The Big Trip
Kissing the Kidney Stone...Good Bye!
The flight from Iceland to Norway was short and uneventful. The weather ranged from partly sunny to completely cloudy, though we were in sun above the clouds until we began descending. For awhile then, our view of Norway was totally obscured by streaking rain and dense clouds, our plane bumping downward in a twilight zone of sensory depravation; and then abruptly, a gap opened up and there below us lay the country I had dreamed about for six years.
For the first time we could see this country with our own eyes. Watery fingers plunged inland, scattering islands offshore. The cloud curtain would close for a moment then open again, revealing another snapshot of the land.
I remember thinking it didn't look much different than our Adirondack home, save there was a lot more water. The hills were tree-covered, with what appeared to be mixed hard and softwoods. Buildings and roads hugged the lowlands along the shores and up the valleys. Signs of civilization were obvious but not overwhelming. I began to wonder if my choice was going to seem too much like home!
Once again, I suffered no kidney stone attacks while in the air; for which I am eternally grateful. The images of struggling with such intense pain in the restrictive dimensions of an airplane seat, the consequent terror for all our companion travelers, and the potential complications of being carted off a plane into a Norwegian hospital were bad enough concerns to dull our excitement during the flight. I distinctly recall feeling intense relief when we touched down, now firmly, unquestionably on another continent.
The plane touched down and we walked into a modern airport. Bergen Airport is about the same size as Albany's (NY), and is perhaps a bit busier, but not crowded by airport standards. All of our baggage, save Robin's lost lamb, arrived; so we were no worse off than before at least.
Iceland Airline has no service desk in Bergen (!!), so we had to search for the official alternative, landing at the SAS help center. Here, the attendant spoke marvelous English, and clearly understood it as well. We weren't 100% confident in the exchange, but we were as hopeful as could be expected. We gave her the address of our hostel and then began looking for Customs. Strange thing was, as we followed the our flight companions around, we spied no security check-in point. We found ourselves abruptly and unceremonially at the airport's exit. Hesitating at the door, afraid to step outside lest we set off alarms and have agents slamming us to the ground, we wondered what to do. Had we somehow, unknowingly slipped past Customs? Mystified, we finally asked a passing politi what we should be doing, and he said the check-in was automated, that both we and our baggage were good to go freely into Norway. We asked about getting our passports stamped; he directed us upstairs to the main security office. We trundled our gear up an elevator, through a door and down a hall to the appropriate room - no one was there. Shrugging, we gave up on the souvenir stamp and headed toward the exit.
A Skybus waited just outside the door, which was handy because our bags were heavy, and having gone through a tortuously painful bout the night before, I was in poor shape for lugging them any distance. We were a bit unsure where to go from here or how to know where our stop was, but the bus driver seemed confident about our destination when we asked him, so we put it in his hands and took a seat. I don't know if the bus was on a schedule or not; the driver appeared to wait until he had an adequate number of passengers, then he pulled the doors and drove off.
We wound down a busy, narrow, four-lane highway, maneuvering through several traffic circles along the way and frequent traffic lights. The roadside was often densely overgrown, and frequently road-cuts stood mere feet away from my window. I recall a few tunnels, too; all these harbingers of things to come in the days ahead. Within twenty minutes, our driver announced our stop and explained that we had to walk through the nearby door and, mysteriously, "along the walkway across the train station" to reach the Intermission Hostel. With that information, we were on our own in downtown Bergen, Norway.
The aforementioned doorway faced the street on our side and a blank wall behind. I stepped in while Robin kept an eye on our burdens: another door just inside, was locked, the office behind it unlit. The wall just past this was part of a corridor, I looked in both directions and saw nothing of note. Stepping back outside, I described my findings. Robin walked down the street to the corner and came back to tell me what she had seen. It was raining and I didn't look forward to lugging our luggage around a strange town while we got soaked. I stepped back in the doorway once more and looked down the corridor. To the right, I could see the hallway ended in a door that opened to the bus station; to the left, the corridor turned again. I walked around this bend, turned once more and suddenly was standing in a mall. To my right, an escalator led up another level, and up there I could see the beginnings of a walkway: jackpot!
Robin manned the rolling luggage and both our carry-ons; I shouldered my backpack and dragged a huge duffel bag along behind me. We wandered into the mall like two homeless bag ladies, dragged our gear up the escalator and onto the walkway. This traversed out of the bus station/mall over a small backstreet into the train station, where a ramp deposited us at ground level again. With our little Bergen Information map, we fixed our bearings and headed outside, onto a wet, cobbled street. Turning uphill, we walked to the next crossroad, which turned out to be our destination street.
A short stroll to the right and we saw the modest sign for the Intermission Hostel on the other side of the road. We lugged our burdens inside, out of the rain and into an old building bustling with young people packing, cooking, cleaning, and chattering in an international medley of languages and accents. English was the lingua franca here, but I caught snatches of Norwegian, French, and what I guessed was German carried back and forth through the rooms as we approached the check-in desk.
Our hosts were American students from Wheaton College who had spent most of the summer here, managing the hostel. This was their last night in Norway, so they were a mixture of excitement and reluctance, anticipating their departure the next day. Everyone was helpful and pleasant, showing us around the bunk room, describing the kitchen privileges and responsibilities, explaining where to safely store our luggage, and the location and use of showers and toilets.
The bunkroom was large, but divided by thin panel walls into several 'enclaves'. The beds were triple-deckers, with nary room for a person to sit up on the top bed. Fortunately, we had a bottom and middle bed, as this would be crucial not long after our arrival.
We made our beds, stowed our gear, and then went outside to reconnoiter the town and pick up a few necessities. Foremost on that list, we needed fuel for our camping stoves. We chanced upon a real camping supply store, but to my dismay I could identify no fuel for either of our stoves. I brought a brand-new Whisperlite white gas stove and a Camping-Gaz cannister stove for this trip. Gaz cannisters are easy to identify, so their absence was obvious. My feeble attempt at translating Norwegian labels failed to spot anything that was definitely 'white gas'. What I could decipher was plenty of Primus cannisters, which I was pretty sure would not work with my Gaz stove; and kerosene. I considered purchasing a Primus stove, but they were horribly expensive; the cheapest would set me back about USD 100. With our budget already strained by my hospital tour in Reykjavik, we didn't want to burden it more this early in the trip. We had one other stove, an Esbit emergency stove, and plenty of solid fuel for it, so in the end, we decided use it if necessary and to keep searching for fuel elsewhere.
We strolled awhile longer, returning to the mall we had walked through earlier. Here, we picked up groceries in a shop designed much like a small supermarket - I suspect it is very like most urban supermarkets. Think somewhere in size and provisions between a suburban supermarket and a family-run neighborhood market. We picked up some noodle mix, a block of Norwegian cheese, a loaf of bread, and a few other edibles. A few of these were Norwegian specialties that warrant more detail.
For cheese, we chose a block of Mysost, a dense, caramel-brown cheese produced by boiling cow's-milk whey down to a fudge-like consistency before cooling. I had been anticipating a chance to try this for a long while. One can find Geitost or Brunost, the same type of cheese made entirely or partly with goat's milk, in the U.S., but I don't like goat's milk. Mysost was a treat for me, I fell in love with the stuff; but Robin's impression changed after awhile. Once the novelty wore off she decided its texture is too cloying, its flavor too sweet for her tastes. It is quite sweet, and very dense. I found it best to take in small quantities, laying thin slices on thick slabs of bread. I would buy it regularly if I could find it in the States...a pound would last me a month. Like many other Norwegian foods, all the brown cheeses keep very well. This kilogram lump of cheese we purchased our first day in Norway would stay with me until the last night of my stay almost three weeks later...despite rather dangerously-poor refrigeration methods!
Another peculiarity of Norwegian stores is their bread. Factory-baked bread is nearly non-existent. Pre-sliced bread is similarly hard to find: larger markets provide self-service bread-slicing machines. Most baked goods, especially bread, are baked fresh daily. Bread is packaged in loose paper bags. It is also much heartier than typical American breads, with many distinctive types. Norwegian bread is drier than our factory-baked breads and crustier; but tastier too. After eating it during our entire trip, I believe their bread is made that way purposely: it keeps well for many days, without excessive preservatives or refrigeration. It is however,always better fresh from the oven. Of particular note, the frukostbrød - breakfast bread - must be sampled, fresh from an oven. It is chock full of sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and whole grains. Topped with a thin slice of mysost, it's a fine start to the morning. Bread is generally available in all food stores and in many campgrounds, baked frest on-premises. It's a real treat to pick up a loaf fresh out of the oven at your campground, take it back to your tent and enjoy it with cheese or preserves and a cup of coffee.
Food is very expensive. While the above-mentioned loaves of bread didn't cost much more than a specialty-baked bread in America - about USD 5, there were no cheap alternatives. Likewise with everything else. Most of the food that could be purchased was of very high quality, but also without exception, expensive. Want a liter of Coke? Three bucks. Cheapest ready-made lunch? Hot dog: four bucks. Coffee? Three bucks.
Ah, coffee. We had read several Norway guidebooks before leaving the States. One remarked that Norwegians loved coffee and drank a lot of it. We expected to see it widely available and reasonably affordable because of this, but apparently the author of that particular guide book had never witnessed American coffee consumption. Three bucks buys you a big cup of coffee in America, not quite enough for bathing but plenty enough to keep one's eyes open for awhile (as the joke goes, too much for a Lutheran, almost enough for a Baptist!). Sit down to breakfast in an American restaurant and generally, refills are free. Not so on either account in Norway. Three bucks buys you a small cup - smaller than your average small American cup - of coffee, just about anywhere. In a restaurant, it's three bucks, too...and sometimes, a refill is only two bucks. Free refills are uncommon, large cups of coffee rare outside of airports. The one exception we found of this was in the state-owned gas stations (Statoil), where large coffees could be had relatively cheap -about three bucks; but it was also the only coffee we had in Norway that approached dreg-level bad. As with other foods, most of the coffee we had was good, including the instant coffee we finally purchased to salvage our budget.
Back to Our Story...
After window shopping a bit longer, we headed back to the hostel, where Robin opted for a nap. I returned to the mall to purchase a few other things my headlong packing binge had neglected: a notebook, spoons, and batteries for our alarm clock. The mall was tiny by American standards, but several stories high. The bottom floor was the busiest, with the grocery store, a deli, bakery, camera shop, pastry/coffee shop; a Narvesson (equivalent to a Nice'n'Easy or similar mini-mart sans gas pumps); and a couple other shops. The second floor was much less occupied, almost deserted, and appeared to house some odd-duck furniture store, a tanning salon, and a travel agency. The third and fourth floors were confusing, as they seemed to grade into one another, with ramps and short stairwells leading to different parts of each. I got a bit lost in what appeared to be a catalog sales store, then stumbled upon the Norwegian equivalent of a Dollar store tucked somewhere unobtrusively in those upper regions. There, I purchased a pack of two serving spoons and a 100 page notebook for eight bucks.
I was feeling pretty good about things now. I hadn't had an attack all day long; we had made it here to Bergen. Returning to the hostel, I tucked my purchases away, noted Ra was still sleeping, then took the camera and walked out to do some sightseeing. I chose to walk away from the city bustle, as the trees and steep hillside above looked interesting. Not far up the road, I noted what appeared to be informational signs on the walls surrounding a driveway into a compound of whitewashed wooden buildings. I crossed over and looked things over; some of the signs had English translations. These buildings were once a quarantine hospital for lepers; now it was an extension of Bergen's medical university. I couldn't make much more out of the information signs, but seeing no obvious "DO NOT ENTER" sort of messages, I decided to wander around the compound awhile. Just inside the gateway, a small flagstoned courtyard gave access to four buildings, one on each side. To my right, the driveway curled around behind one of them, so I followed it. Around the building, the road turned downward while a lovely, tiny park lay on the other side. I walked among the trees in the park, past an Oriental-style rock garden, then returned to the road and continued down along as it twisted tightly then slid steeply down to the level of the railroad tracks, a drop of about fifty feet. Expecting it to continue below, I was a bit surprized to find a parking lot cul-de-sac at the bottom. I never like retracing my steps, so I looked for another option, and found one at the far end of the pavement. Here, a footpath broke through the thick underbrush heading upward and away. I was a bit nervous at this point - I was definitely not in a 'regular' part of town, the surrounding concrete had more graffiti than I had seen anywhere else in Bergen, and not another person was in sight. However, I figured I was in no condition to outrun any street gang lurking in the bushes if it came to that, so I was already in too deep for escape. I walked down the path, sidestepping through a gap in a tree hedge through an open gate into a beautiful cemetery.
Large beech trees stood among the grave markers, their bronze-leaved limbs arching up, over, and back down at regular intervals. There were gravestones too worn to read and gravestones with clear, bold relief stating birth and death dates. Many graves had iron markers - mostly crosses, which was an unusual sight for me. Occasionally, a gravestone had the likeness of its occupant's head carved upon or within a niche in it, which I thought highly peculiar; but visits to other Norwegian cemeteries indicates it is, or was, a popular motiff. I suppose a surviving spouse could while away the hours talking to their dearly deceased without fear of interruption.
Benches lined the broad walkway I was on, though in Bergen's climate, they were often too wet for sitting, but they added a nice touch to the overall design of the place. Near the center of the cemetery, the walkway circled around a large urn, embossed with the name of "Ole Bull". I was standing in the cemetery he donated to the city of Bergen...I believe the violinist himself resides somewhere hereabouts. Whether he plays in the angelic choir or is fiddling with the devil now, I can't say; but here on Earth he played for royalty and rags alike and gained the undying admiration of his country.
I walked among the graves and trees for perhaps fifteen minutes, then climbed a short set of steps up through the stone wall on the opposite end from where I had entered the cemetery. I found myself just about straight across from our hostel - the cemetery, lying below the roadway, was practically invisible to passersby. This is unfortunate; it's a place worth visiting.
Robin was up when I returned, and the Wheaton students were busily preparing their last waffles of the season. Every Monday night is Waffle night at the Intermission Hostel, and all are invited to join in for the feast in the main room. We asked if they wanted help, but they had the situation fully in control, so after awhile we just relaxed in the main room awaiting the call to eat. A boy of perhaps eleven years played with a deck of cards, and when we sat down, he spoke a few words I recognized as French, but could not follow. We finally ascertained that he wanted to show us a magic trick, so we played along as he worked his (quite aptly-named) legerdemain. During his demonstration, the call to waffles came out, so we ended up sitting beside him and his family. His mother spoke excellent English - a common trait for anyone over 14 and under 50 in Europe, apparently - and was just finishing her tour of Norway. She made several excellent suggestions during the meal, which we tucked away in hopes of utilizing during the next ten days.
Meanwhile, her son began decimating the waffle population. For toppings we had jam, and a chocolate-hazelnut spread; the latter was the boy's favorite, and he claimed perhaps ten chocolate-coated waffles before yielding to the curbing influence of wiser heads around him. I managed perhaps four before backing away, and at that was perhaps an entire waffle over the line.
We spent the rest of the evening reading, organizing equipment, and relaxing. Norwegian students arrived to take over management tasks in the morning and I chatted with one about possible hikes nearby. He enthusiastically detailed three of the mountains overlooking Bergen, showing me the hiking routes and noting his favorites. I thought perhaps we could tackle one of them after picking up our rental car in the morning.
Gradually, the crowd in the common room thinned as various parties headed to bed. Eventually, we joined the migration, moving into the bunkroom and settling in for the night. We were exhausted. In the wee hours of this very day, we had been in a Reykjavik hospital; now we closed our eyes in Norway!