Friday, March 13, 2015

Driving in Norway

Norwegians are the most polite drivers I have ever encountered in the World.

In some ways, I'm surprised they ever get anywhere.  They do not drive fast, they are quick to yield to other drivers, and they are cautious to a fault.

Principally because of oil and gas revenues, Norway is a very wealthy nation.  They have put a lot of money into their travel infra-structure.

They have lights on almost every highway.  They have tunneled to a point where you wonder if it is a nation of moles.  They have huge bridges.  Since Karen does not particularly like tunnels and I do not particularly like heights (as in, really tall bridges that almost never, but occasionally do, fall down), Norway has covered most of our basic fears.  They have everything except extra lanes to drive in.  For the most part, Norway is covered in two-lane highways, brightly lit, which go all over the place through tunnels, over bridges and to the occasional ferry.

Norwegians are extremely polite.  As a result, they drive in lines, one behind the other, for miles, with no attempts to pass.

If we were actually moving at a decent speed, this would probably be fine.  However, the Norwegian speed limits were apparently set with peace and serenity in mind, not with the concept of actually going anywhere.  Of course, perhaps the real problem is that Norwegian speed signs can reduce people like me to the giggles, since the Norwegian word for "speed" is "fart".

Huge sections of the highways are posted for "farts" at 60 or 70 kilometers an hour.  Either of those generate comments from my lovely passenger like "why are we going so slow?"  Sixty kilometers an hour is basically like you have released the parking brake, but have not yet started the engine.  Seventy is only slightly better.

The ridiculously low fart limits are enforced by the liberal use of "traffic cameras" which seem to be placed every 10 kilometers or so (which translates to 6 miles, in a "who cares" kind of way).  There are warning signs that a traffic camera is coming, so a person like me could hit the pedal in full fart once he passes the camera and slow down when the next one is announced.  It seems like most Norwegians are not like me and they diligently plod along at "almost no kilometers an hour" as posted, so people like me are trapped in a perpetual polite Norwegian line of law-abiding citizens.

The tunnels are incredible.  They are all over the country and some are huge and go deep under the fjords.  Apparently, even more are coming.  On our travels, we went on the deepest car tunnel in the World, at about 1,000 feet deep and one of the longer car tunnels, at about 8 and 1/2 miles long (the longest is at an unbelievable 15 miles).  We also went into a tunnel that had a round-about in the middle of the tunnel, dividing it into two additional tunnels.  They are their own eco-system, with steam forming over your car windows, exhaust billowing around and your ears suggesting that a more natural environment might be more pleasant for all.  In many, but not all of the tunnels, huge fans are constantly trying to clean the air, usually only partially successfully.

The tunnels are not pleasant places to be.

When we are outside the tunnels, the views of the mountains, valleys, fjords and mountain lakes have been gorgeous!!!!!

Of course, farting along at 60 kilometers per hour, you have a lot of time to appreciate it.

Un-American Showers

In an earlier post from this trip, I described the classic half-wall/in a tub shower.  That is certainly one of the European favorites.

However, with newer-designed hotels, you sometimes have a "sort-of-enclosed" shower where glass walls come out from the bathroom wall and there is a glass door to enter the shower.

From a distance, they look lovely.

However, these showers were obviously designed by someone who either "didn't wash" or "only took baths" - he (or she) clearly had no interest in what it was actually for (apart from the concept that water is supposed to come down on one's head).

The first problem with most of these showers is that the glass door is of a size where if you are a three-dimensional person, with hips, stomach, thighs and similar parts, it is never clear whether it is better to pull the door out or push it in.  Either way, you have to move around like a circus contortionist to get around the door.

The second problem is figuring out how to turn the shower on and how to adjust the temperature.  A very common approach in Europe is that one knob turns on the water and the other knob (which you are desperately grasping for as the water falls on you which is either "Arctic cold" or "Hellfire hot") adjusts the temperature.  Sometimes it is clear, but more often than not it is more of a guess as to which knob does what.

The final problem is that the European shower designers have no concept of what a shower floor or basin might look like.  They don't care.  The glass doors and walls go almost, but not quite, to the floor, leaving a gap around the shower bottom which spills (literally) out into the bathroom. The shower floor, in the meantime, is flush with the bathroom floor, with not the slightest hint of a lip to discourage water from streaming out.  There is a drain, often in the shower, but it really doesn't matter where it is located since the floor is flat.  Water goes down the drain only if it happens to pass by it.  There is no urgency in this process and the water can move about the entire bathroom at its leisure.

Karen has told me several times that if I position the shower door in Europe exactly right (as in, not too far in and not too far out), then less water will spill.  Karen, while not a particularly patient person, can be very patient and particular when it comes to keeping things clean and orderly.  My problem is that I am a guy and I have no patience with these types of things.  My view is, get in, get it done and let the clean-up crew (which can be me) come in fix it later.  My other issue is, when I shower, I want the water to be hot and plentiful (as in, like a huge waterfall).  I rely on the trickle-down theory with respect to water and expect to disappear into the drain after that.

In Europe, this doesn't work as the drain is more of a leak, allowing a little but not too much of the water to leave the bathroom.

There is a lot about Norway (and Europe) that I love, but I am looking forward to my American shower!!!!!

Off at Trondheim, Visiting the Ancestral Home and Seeing Family

The Hurtigruten was a wonderful experience!  We had a lovely cabin, saw the Northern Lights, spent an enormous amount of time North of the Arctic Circle, met wonderful people and had some excellent food.

However, the boat was in constant motion, the buffets were becoming way too familiar and the prospect of disembarking was starting to sound more and more attractive.

Karen's family, on the Sagen side, originally came from a small fishing community outside of Trondheim.  As in, really, really small.  The family pretty much comprised the community.  Karen has been telling me for years (I dimly recall her mentioning it to me in high school) about her Grandfather growing up in this house, which still stood and was still in the family.  The interesting thing about this particular house is that it was originally about twice the size and at some point after her Grandfather moved to America the house was divided into two and one half was moved about fifty feet away.  So, unlike Lincoln's prediction that "a house divided against itself cannot stand", this particular group of Norwegians showed everyone that it could do just fine.  We don't know the story behind the split, but we have always assumed that it has to be a good one.

We had sort of an address, though it was a bit vague on whether the house was in a town and, if so, what town.  We also had photographs of what the house(s) looked like today.  We did have a map somewhere in our luggage, but we were relying on GPS.  With that, I booked us a room in Trondheim, a flight from Trondheim to Bergen after a night's stay and a rental car to take us to the family home.

We arrived on the about 6:30 a.m. in Trondheim, had a leisurely cup of coffee and a bite to eat, then disembarked from the Hurtigruten MSFinnmarken.  There was a taxi waiting for someone who had not arrived.  The taxi driver offered to run us over to the Trondheim Clarion Hotel and Congress, which was only a few blocks away, but a healthy walk when burdened with luggage and no porters.  He was a godsend!
Good bye, Finnmarken!

The hotel was very modern and lovely and the reception was great, particularly since at 9 a.m. they had a room ready for us!!  We dropped off our luggage, freshened up and then went down to pick up our car which Avis had personally delivered to us at the hotel.  I've normally been a Hertz-man, but I'll have to admit that Avis got my attention this time (I had called Hertz first, but they didn't have any cars, to which I said, "Why did you answer the phone?").

It took a couple of hours to get to the general area of the family home.  First, we had to get through Trondheim and then take a ferry.
Ferry to Saga

Then, we started driving in the lovely countryside.  At some point, we arrived at the largest highway construction site we've ever encountered.  The problem was that there was very little guidance as to where we supposed to go or which of the trucks were trucks just passing through and which ones were actually working on the site.  It is at times like this where I get a bit aggressive, assuming someone will tell me to stop if I cross a line somewhere.  Seriously, we just went around various vehicles, up and down large holes and across gravel and mud in the general direction of what appeared like it could eventually be a road.  No one stopped us, so we just kept going.

After about 6 to 8 miles of construction, we got back on a normal road.  It was shortly after that when our GPS lady chimed in and said "In two miles your address will be on the right hand side.  You will have to park on the 715 and walk to your destination."  Now this was not a message that we'd heard before from our GPS lady.  Karen knew that the place was remote, but our particular location at that time was missing something which we thought was fairly key for a fishing community, water.  We drove on and eventually the GPS lady started "recalculating", never a good sign.  We looked at each other in confusion, turned the car around and started heading back.  There was a side road near the place that the GPS lady seemed to like, so we turned down that road.  It was a single lane dirt road covered in snow and ice, so Karen made helpful observations like "Don't get close to that edge!"  "Don't get close to that edge either!"

We were nearing water, but it did not have the appearance of anything we had seen in the photos.  I saw a house way up on the top of an icy hill with a light on and decided we should ask for directions.  I pulled into the driveway and, fortunately, the owner of the home pulled in shortly after we had arrived.  He did not speak English well, though it was a lot clearer than our Norwegian.  Basically, he recognized the address, gave us directions to get back to the main road (including turning left at the huge cement truck which had overturned into a ditch), and where to go from there.  We drove back, following his directions and eventually Karen remembered the map.  Karen foraged through our luggage, found the map and we looked at it.  We had forgotten one important piece of information, the name "Saga".  We input that into our GPS and the GPS lady basically said, "Oh, that's where you wanted to go!  Why didn't you tell me that in the first place!!"

It was getting later, it was also starting to snow, and we were worried about heading back to the ferry before it got dark, but we pressed on.  We finally came to a lovely fjord that looked familiar and we came around a corner and saw the Sagen homestead exactly as we had seen it in the photos!  We had (and more importantly, Karen had) arrived!

 We found it!

 Looking in the window from outside.

Karen on the doorstep.

Sometimes in life, after anticipating something, it can be a letdown when it actually comes to pass.  Sometime, it can be exactly what, or better than, you were anticipating.  This was one of the latter.  We walked all around the grounds, peaked inside the windows to a view of the interior which was exactly like the photographs that Karen had been looking at for years, and just enjoyed feeling part of the family history.  During all this, the wind had picked up and it had started to snow even more heavily, so we had the added bonus of seeing the family home covered in snow!

When it was time to go, we decided to follow the coast route back rather than the construction route.  It was a beautiful drive through the snow and we arrived at the ferry as it was just finishing up loading, so we were able to just drive on board and not come to a stop.

It was a delightful day!!!

We stayed the night back in Trondheim, flew to Bergen the next day and started driving the Southern Coast of Norway (separate story to come).  A few days after that we arrived in Stavanger, which is a coastal town with a serious commitment to oil and gas development.  Old Stavanger is quite delightful, with little stone streets winding all over the place among a sea of old white wooden houses.

It was in Stavanger where we met up with a cousin of Karen and his wife (Jan and Anne-Breit) from the Sagen homestead side of the family (Karen's grandfather and Jan's grandfather having been brothers who lived in the Sagen homestead in the early 1900's).  We had a delightful traditional Norwegian dinner at their house (called "Sodd") and spent some time looking at an amazing array of photos from the Sagen homestead back in the early part of the last century.

Traditional "Sodd"
Anne-Breit, Jan and Gary

The highlight for us was a photo of Karen's grandfather at the Sagen homestead around 1961, standing with one of his brothers, Nils, who he had come with from Astoria to Norway for a visit, together with Jan, as a 7-year old, and others from the Sagen family.  The reason this was so memorable was that Karen had been talking for years about when her grandfather went to Norway when she was a child and her being very sad until his return.  To see a photo of him in Norway with someone who was actually there when her grandfather was there was one of those "full circle" moments.

The next evening, with Jan and Anne-Breit, we had a wonderful meal out at the Renaa Restaurant.  They claimed to have a 12-course meal, but I think they were miscounting, as I lost track somewhere around 27.  The portions, thankfully, were small, but there were so many portions that we were all crying "uncle" (or the Norwegian equivalent) by the end of the evening (which was 5 delicious hours after they served us course number 1).

Between our visit to the Sagen homestead and the delightful hospitality of the Stavanger cousins, we had a wonderful family time on our Norway trip!!!!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Finnmarken and Water Sports

The cruise up and down the coast of Norway had a lot of spectacular views and was generally an incredibly lovely experience.

We also had some huge ocean swells and a 24-hour period which included gale-force winds (70+ miles an hour with occasional "oh-my-god" gusts).  There were a number of times where Karen looked at me and asked me if I would go up and tell the captain to just "park the damn boat" for awhile until the storm had past.

Of course, I can (and often do) sleep through pretty much anything.  Karen, on the other hand, cannot.  At one point in particularly rough seas, Karen mentioned that she was concerned that I might have rolled off the bed.  From the look in her eyes, though, I suspect she would have at least got a good chuckle had I been tossed from my bed.

Karen did discover that our little windowless bathroom was most comfortable place for her in rough seas.  So, in particularly nasty weather, I could be found snoring in the bed while Karen was sitting in the bathroom waiting for the storm to pass.

When we crossed the Arctic Circle, there was an initiation ceremony which included a viking or a troll (recall that I cannot tell them apart) who would pour ice and water down your neck, followed by a drink.  How could I not take part in this ceremony?

Unlike the other Hurtigruten boats, the Finnmarken does have a pool and a couple of hot tubs.  I passed on the swimming pool, but a hot tub while cruising in ice cold weather was something I could not resist.  Of course, traveling in February, I had neglected to pack any swimming trunks.

Fortunately, the Finnmarken had swimsuits available.

Well King, it Looks Like This Case is Closed

When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were comprised of forts and television before the parents got out of bed.  The living room was covered in a sea of blankets stretched across the sofas and lounge chairs, looking vaguely like a Bedouin village populated by midgets.

One of our favorite telephone shows was "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon", with his faithful husky dog, King.  Because this was the 1950's, they didn't actually have to go into the snow; we were just a couple of years after radio and were willing to imagine anything.  Sergeant Preston would walk into the cabin and a "poof" of white stuff would follow him from the outside, with a noise like wind, and we just knew it was cold, blustery and snowy outside.

I don't actually recall King ever pulling a sled.  It was probably a union thing and he was a Los Angeles husky, "Call my car, I don't do sleds."

As a kid though, you knew that old Sergeant Preston would hop onto his sled, yell "mush" or "heave ho" or "let's get going," and King would be off pulling the sled and the Sergeant over the snow after the bad guy in that show.  Spoiler Alert!  The bad guy was always the one guy in the cabin/bar/lodge who hadn't shaved and his plaid shirt might have a couple of wrinkles.  Everyone else was clean shaven and had neatly pressed clothes.

So, I was very excited about going on a DIY dog sled tour.

We were at the far North end of Norway, fairly close to Russia (which I understand is teeming with unshaven people with wrinkled plaid shirts).  A small group of us got off in an unpronounceable Norwegian port, lumbered into a bus and were driven through the snow and ice to the husky sled dog camp.  As a bonus, in addition to the husky sled dog ride, you could pick either a reindeer ride or a snowmobile ride.  We opted for the reindeer ride since we had separately booked a midnight snowmobile tour (which ultimately was cancelled because of gale-force winds, the problem with winter sports) and, well, it was a Reindeer Ride near the North Pole.

They herded us into a cabin where they outfitted us with winter gear, winter overalls, together with huge boots and gloves.  We basically looked like Stay Puft Marshmallow Men, but with fewer moving parts.

We left the cabin and followed our guide to the husky dog sled station, lumbering slowly in our outfits, like a group of Boris Karloff impersonators in search of a Frankenstein sequel.

The dogs were very lovable and excited!!  One thing was clear at that camp and a separate husky dog camp we went to later, they WANT to run and pull the sleds!  There was nothing more heart-rending than hearing the dogs who were tethered at their doghouses wailing at the sleds as they left.

We had a cute Laplander blond girl who was to be on the lead sled.  She gave us about ten seconds of instructions, "Here's de brake", then walked away to her sled.  Karen sat in the sled and I took up the helm, which was standing on the two narrow runners and holding onto the handle, with the "brake" (which was a thing that you stepped on to dig into the snow) between the two runners.  That was it, no reins, no gearshift knob, no steering wheel, nothing else.  My options were to "hang on" or "brake".  To turn the sled, you were instructed to lean a bit one way or the other, but that is basically like telling the end person skating in "crack the whip" to try and control everyone else, it doesn't happen.

When our guide went off, each of the teams of dogs and their sleds went bounding after them.  It was an amazing feeling, the wind and snow in my face, the dogs speeding along and me trying to balance on the narrow runners.  That is, until I came to a hill.

I'm just speaking from my perspective.  Our husky dogs may have their own blog where they are posting "You Should Have Seen the Huge Guy I Had to Tow Last Week".  However, what you don't see in the short husky sled videos is a group of huskies coming to a hill and sitting down, obviously waiting for a T-Bar to tow them up the slope.

Perhaps it would be different if I was a bit smaller, but I like to think of myself as a man of substance.  Apparently, the dogs thought so too as they stared back at me with that "you go first" look in their eyes.

So, to get up the hill, I had to step off the runners, yell a "gee haw" "mush" and generally pant, to get the dogs to start moving.  The trick here is to not let go of the handle or to let the sled start to go faster than I am able to go.  It was a distinct possibility that the runners would outrun me and at any moment my wife would be the head musher sitting on the sled without the benefit of brakes.

The first half of the journey consisted of what seemed to be a lot more "ups" than "downs".  Karen would periodically call back to me with "are you all right", "are you still breathing", "are you having a heart attack" to which I would bravely respond with pants and groans.

In fairness, these were not large dogs.  Karen, god bless her, suggested that larger or more dogs might have been able to pull us with less effort on my part.  She didn't give actual sizes or numbers, but at least there was the hope that a huge team of mutant dogs could be mustered for future sled rides.

Our guide did stop mid-way and come back to check on us.  I mentioned that our dogs were having a hard time on the hills (hers looked bigger and well-rested and I was hinting at a trade), but she assured us that the rest of the trip was going to be downhill.  Fortunately, it was.  All in all, it was a lot of fun, but it would have been nice if Sergeant Preston would have warned me about the challenges of sledding uphill.

After the dogsled ride, we hopped into a van and took a short ride to the reindeer camp.  Our guide was another Laplander.  He and his wife ran the reindeer side of the business, which was comprised of a few of the reindeer who got to pull the sleighs and a few hundred additional reindeer that they herded and as to which the Laplander said "we use all of the reindeer."  I remember an example of the difference between the words "involved" and "committed".  With a ham and egg breakfast, the chicken is "involved" and the pig is "committed".  The reindeer who were not involved in sledding were committed.

The reindeer sleigh ride was very relaxing and beautiful.  The Laplander led the lead reindeer on foot and guided us on a two-mile sleigh ride through a beautiful snowy valley.

We then returned to the cabin at the dogsled camp, put on our regular clothes and enjoyed a hot cup of coffee, some lefsa for dessert and reindeer stew for those of us with a sense of humor and irony.  Not everyone joined in the stew.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Yes, It's Cold and Church Etiquette

Usually, when we are planning a trip and have told people, they get very excited and ask whether we are going to visit particular sites, what we are planning on doing, whether we have been there before and similar matters.  When we told people we were going to Norway for a month starting in mid-February, almost everyone would look at us blankly and say, "Isn't it cold there that time of year?"

It got to the point where I felt like saying, "No, according to our tour guide we can expect nothing but swimsuits and Norwegian Mai Tais."

The fact is, we are more sweater people than swimsuit people, we don't do well in the heat, so this time of year suits us.

But it is cold.

Half of the trip is North of the Arctic Circle, so cold is to be expected.  The rest is "still in Norway".

We have had some beautiful days and nights here, in between the rain, snow, sleet, hail, wind and cold.

We have had two nights when the cold and clear came with the Northern Lights.  The first time we saw it, it was a couple of "little wispy traily things" to which you went "ooh" while thinking, "this is what we were anticipating?"  The second time was truly spectacular and it kept changing and growing.


It was exactly what we wanted to see!!!

The Hurtigruten had a number of "excursions" where all the elderly people would slowly teeter their way into the waiting buses, stand absent-mindedly near an open seat wondering what it was for and eventually ooze their winter-swaddled bodies in the general direction of the seat almost, but not quite, leaving room for you to pass.  Karen and I had a lot of fun rolling our eyes at each other, still having a couple of years before we are one of those folk.


We toured Trondheim, visited the cathedral and saw a beautiful view from one of the hills.  There was also a viking/troll museum (I get them mixed up, basically, angry guys with beards and funny hats) which was way too warm for anyone under the age of 90 wearing winter clothes.  We rushed through that place and exited with our cup of coffee.

At Tromso, we attended a midnight concert in a beautiful modern church.  It was a trio (one on piano/organ, one singer and one flute player, or flautist, which makes her sound like she had a problem with intestinal gas, which I don't think she did - though I was sitting back in the pews).

They were great and the acoustics in the cathedral were equally incredible.  Of course, it was a church, so when they got to the end of a song, we all sat reverently looking on wondering whether applauding was the polite or impolite thing to do.  The trio were of no help on this point.  There was no clear leader holding a baton, though even that drives me a bit crazy at concerts.  Depending on your "maestro" the baton may reach his side, but he hasn't officially reached the finish line and he brings it quickly back up.  If you jump the gun with a "happy clap" all the people in the audience who know the "maestro" and his ways glare at you as if you just intentionally ripped out an enormous fart (or, as a concert goer would say, "being a flautist").

The trio did not even introduce themselves, they just came out and started tooting and tinkling. There were no song introductions and no subtle hints like "hey folks, it's okay if you clap, or fart, whatever".  Since we were just going from silence to song to silence to song, the "church coughers" started up.  I don't know whether the initial coughers are just instigators who don't have to cough, but know that, once someone coughs, everyone starts getting tickles in their throat, or if the initial coughers actually need to cough.  I am very impressionable though.  Just writing this note makes me want to cough.

So the trio was moving merrily from tune to to tune, while the crowd sat there appreciatively coughing when finally someone actually clapped near the end of the fourth or fifth song.  It could have been accidental, someone clapping his hand over his mouth to avoid a cough, but it was enough to set us all loose with a "hell, if that guy can clap, I will too".

We were a very grateful bunch of clappers for the rest of the concert.  I still think the trio should rethink their approach and either start their concert with a short "it's okay to clap" speech or periodically hold up an "APPLAUSE" sign.  Either would work for me.

It was a wonderful concert.  After it was over, we bundled on our clothes and went out to the wind, ice and cold to stand around and wait as the folks ahead of us tried to locate the open bus door, navigate the stairs, teeter down the aisles and eventually fall into their designated seats.  Another night in Norway.