Scandinavian Sojourn 2010

June 12, 2010

We’re in London’s Heathrow Airport enduring a six hour layover after a sleep-filled flight from Phoenix. First things first - food. We were fed classic British fare on the plane, cardboard and chives. Wait, I mean chicken and rice. It was not edible so I fell asleep straightaway. I awoke an hour before landing. Off the plane we headed directly for the nearest restaurant. My cells knowing it was about 6 am I ordered cappuccino with a bagel and lox. Everyone around me was drinking beer or wine. I thought aloud, “Well … it’s noon somewhere!” Of course it was really 2 pm and getting near Norton’s happy hour so … “bottoms up, Shriners!”

June 14, 2010

Where do I begin? We’ve had two days and two nights to get acclimated. We haven’t. It stays light all night long! It’s a weird, eerie, arctic kind of light. Why would anyone live in a place that stays light all summer and dark all winter? It literally does not get dark. It’s dusk from midnight to 2 am and starts to lighten by 3 am. Why bother sleeping? So, we haven’t. Much. We’ve eaten a lot. I’ve had my share of vino, too. Although, it’s not been easy. Wine is only sold in what they call a vinmonopoly. Vino monopoly! One must ask for a specific wine or a region and the clerk brings out “sample bottles” to choose from. They’re all locked-up from the clientele! As if!

Each afternoon we stop at the Grand Cafe on the Karl Johann Gate to visit with our friend Heinrik Ibsen who always stopped by at 1:00 pm sharp to hold forth with the rest of the Norwegian intelligentsia of the fin de siecle. Edvard Munch, who painted “The Scream”, was usually there, several sheets to the wind, and tied up in the knots of existential crisis and anxiety. Reminds me a lot of Tom.

So, we are off to the west coast tomorrow - Bergen - by train - a spectacular ride over Norway’s mountainous spine and through the fjords, whose tracks date back to 1894!

Reflections on afternoon drink at the Grand Cafe (favorite hang-out of Ibsen and Nobel Prize winners)


June 16, 2010

I know. I’ve neglected my travel journal. I’ve been busy: a train trip west across Norway to Bergen, soaking up the rays of the Norwegian sun, meeting at the Grand Cafe at 4:00 pm sharp every day just like Ibsen did, sightseeing, you get the picture. Here we are at the Grand Cafe…

Street scene


Tom’s new Norwegian friend


June 16, 2010 … again

Yesterday was 15 hours on the Oslo-Bergen train, chugging across the rocky spine of Norway to the town of Bergen on the west coast and then back again home to Oslo. We reached a summit of 1222 meters, a “mere” 4,000 feet above sea level, but it is a stern, rocky, icy place, well above tree line in this far north country. There were lakes still locked in ice. The glaciers have carved this rocky country into magnificent cirques and valleys (“dals” in Norwegian) and the forest goes on as far as the eye can see. We got back to Oslo at midnight under a midnight dusk, bird’s egg blue glow and a waxing crescent moon setting in the west.

It always takes a few days for the jet lag to abate and to acclimatize ourselves to new and exotic places. But we have come to love Oslo and the funny sing-songy sound of the language. The people grow friendlier the longer we are here and now that it is nearly time to go north to Tromso, Tom is bittersweet about leaving at all.

Today we walked down to the Oslo harbor and to the University of Oslo and to the Nobel Peace Center. The National Art Gallery was closed (striking workers - we never cross a picket!) so we could not see the original Munch “Scream”. Alors … We lunched at 4:00 sharp (nevertheless) with Munch and Ibsen (as we do everyday) at the Grand Cafe. We were told (by our charming polyglot Portuguese waiter, Paolo) that all the world’s dignitaries (e.g., Obama for the Peace Prize) stay right there at the Grand Hotel, just above our heads where we sat on the sidewalk cafe.

So, arm-chair travelers, it’s not adieu but au revoir to Oslo (for now) and on to the great arctic and glory!

June 17, 2010

We are officially 220 miles north of the Arctic Circle! We are staying in a cottage on a farm about 10 kilometers from Tromso. It’s breathtakingly beautiful here as you can plainly see.

It was no cake walk getting here. We did not fall asleep until 2:00 am under those glowing coral blue Oslo skies, and had to get up at 4:30 am to catch the flytoget (pr. “flewtoaget”) train to the airport. (Oh wait a minute, I slept like a baby, Tom was the one who was up all night - that’s right.) We took off into grey damp skies and two hours later we were here in Santa’s back yard. The tree line is about 1,000 feet above where we are standing, and we’re right here at sea level. We’re staying at a tiny Norwegian farm house with a farm family who work about 20 acres (yes, that’s right - 20 acres), 60 sheep, two cows, and 1,000 chickens. May (pr. “My”) Tove Widding Gard is our farm mom hostess. She picked us up at the airport in a light rain. She drove us through town and up over the bridge (Tromso is an island, surrounded by snowy, glacier carved mountains) to the mainland, along the fjord frontage road (if you will) into the birches and dwarf arctic pines to a little assart carved out of the tundra where they till the soil from May to September. They raise potatoes, carrots, & hay. It’s a short growing season, but remember, the sun shines 24 hours a day, so it works. The water of the fjord borders the farm and then it’s up a hill covered with patches of snow. How they do it, I’ll never know. No wonder all those Norwegians couldn’t wait to get to Minnesota with all that flat land and deep soil.

It feels like a Seattle day here. Chilly, wet, but not cold. If it does not rain heavily, the conditions will be great for the run.

Once in a while you find yourself in a place so wondrous and so overwhelming that you just have to take yourself out of gear altogether and readjust for the ride. This is one of those places. The Bard said, “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy … ” This little heaven on earth proves that’s true. 

Just take a look.

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View from our cottage

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Same view, different camera

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June 18, 2010

Ok, here’s a photo from last night. Midnight. Yes, midnight.


Later that day on June 18 … We needed a rental car for the next two days as we are 10k from town so our mission for today was to take the city bus to town, get a car and get our marathon racing packets. [Bib numbers and timing chips.] After a stop for cappuccini and scones at a quaint sidewalk cafe, we headed for the Tromso Floibanen (funicular). Wow! Spectacular. Look.


See what I mean?  There’s a bridge from the mainland, (the side we’re on), to the island of Tromso city centre. Tom will cross the bridge twice in the marathon. To the locals, the bridge portion of the race is “easy”, but to Tom it’s on the scale of Everest, Mt. Everest, that is. I, on the other hand, don’t have to cross over to the mainland. The half-marathon is on the island! Yes!

It’s a big world. Tired cliche to the contrary, notwithstanding. When we looked out over the craggy, snowy, arctic mountains that surround this little island city, especially today under sometimes cloudy brooding skies, it was like time was suspended, somehow, and we could see back into human (Norse) antiquity. It was a bit unsettling and perspective-shattering and made us feel very small. (Tom, the weeper, was overwhelmed by it and started predictably crying like a baby. I gave him a hug and told him to buck up.) I think to feel just that - very small and insignificant, from time to time, is the beginning of wisdom. The vastness of this place, the forbidding aspect of it, the timelessness and unreachability of all that we saw, fill one’s heart with a certain bittersweet longing. There is just so much to see in the world and so little time. 

We are 220 miles north of the arctic circle. But there are still 1200 kilometers more of mainland Norway, to the north and to the east. The huge island of Svalbard, also part of Norway, is a two and a half hour flight from Tromso. That’s as far as Tromso is from Paris. For all its forbidding and heart breaking beauty, it is a very fragile place.  This is an incomprehensibly vast region of the world and one to which I am drawn powerfully and one that I think is changing too rapidly and perhaps forever. It is this enormous change that is happening that makes me want to see as much of it as I can while I can and while it is still here and still so unspoiled. 

The effect of 24 hours of sun is really quite profound. While the light outside is bright, it just feels like you are not tired, so we have to remind ourselves (as Tom had to do yesterday) that being awake for 20 or 22 hours straight without sleep is bound to have some dizzying deleterious effects on your health and happiness. So you have to capitulate and make yourself go to bed, tucking heavy wool blankets in the windows to simulate the dark of night. Sleep is good. Insomnia can make you crazy. Crazy and under slept is not good for marathoning. 

Tromso Floibanen

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Tromso Car and Boat Rental


June 21, 2010 

The day of the race broke gloomily and stayed that way. It was dramatically colder than it had been and the rain was unrelenting. We slept late, because we could - the race (for Tom anyway) started at 8:30 at night. Tom was like a caged bear. His anxiety level was (what else is new?) in the red zone and pretty much stayed that way until the starter said “go”. The day’s weather did not improve and we drove our cute little rental car into town in a driving rain. The thermometer in the car read 6 degrees C. On our return home it read 5 C. (Word was that out at the second turn around, it was 0 C.) In the rain, that’s mighty cold. 

I knew I was not going to spend over an hour running in these conditions, so I decided to run the 10K instead of the half marathon. I consider it one of the most prudent decisions I’ve ever made. I ran really well, I think, but my chip was set for the half-marathon, not the 10 K, and I got no official results. But I was happy with my run and even happier to be warm, dry and out of the rain.

I hoped Tom would come in around 4 hours, but he kept saying that would not happen. After 5 hours, (1:30 in the morning, mind you), I had my first of several desperate discussions with the Red Cross course ambulance drivers (“Any dead Irish looking short guys out in the ditch along the course?” I kept muttering in my best Norwegian.) No such grim reports.

Finally, after nearly 5 1/2 hours, I saw a befuddled and ice encrusted gnomish figure, shuffling like a stroke victim to the finish. The workers had already started taking down the street barriers, empty water cups were blowing across the abandoned streets and the organizers were waiting impatiently to close shop like waiters waiting for the last customer to leave the restaurant. “Well,” Tom spat casually, “that was a bit of a nuisance.” It was the slowest marathon of his life and the most painful (but he always says that after he finishes). I think I believe him this time. He has the distinction of being dead last in his age group - I’m proud of him nonetheless.

We drove through the unremitting rain, back to the farm. I had to practically carry him to the car and from it. He kept muttering, “A bit of a nuisance.” I think he was delirious. I started packing, Tom started eating, and eating, and eating. It appeared he was hungry. We got to bed at 4:00 am and up at 7:00 am, to finish packing, to clean up, leave the farm behind, return the rental car, and catch the bus to Narvik.

The drive to Narvik was through the fjordy, middle earthy, wonderland that we have come to know here. Mountains reaching up through the low clouds to forever - straight up - and feathery, dreamy, snow melt waterfall cascades dripping down to the lakes all around us. Everywhere, thickets of beech trees and knots of pine trees. Unending green as far as the eye can see, except when it gasps and goes out at tree line.

We met a history professor (railroad expert, U of Missouri, St. Louis) in Narvik who told us that Narvik is the northernmost train station in all of Europe. Even the Fairbanks, Alaska, train station is further south. That was cool. We took the train east across the width of Sweden at its northernmost, and saw lakes in ice, dwarf arctic forests and a boggy, lake dotted tundra for miles and miles. Then when we’d reached the east we started south toward Uppsala and then Stockholm. It was 18 hours riding the rails and we had a cute little sleeper, which beats the hell out of sprawling in the aisles in the cattle cars. It was an indulgence we thought we deserved after our midnight escapades of the night before.

We’re here in Stockholm, a mostly mustard/ochre colored, elegant, pastel city built on bunches of islands. It is the height of spring/summer. Everything is green and blooming. The sky is clouded, with a peek of sun from time to time. The breeze is brisk and cool. Our little apartment could not be more charming. I’ll let you have a look. 

We are supposed to meet Tom’s friend, Anna, and her family tonight for a real Swedish dinner. Now it’s time for a glass of vino out on our tres cute little veranda. A votre sante!

Just crossing the border into Sweden (from train window)

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Kitchen floor in apartment- loves it!


View from our lovely Stockholm flat 

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June 22, 2010 

Hej! Rick Steves calls Stockholm the one European city he’d call home. I’d call it my second home, after Amsterdam. One third water, one third parks, one third stunningly beautiful buildings in a very friendly place. On the sea, surrounded by woods, bubbling with energy and history, Sweden’s capital is green and clean. Fourteen islands, 54 bridges and 1.8 million people make up the city of Stockholm. We are on the island called Reimersholme, a mostly residential, quiet and quaint island just minutes from the bustling old town, Gamla Stan. 

We were treated last night to dinner at Tom’s old friend Anna’s house. She lives in the Mariatorget district close to where we have landed. A torget (“tor-yay”) is a square, so she lives in Maria Square, if you will, in a building much like the one Ingrid Bergman goes back to live in in the movie Gaslight with the evil Charles Boyer. (Remember that house?) Anyway, Anna and her husband Erik Jung and their very handsome son Rasmuss treated us to potatoes, asparagus, bread, bleu cheese, and assorted cold meats. It was a delight. She is a medical doctor and a Ph.D. Very bright, very kind lady. More about the food - dessert consisted of fried strawberries and white pepper with ice cream. Fried Swedish strawberries. Fried in butter. On top of Swedish ice cream. Tom seemed still to be hungry from the marathon because he could not stop eating. Can’t take him anywhere.

We walked nearly all the day today, taking our feet instead of the T-Bana to Gamla Stan and soaking up its old town charm. We stopped for lunch and then got on a boat for a tour of the water & islands that make up the heart (and all) of Stockholm. We got off on the island of Djurgarden and toured Skansen, where examples of historic farms, farmhouses, barns and houses from the centuries of Swedish history are laid out on 75 acres. We also saw Swedish wolves, wolverines, lynxes, bison, reindeer, brown bears - you get the picture. The buildings were collected from all over Sweden and dismantled and moved here, so what we saw were the actual buildings. Some dated back to the 14th century. The timbers in some of the old structures were enormous and the attention paid to the wood work and the joinery to keep out the wind and the weather was breath-taking. After lots of hoofing and gawking we stopped for pickled herring, bread and butter the likes of which you have only dreamed of, and asparagus soup. Tonight we’re having asparagus. Some kind of asparagus thing going on here.

Images from June 22 

Walking to town

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Street musicians


Stockholm street


June 23, 2010, in pictures 


June 24, 2010

The weather has been the opposite of what we endured in Tromso. Today was warm. Not Phoenix warm. Not even Flagstaff warm. But warmer than we’ve endured since leaving home.

We now have a better sense of how Stockholm is laid out because we walked and walked and walked and braved the T-Bana when we needed to. We spent last evening with Anna and Erik and Marika, their lovely daughter. We went out for dinner. Everyone ordered lamb. Five orders of lamb, five orders of different styles of potato (really, how many styles of potato can one have? This place had ‘em all!) After dinner Marika ditched us oldsters and Tom and I were given an insider’s tour of Sodermalm, the biggest of the islands that make up Stockholm. We took little side streets “up the mountain” from where we could look down on the brilliant sun setting over Gamla Stan and the main downtown. Anna showed us a secret garden that even most of the locals don’t know about. It was a grassy, flower filled mini-park in the middle of the city. 

Yesterday we took a run around our island of Reimersholm, which may have been less than prudent for Tom, because he’s still a little shaky on his pins. The sun was shining and everywhere along the water the Swedes were soaking up the sun. 

We had planned to do a real smorgasbord today but, well, we were not hungry enough at the lunching hour to shell out the $50 per person to justify it. Instead, we went to the National Theater and discovered there was a restaurant inside.  We had Swedish meatballs (a must, to be sure) with lingonberries and boiled potatoes. After eating that you can practically speak Swedish. Mycket bra!

The official Midsommer holiday is observed tomorrow. (Always on the closest Friday to solstice). So the natives are stocking up on provisions for the weekend. It is a celebration observed most traditionally outside of Stockholm, so everyone will be heading out of town tomorrow.

And so shall we. We take the train to Oslo again tomorrow morning, where it all began. Have a look at what we’ve seen recently. Hej do!



Ingmar Bergman


Through the arch to Gamla Stan