Norway, Telemark, travel

Driving in Norway-The Telemark and the Land of the Imagination

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DSC07692For those unfamiliar with Norway and it’s scenery, descriptions of it may seem a bit “out there”.  People tend to use the word “magical.”

 

 

And after all, almost everywhere has been described as “magical” by someone, at some time.  Especially here, within the often-imaginary world of the internet.

Even North Koreans, impervious to ridicule, advertise their Land of Make Believe as a little slice of Nirvana.

Good PR just takes a bit of imagination (“The effusions off the waste-treatment plant, back lit by the glowing fumes from the refinery next door, created a misty effect that was almost magical…”)   

 

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So when Norway is called a winter wonderland, you’ll only accept the truth of this when you witness it firsthand.

 

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“Vinter” Akseli Gallen-Kallela, 1902

 

DSC07509Well, I’m writing on the internet, you don’t know me, and you have no reason to trust me on this.  But, sorry, it really is kind of magical.  My pictures here don’t do it justice, and quite often, we just enjoyed it, and didn’t photograph it.

 

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My father used to ridicule the trees and hills in landscapes by Asian artists.  He thought they looked absurd, like illustrations by an opium-addicted Dr. Seuss.  That is, he says, until he saw Japanese gardens and bonsai in real life, and photographs of the karst mountains in China’s Guangixi Zhuang region, and realized the Asians weren’t following some weird artistic license, but were painting these fantastical sights because that is simply how they actually look, misty and bizarre.

DSC07691There are mountains in Norway like this, in a way – illustrations from a storybook.

 

 

 

And that is how this outdoor story of Norwegian mountains begins — indoors, in the city of Oslo, with some storybook pictures. 

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“Palace – Soria Moria Castle” Theodor Kittlesen, 1900

 

Oslo is a a very pleasant city, and very beautiful in parts, but it’s never been one of “The European Capitals” on the Grand Tour that draw flocks of fervent American tourists, like Amsterdam, Paris, or Rome.  These are cities with Romance in their names.

Or at least, Paris has the romance thing, and the other two have pot and pasta, close runners-up.  (Is it a bad sign that I think of pasta as a close runner-up to romance?)  London and Berlin may be Europe’s most important capitals, and Prague and Budapest have amazing architecture, but Oslo is undoubtedly in the most beautiful setting, nestled among mountains full of pine trees and beautiful water.

 

DSC07345The city’s harbor is clean and handsome, and the nation’s waters are among the purest in the world (tied with Finland, Sweden, and Iceland — no surprise, I think these are wise people).  You can see ski-slopes from downtown.

 

 

 

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What prompted us to leave the city was a visit to the National Gallery.  It is much, much smaller than the Louvre or the Prado, the palatial, overwhelming showcases of Paris and Madrid.  Oslo’s collection is far more modest, and the building definitely not palatial.  When we walked up to it, it looked to be a disappointment — a dull, almost industrial-looking building– we could have been at a typical city museum in the U.S. rust belt.  It turned out to be well worth a visit.  Oslo displays a modest, but still excellent, collection of Impressionists.  And of course, a lot of works by Edvard Munch – some communicating dark moods, sadness, despair.  Hanging on the wall for a century, they should be harmless, but still seemed baleful and disturbing.

"And then they heard a noise..."

“Afraid of the Dark”  Gerhard Munthe, 1906

And then a real stroke of luck.  The current exhibition was “The Magic North” — Norwegian artists and illustrators, and it seemed to have drawn in a crowd not of tourists, but locals.  A fantastic showcase of fantasy, talent and imagination.

 

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“It Snows, It Snows” Theodor Kittelsen, 1903.

Wonderful paintings of nature, Norse mythology, folk and fairy tales, legends of trolls… as well as a large picture of some lumpy and very bluish mountains, which seemed to keep drawing the attention of the natives. I was critical of this painting, thinking the lumps of mountain looked childishly drawn. As my father had felt about the trees and mountains in Asian paintings, I would come to feel about the blue mountains.

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“Winter  Night in the Mountains” Harald Sohlberg, 1914

Having sworn to take only day-trips out of Oslo, on their excellent trains, we now decided to rent a car.  We had to go find the countryside depicted in those paintings.  Our rental was a Volkswagen, a model not sold in the U.S., called a “Polo.”  (It is tiny.  A sticker on the dash warned us against running the radio and headlights simultaneously.  Another notice suggested limiting passengers to one, and no baggage, when driving on roads with grades exceeding five percent.)

The car rental office had no maps available, and was staffed only by Swedes for some reason, who could tell us nothing about the Telemark, apparently did not drive, and thought it sounded like an odd idea for anyone to rent a car and drive there.  But we rented a GPS unit and off we went.

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DSC07545The Telemark is a region known for it’s natural beauty and its lack of development — if you’re a New Yorker, it’s similar to the Adirondacks, except on a larger scale.  Norway’s total population is only five million, with 1 million concentrated in the Oslo area, so there’s a lot of fairly empty spaces in this country.

 

 

 

So, we set out in our tiny car, chosen in part because this oil-rich country has obscenely expensive gasoline, and not thinking to spring for something with four-wheel drive and snow tires.  We had a tiny map, also, from our guidebook, which lead us to believe, that if we got lost, we were sure to get our bearings by hitting either the Swedish border, or the Atlantic Ocean.

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IMG_0839What struck me first was how well everyone drove.  Unlike Americans, the Norwegians seem to follow laws, and not use cars to express frustration or machismo, making driving there safe and pleasant.  Outside of the capitol district, a lot of the roads were small, and sometimes bumpy.  Very quickly the countryside reminded us of a largely unsettled frontier, with deep woods, unnamed (as far as we knew) lakes, and rapid shifts  in weather, which I thought made the region seem even more mystical.

 

 

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DSC07545We stopped at a famous “stave” church, from 1204.   These stave churches are like no other church you’ve ever seen, not suggesting Christianity somehow, and a bit eerie and unearthly-looking, more suited for a mead hall for Odin and Thor.  So that was an almost unsettling starting place to begin our journey into the mountains.

 

 

 

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DSC07680At first, we stopped along a dam where we walked in some beautiful woods, with little snow, although very icy trails.  The mountains were far off, so the natural element of Norway felt pristine but rather familiar and American, even if the trees were different. But as we neared the mountains, I knew I wasn’t home anymore.

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Suddenly, before my eyes, were the same lumpish blue mountains that I had silently ridiculed in the art museum. They looked exactly the same, only much bigger. And colder.  Even though the mountains were only in the six to eight thousand foot range (which is still bigger than Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks), they were imposing and huge, with the countryside dominated by them.  I did not take a picture.  I don’t know why.

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DSC07704I’ve been in the Adirondacks and Catskills (getting an impressive vibe from the former, and always feeling a bit uneasy in the latter, as if feeling haunted by the old Dutch spirits) and I’ve spent a bit of time in the Wasatch Range in Utah.  I have even had the good fortune to ride a narrow gauge railroad up to Silverton, Colorado, right through the most beautiful scenery I have ever laid eyes on, with pristine mountain lakes and dense evergreen forests, juxtaposed against impossibly clear mountain streams and cool temperatures, next to the giant Rocky Mountains. Still, the Rockies felt less imposing, and there was some sort of sensation generated by the Norse mountains that made them feel very ancient, far older than the rocks in Colorado.

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At once, I felt like I was in a fairy tale, in an adventure story, one of the old Norse sagas perhaps. Danger, excitement and beauty and calm all descended on me. The drive was so gorgeous, with tiny winding,empty roads going by mountain lakes and forests.  Arriving at a pull off, we could see a large lake and hiked up the mountain overlooking it, in the very snowy woods. Up until that point, we’d seen no snow in Norway, making the mountains seem all the more magical.

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Soon, we were walking in woods which apparently were full of moose.  We didn’t encounter any, but their hoof prints and droppings were everywhere.

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Back down the mountain and we returned to driving, a bit unsure of where exactly we’d fetched up on the tiny map.  The GPS was switched on, but had become delusional, possibly treacherous in the cold, or perhaps, far from Oslo, had developed a death wish, trying for hundreds of kilometers to send us back farther and farther north.

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It began to get darker, and we could see streams of ice crystals blowing over the mountain at the head of the valley.

 

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The beautiful countryside, beautiful but starkly empty. faded as the light disappeared and the temperature dropped.  The roads had been clear, but were now drifting over in places, and we drove on packed ice.  Our tiny Volkswagen, not a rugged car and without snow tires, suddenly felt too small and scary as we drove by lakes frozen over, snow piled six feet high or higher and blowing towards us, as we passed buried trees, summer houses, cars, and bodies of water.  The engine seemed to be making a bit more of a high-pitched whine.  What appeared to be abandoned ski centers were the only marks on the map, which was  becoming less and less helpful.

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“The Ash Lad and the Wolf” Theodor Kittelsen, 1900

The way back was the most terrifying, driving alongside dark lakes with no cabins or lights, through the same mountains where people died in an avalanche only the week or so before. I was feeling elated the entire time, my dad not so much.  I was pumped to be seeing this preternatural wintery and rocky landscape, that seemed straight out of Middle Earth. Had the varied and exotic locale of New Zealand not been used for the Hobbit movies, Norway could’ve done a fine job, at least for most of the scenes.  At some point, we took a turn into what appeared to be an alpine Christmas village, and saw welcome signs of human life, except the roads had only a few ski junkies roaring down the road in hulking four-wheel drives, and we began to feel hopelessly out of place and lost.

 

IMG_0401Taking the next turn took us back away from any other cars or lights, on a narrow, dark road through forests.  Passing the mountains, now just black shapes in the dark, and alongside dark bodies of water, I knew that we were in a fantasy realm, no place on earth is actually like this. Suddenly, I could understand the Norse monster stories.  In an earlier era of superstition, violence, and illuminated only by firelight casting eerie shadows, it was easy to imagine things that didn’t exist. Trolls living in the hills could seem very real.  And the very real creatures, moose and elk, also posed a danger. An enormous pair of moose waded out of the snow to cross right in front of us, and had we not slowed for a sharp turn and a narrow bridge, we’d have hit those massive beasts.  Who would probably have been fine, while we would have turned to raspberry jam in our little tin can.

 

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DSC07516Magic is all based on perception of the audience. In this case, I was a true believer. There was life in these old hills and rocks; the dark  pristine lakes held secrets.  The Norse sagas materialized before my eyes. Even the quiet, intense austere nature of the local people supported the perception that we were in a storybook land and time. It was in Norway that I came to believe in the magic of travel. This trip  seemed to be more of an adventure than my other trips, even ones when I was alone, due to this drive into nowhere.

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Every fantasy and mythology story I’ve read seems to describe Norway.  While I’ve not ridden a camel across the Arabian peninsula, or hiked in Tibet, motorcycled across Vietnam, or bungee-jumped off a TV tower,  I drove in mountains straight out of Narnia, on roads too narrow for more than one vehicle, bounded by massive drifts of snow, with moose in the hills and spirits in the crags and dales. This trip, already fantastic, and ending in equally stunning and interesting locales later on, was highlighted most by this adventure. By the end, after nearly falling asleep when supposed to be navigating, and then talking about a great deal of things, my Dad and I both started laughing. A close call, with death, fatigue, or just being lost in an alien landscape can turn into something humorous. It was. We laughed the rest of the way home (to Oslo) where we finally turned in, exhausted but satisfied.

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History, Norway, travel

Halden, Norway. The Frontier.

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With a craggy coastline stretching for a huge distance (in the far north, it reaches around the top of Sweden to touch Finland, a bit of Russia, and the Arctic Ocean), Norway is a land that is never too far from water.  There are always boats and ships in sight along the coast.  In an Oslo museum, you can visit beautiful Viking longships,  over a thousand years old.  And a century ago, this small country had the fourth-largest merchant fleet in the world.  Even today, while its ships are not as numerous as, say,  Greece or China/Hong Kong, it is still a major player.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Oslo while I was on break from Washington College, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a few blocks from the Chester River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland is also lots and lots of coastline — nearly sliced in half by the Chesapeake, and basically a fifth of the state is water.

But there were many times in Maryland that I felt far from the ocean or the bay, blocked by the masses of suburban housing and traffic congestion that seem to define life in the “Mid-Atlantic” states.

In Norway, whose entire population is about the same as Colorado, there is often no one between you and the ocean. Even when you are away from the coast, the sea feels accessible. All rivers run down to it, and even in the mountains you still feel close to the ocean somehow — there is nothing between you and the coastline but pastures, unblemished forests full of wildlife, and cold fresh water on its way to the sea.

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DSC08015On a day trip out of Oslo, we followed the coast of the Oslofjord southward, to the town of Halden.

While not as beautiful or awe-inspiring as the Fjords further North, the region is still gorgeous, mountains and sea, especially to someone who grew up in a pretty flat stretch of Upstate New York, among ponds and lakes, and tiny sand hills dumped by retreating glaciers .

Halden is on the Swedish border, and to me, it felt like a land on the edge of a frontier.

I’ve visited the western United States, and gone through some pretty flea-bitten border towns in New Mexico and Arizona. While at one point those old mining spots were “frontier towns,” I never felt like I was on the edge of anything, save for insanity, as you could only stare at a seemingly endless expanse of desert, between you and the Mexican border.

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In Halden, I felt like I was on the edge of the world, which is an odd feeling, since it isn’t actually on the ocean. In fact, Hong Kong, where I’d just spent six months, was more geographically “on the edge” than Halden, existing on the edge of the sea, and on the edge of the Chinese mainland, literally and figuratively.

But even in the “wilderness”areas around HK’s New Territories, the woods were always crowded with people. Halden, initially, felt a bit like a Old West town in the Rocky Mountains — a small city huddled between some impressive mountains.

Walking up the steep hill towards the massive Fredriksten Festning (Fortress), close to sunset, I knew I was in a place quite unlike any I’d ever been before.

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This fortress is old. It saw combat, sieges, and watched over the city for ages from its hilltop. Looking out from its walls, there was so much to see, in every direction, especially the beautiful fjord and canal glistening at sundown, while the city’s lights slowly turned on.

I’ve only seen the Mediterranean during three days in Malaga, but I felt like I might almost have arrived in Greece, with little houses all around the watery and rocky cityscape, lights coming on, ships tying up in the harbor, small cars quietly driving around. Looking down, the train station was quite small, but the railroad yard looked really impressive from atop the hill.

 

 

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On top of the fortress ramparts (literally, on top, since unlike the US, they had no safety rails, and few warning signs) it felt like we were on the edge of a strange, different land. Indeed, Norway doesn’t quite seem to belong to this planet.

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Even Hong Kong, with its alien ways and unearthly smells and sounds, seemed more American and familiar than did Norway, once we’d left Oslo. Norway really seemed like a country from a bygone era, or perhaps an alternative “Middle Earth”. Had Peter Jackson not filmed the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand (perhaps the only place on earth more extraordinary than Norway) the land of the Norsemen could easily have filled the role, with its fortress towns fitting the mood perfectly.

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I loved that the Norwegians, unlike the American bureaucrats running parks and sites, believe people are intelligent enough to look out for themselves, and decide where they can walk or climb. Wandering around the old walls, after sundown, after the last sunset-viewers and dog-walkers had gone, we had the entire place to ourselves. There were few lights, no ugly chain-link fences, no trespass signs, no assumption that you’re incapable of looking out for yourself, that you’re sure to stumble and immediately blame and sue someone.

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We walked by the spot where a king of Sweden had died trying to storm this place — and here we were, a couple of flatlander peasants, with free run of the fortress – incredible — cobbled streets, arched gateways, crumbling barracks, powder magazines and walls, and old rusty cannons.

If we could just pry the old gates shut, we’d be like little boys playing “king of the hill.”  My father sighted along the barrels of old cannons and reported:  “Gun #1 – we could hit the train station.  No, we’ll need that to get back to Oslo.  Gun#2 – take out a kebab shop?  No, it’s late, we’re hungry, it may be the only thing open when we go down.  (Good decision, it was).   He remembered an old Steely Dan song “Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night…”  We used the little lights on our cellphones to peer into dank stone rooms within the fortress walls.

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It is a commonplace observation, to talk of the lasting impression made by violence upon a blood-soaked battlefield – – but this place seems to have made its peace a long time ago.  It felt nothing but peaceful and great.

This world felt like the true frontier and it fascinated me like no other place I’ve been.

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Looking down at the little city, as more of the slope below us disappeared into the dark, I felt as if I could run down the fort’s high and rocky precipice, straight into the vast waters of the fjords, and out into the sea.

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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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