particular area was the home of embassies… so clearly it was a bit better off than the rest.  Among them was Fortress America: the mighty walls and fencing standing out among the quaint historic buildings in a manner that only America and Russia could do so well.  Nothing rouses feelings of patriotism quite like seeing your home embassy feel cold and forbidding even to you, its own offspring and kin.  I wouldn’t even know how to enter into an American embassy if I ever needed to… I feel like I’d end up in a tiny cold room with an uncomfortable seat and a single bright light whilst they attempted to find out why I was there, and after three hours of interrogation I’d have probably forgotten why I was there to begin with… making me only more suspicious before next thing I know I’ve scored a free trip to our little base in Cuba.

So instead I just take pictures.  Lots and lots of pictures.  I love putting our guys at unease.  That’s one of the great things about living in DC: you get to have fun with our safety paranoia and security theatre on a daily basis.  Because every terrorist will surely use a large expensive SLR… clearly they won’t use a point & shoot or a mobile phone… or just look up photos on the internet.  So yeah.

I ate dinner at a place called Rust.  From the name I knew it wasn’t a place for me… only hipster places have names like that; I’m not pretentious enough to dine at such places.  I actually ended up eating a quite tasty burger, but of course its presentation was in the true essence of a hipster sort of place… something so simple had to be presented like it came from a top-tier restaurant.

My return journey took me through the palace gardens.  Yet another strike against Lonely Planet is their complete absence of any reference whatsoever to the royal palace.  Even if there aren’t any tours, I’d have at least expected them to say so.  I really have no idea if there are or not.  And considering this is a European capital and seat of an existing monarchy, I feel like that’s kind of a big deal… even if it is a pretty young monarchy & capital (by European standards, at least).

I saw a woman pushing a baby stroller while on her mobile phone.  While she was dialing, she rolled right on through a pile of horse manure & also over a plastic bag with something in it.  I’m not sure what was actually in the bag, but I feel like you wouldn’t want to push your baby through it.  As she transfers to chatting, she starts meandering left and right before eventually crashing into the side of a park bench.  So… these people drive.

 A fun result of all the recent rain: the dirt plaza in front of the palace had channels that grew ever wider as you moved downhill toward the city center.  And where the dirt came to an end: the dirt continued, regardless, into the forked street – covering it in bright red-orange gravel.  I wondered at what their maintenance regimen is after such periods of rain… I assume they bring in more gravel to fill in the channels, rake it flat, and somehow flush the sewers.  Ahh, the thoughts of an engineer…

Moving into the central park I stopped at one of the theaters and watched a busker swirl about, forming massive bubbles.  I wouldn’t have given it too much heed if it weren’t for the couple of small children running about with pure joy on their faces.  I figured it’d be good photo fodder, and after about 20 minutes I finally moved on; but not before offering him a few coins of my own.  The guy had a hat quite full as it was, what-with parents supplying the wee ones with gifts; but I really felt the guy had a good performance persona… I quite like buskers who contribute to the community in such a way.

Other buskers in the area included your usual fare of musicians and fake statues.  I’ll sometimes give coins to the musicians, but they have to be good.  I’ve seen some stellar ones only in Rome, Salzburg, and Edinburgh… that’s been it.  They need to play original music; it needs to be captivating; it needs to show talent and skill; and it needs to either be a true community asset or it needs to be so skillful that I feel the musician is underappreciated.  And I’m not against handing out paper to those who are really good.

Fake statues aren’t among them.  Now I kind of like them… and standing very still does take some talent… and I’ve seen a couple which have a bit more fun with it; but the statues here in Oslo were just statue-ing; not hopping off to haunt people or anything mime-ish.  At least mimes & miming requires some animation; it’s entertaining.  But Treebeard would call them “tree-ish”.

Similarly the musicians weren’t very good, either.  But Oslo took claim of the worst busker I’ve ever seen: people just sitting around in a goofy costume.  One example: Mickey Mouse.  He was just sitting there with a hat out for coins.  No talent required.  It’s like the Mr. Plow of busking: I could hear the guy’s argument with his girlfriend (or parents)… “Sure the huge costume is expensive, but it’ll make money!”   I’m sure that’s worked out well.

My night in my excessively-expensive hotel room drew to a close.  Oh, how I wish lodging was cheaper in Scandinavia… or really if anything was cheaper.  While Britain may still rank highest on account of conversions, these Nordic countries are quite simply obscenely expensive.  A dorm bed at a hostel costs as much as a typical hotel room in the USA… a dorm bed in the rest of Europe is half or even a quarter the price.  I’m going to grimace when I see the credit card statements upon my return home.

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