Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Travel Lessons Learned

I realize I haven't yet put up a post about Crete, Athens, or the Vikings Festival. And all these will be up soon enough.

But in the meantime, I've been compiling a little list to remind myself of the lessons learned through travel in case I ever sign myself up for a trial-by-fire sabbatical ever again.  Sure, many of these items wouldn't have come as such great surprises had we, say, done more reading, were better prepared, and/or were simply more savvy travellers.  But where would the fun be in that?

So here's my list so far:

• Always take a 10 kr or 20 kr coin with with you if you search for a public restroom in Denmark or Norway. If in Greece, take a child.

• Show proper appreciation for Himmelbjerget, one of the highest points in Denmark at 150m above sea level. Who cares if your house in Salt Lake is at 1700m? No Dane wants to know it.

• Beware a hopeful Norwegian man bearing a hand-carved mangel board. Accepting the gift is accepting a marriage proposal - and a lifetime of doing his ironing, as that's what these rolling pins are used for.

• Don't be vegetarian in Norway. If you are pescatarian, or even if you just love fish, I still recommend you avoid the pickled herring, preserved three different ways for breakfast.

• If your children somehow slip into the changing of the guard ceremony at the Royal Palace in Oslo, take pictures politely, but disavow any knowledge of them.

• If you're planning on visiting two different countries with two very different climates, book them back to back with one day in between so that you can wash clothes, change out winter jackets for beach gear, and generally exhaust yourself so that you arrive in the second country gasping for breath and completely unprepared. You'll absorb so much, and appreciate the differences of each country so much more, when you're in complete shock.

• Also make sure that in one country (Greece), meals start and end late. So that once you've gotten used to finishing up lunch at 3pm and starting dinner at 10pm, you can come back to Copenhagen for dinner and find all the restaurants have closed at 9. Or for the entire month of July. Take your pick.

• For bonus entertainment, rent a GPS system in Greece for your rental car. It will have the clunkiest interface you have used since playing PacMan on your TSR-80's keyboard in the 1970s. And it will conveniently provide you with a US keyboard so that you can type in transliterations for Greek cities for which it recognizes only one spelling.  (What it recognizes won't be any of the spellings you try.) Once it's decided how to spell where you are going, it will give you driving directions out loud in German. Even when its settings say "English."

• If you have trouble working the GPS system of your rental car, call the rental car company for help from a gas station. A flustered rep will show up, unsuccessfully try to demonstrate how to work the GPS, swap it out for several different GPS units with the same problems, swear colorfully in Greek (you may not understand it all, but it will be fun to watch the facial expressions and gestures), call her colleagues for assistance, and have maybe three or four other rental car employees all descend upon the gas station in a state of confusion and dismay.  It will now be about ten at night. They will all play with your GPS as though it were a game controller they've never seen before, discuss it loudly in Greek, and then throw up their collective hands and tell you to come to the main office in the morning where they will "take care of it." They will all then simultaneously disappear in a cloud of dust, leaving you without any sense of where your hotel for the night is located.

• A super fun add-on to the experience above is to attempt to find your hotel by stopping at a gas station and asking for directions. The gas station attendant may be so mystified by your presence as to not be able to point to where he currently is on your map. (Note the use of the traditional Greek map now instead of the puzzling, newfangled GPS). He will not know where he is even when your friend, Vasilis, who is Greek, translates the question for him in Greek over the phone. Even when you are about a block away from the hotel you are looking for. Which is on the map.

• Try not to let signs in English send you mixed messages. Or confuse you.

"Smoke free zone," on an ashtray.
Huh, Yogurtlandia?

Yo, Smelly Cosmetics. Yo.

• The hospitality of Greeks is truly unparalleled: our children still talk about the fine time they had staying with Theos Vasili and Stavrianna. But what about Greek people whom we didn't know? They were also enormously generous and friendly. The owner of the air-bnb home we stayed in, for example, showed up with the most delicious, sweet, gargantuan watermelon I have ever had in my life, and shoved it into the fridge for our later enjoyment. She had greeted us the night before with homemade Greek spinach pastries, homemade strawberry raki (an alcohol made of distilled grape skins and pulp), and chocolates.

• All Greek restaurants will give you free dessert and raki after your meal. One restaurant even gave the kids a plastic rubber band gun each, much to their surprise and joy. However, if you ask for the bill before the restaurant thinks you should, you may get none of these things.  Because if you've only waited for the bill (and dessert, and raki) for an hour or two before asking, you may be in a rush, and these extra things would be an unwelcome delay for you.

• If you happen to lose a child while shopping in Greece and end up running frantically up and down the street calling your child's name in a wild panic so that all the shopkeepers come tumbling out of their shops to see what's the matter, stop at the first fish spa you find.  The child who showed a fascination for fish who nibble the skin off people's toes will inevitably end up there.

• If you observe the speed limit in Greece, you're driving too slowly. And if you manage to overtake on a two lane highway without making oncoming traffic swerve to avoid you, you aren't driving properly.

• Get lost on the small dirt roads connecting one small town in the center of Crete to other small towns. You may just get stuck in the middle of a wedding with the whole town turned out to celebrate. You may see men in traditional lace neck pieces and tall black hats. They may take out their pistols and traditionally shoot the air for joy. It may be the best thing to ever happen to you, or you may have to run for cover. Either way, Greece is fun.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Norway in a Nutshell

Hanging with the locals

While the Norwegian Tourist Board itself refers to the tour we made of the world's longest open fjord, the Sognefjord, a "Nutshell" tour, it seems unfair to cram the magnificence and splendor of Norway into something so small as a nutshell, or even think of it as such.  As I found with Zion National Park, or the coast of Kaua'i, so it was with this brief glimpse of fjord country: there is no way to recapture the magnitude of beauty, the resonating depths of feeling one experiences in such an area of natural wonder, unless one experiences it for oneself.  So, with that understanding, I won't attempt to describe the experience in many words. (And, actually, Suresh's cousin did a remarkable job herself of describing this tour here and here and here.) Even the photos below can't do the place justice. 

On the other hand I would like to add that although Aditya and Rohan are very good travellers and enjoy most things, they seemed to enjoy the fjord tour the least.  I think it was because much of the appreciation of the tour required the ability to sit for hours on trains or boats, and being boys of action, after the first couple of hours, had little patience for the act of simply sitting back and soaking in the natural beauty.  I suspect they would much rather have hiked a Norwegian mountain, swum in the fjord, and gone boating in Bergen. Perhaps in a few years, they will be better able to be satisfied with just seeing and not be compelled to smear themselves in a new place in order to appreciate it. :)

Train from Oslo to Myrdal

Comfortable commuter train

A lake with a surface like reflective glass

Iciest of icy blues

A glacier (on the far side of the lake)

Historic Train on the Scenic Flåm Railway from Myrdal to Flåm

225m of Kjosfossen Waterfall
Dancer on the rocks providing excellent perspective.
Thanks, unexpected waterfall dancer!

Oh, the reflections.

The sudden mountains 
Wind and water and rocks

At the dock in Flåm

Boat Tour of Sognefjord to Bergen

Looking back

So very, very blue

Fingers of land interlocked with fingers of sea

Bridges and islands

Picturesque harbor towns


The fløibane (funicular) gave us spectacular views


Endearing house decoration

The view

What a city.

A refreshing change from riding
a train, bus, or boat

Don't worry, we won't. In fact, we love her city and her fjord.

Friday, July 25, 2014

How Not to Be a Scaredy-Cat Mom

This child. Doing STUFF.

We all know the type. You know, the mom who wipes off the entire grocery cart with hand sanitizer before putting her child into the seat. Who explains to her toddler in a crowded public place that she has to wear her harness because she doesn't want her to get an owie.  Or be taken by a stranger. Who lugs her child's fifty-pound, five-point harness, FAA-approved, NASA-tested booster seat through miles of airport security even though her child is old enough that he no longer legally needs to use any kind of car seat, in a car or plane.  We all know her because she's me: The Scaredy-Cat Mom. (In defense of S-CM's everywhere, I'd just like to utter my impenetrable defense at all you naysayers, finger-waggers, and head shakers: "My child is alive! So, HA. Take THAT.").

The problem with being Scaredy-Cat Mom, of course, is that your children inevitably grow up and start doing things.  I tell my children all the time, "Children, STOP. DOING. THINGS."  I tell them patiently, slowly, in a calm voice so they can absorb the depth of this wise and wonderful philosophy: When you do things, sooner or later you get hurt. Conversely, if you stop doing things, you will not get hurt.

But will they listen? No! The ingrates. They won't even do their one and only mother the courtesy of not growing up.  I mean really. Children these days.


So I decided to beat them at their own game, and by 'them,' I mean my children, and my husband too (might as well throw him in for good measure, he's certainly part of the problem by constantly egging them on, for goodness' sake).  I was going to fake them out. I was going to ACT LIKE a non-Scaredy-Cat Mom for a day, and see where that got them.  So here are my tips on how not to be a Scaredy-Cat Mom. If my techniques prove successful for you, please remember, you read them here first.


Karen's Tips and Techniques for being a Not Scaredy Cat Mom

1. Suggest an activity that you would never, ever in your right mind suggest. Preferably by pointing at a picture in a travel magazine and not bothering to read all the foreign language text describing the activity. The mere shock of receiving such an insane suggestion from you will make your family drop their collective jaws in horror, forget all about the suggested activity, and rush you to the hospital suspecting you're delirious. Or have a bad case of Salmonella. 

We were sitting around Srividya and Karthik's living room, browsing an Oslo Guide and deciding what to do next. We'd absorbed just about as much culture, art, design, and architecture as any reasonably sane family could, and we were ready for something different.

Et tu, Brute?
A picture of a smiling child in a helmet, walking on what appeared to be an innocuous, sturdy rope net draped about two feet off the ground caught my eye. "Hey," I said, not bothering to read the text or struggle with Norwegian. "Oslo Sommerpark. This looks nice."

"Oh," said Suresh, glancing over.  Upon seeing the description, he was suddenly entranced. "That does look nice! It's a rope climbing course! Look at that -- some of the courses are 60 feet off the ground!"

Ok, so back up here. A rope-climbing course?

2.  Your family may be temporarily immune to your non-Scaredy Cat techniques. If so, don't back off. Press on.  Eventually, they will get the point of your conversation: not that you want them to Do A Thing, but that you need medical assistance. Stat.

Before I had a chance to say "Hyggelig (Danish for cosy)," Suresh had figured out how we'd get there and when we'd go, which was, apparently, the next day.

"OK!" I said cheerfully. "Tomorrow it is!"

3. Arrange for rain. Rain deflects the attention from you and makes it seem the weather is to blame for embracing the mantra of Not Doing Anything. I know this sounds outlandish. Am I telling you to control the weather?  Everyone knows you can't control the weather.  But I say, oh yes, you can. After all, you can do anything. You're a Mom.

On the train up to Sommerpark, which, incidentally, is actually better known as Oslo Vinterpark, a ski resort, it began to rain quite nicely and exactly according to schedule. I looked at everyone in dismay. "Oh, no! The rain. Maybe we can't go after all!"

I saw everyone's crestfallen faces then, a sharp reminder that I was to be Not a Scaredy Cat Mom. I needed to press on. "Well," I said, "maybe it will clear up once we get there."

4. Obstacles are your friend.  Again, just like rain, obstacles can get in the way of things enough that plans will have to be scrapped and you will not end up looking like the one who scrapped them out of fear, sheer unadulterated fear.

It was a much, much longer walk to Sommerpark from the train station than we anticipated. That too, in the rain, without rain gear or umbrellas. When the rain began pelting down especially hard, we briefly took shelter in the entranceway to a (closed) cafe, but an unfriendly dog on an apologetic owner's leash began to growl at us, so we left and continued the march in the cold rain.

At last, upon arrival at Sommerpark, we realized the park's one cafe was closed, the parking lot was deserted, and not a soul was around except for some young boys kicking around a soccer ball. (You might get excited at this point and think, mistakenly, that you and your family will turn back when faced with such obstacles. Alas, no.) At this juncture, I pressed on, and addressed the Norwegian boys in Danish, which, sadly, they understood, and happily told all of us in English that we were actually in the wrong parking lot, that the Sommerpark rope climbing course was indeed open, and we were a few hundred meters from the rental shop.

5. Wear the wrong shoes.  You've tried all the tactics so far, and nothing seems to be working. Your family is headed pell-mell straight for their own demise. They've stubbornly missed all your artful and subtle cues, and were undaunted by the weather, the closed cafe, and the empty parking lot, and the dang lack of a Scandanavian language barrier isn't helping either.  This is no time to be namby-pamby about it. This is war.

As we were registering, a paperwork process that basically meant signing your life away, your children's lives away, and giving Sommerpark carte blanche use of your credit cards, I sauntered over to the rental guy and said casually, "You know, I'd love to climb. But, unfortunately, I don't think I'm wearing the right shoes." I pointed at my sandals, the only shoes I'd brought along for this whole trip.

The man looked down. "You're right," he said at last. "You can't climb in those."

I nearly hugged him.

6. Finally, when all else fails: Be eaten by midges.

"I can't climb, I have the wrong shoes for it," I told the others. "But you all should go ahead! Don't worry about me. I'll be fine.  I'll just stand below you and ... take pictures!" Actually, if I had not been trying so hard to be a NSC mom at this point, I probably would have just found a nice dry corner in the locker room and curled up in fetal position while my family self-destructed.  Did I want to watch them do this? Did I want to be the one recording this all for posterity? No, no I did not.

I went out to the park with them, geared up in their halters with hooks and clamps and gears. They look part Borg, but weird Borgs, since their faces were fine but they had metal hanging from straps dangling from their middles.

And, with the aid and encouragement of an instructor, they started to climb.

I would like to say I was Calm. Chill as a Cucumber. Collected. Casual. But I was none of those things. I looked up at my family in the trees, lives precariously dependent on merely their own balance and two small metal carabiners, and my heart was in my throat. "STOP! I'm not the mom you think I am!" I wanted to shout. "Come down from there! I surrender! I AM a Scaredy Cat Mom!"

But before I managed to do that, a miracle occurred.  I was attacked by midges. They thronged around my head by the thousands. They flew in my hair, my eyes, my nose, my mouth. They came up my pant legs and up my sleeves. They feasted upon me. They attempted to feast upon my family, too, but once the boys and Suresh got up in the trees, they were safe: we found that there were far fewer midge swarms up there than on the ground.  I was so distracted at having to fend for my life and work the iPhone camera at the same time, that I was distracted from being a Scaredy Cat Mom. It was a truly amazing turn of events, and I have nothing but praise for the ferocity of Norwegian midges.

And, short of a few dozen midge bites from which my skin is still recovering,


Oslo: Thoughts on Norwegian Art, Architecture, and Design

From the minute we arrived at the Oslo train station and stepped outside, beautiful examples of modern Norwegian architecture loomed up on every side. We were southeast of the city center, and here there was space for building and expansion by this wealthy Scandanavian city.

Unconventional building shapes, window tints, and quirky yet elegant lighting fixtures within (such as cloud-shaped ones: sorry, no picture!) belied Norwegian style: artful and elegant, and sleek, yet not without humor.

The bike stands outside of an apartment building, for example, were of shaped cement in the form of bicycles, and sidewalk lighting was achieved by having built into each bike sculpture a front light and a rear light, with front lights shining white, and rear lights shining red, of course!  The lighting would turn on automatically as soon as it got dark, which in summer in Oslo is past 11 o'clock at night.

I found more lighthearted art in these oversized flowerpots outside of a hotel on the other side of the train depot. To me, they are unabashedly shouting, "Look at us!" in Elsa Schiaparelli pink. The pots encapsulated the Norwegians' message to me: we may take on a traditional design, but we will change it, make it bigger than life, and we are not afraid of standing out.

And then this message in the installation I found at the Museum of Contemporary Art just made me laugh out loud. I can't explain why it was in the art museum, but it was important enough to someone to take up an entire wall in their new "Take Liberty!" exhibit.

As we strolled around the city from the newer parts more inward to the older more historic city center, I was struck by how seamlessly the city was able to blend old and new. The transition was not jarring, and everywhere one looked was a feast for the eyes. Below, for example, is a view down Karl Johans Gate, the main street in town that leads directly to the royal palace, and following that is a photo of the fountain outside the Museum of Contemporary Art. The building behind the fountain is not the museum, but rather a beautiful example of the kind of architecture you see all over that part of the city. Both areas are within walking distance of the ultramodern buildings shown above.

As we ventured on to the Vikingskiphuset, I realized I should have known that the Norwegians have a grand tradition in design, and so their contemporary art skills have been rooted in long historical tradition. I had previously seen examples of the Vikings' workmanship on their horned cups and on the ornamentation of their long ships. 

What I was truly unprepared for, however, was what met our eyes at the Vikingskiphuset, where three funerary longships were displayed in grand style along with the treasures and remains of noblewomen and men discovered on board. The sheer size of each of these ships was impressive; the workmanship that went into each beautifully carpentered join to make the vessel seaworthy, not to mention last over a thousand years, was breathtaking.  

It's truly hard to portray, with my limited photography skills, how massive and impressive these ships are. Suffice it to say I had to take both of these shots using the iPhone's "pano" mode, and that in order to look down upon them from this angle, one has to climb a complete flight of stairs.  The stories these ships tell about the people who made them, as well as the people for whom they were built, are still being revealed by careful research, but one thing is for certain: these ships stand as a testament to the fact that the Vikings certainly paid extreme attention to detail, and were masters at combining engineering and art.

Further afield, we experienced more Norwegian art and design in the form of the Vigeland Sculpture park. This park is dedicated to the work of Gustav Vigeland, who celebrated the beauty of the human form in bronze, granite and forged iron and who also apparently designed the organization of the park itself.  What most struck me about his work was his ability to breathe life into each statue and pull forth emotion from rock and metal.  And further, while many artists (Rodin, for example) focus on the tortured soul of humankind, Vigeland's work is distinctly upbeat, even joyful and humorous at times.

He seemed very interested in the cycles of life, portraying infants, toddlers, children, young adults, middle aged parents, and elderly people and their relationships. I loved his portrayals of parenthood:

... and I liked this one of a father with quadruplets the best.  Got a little more than you bargained for going on there, Dad?

Norwegian humor in art surprised me, I suppose, because I've been clinging to Garrison Keillor's 'Norwegian bachelor farmer' characterization as representative of all Norwegians for evidently far too long.  I pictured the country full of the taciturn and morose. And perhaps, as my thoughts were doubtless also influenced by Edvard Munch's "Scream," I thought Norwegians were likely a bit stressed. It turned out to be one of those situations in which I was delighted to find I couldn't have been more wrong: Norwegian art and architecture reveals the nation's creative, elegant and lively spirit. Just a look around Oslo for a few days taught me that.