Norway 2013


6kroner (kr) = US$1

MONDAY JUNE 24, 2013 DUBLIN > OSLO

Arriving to Oslo in the rain. As the 1h15m plane ride from Dublin descends I see trees. Tall trees. Where is the city? There are so many trees. Ireland was green with grass, so far Norway is green with trees. El has been doing the research for transport from the airport and around the city. And just like most foreign cities it is probably easy if you live here, but complicated for those who don’t. Do you want a bus pass? How many days? Do you want to include commuter trains? How about museum entrances? Do you know which museums will not be included in that list? How many zones do you want to cover? All questions that we can’t answer if we don’t even know where our hotel is. Meanwhile it is 5:00pm on a Monday, so I assume we will be in the middle of rush hour on this downpouring evening. The sun will set tonight at 10:45pm, so light won’t be an issue, but finding a taxi just may be. There is a direct train that connects the airport and the city center called Flytoget. It runs about every 10 minutes and costs 170kr (US$28) each. The cheaper, but more complicated and longer ride is on the commuter rail that costs 90kr, but gives us our introduction to reading and misreading train schedules. Not knowing the names of all the stations we get confused by which trains service the station we need. One missed train and a 20min wait for the next ensures we are on the right train. It is a 20min ride on the Kongsberg bound train to Oslo Sentralstasjon the central train station in the city center which is abbreviated “Oslo S”. It turns out you need to have your train ticket validated and we wind up in a car with no working conductor. Fearing that we may be required to produce a valid ticket in order to exit the station, I have to think how we can get these tickets validated before we are separated on the platform from our train. We exit the train and walk quickly down the platform looking for the conductor who will stand on the platform to signal the driver it is safe to leave the station. I ask her how we can get our tickets validated and she says "like this", pulls out her validator and stamps our tickets. Of course after all that we did not need to present our tickets for exit, but better safe than sorry. We had a problem like that in Germany once that if a fellow rider didn’t come to our aid, could have resulted in heavy fines. As we exit the station, it is a gloriously clear blue sky, sunny, and welcoming. Our first stop is tourist information to discuss if it is better to bus, walk, or tram to the hotel. Well, that was easy...there are no trams or buses to the hotel. I don’t know why yet, but since it is a date specific ticket, it is not like we can use it on a different ride once we get to the city center. It is almost 6:00pm. We will get checked into the hotel and explore the neighborhood a little. With restaurants being so expensive here, we will try to find a supermarket and buy some food for breakfast after seeing if the room has a fridge or coffee maker. We will also plan our day for tomorrow where we have to cram as much in since we leave on Wednesday for the city of Bergen. However, we do buy the 24 hour all inclusive transport/museum pass for 270kr each. Then we walk to the hotel, it is only 10 minutes and not too bad. We get checked into the hotel around 7:00pm. Our first stop is an ATM because HOLY SHIT IS THIS PLACE EXPENSIVE! We decide to find a grocery store and buy some food for breakfast just so we don’t have to eat out. We can also plan to bring a picnic on the train on Wednesday. There is free tea and coffee at the hotel, but at 114kr, we have easily saved a pile on cash on the food. We have already blown through US$140 on a train ride from the airport, museum passes, and at the grocery store. We are staying in an area with places I am familiar with. This is where the concert venues are. Rockefeller Music Hall, Sentrum Scene, Spektrum Arena, are all within walking distance. El finds some recommended bars and food on our street and we choose a place called Illegal Burger for dinner. Yeah, two single cheeseburgers, two fries, and two sodas 309kr. That is US$51! Was the burger good? Yes. Was it the bets burger I have ever had? It was definitely up there. Was it worth $51? What do you think? We go down the street to a bar called Revolver. I ask what the cheapest beer is. 72kr for a pint. That is $12.

 

Restaurant to the left, beer to the right

We have a beer guide in one of our books that says: less 35 is cheap as beer gets, 35-49 is a good bargain, 50-65 average price in Oslo, 65-75 this place should be awesome, and more than 75 "get the hell out of there". This place should be awesome...it is, but only enough for one half beer. They put Mott The Hoople "All The Young Dudes" LP on the turntable- that qualifies as awesome. I think at 9:00pm we might hit just one more place for a shot, and retire to get an early start on the day and make the most of our day pass. Our next stop is a bar called Tilt, which is an arcade themed bar. Lots of beer on tap and lots of video games- the ones built into tables so you can sit with your friends and play and drink at the same time. We sit at Donkey Kong. We also get a little lucky as the carbonation system is not working well on the cider El orders resulting in a free glass of less-than-fizzy beer. I order my first glass of aquavit. I have never had it before, but as they say: "when in Rome...", but since we're not in Rome, I do what the Oslowegians do- except after I order it I find out that most people here only drink aquavit at holidays. No one drinks it for fun. It is like potato vodka flavored with caraway, fennel, and anise. The combo isn’t very good and the bartender gives me a glass of water for my 84kr shot. I have just spent two years in the land of $1 beer and $.75 shots of vodka. I ain't in Ukraine anymore. It is almost 11:000pm and it is still considerably light out. It is odd. The wi-fi isn’t working here, so we will head back to the room and Google "cheap bars in Oslo" for tomorrow night!

TUESDAY JUNE 25, 2013 OSLO

And with the stroke of my pen jotting the numbers "25/06/08:10", I activate my 24 hour OsloPass. We got as early of a start as was comfortable for us. We ate the food we bought in the market yesterday. It wasn’t all that great (cream cheese sandwich on whole grain bread and orange juice). We get to the center at 8:10am and validate our passes. Our first stop today is the Viking Ship Museum. In order to make the pass pay for itself we have to visit 3 or more museums and use public transport. It should be a busy day. The bus from the center to the Viking Ship Museum takes 20 minutes, making us 30 minutes early for the opening of the museum. The museum is in the middle of a residential neighborhood so there isn’t much else to do except wait for the doors to open. We take the time to check our maps. There is a Kon-Tiki Museum on the way that we may stop at on the way to the ferry. We are at the museum doors when it opens. There are three main ships on display and one wing of related artifacts. Basically the museum is the largest and best preserved Viking ships ever found. 


A real Viking ship

From a different angle

The dragon is eating El!


They were used for burials of important people and their servants. The boats show what great shipmakers and sailors the Vikings were, but I am shocked that they made it across the fjord in one, let alone to Ireland, Greenland, or Canada. We ask for directions to the ferry and are told that even though you can walk, you paid for the bus pass, you might as well use it. We do, and the bus lets us off at the Kon-Tiki Museum. I am learning so much on this trip. What do I know about Kon-Tiki? 


THE actual Kon-Tiki Raft

It was a raft. That's it. Who was Thor Heyerdahl? I swear I thought he was one of the Vikings like Leif Erikson (he was a Viking, right?) Until I stared to look in the guidebook about the museum, I had no idea what an interesting and amazing journey these guys made to prove anthropological theories (and to debunk my theory that the Viking ships couldn't have made it to Ireland). Theorizing that the people of Polynesia were descendants of people from the east, as opposed to the west as previously thought, Heyerdahl and his crew of 5 sailed in a raft made of balsa wood hand cut in the jungles of the Amazon. He wound up doing three such missions each time in rafts made of different materials. It was a quick walk through and we saw the actual Kon-Tiki Raft and RAII. The weather is great today. Bright, sunny, warm, and clear. We sit at the ferry dock near Kon-Tiki Museum waiting for the ferry to City Hall. The ferry is included on the OsloPass. The building closest to the dock as you get off the ferry is the Nobel Peace Prize Center. I had read about a free tour of City Hall which is also nearby. We go into the Nobel Peace Prize Center and ask about their guided tour schedule. Their next tour is noon, as is City Hall's. Since the center is included on OsloPass, we take the free admission and set our clocks to make the noon tour of City Hall. The Nobel Peace Prize Center is a small and interesting place. They have some very state-of-the-art displays and some of the photos and images are moving. 


From one of the interactive exhibits in the Nobel Peace Prize Center

We had about 20 minutes which was just about enough time for me. I mean, we could have stayed and looked at the photo exhibits longer, but I didn't think it was worth it to come back, but I do recommend the Center, especially if you have an OsloPass. Next we move on to City Hall for the free guided tour at noon (they run at 10, 12, 2). We are part of a group of 8 and the tour is in English. It runs for about 45 minutes and just gives some background and fun facts about the City Hall. Many people come to visit the hall (where the Nobel Peace Prize is handed out every year) and take pictures, we were just trying to learn a little of what we were looking at. It was perfect length and perfect amount of information. They even have a Munch painting in one of the halls. All told we spend about an hour there. We then get the metro to MunchMuseum. Saw The Scream in color. Metro’d back to the center to go to National Gallery to see The Scream in black and white...or not. You see, although Munch's painting called "The Scream" is an iconic piece, the painter actually painted multiple versions of the same work. He didn't bother to title them any different (like the Scream, Scream II, Scream III, etc.) so when I asked where I could see "the Scream”, I was told I could go to the MunchMuseum OR the National Gallery and see it. 


An ad for the Munch exhibit

I choose the MunchMuseum. We learn that right now there is an almost complete exhibition of Munch’s work split between the two galleries. We find out once at the MunchMuseum that the work from the early part of his life is at the National Gallery, while the later part of his life's work is at the MunchMuseum. We go into the MunchMuseum with our OsloPass (that has already paid for itself by the way). We do what I have decided to start calling "the Mona Lisa drive-by" coined to describe the time we went to the Louvre in Paris and wanted only to see the Mona Lisa and Venus De Milo. We were able to get in, see what we came to see and get out in less than one hour. The OsloPass saves a cool 130kr each, we paid, ran upstairs, found the lithograph of the black and white Scream. I also saw the second color version of the painting. I understand that one more version belongs to a private collector, which could possibly be the black and white one I was hoping to see. After the gallery we grab some snacks to hold us until dinner. Then, we get a tram to Vigelandsparken sculpture garden that has 215 sculptures of people at different ages and stages of life. It was nice to see an area like Central Park that has so much free and accessible artwork. The main points are the bridge lined with bronze statues and the monolith comprised of 200 human figures intertwined with some surrounding statues. 

The iconic image from the park. Most people seem to stop and get pictures of or with this little guy

The parks art is all about the circle of life, both male and female. This is a wrought iron gate highlighting the female. The male gate is on the other side.

The monolith is the centerpiece of the sculpture park

It features 200 human figures intertwined


Presumably father and young daughter

Young woman

We tram back to the center and stop at Oslo S for a moment to pick up our pre-booked tickets at the kiosk. There is a clerk at the vending machine giving help and advice during my transaction. This proves to be very helpful as I have a couple of questions about the tickets. I got all of our tickets. We pick a place close to the hotel for dinner called Justisen Bar and Restaurant. We have to laugh that it is considered a "cheap" place at about US$65. I order a pork medallions Oscar and a glass of white wine. El does the same. It comes with french fries. The food is really pretty good, although I think roasted potatoes would have been a better choice than the fries. Nonetheless, fine. After dinner we plan to try to make an 8:00 quiz/trivia night at a local pub called DeVilles. They are on a list we found of bars with "good prices". At less than US$10 for a pint of local beer, I guess it is all relative. We figure this will suffice as our one and only bar for the night. Tomorrow our train leaves for Bergen at about 7:00am so we need to get up early. We get to DeVilles around 8:00 and ask about the trivia and assume it is in Norwegian. We ask if anyone is willing to help some Americans out with translation. The bartender tells us she doesn’t think it will be a problem. We get a page of papers and an explanation. The first page is 40 lines. The host plays 20 songs and you have to write the band and song title down. At half time he comes to help us with translation. By the way, we have not found one person here who does not speak English. It is so easy to get around. The quiz though is tough for us. There are four categories with 5 questions each. One category is Scandinavian comic books, one is Viking history, one is Lord of the Rings, the last is TV shows- and three of these questions were about Scandinavian shows we never heard of. We did the best we could. At the end you hand in your papers and he grades them and announces the winner. El and I have to be up early so we ask if we won, because otherwise we have to get going. He tells us that we came in second place with a most impressive showing on the name-that-tune part. No prize for second place, so we thanked him and left. It was remarkably light at 10:00pm. 


That's NOT 10:00am!

We even took a shot of El and I with a clock tower. We get back to the room and get ready for the morning. I set 2 alarms. One to wake at 5:00 to shower and eat, and then one for 6:00 to signal time to leave for the station. We can walk, but our train is at 6:43 and we need time to get down to the center. At least I have the train tickets in hand already. We just need to figure out our track number when we get there. At this rate, we will have plenty of time.

WEDNESDAY JUNE 26, 2013 OSLO > BERGEN

Ooops! Only the 6:00am alarm goes off! So, basically we are still in bed at the time we should be walking out the door to the station! It is a frantic push to get the last of our stuff packed including the food that will be our picnic on the train. We move impressively fast when we need to and are at the station 23 minutes after the alarm. Up, dressed, packed, checked out, and walked the several minutes to the city center to Oslo S. We are happy that we made it for obvious reasons and eat our breakfast and lunch on the train (saving us much money that we can use for other things). Train rides are usually uneventful, but this one is known as one of the most scenic routes in Europe and the world. It was really nice. About half way through our 7.5h ride we start hitting snow-capped mountains rising above the clouds. Sweeping valleys below and ice blue waterfalls collecting in crystal clear pools. I think we took more photos from the train ride than we took during all of our time in Oslo! As we leave Oslo, I am torn about how I feel about the city. I don't understand why things are this expensive here. I mean, I understood Iceland that has to import most things, but Norway has industry and agriculture...and oil! When we planned this trip, it was intended to be about 10 days in Norway, but the more bookings I made for hotels and trains the more I realized that less days might be easier on my wallet. So far I think we did a good thing. We arrived to Oslo on Monday evening, bought the OsloPass (the pass costs 270kr and we would have spent 210kr just in bus/tram/subway/ferry rides! Plus the free admission to all of the museums which was upwards of 500kr for what we did). Then, to leave on Wednesday morning was perfect. Buying our breakfast and lunch at the supermarket also helped as we only had to pay for dinner out. So, in a nutshell, if you can move quickly through the city in one day, you can get in and get out without having to drain your bank account. Although I did have a good experience in Oslo, I can’t really say I got as good a "feel" for the city that I might get after a few days. I saw the sights that were important to me, but the prices make it difficult to stick around for much longer.


The train ride from Oslo to Bergen

The train ride from Oslo to Bergen

The train ride from Oslo to Bergen

The train ride is long, especially since we are just going to be in Bergen for 1½ days, but it was worth it. A lot of people fly between these two cities, but I don’t think that would have allowed for this visual experience. According to the thermometer on the train, we got down as low as 8oC at the top of the pass. Now we are descending and it is already in the 20's. We arrive to the central station at 2:23pm to overcast skies and comfortable temperatures. We are ready to see what this side of Norway has in store for us. We are on pretty much the same schedule in Bergen as we were in Oslo. The rest of today, all of tomorrow and then leaving first thing on Friday when we will head back through Oslo towards the south to visit other friends. We disembarked the train and within two minutes found my friends Tom and Tor who were there at the station to meet us. 


Our arrival in Bergen

El and I with Tor and Tom overlooking Bergen Harbor after the funicular

It was a great meeting for the first time in 14 years with these guys. We walked to our hotel and got checked in. Having missed our shower opportunity in Oslo this morning, we made that a priority. We got caught up with the guys for a few minutes while we got ready to head out. We four walked to the funicular and took it up to see the wonderful views of Bergen harbor. We took our pictures and then walked down spending more time catching up. We then walked to the fish market to see where to meet the fjord tour in the morning. The ticket office is closed, so we went to the tourism information office to buy our tickets. With the amount of things we want to do here, coupled with spending time with Tom, Tor, and then Magnus, we choose not to buy the 24 hour tourist pass. 


Inland Bergen on top of funicular

Bergen Harbor on top of funicular

The funicular costs 40kr each way, and the fjord tour is 480kr each. We run into a snag with our bank where we are not allowed to take money from the ATM. After trying three times (luckily the ATM didn’t eat the card), we decide to call the bank to rectify the problem. We head to a public wi-fi spot to Skype our bank and get to the bottom of this problem. It takes a supervisor to fix the issue, but once this is resolved, we meet Magnus in the city center. We all head to a restaurant called Egon. It didn’t seem like my kind of place, since I was looking more for Norwegian food instead of "American food", but this is what they wanted. After dinner we head to a bar called Inside. It is a rock and roll bar with the cheapest beer we have found in this country at US$8 each. Not keeping track of the time because of how light it is, we call it a night after a second beer and a walk back to the hotel at 11:00pm- in the broad daylight! Tomorrow we have no train to catch. El and I will do our thing in the morning and meet the guys at 3:00pm for more non-Norwegian food, I fear. And I look forward to it.

THURSDAY JUNE 27, 2013 BERGEN

Today our alarm works and we are up at 7:00am. I can’t get over the 24 hours of daylight thing. It just makes us rely on our watches more than usual. We are up and out reasonably quickly making our first stop the grocery store to buy lunch and breakfast. We walk down to the fish market and find a bench to sit and eat our breakfast. Yogurt for El, a pastry and banana for me. Our boat tour of the fjords doesn’t leave until 10:00am, so we have some time to eat and walk through the market (that I assumed would be set up already by 8:00am). The market smells like the sea instead of fish, which is a good sign. 


One vendor in the famous Fish Market

Lower left is whale steak. We didn't buy any, but I would have tried it

I am intrigued by the signs offering whale meat steaks and also the number of Asian tourists at the caviar stands. Caviar appears to be BIG business! I buy none. I am torn in my attire. The weather is supposed to hit 70oF today which is t-shirt and shorts weather, but we are going on a 4 hour boat tour, which may be cold. I hate to dress for the morning and then be miserably hot during the day. I opt for long pants and my rain coat, hoping that I have made the right choice. The boat leaves at 10:00am and you can start boarding at 9:30am. We do a little walking around the harbor area and get to the boat early. The plan is to meet Tom and Tor at 3:00pm for another afternoon and evening. Tom promises to take us to the "finest pizza place in Bergen". I told him that we might like some traditional Norwegian food, but he insisted on pizza. Peppes Pizza.

The first part of the boat ride is a little rough. Not for seasickness, but the drone of the engine. I start to doze, but not for long. After we clear the Bergen harbor, we start heading up the coast. I always heard about Norway’s fjords, but I am not actually sure exactly what a fjord is. The best I have figured is that it is an inlet caused by a glacier from long ago. As the glacier dragged and dropped rocks it created landmass. Then when the ice melted, it left behind the new land and a body of water whose perimeter juts inland. The thing about Norway is the beauty of the land masses and the cleanliness of the water, make theirs something to see. The boat has a fully enclosed downstairs that is warm. There is an open ended covered upstairs that is cool and dry. There is also the bow which is open. We split our time between the three, preferring the cold bow, warm downstairs combo. A few scattered sprinkles aside, the weather holds up for us. The only thing is that on a 4 hour tour of the fjord, it’s not much different than a 4 hour tour to the fjord. Meaning that a few cliffside villages and bridges aside, the view looks pretty much the same the whole time- there and back. 


Fjord tour near Bergen


Bergen Harbor before the Fjord tour

On the boat

Fjord tour near Bergen

Fjord tour near Bergen

Having a picnic on the boat

On the boat in Bergen Harbor

Bergen Harbor from the boat

While beautiful, it is a few hours of the same view, which can get kind of old after a while. Monotonous beauty is still monotonous. Around noon we make our turning point around a small island. Two, sadly, funny moments occurred when as we got to the turnaround point, in front of us sat an industrial complex that quarries rock from the cliffs to use for industrial purposes (asphalt, rock beds near pipelines etc.). Not very scenic. The second came as we rounded an island and we saw a low lying cloud. It was blue and sat nicely in the inlet we were approaching. Just hanging in the still air, reminiscent of early morning fog over a still lake. Then, as we rounded another blind, we saw in front of us on the shore, one guy with a fire- too big to be a grill, but more of a garbage burning pile. Beauty is still beauty, right? At least it broke up the monotony. Around noon we start on our picnic lunch. As usual the food on the boat is too pricy. We bought rolls, cold cuts, chips and water. It all hits the spot and fjord make for a wonderful backdrop to our indoor picnic lunch. It is 1:30pm and we are making our final leg of the trip back into the harbor. I was just remarking to El that after 15 days of vacation, I am ready to go home. Don't get me wrong, I have loved every minute of our vacation, but tourism is exhausting. I just want to get home and start my post-Peace Corps life in earnest. The weather as we pull into port is cold and sprinkling, but all in all I would say we had good weather for the excursion. With only one day in town, it would be a shame to have a rainout for the fjords and funicular. We get back into town and realize why the market was so slow to open...and also why many of the signs say "we speak English, Spanish, Russian, French...and we accept /$/£..." It appears today is cruise ship day and the harbor is loaded with tourists from the boat. I can’t imagine the prices going higher than they already are, but on cruise ship day they usually do. The markets are catering to caviar buyers and people wanting to buy fresh cooked seafood. It looks like you point to what you want (lobster tank style) and they will grill it or steam it and you can sit on the wharf and eat. We are still full from lunch and have that pizza invitation posted for dinner. While we are waiting for Tom, we walk around the fish market and head to the souvenir shop. The place is mobbed. We take a few minutes to walk around the old style buildings with iconic facades there. Tom shows at 3:00pm and Tor is a few minutes behind. We quickly discuss the afternoon and evening plan. They ask if there are things that we still want to do before leaving Bergen and we assure them that we are 100% satisfied and want only to spend time hanging out with them instead of seeing more museums or sights. The only thing I ask to see is a statue of Edvard Grieg which stands in front of the Grieghalle- a concert hall that Tor has been telling me about since I arrived as he has seen many concerts there. 


Statue of native son: composer Edvard Grieg

It is not too far out of the way and only takes a few minutes to get our photos. On the way back to the hotel to pick up some things we stop into a local record/CD shop that also works as a bar. A bar/record store? What a novel idea. The place is called Apollon and does have some pretty cool stuff. Sadly, the prices here are on par with the rest of the country. Tom has promised to take us for "the finest pizza in Bergen". A chain called Peppes Pizza. I saw them in Oslo and now I see a couple here. On our walk, Tor pulls an envelope from his jacket. He has a huge grin since he knows what is inside the sealed envelope. "You want to know what I have here?" he asks. "A VIP card. I buy so much pizza at Peppes that I am a gold star member and get 10% off when I eat here." We go for dinner to one of the most American restaurants I have seen in Norway. To witness the excitement these guys have for eating at this place is worth sitting through the mediocre food. I have some issues with the choices, but it gets sorted out. After dinner we decide to head back to the same bar as last night. We know the beer is cheap and the music volume low enough to have a conversation. The conversation turns almost exclusively to music and El indulges me by working on her knitting. She knows that this is my last night with friends I haven’t seen in 14 years and doesn’t spoil it. We talk into the night and Magnus stops by on his way to work to eat and say goodbye. We wind up staying until midnight which gave the guys enough time to make their last bus home. We say our final goodbyes on the street and head off to the hotel to prepare for the 8:00am train departure. It is still light out when we go to bed.

FRIDAY JUNE 28, 2013 BERGEN > SARPSBORG

We leave Bergen with overcast, but not raining skies. On our way to the station we stop at the supermarket again and pick up some things for our train picnic. The train leaves on time and we try to catch up on some sleep we missed when the alarm went off this morning. Our time here has really been nice. I was not sure how much time Tom, Tor, and Magnus would be able to spend with us, and we were thrilled to have it be as much as it was. They all treated us really well and were genuinely happy to spend the time with us. It has been 14 years since I saw these three last and we all hope it does not take that long to meet up once again.

Our last evening with the guys: Magnus, me, Tor, and Tom

This morning we are off to Sarpsborg, Norway. We have to take a train through Oslo, but will get off the train just to buy our train tickets and get on to another one. The city is about 1½ hours south of Oslo towards Sweden. This will be our last stop in Norway as we will go to the airport directly on Sunday and start our journey home. “Menya zavoot Mariya.” These were the first words we learned when we met Mariya about 27 months ago. You see, Mariya was my Russian teacher when I lived in Chernigov, Ukraine and trained for my work in Peace Corps. After her contract was up, she moved to Norway where she got married to Pete. My training group has all kept up with her since our training ended and when El and I started planning a trip to Norway, of course we had to make an effort to see her. We will spend the next 36 hours with Mariya and Pete. It will be fun.
I am able to sleep much of the train ride. My neck has really been affecting the quality of what little sleep I do get. I have to take the rest when I can get it. We arrive to Oslo S on time, which gives us 32 minutes to buy our tickets and get to our train. With my only snag being waiting in a line to use a ticket vending machine only to get to the front and realize that the machine does not accept cash notes- then having to get to a different line, we are sitting on the new train with 15 minutes to spare. We are now on our way to Sarpsborg. We wound up with more food than I expected (with our leftovers from the pizza last night) so our picnic on the train doesn’t get finished until 3:15pm. We will not need to eat until much later.
My feelings about Norway are mixed. Am I glad I came? Absolutely! It has always been on my list of places to go and the timing worked out perfectly for this time. The people here are just as friendly and helpful as the people in Ireland and for natural beauty, I haven’t seen many rivals to this country. Just gorgeous. I have said it many times before and will be saying for years to come, but the cost of literally everything is just about the only reason I would not recommend coming here. If you are traveling on your own dime in a manner with any similarity to ours (stay in low end hotels, train between cities, use public transportation, visit sights like museums and other tourist attractions) I would suggest you carefully evaluate your expenditures...before you go. With all of the natural beauty and wilderness around here, it is not surprising that a lot of people hike or bike around the country doing the outdoorsy thing. I cannot relate to that, but expect this could easily be one of the best places in the world for that. We arrive on time to Sarpsborg station and Mariya and Pete are waiting for us at the platform. Wonderful to see them after just a couple long years. We head back to their apartment and relax a little before dinner. Mariya has made an excellent meal. We have roast venison with vegetables and potatoes. Pete is an avid hunter and has plenty of game offerings in the freezer. After dinner we take a two hour walk around the neighborhood including the largest waterfall in Norway. It is part of the local hydroelectric plant and very close to where they live. As we get farther away from the apartment it rains harder and harder, drying out as we get closer to home. After the walk, we sit and talk well into the night. Catching up and telling stories and laughing as we spend this time together. Our hosts are wonderful and bend over backwards to please, although everything they offer is over the top good. The consummate hosts. We are in bed around 1:00am.

Pete and I in Sarpsborg

Mariya and I at her apartment in Sarpsborg


SATURDAY JUNE 29, 2013 SARPSBORG

We wake to on and off rain. We have no solid plan for today, except that after a brief conversation about Pete's Sri Lankan heritage turned to food, he offered to try his hand at curry tonight for dinner. Originally we were going to go to the park with a grill and cook some food there, but as the day gets on realize that everything being wet and continuing to rain, maybe the park would be best waiting until some other time. We eat breakfast and head out to do some shopping and seeing the town. El wants to do some yarn store shopping and gets some suggestions from a shop owner in town. I spend most of my day with Pete while he prepares this evening’s meal. El spends her time with Mariya going to different shops and bonding with my friend. Pete has undertaken the responsibility of cooking a venison curry for dinner. We make a couple of stops in our travels for things like wine or ice cream for dessert. We spend the day talking, sometimes with our wives, and sometimes alone. I like his conversation. Just before dinner he drives us out to see his worksite and tell us a little about sites we pass along the way. We eat around 7:00pm and unfortunately, the curry is a little too spicy hot for Mariya’s liking. She sticks to eating the side dishes, but we all feel a little bad she can’t enjoy the curry with us. After dinner we are full. Very full, but find room for a little blinchiki (Ukrainian pancakes) and ice cream. We actually find a selection of Ben & Jerry’s for US$11 per pint! Pete wants to try it and buys it. The dinner and the company is great and we wind down our vacation as comfortably as possible...without running around. Just relaxing. We set our alarms and settle in for our last sleep in Norway.

SUNDAY JUNE 29, 2013 SARPSBORG > DUBLIN

If I have learned anything on this trip is that living across the street from a discotheque sucks! During the day Mariya and Pete live in a great apartment on a great little, closed-to-traffic shopping promenade. Great location etc. BUT, come Friday and Saturday night the discotheque gets going, sometime around midnight and let's just say I know exactly what time it closes because in the matter of two minutes around 3:00am the drunken voices silenced immediately. I will go out on a limb and say too, that they probably do not have one of those signs reminding smokers to "be considerate of our neighbors". It was rough, but only served to make me a little sleepy on the bus to the airport. Mariya and Pete drive us to the bus station to get the direct bus to the Oslo Airport. We say our final goodbyes on the bus platform and give best wishes all around. The bus is big an comfortable and gets us to the airport in fine time. Another smooth check-in and I fear I am getting jaded. I am through baggage check-in and security in a matter of 10 minutes...and this was the long line! As I sit at the gate to head back to Dublin for the last leg of our journey, I would say that I would not have changed one thing about our trip here. One more day may have actually broken my bank, and one day less would have made me feel like the expense to get here wasn’t proportionally cost effective. To have the first two days be tourism centered (in Oslo), then the next two to be balanced between some tourism and some visiting, the last two with very little sightseeing with focus on spending time with friends. Today we are heading back to Dublin only for the night because when we were booking the trip, it was cheaper for El to get a roundtrip to Dublin that it was to Oslo. We do not even expect to go into the city, although being the "intrepid travelers" that we are, if time allows, we probably will. As we are on our sixteenth day of travel, I now know I am ready to go home. I know why we planned our itinerary the way we did, but under other circumstances I think I would have preferred to take these two action packed vacations separately as the days are starting to run together. Just trying to remember what day today is is a challenge, let alone where we were or what we did last Wednesday. It looks like because of the timing, we will be spending a night in NYC before heading home to Albany on Tuesday. Just a couple more days and I will be able to close that circle that was opened March 19, 2011 when I walked out of my home for the last time. I can’t think of another way I would have preferred to get home after service than checking off one of El's bucket list destinations as well as one of my own. I think we both had a better time in the others' pick than we thought we would. I wish all vacations we like that. Here is to checking off more of those 1000 Places To See Before You Die (together) in the years to come.

Things to do in Dublin on a layover.

We land in Dublin and exit the terminal at 7:45pm. We learn that the hotel shuttle bus that runs every 40 minutes, has just departed. El wants to go to the city center to eat dinner at O’Neills which is supposed to offer a decent tasting menu. At this rate though we won’t be in the city until after 9:00pm, but that won’t stop us from our plan. Our flight doesn’t leave until 3:00pm tomorrow and with no other things on our agenda a leisurely end to the trip is in store.

We check into the hotel around 8:00pm which gives us three hours to get to town center, eat, and get back to the hotel (Sunday buses stop running at 11:00pm). We make to O'Neill’s on Suffolk St. near Trinity College and we are both a little surprised to see it set up as a cafeteria line in a bar. It is basically a hot food line where you grab a tray and walk down the line pointing to what you want, eventually ordering drinks and paying at the end of the line. We are evenly split on the quality at the end of the meal. El likes the beef stew and fries she got, but I am very disappointed in my corned beef, vegetables, and potato and leek soup. The beer makes for the best part of the meal for me. I am full though and getting tired from the travel, I would like to head back and maybe grab a nightcap at the hotel bar. We grab the bus back and skip on any further drinks. We are too tired.
On Monday morning El goes for a walk. However, since we are staying at the “airport” location of this hotel chain, we are in more of an industrial area than a residential one. There isn’t much going on in the immediate area. There is a mall though and El walks to it and buys us breakfast and some snacks for the plane. We check out and take the shuttle to the airport. One thing we experience for the first time here though, is something called “USP or United States Preclearance”. As far as I know Ireland is the only country doing this and only to specific destinations in America. Basically, the officials in Ireland are qualified to screen baggage for safety. You go through some extra steps of security than is normal for foreign transport into America, but you answer all of your customs questions before leaving instead of upon arrival into the US. The reason for this screening process is that Aer Lingus is one of the only (if not the only) foreign carrier that flies into a domestic terminal at JFK- which is not equipped to handle passport control and customs. So the procedure is taken care of in Ireland (we actually got a “Dept. of Homeland Security” passport stamp in Ireland, hours before stepping foot on US soil. We have no issues and are landing in New York just a few short hours later. Since we have already been cleared by customs in Ireland, we just pick up our baggage and go. As much as we both enjoy traveling, we agree there really is no place like home and for no trip before has that statement ever been more true. We arrive to JFK and disappear into the bustle of New York City. It’s good to be home.

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