Thursday, 23 August 2007

We arrived in Oslo, Norway around 10:30PM on Monday the twentieth, took a bus, and then walked through the dark city streets to find our hotel and plop into bed. We’ve had many different sleeping arrangements on this trip, but this one did not please Benji. We opened the door around 11:30 that night to find four single beds and one baby playpen with sheets and a pillow. He slept with me all four nights and we shoved the offensive playpen under a bed.

When we woke up in the morning, we began to think that Oslo had been closed. The first museum we tried was closed, the cathedral was wrapped in plastic for restoration, and the remnants of a large festival were being picked up near the waterfront. It looked a little forlorn, like the morning after a big party. The kids found some giant granite boulders with holes in the middle and were perfectly happy to crawl in them all morning long, but Clay and I were eager to do some exploring, so we lured them away with a ferry ride.

We decided to take a ferry to explore some museums across the way. After gobbling up some cherries and tiny, sweet grapes from a farmer’s market we found, we tried the first of four museums. It was a “folk” museum, with tons of old log cabins brought in from all over Norway. At the height of the tourist season there are costumed guides all over the place giving demonstrations and telling all about what times were like long ago in Norway. Once again, Oslo seemed closed, as we wandered around the log cabins with nary a costumed guide in sight. We did find some old wooden stilts leaning next to a house and gave it a go (see picture for Clay’s stilt-walking capability). The cabins were cool, but the kids were most impressed with a tiny playground they found with an old-fashioned merry-go-round and a few things we don’t see on American playgrounds. A spinning metal “log” that Clay mastered with gusto (he had to redeem himself after the stilts debacle), and a big, round ring that sat at a tilt and spun as you tried to walk around it. Time for museum number two, we decided.

We actually visited four museums total that day, seeing some Viking ships that had been excavated at one, reed and balsa wood boats that floated half-way around the world at another, and exploring the inside of the Flam at the last. This is a really large, strong boat and I’m sure it has a fascinating story, but by that time we were a little burned out on the museums and just enjoyed wandering around inside of it for a while. We came home tired and hungry, and settled in for dinner at the hotel that we bought at a nearby market. Our tiny, simple room has a stovetop and refrigerator, so we were able to make some meals there.

The next morning we took it easy. We were in dire need of clean laundry, so while Clay set out with a duffel full of dirty clothes to find a Laundromat, I stayed with the kids and we did school for a while. When Clay returned we were ready to see some naked statues, and lots of them. We headed to Vigeland, where the artist Gustav Vigeland sculpted 192 statues, all of people, all of them naked. At first, the kids were pretty disgusted, but as we made our way past the statues, each with their own personality, their own expression, they began to forget that they were naked. They started trying to guess what they meant. I loved them, I loved trying to figure out what the artist was saying with each one, and we loved trying to imitate them so Clay could get a good picture.

There was a great playground in the park, the kids played on it for over an hour. Again, there were all sorts of different things you wouldn’t find on an American playground. Alayna kept her eyes open for a friend her age, preferably a girl but her standards are dropping. She’s been thumbing through the translation book we have for many European languages and learning some basic phrases, and isn’t afraid to try them. Alas, no kids her age.

The park also had a pool, and again it was different from what we are familiar with. It actually had several pools, one of them a diving pool with two diving boards and four diving platforms, the highest was really, really high. There was another pool down lower, with windows looking into the pool above, so you could watch people dive from under the water, which was really cool. They also had a big water slide, and for some kronen the kids could slide for a while. No lifeguard at the top telling them when to go, they made long chains coming down and had a ball.

We’ve been carrying around a package of digestive biscuits we got in England, and some flakes, and we snacked on them that afternoon before heading to the ski slopes. That’s right, we took a tram up a mountain to see Holmenkollen, a giant ski jump dating back to the 1800’s. We actually got off the tram a little further up the mountain so we could do some hiking and eat some dinner at a restaurant we’d read about. The restaurant had all sorts of yummy things, especially compared to the spaghetti in a can and cheese we’d eaten the night before. Everyone ordered something different, and I got the fresh mountain trout. I was very sad when they brought me a fish with a head, eyeballs, a tail, and all its skin. It looked like they just got it and slapped it on my plate and drizzled it with butter.

I dutifully carried it out to the table where everyone else were feeding on nice safe things like lasagna and quiche and elk meat with onions. I didn’t know what to do with it, but once Clay cut off the head and tail and cut it down the back and split it open so I could see the meat inside, I just had to get over the fact that there were tiny fish bones running down the middle and I was okay. It didn’t hurt that there was lots and lots of butter I could dip it in. So, I ate my first adventure. I’m know there’s lots more to come, but baby steps are good, right?

Clay made a wager with the kids. If they put my fish head IN THEIR MOUTH AND CLOSED THEIR LIPS AROUND IT they could upgrade their ice cream dessert from something 20 Kronen or under to any ice cream they wanted. Nate immediately said “okay” and popped that fish head in his mouth. Unfortunately it got stuck on the way out and he almost heaved, but at the last minute it popped back out and he gave a big grin. Alayna decided since the fish head now had Nate’s spit on it, she would do the tail, so she popped that in her mouth and earned her upgraded dessert. Clay picked up the fish head, Benji opened his tiny little mouth, and Clay put the front part, just the jaws and eyeballs, in Benji’s mouth. “Close your lips,” Clay ordered, AND BENJI DID! Closed his lips on those fish eyeballs. I almost puked. But Benji got the ice cream upgrade and was happy. Alayna ended up getting a giant chocolate ball, which turned out to be a massive, potent rum ball. She only took a few bites and I don’t think she was too inebriated.

When we got to the ski jump there were some kids practicing their ski jumps on a smaller ramp, which was wet down with a hose. They had on wet suits and they would go down the wet ramp on their skis, flip into the air, and land in a pool at the bottom. It was really cool. The Holmenkollen ski jump was just huge. We climbed up the bleacher seats that spectators sit in during competitions, then got in an elevator that took us to the top for a beautiful view. I can’t imagine tipping my skis off the top of that ramp, no way.

The next day we got up super-early to catch a train to see the fjords. It was a long day of travel, we left our hotel at 5:40AM, and returned around 11PM, but the fjords were worth it. It was a strange experience, actually. To see these fjords in a day, you take a series of trains to get to a boat. We did some school in the train while the rest of the passengers snoozed, I read Benji’s dinosaur book to him for a while, Nate read an entire book over the course of the day, and Alayna read an Agatha Christie book that Clay’s been reading. We played cards, we played dice, the kids drew pictures. We stared out the window, and gradually, the scenery began to change. We got higher, we saw beautiful clear lakes that reflected the trees around them perfectly. We saw snow. We saw waterfalls. We saw a glacier. “What are we doing? Where are going?” the kids kept asking. The fjords. The fjords. The fjords. “What’s a fjord?” they kept asking.

At one point the train we were on stopped so we could get out and see a spectacular waterfall. It came crashing down the rocks, mist sprayed us, and there we stood, with everyone else, taking pictures a mile a minute. Then something really weird happened. Music started playing and a lady came out in a purple dress up on a rock in the distant spray of the waterfall and she started to do a really corny dance. Then she disappeared and another lady, dressed the same, appeared in front of the waterfall and did some more of the cheesy dance. Then she disappeared and the other lady came back to cheese some more. It was very odd. It made me feel like the waterfall wasn’t really real. It was part of a manufactured theme park attraction. The conductor blew his whistle and we all hustled back into the train to continue our way to the boat. We stopped once more for a bathroom break and souvenir extravaganza. We said “no” to pocket knives and stuffed animals, and continued on our merry way. (Remember that pocket knife, it comes up later).

And then, we got to the boat. Along with hundreds of other people. The unthinkable had happened, we were part of a tour group. Part of a jostling mob of “me-firsts” that were herded around, all seeing the same thing at the same time. As we jockeyed ourselves onto a boat and staked out our claim right in front for a slam-bang view of the fjords, I wondered what we were doing. Then we saw it. The fjord. The thing is, it was all around us.  It wasn’t like you pointed to this one thing and said, “Look kids, there’s the fjord.” It’s a massive rock gorge carved thousands of years ago by ancient glaciers that have long since melted away, leaving behind sheer cliffs and huge piles of rubble slowly crushed by the advancing glacier. We didn’t realize how big it was until we saw kayakers sliding beside them, like little specks. The water from the sea is a thousand feet deep in places.

It was cold on the front of that boat. At one point the kids and I hustled into the cabin for a break from the wind and a warm waffle. Then we hustled back out to see some more. The kids lost interest after a while and spent the last of the two hour boat ride going back and forth from the cabin to outside. Clay and I stayed where we were, basking in the sun that finally came our way. The boat slowed down and the wind wasn’t so bad. Every once in a while the boat made a stop at a tiny, isolated house, staking its claim at the water’s edge. One or two people would board, this was probably the only way they could get to the next town. I wondered what it must be like, to live near that water, in the shadow of those cliffs, through the binoculars of us tourists.

During one of the kid’s sabbaticals in the cabin, a couple of Japanese tourists asked if they could take their picture. The kids said sure, and now take up a page in some Japanese tourist’s photo album. We also met a man named Omega Gonzales on the train. He said his birthday was December 31st, so his parents named him Omega. His sister was born on January 1st, and her name is Alpha. Isn’t that great? He lost his wife several years ago, she was his traveling partner for 30 years, but he is still traveling on his own. Guess where he was from? Dallas, Texas. It’s a small world.

When the boat ride was over we were herded into busses with those hundreds of others to make our way back to the train. We descended on a restaurant, there must have been twenty busses there making pit stops, and then continued to the train where we headed back to Oslo. On the way, Alayna made a new friend.  A caterpillar dropped on her from the luggage rack above, and she spent the next five hours making a house and playground for it out of folded paper and a glue stick. She named it “Percy” because it persevered to live on that train. At one point it got lost, and after frantic searching to no avail, she made a marble run out of some paper. Then Benji spotted dear old Percy and he was restored to his paper mansion. When we got back to Oslo, Alayna let Percy go in a nearby park and we made our way back to the hotel. Whew.

This morning we had the kids write in their journals. Clay or I usually write what Benji dictates for his. As we were talking about the fjords, we asked Benji, “And what did you see on the way to the fjords?” We thought he’d remember the waterfall with the goofy dancer, or the glaciers, or the snow. He said, “Oh yeah, a pocketknife.” Those darn souvenirs.

After journals we packed it up and headed to the overnight ferry we would take later to Copenhagen, we wanted to drop off our luggage. The ferry departed at 5pm, but we decided to drop off the suitcases and leave them in a locker. We also decided to mail a pack of unneeded stuff home. These simple tasks took until 1:30 to complete. We lugged those heavy bags all over the city, searching for a post office that had moved (they need to update the map) and threading through construction sites that detoured us around our boat. We kept looking around and seeing nobody else with suitcases. Here we were, our family of five, three kids, lugging around those big old backpacks and stuffed duffels and there is nobody doing the same thing. We decided we need to take more cabs.

The ferry is awesome, it’s like a cruise boat. We hit the pool and hot tubs first thing. Because there are five of us, we had to book two rooms. It turns out Alayna and I got the good end of the deal, see the pictures for details. Tonight we were once again mega-tourists. When we first arrived for dinner the giant dining room was fairly empty, which surprised us since they told us all the tables by the windows had been reserved. I took Nate for another inopportune but ever-present bathroom break, and Clay said while we were gone he noticed several long table being quickly set cafeteria style. Before we could make it back from the bathroom, they opened the doors to hundreds of people from various tour groups who streamed in. In about three seconds, the previously tranquil buffet line was overwhelmed. We joined hordes of slathering cruisers to compete for meatballs and steak on a stick and potatoes. It was actually quite a spread, and we ate until we were stuffed. There is a harvest moon tonight, low and orange in the sky. The boat’s engine is shaking the bed just a little, and it hums just like the sleep machine home. I peeked out the window to see the water churning beneath us. I think I’ll sleep well tonight, if I can just forget a comment Clay made earlier.

“You know,” he said. “Why do terrorists bother bombing airplanes or buildings, when they could easily bomb a cruise ship? We didn’t go through any security to board, it would be easy to bring a bomb or weapon and terrorize everybody.” Sweet dreams. If you don’t get another email, watch the papers.