Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

The long-winded-niest travelogue on the internet!



Posted on 7/2/03


Ah, Norway! The Mother Land, well my mother land at any rate. This is my seventh visit to Norway. It feels like a second home and that feeling is magnified with my name and complexion causing me to be routinely mistaken for a local.

I have a wacky love/hate relationship with this place.

I love the landscape. I hate the food.
I love the summers. I hate the winters.
I love the women. I hate the men (Read: I hate competition).
I love their awesome transportation system. I hate that everything is so damn expensive.
I love that they are on the leading edge of technology. I hate that every person on the street has a cell phone and that they would sooner chop off their dominant hand, rather than be parted with it.

Everyone should go to Norway at least once, but if you really want to take in the country and not live on a diet of bread and jam two meals a day while you’re at it, you will have to cash in a few very ripe savings bonds in order to have the kroner (Norway’s currency) to make this realistic. Norway’s standard of living makes it one of the most expensive countries for Americans, or anyone else for that matter, to visit and God help you if the dollar is weak, like it is now. I have been hauling around this mildly informative and prohibitively heavy copy of the travel guide “Frommer’s Europe.” I learned very early and very painfully that despite being dated 2003, Frommer’s calculations from kroner to dollars is probably from about 2000 when the exchange rate was nine kroner to the dollar. Now it is 6.85 kroner to the dollar. This difference gets very noticeable when you are pricing hotel rooms. The Frommer’s quote on my freshman dorm sized hotel room in Bergen was $82 a night. That price ramped up to an aneurysm-inducing $108 when I did the conversion with today’s rates. Stupid Frommer’s.

Yes, i took a picture of the street.  I'm such a tourist.

Anyhoo, if you get past the prices (which you won’t), Norway is the place to be in the summer. I have never been anywhere as beautifully scenic. And I’m not just talking about the countless mountains, valleys, glaciers, waterfalls and fjords. Everything here is scenic. The houses, the squares, the streets, the urinals… The gutters could be on a postcard if you framed it right. Even in the big cities like Oslo and Bergen, you get a distinct small town, quaint vibe from the buildings, people and cityscape. Aside from the occasional American, eyesore hotel jutting up in the middle of the city (the mere mention of the name “Radisson” to a Oslo resident will spark a nostril flaring, stuttering diatribe about how that building ruined the skyline of the entire city), structures usually tend to be limited to five stories or less, meaning that even from the top of a small bump in the road, you can catch a long and wide panoramic view from any point in the city all the way to the water. If you ignore the sparkling new malls that have begun to pop up, the Norwegian architecture and city planning hasn’t changed drastically over the past few hundred years. New houses and small buildings are built in the same style as the structures across the street that are upwards of 200 years old. Many streets are still laid the in classic style with tightly packed, small cobblestones, in an overlapping, synchronous rainbow design. (Pictured) The cobblestone streets you traverse could be less than a year old or over 100 years old. Once the agonizingly slow work of laying the cobblestone streets is completed, they need little repair and seem to be impervious to the maddening pothole problems that plague most cold weather cities in the U.S.

The mere fact that I am devoting so much time and space to normally tedious subjects such as the damn cobblestone designs in the street is a sign that these minutiae are all part of what makes spending time in Norway so fricking cool.

Transportation around Norway is another subject that gives me a sweet buzz. With all of the mountains and fjords that they have to get over, around and through, even a mere 100 mile trip as the crow flies can take six hours or more on the ground after you negotiate all of the barriers that you have to traverse. This is a desperately welcome change from driving in the Midwest. Long drives in the Midwest are a coma-inducing, flat, straight, ride of boredom with nothing to look at except fields, 237 Dairy Queens and the occasional herd of cows. There’s nothing big in the way, so you can set the cruise control at 90 MPH, steer with your pinkie and be at your destination in short, but dull order. On the flip side, the countless geographical obstacles in Norway make long drives a treat for both the driver and passenger. The passenger has the pleasure of gawking at the lush mountainsides, waterfalls, valleys, streams and fjords. Meanwhile, the driver gets their thrills and natural adrenalin shots to their system with the incredibly narrow, twisting, steep, “two lane” (at the best of times) road design. The anorexic pavement width adds to the heart stopping experience of a having a truck barreling down on you from the opposite direction at full speed and swooshing passed with only inches to spare between your side-view mirror and the rock-face, while your vehicle flirts with the edge of a 1,000 foot sheer drop on the passenger side with nothing more than a small, cosmetic guard rail that wouldn’t stop a dog at a full sprint from going over the edge, much less your car. It gives me the heebie-jeebies just thinking about it.

During my trip to the Arctic Circle, I was forced to take a 14 hour, over-night bus trip from Bergen to Trondheim. In most countries, particularly in the U.S., the mere thought of taking a 14 hour bus ride anywhere would cause one to slip into visions of a cramped, dirty, uncomfortable ride of horrors. Not in Norway. Cruising along in a finely tuned, balanced and shockingly clean bus with spacious, comfortable seating on immaculate roads and unforgettable scenery zipping past, it becomes difficult to tear yourself away from the show going on outside your window to read your book or even sleep for that matter. Speaking of books, I was voraciously reading “Dark Star Safari,” by Paul Theroux for the first few weeks of my trip. The book documents Theroux’s ground journey through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. I felt a little spoiled and girly sitting in my sterile and punctual bus while reading accounts of Theroux waiting hours and sometimes days for the pleasure of hitching a ride on the back of passing trucks, perched on top of sacks of beans or even clinging to the roof of the truck’s cab on unkempt, roads peppered with unholy potholes, getting wind blown in the desert heat, eating sand and being shot at by starving banditos. Eventually my guilt drained away when I realized that at any point while planning that hideous trip, he could have just said “Fuck this” and retired to his home in Hawaii.

Midnight in Bodo

Due to it’s position on the global latitude scale, the term “night” takes on a very relative meaning in Norway. Even in the south, Norway only gets about three hours of dusk (never pitch black night) in June. This phenomenon causes tourists like me to constantly lose track of time. 11:30PM can sneak up on you really fast when the sky stays illuminated until well after midnight and the streets are still bustling with people of all ages. You’re only hint that the night is wearing on is that restaurants will eventually herd you out the door and you catch a glimpse of the clock in the main square which reveals that if you had a regular day job, you would have been getting into bed right about then.

Just when I thought cell phone abuse in the US was getting unreasonable, here come the Norwegians taking cell phone absurdity to the next level. To Norwegians, cell phone are like an extra, indispensable appendage and unlike less important items, like say one’s wallet or house keys, a Norwegian and his or her phone are rarely parted. The coverage of the Norwegian cellular network is impressive. I saw people happily making calls from ferries miles off shore, the tops of very tall, desolate mountains and even from inside miles long tunnels.

These days, kids can expect to get their first cell phone at age 10 or 11, so the paralyzing dependency on cell phones is programmed very early on. I learned quickly that this proliferation of cell phone use in Norway was not only getting me all riled up on a personal level with everyone’s cell phone being in constant use, but the phenomenon also bites me in the ass as a tourist. With cell phone use becoming so common, the Norwegians have actually started to dismantle their public payphone network! I had to walk around downtown Bergen for over 15 minutes before I found a payphone. I was so put out that the first thing out of my mouth to my friend whom I had not seen or spoken to in two years was “You people need more public phones!”

Text messages are sent and received on Norwegian cell phones much more often than actual phone calls due to the billing tactics of Norwegian cellular providers. While an actual call can cost up to a dollar a minute on some plans, a text message can be sent for a relatively scant 12 cents. This method made little sense to me as I was witness to several of these text message exchanges and it seemed to me that by the time they finished their conversation, they had probably each racked up a higher bill than if one of them had just broken down and called the other. Despite having to compose a message with the ridiculously slow and clumsy dial pad, Norwegians are still able to zap off quick messages with the help of built in word recognition software and frequently used word shortcuts.

Another weird spin on cellular service that one should know as a tourist in Norway is that the caller pays for the convenience of the call, not the recipient as is the practice in the States. So, if you think you are just going to drop five kroner into a payphone and call your buddy’s cell phone for a nice long chat, think again. The payphone will demand more money out of you almost immediately or disconnected the call with almost no warning if you don’t comply. Even a brief call to a cellular phone can totally empty your pocket of change in the short time it takes to arrange a dinner date.

Sometimes the dependence and priority that Norwegians give to their cell phones borders on being tragically comical. I have a friend (not me :P) who was more than a little offended one night when he and his Norwegian woman were making sweet love by the fire and her cell phone started chirping “The Theme from Shaft.” It was a text message from her aunt. She stopped everything (yes, everything) and responded immediately. Just as they were getting back down to business it happened again. Then again. The flipping text conversation with her aunt took precedence over doing the horizontal mambo! This slayed me. If it were me, I would have fought fire with fire and started up a game of “Golden Eye” on the Nintendo. I bet that would’ve fixed her wagon.

Being a tourist in Norway gets even more confounding the first time you have face the challenge of hailing a taxi. In places such as Mexico, the instant you step one toe outside your hotel, you are almost forcibly “helped” into at least three different waiting taxis. If you are lucky enough to escape that, you are still harassed every four seconds as you walk down the street by passing cabs and their novelty horns playing “La Cucaracha.” This is not the case in Norway, where their livelihood doesn’t depend on your tips. Hailing a taxi in Norway is like trying to convince an ocean liner to stop for you. Whereas a Mexican taxi driver will screech to a halt, back up traffic in four lanes and cause at least two accidents to get a fare, if the Norwegian taxi driver is going too fast or does not have an appropriately safe place to pull over to pick you up, he keeps right on going. I was ignored for six blocks one morning with the overloaded Office tearing down my shoulders and my suitcase rattling over the cobblestones. My appearance was clearly screaming “Tourist on His Way to the Airport,” but nevertheless I was passed by five empty taxis and I only managed to score a ride after I had walked all the way down to the taxi stand at the harbor. I was casually greeted by one of the guys who had cruised lazily past me four blocks earlier while I jumped up and down, flapping my arms like a man-seagull hybrid. When he innocently asked “Do you need a ride?” with a perfectly straight face, I actually wondered if he and his friends were playing a sick joke on me. It was exasperating. If you are coming to Norway and want to successfully hail a cab in short order, I would recommend standing in the street with your pants down and your hair on fire. Good luck!

The Norwegian women need little description. The stereotypes that have endure in American TV and movies are pretty much accurate. They are all gorgeous with, er, proportions that would leave even hardened members of the Accredited Heterosexual Women of America with their tongues wagging. I warn all males going to Norway for the first time to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery until they’ve had time to acclimate to the babe-factor, because disaster in the form of blond hair and ample cleavage is waiting around every turn. Not only do these women have a natural, soft beauty and perfect skin that will leave you melting into your shoes, but they are among the more risqué dressers in northern Europe. It is rare to see a Norwegian woman on the street in anything but low-riding, astonishingly form fitting pants, with bare bellies and a plunging neck-line. I’m tellin’ ya, these pants are tight. How tight are they? They’re so tight that you can tell what… er, nevermind. That metaphor was going down faster than a hooker in a…Arg! Enough with the one track mind already!!

As a man, I can attest to the fact that it is extremely difficult to stay focused and productive when you are falling in love at first sight 117 times a day. Not only can I not perform basic tasks like feeding myself while in the company of the average Norwegian female, but no-brainers like walking in a straight line become a challenge on busy streets. I’ve taken my people watching hobby to a new level in Norway. Normally my favorite places to people watch are the State Fair and the Mall of America for the undiluted weirdo quotient, but in Norway it’s pretty much all gravy my friends.

Speaking of weirdos, it could just be my imagination, but Norway, in fact all of Scandinavia, seems to have a higher well adjusted to, uhm, “eccentric” people ratio than any other place I have been, including the East Village in Manhattan. Whereas the normal to weirdo ratio is generally something like 25: 1 in most places, Scandinavia is teetering on something close to 12:1. And they all want to talk to me. I’m not sure what I put out there to attract them, but something in my mannerisms speaks to these people and unfortunately they feel the urge to speak back. The Cookies love me. They are mostly harmless and I just chalk it up to the general entertainment value of traveling in Scandinavia, but every once in a while you get an angry one and that’s when things get dodgy. I have a very fine tuned sixth sense that can pick up on the weirdo vibe on someone often before they even say a word to me, so I am rarely taken off guard, but if the old Cookie Sense tickles me in a certain way that says “danger,” I brace myself and get crouched down for a quick exit. I can’t say why, but the mean ones turn out to be women more often than not. A memorable exchange with a Cookie at a bus stop in Copenhagen went a little something like this:

Phase 1. Acquire the target. I knew she was there the instant she inched into the outer range of my Cookie Radar. I glanced in her direction and it was clear that she already had me in her sights. I nudged my friend Marianne to get her attention. She had already been witness to several encounters with me and the Cookies during the week that we had been traveling together through Scandinavia and understood the situation immediately.
Phase 2. Evasive maneuvers. The Cookie swaggered up to me and started right in on me with the story of how her evil husband had left her. I nodded and smiled as I started steering my friend into making baby stepping towards the front of the bus stop.
Phase 3. Defense. Like turning on a light switch, the Cookie went from wanting to be my best friend to hating me. Her eyes went dark and she said “If you didn’t like me, then why didn’t you just say so!?!” loud enough for most of the rest of the bus stop to be involved in the moment.
Phase 4. Retreat. Just then the bus pulled up, I said something to the effect of “No, really! I think you’re great! Let’s do this again some time!” as my friend and I cut in front of about 12 people and clamored onto the bus.

So far, I have not been accosted by a single Cookie on this trip. It has been 12 years since I last traveled extensively in Scandinavia, so perhaps my natural Cookie pheromones have all burnt out with age.

Not bad for a guy with short, stubby fingers!

Only slightly less distracting than the women is the Norwegian chocolate. Wow. It’s beyond description. While with supreme effort, I can just barely control myself around the women, the chocolate is another story entirely. Even the basic convenience store chocolate puts everything we have in the States to shame. Typically, when I arrive in Norway, I just check my dignity as soon as I get off the plane and stuff my face with chocolate all day, every day and then buy about $100 worth at duty free on my way out of the country. Pride, schmide. I want my friggin’ chocolate! I have had to develop a special way to carry my Coke and chocolate in one hand as I navigate the city, so I still have a hand free for doors, picture taking and occasionally wiping the drool from my chin as one beautiful creature after another passes by. I accomplish this with a complicated series of finger placements to keep the Coke and chocolate near and at the ready for consumption. (pictured) There is even space to keep the wrapper of the chocolate as I peal it from top to bottom.

Aside from the chocolate, don’t count on finding any culinary treasures while you are in Norway. The native dishes are a bland, white nightmare of tasteless monotony. This would be forgivable if they also hadn’t managed to successfully ruin common dishes from all over the planet. You name the cuisine, the Norwegians have butchered it. The only food related aspect that you can count on in Norway is that unless you request otherwise, no matter what the dish or it’s native origin, it will come with corn on it. And possibly thousand island dressing. I’m not sure how or why these two ingredients worked their way into being indispensable parts of their diet, but nevertheless it is forced on you a minimum of two meals a day. And if you come to Norway and order dinner on your first day, all the while thinking to yourself “They wouldn’t put corn and thousand island dressing on fillet mignon, would they?” Don’t be so sure. Better safe than sorry.

Isn't that cute????

Walking around any decent sized Norwegian city is a constant treat. Something intangible about the people, the atmosphere (did I mention the women already?) and exquisite, international hum in the air makes simply sitting on a bench on a busy pedestrian street and watching the world go by a joy in and of itself. Street performing is a free-for-all in the main shopping and social centers of every city. Numerous musicians, bands, performers, statue guys and the occasional drunk putting on a free show can be seen day or dusk. One of my favorite street performing moments snuck up on me from behind while I was sitting on the main outdoor pedestrian mall in Trondheim, stuffing my face with my semi-hourly chocolate binge. I heard the faint noises of an accordion player warming up behind me. Accordion players are almost more common than 10 year olds with cell phones in Norway, so I didn’t bother to turn and check it out until a crowd started forming. Once I was certain that the crowd wasn’t for me (I was really putting away that chocolate…), I spun around on my bench and saw the most adorable little girl (pictured) tapping out the same three songs over and over on an accordion that must have weighed almost as much as she did. She was a huge hit. People were gathering all around and shooting pictures. I whipped out my tiny Canon and joined them. Back when I was a little more strapped for cash, I used to do my share of street performing in Norway. The Norwegians are generous tippers to street performers, but this little girl was on an entirely different level. She raked in more kroner in 10 minutes of playing than I did in two hours on my best day in Oslo. I was stunned, but she was so cute, I couldn’t possibly get bent-out-of-shape about it.

Like much of Scandinavia, drinking at bars and clubs is only for the idle rich or perhaps a once or twice a month outing for the average wage earner. Just like in Iceland, Norwegians do their hardest drinking at home, before they leave for the clubs. With the very limited hours that stores are allowed to sell liquor, even this econo-drinking strategy takes some planning. Liquor stores shut down at 3:00 in the afternoon on Saturdays. This caught me off guard more than once and I was reduced to getting the weak, but tasty Norwegian apple cider which grocery stores are allowed to sell until the comparatively late hour of 6:00PM.

Norwegians love their statues. There are statues all over every city. Bergen took this art and decided to have some fun with it. There are life sized, casually posed statues of people scattered randomly about the city center and if you happen to be walking in the dark or drunk or both, these statues could easily be mistaken for real people. There’s a statue of a women standing idly outside of the Mc Donald’s and one of a man sitting propped up against the stairs to the city hall. I don’t know about you, but seeing one of those out of the corner of my eye while I was staggering home would most definitely scare the living doo doo out of me. I have a feeling those madcap Bergeners know this and probably have security cameras trained on those spots to watch the show every night and maybe edit together a best-of video for the policeman’s ball each year. I know I would.

Leif Erikson

One thing you can count on in the statue department is that in just about every good sized city in Norway (Iceland too) there is a statue of Leif Erikson, or Leiv Eriksson or Leifer Erikssen or any of a number of other spellings, depending on what country/region/city you are in. There’s little agreement about how to spell his name, but he is roundly admired, because his likeness is everywhere. Being his namesake, I get a real kick out of going around and collecting pictures of the Leifster.

I visited five cities during this trip to Norway: Stavanger, Bergen, Trondheim, Bodø, and Oslo. Please follow the links for my lengthy thoughts on each city.

Go to Stavanger

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©Leif Pettersen 2012