Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Come to the land of the ice and snow...

I’m a little behind in my travel updates. We’ve been to a few places in the last month or so and if you were to ask me at this moment in time if I want to go to Paris on Friday...I’d say no. I feel like I’ve been rode hard and put away wet. I’m just plum tired. I feel like I don’t ever want to get on another (Ryanair) plane again. But this week is for resting up, figuring out how we’re going to get the money to rebuild our house, rallying for the next plane ride, and trying to catch up on the blog. So, in the spirit of catching up...here’s a little taste of our recent trip to Norway:

Top Five Fave – Norway style

Floyd was inspired to book this trip for us because, at the time, he was planning a trip to the homeland of his people (Hungary) and we thought it would be interesting to go to the homeland of my people. My people? Who in the hell are my people? You see, I’m a complete mutt. I’ve got just about every low-rent, trashy-Euro bloodline lurking in my woodpile…and then some. But, for some reason, the Norwegian line has always intrigued me. Unfortunately, there was no time for a little genealogical research before our trip to find out which icy, remote, barren corner my people had come from. But it didn’t matter, because as soon as I got off that plane I felt like I was among “my people”...mi gente. I can’t explain why really. I think it had to do with the way they carried themselves and the order in which they seemed to conduct their lives. I sensed a low-key simplicity, an unenthusiastic optimism, a comfort with themselves, and a smirk. I felt immediately at home in a place where the language was wholly unfamiliar and I knew no one. It was interesting. So, aside from being amongst "my people", these are the things that smoked my cod.

1. The fjords. Fortunately, we talked to some friends before our trip and when we told them we were going to Norway they said, “…ah, so you’ll be going to see the fjords…” emmm…yyyyea…. Despite the fact that we were flying out the following afternoon we hadn’t even made a hotel reservation in Oslo, let alone thought about making forays into the hinterlands. So we immediately got online and, by the miracle of the internet, booked a trip to the fjords for the following day.

After traveling by overnight train, and then another train, oh, and then a bus, we stumbled out at Gudvangen where we boarded a ferry that runs along the Naeroyfjorden. This small fjord and surrounding crags are listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, which is a much-venerated designation. It means that it’s been recognized as one of the coolest things in the world. And those judicious fellas over at the UNESCO building have called it yet once again. For it was, truly, one of the coolest things in the world. The granite slips out of the icy waters and goes straight up to neck-straining heights, co-mingling with the stratosphere. The craggy tops of these peaks are softened with deep snow, while the massive, waterfalls are frozen in time, clinging to the cliffs, and the infrequent shores are home to a scattering of self-reliant people that must get pretty darn nervous at the sound of cracking ice. Save for the puttering of the small ferry, the occasional snort of a seal, and the tittering of the Chinese tourists, it was silent. It was easy for us to feel like we were close to the edge of the world out there.

2. Cool train rides. I love trains. I love not having to drive and trains are so different from the bus. Trains are usually on time, they have lots of legroom, they have snack cars, and they rarely smell like pee. I love trains. We took two particularly wonderful train rides in Norway. One was an overnight train, my first ever, from Oslo to Bergen. I was absolutely giddy in our sleeper car and going to sleep to the gentle rocking and “click-clack…click-clack” was like a lullaby.

Then we had an entirely different train experience when we took the Flamsbana, or Flam Railway, from Flam to Myrdal. This is a very short train ride, about 20km...45 minutes or so, but incredibly dramatic. I grabbed a little brochure when we got off the train but, as I just realized, it’s in nine languages, none of which I am even remotely familiar with (Bulgarian, Finnish, Dutch, Polish, Hungarian, Korean, Thai and Chinese-both traditional and simple). So, according to the Polish translation (since I was just in Poland this last weekend), this train ride is notable for the following reasons: 20.20 km dlugosc (distance?), 863.5m roznica poziomow (gain in elevation?), and 55% or 1:18 maksymakne nachylenie (average grade?)…I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Totally steep...totally treacherous...totally cool. Even better was the fact that we took the trip at dusk and it made for a very serene and haunted landscape with the deep snow drifts, scattered lantern-lit cottages, and the melding of sky and horizon. It seemed such a quiet and lonely landscape. Beautiful.

3. The Viking Ship Museum. These are real live Viking ships (boats really) that were dug out of a few farm fields between the mid 19th century and the early 20th century. It is estimated these ships were constructed between 815-890 A.D.... like almost 1,200 years ago (almost as old as I feel somedays). Because of the anaerobic conditions of most of their below-ground sanctuaries these boats, and the things that were buried with them, are still amazingly intact (unlike those of us that cannot survive in such anaerobic conditions). Interestingly, these boats were used as burials for very important people, one was a queen of some sort...another a king, and they were buried with their most important possessions, such as buckets, horses, and servants. Basically all of the things they would need in their next life. The graves had been plundered a long long time ago, so there weren’t any gold or jewels, but they do provide an amazing insight into what these folks’ lives were like way back when. I love old textiles and some of these survived as well, looking no worse really than some of my clothes, having been washed in an Irish washing machine for the last couple years. Amazing.

4. The Kon-Tiki Museum. Does anybody else remember Thor Heyerdahl and the Voyage of the Ra? Well, it was a really big deal to me when I was a kid and going to this museum was like a pilgrimage for me. Thor Heyerdahl was this Norwegian guy that wanted to prove that trans-oceanic crossings would’ve been possible with ancient boat-building and navigation technologies. In 1947 Thor worked with South Americans to construct a craft (a raft really) of nine balsa logs and sailed it from Peru to Polynesia in 101 days and then, in the late 60s-early 70s, working with people from Africa and Bolivia that had maintained the traditional art of reed boat-building, Thor and gang built the Ra I, which didn’t make it, and the Ra II, which successfully made the journey from Morocco to Barbados in 57 days. Pretty amazing stuff actually. Real adventure stories. I was obsessed with his books when I was a kid so it was no less than a really big deal to find myself at the museum, staring at the actual boats that made the journeys. Maybe comparable to seeing Huck Finn’s raft...I don’t know. Floyd took lots of pictures of me as I moved through the exhibit. I think he thought it was cute how it moved me to tears.

5. Vigelandsparken. Gustav Vigeland was a Norwegian sculptor that lived from 1869-1943. The Norwegians loved his stuff so the government commissioned him to design a fountain in an existing park. The project slowly grew in scope and, ultimately, he had designed 192 life-size sculptures for the park.

Each sculpture, by itself, would be worthy of some level of contemplation but, combined with all the others, it describes the common relationships, experiences, struggles, understanding, and joys that we all share...or at least that’s what I got out of it.

His sculpture of the old woman holding the young woman made me think about my Grandma, his sculptures of men and women embracing or playing made me think about my happiness with Floyd, and his sculptures of parents with children made us think about our future. Not real deep stuff, but it’s kind of nice to not have to think real hard to “get it”. It’s like art that just washes over you. It’s probably not going to change your life or the way you look at the world, but it’ll certainly make you smile…or cry. And that’s OK too.

...and let's not forget Edvard Munch-style ketchup bottle. It was a "scream" (ha).