14 May 2007

Norwegian exploration

I've been fortunate to have an almost native guide on this trip, in the form of co-worker M, a multilingual tourguiding phenomenon who quietly suggested various post-work activities that have resulted in sushi dinners with the trend-mongers of Oslo, a near-midnight "jog" past shady characters along the river, sneaking into a guests-only hotel bar with an incredible view, and on the last day, the tour de force, the creme de la creme, the piece de resistance, a bit of a car tour into the outskirts of town.

The afternoon was draped in gold that highlighted the electric blue of Oslofjord and the astounding sky, and made the new leaves and grass buzz with brightness. After taking a creative route that involved going past the royal cow herd, many rings through some charming neighborhoods, and a detour down someone's driveway, we followed a path down to a strip of beach that overlooked the final ship approach to Oslo. There's a little park/beach area there, with a separate section if you're inclined to take a swim clothing-free.

As with many of my recent trips, I hadn't done any reading beforehand to learn about the area, so it was a wonderful surprise to see the scale of the fjord with the woods clustered around, scented so much like the ones in Vermont- full of wood mint, dandelions, and violets. The fjord was speckled with sailboats, and the park was just full enough to be able to enjoy the peace but not be lonesomely staring out at the water by yourself. A crowd of bleached-blond boys all under 10 were racing around with flags and sticks along one side, and below the rocks, near the "OSLO" harbor sign, two women chatted while their dogs wrestled in the sand.

Next, we headed up the spiraling hill to Holmenkollen, the ski jump that's visible from all over Oslo, where M oriented me to the landmarks and locations of the area. After growing up in a skiing region in the States, this was an amazing paradise- an enormous sculpture of a former king skiing, the sounds of people practicing the shooting portion of biathalon, and special bridges over the road, just for skiers. As children, we'd heard that there was such a land where everybody skied, and now I have seen it.

We dined in the falling dusk at the top of the hill in an institution of a restaurant that's been around for about a hundred years. It even came complete with a maitre d'/waiter that would be on the short list if you were to cast one for a play with his round face, his perfectly crisp black-and-white outfit, and indeterminate age. In spite of the incredibly noisy Canadian sailor yapping on about his world adventures at the next table, we managed to enjoy the reindeer with red currant, the apple cake, and the mediocre coffee with the excellent presentation with the monogrammed silver coffee set. I'm a sucker for that kind of stuff, especially when served at 1400 feet above sea level, with a spectacular view. The stuffed squirrels on the mantel in the main dining room may have been a bit spooky, but it was easy to look the other way at the twin arms of the fjord.

Afterwards, we spiraled down the mountain and headed for the only microbrewery in Oslo, a short walk from the hotel. Even on a Wednesday, the place was crowded, and the beer went down smooth, although it did make me feel slightly disoriented- all the flavor of a Boston brewery, down to the vintage beer ads from American magazines, surrounded by the looping sounds of Norwegian.

My experience of Oslo was formed in the nicest possible way, with all the inside information, and yet with the twist of outsider, so we could share a look when one Norwegian said that we were all just speaking old Norwegian in Iceland and that he'd already learned the language in school. In general though, although it is an incredibly beautiful and orderly place, I found myself missing the slightly crazy temperament of Icelanders. There was something so unshakeable about the city, the people, the weather that was exactly the same from morning to evening that made me want a bit of howling in the ventilation and the general oddness that is the landscape here. Norway in some ways also felt like going back to Vermont- the rolling shape of the landscape just outside the airport, all laced with green fields and crops, the deep red of the barns, even some of the architecture and clapboard exteriors, plus the scent of springtime- lilacs, fresh grass, and herbs underfoot. It's a landscape that is very deeply rooted in me, so it was a comfort to see these things again in a new context.

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