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!


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the read and the pictures were beautiful!! Aunt Angela

Unknown said...

always love reading about your adventures...I sure hope you are saving them for a book one day!