Month: July 2013

TSOJ: Copenhagen–Terrifying Towers, Nonexistent Museums, and Stealing Coffee

If I were to run away from America, I would run away to Copenhagen. Copenhagen is the city for hippies and hippy wannabes. Copenhagen is Portland on hippy steroids and, I think, the future for most cities if the human race is going to survive beyond the year 2038. (No, I do not know anything about 2038, it is just 25 years from now and I will be even older.)

Bike graveyard, or bike parking lot?

Bike graveyard, or bike parking lot?

The first thing I noticed both times I have been here is: There are a lot of bikes in this city. The second thing I noticed was: No one seems to be actively stealing these bikes that are everywhere. The third thing I noticed was: Riding a bike looks like more fun in Copenhagen than at home. Everyone rides bikes, they ride bikes like cars don’t exist, and almost everyone living in Denmark looks younger than me, could this be because of the bike riding?

See it doesn't look too bad from here.

See it doesn’t look too bad from here.

I decided that I could see a lot on foot on my first day and I was right. The plan was to climb a couple of towers, visit the Danish Design Museum, and see most of the sites around the center of town. This plan was an actual plan, it had been mapped out and thought about, and it took about an hour to completely unravel.

I wanted to get my climb to the top of Vor Frelsers Kirke before it got too windy. The church (kirke) has a unique tower with an exterior stairway climbing around the spire and even though I am scared of heights, I thought climbing up to the top would be fun. From a distance it did not look very high anyway. The church was across town so I took off right after a moderate breakfast (that’s right, folks, I’m not always a pig). Well, I did stop at a pastry shop along the way that my family practically begged to eat in when we were in Copenhagen five years ago. (We did not eat there because I had been yelled at in so many bakeries by that time that I was a bit scared. Okay, the truth is I thought it would be expensive and it was crowded and I didn’t want to wait in line.) It wasn’t expensive and the line moved quickly. (This news will probably not make my family happy. Oh, and it was delicious.)

After my little snack break, it was off to climb a tower. It took me some time to get across town, but I enjoyed the walk. The weather was perfect. It was everything I need in weather: sunny, a little breezy, and warmish but not hot. I did my one good deed for the day along the way, a middle-aged couple were climbing a long series of stairs with their luggage and the husband (I’ll assume he was married because of the way he was acting) made it to the top of the stairs and was standing there watching his wife drag her far-too-large luggage up the stairs. Now, I am sure the reason he was standing there was because as they were packing back in the US he said, “You’re taking too much stuff, Honey. Are you going to lug that all over Europe?” Of course she said she would and now he was standing at the top of the stairs watching her and thinking, “I knew it.” She, on the other hand, was thinking, “I wonder what the divorce laws are in Denmark.” I couldn’t help myself and intervened by carrying the bag to the top of the stairs. It weighed about 30 kilos and it was too big, but I got to feel good about myself and that is the most important lesson here. This little ego-boost carried me all the way to the church where I suddenly was confronted with the fact that this little tower was in fact a big, tall, spiraling, death-trap of a tower.

Up close it is much taller.

Up close it is much taller.

The ladder/stairs  are great for getting the old ticker moving.

The ladder/stairs are great for getting the old ticker moving.

I went inside, paid 40 DK ($8), and then began my ascent of fear mountain. The ticket dude said that there were over 400 stairs which didn’t scare me, I can climb stairs without sweating, but what did scare me was how these 400 stairs turned into ladder-stairs after about 150 stairs. It was steep, it was 400 years old (not an actual fact, but it could be older), and there were signs every ladder-stair set warning of imminent death. If I was in America I would have ignored the signs, we warn people about everything, “This plate is hot. This door might open. Watch out for falling rock.” In Europe they don’t warn people about many things, so when I saw a sign letting me know that death was just around the corner, I started to get even more frightened. I stopped at one point, took three minutes to decide whether to finish or to go back to the bottom ashamed of myself. That’s right, me, Mr. Wonderful, the guy who just carried a lady’s luggage to the top of the stairs, I was having a moment that can best be described as self-loathing. I almost turned around, but the thing that moved me forward was that I HAD PAID for this experience. If I pay for something, I am going to finish it.

My strategy was to not look down. Even inside the tower I had to repeat this over and over, “Don’t look down. Don’t look down. This tower will not fall over. You will survive.” (I have issues, I really do think tall buildings are going to fall over when I am in them.) Everything was peachy keen until I reached the final ladder and could see the door leading outside. If there were not five or six people around I would have crawled outside, but because I HAD PAID and there were other people around, I sucked it up and stood outside. It was terrifying, it was a great view, and my hands were so sweaty I was worried I was going to drop my iPhone while taking a couple quick pictures. I then began the climb on the outside of the tower. The only thing that saved me was that the railing was about two meters high and it was solidly attached to the tower. As I neared the very top I ran into a Danish fellow who pointed out where everything in his city was. Danish people are the best. We spent about 15 minutes talking about our travels, our jobs, and our shared fear of heights. He said he climbs up here about once a week to keep himself alive. I like to take naps to keep myself alive.

The city from the tower.  Sweaty, shaky cam.

The city from the tower. Sweaty, shaky cam.

The railing that saved me from the walk of shame.

The railing that saved me from the walk of shame.

The climb back down was just as dangerous because everything was so steep. The good news was that my legs were no longer shaking like new-born colt’s. I made it to the bottom and celebrated by sitting on a bench for 10 minutes.

Next on my list of things to do was a stroll down by the waterfront and around by the royal stuff. I also wanted to see the Marble Cathedral that was designed after Saint Peter’s in Rome. The waterfront was nice. People were out riding bikes, kids were playing and everyone was enjoying their time. imageAs I got closer to the Marble Cathedral the tour groups got thicker, but most of them were there to see the royal stuff, only the Italians seemed interested in the church. I am beginning to believe that Italy might be the only country in Europe still interested in Christianity at all, but I could be wrong. The Marble Cathedral was okay. It didn’t have any striking characteristic other than the dome.
I walked a little further and then had to take a break. My feet were killing me. I had blisters on both feet and it was time to do something about it. My go to solution is always duct tape, but finding duct tape in Copenhagen was a challenge. Eventually I got some and patched up my feet. It helped some but my walking shoes have proven to be a bad choice for travel.

Duct tape works on everything.

Duct tape works on everything.

I then headed off to the Round Tower cutting through the large park by the old castle. I remembered being here five years ago and took a couple pictures. The Round Tower is probably a good spot to see the city, but after my climb up terror tower nothing was going to impress me too much anymore. I got up there, took a couple pictures for families that needed photos and then decided it was time to visit the Danish Design Museum. On my way to the museum I walked by a little coffee shop that had seats outside and I thought that a latte would be just the thing to pick me up and keep me going. I didn’t have enough change for a large latte, so I ordered a small one. I waited picked up my latte and then went outside to drink it. When I was done with my cup I thought I would return it since that is what polite people do. I went in and the girl who had helped me with my order said, “Your latte is ready.” I looked and there on the counter was a much smaller latte than the one I had just consumed. I drank someone’s drink and paid for a small. Nice work, Champ! They encouraged me to drink the smaller drink, but I felt like such an idiot that I just ran like Tom Cruise. At least I had the Design Museum in the future to salve my wounded ego. I had wanted to go to the museum the last time I was in Copenhagen, but my family wanted to go to Tivoli. (Tivoli is worth an entire day if you are ever in Copenhagen and I think it was the right choice. My kids didn’t need to spend any more time being bored in museums.) I walked to where the Design Museum was located five years ago and found a large cafe affiliated with the Danish Design Museum and a sign that said, “No Exhibits Showing.” This was disappointing, but it explained why it had been hard to find information about the museum. I have since found out that it is located in a different area of the city.

Hans Christian Anderson, they took his pedestal away.

Hans Christian Anderson, they took his pedestal away.

Soren K, chilling in his garden behind the library.

Soren K, chilling in his garden behind the library.

Striking out on the museum was a bit of a bummer, but then it was off to the city hall…It was closed. I was beginning to feel a little like an idiot, not uncommon for me and after this trifecta of stupidity it was more than a feeling. At this point I surrendered, I stopped by to see Hans Christian Anderson and noticed that his statue is now shorter than it was last time I was in Denmark, my visit with Hans inspired me to visit my other favorite statued writer in Copenhagen, Soren Kierkegaard. Soren hangs out over by the library and has a little courtyard that is very pleasant. I dropped in on him and then wondered if I could bust into the library. It was about five pm and I figured the library would be closed, but because it was my lucky day the library was open until seven. The new wing of the library is called the Black Diamond and is just as good as a Danish Design Museum anyway. I snuck around for a little bit, trying to go places I was not allowed and then saw that there was a special exhibit on Kierkegaard. I talked to the ticket lady, she said that there were English guides and that it was worth my time. I could also see the collection of cartoons by a Danish artist, and was allowed into the room with the treasures of the royal collection (these were rare books, not crappy crowns and gems). I spent the next two hours checking stuff out. I took a bunch of pictures in the rare book room before I saw a sign saying, “No Photography.” so I did the ethical thing and deleted all the pictures even though there were some pretty cool things like letters from Nietzsche and musical scores from Beethoven and Mozart.

The skybridge between the old and new wings of the library.

The skybridge between the old and new wings of the library.

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The old wing, with free wifi.

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Who needs a Design Museum when you can just go to the library?

Kierkegaard was a fascinating guy. I know him in the simplistic terms “the Christian Existentialist,” but he was so much more than that. He was a prolific writer and wrote under a bunch of pseudonyms when he wanted to write something especially controversial. His life was short, died at 42, but his influence in Denmark was huge.

Finally I decided it was time for dinner, unfortunately 7:00 is late for Danish dinning standards and I wandered around until 9 until I finally bit the bullet and got some Chinese take-away, which tasted just a little bit better than the bullet. Food that sits under a hot lamp all day is never a great choice, but you might notice that great choices are not my thing.

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Norway

Modeling is a gift for some, a talent for others, and a skill I don't have.  If the photographer was looking for an unnatural pose, then I am the man.

Modeling is a gift for some, a talent for others, and a skill I don’t have. If the photographer was looking for an unnatural pose, then I am the man.

Norwegians have a great deal to be proud of. Before traveling to Norway, I thought of Norway as that cold place where people cross-country ski. It is that place, but it is also a country that has much more to be proud of than Olympic Gold Medals in the 10,000 meter cross-country race. I leave Norway knowing the country a little better and understanding the people a little more, but knowing that visiting the two largest cities in no way makes you an expert. With that said, let me begin with my wild speculations about Norway.
I ran into several Americans along the way and heard the same cliché used to describe the country of Norway: Cradle to grave Socialism. The catch-phrase seems to be an American code for these people share more than then should. I think many Americans believe that Socialism is evil because it leads to other social evils like equality. I’m no expert on how to make a country great, but I do know that Norway does many things better than the US. Sure they have a natural resource in vast oil fields, but they also protect their wild lands with a fierceness that borders on Texas sized pride. They are taxed at a high level and the country is uber-expensive, but they get a lot for their “cradle to grave” whereas Americans think they are getting a bargain. American costs are spread out differently and the burden is heaviest on the poor, not because they pay the most but because taxes in America aren’t always taxes. Medical coverage in the US is a privilege and not a right, and even those of us who are lucky enough to have medical coverage find out that our coverage is shrinking while our costs are increasing. Our dollar for dollar cost of medical coverage is the highest in the world.

This is the guy we are talking about when we say grave.

This is the guy we are talking about when we say grave.

In Norway health is taken seriously and exercise is a national obsession. The US is obsessed with sports watching, Norway is obsessed with sport participation. This sports participation is encouraged in multiple ways. There are bike/skiing paths all over the place. On my bike tour of Oslo the guide said that during the winter there are skiing paths in the hills that lead to restaurants in the woods and that families will ski to these restaurants and have a meal. The paths are lit so they can be used at any time in the winter. The entire idea is to get people out of the house and exercising. You will not find too many overweight Norwegians which in the end drives down medical costs and increases a national happiness that cannot be measured in a dollar amount.

Page in the Bergen paper devoted to kids and families...I think.

Page in the Bergen paper devoted to kids and families…I think.

There cannot be a better place in the world to be a kid. If I were a kid anywhere in the world, I would want to be a Norwegian kid. Kids are celebrated here. I would guess that 20% of all stores in Norway are stores for children. I have heard a few kids crying on long trips (these could be American kids for all I know), but everywhere I have gone kids have things to do. On the train there was a whole car devoted to families with young kids. There was a little play room and the kids were in there messing around while the parents sat outside. Kids are allowed to run around and be kids. They can climb on stuff, they can lay down in the aisle on a boat and take their shoes off and their parents don’t rush in to make them behave. It is like the whole country decided at some point that the most important thing in the world is happy kids because happy kids become happy adults. In the old church I went to in Bergen there was an area in the church for kids to play IN THE SANCTUARY! I can imagine the disapproving looks this would get in the US where well behaved kids means quiet kids. I don’t know how the Norwegian state assists with families, but I would bet one Oslo beer that both mothers and fathers have significant time to spend with their children in the first few years of a child’s life: paid time away from work for mom and dad, built-in paid vacation for all jobs.
There might not be a better country in the world to be a woman. Equality here is real. The number of women I saw doing “men’s jobs” surprised to me, and women represent a large percentage of politicians in Norway. Men can be stay-at-home dads and women can be rock masons. The only place I saw only men was with the King’s honor guard, but that was a small sample on one day, so I don’t know if it is an accurate observation.
Adults are allowed to run. How often do you see American businessmen running? Maybe in an airport like OJ, but most of the time adults not wearing running outfits and jogging shoes are seen as weird in the US. Disagree with me on this one? Well ask yourself if you saw an adult running down the road what would you think? I know what I think, “Is he escaping the from the cops, or is he running from imaginary demons?” In Norway, I saw many adults run little bursts and they didn’t look like they were running from someone.

Norwegians have a real problem with liking bad folk singing. In Oslo the most popular street performer was a guy singing John Denver songs. Hearing a guy sing Country Roads with a Norwegian accent just did not do it for me. (Remember, John Denver once gave me $5.) I don’t want to beat they guy up too badly, but if he were a street performer in America no one would give him money or listen to him. In Bergen, there was a duo singing folk songs by the waterfront and there was a huge crowd. They actually sang Sweet Home Alabama. SWEET HOME ALABAMA! People from outside of Alabama should never, ever sing this song. First off if you dropped a Norwegian in the middle of Alabama they would have a heart attack. Second of all, the song was written as a response to Neil Young’s song Southern Man which was about racist problems still alive in Alabama due to slavery. Now I know that Sweet Home Alabama has a great little guitar lick and is great little jam, but I’m with Neil Young on this one: The Southern United States should not be celebrating their “heritage” and Norwegians should not be singing this song.

Every Norwegian driver thinks they are a rally car racer. Maybe it is because there is no snow on the roads, but they like to drive fast, turn without braking much, and stop and start abruptly. I saw rally car racing on the television a couple times in Norway, and I didn’t watch much TV. As I sit here in the airport I have seen multiple airport vehicles tearing around like the driver was in a Vin Diesel movie. I suppose when you drive in the snow most of the year, driving on bare pavement makes things too easy, so Norwegians like to spice it up by driving like stunt men and women.

The kid area in the old cathedral.

The kid area in the old cathedral. Photo taken using the Barbara Walters’ filter.

Norway has the lowest percentage of people practicing an organized religion. (I think this information comes from Jo Nesbo books. By the way, Jo Nesbo fans, there is a new Harry Hole novel out in Norway and in five years you may be able to read it in English.) Often times people equate religion with ethical behavior, other times people equate unethical behavior with religion, but Norwegians strike me as very ethical people. They make all appearances to care about other human beings and their society does what it can to balance the scales of injustice. There is a greater balance between rich and poor here than any other Western country and the people are proud of that fact. I’m pretty sure there is a lesson to be learned from these heathen Vikings about what it means to love your neighbor.
The human brain is amazing and my brain has been challenged by one specific item in Norway: Doors. My brain usually works pretty well when it comes to looking at a door and knowing whether it is a push or pull situation, but in Norway I got it wrong almost every time. If I was supposed to push, then I was pulling. If I was to be pulling, I was pushing. I don’t know what it is about the construction of the doors in this nation but there is an optical illusion taking place with the vertical lip of the doors. I never realized I take in so much visual information before opening a door. My little brain got fooled so often that I began to “do the opposite” of what I thought I should do and this actually worked. I probably looked like someone confronted by a door for the first time as I stood there waiting for the information wash through my brain, but at least I stopped pulling my arm out of socket. Doors are also hefty numbers here, weaklings are going to die in the cold during a storm. The winter must blow some cold strong winds, because most doors weighed a metric ton.

Mini-train with mini-tunnels.

Mini-train with mini-tunnels.

Norwegians love building train tracks and tunnels. The option of building around something never seems to occur to them. There is a child-like playfulness when it comes to tunnels, some tunnels are built just because they want to poke a hole in something. It might have something to do with their national fascinated with trolls, but I’m not sure. It could also be that they just like a fun challenge. Whatever it is, they sure get a kick out of drilling through a mountainside. They also love their trains, steep trains, fast trains, high-altitude trains, and just regular trollies. If you like trains, then Norway should be on your list of countries to visit.

TSOJ: Bergen, Norway, Always Wash Your Hands Twice Before Going to a Leprosy Museum

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Streets so narrow that the postman gets a workout.

Bergen may be the greatest city in the world for wandering. Many of the streets are so narrow that a baby strollers can’t fit down them (imagine a city built like the aisles at Walmart except there are no people on electric scooters). The lanes twist and turn up and down the hillside in an organic way that only can be explained through an examination of the human condition and history. You will find none of that here. You will find sweeping generalizations about Bergen that have not been researched and are based on two days of visiting.

Twisty, turny, and steep.

Twisty, turny, and steep.

I began my day like I begin all days during The Summer of Jon (TSOJ) eating a free breakfast at my hotel in a way that can only be described as over-indulgent. Today it was one hard-boiled egg, three pieces of thick toast, two of those hard rectangular crackers that are only good on long hikes or slathered in so much jam you can no longer see the cracker, three pieces of ham, three pieces of salami, nine pieces of cheese, three glasses of orange juice, four cups of coffee, and a pile of pickles and cucumbers. I rolled away from the table ready for the day and had a loose plan: see some stuff and don’t spend any money.

I thought getting lost to start the day would be a good way to go. I find getting lost to start off gets the old directional karma going in a super positive way, so I took a step out of the Pension where I am staying and ran into my first problem of the day, it was raining. That’s okay, I live in the mighty PNW and a little rain is not going to melt me. I zipped up my rain jacket, put on a little beanie hat, and noticed the rain was just falling a little, like baby rain, the kind of rain we call spitting. I took a left turn, went into the narrowest alley/road I could find and proceeded to wander for about 30 minutes. When I emerged from the bowels of the twisty little streets I noticed the rain had changed from spitting to what we call raining hard. No problem, I pulled on the hood of my raincoat and tightened the strap around my neck, I was not going to let a little rain spoil my only full day in Bergen. By the time I reached Bryggen (the oldest section of an old city) I had changed my plan from: see some stuff and don’t spend any money, to see some stuff that is inside and therefore have to spend some money.

Buildings older than Burt Reynolds.

Buildings older than Burt Reynolds.

Bryggen's waterfront shops.

Bryggen’s waterfront shops.

Building close together was good for something I suppose.

Building close together was good for something I suppose.

This rock mason really impressed me with HER skill and strength.

This rock mason really impressed me with HER skill and strength.

The courtyard was jam-packed with tourists.

The courtyard was jam-packed with tourists.

I wanted to see Rosekranz Tower anyway, so I meandered through the old city buildings stopping in shops to look like I was going to buy things, but what I was doing was trying to dry off. Bryggen is really cool. It is a World Heritage Site, so it isn’t just some place that I like, other people who really matter like it too. I was tempted to buy a picture of an old oval Norwegian calendar, but I knew I would squish it somewhere between here and Munich so I decided to do what any lazy American would do, look for it later on Amazon.

The last 200 meters between Bryggen and Rosenkranz Tower was unprotected and the rain was coming down in what we in the mighty PNW call “sideways” rain (notice how easily I use the metric system now that I have been in Europe for a week). I made the slog through the waves of rain and eventually figured out how to open the door to the castle. (I have had some challenges with Norwegian doors, but that is for tomorrow’s post.) Inside the tower were two nice ladies dressed in traditional Norwegian outfits who informed me that I could not buy the Bergen Card (a card that allows admission to most of the museums in town for a reduced flat rate) at the tower, but the card is available at the Tourist Information office. The kind lady in the funny dress was about to show me where the office was, but I knew where it was, it was about 10,000 meters away, around the harbor. Now, a walk along the harbor is probably nice 50 days a year in Bergen (rainiest city in Norway) but today was not what most people call a “nice” day. It was a rainy ass day.

Visit #1 to Rosenkranz Tower.

Visit #1 to Rosenkranz Tower

To make a long walk short, I got there, I could feel my socks getting wet and I knew it was time to implement project “keep Jon dry.” This was going to be a challenge since I was now at the other side of the city from the tower. I took out a soggy map, found the first place I could find that looked dry and interesting and headed to Domkirken, a large church that would be great for drying out. Say what you will about churches, but there are not too many places where a guy can go sit by himself and not look like a weirdo. Fortunately, I showed up just as the organist was warming up the big pipe organ. He played a lot of ominous music, it wasn’t like he was playing music to sing to, it was the soundtrack of my day, dark and brooding. I sat there for a good 45 minutes listening to Liberace tinkling the old ivories (the keys could be wooden in this church, but saying Liberace tinkling the old wooden ones sounds a little obscene) before I decided to make a dash for my next location. As soon as I headed toward the door a group of Italian tourists came flooding in to the sanctuary like a slow moving tide of Green Bay Packers running a half-back toss. I maneuvered my way out, practically sprinted away from the church, here is where someone who might have been watching me the whole time I was hanging around the church might draw some interesting conclusions about my internal life, I’m talking to you NSA. Sits for a long time staring into the distance, suddenly gets up, plows through Italian tourists, and dashes into the rain soaked streets of Bergen.

Is it just me, or does that pipe organ look like a cat?

Is it just me, or does that pipe organ look like a cat?

I made my way back through Bryggen, stopping to look in the same stores I had looked in before, and eventually found the Bryggens Museum. This place was great. The heat was turned on, they had a place to hang my jacket, and there was a coffee shop; there was also a museum exhibit about some stuff they dug up. I don’t like these types of historical museums because I am usually not surprised by any information that is presented. Oh, they died early because they lived in filth and had to survive by eating lots of potatoes… I will admit, after I got over the fact that I could get warm and dry, I began enjoying looking at some of the stuff. The boats they built back then were impressive. The early adventurers and sailors had to be brave beyond belief, but I suppose if you lived in a shack the size of a bathroom with 12 other people, and shared a toilet with the whole block, maybe being on the high seas in a boat that could go under at any moment isn’t the worst choice you could make. I also saw some shoes that had little runic symbols carved into them, the craftsmanship and creativity of humans has not changed over time, we have just improved our tools. There was also a letter on a stick of metal. The letter was not translated so I will do the job for you: “Dear Mr. Johnson, Thank you for inquiring about our room to rent. There is space for you, but you must share the room with 11 other Vikings. There are four beds each four feet long. During the winter months you will be expected to provide your own pelts to keep you warm. There is a 10 dried cod damage deposit, and your monthly rent will be 5 dried cod. All electrical, HBO/Showtime, WiFi, and a rock pillow are included in your costs.” I think it said something like that.

Dear Mr. Johnson...

Dear Mr. Johnson…

I dinked around the museum until I felt a nap coming on, so I headed upstairs to the cafe to get a coffee and waffle. The coffee was lovely, dark, and deep, but the waffle was a little thin thing that I smeared with jam and some white stuff. I thought the white stuff was cream, but I wasn’t too sure so I just moved it around until the jam took over and made it into a little sandwich. It was good. I listened in on four old guys talking loudly in Norwegian a table away and wondered what they were talking about. I assume they were talking about the youth of today and politics, at least that is what I expect all old people to talk about. These guys looked old enough to be in WWII so they could be talking about how they resisted the Nazis.

After the coffee and waffle sandwich, I finally made it to the tower. My Bergen Card was already soggy and limp, but the kind lady in the funny dress gave me directions and told me to watch my head because “some” of the doorways were short. I don’t want to quibble with her use of the word “some” because I am the person who can only speak one language, but “some” would mean that there would be a few that would be short and the rest would be easy to pass through, this was not the case.

What's scarier than a basement of an old tower?

What’s scarier than a basement of an old tower?

How about this crevice in the basement?

How about this crevice in the basement?

If you have a friend who is slightly claustrophobic and you would love to play a joke on them, bring them to Rosenkranz Tower. The tour started in the basement. I am not claustrophobic, but once I was in the basement my little heart was doing some pitter pattering. I saw a little room just off the basement and even though my mind was saying, “Don’t go in there” I went in there. It was a little dead-end room about the size of Orson Welles’ colon. It also smelled a little like Orson Welles’ colon. (I don’t really know what Orson Welles’ colon smells like or why his colon came into my mind as a comparison, but I’d bet 10 Icelandic Kroner’s that it smelled like this little room.) This little room was the dungeon. Well, that made perfect sense. I would never, ever, ever want to be stuffed in this room with the gate closed. The best thing about being in this room was that for the rest of the tour no matter how steep, or narrow things got, I could always remember that I survived the dungeon and I would somehow make it through the tower in one piece. To be honest, I had a great time messing around. I was by myself almost the entire time and this allowed me the freedom to act like the immature idiot that I truly am. Eventually I ended up on the rooftop, which in my pictures does not capture the scariness of the place. I may not be claustrophobic, but I do have a fear of falling from high places especially places that are wet, slippery, and in Norway. I made it all the way around the tower and then headed back down. There were a few more rooms, a hidden toilet, and then I was back where I started. I headed back into the summer monsoon and saw a sign that said, “A free cup of coffee or tea with your ticket in the cafe.” Well, free always has a ring to it, so I headed that way.

Nearly trapped in the dungeon.

Nearly trapped in the dungeon.

I don't think this stairway will meet the safety standards of modern society.

I don’t think this stairway will meet the safety standards of modern society.

The rooftop catwalk.

The rooftop catwalk.

The King's gravestone, that's his wife to the right.

The King’s gravestone, that’s his wife to the right.

Check out their eyes, there appears to be some distrust here.

Check out their eyes, there appears to be some distrust here.

Follow the green arrows. The building did not come apart like this map.

Follow the green arrows. The building did not come apart like this map.

On the way to the cafe, I got distracted by a sign that said, “Hakonshallen.” Free coffee is one thing, but Hakonshallen is even more appealing. I followed the sign and soon found myself in a huge hall, it was this dude name Hakon’s hall. This hall was built around 1250 and was the biggest building in Norway. I think there are malls in Norway that are bigger now, but the hall was still amazing. The hall was used for lots of daily King stuff, but eventually (1500) the hall was just used to store stuff. In 1680 somebody restored it and then redecorated in 1910-16. Unfortunately in 1944 a German ammunition ship exploded in the harbor. The hall caught fire (this is the kind of history I like: stuff burning) and was damaged badly. The walls survived because they were about five feet thick, so they rebuilt the wooden part of the hall and now use it for ceremonies again. The white tapestry on the northern wall was a calendar of the important Catholic holidays and events which I liked a lot. I need a calendar that big to keep me on track.

It is the size of the hall that makes all the difference.

It is the size of the hall that makes all the difference.

Calendar: note the kids have a soccer game on the 12th.

Calendar: note the kids have a soccer game on the 12th.

The King's view.

The King’s view.

In Norway they skateboard with their butts not their feet.

In Norway they skateboard with their butts not their feet.

When the street starts to turn into a river it is time to dry off.

When the street starts to turn into a river it is time to dry off.

My time at Hakonshallen was well spent, but it came to an end and it was time to make a decision, project keep Jon dry was not going well and my next stop was the Leprosy Museum which was a good distance away. I decided that since my Pension was about halfway there, I would stop at the Pension and change my socks and pants so I would be dry for the Leprosy Museum, you do not want to be soaked while walking through a Leprosy Museum.

After I got my new dry outfit on, I found the Leprosy Museum. I thought this place would be a hoot, it wasn’t. This church in Bergen became a kind of lepers colony for Norway. Of course they did not know what caused leprosy, they thought it was because farmers were too dirty (really, that is what they thought at first.) For a long time the people with leprosy were just housed in very bad conditions. A report was published about how terrible conditions were and things got cleaned up some, but conditions were never humane. There were some pretty graphic things on display that I don’t need to share, but by the time I was half way through the museum I really wanted to wash my hands. I really, really wanted to wash my hands. I started thinking about the hand sanitizer I left in my room back at the Pension and wished I could just scrub my hands. It is my typical response to anything germ related, but it also says a little about how I was unprepared for what I was going to see. It is one thing to laugh off leprosy as a disease of the past, but it is another thing to see pictures of humans who were suffering and mistreated because they were unfortunate. It is times like this when I realize how lucky I am, and how selfish I am. Whoever put this museum together did it with an emphasis on the human tragedy of the people affected and the attempts to solve the cause.

What a cute waterfall formed from the rain.

What a cute waterfall formed from the rain.

Leprosy Museum entrance.

Leprosy Museum entrance.

Nice blurry picture champ!

Nice blurry picture champ!

Oh, this is a close-up of the names of people who died here. The blurry picture is from a distance.

Oh, this is a close-up of the names of people who died here. The blurry picture is from a distance.

The rooms were not big.

The rooms were not big.

The little sign under the lamp said, "Take off your shoes and watch the movie." No thanks.

The little sign under the lamp said, “Take off your shoes and watch the movie.” No thanks.

Each leprosy patient had their own dishes.

Each leprosy patient had their own dishes.

I left the museum and headed to three art museums bunched together by a park. I have never been a fan of realism when it comes to art, but Norway has some nice stuff to paint so I liked the paintings of the mountains and fjords. The best part of the trio of museums was that there was a Munch wing in one of the museums and I could take pictures so bite that Munch’s 150 Years Special Exhibit in Oslo. By the time I got through all three museums it was getting late, so I walked through the Torgallmenningen street and looked at what I guessed was a fisherman’s memorial. I have a respect for people who make a living as fishermen. It is not an easy job, and it is dangerous. I don’t want to even think about what winters are like on the seas outside of Bergen.

Norwegian folk art of summer bonfires.

Norwegian folk art of summer bonfires.

This one was called barnyard courting. Lots of funny stuff here.

This one was called barnyard courting. Lots of funny stuff here.

This one was called, "Bad News."  Not to be confused by the movie Bad News Bears.

This one was called, “Bad News.” Not to be confused by the movie Bad News Bears.

This one was called We stack our wood up here to make the house burn down quicker. I don't remember the name of this one.

This one was called We stack our wood up here to make the house burn down quicker. I don’t remember the name of this one.

Dire Straits, I wonder if the band named themselves after this painting.

Dire Straits, I wonder if the band named themselves after this painting.

Looks like DuChamp visited this room.

Looks like DuChamp visited this room.

Munch on this Oslo!

Munch on this Oslo!

Separation

Separation

Mini Scream

Mini Scream

Little park

Little park

Hillside of Bergen.

Hillside of Bergen.

Looks like a memorial to me.

Looks like a memorial to me.

My last stop was a quick one, I rode the funicular up to the top of the hill over-looking Bergen. It was rainy, the view was bad, and I was joined by a group of cruise ship tourists. I took some quick pictures and headed back to my room.

Bergen is certainly worth a visit and it has been a good couple of days, but tomorrow it is off to Copenhagen. Weather reports are promising!

Look how happy I am to be riding with this crew.

Look how happy I am to be riding with this crew.

I'll bet this view is something when it isn't raining.

I’ll bet this view is something when it isn’t raining.

A little clearing.

A little clearing.

Funicular signs are fun.

Funicular signs are fun.

TSOJ: Sometimes Stupidity Pays Off–Norway in a Nutshell

The summer my family spent in Hamburg finally put me at ease when traveling by train. German rail is efficient, organized, and wonderfully easy to use once you understand the charts, tracks, cars, and system. Norway seems to have many of the same characteristics, but there is also the “if you have questions, just ask” kind of attitude. Now this works for most travelers, because we do ask questions, but I was not in question asking mode today because I had my little paper that told me where I was going and how I was going to get there. So I journeyed forth fully confident that only a moron could get lost on a trip like this. Let’s meet our moron: He is a tall, 40+ (heavy on the plus) year-old man with travel experience. One would think on a tour built for people who are in their 70s he could manage not to get lost, well you’d be wrong.

Waiting at a railway station, I got a ticket for a destination.

Waiting at a railway station, I got a ticket for a destination.

Let’s start at the beginning. I needed to be at the train tracks by 7:30, breakfast started at 7:00 and it took about 15 minutes to go from the hotel to the train station, so I shoveled a lot of food in my fat pie hole in fifteen minutes, had I known at the time it would be last meal of the day I might have filled my pockets with bread. Anyway, I got to the train station early because I am an experienced traveler who knows what is going on. I took out my ticket, looked for a seat or car number, did not find one and assumed it was open seating. Finding a good seat as a single rider is easy, so I sat back and relaxed. When the train finally arrived, I hopped on, found a great seat and readied myself for the ride from Oslo to Myrdal. The first part of the journey was to take four and a half hours; I had to change my seats three times because I cannot read. #1: Older couple shows me their ticket, I assume they have reserved a seat, so I move. I have reserved seats before, but it usually comes with a surcharge so I assume it is just because they are dumb and paid extra. Pay attention, Dear Reader, and find out who the real idiot is. #2: Train conductor comes to check tickets, I hand mine over like the pro I am. He says I am in the wrong seat. He then shows me the second ticket in my pack of three, it has a car number and seat on it (Vogn: 3, Plass 20). Any person with a working knowledge of Norwegian (that means people other than me) knows that means car 3, seat 20, in my defense the rest of the ticket has the important words translated into English. So I go back to find my seat in car three, I see it, it is a window seat and there is an elderly lady sitting with her stuff on my seat. Her son says she needs her space (he was joking, but I let her have the spot and sat down up front in an empty seat). #3: A family gets on the train and says, “You’re in our seat.” I tell him that I know where I am supposed to be, stand up, tell grandma to move over and sit down. It ended up being a pretty good seat. Claudia, the old lady, was celebrating her 80th birthday by taking her family on this trip. Claudia spoke with a heavy German accent, so when I asked where she was from and she responded, “Auburn, Alabama” I thought I had misheard her, but she repeated it and I finally clued in that she could possibly be from Germany, but now lives in Auburn. I eventually did hear a Southern accent mixed in there with her German twang, but that was after we were BFFs. I ended up sitting next to about half the family as they all moved around. There was Claudia’s daughter, her husband (retired Air Force), their son (attending private school in Montgomery, second largest private school population per capita in America behind only Jackson, Mississippi. When people find out you are a teacher they talk to you differently. Had I been a lawyer I never would have found out about the terrible condition of schools in Alabama.) I also met Mike who lives in Bonn, his girlfriend, and Mike’s daughter. They were very nice people and tolerated me. I had a nice conversation about the Munch exhibit in Oslo, found out Claudia lived in Chicago, and that her first husband was an Engineering professor. Her second husband was a doctor. She outlived both of them, and from the looks of her, she might outlive me.

About a mile high in altitude at this point.

About a mile high in altitude at this point.

As the train climbed into the highest plateau in Europe (according to retired Air Force son-in-law) the views from the train were just what I had expected, spectacular. I also found out no one knew the German word for plateau, darn shame that Germans don’t have a word for that geographical fixture. Had we known this during WWII many lives could have been saved by hiding troops on plateaus. The Germans would order an attack on that flat piece of land way up high and something would definitely be lost in translation. It is these types of observations military historians need to spend a little more time on.

The cute train station and pile of tourists at the far end of the loading area.

The cute train station and pile of tourists at the far end of the loading area.

Eventually we ended up in Myrdal, which is like one of those alpine train stations that are very cute because it is one of those cute alpine train stations. I set up camp immediately right next to the big number 9 painted on ground, because I knew it was open seating this time. (The numbers usually indicate where the train will stop. These are the prime locations for anyone wanting to elbow their way to a good seat.) I talked to a guy from California, who said the left side of the train was best, he was right. This set this guy up in my mind as an expert. The little train ride down to Flam was unbelievable. I do mean outstanding. Just gorgeous. The only difficulty was that the lameos who sat on the wrong side of the train kept trying to take pictures on my side of the train. It did not bother me (this is true) but the young Russian couple sitting next to me was really put off by it. The girl went into what I would describe as a silent tizzy and stopped taking pictures altogether and did a lot of eye rolling and crossing of arms.

Waterfall, a dancing lady appeared to lure us to our death just after I took this picture.

Waterfall, a dancing lady appeared to lure us to our death just after I took this picture.

See, there she is! I want this job, there must be an application on-line.

See, there she is! I want this job, there must be an application on-line.

Did I mention this is the steepest railway line in the world? It also took a 180 degree turn inside a tunnel. It wasn't that impressive since it was very dark inside the tunnel.

Did I mention this is the steepest railway line in the world? It also took a 180 degree turn inside a tunnel. It wasn’t that impressive since it was very dark inside the tunnel.

Looking up the valley. You can also rent a mountain bike at the top of the hill and ride down on a path.

Looking up the valley. You can also rent a mountain bike at the top of the hill and ride down on a path.

Watch out for the second boat! Or, how to turn a three hour boat tour into a full seven hour one.

Watch out for the second boat! Or, how to turn a three hour boat tour into a full seven hour one.

When we got down to the valley floor we had about 45 minutes until our boat boarded, so I sat around doing nothing. The California guy said that boat #2 was ours, so I moved down that way a little bit, I didn’t think there would be too much competition for seats on the outside and I was right. I got in line, handed my ticket to the Captain, he said, “Norway in a Nutshell?” I said, “Yes,” then he waved me on to the boat. I went up to the top of the boat, got a seat and got ready to be dazzled. The fjord tour was great. I took 10,000 pictures, and was having a great time. I didn’t see Claudia’s family anywhere and hoped they got on the right boat (they did, funny enough.) About two hours into my journey the California guy said, “I was just talking to the Captain and he says we are on the wrong boat.” This is information that I did not want to hear. Thought #1: How much is this going to cost me? Thought #2: Now what? Thought #3: I’m an idiot. (This should have been thought #1.) The California guy did have more information, “The Captain said we can just stay on the boat all the way to Bergen.” Now, this seemed a bit odd since the Norway in a Nutshell package is a well planned trip of trains, busses, and boats. If everyone could just stay on the boat, why wouldn’t they? I asked the California dude when we would get in and it turned out that by staying on the wrong boat we would arrive before the group I was supposed to be with. I would also get to cruise through the Norwegian islands at no extra cost. Had I planned this trip it would cost a lot more. Now, here is where I began to love the relax attitude that Norwegians have. If I had made this mistake in Germany or France, they would have let me off at the next stop and I would be on my own. In Norway, “Oh well, you are an idiot. Take a free ride through our beautiful islands.”

Smile dummy, you're on the wrong boat.

Smile dummy, you’re on the wrong boat.

Want Fjords? We got some Fjords for you.

Want Fjords? We got some Fjords for you.

Waterfalls? Check.

Waterfalls? Check.

Norway's islands along the coast.

Norway’s islands along the coast.

This area reminded me of where I live: the mighty PNW.

This area reminded me of where I live: the mighty PNW.

Bergen's waterfront.

Bergen’s waterfront.

Nice manhole cover.

Nice manhole cover.

I ended up in Bergen a half hour ahead of time, and got to my Pension before my tour group arrived in town. Sometimes being an idiot is golden.

TSOJ: How I got a sunburn in Oslo.

When I got up this morning I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to see Vigland Park if the weather was nice and then I might go to the National Portrait Museum and see the special exhibit: Edward Munch he’d be 150 years-old this year if he hadn’t died. I’m not a big fan of special exhibits when I travel, because the paintings I really want to see are often taken off display. Anyway, I got up, ate 5000 calories of breakfast because it is included in my stay (if there is one piece of travel advice for everyone it is get a room with breakfast included.) Families this is doubly important because each meal you eat out can break the old piggy jar, and in Oslo, if you want to eat after your free breakfast you can, but I would suggest stuffing your pie hole.

Always, always, always get a hotel with a breakfast bar.

Always, always, always get a hotel with a breakfast bar.

I was out of the hotel by 8:30 and on my way to the closed Portrait Museum so I did what I always do, I began wandering. I wandered over to a Tourist Information office and soon had a plan. Visit the city hall, jam over to the museum, then down to the Opera House and then a bike tour.

Karl Johans street. Before anyone else is awake.

Karl Johans street. Before anyone else is awake.

City Hall in Oslo looks like it was designed my some Hollywood set director in an anti-utopian movie about the evils of Socialism. Since I am an anti-capitalist pinko, I kind of liked it from the outside. There is something about this form of architecture that is so impersonal and oppressive that it makes me feel even less significant than usual.

City Hall looking like a building from Marx's wet dream.

City Hall looking like a building from Marx’s wet dream.

There are some nice touches to the exterior of the building that give it a Norse flavor.

Astrological clock in a building from 1920?

Astrological clock in a building from 1920?

The Norse Mythology carvings around the exterior of the building were pretty cool. I like Norse Mythology, lots of violence and sex.

The panels running around the exterior of the courtyard had lots of Norse Mythology.

The panels running around the exterior of the courtyard had lots of Norse Mythology.

Inside the city hall was the cool stuff. Here is where they award the Nobel Peace Prize.

Inside the city hall was the cool stuff. Here is where they award the Nobel Peace Prize.

The true beauty of the building was inside. Huge murals covered the walls telling the story of the country. The history of Norway is complex, kind of like a soap opera but with countries involved instead of people. Denmark and Norway were inseparable, then they broke up and Norway started dating Sweden, but found out they were all wrong for each other and Norway decided to go out on their own. At least I think that is how it worked. There was some Nazi stuff in there too, and some elections for kings and an adoption as I recall. If you have come to this blog looking for accurate information about Norway’s history then you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for sweeping generalizations and inaccuracies then this is your spot.

Murals covered most of the walls representing portions of Norway's history.

Murals covered most of the walls representing portions of Norway’s history.

In order to really tell you about the history or symbolism of the murals I would have had to stop and read the descriptions, but instead I spent my time fighting for space with bus tourists. Bus tourism should only take place as a last resort, I say this as I prepare for a bus/train tour in two days, but if you have to do a bus tour realize how annoying you are as you blob your way through everything in order to stay on schedule.

More murals.

More murals.

Munch mural with naked people.

Munch mural with naked people.

This is as good as any time to talk about the Munch exhibit since special exhibits never allow photography. I don’t blame them for banning photography, but almost all the paintings in the exhibit were borrowed from the Munch Museum in the far away city of Oslo. Before I begin complaining full-time let me say what I liked: Munch’s career was more expansive than I thought, he has some really amazing paintings and his Summer Moonlight paintings were super. His slow move to dealing with the issues of isolation and depression were also interesting. The Scream might be the only Munch painting people are familiar with, but his blue self-portrait where he is smoking is even better in my opinion.

Let the complaining begin: I ended up stuck between four bus tours: Two Japanese tours and two American tours. I don’t know which groups annoyed me more, the slow moving Americans or the fast moving Japanese ones. (This is a lie, I hated the Japanese tours more, but I don’t want to sound too much like a bigot.) If I tried to move ahead of the packs the Japanese groups were soon gathered around me talking loudly in what sounds to me more like chickens squawking than an actual language. I know this is a horrible thing to say, I know I sound like a red-neck, I know I should be more tolerant, but THIS IS THE SUMMER OF JON!!! Let me look at a painting in peace and don’t EVER move in front of me when I am looking at a painting. Just because I am taller than you does not mean I should be ignored. If I am blocking your view, it is because I was here first and I will eventually move, I don’t mind standing next to me, but the next time a tour guide steps in front of me I am going to knock her straw hat off.

The slow moving American group can be summed up in one statement I overheard between a husband and wife, “His stuff just doesn’t do anything for me.” Hey, I know what you mean, but I don’t go to those museums and annoy people who do like his stuff. There is no rule that says you can’t stay on the bus and watch reruns of All In The Family.

Both groups need to follow this simple rule: When in a museum shut yer yap! Talk quietly, move respectfully, and understand you are not the only tourist on vacation– I am! (I am practicing using more exclamation points since I will be in Germany in a couple weeks.)

I am fascinated with city manhole covers. They really are unique, you just have to look.
After battling for an hour or so I decided to walk down to the Opera House and check it out. The main pedestrian street runs from the Royal Palace to the waterfront, so it is hard to get lost. Don’t worry, before this blog entry is over I will be lost.

Little girl riding a tiger, lucky little girl. Just outside the train station, I didn't take any pictures outside the bus station because I didn't want to get mugged.

Little girl riding a tiger, lucky little girl. Just outside the train station, I didn’t take any pictures outside the bus station because I didn’t want to get mugged.

The Opera House, like most of the things in Norway, was built with an emphasis on getting people to use it. Not an Opera fan? Well, how about climbing to the top of a really cool building and checking out the view?

Oslo Opera House.

Oslo Opera House.

Not too bad, I might have to come back and look inside.

Not too bad, I might have to come back and look inside.

These shades were made for walking.

These shades were made for walking.

After I finished the visit/hike up the Opera House, it was off to take a bike tour.

It looks like a child and parent met an untimely end here.

It looks like a child and parent met an untimely end here.

I showed up early and talked with the owner of Viking Bikes for a little bit and then he let me take a bike out for a bit until the tour started. I went down to the Opera House again, then over to a castle and then got back just in time to meet our group.

Viking Biking, English speaking tours of Oslo.

Viking Biking, English speaking tours of Oslo.

We started learning about the founding of Oslo, most of it had to do with fires and rebuilding until one of the rulers said, “I wonder if the city would stop burning down if we widened streets?” Seems like a no-brainer to me, but these things are always easier to figure out as a Monday morning quarterback.

The changing of the guard, or something.

The changing of the guard, or something.

We biked over to the fortress, watched some not too scary guys with guns march around for a bit and then walked around the tower walls. It was pretty cool, but security in Norway is not taken too seriously. People seem to trust each other, as crazy as that sounds. There were several times on the bike tour that we were right next to very important people and locations and there was zero noticeable security. I would think after that nut job set off a bomb in downtown Oslo and shot 70 kids on the island, that they might tighten up the bolts a bit, but maybe there are precautions in place that I am unaware of.

The fortress was easy to breach.

The fortress was easy to breach.

A memorial  for the executions by the Nazis. I think, it isn't in English.

A memorial for the executions by the Nazis. I think, it isn’t in English.

After storming the castle, we pedaled down by the water front and I wished that Seattle’s new waterfront design would come close to Oslo’s.

I signed a document that said I wouldn't do this.

I signed a document that said I wouldn’t do this.

The Royal Palace, guarded as closely as a box of cookies.

The Royal Palace, guarded as closely as a box of cookies.

We then headed to Froger Park. The Froger area is wealthy, but there were tons of kids walking through the neighborhood on their way to sun themselves in the Park. If there is one observation I can make about Norway’s people it would be that they don’t care what you are doing as long as it doesn’t interfere with what they are doing. People at work sit when they are not helping people, they check their cell phone messages, but when it is time to help, they are right there. They seem to have a relaxed attitude and independence that works.

Vigland Park.

Vigland Park.

Vigeland Park is amazing. I will only write a little bit about it and then let you check out the pictures. This Vigeland fellow was a sculptor and he needed a place to stay, so he made a deal with the city of Oslo that if they built him a nice house (a very nice house) he would fill their park with his statues. It was a win win. He got himself some nice digs and Oslo got the best sculpture park in the world. The statues are all nude so that they would be timeless and could always be enjoyed by everyone. I was so blown away by the park I did not get annoyed by the hordes of bus tourists.

Bridge of bronze statues, and a bonus shot of my finger.

Bridge of bronze statues, and a bonus shot of my finger.

The most famous of Vigeland's statues. Touch his hand for good luck.

The most famous of Vigeland’s statues. Touch his hand for good luck.

Silly Norwegians getting a tan instead of looking at the statues.

Silly Norwegians getting a tan instead of looking at the statues.

I like the tile work here, probably because I could not do this in 10,000 years.

I like the tile work here, probably because I could not do this in 10,000 years.

The picture below might need some explaining. The big tube is life, there is usually water pouring out of it. The men holding up the tub are not all sharing the load, some have a heavier burden (just like life kids), the work around the men follows the stages of life. So there.

Dudes holding up life surrounded by the circle of life.

Dudes holding up life surrounded by the circle of life.

Everything about this park is super nifty.

Everything about this park is super nifty.

The monolith has 121 figures, took 14 years, and is one solid piece of granite.

The monolith has 121 figures, took 14 years, and is one solid piece of granite.

There is a baby at the top, everybody else is squished.

There is a baby at the top, everybody else is squished.

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I’ll call this one: Pile of babies.

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Dog pile on Dad.

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Old dude section.

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Main gate and monolith.

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One of my fingers is always photobombing my pictures.

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My favorite.

My favorite.

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I like this girl’s attitude.

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I call this one swinging free.

After the park we tried to ride all the way back to the office, but the waterfront was crowded with people, who can blame them, if I lived in Oslo I would be down there too.

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Waterfront/Fjord restoration, it reminded me of Hafen City in Hamburg.

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Nobel Prize museum.

After we finished the tour and I realized I didn’t have any money to tip the guide I felt like an idiot, but I will go back tomorrow and drop off a tip. It was a great way to spend an afternoon and the next time you are in Oslo you should take a tour with Viking.

I then went back to my hotel and took a catnap. I figured I would head out to an area that runs along a river called Gronland. I heard it would be a good place to get a less expensive meal and would take me outside the tourist area. It certainly did. I didn’t take a map and before too long I was in an area that if I were driving I would lock the doors. Instead of stopping and asking for help, I did the smart thing and just kept moving like I knew where I was heading. It looked like I was heading for trouble, but I took a few left turns, walked fast and eventually ended up at the bus station which is not exactly Valhalla, but at least I knew where I was. All in all, I ended up not finding the river area and walking about five miles.

I headed back to my hotel and found a cheap meal right next door at a 7-11: box of noodles.
I then sat on a park bench and enjoyed a meal with some guy I didn’t know. The view of the Parliament building, the sunshine, the things I saw, even the box of noodles mad for a great dinning experience.

Dinner on a park bench with a stranger is a great way to end the day.

Dinner on a park bench with a stranger is a great way to end the day.

Parliament building, my dinner view.

Parliament building, my dinner view.

Nice face, look happy, it is the Summer of Jon.

Nice face, look happy, it is the Summer of Jon.

 

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Iceland

I flew out of Iceland yesterday evening in what I would term a winter storm. Winds were blowing about 50 miles per hour, the temperature was no more than 50 degrees, rain was blasting the airport, and because it is Iceland we walked about 300 yards in the monsoon to get to the plane. Once aboard I wondered if the weather was great for flying and then I thought, “This is summer weather for these pilots, this is nothing.” I was right, we took off like we were flying on a clear summer day in Seattle. Two hours later I was in Norway where there are more trees in a square mile than the entire country of Iceland.

Iceland is one of the stranger places a visitor can go. The land is one part of the strangeness, the strangeness of the length of days, the strangeness of the language, the strangeness of the food, and then there is the people. The Icelandic people are friendly, but they also do not hide their feelings. They tolerate tourists because without the tourist dollar the economic hard times would be even more difficult. The stunted trees of the country symbolize the people best, hunkered down against a hillside just surviving the wind and storms that blow through the land. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of hope in life, they deal with it by gritting their teeth and pushing forward. There is a Nordic sense of doom hanging everywhere. Men tinker on their homes preparing for the 10 months of bitter weather, women knit thick sweaters and probably don’t own a light summer dress, and kids wear their jackets without complaint. Everyone knows that July is when they can relax and take a deep breath, but no one seems to do that, they prepare for the next storm. They avoid being too happy about the present and focus on preparing for the bleak future. This general attitude makes the financial crisis even harsher for a people who are far more focused on the future than the present. The moments of joy are always tempered by the reality of a fate that has been a part of the Nordic heritage since they began telling stories in their strange pirate language. Pirate is probably offensive the these Vikings, although Pirates and Vikings have a great deal in common Pirates never settled a country or carried a heritage for thousands of years. Icelandic lore (along with recent history to support the story) said the Reyjakavik was founded when one of the Viking leaders, Ingolfur Arnarson, tossed a couple logs overboard somewhere out at sea and followed them to land. Where the two logs landed is modern day Reyjakvik. Leaving the founding of a city and nation up to fate (or in this case two logs and the tides) is not something that one can celebrate as grandly as one can if you are escaping religious persecution like the American lore (less supported by history the further we get away from it) but it says a great deal about who the Icelandic people are, they have been tossed about by the sea, but they deal with it. There is not a great deal of whining in this country, there is the Sisyphean attitude, and as we all recall, Sisyphus conquered his punishment by being happy in his endless task. I think Icelanders would be happy being compared to Sisyphus.

Questions about Iceland and Icelanders:
Are there any actual laws related to driving in the city? I was never sure if while standing at a crosswalk if I had the right of way. Some cars would wait, others blew right through, some waved me to go and then nearly ran me over. Sidewalks were often used as auxiliary portions of the road. Many of the vehicles were built like many of the off-road trucks in the US: big tires, lifted off the ground, and large enough for me to believe the driver was suffering from some form of inadequacy.

What’s the deal with beer? I bought a beer at a supermarket and the checker told me that it wasn’t beer. He then informed me that you could only buy beer at the wine store which was closing at 6 PM. I think he expected me to stop the purchase of my beer and dash downtown to get “real beer.” I talked to the owner of the Micro Bar about the beer situation and he told me that light beer is simply beer with 2.25% alcohol content. You can buy this type of beer at a store, but beer with a higher alcohol content must be purchased at the wine store. I asked if Icelanders drank beer, because to me the stuff in the can was horrible, I realize that it was light beer, but it was bad light beer. The beer at the Micro Bar was good and the IPA that I had there was as good as any beer you can get in the US. The owner of the Micro Bar admitted that the best beer in the world right now is in the US, but he wasn’t sure he liked the way we sold beer because when he lived in the US be spent a lot of time drinking too much beer because it was readily available. Good think we Americans could care less about getting fat. I think the general attitude of Icelanders (and this is a sweeping generalization) is that if you are going to drink then you should drink until you fall down.

What’s the story with the alphabet? I don’t even know where to start here. The language is a complete mystery to me. Everyone speaks English because no one else speaks Icelandic. I don’t ever want to suggest that the language should go away because so much of what makes a culture unique is built into the language of that culture. I only said one Icelandic word the whole time I was there, “Tak.” Which means, “Thanks” and is the same word used in Danish, so I was able to thank people but there was an additional portion of the thanks: Fyrre, or something like that.I was not confident enough to even try but it sounded like Tak Fear to me.
The rest of the language did not seem to follow the rules associated to any language I know. Somewhere in the past the Vikings that came to Iceland decided to do their own thing when it came to the language. I think the language is based on runes and therefore more like a symbol based language than a phonetic one, so if there is no basis for phonetics there is no way for me to figure out what is going on.

Do I look like an Icelander? Most of the time when I ran into people in Iceland they started out by addressing me in Icelandic. In a country as small as Iceland they say that everyone knows everyone, so I guess my twin is running around Iceland speaking Icelandic. I know some of you are thinking, “Wouldn’t it be natural for people to address you in their native language?” Sure, but I witnessed most tourists being addressed in English first. When my family stayed in German for a month I had people talk to me in German many, many times. I can understand that, we were away from the tourist areas but I do look like a German, probably because my ancestors come from the German/Dutch area in the north. (Good looking, smart people I assume.) What’s the best thing to eat in Iceland? For a quick, almost cheap bite, I think everyone should hit the hot dog place and get a couple dogs with everything (three sauces, fried onions, fresh onions). If you want to make your mouth happy then you must eat Plokkfisker with black rye bread. The bread itself is so good that I almost bought a loaf to eat by itself. White fish, cheese, butter, onions and potatoes have never tasted better.

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TSOJ: Iceland’s Harpa Tour

Iceland's Harpa Conference Center.

Iceland’s Harpa Conference Center.

When I asked the Tourist Information Dude when tours of Harpa took place he wasn’t sure. He said that he doesn’t get many requests for a tour of what is an amazing building. I am not an architectural nut, but I do appreciate beauty in all forms, and the Harpa is a beautiful thing. The building has already been through enough trials to fill the harbor surrounding it. When the dazzling building started the Icelandic people were riding high on a banking system that soon came crashing to the earth. The money behind the building was one of the broken Icelandic banks and very soon after the building began it stopped. It stood as a reminder of the economic crisis for years, a modern building sitting open to the elements slowly given over to fate. No one wanted to finance a building in such difficult times, but in the end pragmatism took over as they discovered it would be more expensive to tear it down. Some people actually rallied to let the building stand as a symbol of the country’s financial ruin, instead of finishing the building they wanted to let it sit rotting in the harbor. Knowing that this thing of beauty was almost given up on is shocking. The architect of the Harpa is the same architect who built the Copenhagen Opera House which looks to me like a garage door left open to the harbor, but it is still one of the many buildings in Copenhagen that leave an impression of modern movement. Before the Harpa Iceland’s iconic building is the Hallsgrimskikja church overseeing the entire city. One can see the hope that was built into the Harpa, a hope for the future of a small nation, and one can also see why it is a symbol that Icelanders embrace as they hope for a better future.

The view from the west.

The view from the west.

I arrived for the 3:30 tour early and had time to walk around the building a little bit. I was in Iceland about six years ago when the Harpa was just getting started so seeing it completed was on my list of things to do. At 3:30 our tour guide, Christiana, began our tour on the ground floor.

The glass was modeled after the hexagon shaped rock formations found all over Iceland.

The glass was modeled after the hexagon shaped rock formations found all over Iceland.

One of the first topics she covered was the controversy with the construction of the Harpa. What started as an expansion of the money flowing through Icelandic banks ended as a rescue by the government and people of Iceland. It was a long building process and there were various concessions made to finish the building so that the building could become the centerpiece of growth for all of Iceland. Although Iceland sits between North America and Europe many people don’t consider visiting, so the Harpa has become a do-it-all building focused on bringing companies with offices in North America and Europe to Iceland for conferences. The greatest challenge has been building more hotel space to accommodate these conferences. Not every CEO wants to share a shower at a guesthouse.

The colored glass is designed to make different effects as the sun shines through.

The colored glass is designed to make different effects as the sun shines through.

The Harpa is beautiful from the outside, but the real beauty of the building is on the interior. This makes sense because Iceland is not a place where you want to stand outside too often during nine months of the year. During the winter months LED lights around the exterior windows mimic the Northern Lights which would be something to see, but I doubt I will be visiting in December.

Lots of different shapes making construction even more complex.

Lots of different shapes making construction even more complex.

The smallest concert hall looked a little like a lecture hall one might see in a university, but like all the halls in the building it can be transformed from concert venue to lecture hall to place to take a tour of. Christiana changed the lighting from green, to red, to purple, to blue.

LED lighting in all of the smaller concert halls gives the ability to set a different tone for different concerts.

LED lighting in all of the smaller concert halls gives the ability to set a different tone for different concerts.

Deep Purple for Deep Purple?

Deep Purple for Deep Purple?

Each room had the ability to control sound. The acoustic technology used to move sound was one of the most impressive things about the building. Each room is world class and constructed as a box within a box. Therefore multiple concerts can be going on at once without noise interference.

Oak slats from the USA designed to carry sound. Behind the slats is a sheet of felt that can be raised or lowered to amplify or dampen sound.

Oak slats from the USA designed to carry sound. Behind the slats is a sheet of felt that can be raised or lowered to amplify or dampen sound.

The third room we went to looked pretty plain, but again, there were multiple uses for the room. It could be split, walls could rotate, and it was the only hall where there was electronic amplification. Christiana said that she attended a Bjork concert in the hall and the next day was in the hall for a CrossFit competition. (Bjork and CrossFit are big in Iceland.)

In concert hall three, these rotating pieces of wall allow the sound to carry (wood surface) or dampen (cloth surface).

In concert hall three, these rotating pieces of wall allow the sound to carry (wood surface) or dampen (cloth surface).

The main concert hall was simply beautiful. I suppose Christiana sees this place everyday and so it is nothing new, but I was really blown away. You can look at the pictures, my writing will only spoil it.

The main concert hall is amazing.

The main concert hall is amazing.

Not a bad seat in the house.

Not a bad seat in the house.

The view from above the stage.

The view from above the stage.

Behind each of the walls were these huge white rooms. Again, the walls could be moved to either dampen or amplify sound. When we stood in the big white room, I wished I had visited during concert season. Maybe when I am a billionaire I will come back and watch an Opera.

Alongside the entire main hall are these huge rooms designed to carry sound. Choirs have hidden back here to sing along with the concerts amplifying the sound even more.

Alongside the entire main hall are these huge rooms designed to carry sound. Choirs have hidden back here to sing along with the concerts amplifying the sound even more.

The tour took about an hour and was well worth the time. I don’t know why more people tour the building because it is awesome. So next time you are swinging through Iceland, drop in and spend some time at the Harpa.

Mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne in Iceland...

Mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne in Iceland…

 

The Summer of Jon (TSOJ): Now Appearing In Iceland

The Summer of Jon has begun.

Yesterday, or two days ago, I flew from the 90 degree weather of Seattle to the 55 degree weather of Reykjavik Iceland. Almost everything went smoothly with the exception of me getting through the TSA security checkpoint and then finding my seat on the plane. It took me three attempts to get through the metal detector. The first one was because I had not emptied my pockets…rookie mistake, and the second time was because I had not taken off my belt…doh! Finally, I got through, bought a ten dollar beer for lunch (I doubt there will be a more expensive beer on my trip) and then arrived at the boring terminal S at Seatac in time to see that Egypt was on the brink of some difficulties. Thank goodness we have the Trayvon Martin case to distract us. (Guy follows someone, ends up shooting him, admits to shooting him, and there is a trial? Only in America and The Soviet Union during the Cold War.

My seat, which I had carefully selected for leg room, turned out to be a big fat lie. There was no leg room. Little graphs on the internet (I’m talking to you SeatGuru) don’t always give the full picture when making little charts of the best and worst seats. The good news was that I was sitting by a young couple, so they were going to talk to me, and the baby in front of me was cute. I don’t mind a crying baby, I have always been able to ignore that noise just ask my wife.

I did not sleep a bit on the seven hour flight, but did enjoy watching Django Unchained. It is wrong to laugh loudly when watching a movie this violent, so I am sure the young couple seated next to me wondered if I was some sadistic, tall, moron.

Arriving in Iceland by plane is usually (from my vast experience of flying in here twice) boring. Clouds, clouds, clouds, ocean, ocean, are we going to land in the ocean? Tarmac and rain. Not yesterday. It was beautiful. I could see a good chunk of the island all spread out like an egg in a frying pan. I zipped through customs and then spent the rest of the morning like a child asking when it is time to go. It was only 6:30 am and the Blue Lagoon didn’t open for another two hours. I went to an ATM pushed a few buttons and then found myself deciding if I was going to get 40,000 IK or 200,000 IK. My little hamster wheel of a brain knew the exchange rate was 125 to 1, but was that 400 dollars or 40? I ended up with more Icelandic money than I need, but there are hot dogs to buy and at least three things to do. I bought a coffee for 500 IK and then drank the precious liquid.

Soon enough it was off to the Blue Lagoon. The bus trip there was just as shocking as the last time I was in Iceland. I would be no one in Iceland owns a chainsaw. Trees don’t exist on this planet. There are some trees in Reykjavik, but most of them are wind-beaten little numbers that are just trying to survive.

The Blue Lagoon was great. I got a bathrobe this time and spent a few hours soaking in the blue waters of the lagoon. Part of my package was a buffet lunch. I had a difficult decision to make, stay in the water and wait another hour while my skin turned to mush or put on my robe and sit in the relaxing room. I went for the relaxing room. They had those zero gravity chairs (I doubt there is science supporting this zero gravity thing, but I found a chair leaned back and tried not to fall asleep. I watched the people frolicking in the waters below and then had what I thought was a moment of sleep, but when I regained consciousness there were new people all around me in their zero gravity chairs and it was time for lunch.

I did not eat on the plane and took it out on the buffet, a sushi buffet, oh the carnage. I think I ate 20,000 IK in sushi but passed on a drink since I would have to pay extra for that. I then decide it was time to wash off the Blue Lagoon and head to the hotel.

Everything went like clockwork until I went to charge my iPod. I soon found myself on an epic quest to find an iPod dock in downtown Reykjavik where the only thing you can really buy is Icelandic sweaters, wool, gnomes, books on gnomes, viking stuff, and stuffed puffin dolls. I walked until I found a blister on my foot, but eventually found the charger.

I then wandered into the Hallgrimskirkja church (good luck pronouncing that one.) The church can be seen from just about anywhere on the island of Iceland, not just the city…this is an exaggeration, but it sticks up a bit. I went in and wandered for a moment until some guy in a hoodie got onto the keyboards and busted out some serious music. His little fingers were flying, his feet were working away also. It was awesome. I stuck around until I stomach told me it was time to eat a hot dog or three.

I ended my first night by taking a sleeping pill that worked like a charm. So it is off to breakfast and then to the penis museum.

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An Icelandic dinosaur coming to life at the airport. Why? I don’t know, it is Iceland there are lots of unknowns.

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For 500 IK you too can enjoy two sips of coffee.

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The Blue Lagoon overpriced, touristy, and oh so worth it.

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A tiny panoramic picture of the Lagoon.

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Blue Lagoon hairdoo, ready for a nap.

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The entrance to the Blue Lagoon.

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The Hillgrimslakf;alkfzhvlmnieuhfkldnf church. My hotel is 25 Icelandic meters away.

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The church pews’ backs can move to look forward during services, or can swing the other way during organ recitals.

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Dude in a hoodie playing that funky music.

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The best hot dog in the world. 1 of three that I ate yesterday. 350 IK.

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The Harpa Opera Hall. I’ll be there tomorrow.

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Two more hot dogs in their little handy table.

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Businessman with a block for a head? Maybe saying something about the financial crisis in Iceland.

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Leif Erikson is like, you can go that way if you want, I’m off to AMERICA!