History, Norway, travel

Fredrikstad, Norway. Alive and well in the Past

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A journey to Norway is a step back in time.

I have studied history in books for years, listened to countless lectures, spent last summer in one of the most venerable archives in the U.S., visited a lot of “historic sites,” and worked at a few, too.

But in Norway, the past is experienced differently — as something still present.

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Norwegians move at a slower pace than New Yorkers. There is a definite bustle in Oslo, and even the cobblestone streets don’t seem to slow anyone down, but the city felt quite relaxed. Also true in Copenhagen — both cities felt industrious but relaxed, not like New York’s hectic, hysterical tenseness. Perhaps it was this relaxed pace which began to make the past seem more alive in Norway.

Certainly, as far as European capitals go, Oslo isn’t that old. The country, until the mid-1800’s, and not again until the modern oil boom, was poor and “undeveloped.”
The Hanseatic League did their trading in Bergen, and Oslo was a backwater for centuries after southern Europe was full of sophisticated cities, or for millennia after the Middle East or Asia. In 1850, when there were over two million Londoners, Oslo was still a town of 30,000 — and every third Norwegian was leaving for America. And like London, the city had its “Great Fire” in the 1600’s to clear out the medieval things.

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Oslo

DSC07233So the city you visit now, is mainly from the late Victorian age.  The main drag, Karl Johans Gate, runs directly from the central train station, past the little cathedral, past the national theater and the parliament, to the royal palace.  All the handsome buildings you pass seem to be neo-classical or Second Empire style, like promenading through a small-scale Paris.

The Storting (government) building is kind of an exception, being some sort of awful yellow-brick mishmash of Italian Renaissance, beaux arts, 2nd Empire, and Victorian public lavatory.  Not sure what they were trying for.  My guess:  an architect with catholic tastes and a fondness for aquavit.  Although the parliament’s half-moon meeting chamber, which we just glimpsed through the window, when it was lit up at night, is wood-paneled, handsome, and impressive.  The area around it is full of nice old buildings, restaurants, hotels, and a charming park.

Oslo, of course, has grown tremendously — bigger than Boston, Denver, or Washington, D.C.  High-rises are going up near the harbor, near their modern, stunningly-beautiful opera house.

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transplanted farm buildings at Oslo’s Folkemuseum

So, Oslo is building, and in any case, most of the neighborhoods are no older than our cities in the Midwestern United States — the Norwegians moving to Milwaukee and Minneapolis wouldn’t have felt entirely out of place. Despite the historical places we visited in Oslo, like Akershus Castle or the huge Norsk Folkemuseum’s historical village, I never once felt that Oslo was old. Even when I was staring at actual Viking longships, ancient, famous, and beautiful, over a thousand years old, the most well-preserved in history — I recognized them as incredible and old, but that didn’t make me feel the age of the country I was in, one that had been the land of the Vikings. So, why then do I say that Norway is a land lost in time?

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Fredrikstad

It was only after leaving Oslo that I felt like I had been transported to another world. Despite traveling by a modern, fast-moving train to Fredrikstad, as Oslo got farther and farther away, I felt like I was going back in time, past fields of hay and potatoes, and then gorgeous coastal scenery and mountains passed by. The landscape was reminiscent of simpler times (though it still didn’t seem old, as I kept seeing Norway’s seemingly endless stream of Tesla’s humming down their pristine highways).

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But upon arrival in Fredrikstad, I felt like we had been shot back to the ancient days. Initially, it felt English. The town was larger than I had expected, and the shops, restaurants, and movie theaters reminded me of those in Hull. But soon, we seemed to drift out of this current era. We took a slow-moving ferry to one of the many outlying islands that comprise this city, and arrived at the old walled city.

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Since the late 1500s, this island-city has been fortified —  its walls lined with iron cannons, a deep moat, drawbridge, and redoubts on raised hillocks to keep out landing parties. In its day it must have seemed an impenetrable fortress.  It immediately struck me as existing in an antique time. This town, with its stone streets, shops, wharves, and armories was busily humming when “modern” America was still just a small malarial outpost on the James River, and a few dozen freezing Pilgrims in Massachusetts.

Having worked and lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, I figured this place would be like all the other “historic” villages I’d been to. I was wrong.

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IMG_0953Not only was it European, it seemed vastly different than Oslo’s historical village (which was fascinating in its own way). For starters, this place is “lived in.” The city of Oslo surrounds its folk-museum village, but it is a static museum-piece;  the old log houses were taken from their hill-farms and forests to a city park, and fascinating as they are, they’re not an organic part of the land anymore.  Fredrikstad felt way more alive, nothing artificial about it. The little hilltop villages in Italy, Spain, Italy, etc. are often abandoned, but none of the houses here are derelict.  Norwegians want to live in Fredrikstad.  In Colonial Williamsburg, actors live in the houses, but it feels fake, overrun by tourists and costumed people with cellphones. Here, the harbor and canal are full of boats, cars rumbled along five hundred year-old streets (there is a bridge in the modern day to get here) and the city’s military buildings now house restaurants and galleries, in vaulted bomb-proofs within the thick walls. Unlike other recreated villages, this one felt more alive and more ancient for one other reason: the water. On the edge of a modern, bustling city, with a busy little harbor, this town felt like, and was, still very much alive.

I’ve visited port cities on the Atlantic and Pacific that were older, but somehow the contrast of the old garrison town with the modern city facing it across the harbor, made this place feel far older than almost anywhere I’ve ever been.  In Oslo, I stood inches from the thousand-year-old Gokstad and Osenburg Viking ships, but they’re now exhibits in a museum — this island-city felt more ancient. There was a storybook air to the place, like you’d walked into an old folk tale.  I could picture a fleet of Swedish ships firing cannon balls at this island, with residents from the outskirts fleeing into the protective core of their fortress. It felt very alive and immediately possible.

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It was this place that helped make an off-season visit to Norway one of the most incredible trips I’ve been on. I’ve seen plenty of historic villages, and enjoyed them, but none of them captured my imagination or the spirit of the time. Even the best one I’d visited, in Upper Canada, felt more artificial to me, though more believable than Colonial Williamsburg with its Ye Olde Tyme parking lots and gift shops. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t even in Europe. Oslo, while less impressive in some regards than the likes of Cologne, Manchester, Hamburg, or certainly London, is still mainland European in its character. Fredrikstad’s fortress (despite being state-of-the-art Euro-design in its day), felt like a distinctly Nordic place.

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Norway, even now, modern and affluent as it is, still strikes chords for outsiders as being a somehow medieval landscape of snow and ice. When we visited their national art gallery, it was crowded with locals admiring an exhibit of story-tale art, with mysterious footprints in the snow, bluish hills, dark woods.  And this island-town, despite the sunshine and warm weather (warmer in March than England or even Maryland), seemed to belong to this alien world of wooden, mushroom-shaped homes, wooden… everything, tall blonde singsong-speaking people, and a land of trolls, of myths that feel alive and truths that feel mythical and the home of the Vikings. Here, I felt, for the first time on any of my travels, like I was somewhere truly different.

A final thought on this difference: Norway is the most English-speaking country in Europe (including England, since what they speak in Yorkshire may not be gibberish, but it is not English) and yet to an American, it remains the most alien. In the UK, while not ever feeling “at home,” I felt like it was similar enough to New York, just grayer and less pleasant. Spain was gorgeous and way relaxed and, while distinctly different from my world, it still was exactly how I’d imagined it. Germany and Copenhagen, while seeming “old” in some ways, still didn’t match the pervasive antique feel of Norway.

What I realized was this: In Hong Kong and Taiwan, I may have glimpsed the future, one of soaring glass and steel skyscrapers, crowds, humidity, and the constant sense of a centralized state overlaying “organized chaos.” But in Norway, I saw and felt the past. Norway, with its modern economy and lifestyles, is a land that cannot escape its past, and because of that, it feels different. Germany has history, but it feels like history, something entirely pushed into the past — you can feel the roots, but you know and are always aware that the nation is moving forward, and the old is being incorporated and dissolved into the new.
DSC07899In Norway, the old is pervasive, on display in subtle but constant ways, and it is not going anywhere. It felt different there.

I think the reason is, that Norway has remained off the radar and apart.  In Copenhagen, you walk into a six hundred-year-old building, and there is a McDonalds sign in the window. In Hong Kong, an alien world in many regards, there are constantly thousands of Americans roaming the streets. Norway, it seems, remains almost undiscovered, and perhaps because of this, far more mysterious, even if aspects of it seem familiar. The familiarity, but the slight differences, is what makes Norway so alien. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Copenhagen, Soft Capitalism, Study Abroad

Copenhagen. The Happy City.

IMG_5815Regardless of what you think of Bernie Sanders, when he recently said “…I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” I have to agree.  I’ve visited two of those countries, and they’re great places, especially Denmark.  Here is my brief “letter home” from a visit to Denmark.

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A bicyclist lazily rolls along, not in any hurry. It’s a beautiful day. It’s a wonderful place.

I left Hull on a cold, gray, rainy English morning at 5am, and arrived in beautiful, clear-skied Copenhagen. A city so beautiful that it’s reflected in every person there.

The Danes are wearing black clothing, with some festive gray and white thrown in, and sunglasses that prevent their pale faces from fully being seen. Not all of them are super tall, but many of them tower over this rather short American, a hybrid descendent of only stocky European stock, with no Vikings in the family tree.

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you knew I’d work Hong Kong in somehow, even when it’s a story about Copenhagen

Smiles everywhere. By scientific measures, this is the “happiest” city on earth, and it truly shows. (This year, for the first time, Copenhagen was surpassed by a city in Paraguay. And according to North Korea, Pyongyang is happier than anywhere else, under penalty of death no doubt.)

Everyone is friendly, calm, and sagacious. They speak several languages fluently, and effortlessly glide back and forth between them. They’re all engineers or scientists who decided to become baristas, or sailors, or political science students with grand plans to work in Israel and climb the Himalayas.

Copenhagen is a city in a bubble. I say this because it is so pleasant, it feels fake. But not in the glitzy Las Vegas-meets-Miami Beach-with-a-dash-of-Dubai style. It just doesn’t seem possible an island in the cold North Sea, as far north as Glasgow, that should by all rights be bleak and inhospitable, can be so nice.

The guy at the hot dog stand speaks English perfectly, even though he’s a random street vendor in a random part of a city that has its own unique dialect. Danish-style hotdogs are vastly superior to what we have, like a mix of Italian sausage and apple-smoked breakfast sausages, served with pickles, (Denmark always does smell of the ocean, cigarettes and pickles) and a dab of onions, mustard, and ketchup served on a hot fresh hard roll. Delicious.

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I finally met up with my friend, and he showed off his wonderful city, from the beautiful buildings to the waterfront, where you feel like you’re on the edge of the world.

Copenhagen is situated on an island, closer to Malmo Sweden than to other cities of Denmark. And, perhaps due to this relative isolation, the city feels trapped in time. No one is in a hurry, though they move quickly and get things done fast. There is no sense of stress you find in large cities, just sensibility and calmness. People are relaxed to an almost lulling degree. And to me, it felt fragile, and knowing its history I can see why it has been conquered or occupied a few times, it seems like a place like this can’t handle stresses, though it clearly has survived and thrived.

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Denmark is clearly not a model for the U.S., for many reasons, but if we modeled our cities on Copenhagen, I think America could see some vast improvements. Infrastructure was great (even though their roads freeze, just the same as in my homeland, the pot-holed and crumbling Upstate NY). Everyone is educated (America, step up your education game), and everyone seemed stress-free, despite talk of a depressed economy.

When I first arrived, I walked through the “ghetto”, really a bohemian area with lots of African immigrants, sex shops, places selling various apparatuses for smoking pot (legal in one square mile district of Denmark called Christiania). And yet, I didn’t get the vibe you get when you quickly duck through those parts of an American city. Walking alone in an area where I didn’t speak the language, carrying my camera and backpack, I’d be an easy target. But I didn’t feel alarmed in the slightest. There are many parts of the US, where I’ve felt uneasy just driving through.

IMG_5813This safe, nurturing environment makes Denmark so great.

My fondest memory from the very brief time I spent there was nothing to do with the many amazing tourist sites my expert guide took me to, but rather three brief moments. The first was when my friend told me to try a Tuborg beer, his favorite and only found in Denmark. His eyes lit up as I tried it, and I could see he was very excited to share a bit of his culture with me. That connection, just one can of good beer, to a place he wanted to share affected me.

But my favorite thing (and I loved everything about this city) was getting the famous pork sandwich of Copenhagen. The city for so long depended on the sea for food, but years of overfishing by other Europeans (ahem, England and Russia) and American fleets depleted the number of fish that could be sustainably harvested. So, left with two options, continuing to deplete a battered-down population of northern fish and pay hefty fees for the privilege of eating them, or go to the southwest of the country to the pig farms, the Danes chose pork. The pork sandwich was proof that some higher power exists. Crispy pork, red cabbage, pickles, some mysterious unnamed sauce, a leaf of lettuce and a crispy yet soft warm bread roll made this the best thing I’ve eaten (save for dim sum and barbecue ribs) ever. Just getting to try the “best” pork sandwich in Denmark, which I’d never find otherwise, was an exalted experience usually only known by the locals.

I loved that about Denmark, I just arrived and felt like I belonged there. I was clearly an outsider (though one drunk girl approached me speaking rapid fire Danish, apparently thinking the guy with the camera and map was a local who could tell her how to find a nightclub rather than his very Danish-looking friend) and yet they made me feel welcome. It was like I just walked into the city and they were like: oh yeah, we’ve been waiting for you, now let’s go.

I became a local in Hong Kong in a few weeks (in some parts), acclimated to my college campus in Maryland after a semester, and never felt at home in Hull. But when I came to this place, it was the most instantaneous and seamless transition. Very magical.

My Danish friend and I ended our time together by going to a “brown bar”. This is one of the only places in Denmark where smoking indoors is allowed, and my friend and his friend Rune who joined us both smoke a pack a day. I don’t like smoking, but the windows were open and despite the huge crowds there was room for everyone. We played Danish pool, actually billiards, which has its own alien rules, but it was fun.

What struck me about that bar, was, in my haste to win the game (which I did to my amazement), I bumped into a guy and spilled his drink all over him. Maybe it was my two Danish friends standing behind me who are six foot three and former military firemen, but he didn’t start a fight. He realized it was just a mistake, I bought him a new beer and we shook hands. In a British pub you’d be looking for your teeth on the ground and I’m familiar with the American “tough guy” (read that as: insecure punk trying to prove himself in a juvenile cult of masculinity) drinking culture to know that wouldn’t have been the case at home. Even when he’s had a Carlsberg poured down his leather jacket and a thwack in the chest from a pool cue, he was still friendly (it probably didn’t hurt that at that moment, he was doing quite well in chatting up a French girl).

A trivial incident, just a spilled beer — but proof that the Danish and their “no worries”, relaxed, and in-control nature can make us re-think our “American way of life”. We can still learn a lot from our old world friends.

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