Archive for the ‘Scandinavia 2009’ Category


Norway 2. Flåm. Biking. The Narrow Fjord.

June 24-25, 2009.

Today we rode the train to Flåm—you say that funny letter like “oh”. On the ride down into the valley we passed an immense waterfall. The train stopped and a woman appeared, dancing in the distance with wavy arms, the troll-woman of the falls, I guess.

The hotels were full, but we found a stark room at the Heimly Pension, every surface covered by linoleum, a kind B&B with boarding-house food, but with an exhilarating view of the tip-ass end of the fjord. Great steep wooded cliffs plunge down into the blue-green water.

There was a cruise ship the size of a really large hotel docked here, blocking the view, roaring like an idling bus, spewing a steady plume of diesel smoke—but just now he honked for his scattered passengers and lumbered off. Sweet silence.

The next day I rented a bike and rode up into the valley, getting deep into the countryside—it was just what I wanted to see, tiny roads with farms and weird Nordic cattle, some sheep.

A wild river with rocks that had walking platforms.

A tiny church with a fresh grave for a woman with a surname the same as the village: Flåm.

In the afternoon we took a cruise up into an even narrower branch of the fjord called Naerøyfjord—leading to a spot called Gudvangen. The narrower fjords have steeper walls—in one spot we passed a sheer mass of stone that was 1800 meters tall. It’s hard really to grasp how big something like that is, in the clear air, your eyes can’t quite assess it. Sometimes we’d see a single mad farmhouse teetering on a brink—or a lone hiker, and the scene would snap into its gargantuan scale.

In most spots the fjord walls are at least partially wooded. Up above them is an undulating highland of gray-brown mountains, patchy with snow even now in midsummer. It’s like Norway has only two elevations: sea level and 1 km high, with a labyrinth of steep cliffs connecting the two.

The water from the melting snow gushes down the cliffs in streams that fall in cataracts, bedizening the precipice with white skeins, some of them free-falling for a hundred meters. One waterfall was striking a slanted rock with such force that a steady geyser shot up at the base—an upwards waterfall.

We rode on a huge boat, a big steel car-ferry, with gratifyingly few passengers. We saw some smaller boats that were packed like sardines—chartered by the big cruise ships, I guess.

In Gudvangen there was a tourist restaurant with a funny sculpture of a troll—seems like the trolls always have long dick-like noses. Guys were riding a helicopter up to the tops of the fjord cliffs and hang-gliding down. People are always looking for a chance to run an internal combustion engine.

Sylvia and I went for a hike. It was an unseasonably hot day—we’re very lucky with the weather—and near the end I jumped naked into the fjord, not far from where a glacial waterfall was falling in. It was so cold that the instant I hit the water I was scrambling to get out—moving fast before my limbs seized up and I sank to the bottom of the kilometer-deep gulf.

Norway 1. Bergen, Midsummer.

[Reminder: I’m giving two readings this weekend, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. The following is from my travel journals, written during a recent trip to Norway.]

June 22-23, 2009.

We’re in Bergen now, in a new country. The Norwegians are even better-looking than the Danes.

We passed through a maze of traffic and dull-seeming neighborhoods between the airport and downtown Bergen, but here, near the water, it’s very cute, a little like Gloucester, Mass, with wood frame clapboard houses on hilly narrow streets around a port.

Tomorrow night is the Midsummer festival in Scandinavia. A young woman at the hotel desk told us that the locals have a bonfire somewhere near town, and a big party, with many people coming by boat.

“It starts after dark?” I ask, still got getting it.

“It doesn’t get dark,” she says.

We’re far enough north that we have that 24-hour light.

This is a picture of me sitting in the full sunlight at 10 p.m. In the end, we didn’t have energy to seek out a bonfire party. The sun wouldn’t stop shining, and we went to bed tired, feeling like kids who have to turn in before the grown ups.


[Upper Ole Bull Place.]

We saw a statue of the famous Bergen-born violinist Ole Bull, a name which briefly obsessed me, and I started saying it a lot, as in “I wish Ole Bull was here with us now,” or “What would Ole Bull do in this situation?”

Maybe he’d go to this bakery.

It was fun in Bergen—the beautiful little streets and colorful wooden houses. Unbelievably beautiful women and handsome guys—clean-featured as models, with shocks of naturally blond hair and interesting double-bowed lips. Vow!

The main department store in Bergen. I like that font.

This morning, walking a quiet back street, I wished I lived there.

Passed a California-seeming shop called Witchy Bitchy Beauty Spot, for tattoos and punk gear like boots and skulls. Supposedly Bergen is the best rock and roll city in Norway.

Apropos of nothing much…I read “The House Left Alone” by Robert Reed in the SF Year’s Best #14 this morning, it has a great set-up. Two guys get a “starship” in the mail. It’s the size of a bowling ball. But then it turns out just be a robotic scout ship with some nanomachine seeds in it—a probe to be launched by a rail gun.


[A cool picture of a futuristic yacht appearing in a California-shaped space between some ancient houses.]

It would have been much cooler if the ball had really been a starship. Like if (1) that object the guys get in the story had generated a field in the shape of a big starship that our characters could ride inside. Or if (2) it had been a kind of teleportation amulet—you just grab onto it, swing it like a bowling ball, and whoosh, it takes you somewhere far away. Or if (3) it had been filled negatively curved space, so the boys could just get inside it and then take off.


[Germ-killing blue light in the men’s rooom at the local museum, which has some good Edvard Munch.]

It’s occurred to me that walking is a form of teleportation. You think about moving, and then…you move. Being alive at all is so very strange.

Now leaving Bergen.

Copenhagen 2.

June 20-21, 2009

The Tivoli amusement park is sweet, cozy, European. I only went on one ride, a small roller coaster. No point giving myself a stroke with some neck-whipper. He had a late lunch of smørrebrod, that is, buttered bread with…you pick. I had fjordrejer on mine, local shrimp. The place was called Grøften, meaning Ditch. One of the guys I met the other day, Morten, told me that his grandparents used to take the train into town for a big day at Tivoli, ending with a great beer-drinking cigar-smoking dinner at Grøften.

Right now I’m sitting at a street cafe under an umbrella, rain showers taking turns with the sun. the cafe gives the customers blankets to huddle in. A steeple in front of me, church name unknown, but I’m tired of looking up names on the map. Just being here is enough, adrift in unnamed Danishness. The blonde women pin their hair in Danish pastry updos.

Earlier today, Sylvia and I saw a half dozen couples in the cavernous City Hall, with parent friends, grandparents and even children, Danish toddlers, brilliantly blonde—everyone dressed up for civil wedding ceremonies. It reminded me of Sylvia and I getting married at the City Hall in Geneva, some 42 years ago.


[Near the palace, Rosenborg Slot.]

The fountain on my left has big bronze storks, wings up, perched, beaks facing out. Illustrating a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale? Danish storks.

Score! I just a blanket to huddle in on my cafe chair—looking bumlike, I’m sure, in the striped Rastafarian watchcap I just bought on the street—sipping hot tea, this is the life. It’s quite cool here, June or not, although the Danes seem to find it summery. The younger women wear tights and T-shirts, always the leg-warmer-type tights under the skirts.

This square is tiled with polygonal stones in red and shades of gray, five shapes in all, a regular but unorthodox tessellation, deserving of an illustration in any comprehensive volume on the Tilings of the Plane. Here comes the rain again.


[It’s good to be King Christian IV of Denmark.]

The other day we toured this great palace called Rosenborg Slot. One room was paneled in wood, with an oil painting on each panel, good little Bruegelesque pictures. I can see this place as a model for the inside the castle of the King of Flimsy in my novel.

In the display cases of treasures, they had some nautilus shells that had been carved away in spots to reveal the inner surfaces, which were in turn pierced to resemble the iron lace of a knight’s helmet.


[Bruegel painting of the poor eating the rich at the Statens Museum for Kunst.]

Last night we went to a Baroque music concert in an ancient little octagonal wooden church. We went by bus and had dinner on the way, and arrived fifteen minutes late, so we had to wait in the vestibule with a lone Scandinavian usher, who looked like the frequent Bergman actor Max von Sydow. In a way, hearing the first song this way made it the most beautiful, as if we were waiting in the wings of Paradise, the musicians visible through the peepholes in the closed double doors, the walls pale green with dry flaking paint, the whole structure elderly and spindly, the music unutterably rich and sweet. Finally going inside it was even more like a Bergman film, so utterly 1910, a line of distance and idiosyncratic faces along one of the balcony railings, and I could imagine the skillful sequence of scenes that would unveil to me the inner passions behind these specific visages, the dark-haired woman with vivid eyes, the short-haired lean man with a striped tie, the youth in a windbreaker, the aging beauty with her white hair pulled back in to Danish pastry updo.


[A writing desk at the Danish Museum of Art & Design, dig how the writer controls the dragon of creativity by wielding…a red-hot poker?]

I didn’t bring my laptop—partly to avoid the weight and the hassle, partly to get away from computers. I have been checking my email every day or two on the hotel’s machine, although it’s a very expensive $12 for twenty minutes, and the rip-off lamers who run the system—www.wayport.net—(a) start the timer at 15 minutes instead of 20 minutes even though I’ve supposedly paid for 20 and (b) eat up two more minutes of my time with their login and their ads, and (c) only have Internet Explorer, instead of Firefox, and IE pops up a security warning every few seconds when you read webmail, a warning that you have to click on to continue, wasting more of your expensive time. I sound like a junky complaining about a short count…and that’s why, in fact, I’m glad to be away from computers.

We haven’t been seeing any English-language newspapers either—it’s great not seeing the ongoing media hype for the right wing and not be reading about the Middle East, health care, the recession, and the California budget crisis.

June 22-23, 2009

I feel heavy and slow today—I ate lamb for supper before the concert last night, something I normally don’t do. It felt good eating it, though. Before the dinner we walked in a gorgeous park called Frederiksberg Have, it was like an anthology of gardens, little walls and hedges closing in the short stories of flowerbeds and fountains. A wedding party was in full swing in a clearing. Passing a shadowed bench, I saw a bridesmaid (or bride?) lying on her back with her pale silk skirt hiked up , and an urgent black-suited groomsman (or groom?) lying on top of her. People go nuts at weddings.

“People f*cking!” I whispered to Sylvia, who hadn’t noticed them.

“Oh stop it,” she said, taking my remark for one of my random lies or Tourette-syndrome-like outbursts.

All day the sun and the rain squalls alternate. So far it’s never rained longer than half an hour. It’s like the rapidly changing weather you get on an island.

We unwisely got on a tour-the-town bus this afternoon, a bus stinking of diesel fumes, waddling like a crippled hippo, filled with numb or voluble tourists. It drove straight to a row of desolate souvenir shops along the cruise-liner dock, and then to…the Little Mermaid, a small and undistinguished statue, forlorn in a remote corner of the waterfront, surrounded by parking lots, and mobbed my tourists. Ugh. The Disney Version. Locals have twice sawn off the Little Mermaid’s head.


[We didn’t go to Legoland, but here’s a store with a cool display representing the infinitely regressing doctrine that objects are made of small replicas of themselves.]

Imagine if a town were to deliberately erect a lowest-common-denominator tourist attraction, well away from the city center—just to keep the more gullible tourists out of the way. When we have a cook-out at home in California, a certain kind of hornet or yellow-jacket often appears, aggressively going after the meat—and one strategy against them is to set an unprotected plate of meat scraps off to one side. The hornets will tend to gather at the scrap plate—at the tourist attraction.


[Concrete armchair at the Danish Museum of Design.]

We got off that bus for good after the Little Mermaid and walked to the Danish Museum of Design, a fascinating place with a great cafe in a big garden, hardly anyone there, a I felt like a guest a rich person’s city house.

I liked the Art Nouveau rooms in the museum—those gnarly, chaotic zigzag curves in the decorative patterns. Like the late Sixties, Art Nouveau didn’t last nearly long enough.

I hung out by the harbor for awhile, the waters alive with boats: water taxis, moored restaurants, kayakers, sightseeing barges and even a submarine. The first hot day we’ve had here. Did I mention that the sun goes down around 11:30 p.m., and that the sun is up by 4 a.m.? In between it’s like twilight. We’re pretty far north, nearly as far as Alaska.

On our last night in Copenhagen we ate in a cafe full of cute young people—the tables and chairs were mismatched thrift-store items, mostly pastel—I’ve seen this fashion in New Zealand but not yet in the US. Again it felt like being at someone’s house. After supper we walked along the river, with the sun still setting at 10 pm. As always, I long to paint the CAPOW-wave-rule patterns of the light reflected on undulating water. I remember admiring these sunset blogs in Maine, forty years ago. Pale whitish blue and pale beige-yellow.


[The Kong Arthur is a great hotel.]

I woke briefly at 3 am, and it was already light. The actual night is only a few hours long, and even then it’s not dark. Obversely, it must be the case that, around Christmas time, it’s only light from, say, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Now I finally understand why, in Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, they go to church in the dark on Xmas morning. I’d always imagined that for some strange reason they were going to church at 5 a.m. But it was probably closer to noon.

And now on to Bergen, Norway…

Copenhagen 1

[I wrote these notes by hand in a small notebook, typed them up when we got home, and I’m now editing them into blog entries.]

June 18, 2009.

Københaven means “buy” plus “harbor.”

We just ate a big breakfast at the Kong Arthur Hotel buffet. Great stuff. The eggs and butter from this green glove of a peninsula in the North/Baltic seas. From the name, I’d thought maybe the hotel was Chinese-run, but it turns out “kong” means “king” in Danish.


[Death at my heels in the State Museum of Art. I’m glad I beat him to Scandinavia.]

It’s raining, that’s okay. We have raincoats. The best thing I saw yesterday—we got into town at four in the afternoon local time—was four men my age playing jazz in a cobblestone square—sax, bass, a vocalist with a banjo, and a percussion geezer—with people walking through or sitting at cafe tables with coffee, wine, soda, ice-cream—and the old guy playing percussion, with drum sticks, was using his…bicycle as his drum kit, ting-ting on the handlebars, a more resonant konk from the crossbar, thip-thip from the seat. The musicians looked so happy, with the honeyed flow of the music like the sun itself, like time—and for a minute there, still dragging my roller-suitcase and burdened with my knapsack (overfilled with last-minute additions like extra shoes and a second camera), for a minute, I say, or maybe for just thirty seconds, we got our first moment of respite after the twenty hours of the trip.


[Art Nouveau porcelain in the The Danish Museum of Art & Design]

We went to bed at 7:30 last night and slept till 4:30 and then I couldn’t go back to sleep. It was already light outside. I read an SF story in Hartwell and Kramer’s The Years’ Best SF #14, it’s good for me to read these annuals, they remind me of what the commercial SF story market is like—I tend to forget or lose track. I liked “Boojum” by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette. I’d kind of forgotten about this kind of SF—people in a crew on a spaceship. A clever tale, the ship is a living being.

I myself balk at writing a story with a “Captain” of a ship, as I so completely lack sympathy for that kind of social hierarchy. I prefer to write stories about loners, or small groups of equals instead. This said, the heroine in “Boojum” is a loner of sorts, and quite likable.


[Monster on a fountain in the Town Hall square.]

I don’t think I’ve ever written about mechaincal spaceships—I don’t believe in them, I guess, any more than in wooden sailing ships that float the the stars. In Frek and the Elixir they ride in an alien living being that’s effectively a UFO, and in Hylozoic there’s a living spaceship as well, a flying manta ray. In Saucer Wisdom some of my people mutate enough to become thick-skinned “spacebugs” who can fly on their own through space. So the “Boojum” story with its living spaceship feels natural to me.

We looked around town today, beautiful. Pale blue sky with fluffy clouds, a Vermeer View of Delft sky. Windy—we’re in a flat country in the sea. We went on a scenic barge cruise and saw a steeple-like tower on the old stock exchange building. The tower has four dragons with their tails twined to the top. The dragons “protected” Copenhagen from fire. On the top of the steeple are three crowns: Dansk, Norsk, and Svensk.

I’d read of Denmark’s “herring bars,” akin to salad bars—a buffet with six or even dozens of kinds of pickled herring. So today I finally had a round of herring bar for about twenty-five bucks. The herring was fishier and less appetizing than I’d dreamed, and I didn’t eat as much as I would have been allowed to. But it was exciting anyway. Everyone’s being very friendly.

The churches are quite Protestant: no stained glass, no colorful paintings, although there is gilding and some white stone statues. A Danish sculptor, Thorvaldson, made life-size sculptures of all the apostles and disciples. How weird it would be to limit your artistic output to so narrow and conventional a range of motifs.


[The spiral tower of the Our Savior Church in Copenhagen. You (not me) can walk up the outside.]

Traditional SF is in some ways like religious art—in the sense of repeatedly treating a small and fixed number of themes, themes which encode certain notions of how the world should be. For that matter, I myself keep returning to a small set of themes and situations—most often the misfit loner who travels to another world.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to write a space crew-member story, and turn it to my own ends by having the character give space travel to the people—either by (a) perfecting individual spacebug travel, (b) teleportation, or (c) finding some (seemingly) friendly aliens who act as personal UFOs.

Call these aliens “gubbers.” My hero(ine) has been warned away from the gubbers by the authorities. In fact the gubbers do exact some individual (or social) cost (like the Hrull in Hylozoic), but the hero(ine) finds a way for individuals to gubberize themselves without having to take recourse to help from those shifty aliens.

June 19, 2000.

Today I went for a walk with a local fan of my science writing—a media artist named Mogens Jacobsen and his media art curator friend Morten Søndergaard .


[Morten on the left, Mogens on the right.]

Mogens is a likeable, reserved man. He once made a vinyl record turntable attached to a desktop computer so that people on the web could remotely move the tone-arm of the record player. Currently he’s making five art videos to e shown in a high-end Danish shopping mall. I was amazed to hear this, imagining the weird and transgressive videos that artists might be likely to contribute. And for a mall?

“Can you film a man having sex with a barnyard pig?” I half-seriously asked Mogens, trying to get a feel for the parameters of his task.
“Well, I don’t work with pigs,” Mogens demurred, smiling.


[Painting probably by the Daliesque Danish surrealist painter Wilhelm Freddie]

Mogens and Morten showed me a “free town” neighborhood called Christiania. We took a water taxi across the harbor, and entered Christiania from a marshy area that felt like the countryside—ponds, reeds, trees, a barn or two, gravel roads. We started seeing small houses, brightly colored, some with fanciful roofs. Since the ‘60s or ‘70s, people have been settling in this formerly deserted area, seemingly with a minimum of red tape such as deeds and building codes. I got the impression that many of them are potheads.

We passed to kids on bicycles who were gently and sympathetically leading a staggering-drunk woman away from the roadside where she’d passed out, taking her towards the village center, presumably to her room. It wasn’t like the US at all—you hardly ever see individuals helping or even touching a street person at home. Instead we call in the “authorities.”


[A rune on a rock in Christiania.]

The gravel roads and pathways of Christiania were immaculately clean—no litter, and none of the broken glass you’d see back home. I marveled at this, and Mogens said, “We maintain a certain level of order on our own.” “That’s something we can’t do in America,” I said ruefully.

There’s some friction with the Danish police in any case. The Christiania cafe had a sign saying something like “This is the safest cafe in Copenhagen, we’ve had 6,000 police raids since 1974.”

A sudden rainstorm hit and we stood under some eaves. A guy near us was smoking a blunt. Nearby someone was playing AC/DC—they band was slated to give a concert at a soccer stadium in town that night.

“Are you ready to rock and roll?” I screeched in my Angus voice.

“I find it a little bit exhilarating,” remarked Morten,” That we are walking the exact same route as Søren Kierkegaard used to take in the 1840s, in Christiania. The very same philosopher who called himself a ‘fly on Hegel’s nose.’”


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