Sorry Santa – but I’ve eaten Rudolph
Many years ago I worked at a school in Australia that had a growing number of international students. My then Headmaster, John Bednall, asked me to assist with pastoral care for these students and created for me the new position of Overseas Students Liaison Officer – or OSLO for short. Since that day I have had a hankering to see what sort of a place Oslo was – all I knew then was that it was a long way from Tasmania.
Fast forward twenty or twenty-five years … Zzzzp! … and I now live in the delightful northern Thai city of Chiang Mai – a place called “The Rose of the North” – and for most of the year it is indeed a superb place to live. However, for a few weeks each year the hill tribes burn off the dead undergrowth and the rice farmers burn off the rice stubble in their fields … and the city is beaten into submission by hot, smoky, dry days when life is anything but pleasant. I thought a quick trip to Oslo might be the answer – as I knew “hot”, “smoky” and “dry” were unlikely adjectives to be used for this corner of Scandinavia.
Quick! What is Norway’s most famous export? Ibsen’s dramas? Nope. Edvard Munch’s paintings? Nope. Oil? Well, yes … but also Norwegian smoked salmon! I can now report that it is actually possible to die – not from a surfeit of lampreys like England’s King Henry I – but from too much Norwegian smoked salmon. I did survive – but only because one day I had some reindeer meat instead of my daily dose of salmon …
On the scenic eight-hour train journey from Oslo to Stavanger (home of the excellent Oil Museum showing every possible facet of drilling for oil and exporting oil and refining oil that you could ever want to know … and then a bit more) I experimented with another of Norway’s specialities: KjØttkakeri brun saus med ertestuing og poteter. Sounds really quite exotic, and while it was very tasty and while it was washed down with a little bottle of Louis Moreau Chablis Bourgogne, it was, after all, common old meatballs with brown sauce and spuds zapped in the microwave.
I had seen whale meat featured on the menus of several restaurants, but memories of a childhood visit to a whaling station were more than enough to persuade me not to try eating my way through a serving of whale. In other places I had seen reindeer hides for sale, and decorations and ornaments made from reindeer horns and bones, but reindeer meat was not as common as the common pickled herring or the even more common akevitt with which many Norwegians get themselves pickled.
Finally – aha! At a Saturday morning open-air market in the enormously attractive town of Bergen I found a stall offering reindeer hamburgers – an offer I could not resist and one I thoroughly enjoyed. On another occasion I was also able to try dried reindeer meat – so if Santa is late getting to your house later this year I must apologise – because I have eaten at least part of one of his reindeer.
Munch’s work is, of course, well-known and in Oslo his paintings are presented both at the Munch Museum and at the National Gallery – and on souvenir stalls everywhere. The Scream is like the Mona Lisa – protected by glass – and the backdrop for innumerable “selfies”, but there were many other works by this revered artist I preferred. At the Munch Museum a joint exhibition featured many rather disturbing works by the Australian-born Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard: violent, sexual, political and gender themes seemed to dominate, and while he is apparently very famous, I found scores of other artists’ works in the many galleries I visited more appealing … although the gruesome UK artist Damien Hurst’s works in Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum were not among them. The most striking example of modern or contemporary art I found was a building – and not a dead Hurst sheep sawed in half and suspended in formaldehyde.
The Norwegian National Opera and Ballet building is stunning. While Sydney’s Opera House – by a Danish architect – has its famous swooping and swirling sails, the Norwegian Opera house is all slopes and glass sliding into the fjord and paying tribute to the towering mountains that feature in the city and throughout the country. Visitors can not only walk over the roof of the building, but can take guided tours of the outstanding facilities – wardrobe workshops, scene painting docks, rehearsal spaces and its several stage areas. I was fortunate to be in town when a production of Wagner’s Lohengrin was presented. Although this was not an opera I knew (apart from the famous Wedding March), the music and settings were superb, and having had the chance to see what parts of the production looked like from backstage, it was good to see it from the front as well.
Norway Old and New
I have been speaking of contemporary Norway so far – but that is to ignore its history – a history of a seafaring nation dating back many centuries, as the fretful villagers of Briton could only too-well attest. Seafaring Vikings explored vast tracts of the region and when visitors to the Viking Ship Museum see how small their boats were, their achievements assume even more significance. But then there were the more modern explorers such as Fransen who opened the route through the North West Passage, and Amundsen who explored both the North and South Poles. Then there were the epic journeys undertaken on reed or balsa boats – the Ra and the Kon Tiki – by Thor Hyerdahl. My seafaring was limited to a ferry ride to the “museum island” of BygdØy and a two-hour cruise on the NaerØyfjord and Aurlandsfjord – more of which later – but even these brief encounters with Norway’s Arctic climate made me even more respectful of those who had done the real exploring, and not the soft tourist option I enjoyed.
The country’s history jumps out from every corner – in Bergen and Oslo in particular, the charming white or multi-hued wooden houses cling desperately to the sides of steep slopes, with winding cobble-stoned streets twisting their way down to the waterfront. I had about a week in the town of Bergen, on Norway’s west coast. The bus from the airport dropped my on Bryggen – the harbour front – a frozen mizzen mast’s toss from the magnificent 1914 three-masted Tall Ship Lehmkuhl. My host in Bergen, Andreas, had warned me that the city was not well-known for its long sunny days but as the sun was shining when I arrived, I ran Tommy Touristly around, crazily snapping happy snaps in case that was my only opportunity to do so. As it eventuated, however, every day I was in Norway was sunny for at least part of the day. Perhaps I was lucky.
A fire damaged Bryggen in the early 1700s so most of the restored timber buildings are quite young – only 300 years old. Most have been rebuilt and re-jigged many times, but it was wonderful to wander through narrow timber alleyways into small courtyards, and up creaking wooden steps into areas now used as galleries, bars and restaurants. The merchants of yesteryear would no doubt be horrified by the fluffy fleeces piled on chairs in the open-air bars to be used to keep patrons’ toes toasty, but they would be even more amazed, and no doubt summon a Troll or two to protect them, as they saw the electric heaters built into the bar tables to keep the fleeces warm to keep the patrons’ toes toasty.
No warm toes for those dropped deep in the dungeon of the 1560 Rosenkrantz Tower – just a forced march away from the bars of Bryggen and beside King Håkon’s 1247 Hall. Both the tower and the hall were damaged enormously during World War II when a German ammunition ship accidentally – perhaps – exploded, but both have been restored and to some extent the mediaeval feel of both has been preserved. These ancient fortresses, and the wonderful Akershus Fortress and Castle in Oslo, gave an excellent peep into the country’s past, but I wonder if Shakespeare knew that one of Hamlet’s Danish mates had a family pile next door in Norway? Probably.
Norway in a Nutshell
In Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die mysteriously – perhaps the victims of a bit of switcheroo while at sea. From Rosenkrantz’s Tower in Bergen I took a day tour of busses, trains and boats, which had plenty of switcheroos and from which it would have been easy to fall overboard. The Flåm Railway is an engineering delight as it winds and twists and goes through hair-pin tunnels up (or down – depending on your direction of travel) from Flåm at sea level up to Myrdal at 866 metres above sea level in only twenty kilometres or so. To get to the starting point, however, involved a train ride from Bergen to Voss, a bus ride from there to Gudvangen through ever-deeper snow and ice, and a two-hour cruise through icy fjords, with seagulls looping overhead hoping for scraps from the Chinese tour group’s takeaways, and porpoises following the ferry in case Rosencrantz (or Guildenstern) toppled mysteriously overboard.
There are many tiny wooden villages tucked into the side of the fjord – some of them now deserted, some still with working farms or herds of goats, some only accessible by boat – and all terribly isolated. I cannot imagine what the long cold dark winters must be like in this region, when remote villages are cut off from neighbours, with the weight of snow-covered mountains pressing down on them, with long shadows cast by bare birch trees, and with the nearest medical assistance possibly three months away. I have read a few crime novels set in Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, and the anti-heroes always seem to be sad men or women, usually alcoholics, and usually glum. The plays of Henry Gibson (aka Henrik Ibsen) often examine alienation from society: No wonder! After three weeks of cold grey snow-clad days I think I’d be turning for the bottle or the revolver, too! But the snow has a positive side, and winter sports enthusiasts have plenty of opportunity for skiing. I had toyed with taking my ski gear with me but decided it was very bulky and heavy for a day’s fun in the snow – so instead I had wet frozen toes and no skiing.
In Oslo it was a common sight to see kids hopping off the ferry with their skis or snowboards, walking past the Nobel Peace Centre, up Olav V Street to board a train at the National Theatre and head off to the snowfields at Frognerseteren. The famous ski jump arena at Holmenkollen was closed but higher up there were still deep snows even in mid-April. On my birthday I had lunch in a restaurant overlooking a city lake, as hail bashed the windows and whitecaps were formed on the lake. At tables next to me was a large group of locals (many in traditional dress that is very similar to Bavarian national dress) celebrating a baby’s baptism: they paid the terrible weather no attention at all. Snow? Hah! Hail? Pshaw! Another day as I left my apartment snow started falling – but not enough to make any snowmen – just a frozen Hall snowed man. When I left Thailand, I left behind smoky hazy skies as the plane flew over flooded rice fields in neat geometric rectangular patterns of green and gold and silvery water. At the Norwegian end the skies were clear and sunny, the landscape was of snowdrifts against fences, tidy little farms with red barns, frozen mountain lakes and deeply indented rough-looking coastlines: surely no greater nor no more welcome contrasts could exist. Skål! ………………………
- Journey: April 2015
- Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2015
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