Monday, July 2, 2018

Twin Cities Northeast (aka the Norwegian Fjords)

Simple starter: After Oslo, J and I visited Norway's fjord country. Representative picture (because Facebook only posts the first):

 Here we found lots of skiing trolls.

If you want the very short version, the Norwegian fjords are terrific. Be ready to stay at quaint old waterfront hotels and feel quite young among the retirees at the fabulous breakfasts;

and be ready to drive through tunnels (when not on ferries). We must have driven through 50 tunnels, ranging from about 10 meters to a mile long, and we only scratched the surface of central Norway. Some even have traffic circles in them;
and be ready to see lots of Minnesotans. Minnesotans searchig for their ancestral towns much be about 10% of tourists in Norway. It was good to work on the old college accent.

Look, the U.S. is hopelessly divided, and the other side was mean first; as a result, J and I have decided to give up all pretense of inter-group exchange. Plus, it’s really annoying to drive through Fjord country. So, we decided to take a progressives-only Rick Steves tour for this leg of our trip. This was our tour bus (with pot on demand of course). 

One drawback of a big tour is the lack of restaurant options, but Rick Steves uses this cool coffee house. 

Ok, folks, those are all jokes, and the photos are from Copenhagen, and we took a city bus from Oslo and then our own car. However, it is true that we stayed at a Rick Steves–approved hotel. And is true that we went to the fjord town — Mundal — where Walter Mondale’s ancestors are from. And is true we have a cosmically important election to win. (Please, stop trying to convince your conservative uncle on Facebook. If he doesn't care about the fate of Congress when abortion rights and healthcare hang in the balance, and after the president brags about sexual assault, has never bothered to criticize the Russians' election meddling (and, at the very least, has a son who intended to collude), uses illegal cruelty against children as a bargaining chip, seeks to eviscerate environmental protections and public lands, threatens to single-handedly throw the economy into recession with tariffs he doesn't even have an Economics 101 grasp on, and salutes North Koreans, I don't think you're going to convince him. Go find and register a new voter instead.) But I digress. So I won’t mention that growing up I went to the church in DC that Mondale attended as vice-president …

Speaking of ancestral roots, I need to trace down the side of my family that went from Germany to Norway and opened a bakery. All the flavor of a pretzel somehow got lost in the move though …

Scandinavia has a lot of ships, and of course especially in the fjords. Last time I didn’t even blog the classic Vasa warship, which sank in 1627, 20 minutes after its launch from Stockholm's harbor (pictured below), the Viking ships and Fram museums in Oslo (the latter is the ship Amundsen used to reach the South Pole first, in 1911), etc. The point is: these people have been painting ships on their churches since the 1100s.

Needless to say, therefore, we decided to take a city bus from Oslo to the Fjords instead of a boat. But actually, the views on the bus were epic the whole way, so we were glad Giggi recommended it. 

Out first town was Fjaerland. Due to said unusual decision to take the bus from Oslo, we had a bit of a walk from the bus station to our hotel. Thankfully for us — and our friendship with Giggi — it didn’t rain as we walked the 1 kilometer 3 kilometers into town.
We were rewarded with the best (Juniper-infused) beer of the trip. Must have been over $20 for the big bottle.

Fjearland is an international book town, which means it has to have a certain number of book shops. They stretch the rules a bit shelves with a few books and self-pay boxes are everywhere but the effect is very cool. 

I was able to use our day here to find some important reading I've been meaning to catch up on. 

Fjearland also has a very cool glacier museum right under the (needless to say, shrinking) Jostedalsbreen Glacier, the largest in continental Europe (romantic artist's interpretation):

Here's the Rick Steves–approved hotel in Balestrand, our next stop. 

In between fjords we stopped in Bergen, a deservedly touristical city famous for its adorable old town of restored half-timber buildings that housed the merchants of the Hanseatic League (a medieval confederation of German traders back when people appreciated the benefits of international trade). But really we loved learning about Snorri the Seal, a cartoon character developed by a Norwegian author. The original 1941 Snorri book was an allegorical denouncement of the Nazi occupation of Norway that eluded the Nazi censors (for a time). Seriously, the Russian polar bear looks a lot like Trump. 

The weather in Bergen is easy to describe:
Norwegians seek coziness against this rain so much that they even make waffles when they meet in churches. 

The Hanseatic League made a lot of money trading cod.

From Bergen we went on the proverbial all-Norwegian roadtrip, stopping by a bunch of excellent waterfalls. As regular readers know, one thing I love about drive-by European nature is the excellent in-porcelain-cup espresso at the touristical places. 

Giggi's Mom recommend Utne (and Norway's oldest hotel; see breakfast picture), and the drive there was a lovely tour through the cherry capital of Norway. Got to love honor-system cherry kiosks.

There was one more amazing waterfall on the road to Geilo, I think Norway's tallest, but don't quote me on that.

And the best part of the drive to Geilo was Hardangervidda National Park, a barren almost-Irish-feeling plateau marked by dramatic azure lakes and glaciers.

Giggi termed Geilo itself the “Park City of Utah." Maybe, if PCMR had about 2,000 less of vertical drop — and about 1900 more kilometers of Nordic trails. Same crazy roller-skiers are there for sure. Notice he's in traffic. On the highway. About to go down a curving hill. Makes the Tour de Park City look like a roll in the park.

When you think the fjords, you think bowling, which is what we did on our last night in Norway. Just don't ask J about the hamburger she ate at the "real, American diner" at the alley.

Friday, June 22, 2018


So we went from Paris to Stockholm and Oslo ... so it seems appropriate to start with Edvard Munch's take on Paris.

Not sure what's going on with the Swedish take on the French Revolution via public bathrooms, though ...

The title of this entry, by the way, is an homage to the Stanley Cup–winning Washington Capitals (about whom I was too superstitious to mention during the playoffs, but God it was brilliant) as well as our time in Stockholm and Oslo. 

I don't know why everyone has this image of Scandinavians as dark and depressed. I certainly didn't see any evidence of that at the Edvard Munch Museum in Oslo (this was the guide to one room of paintings).

Nor did I see any darkness at another exhibit we went to (ok this one in Bergen, but work with me). 

Ok, so some stereotypes have a bit of truth in them. The Swedes are modest. Look at the size of their statues. 

And even the trolls in Norway are pretty bleak. 

But I will say this about Scandinavia. It was a lot safer than I thought. J and I, like everybody else in our SES, have been watching a lot of Scandinavian TV the past few years (Season 4 of The Bridge currently on Hulu!), and I'm very happy to report that the real murder rate is much less than it seems on TV. I guess all the murders have migrated to the Shetland Islands instead. 

So here's the ultimate cliche: J and I loved Norway and Sweden -- as much as I had 25 years ago, when I backpacked through a chunk of them during during college with my good friend Erich. (Things were a bit cushier this time around; we used hotels instead of (circa 1993) sneaking onto cruise boats and sleeping on their lounge floors, and spending other nights riding the same train back and forth and in a tent in an urban park was a bit different style than the current trip. Of course, after our Parisian apartment, any hotel room with hot water would have seemed a great luxury.) And J and I loved Stockholm despite it being pretty much one big construction zone, scheduled to reopen in 2019. And despite the fact the Swedes consider a lot of their royal porcelain too fragile to put on display in the palace in their current cases. 

Needless to say, this being NPLH, J and I embraced all the hipster cliches oozing from this place. (Note that Obama's last state dinner was with the heads of the Nordic countries). Ironic rye-crepe tacos with reindeer heart and lingonberry and foraged herbs flash-cooked at the table by a bearded guy with better English than my students? Washed down with an Elderflower Sour? Check. 

Incredibly good Swedish steak at a place with meat hanging everywhere and Pappy Van Winkle's on the menu. Certainly. 

A ridiculously cool new skyline and Opera House hovering above the water (Oslo), the kind of urban development befitting a nation with a trillion-dollar Sovereign Wealth Fund? Yup. I half expected the Chelsea High Line to break out.

And yet also some classically beautiful old buildings? Of course. (Stockholm.) 

Fantastic 1950s murals? Check. (Oslo City Hall)

The art is terrific, too. I and Giggi, our Salt Lake friend who hosted us in Oslo (thus saving us about $4800 on hotel costs, and showing us a fun time and the best unknown-to-tourists 3rd wave coffee place to boot), really prefer the rustic-hearty-peasant-enjoying-the-eternal-fatherland motif, even if it's a bit nationalistic.

Ok just kidding Giggi! I really do love Norwegian art, and we learned a lot about it too. For example, we learned about the tripartite schema for categorizing river and waterfall paintings. (The Dahl is Johan Christian Dahl, Norway's greatest romantic landscape painter.)

Needless to say, for the rest of the trip, we have been busy categorizing every bit of moving water we've come across (and there's a lot of it here folks) as a 1, vertical fall; a 2, white water crashing over rocks; or a 3, more tranquil river. Sometime this can be surprising difficult. I mean, which type is this?

We also learned that bread is an important theme in Scandinavian art, across the ages.

Ok again, just kidding, and really, the bread in Scandinavia is just terrific. This might be blasphemous, but I think it's consistently better and more various than French bread outside of the (indeed perfect) baguette. I'll spare you my library of bread pictures.

Now it's time to be serious for a minute. After all, sometimes I do pretend to be a scholar. So let's take a step back and reflect on Scandinavia for a second shall we? Sort of like this bear, who, at Skansen, the fantastic Swedish reenacted old village and zoo in Stockholm, has the best view to ponder the city.

Why, and what does it mean, that so many Americans -- especially progressive ones -- love Scandinavia so much? Scandinavia means great design (IIttala in Finland reigning supreme) and a generous welfare state and hipster cocktails and environmental responsibility and lots of protected open space -- all things 91.7 % of people reading this blog love. And clearly Scandinavians have done a great job selling this brand to Americans (see aforementioned TV shows and Obama's final state dinner). But what about the uncomfortable truth for us white progressives that Scandinavia also means whiteness? As in, a lot of the toddlers are almost uncomfortably white. Sure, we can point to the fact that one-quarter of Oslo's residents are foreign-born, and plenty of Somalian-born Norwegian kids now dress up in those ridiculous folk costumes every national holiday day and are just as Norwegian as anyone else. But ... these nations also have serious immigration laws, and no one for a minute would argue that they will ever let ethnic minorities become more than a distinct minority. All of this makes me all the happier that I live in a nation that does not -- and has never, our current disaster of a president aside -- defined citizenship by blood and tribe. Do I have a takeaway point here? Not really, and I doubt the bear does either. For now you have to love a region that puts this statue in the entry hall of a major museum.