Saturday, December 12, 2009

Norway: Sometimes It's the Little Things...

A few weeks after I arrived to Oslo, I received a notice that I had a package waiting at the post office. I took the notice to the post office that I pass every day on the way to work. This, however, was not the post office where my package was located. The postal clerk told me which post office I needed to go to, but the name of the post office meant nothing to me. So, he tried to describe the location based on streets and then on landmarks, and I still had no clue. Eventually, he just told me which street to start down, and then after asking for help from a dozen people along the way, I found the place.

Triumphantly, I entered the post office. It was lunch hour, and the place was deserted except for the three clerks who sat poised behind their counters.

I approached the first counter, and after the clerk and I synchronized on English, the clerk was like, “We didn't call your number yet.”

This was true because I hadn't taken a number, but I was thinking, “Are you kidding me?” The place was empty after all.

The clerk did not appear to be joking.

I walked back to the door and took a number, and it immediately popped up on the screen over the service counters.

“Ninety-four,” the clerk announced.

As I returned to the counter for service, all three clerks were laughing. Apparently, the joke was on me.


One night at the bar, I made some new friends. During the course of the conversation, one guy was like, “I saw this blog the other day...” and then he went on to describe my blog. His review was favorable, so I was happy to admit that it was mine.

I know that strangers read my blog, but this was the first time I ever had a random person tell me about my own blog. I thought this was pretty cool.


One day over lunch break I walked home from work. My street is divided with a single lane running south, one running north, and a median in between. As such, it is not possible to overtake slow vehicles.

When I arrived, there were about 20 cars stacked up in the northbound lane, and the whole parade was barely creeping along. Naturally, I looked toward the front of the line to see what was holding up traffic. It was none other than the trash truck.

The truck was operated by a single man, and the system of collection looked very inefficient. In my hometown in the US, trash collection is also done by a single person. We are required to bring our trash cans to the road, and when the truck comes, the operator grabs and empties the cans using a controller at his seat and a robotic arm on the side of the truck.

The system in Norway was less high tech. The trash collector stopped at each house, ran inside the gate, dragged the trash cans to the street, hooked them on the back of the truck, and then pushed a button to dump them. Then he would run the empties back to the house.

On most streets, the pressure wouldn't have been so great because cars could just go around the truck. On my street, however, this was not possible. While there was nary a honk from the cars behind the truck, the trash collector did his best to finish quickly. He was literally running as he collected the trash cans. Watching him reminded me of Super Mario running with super speed in the old-school Nintendo classics.


One night, I went to an international happy hour at a pub. I met a lot of interesting people, and the conversations were lively and ridiculous.

At one point, a group of us were talking, and a British guy said something about 80s music.

I said something in response, and he was like, “What would you know about it? You probably weren't even old enough to remember the 80s.”

I assured him that I was around in the 80s, and that I definitely grew up with 80s music.

I didn't mention my age specifically, but before I even had the chance, the Brit interrupted. “Wait, wait,” he told us, “let me guess. I'm really good at this; I have a gift.”

It's always taboo to guess a woman's age, so he guessed the birth years of all the men at the table.

He started with me. “Nineteen eighty-six,” he declared.

Then he continued around the table with the Kiwi (1980) and the Dane (1968).

Once he finished, we revealed our actual birth years. The Kiwi was born in 1979, so the Brit was close. The Dane was born in 1970. The Brit, while close again, apologized for rating the Dane 2 years older than he was.

When I told him that I was born in 1977, he was taken aback. “You've been living in a good climate, mate!” he exclaimed.

I can't remember the last time someone turned back the clock 9 years for me. This guy's gift for divining ages could use a little tune-up!


One fine Saturday morning, I decided to go second-hand shopping. The Salvation Army is active in Norway, and there are clothing collection bins around Oslo (and throughout the rest of the country).

About 60% of the clothing the Salvation Army collects in Norway is sold overseas. About 20% is discarded, turned into rags, or used to make emergency blankets for the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations. The final 20% of the clothing is sold in Norway in Fretex stores. There are 5 locations in Oslo.

I went to the flagship Fretex store, and it was unlike any second-hand store I had ever seen. The clothing on offer was very nice – in terms of style, quality, funkiness – but the prices were nothing akin to those at a Stateside Goodwill store, for example. Collared shirts were averaging around $30; leather shoes were like $60.

As I later learned, the flagship Fretex has the best of the best that the Salvation Army collects, so it is more boutique-y and the prices are higher. I've since visited another Fretex, which did have cheaper prices, as well as a few other second-hand shops not affiliated with the Salvation Army.

There is one thing about all these shops that cracks me up: They all have a fur coat section. I realize that this makes sense because fur is fairly popular in Norway, but the notion of a second-hand charity shop selling full-length mink coats continues to amuse me.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Norway: The Cheapest Protein in Town

As a city on the water, I assumed that Oslo would have a proper fish market. From what I've seen so far, I assumed wrong. There are some grocery stores and specialty shops with respectable fish and seafood selections, but there is no specific market where fishermen can sell their catch.

While there is no fish market, however, the opportunity still exists to buy fish directly from fishermen. At the wharf in the well-to-do neighborhood of Aker Brygge, nestled among the pleasure boats, ferries, and tour boats, are two boats that sell fresh fish.

Aker Brygge is an expensive area of town, so when I first approached the fishing boats, I expected the prices to be sky high. Once again, I assumed wrong. Even in the Land of High Prices, there are still some deals to be found.

Of the two fishing boats that are normally at the wharf, one is manned by a man and one by a woman. The first day I went I talked to both fishmongers, and I decided to buy from the woman, who has now become my regular fish supplier. (A lady fishmonger is correctly called a fishwife, although I think fishmongress also has a nice ring to it.)

On that first day, the fishwife had four items for sale: haddock, bait fish (fingerlings), shrimp, and cod heads. I was immediately interested in the bait fish, but I chatted with the fishwife about the other products first. As I suspected, she was selling the cod heads for the cheeks or else to be used in soups.

When we got to the bait fish, I asked her how people were preparing them.

“You've got two choices,” she told me. “The Thai people grind them up in a food processor and make fish cakes, and the Moroccans fry them and eat them whole.”

I thought this was a strange answer. We were having our conversation on a Norwegian fishing boat, yet her answer did not mention any use for these fish in Norway. I wasn't sure if this was an oversight or if she in fact only sold these fish to the immigrant community.

It didn't really matter, though, because I already intended to fry mine. What the fishwife was dubbing the “Moroccan method” is common all over the Mediterranean, and I've had fingerlings (either grilled or fried) in Italy, Israel, and Greece, as well as Morocco.

The bait fish were selling for a very respectable 30 kroner per kilogram (about $2.45 per pound), so I got a kilo to try. The other items, while higher priced, were also reasonable. For example, whole haddock was selling for 40 kroner per kg ($3.25 per lb).

The fishing boats sell from 7:00 AM until around 3:00 PM, and when I was shopping it was close to 2:45. As I was leaving, the fishwife told me that I should come closer to the opening hour and I would be rewarded with a much bigger selection. While this sounded like a good idea, I have yet to get there very much before closing time.

With my fish in hand, I headed home to prepare them. I was going to eat them whole as I mentioned, but I still had to clean them. I don't mind cleaning fish, and it's a good thing because cleaning my kilo was a bit of a time commitment. It took me an hour and 10 minutes to gut and gill the lot - 128 fish in total. There's an episode of the Simpsons where the family finds itself working in a fish processing plant in Japan. As Bart is gutting an endless stream of fish, he repeats to himself, “Knife goes in, guts come out.” I found myself saying the same thing. Luckily the radio provided a nice playlist for my gutapalooza.

Of course, once the tedious work was finished, the cooking and eating took no time at all. And there were plenty of fish left over for later.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Norway: Tromsø

I arrived to my friend Lisa's house party around 9:00 PM, and pretty much from the start I was telling people that I wouldn't be staying long because I had a flight to catch in the morning. And then all of the sudden, it was 5:00 AM. My flight to Tromsø was at 8:00, and my goal was to be on the train at 6:00 for the 30-minute ride to the airport.

Lisa lives close to me, so it took me only 7 or 8 minutes to walk home. I was doing fine time-wise, but as soon as I got home I realized that I was exhausted. Then I made a very stupid decision.

“I have time for a little shut-eye,” I told myself, and then I flopped onto my bed. I didn't even set my alarm.

When I woke up soon after, I grabbed my cell phone in a panic and checked the time. It was 6:15! I was already late, and I hadn't even packed yet. Doh!

I was only going to Tromsø for 2 days and one night, so thankfully the packing was easy. I threw a bag together, changed into fresh clothes, and made my way to the train station. The station is a 10-minute walk from my apartment, but I managed to cut that down by running the whole way. I had missed the 6:00 departure, as well as the 6:20, but I was just in time for the 6:40 (which was my absolute last shot). The 6:40 would get me to the airport at around 7:10. If I had been just 2 minutes later in getting to the train station, I would have missed the 6:40, and my whole trip would have been ruined since the next train with its 7:00 departure wouldn't get me to the airport until 7:30, when the gate was scheduled to close.

Once I got on the train, I tried to go back to sleep, but it didn't come easy. My brisk morning jog had left me wide awake. Plus my contact lenses were feeling a bit crusty.

We were 15 minutes into the journey by the time I did fall asleep. I should have just stayed awake because the 15 minutes of sleep I did get left me feeling more groggy than before.

We reached the airport right on schedule, and I passed straight through check-in and security. By the time I reached the gate, the flight was already boarding.

In hindsight, perhaps it wasn't the best idea to go to an all-night party on Friday night knowing that I had a very early start on Saturday morning. Then again, I did make the flight, so I suppose all's well that ends well.

I queued up with the assembled herd of passengers, and we all filed onto the plane.

As we took our seats, one thing immediately struck me. Ordinarily, I consider Norwegians to be respectful of other people. On this flight, however, my fellow passengers were some of the most boorish people with whom I've ever flown. People were pushing and shoving in the aisles and bickering over the luggage bins, and there was nary an “excuse me” or “sorry” to be heard.

Tromsø, Norway's seventh largest city, is located about 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The flight from Oslo took about two hours, and I got a bit more sleep.

When we landed, I caught the bus into the city. I was staying with my friend Weronika, a student from Poland studying Norwegian at the University of Tromsø. Tromsø U, by the way, is the northernmost university in the world.

When I reached the dormitory building around 11:00, Weronika had just woken up. Her Friday night had been as long as mine.

Weronika and I talked for a while over tea and jam sandwiches. Then I set out to explore while Weronika stayed behind to study for her upcoming final exams.

Tromsø sits on an island, so I started by heading for the coast to check out Tromsø Sound. My stroll took me through some scenic areas of thick pine forests and rolling meadows. I saw one family camping in the woods, and plenty of other people hiking the trails, riding bikes, and walking dogs.

It was early November, and the frozen ponds that I saw verified that the temperature was below freezing. There was only a dusting of snow, though.

I was wearing long johns, jeans, a sweater, and my thin wool coat, and before long, I started getting a bit cold. My exposed hands and face were especially unhappy.

I had my camera with me, so I would put one hand in my pocket and hold the camera in the other hand. Then when the camera hand froze, I would alternate.

There was no relief for my face, however, and I quickly developed a case of what I like to call robo-face. Robo-face is when your face freezes and any movement (like raising your eyebrows) has to be made very deliberately. The frozen-face sensation always seems robotic to me.

Anyhow, before long, the cold started to wear me down. My hand-warming technique no longer did the trick because to have either hand exposed to the cold for even a moment was painful. Plus I had a full-blown case of robo-face that was losing its novelty.

I was nearly ready to throw in the towel and return to the dormitory, but I continued walking.

Then the darnedest thing happened: my face and hands suddenly defrosted themselves. I don't know if I crossed some threshold that automatically caused my body to pump more blood to my frozen parts or if I brought about the change with mind control, since I was focusing on thoughts of warmth.

Whatever caused my body to warm up really gave me a second wind. I stayed out for hours after that, and I felt great.

The sun dropped from the sky at 2:15 PM, and a great sunset washed over the sound. During my visit, the days were about five and a half hours long (and fading fast). Tromsø experiences polar night during which time the sun doesn't rise at all for weeks. This year, Tromsø's polar night lasted from November 27 until January 15. I missed it by about 3 weeks.

One good thing about the polar night is that it allows for great viewing of the Northern Lights. As I understand it, the lights are around all year, but the best time to view them is between October and February. During summer in the High North, the sun never sets, so the Northern Lights are completely obscured for a few months.

My visit to Tromsø was during the peak viewing season for the Northern Lights, but on my first night, thick cloud cover ruined any chance I had for a sighting.

When I returned to the dorm, Weronika and I had more tea, and then she warmed up some egg rolls for dinner. These egg rolls were the size of burritos, so I was satisfied with two. Weronika, however, thought that I was just being polite and insisted that I eat more. Four was apparently the magic number, for once I reached that mark, Weronika was also satisfied.

The kitchen was used by all the resident's on Weronika's floor, and it was a bit of a mess. There were dirty dishes strewn about, and the garbage bin was barely visible under a mountain of trash. Everyone was responsible for cleaning his or her own dishes, but trash duty was handled with a roster. When I saw the trash roster on the wall, I asked Weronika if her dorm-mates always shirked this responsibility.

As Weronika explained it to me, the relationship the students had to taking out the trash was cyclical. Basically, everyone turned a blind eye to the problem and allowed the trash to collect. Occasionally someone might tire of the mess and take a bag or two to the compactor, whether or not he was on trash duty. Generally, though, the trash heap would just continue to grow. Eventually, a member of the staff would notice the trash, and, determining it to be a health hazard, would hire a cleaning service to tidy up the place. The cost of the cleaning would then be billed to all the students on the floor. As most university students have limited spending money, billing them for cleaning always managed to get their attention. In the days following a professional cleaning, the students would take the trash roster seriously so as to avoid paying for another cleaning. After a few weeks, however, the sting would wear off, the kitchen would again fall into disrepair, and the cycle would repeat itself.

As Weronika and I were cooking, eating, and cleaning up, several of her dorm-mates stopped by the kitchen to prepare their own dinners. No one talked much to anyone else, and most of the people who came into the kitchen returned to their rooms to eat. The hallways were quiet as well. Most people had their room doors closed, and besides the lack of talking, the halls were devoid of music and television noise. Compared to this, my own dormitory experience had been a veritable zoo.

When I asked Weronika about the eerily silent halls, she told me her floor was always like this. Other floors in the building were more lively, though.

After dinner, we had more tea. Then Weronika proposed an evening activity: a visit to the photo lab. If there's a better way to blow off some steam on a Saturday night than developing photographs, I'd like to hear it! Just kidding. I had never tried developing photos, so I was happy to give it a go.

Weronika was concerned about my insufficient clothing, so she gave me a scarf to wear. Then we walked down to the bus stop to get a lift across town to the photo lab. The sky was still thick with clouds.

The photo lab was in a building that had rooms for a variety of student clubs. Across from the photography club room, a garage band was rocking out in its rehearsal room.

When we arrived, three of Weronika's friends (two young women and one guy) were already in the lab. Weronika was fairly new to developing herself, so one of the more experienced ladies explained the process to both of us.

My first job ever had been as a chemical mixer in a Kodak (later Fuji) photo-developing plant. I would mix fixers, developers, and a variety of other chemical solutions in batches up to a few hundred gallons.

The smells in the photo club darkroom were all too familiar to me, but thankfully the chemical quantities were much easier to manage. Plenty of times back in the old days when I was trying to adjust the pH of the chemical solutions at the photo factory, I would get a good whiff of concentrated glacial acetic acid or sulfuric acid when I was pouring a serving out of a drum. That was never much fun.

The university photo lab was divided into two parts. The first part was the prep area, and the second was the developing room. The prep area was dark, and the developing room was dimly lit by a red light bulb. Plus it was warm throughout. Having not slept much the night before, the lab was a perfect place for a snooze. I had to fight to stay awake the whole time we were there.

Weronika's lab friends were nice, and we had some laughs while we waited for everyone to have a turn at developing. I didn't have any negatives with me, of course, so I used one from their big box of practice negs when it was my turn. It was a photo of a statue in the center of Tromsø.

After a few hours, Weronika and I caught the bus back to the dormitory. When we arrived, her floor was still as quiet as a crypt. Fortunately, though, we didn't stick around long because Weronika took me to meet her friends on a different floor.

Her friends were a mix of nationalities. There were a few more Polish women, an Italian woman, a guy from Australia, a woman from Malaysia (I think), and some other people whose nationalities I didn't catch.

As were we sitting around talking, eating candy, and drinking tea, someone suggested that we watch a movie. I was still dead tired, but, not wanting to be the party-pooper, I went along with the crowd. And that's how I came to be sitting in a tiny dorm room with six people at 11:00 PM on a Saturday night with crusty eyeballs watching The Kite Runner on a laptop.

I managed to stay awake for the whole movie, but I'm sorry to say that I wasn't enamored with the story. Perhaps the book would do a better job of moving me.

When the movie ended, everyone went to bed. I slept on a mat on Weronika's floor, and I didn't wake up until after 9:00 AM when sunlight was coming through the windows.

My second day started about like my first. I had some breakfast and set out to explore while Weronika studied.

Instead of spending my second day out in nature, though, I headed down to the heart of Tromsø town. It was a 20- or 30-minute walk from the university to downtown, but it was mostly downhill.

Tromsø turned out to be bigger than I thought it would be, and there were plenty of shops, restaurants, and hotels in the city center. I was there on a Sunday, however, so most things were closed.

I walked around town and the waterfront taking photos until around noon. Then I stopped at Burger King for some lunch. This wasn't just any Burger King, however. It was the world's northernmost BK. (Please, hold your applause.)

I ordered a Whopper combo, and besides the very stale bun, the burger wasn't bad. There was an awkward element to my meal, though, and that was the strange man sitting across the restaurant, nursing a cup of coffee, who insisted on staring me down the whole time I was there. I think he was deranged. If he had walked up to me and said, “I'm gonna give you a 20-minute head start, boy, and then I'm gonna hunt you down for sport with my crossbow,” I wouldn't have been surprised.

Luckily, I walked out of there in much the same condition as I had walked in (except, of course, for the pint of grease I had just consumed that was now circulating through my body). At least Creepy Guy didn't have time to murder me or steal my soul or whatever else he was plotting.

After lunch, I stopped at a candy store for desert. Then I made my way to Polaria, an aquarium of local sea creatures. As you could maybe have guessed, it's the northernmost aquarium in the world.

Polaria was full of loud and hyper children, and cold-water fish are a bit boring, but other than these small problems, my visit started out well enough.

As I was looking in all the tanks full of gray fish of various types and sizes, with the occasional giant crab tossed in for good measure, an announcement came over the intercom: the seal show was starting in 15 minutes!

These bearded seals were the stars of the aquarium, and when the show was announced, the rest of the place quickly emptied as everyone piled into the pool arena.

When the show started, two trainers, a man and a woman, came out in their wetsuits armed with buckets of fish. There were a few bearded seals swimming around in the pool.

The man hooked up his microphone and welcomed us to the show.

“Is there anyone here today who doesn't understand Norwegian?” he asked. “Anyone at all who needs English?”

The place was packed, so I thought for sure there had to be at least one other gringo in attendance. Apparently I was wrong.

I didn't request English, and no one else did either, so the man conducted the rest of the show in Norwegian. This was fine with me actually because I wasn't so interested in the learning part of the show. I had come to see the seals do tricks.

The man went on for some time presumably explaining seal behavior, habitat, diet, and the rest. Then it was finally time for the tricks.

These seals were no Shamus, not by a long shot. The tricks included seals eating fish; seals flopping out of the pool; seals flopping into the pool; seals rolling over on the ground; seals spinning in a circle while bobbing in the water; and for the grand finale, seals kissing each other.

The kids seemed to enjoy the show, but I was well and truly bored. I did, however, get some enjoyment from one of the seals that continually disobeyed the trainers. He was not about to spin in a circle for a bite of fish, and I could respect that.

After the excitement of the seal show, I took things down a notch. I walked through the permafrost exhibit and then went to the theater to see the Svalbard movie. Sorry to complain again, but this was a real opportunity lost. Unlike at the seal show, I was interested in learning at the Svalbard movie. Unfortunately, though, it wasn't the least bit educational. Shown panoramic style on a few different screens, the movie was just 15 or 20 minutes of pretty pictures – sea, fjords, mountains, cliffs, birds, fish, flowers, and ice. Some of the shots included a bit of text, but there was no narration. This was a tourism piece and nothing else. I think it would have been much better as a David Attenborough type of documentary, instead of a vacation video.

When the movie ended, I had seen everything there was to see. “So much for ending on a high note,” I thought to myself as I headed for the exit.

I would get my high note, though. To leave Polaria, you have to walk through the gift shop. (You enter the same way, but I hadn't paid attention on my way in.) Anyhow, as I was leaving, I looked around the gift shop and realized that 90% of the gifts were made from seal. Perhaps this is what becomes of the poor performers in the seal show. Perhaps part of the trainer's speech had been about hunting and skinning!

I could maybe understand the seal skin slippers or the seal skin change purses or even the seal skin binders with loose-leaf seal paper, but the seal skin shower curtail was just excessive. According to Polaria, they sell these seal products to support the area's traditional craftsmen. Still, I had to laugh.

By the time I left Polaria, the sun was already setting. I had a few hours remaining before I was supposed to meet Weronika and some of her friends in town, so I walked around some more. I saw the world's northernmost Catholic Church, but I missed the world's northernmost mosque, which is also in Tromsø.

When I started getting cold again, I hopped on a bus for Mount Storsteinen, which sits on the mainland just across the sound from Tromsø. At Storsteinen, there's a cable car to the top, and a great view of the city below.

When I reached the base of Storsteinen, the cable car had just departed. With only one departure an hour, I had missed my chance to go up, as waiting for the next cable car would have made me late for my rendezvous with Weronika.

I caught a ride from Storsteinen with two young ladies who were driving back toward the city, but I had them drop me off when we reached the bridge to the island. This spot was also the location of the Arctic Cathedral, one of Norway's most famous buildings, so I took a few photos of it.

Then I started walking over the bridge. While it had been cold walking around the city and around Storsteinen, it was freezing on that bridge. The wind was whipping through the channel, and almost immediately, I started thinking that maybe I should have ridden all the way downtown with the two ladies. That ship had already sailed, though, so I kept on walking and tried to think about things other than freezing to death.

Before long, I reached the other side of the bridge, and my timing couldn't have been better. I reached the rendezvous point right on time, just as Weronika and company arrived. We were going to visit two art museums, and as we walked toward the first, Weronika pulled a sandwich out of her bag for me. As I think Ben Franklin used to say, “A friend with food is a friend indeed.”

The first gallery had several things going on. There were photographic exhibitions on Chechen war wives, Taliban soldiers posing for glamor shots, Tromsø in days of yore, and Russian sailors.

The second place had a completely different vibe. It was a proper art museum, so the permanent exhibit included paintings by Norwegian and world masters. The ancillary exhibit, however, was bizarre. The theme was something to do with monsters, death, fear, and the supernatural, and the collection included a vast and grotesque assortment of paintings depicting vampires, demons, murders, witches, disembowelings, torture, cannibals, and the like. There was even a room of Satanic art.

Once we finished at the second museum, nearly everything was closing, so we started walking back to the dormitory. When we were almost there, something in the sky caught my eye. Just like on TV, I saw a curtain of green light shimmering against the black night. It was the Aurora Borealis!

Hoping for just such a moment, I had carried my tripod around all day. I pulled it out of my bag, and as I was setting up the shot, Weronika had a suggestion. “I know where we can get a much better shot,” she told me.

Trusting her not to steer me wrong, I packed up my gear and we hustled down the trail. After we had walked for 20 or 30 minutes, we reached Weronika's choice spot on the sound - - - and the sky was nothing but clouds. Doh!

We stayed there for a while longer without luck, and then Weronika suggested one last place we should try. So, we hiked another 30 minutes to a lake. It was at a higher elevation, so not only was it cloudy, it was also foggy. The night sky at the lake was so mucked up that we didn't even wait to see if it would clear up.

In any case, I couldn't have waited very long since I had to report to the airport for my return flight.

Weronika and I returned to the dormitory, and as I was packing my things, I noticed her photographs of the Northern Lights on her desk. Several of the other students that I met had also proudly shown me their photos. All of these photos were good reminders of what can be seen on a good night, as well as inspiration for me to return later and try again.

Weronika and I said our good-byes, and then I caught the bus back to the airport.

I had a bit of time to kill before my flight so I went to the airport bar where a friendly woman, a nurse by trade, explained the finer points of drinking beer and aquavit.

Then I got on the plane, and in a few hours I was back in Oslo.

The next morning when I checked my e-mail, I had a message from Weronika. When I clicked it open, I had to laugh yet again. Apparently, at the exact moment that I had boarded my flight, the heavens had opened up. According to Weronika, it had been the greatest Northern Lights display of the year – very vibrant and long-lasting. She thought maybe I had seen it from the plane, but alas I hadn't. Ninety percent of the time, I seem to get a window seat, but on this occasion, I had been on the aisle. I don't know if it would have been visible even I had been sitting in the window seat, though.

One thing's for sure: I'm definitely going back to Tromsø. The Northern Lights are taunting me, and there's a seal skin snow-globe with my name on it!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Norway: Halloween in Oslo

Halloween has ancient roots, but when it comes to the modern-day commercial extravaganza, no one does it like America. That said, the Halloween of America is slowly working its way around the world.

In the lead-up to Halloween, several stores here in Oslo set up small costume sections. There is also at least one full-time costume shop right in the city center. One of my new friends at the Embassy invited me to her big Halloween birthday party, so I went to the costume shop the weekend before Halloween to see what was available. I didn't buy anything that day, but the shop was a real mad house.

Thankfully Halloween fell on a Saturday this year. After a very long Friday night, I woke up late and started trying to think of something to wear to the party. I hadn't bought a costume, and since I was still living out of a suitcase, I didn't have many options.

I didn't have many options, but I did have a few because while I neglected to pack such things as gloves and scarves, my magical suitcase did contain a fine assortment of tribal wearables from Papua New Guinea. Being delicate, and in some cases rare, these tribal pieces warranted hand-carrying. Plus they were very light.

I also traveled to Norway with face paint and fake blood, but those are travel essentials.

Anyhow, a few hours before the party, I started trying on different combinations of tribal gear. I was going to go completely authentic (with no western clothing at all), so I ruled out a few options that were perhaps too revealing or that seemed prone to major wardrobe malfunctions.

The temperature at the time was like 2°C (36°F), so I was going to be cold no matter what I chose to wear.

As I was in the middle of getting dressed, there was a knock at my door. When I answered, I was greeted by a young ghoul – my only Norwegian trick-or-treater of the night – who held up his bag and shouted something I couldn't understand. His father stood a few feet behind, smiling like a cheshire cat and playing a red ukulele. I'm pretty sure this was the first time that I ever had a trick-or-treater with live music accompaniment.

I think the father was smiling about my costume. At least it was obvious that I was celebrating Halloween.

I hadn't expected to receive any trick-or-treaters, so I hadn't bought any candy. Luckily, though, I had a few random candy bars in my suitcase, and I gave one to the little boy. I didn't know if others would follow, but I had my two remaining candy bars at the ready just in case.

After my guests had gone, I finished getting ready. I was going as a witch doctor, and I based my costume on a sorcerer I had met in PNG. I was wearing a grass skirt on my waist and one over my torso like a grass shirt. Then I finished off the outfit with a headdress and armbands made from cassowary feathers and a trio of necklaces made from shark vertebrae, bat teeth, and cassowary quills. I also painted my face black and white.

When I was finally ready, I slipped on my coat and sandals and stepped out into the cold night. The coat provided warmth and some concealment, but it was still pretty obvious that I was dressed up. Just outside my building, there were some Norwegians walking by. When they saw me, they immediately started cracking up. As I continued walking down the street, I met other people, and the reaction was the same.

This boisterous laughter was a cultural response. If the roles were reversed and I suddenly saw a costumed person when I did not expect to, I might have done a double-take at the most. I can't imagine ever breaking into side-splitting laughter in such a situation. The loud laughing was off-putting to me, mostly because it wasn't warranted. My costume was unexpected and different, but I don't think it was comical on any level.

Many of the laughers were probably also drunk, or at least buzzed, since it was a Saturday night.

In any case, while it can be annoying, a little laughter never hurt anyone. I continued on my way, leaving a trail of merriment in my wake.

The party was maybe a 30-minute walk from my house, so I decided to take the tram which would cut the trip down to 5 minutes. As I was approaching the stop, a tram pulled up. I didn't want to wait for the next one, so I started to run. When I did, I could feel the grass skirt falling off my waist. The wardrobe malfunction was coming much sooner than I had anticipated.

I held the grass skirt in place with my hand and shuffled up to the tram. Ordinarily, I would not have expected to have made it, going as slowly as I was, so I think that the driver saw me and waited. Thank goodness for small favors.

Unsurprisingly, I attracted a good measure of attention on the tram. It was diffused somewhat, though, because there was a group of other costumed people sitting near me. My costume was a good icebreaker, and my fellow costumed passengers had plenty of questions for me. They asked me about the elements of my costume and the authenticity of the whole ensemble. Then after their interest was piqued, they started asking me about PNG in general. Before we reached my stop, I think I had posed for a picture with each of them.

The tram ride had been a nice respite. Once I stepped off, the crazy laughing resumed.

I didn't know the exact location of the party, but after wandering around for a few minutes trying to call someone for details, I ran into several ladies from the office who were also on the way to the party. They knew right where to go, and we were there within 5 minutes.

The party was good fun. There was plenty to eat and drink, and the crowd was lively. Probably half or two-thirds of the people at the party were from the embassy. The others, Norwegians, were friends of the birthday girl.

Having only been in Norway a bit over a week on Halloween, there were many people at the party that I didn't know, including many from the embassy. As I was meeting people, I started putting names to faces – which meant, for example, that I was putting a name to a zombie face or a pirate face. It's funny because months have passed as I am writing this, and the default picture that I have in my mind for some of these people is still the costumed one. I've mentioned this to some people, and they told me that they see me the same way – as a witch doctor forever more. I guess that's the power of first impressions.

At the party, the balcony doors were left open all night (to maximize floor space, I suppose). No longer wearing my coat, I was feeling the chill.

At one point as I was standing around talking, an ice-cold hand moved under the thin layer of grass on my back and started creeping toward my shoulders. Attached to the hand was a middle-aged Norwegian woman.

“You're not wearing anything under here!” she exclaimed.

Since you could clearly see the skin on my back through the grass skirt, a physical inspection was hardly necessary.

No doubt about it, though: This woman was hands-on. I'm also going to go out on a limb and call her a cougar – the first I encountered in Norway.

She made the same “discovery” that I was nearly naked several times, and each time with an unexpected icy touch to my back, arms, or chest. The flirting wouldn't have been so bad if her hands would have been a little warmer. I was the one not wearing clothes, yet she was the one whose hands seemed always to have just come out of the beer cooler even though they hadn't. This fact didn't escape her notice, and she commented on how warm I was.

After several encounters with this woman, she had a new revelation. “You're not wearing anything on the bottom either!” she announced.

Playing along, I responded, “OK, I want everyone's hands where I can see them.”

She had a good laugh about this, but I had serious doubts as to whether or not she was going to behave herself. We chatted for a few more minutes before I went to refill my drink and joined a new group. She went home soon after.

A few hours later, around 1:30, I followed suit. The party was still in full swing, but I had reached my limit of eating, dancing, karaoke, party games, and small talk.

I bid everyone farewell and rode the elevator down to street level.

By this point, the tram had already stopped running for the night, so I started walking home.

Just around the corner from the party, I ran into four ladies coming out of a different apartment. These ladies fit my Scandinavian stereotypes perfectly. All attractive blonds, they appeared to be in their late 30's or early 40's. They were all dressed for a night out on the town, capping off their stylish outfits with fancy boots and fur coats and caps. They had all been drinking, I think, and they were all a bit giggly as a result.

When they saw me, one was like, “Whoa! What are you?”

They got points from me straight away since they decided to talk to me rather than bust out laughing.

“I'm a Papua New Guinea witch doctor,” I responded.

They thought this was super, and the four ladies rushed over to me for a closer look.

Then one of them voiced a concern.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “You're not really from Papua New Guinea! You've just painted your face!”

I got a kick out of watching her trying to expose my charade. You could really see the wheels turning in her head.

I had never intended for them to take my costume seriously, but since they were going in that direction, I decided to humor them.

With mock indignation, I responded to the young woman's accusation.

“I guess you've got it all figured out!” I ranted. “I spent six years living in a cave, eating rats and lizards, talking to spirits, learning spells from Papua New Guinea's national sorcerer, but I guess that doesn't mean anything to you! I guess it's all just one big joke!”

This was all total BS, of course, but their reaction was hilarious.

They were like, “Wow! We had no idea. Don't be angry with us. We're sorry!”

With my new-found credibility, I told them there were no hard feelings.

Then one of the ladies took it further. “Can you do a trick for us?” she asked. Actually, she more begged than asked. Things were getting fun.

“I have half a mind to turn you all into banana trees,” I told them, “but the climate here isn't suitable.”

Then I offered to read their palms instead.

It was as if I had just asked a bunch of kids if any of them liked candy. All the ladies were clapping and cheering at the prospect of a palm reading.

As my first subject presented her palm to me, I studied it carefully and started tracing the lines with my finger. I figured that the tactile contact was just as important as my reading, so I traced her hand several times to prepare her for a goose-bump moment. Then I gave her a very detailed, very generic reading based on the junctions of her “happiness”, “health”, “money”, and “danger” lines.

She was as pleased as punch.

Then the second woman came for a turn. I went through the same routine but tossed in a “friendship” line to keep things fresh.

She was as happy as a clam.

Next up was woman number 3. Again, I tried to make it interesting. This time, I got a bit more cocky.

“I'm seeing a dog,” I told her, “a small dog in a sweater.”

“That's my dog!” she told me.

“Bingo,” I thought. So many women have small dogs in sweaters here, I wasn't going out very far on a limb with this one.

I gave her an informative reading, with her dog included.

She was as pleased as a bull in a barn.

Before I started on my fourth reading, something caught me off guard. The first woman forgot her reading and butted back in line for a redo.

Thankfully, I mostly remembered her initial reading, so she didn't trip me up. Once I finished with the redo, I admonished her not to forget again as repeated readings could negatively affect universal karma.

Then I gave the fourth woman her reading.

She was as happy as a lark.

I might not be worthy of Dionne Warwick's Psychic Friends Network, but I ended the night 4 for 4, which is nothing to sneeze at.

When I had first encountered the women, they were heading to the bars. With their palm readings finished, they were ready to resume their quest.

“You're cool,” they told me. “Come out with us!”

I thanked them for the invitation, but declined. As I told them, a grass skirt doesn't have a place for a wallet.

This wasn't a problem for them, though, and they quickly offered to buy my drinks if I would join them.

This sweetened the pot tremendously, but still I took a pass. I had two remaining concerns. The first, and less important of the two, was that I was freezing cold by now. Presumably, we would have been sitting inside at the bar, so I would have been able to warm up. The second problem, however, was my costume. When people had seen me walking down the street, they started acting batty. I didn't want to try my luck in a bar. I've been the center of attention on many occasions, but when you become a sideshow, it's not fun anymore.

The ladies realized that there was no convincing me to stay, but I did walk with them until we reached the bar. Funny how things work, but when I was moseying down the road flanked by four blonds, hardly anyone bothered to hoot and laugh at me.

We parted ways at the bar, and I walked the thirty minutes to my house. Along the way I was again hilarious to legions of drunk people.

I hardly noticed, though, as I was too busy second-guessing my decision not to join the ladies at the bar.

Worst decision ever...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Norway: Tales from the Bar: The Queen's Pub

With another Friday night at hand, I had a few shots of Jack and then set out to meet some friends downtown. I hopped on the bus and got off as I had been instructed. The bus dropped me off close to the bar, but being unfamiliar with the area, I had to seek out assistance to actually find the place. I asked several people for help, and after a few dead-ends, I was there - the Queen's Pub.

I was meeting my lovely and talented Norwegian friend Kandi, and she brought along two of her fellow countrywomen, Kamilla and Karolina. I had actually met Kamilla and Karolina previously, but we hadn't spoken much on our initial meeting.

The three ladies had a prime spot at the bar, and the alcohol was flowing freely. I hitched my coat on the hook under the bar, and then I ordered up some more whiskey.

In Norway, there is an antiquated law on the books that prohibits the serving of drinks with more than one shot of alcohol. I normally order a double Jack on the rocks, so I learned about this law the first time I went out.

On that first night out, I walked up to the bar, and after demonstrating that I couldn't communicate in Norwegian, the bartender effortlessly switched to English. Business as usual. I ordered a double, and he told me that he couldn't serve it because it was illegal.

"OK," I responded, "can I get two singles?"

And sure enough, he served them up, knowing full well that I was going to drink both. He might have been following the letter of the law, but not really the spirit.

Having learned my lesson earlier, though, I started out at the Queen's Pub by ordering two single Jacks on the rocks. Then as soon as the bartenders turned away, I just combined them in one glass. I don't know if they would actually have cared had they seen me combine the drinks, but I figured that I would show some respect and wait until their backs were turned.

Kandi, Kamilla, Karolina, and I drank and talked and laughed for a few hours. We were having a choice time.

We were a self-contained pod up to this point, but that was about to change.

Sitting next to us at the bar were an older, slightly intoxicated, white-haired man, and his friend, a younger man who was a good measure more sober. The older man - let's call him Bjørnulv - was hungry for conversation, and he engaged all of us in turn for long stretches. Actually, he engaged all of us but Karolina. She seemed to think that he was a dirty old man, and she did not appreciate him worming his way into our group. She deliberately ignored him the whole night.

For our part, Kandi, Kamilla, and I were well compensated for befriending Bjørnulv. He was buying us drinks right and left, and poor Karolina didn't get anything.

I ended up with an odd array of drinks before me thanks to Bjørnulv. I was drinking bourbon when we met so he bought me some bourbons. Then he asked me if I liked scotch. When I told him that I did, he ordered me one. Before the scotch was finished, he asked me if I drank cognac. I told him that I did, and - voila! - a snifter appeared before me. A few minutes later, he was like, "Do you like beer?"

Anyhow, at one point I was sitting at the bar with four different drinks. Yet, it's illegal to serve a double...

Most people avoid mixing drinks for fear of the repercussions, but I worked my way through my entire portfolio. I think that a drink given in friendship should never go to waste.

Bjørnulv was an interesting guy. He and his friend were farmers, and they had spent the day driving some of their farm machinery from the countryside to Oslo. The machinery that they brought would be used for snow removal during the winter.

They were set to return to the farm the following day, so we ran into them on their only night in the big city. Bjørnulv especially seemed poised to let his hair down.

While interesting, Bjørnulv was at the same time a bit needy. After he had cornered someone for half an hour to tell the tale of, say, his trip to Bruges in 1989, that person would be looking for an escape route with some sense of urgency. Going to the bathroom or going outside for a cigarette were two safe bets.

As busy as Karolina was ignoring Bjørnulv, she still found time to mock the rest of us for talking to him. "He is only buying you all drinks," she told us, "because he wants to sleep with you." Her choice of words was actually a bit more colorful.

Then to make sure that there was no misunderstanding, she turned to me and said, "He wants you especially."

She was obviously saying this to get a reaction, but her attempts fell short; it was clear to everyone that Bjørnulv only had eyes for Kamilla. Kamilla was the oldest member of our posse, but she kept herself in good shape. Blond, tall, and thin, she had a somewhat sporty look, and a slightly tangy personality.

I think that Bjørnulv was buying the three of us drinks because we had been nice to him but also because he fancied Kamilla and wanted to create a positive mood within her circle so as to create a good impression.

The night wore on, and Bjørnulv grew bolder with each passing drink. Before long, his requests for a dance with Kamilla crossed into the annoyance zone, and she put an end to the fun. She politely told Bjørnulv that, while he was very nice, she was not romantically interested in him and nothing was going to happen between them. At least that's what she told us she was going to say. I didn't witness the actual moment when she tossed his heart in the blender.

Regardless of how Kamilla delivered the message, the die was cast at this point. Bjørnulv's wing man could see that their welcome had worn out, and he convinced his drunk friend that it was time to move on.

And thus the free drink service dried up.

Once Bjørnulv was gone, the party continued, and Karolina finally let her guard down. She became quite energized and, truth be told, a bit frisky. She was putting down the drinks faster, laughing a lot more, singing along to the music, and dancing around our small square of real estate at the bar. She was like a different person.

As Karolina was dancing, she kept pulling me over to dance with her. I did "dance" for a few songs, meaning that I faced her and kind of moved from side to side. This was good enough, though, and Karolina was having a ball. She was definitely tipsy.

In Kamilla and Kandi's opinion, she was having a little too much fun. I stepped away to the men's room, and when I returned I couldn't help but notice that something was missing.

"What happened to Karolina?" I asked.

Well, what happened to Karolina is that Kandi and Kamilla thought that she was too drunk and had shipped her home in a taxi.

And then there were three.

This particular outing was on October 30, and that same night, some of my colleagues were hosting a Halloween party. I had intended to go, but as the night progressed it was looking less likely. When it was 9:00, 10:00, and even 11:00, I was telling myself, "OK. There's still time." When the clock struck 12, I was like, "It ain't happenin'."

Sometime between 11:00 and 12:00 the pub instantly became popular. Masses of people swarmed the place and somehow Kandi, Kamilla, and I lost our prime spot at the bar. The circumstances surrounding our displacement weren't much of a mystery actually. I again went to the men's room, and the ladies either went to the ladies' room or out to smoke. With no one standing guard, our seats were quickly filled.

When the three of us returned and found the squatters in our former home, we were reduced to hugging a wall. More inconvenient our spot could not have been, and we found ourselves constantly jostled by people coming and going.

Things were going downhill fast, and Kamilla decided that it was time for her to call it a night. She also had something to do in the morning.

And then there were two.

Kandi and I stayed on a bit longer. Having spent our entire night thus far in the bar area, we hadn't ventured up the few stairs to the rest of the pub which was slightly elevated. Now the chaos of the lower floor forced us upward.

The top level had a dance floor and a man wailing away on a piano. The piano was completely surrounded by patrons, and everyone was merrily singing along. I felt a bit stupid because after all the hours we had spent in this place, I hadn't realized that it was a piano bar until this point. The pianist was a natural entertainer, and he seemed to have a wide repertoire.

The top level was packed nearly as tightly as the lower level, and Kandi and I again found ourselves on the move in search of some breathing room. We ended up on the lower level again, this time near the door. There were actually several open tables there - owing to the fact that these tables were subjected to a blast of cold air every time the door was opened. For some reason, people did not appreciate this.

While we were in our new location, Kandi went to the ladies' room again. As I was waiting for her to return, I was just sitting at the table, drinking my whiskey and minding my own business. Then the roving security man approached me.

"You need to go outside for some fresh air," he told me.

I had seen him walking around the bar throughout the night, weeding out people, so I didn't think much of it. I went outside for my "time out". I left my coat inside because I didn't expect to stay outside very long. Unfortunately, though, there was another bouncer outside, and he was like, "you can go back inside in 15 minutes."

As I was sitting out there in cold storage with a handful of smokers, one thing quickly became apparent: sitting out in the cold for 15 minutes will kill a buzz for sure.

When I was released from the penalty box, I came back inside and found Kandi. She had been wondering where I had gone.

By now, we had both had enough fun for one night. I finished my drink, and we left. It was around 2:00 AM, I think.

It had been a long night, but neither of us seemed too much worse for the wear.

Things, however, are not always as they seem.

I was walking Kandi home, and we had barely gotten around the corner from the pub when she just stopped. "No big deal," I thought, assuming that she was feeling sick or something.

This wasn't the case, though. The reality was that she had completely run out of gas.

"I just need to rest for a minute," she told me. Then she laid down on the sidewalk and refused to move.

I didn't realize what was happening at first, but after several minutes of trying to coax her to her feet, I was like, "Houston, we have a problem."

I figured that Kandi was probably especially cold sleeping on the frozen concrete, so I gave her my coat and she quickly wrapped up in it. Then I continued trying to rouse her. All the while, she was talking all dreamy-like, telling me that she just needed to rest for a few more minutes.

At one point, she looked at me and asked me why I wasn't wearing a coat. When I told her that she was sleeping on it, she just curled up more and still made no effort to get up.

The minutes ticked away, and a sea of humanity passed us by. A few people asked if we needed any help - which we declined - but most people kept their distance. Since this was all taking place at 2:00 in the morning, most of the people we encountered were either heading to a party or returning from one. With this particular demographic, I'm sure that plenty of people knew exactly what Kandi was going through.

Some of the passers-by were definitely not helpful, however. One man called Kandi a gypsy and told me not to waste my time with her.

After 15 minutes, we reached another milestone in the stand-off - the police arrived. Oh, joy!

The cruiser pulled up with its lights flashing, and two police officers - a man and a woman - approached us. They sized up the situation, and I started giving my side of the story. They apparently thought that I was a complete stranger who had found someone passed out on the sidewalk because when they learned that we were friends they immediately stopped scrutinizing us. They asked Kandi if we were in fact friends, and she managed to give a very drowsy affirmative response. Then they came back to me.

"Are you prepared to take responsibility for her?" they asked me.

I told them that I was, and after repeating the question a few more times, they left Kandi in my care and left.

Perhaps the police could have helped us, but I was just happy that they were gone. Norway is at least as uptight as the US, so I figured that we (well actually just Kandi) must have been in violation of some public drunkenness ordinance.

Besides the fact that they didn't hassle us, the other thing that I appreciated in the whole police encounter was that I was a bit intoxicated myself, but apparently not enough to concern them.

When the police left, I was back to square one. Kandi was barely responsive, and I had no ideas.

Some of you might be wondering why I didn't just strong-arm Kandi and force her to her feet. My answer to that is that it wasn't necessary.

Different situations call for different responses. While it would be acceptable to manhandle someone to save them from a fire or a crashed car, there was no immediate danger in the situation with which we were dealing. I was convinced that Kandi could and should get home under her own power.

Several more minutes passed, and I was wishing that I had my coat back.

Probably 10 minutes after the police left, we hit the next milestone in the stand-off: Mya appeared.

Mya was a young woman who happened to have been walking by, and she for sure had been in exactly the same situation as Kandi. She told us her story; it was the same scenario except she ended up getting arrested.

I told her that we were fine on that front because the police had already come and gone.

"No! That's what they always do!" Mya shouted back at me. "If they catch you twice, you will get arrested!"

She asked Kandi's name and apparently misunderstood what was said.

Very forcefully and deliberately, she barked out her orders: "Kammi..... get..... up.... now! Come on, Kammi. GET UP!"

Then she grabbed her by the collar and started shaking her. Kandi was unimpressed and continued to lounge.

At this, Mya dredged up her own prison story once again. On the verge of tears, she was like, "Do you have any idea what happens in prison? I do. I was there."

Then for emphasis, she repeated her opening line several more times, "Do you have any idea what happens in prison? Do you??"

All the while, I was thinking, "Yeah, I do have an idea. I own a TV."

Getting stabbed with shivs, strip searches, working all day for 7 cents an hour, rough toilet paper, gang fights, prison meatloaf, limited television programming, big manly girls buying and selling you for cigarettes...

Yes, indeed, I had some idea of the horrors of prison. It was all most unpleasant.

Anyhow, Kandi still wasn't inspired by Mya's ranting, so Mya and I finally just grabbed an arm each and hoisted Kandi to her feet.

Even at this point, Kandi was still unable to muster the strength or motivation to stand up. We started to move with Mya and me shouldering the bulk of Kandi's body weight.

All the while, Mya continued ranting about the horrors of prison and the humiliation of it all. She did have a strong back, though, so I can't complain.

Mya was keen on getting Kandi into a taxi, so she tried to steer us toward an intersection for this purpose. I didn't know how close Kandi lived exactly, but she was very adamant that a taxi was absolutely unnecessary. Mya tried to overrule Kandi, but I told her that if Kandi didn't want a taxi we weren't going to get one.

Mya did not appreciate being challenged, and so she kicked us to the curb at this point.

When she left us, Kandi immediately started to shrink down for more sidewalk sleeping. Mya rushed back over to keep her from reaching the ground and she helped us walk a little bit further.

Soon Mya was relieved by a group of three young men who looked to me to be of South Asian heritage (Pakistani or Indian).

Mya now left us for good, and Kandi, me, and our three new escorts continued on. The young men were very excited about Kandi's condition, and they suggested flagging down the police or getting a taxi. We weren't enthused by either idea, of course. By this point, however, Kandi was participating a bit more with the walking, and I sent the three guys away. They were making too much hoopla.

Kandi's apartment really was close, and I supported her the rest of the way.

When we got to her apartment, I put her in her bed, and she immediately went to sleep.

The night had ended so strangely, I didn't know what to make of it. Had Kandi been drugged? Was she just drunk? Did she have alcohol poisoning?

I decided that it wasn't safe to leave her alone, so I took off my coat and formed it into a pillow. Then I sprawled out on the floor just outside her bedroom door for the night. The combination of the hard floor and the freezing cold night ensured that I didn't get much sleep. This was ideal, though, because every time I woke up, I was able to confirm that Kandi was still breathing. When she first went to sleep, her breathing was very labored and noisy, so it was very easy to determine that she was still alive. By 8:00 AM, her breathing had returned to normal, and it was barely audible. Around 8:30, I left her apartment, and Kandi snoozed on unaware.

As I made my way back home, I looked a bit disheveled and it was pretty obvious that I had slept in my clothes. People were looking at me like I was taking the walk of shame, but I couldn't care less. Exhaustion aside, I felt like a million bucks.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Norway: First Impressions

When I arrived to Oslo, my sponsor Lisa and one of my office mates, Scott, met me at the airport. As we drove toward my apartment, they gave me a good overview of life in Norway, and they had a few questions about Papua New Guinea for me as well.

After probably 45 minutes, we reached my new digs. I live in the neighborhood of Frogner on Gyldenløvesgate. Gyldenløvesgate, I'm told, is the only boulevard in all of Oslo. It is a wide road with rows of trees on both sides and a double row running down the center median. Frogner is a well-to-do place. In one of the city guides that I picked up, it was described as rich and label-conscious. This description seems accurate just based on the number of luxury cars on the streets around my apartment. There are quite a few, and among them, there are at least four Porsches. There's a red one that is entirely too angular for my tastes and looks a bit comical. Two others, a white one and a second red one, have more traditional lines and look pretty slick. The fourth one, though, is the best one of all. It's got all the right curves and the paint job is matte black, like the color of a wet suit. When I saw it for the first time, I couldn't recall having ever seen a car with a matte finish before; cars are always shiny. The matte black works well, though, and gives the car a Batmobile aspect.

Anyhow, we dropped Scott off at the office along the way, and Lisa and I continued on to my apartment.

Here they consider it to be on the third floor, but in the U.S. it would be considered second floor. There are two flights of stairs and no elevator. Hauling my 100 pounds of luggage up was my exercise for the day.

As we entered the apartment, one of the first things that I noticed was the keys. The front door has two locks. One takes a normal-looking key, and the second one takes one of those old-school skeleton keys.

The apartment is pretty nice. It has a modern style with fancy fixtures, unusual lighting pieces, funky curtains, an open kitchen, and hardwood floors. It has a minimalist look, which does have some drawbacks. For starters, there are no cabinets in either of my bathrooms, nor are there wall cabinets in my kitchen. The kitchen has loads of wall space, which I will fill with art, but the trade-off is that I have to store my dishes in a different room. All things considered, though, there is a good amount of storage in my place. There are some closets and shelves built in, in addition to some scary unsecure storage that I have access to in the basement of the building.

While they don't have cabinets, the floors in my bathrooms and the kitchen are all heated. This is a feature that I don't use, though. To me, it's a bit unnatural to be walking on a hot floor.

The apartment came with the usual appliances – washer, dryer, stove, oven, fridge, dishwasher, and microwave. The oven, microwave, and dishwasher are all pretty standard and user friendly. The washer and dryer are European style, which I've used before. Basically they take a super long time (like 2 hours a load for just the washing), and they hold only a small amount of clothing. They are also easy to use, though, and they get the job done. The biggest surprise for me was the fridge. It's really small. The capacity is probably equivalent to 2 dorm fridges. The freezer is especially small. No exaggeration, one carton of ice cream will fill the whole thing. The small fridge and freezer have forced me to reevaluate how I shop for and store cold items, and by now I've come to terms with the situation. Among the appliances, last but not least is the stove. It's a fancy induction range that can boil water almost instantaneously. The only problem is that it requires special pots and pans, which I didn't have. I remedied that my first weekend with a trip to IKEA.

IKEA is off in the burbs, but the store pays for a special bus that picks people up in the city every 20 or 30 minutes and hauls them out. The bus service is very popular and seems to be full much of the time. My first weekend, my colleague Dolores took me there. The experience was just like going to any other IKEA, except I had reindeer medallions for lunch in the IKEA cafeteria after we finished shopping. I'm pretty sure I haven't seen reindeer at other IKEAs I've visited.

Getting back to my apartment, I've never lived in such open view of other people. I have windows on three sides. My living room, dining room, and guest bedroom have windows that open onto Gyldenløvesgate and to the apartments across the street. The guest bedroom also has a window that opens toward the apartment building adjacent to mine. Then in the master bedroom, the windows open to a courtyard, which is lined by another block of apartments. If you look out any of the windows in my apartment, you look into other people's apartments. I haven't seen anyone naked like on Friends, but there are people eating, cooking, watching TV, dressing, and whatever else. It's somewhat interesting. No one seems to care, and no one bothers to close the blinds. I also don't fool with it, so I can understand my neighbors' indifference. Like I mentioned before, I've never lived in a place where I could see other people like this. In the past, my view has always been a parking lot or a tree or a fence or whatever.

On the day that I arrived, Lisa and I actually only spent a few minutes in my apartment. We dropped off my bags, and then Lisa took me on a tour of the neighborhood. She was a good guide since her apartment is only about 5 minutes from mine, and as a result she knows the area well.

She walked me around the main areas of downtown and showed me a lot of useful things. She showed me how to walk from my apartment to the Embassy, a very important thing. It's only about a 10 minute walk.

Lisa also took me to Aker Brygge, which is an area on the water that is full of shops, bars, and restaurants. Frogner is older money and a quieter neighborhood, in contrast to Aker Brygge, which is more of a young and rich party neighborhood.

Next we walked toward the central train station where there is a big mall and many shops along the streets. Lisa pointed out some highlights like her favorite sporting goods stores, and then we headed back toward my house.

On our walk we also stopped at a few grocery stores and the produce market on my street. While we were in the grocery store, I got my first episode of sticker shock. There is no denying that this is an expensive country. Oslo is one of the most expensive postings in the U.S. Foreign Service out of something like 260 major cities around the world.

Allow me to illustrate:

  • A Burger King Whopper combo (small size) will set you back $15.
  • Want to buy ground beef at the grocery store? You're looking at $15 a pound.
  • Passport photos cost me $20 each.
  • Milk is about $3 per liter. To put that in U.S. terms, that's like $11.35 per gallon.
  • A small can of no-frills tuna is like $3.
  • Cheese costs an arm and a leg.
  • And the biggest sting of all: Whisky in a bar is about $13-15 a shot. Beer starts at $10 a serving.

It's the same across the board – clothing, toiletries, produce – and that first day of shopping, I got a few basics and spent more than $60. Now that I've been here a few weeks, I've come to terms with things. For one thing, I consume less meat than I used to. PNG was a meat-lovers paradise, but I guess less meat in the diet is healthier.

With the price of things here, I find that the magic ratio between U.S. and Norwegian prices is 3. That is to say that as a baseline I expect everything here to cost at least 3 times as much as it does in the U.S. Three times more is my new normal. Anything more than 3 times is what I consider to be “Norway expensive”. Conversely, anything less than 3 times as expensive would be cheap.

Anyhow, my second day here was my first day of work. I was on my own getting to the Embassy, but I remembered the route and walked myself in without any problem. In my section, a normal work day is 8:30 to 5:00. I didn't know this, so when I arrived before 8:00, I found myself waiting for half an hour for someone to turn up and unlock my office.

Once the day got going, I set about meeting people and checking-in with all the relevant offices at the Embassy. All of my colleagues, both in my section and throughout the Embassy, were nice and friendly from the start. My colleague Kelly, the incumbent in my position, was especially helpful in showing me the ropes.

Besides the people working at the Embassy, I have found Norwegians in general to be very nice people. Before I arrived to Norway, I had heard from several people that Norwegians were aloof, cold, and somewhat rude. The way I see it, Norwegians just know how to mind their own business, and I can respect that. When I'm walking down the street or riding on the tram, for example, most Norwegians that I encounter will avoid eye contact. It's not that they don't look at other people; they just avert their eyes when their gaze has been met. I get the feeling that if I ever tripped and fell down on the sidewalk, no one would laugh (well, no one but the teenagers) because everyone would be too busy pretending he didn't see anything.

There are exceptions to this, of course. I often come across people who do like to stare and don't avert their eyes when their gaze is met. When these people are staring me down, I always wonder if I have something caught in my teeth or something.

Norwegians generally aren't into chit-chatting with strangers, so you don't need to worry about some Norwegian on the bus boring you to death with all the mundane details of her life. We Americans have already cornered that market.

That said, when you engage Norwegians in conversation, most are quite happy to talk. I have asked questions of many random Norwegians – men, women, kids, old people, young people, immigrants, people in a hurry, people lollygagging, people struggling with kids or pets, people caught in the rain, and so on – and in every single situation, the interaction has been quite positive. For example, when I ask people for directions (which I sometimes do just to see the reaction), they will go out of their way to help. If they don't know the way, they will try to find other people to help. Not once has anyone ignored me or been rude to me when I asked a question. Like I said, they are nice people.

In terms of language, it seems like everyone, at least in Oslo, speaks good English. This is good for me. I started language classes at the Embassy this week, but with only an hour a week of instruction, I think I will be conversing exclusively in English for months to come. From what I have seen of Norwegian, subtitled on TV for example, it seems to follow the same basic sentence structure as English.

Enough with that, though.

After work that first day, I walked myself back home and watched some TV. Fifteen channels are included with my lease, and of those, about 3 are of interest to me. The others are either in Norwegian or else the programming is just straight-up lame. I found myself watching a lot of MTV – Jackass, Scarred, Viva La Bam, Nitro Circus, and tons of South Park – basically out of boredom. After a few weeks of this, I pretty much gave up TV. It was wasting a lot of my time every evening.

Before I get any further, let me go back to my daily walk to work.

There are many different possible routes, but I usually only use two of these. In the mornings, I usually walk down my tree-lined street and turn at my produce market. The guys are always setting up the shop when I walk by, and after only a few days we were on head-nod terms.

From the produce market, I walk past a few boutiques, a health food store, a flower shop, and a salon. Then I come to the elementary school, which is always a highlight. Every day, whether it's cold or rainy or otherwise, the kids are all out playing in the schoolyard when I pass. It's fun to see them on the merry-go-round or climbing up the metal poles or secretly putting leaves in each others' jacket hoods. The air is always full of talking and laughing. After the school, I pass a dry cleaner, some offices, and a bakery. Then I walk another short block which brings me to the Royal Palace. The Embassy is across the street from the palace grounds.

When I come down the road from the bakery, I end up at a side gate to the palace, complete with its own palace guard. The Norwegian royal family seems to be less ostentatious than some other royal families, and their guards seem to be a bit more casual as well. Plenty of times, I've seen the guard on the side gate marching around with military precision. Plenty of other times, though, the guard seems to be breaking rank. I often see him moving his head and looking around. I've seen him scratching his nose, and I've seen him bending over to pick things up off the ground. These things are no big deal, of course, but they are in sharp contrast to other high profile guards, like the Marines at Arlington or the guards at Buckingham Palace, where the goal seems to be a statue-like appearance.

Once I pass by the guard, the Embassy is less than a minute away.

Along the walk, I cross the street several times. In Oslo, motorists respect pedestrian right-of-way, so at crosswalks that don't have electric signals (and many don't) you can confidently walk out in traffic knowing that the cars will stop. The exceptions are the buses and the trams, which have a reputation (perhaps exaggerated) for hitting pedestrians.

In the evenings, I like to return home by a different way. I walk along the main road in front of the Embassy, past a row of shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, and a post office. Then I come to a round-about, which has a fountain in the center. I like this round-about because the tram tracks actually run through the fountain, which I think is pretty cool. At the round-about, I head north down another street full of shops and restaurants. I pass a McDonalds, a French restaurant, 2 sushi joints, an Indian restaurant, an Italian restaurant, two 7-Eleven's, a produce store, a grocery store, a kitchenware store, a wine bar, and a pub. There are always plenty of people around.

The walk is usually good fun, but there are times, like when I forget my umbrella on a rainy day, that it bites. The other time that the walk is a drag is when I get a package. Just before I left the U.S., I shipped myself two large boxes. One was like 40 pounds (18 kg) and the other wasn't much better at 35 pounds (16 kg). These arrived within my first few days in Oslo, and I soon came to realize how hard it is to carry an awkward-shaped and heavy box for just 10 minutes. Each time I carried one of those boxes, my arms were burning and my back was whining before long. I'm getting too old for this...

Even a smaller box gets old after several minutes. Perhaps I need to invest in a cart for such occasions.

All this talk of schlepping things calls to mind another incident. I shipped a box as air cargo from the U.S. and that arrived to Oslo soon after I did. This box weighed about 130 pounds (60 kg). Well, a man from the shipping company called one day and arranged a time to deliver it to me. When the time came, he showed up right on schedule. The only problem was that he was alone. I had told him before that there was no elevator, but my warning had apparently gone unheeded. When he arrived and could see that there was no elevator, he insisted that he could still hoist the box up the stairs by himself. After a few ridiculous attempts, I just grabbed one side and we walked it up the stairs together. When we got inside my apartment and I was signing the paperwork, I mentioned that I had a large shipment of household effects on the way, and the shipment included a 750 pound (340 kg) upright piano. He told me that this was absolutely no problem; seven or eight guys would just carry it up the stairs. In Papua New Guinea, a team of six or seven guys did move the piano, but they almost killed themselves just getting it from the truck and into my house. No stairs were involved. It's hard to get a good grip, so the weight isn't the only problem. I almost hate to watch these Oslo movers trying to bring the piano up two flights of stairs, negotiating 3 or 4 turns on the way. Things could get messy.

In my month here so far, I've accomplished most of the necessary things. I set-up home broadband, a local bank account, and phone service. I was billed for a “TV license” – about $430 per year just for owning a television. I later got out of that since I was exempt as a diplomatic person, but the TV license itself seems crazy to me.

A similar situation (not really) happened with my gym. Soon after I arrived, I went to a large gym near my apartment. I inquired about membership costs, and the young lady at the desk asked me where I worked. Different companies qualified for different discounts, she explained. When I told her that I worked at the U.S. Embassy, she started typing on her computer. A few seconds later, she looked up. “It's your lucky day,” she told me, “members of the U.S. Embassy qualify for free membership!” I definitely hadn't expected that, but she insisted this was correct. The price was right, so I didn't see any reason to mull it over. I signed up on the spot.

I went to the gym nearly every evening after work. It was a nice place, but it did have its amusing aspects. First off, it's the only gym I ever saw where people take off their street shoes near the door the same way one does when entering a home. Since this was the practice, I also left my shoes in the shoe area. For those who didn't want to remove their shoes at the door, the gym provided plastic booties that could be worn over shoes. Some people used these. Then there were also some people who would just ignore the whole system and walk into the locker room wearing their street shoes.

One day after I had just come out of the shower, one of the female trainers walked into the men's locker room and started cleaning up a bit since it was close to closing time. I had a towel on, so I wasn't exposed. When the lady was spotted, though, 4 or 5 guys rushed out of the steam room completely naked. They said something; the woman responded; and everyone cracked up. “How Scandinavian,” I thought.

Such fun times were not to last, however, for soon after an invoice arrived to the Embassy. It was for my gym membership in the amount of $1,530 for the year.

This was about $1,530 more than I expected to pay, so that evening, I went to see the membership coordinators at the gym about the matter. They pulled up my account and after checking the details again, they told me once more that the membership was free. At this point, I produced the bill I had received. When she saw it, the woman was angry. Apparently, the Embassy had established a corporate plan with the gym. Under this plan, the membership for individuals of the organization was free because the organization was supposed to pay the whole expense. The problem with this was that the Embassy received the bill for me and then gave it straight to me. The corporate plan was for use by companies who provided fitness plans to their employees as a perk. This is not what the Embassy was doing, and the woman was mad that the Embassy had even joined the corporate plan if it had no intention of honoring it.

If this whole system had been explained to me upfront, I would have known that it was a mistake because the Embassy would never pay for something like this. It wasn't explained, though, so I just assumed that the free membership was compliments of the gym for some reason.

When all was revealed, the woman felt sympathy for me. The Embassy has a small gym of its own, so I told her I would prefer just to workout there for free as opposed to paying the full membership fee (which I had only learned about through a convoluted sequence of events quite a while after I had signed a contract I couldn't even read). Since I had signed the contract already, though, I told her that I would pay for the full year if it was necessary. If it wasn't necessary, I was willing to at least pay for the first month to cover the time that I had used the gym.

The woman's response was the most amazing thing. “If you signed a contract in a language you can't even understand,” she told me, “we obviously aren't going to hold you to it.”

I was like, “Come again?”

I was expecting her to say something more along the lines of, “If you signed a contract in a language you can't even understand, you're an idiot.”

Surveys have identified Norwegians as the most trusting people in the world, and they are willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Even knowing this, I was really surprised at how she handled the misunderstanding. She didn't even want to charge me for the first month. Instead she was in favor of just closing my account with no money changing hands. She needs her supervisor's approval in order to do this, so I will find out tomorrow what happens.

Even if she can't make my contract magically disappear, I will still be a satisfied customer. It's been years since I've experienced good customer service, and it's almost a reward in itself. There's a lot of corporate incompetence in PNG, so complaining to a service provider or a vendor was usually a huge waste of time. In Israel, customer service was based on who could shout the loudest (a game I don't play), and negotiations seemed to start with the premise that the customer is always wrong. I had a dispute with an internet service provider there that lasted for months.

To avoid all that nonsense with this gym situation really made me happy. Perhaps you could tell.

Before I close, I should mention the weather since that seems to be of keen interest to people. While it has been cold, winter hasn't really set in yet. We continue to get much more rain than snow. I understand that this is normal for November, though. In December the snow should start coming down in earnest, and I am looking forward to it. That said, I'm sure I will freeze. As I learned at a presentation a few weeks ago, there's a Norwegian adage that says there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. That's the story of my life for now. Until my shipment of household effects arrives in January, my selection of warm clothes is a bit limited. I'll survive, though. As for the darkness, the sun is rising around 8:00 AM these days and setting around 4:00 PM. Nothing too exciting just yet.

Anyhow, that's some of what's been going on the past few weeks.