Archive for the ‘Scandinavia 2009’ Category


Norway 6. Ålesund. Jugendstil.

July 1, 2009.

[ The following is the final installment from my perhaps-too-lengthy notes on a recent trip to Scandinavia.]

I’m sitting on a stoop in sunny Ålesund near a canal. The buildings in this neighborhood are in Scandinavian takes on the Art Nouveau style, more commonly called Jugendstil here. The style happened to be in fashion in 1904, when the town burnt to the ground and was rebuilt over just a few years.

Nothing much on the agenda for our final two days—just wander around this pretty town. My credit card has stopped working—I guess the bankers are suspicious about the run of charges emanating from Denmark and Norway. But I don’t feel like phoning up the Empire’s bureaucracy to (maybe) straighten this out. Meanwhile my bank card is still able to extract kroner from the ATMs—which they call mini-banks here.

I’m in a bakery—I just had the best piece of pastry in years, a dry mille-feuille puff croissant wrapped around almond paste. To intensify the sensation, I pushed the whole second half into my mouth at once, then fell choking to the floor, knocking over my table and my chair—just kidding about that last part.


[Art Nouveau cover for a book by Norwegian polar explorer Amundsen.]

A baby in a carriage beside me is topped by the mound of a cotton-covered feather-bed comforter. All of the beds here have these fat comforters and no top-sheets or blankets. Given the unusual heat during our stay—70 or even 80 Fahrenheit—we’re hot at night, steaming in the midnight sun. Last night I saw the sunrise at 2 a.m. They have posters around town that mention the latitude—I think it’s 62 degrees.

Quite a few of the Norwegian women have platinum blonde hair, fine and nearly white—I’m not sure I’ve ever seen women with this as their natural hair color. Some of the Norwegian blondes are punks with cropped hair, pigtails and tattoos. Others, more traditional, wear their forelocks in braids that they wrap around their brows in an old-school braid-crown. The Norwegian babies are tender and so fair.

We were just in the library for some free email on their machines. It’s fun going into the public buildings of a town.

We walked around the shopping streets—with lovely Art Nouveau facades—but the insides of the buildings have been merged and hollowed out to hold an—aaack— mall that’s very nearly isomorphic to the Valley Fair mall in San Jose, only with H & M as their anchor store instead of Macy’s. But, ah, they do have that celestial bakery at the outer edge. I notice another pastry now—a cake with whipped cream reddened by cherries—they call it bloot cake, for “blood cake.”

We tour the Jugendstil Sentrum (Art Nouveau Center), and see an interesting slide show about Baltic and Scandinavia versions of this international style—it was big in Finland as a means to express a romantic nationalism directed against Russian dominance. I bet something like Art Nouveau will be big again, when advanced tech and new materials make possible a return to custom craftsmanship. The museum spoke of this one Jugendstil room as a work of “total art,” in which every detail is designed to act as a voice in the ecstatic chorus of the whole.

Looming over the town is one of those fat cruise starships that we saw before, The Jewel of the Sea, filled with alien invaders of a sort, that is, my fellow countrymen. This morning they tied up at a wharf a block from our hotel.

“I’m not one of them,” said the bespectacled, well-heeled alien, his face suspiciously tan and un-Norwegian. “My wife and I came here on public transport from Alpha Centauri, just like you natives do.”

“Oorck!” cried the rabble of pale street urchins surrounding the intruder. “Oorck, Oorck!” The first stone struck the alien square upon the forehead. He tottered and fell…

I bought a souvenir Norwegian wool cap, absurdly overpriced, but one of a kind (I’d like to think). It has tassels on it.

Tomorrow we go home, we already scoped out the spot where the airport busses leave. It’s a little sad to see the vacation end. I would have liked to visit Stockholm as well—but my legs and body are cumulatively fatigued after two and a half weeks of touring, also it feels like time to halt the gushing outflow of cash.

It’s been great. Takk for alt.

Norway 5. Geiranger. Cliff Hike. Kvak!

[ The following is the second-to-last installment from my notes on a recent trip to Scandinavia.]

June 30, 2009.

We took a regular bus from Fjaerland to Hellesylt, and then a ferry from Hellesylt to Geiranger. I was anxious about catching the bus, but it was on time to the second, and very comfortable inside. Great views as we labored over the ridges separating one fjord from the next. In many stretched the road was what we’d call one-lane, although it had traffic in both directions. The busses and cars would pull over for each other at times.

The cruise from Hellesylt to Geiranger really takes the prize. We saw dozens of really big cataracts—any one of which would be a major sight back in the continental US—and here they’re lined up on both sides of the fjord, writhing down the tree-studded cliffs that are several thousand feet high.

Abandoned farms perch on some of the nearly vertical meadows—what kind of maniac build his farm in a place like that?

Sore hip or not, I managed to hike to the top of a thousand foot bluff this morning. It felt like being back in Zermatt. I saw lots of ferns and rushing streams. The trees are mostly aspens. Some bell-collared sheep were in the thickets, peering suspiciously at me. And at the top, goats lolled with gratifying recklessness at the very edge of a towering drop. On the way back, I walked along the edge of a field, quite lovely with a barn and a cliff in the background.

The exercise made me happy, and I started singing a song that I heard on the Mickey Mouse Club show forty years ago, a song about Donald Duck’s global fame. The song, as I recall it, was presented in what may well have been a Norwegian accent. “Kvak kvak kvak, Donald Duck, watch him do his stuff. Kvak kvak kvak, Donald Duck, now he’s had enough.” I videoed myself performing this number.

Now I’m limp and tired from the hike. Waiting on the dock for a lighter for the large Hurtigruten ship, which we plan to board for a five hour ride up the length of this fjord to the city of Ålesund.


[Those tiny dots by the top railing are people!]

People are pouring off the lighters from a repellently gargantuan cruise ship called “The Jewel of the Sea,” truly the size of a starship—then flocking directly to a waiting line of tour buses. From the outside, it looks as if going on a cruise tour means doing everything in a crowd, with lots of standing in line. But it’s easier, I’m sure, than freelancing the trip, and for some people just the right thing.

I may go on a cruise myself one of these days, especially when I’m older and less mobile. Today in any case we’re riding a more reasonably-sized Hurtigruten mothership to Ålesund.

Great excitement riding the lighter to the Hurtigruten ship. A hatch in the big ship’s hull opens for us at water level, and we enter via a gang plank. It’s so spaceship-like, just like Han Solo landing in a hatch of the giant ship in Star Wars. One deck up was a desk like at a hotel, the “Resepsjon.” Now we’re in the panoramic view lounge on Deck 8, very comfortable, and this particular cruise ship isn’t looking so bad from the inside.

As we approach the mouth of the fjord, the view opens up to resemble the coastline of, say, Maine or Vancouver, with low islands and peninsulas on every side. But vaster, mistier, and calmer than anything I’ve seen before. The Happy Isles, the Blessed Lands of the far north.

Norway 4. Fjaerland. Twilight Zone.

[ The following is another installment from my notes on a recent trip to Scandinavia.]

June 29, 2009.

Today we got a boat from Balestrand to Fjaerland, a sweet, quiet hamlet between the Fjaerland fjord and the Jostalbreen glacier, which is the largest in Europe.

When Sylvia and I got off the ferry to Fjaerland, it felt like an episode of the Twilight Zone. The other passengers on our boat all got into a tour bus that had ridden in the ferry. They drove off, leaving us alone, in this utterly silent and deserted Sunday morning Norwegian village, the fjord beside us and snow-capped mountains all around.

Anything I say feels superficial, overly dramatic, here in the core of this uncanny beauty. I feel like a fly on a freshly frosted cake.

Sylvia had been talking about finding a book to read so, lo and behold, there’s an unmanned shelf of books by the road, with a sign reading “Honest Books, 10 Kr. each.” We’re both wearing shades, very Californian. I light a cigarette, I’m a noisy wise-guy, the tour bus grinds by, I wave, nobody seems to see me.

True to Twilight Zone style, I imagine myself as a city clicker in a black suit, and my consort as a sexy blonde on spike heels, our voices overly loud amid the silent mountains.


[Part of the porch of the Hotel Mundal appears on the left.]

The Hotel Mundal is the size of a large house, vintage 1891, with a fresh-faced young woman at the desk, perhaps from the founder’s family.

Across the street is a wooden church. Some first names in the churchyard across the street form our little hotel: Gurid, Ingvald, Ingebrigt, Ola, Kjell, Ola, Mikkel, Anggar, Brynhild. There’s a Swanhild Aarskog.

Many of the gravestones bear the epitaph, “Takk for Alt,” meaning “Thanks for Everything,” some just say Takk. I love that.

What a great sentiment with which to leave the world. “Thanks for everything, world, it’s been great—you really went all out.” And forget about any bitter rant like, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” Go out happy. Why not?

Life’s rich panoply. I’m so grateful that I made it here.

The second day I rent a bike and ride up the canyon, nobody in sight for miles. At one point a single vehicle drives by: a blue tractor. I pass a bridge too rickety to walk upon.

In the evening an older woman, the manager of the hotel, tells us about its history.

She mentions that a few months ago a farm’s concrete reservoir of cow manure had burst uphill, releasing a kind of a poo-avalanche that swept past the hotel and into the fjord. No sign of that now.

In the front yard of the hotel is a vertical stone plinth, like a mini-version of that 2001 slab, covered not with writing, bit with (seemingly) lichen-like spots. Suppose that the spots are glyphs in the Unknown Tongue used by the Great Old Ones who live beneath the placid surface of the fjord.

Thinking back to our arrival in terms of a Twilight Zone episode, I imagine that the woman finds a book with curious blotches and symbols. It’s called God Bøk, which is Norwegian for Good Book.

“Is this math?” she asks, flipping through the pages. Her consort is a mathematician, she’s a linguist.

Suppose that the bursting of the cow-poo reservoir was orchestrated by the Great Old Ones? Too ludicrous maybe. Perhaps it would be more commercial to have a moonlit clearing with the proposed human sacrifice of a beautiful Norwegian girl, a sacrifice blocked by the woman heroine, with her man’s aid—they have power because they’ve deciphered the blotch-runes on the stele by using the God Bøk.

Norway 3. Balestrand, Norway. Dreamscape.

[ The following is another installment from my travel journals, written during a recent trip to Norway.]

June 26-27. 2009.

This morning we took a boat from Flåm to Balestrand, a slightly larger resort spot. The boat left at 6 a.m., but, in a way, this didn’t feel that early, as by then the sun had been up for hours and hours.

Riding the boat up the Sognefjord, I was sitting in a plastic chair on the back deck, still sleepy, and I closed my eyes to rest. I became aware of all the air currents around me—flapping my trouser legs, waving my several tufts of hair, buffeting my cheek, the whole atmosphere alive with currents and waves, the ocean of air all around me.

Now it’s about 9 a.m. We’re on the front porch of Kviknes Hotel, a grand old place, all wood, with endless lobbies and parlors full of vintage furniture and Norwegian impressionist paintings. Wood floors and ceilings. No cruise boats here, the nearest highway is hidden in a tunnel under the mountain behind the town, it’s utterly still.

The mountains across the fjord stand in layers, like a theater’s curtains, framing the onward path.


[Click the panoramic image of the view in photos and drawing at Balestrand to see a bigger version.]

A panoramic view of this might be easier to paint than to photograph. I’d love to have my paint kit here. Well, I’ll make a sketch. David Hockney took his watercolor kit to Norway, I just remembered, and there’s some nice fjord images in his book (and website), Hockney’s Pictures .

I can hardly believe we made it here. Living the dream.

It’s the next day, 7:40 a.m., I’m sitting on our balcony at Kviknes Hotel. As I mentioned, painters came here in the late 1800s, and a lot of their pictures are in the hotel lobbies.

There’s one mountain in particular near the hotel which appears very often. A dumpling of a mountain, a pudding with a curly top. I’m looking at it right now.

I bought a cheap bathing suit at the COOP supermarket and went swimming for a fairly long time off the steps in front of the hotel, the fjord is wide here, and much warmer than at Gudvangen. My bathing garb is one of those nasty tight little suits that you see on old men in Europe. It’s always great to be in the living water. It tastes only slightly salty, due to all the streams flowing into what is, by rights, a 150 mile long estuary of the sea. Brackish.

For the last two nights we’ve had these enormous hotel buffet dinners with, like, two dozen kinds of cured fish and dried meat as appetizers, not to mention the hot roasted or friend meats and fish—and the formidable array of puddings. Everything is yummy, but it’s binge eating—you feel stunned when you’re done. I guess this is how you eat on a cruise ship. Indeed, the Kviknes dining room feels like a ship, we sit by the window with the fjord twenty feet below.

Very quiet in this town. Two or three seagulls circle nearby squawking, just as they’ve squawked for thousands of years. Nice to think I’m hearing the same sounds as the ancients. Nobody analyzes a seagull squawk, and I don’t suppose the bird premeditates it.

“Squawk.” The critic: “But what does this squawk mean?”


[This is how the Kviknes Hotel looks from the back…at midnight. It’s never really dark at all.]

It’s good being on vacation, away from my usual concerns about my writing career. My attention is either in the ongoing Now or in the What Next, that is, in the plans for our free-form itinerary—boat to Fjaerland tomorrow, then bus to Hellesylt, boat to Geiranger and boat to Ålesund.

We’re running out of days—we’ve spent ten nights in Scandinavia, with six more to come. Precious treasure, these slow days. Each vacation day dilates, filled with new sights and experiences. At home, a week can go by before I’ve noticed. “What? It’s Sunday again?” Or even a year: “I can’t believe it’s time for Christmas.”

My left hip is hurting a lot—it’s wise to walk slowly and sit down a lot and take elevators when I can. Last year a doctor said my hip joint is deteriorating and eventually I might have it replaced. Maybe next spring? I’ll try taking the debatably efficacious glucosamine supplement pills first. In any case, the hip hurts somewhat all the time, and more if I walk all day. So I don’t feel as able to go on long hikes or on scrambles up the mountains—like I used to do. We rented a canoe yesterday, and I’ve been biking.

But today we went for it and managed a three mile walk—lovely to be up in those trees and meadows with the village and the fjord below.

On the way back from our hike, Sylvia and I happened to be walking by the tiny Balestrand harbor just at the right time to see a new ship, Stril Challenger, being christened—funny that we use so liturgical a word in this context. Apparently the ship belongs to the Havyard company, an oil-drilling outfit, and is designed for emplacing anchors for the immense off-shore oil-rigs of Norway.


[Mannequin in folk garb.]

The high-school brass band played a few numbers, including the Norwegian national anthem and Happy Birthday—the musician kids all pale-skinned blondes and redheads. An official made a short speech, a woman in a Norwegian folk dress broke a bottle of champagne against the hull, and we joined a stream of locals filing up the gangplank to look around the huge Stril Challenger. And then the ship took off for a little cruise across the fjord and back, although Sylvia and I had gotten off by then—I was unsure about how long the cruise might be.

Later, after the passengers came back, we watched as the ship cavorted around the fjord, with smaller launches buzzing around it—I think of the word, “lighter,” used to mean a smaller boat that you use to unload a barge. I like that ships use smaller boats as extensions of themselves. Imagine still smaller shuttle pods emerging from the lighters. A fractal regress of ships.

This set me to thinking about a starship launch ceremony. I imagined a great mothership ship with smaller ships circling it—the lighters. And one of the lighters darts down to a boy’s house, the lighter appears in the room of our young hero, Gunnar, to take him on a trip. As the lighter carries him off, Gunnar cries out for some precious object that he forgot—and a lower-level lighter the size of a basketball goes back to his room to scoop up the pet soft plastic robot that Gunnar calls a “shoon.”


[Sunrise at 1 a.m.]

Sitting by the fjord at the edge of the grand hotel’s green lawn. I could stay here for months. It feels like the afterlife, like heaven. The air is slightly hazy, drenched in light. The flat water, the mountain ranges doubled as reflections. We’re so lucky to be here


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