ITINERANT BRIEFING4½ Hours in Oslo
Mar. 23 - Trine, Molli, and I boarded the M.S. Crown of Scandinavia Sunday afternoon. It was a bright, clear March day. The smoke from the ship's smokestacks drifted straight up into the cloudless sky. The water was still and smooth. All of this helped compensate for the mile-long trek we'd had to make with baby and luggage after deciding to get off the bus to Nordhavn "a few stops early" because "the bus is just gonna loop around anyway."
Check-in had been smooth and effortless. Our cabin was roomier than we'd anticipated, but not roomy enough that we'd regret having left the porta-crib back home. Molli was on her best behavior. We'd been impressed by the size and condition of the ship. As we stood on the deck waving farewell to a few ebullient strangers on shore, all indications suggested our mini-cruise to Oslo was going to be an enchanting mini-adventure.
* * *
DFDS has a fleet of seven or eight ships running several routes between Scandinavia, Holland, and England. The Crown of Scandinavia is the second-biggest ship in the fleet (the largest is the M.S. Pearl of Scandinavia) and has recently been refitted. Its 720 cabins can bunk 2100 passengers. It can also carry 365 cars. It has a movie theater, a spa, bars and restaurants to accommodate every taste, a large duty-free store, and numerous business facilities. It runs from Copenhagen up to the Swedish city of Helsingborg (opposite Øresund from Denmarks Helsingor, better-known to the English-speaking world as Hamlet's Elsinore), thence to Oslo, Norway. The next day it completes the trip in reverse. For some Scandinavians it's merely a well-appointed ferry. For foreign tourists it's a slow but enjoyable means of bopping around between the three nations of Scandinavia proper. But for some Copenhageners, like us, it's a "mini-cruise:" two lovely nights at a quality resort that just happens to be moving around the Baltic Sea at 21 knots.
With the opportunity to spend up to seven hours in Oslo.
Oslo's Not In Right Now...
It's been my experience that people who say "getting there is half the fun" or "the journey means more than the destination" aren't usually headed anywhere good. So when I say that enjoying our cruise was more important to us than enjoying our brief stop in Oslo, you'd be right to brace for a less-than-glowing account of Norway's capital. But I probably ought to cut the Norwegians some slack because the city is closed for repairs.
I don't mean this metaphorically. They ought to wrap the whole damn city off in yellow warning-tape and post signs: "Oslo is currently being renovated to better serve your tourism needs. We apologize for any inconvenience." Maybe they could post the phone number for Bergen or something. They could even say, "Be sure to come back before 2027!" (Sorry, that last bit won't even make sense for another few dozen paragraphs. Bear with me.)
Unfortunately the good people of Oslo chose not to shut their whole city down during the period of its renovation. Instead they're trying to cheat around the problem by closing only those parts of the city actually being ripped apart and reassembled. I suppose the handful of buildings not being thus renovated give Oslo the technical right to insist that it's still open.
Apparently the source of all this renovation is the confluence of two big events. The first comes later this year, when Norway marks the 100th anniversary of its sovereignty. (A brochure I saw informed me in twisted English that Norway would be celebrating its first full century "of being a sovereign nation, a vital part of the world community, and a good neighbor to Sweden." Is it just me, or does that sound awfully nervous?) The second big event is the centennial of Henrik Ibsen's death in 2006.
Various brochures and flyers had made us aware of both events before we deboarded at about 9:45 Monday morning. None of them had said anything about construction.
The Master Disappointer
You may not know Henrik Ibsen. Big playwright, old school. As theatre-people by training (and sometimes vocation), Trine and I sure as hell knew who he was, and as we drew our eyes over the weary list of museums and attractions in Oslo his house was the only museum that had jumped out at both of us. Some friends had recommended the Kon-Tiki Museum as the only thing worth seeing in Oslo, but it was way the hell out on some damn peninsula or something, and we were determined to be denied admittance only to readily-accessible museums.
The route to the Ibsen museum would, according to our map, be attractive in its own right: it would take us through the heart of town, past City Hall, Parliament, Oslo University, the National Theatre, and "The Castle," which glares down on central Oslo with all the sparkle and charm of a spinster schoolmarm glowering down at a classroom of nasty little children.
As we stumbled along the narrow sidewalks—now passing under scaffolding, now trudging along plywood, now off-roading Molli's pram through mud and slop, and being forced to switch sides of the street every thirty yards or so to accommodate segments of sidewalk that had been fenced-off completely—as we made our way through this obstacle course of a city, I say, we began to wonder if our pilgrimage to Ibsen was really worthwhile. But by then we were already traipsing across the grounds of the Castle. Thanks to all the construction, one has to cut through the Castle grounds to reach the quarter of the city where the Ibsen museum is located. While cutting across the muddy grounds of the Castle, we stared up in wonder at men and women hard at work in the branches of the royal trees. Even the trees were being renovated. We had come too far and acquired too much mud on our shoes and pants to settle for any mere mediocre disappointment. We wanted to see the inevitable "closed for construction" sign at the Ibsen Museum, and by God we weren't disappointed.
(I stepped into the bakery next door to the museum to use the rest room, however, and beheld some of the most beautifully-prepared confections I'd ever seen. Like sushi for the sugar set.)
Having finally achieved the ultimate disappointment, we decided on a reasonable and achievable set of objectives for our denouement. We would, we decided, find somewhere to feed Molli, then wander through the pedestrian shopping district we'd passed earlier to see if anything interesting hadn't been closed for renovations. Then we'd try to find a nice place to have lunch before heading back to the boat. We didn't have to be back aboard until 4:30, but were now hoping to get back earlier. The earliest you could possibly go back was one o'clock. They simply wouldn't let you aboard before then. How much do you suppose the Oslo Chamber of Commerce had forked over for that stipulation?
The difficulty of navigating our way back was offset by the novelty of being able to capture this photograph of the statue of Ibsen in front of the National Theatre. It's a photograph that would probably make Norwegians shudder for several reasons, and I post it for that very reason. (I don't ordinarily title my photographs, but I'd like to call this one "McIbsen.")
The Guy There's A Song About, Who Fought Somone
Our alternate route back brought us within striking distance of what appeared to be some kind of big maritime landing, so we wandered a little out of our way to see if the harbor itself were under construction. This part of it was not—not on the surface, at least, but I suppose there may have been considerable underwater renovation underway. The pleasant surprise of something not having been fenced off or shrouded in scaffolds was offset, however, by the near loss of our daughter. A streetcar came swishing along silently from our left and very nearly struck her pram. They are a silent but terrible menace, the streetcars of Oslo, and I support their immediate abolition.
We stood down by the water's edge and gawked about as tourists do. There was a statue of a man there, a great bellicose man waving a sword. I asked Trine who he was and what he had done.
"Tordenskjold. We have a song about him," she said.
"How does it go?"
"What did he do?"
"Something about pirates, I think."
"He was a pirate?"
"Maybe. No, I think he fought pirates. Or something."
"He was a guy who fought someone."
That was about the extent of our dip into Oslo's maritime history, so I'm going to fast-forward to the Great Oslo Yogurt Massacre, which has many more details to recommend it, but far fewer pirates.
The Great Oslo Yogurt Massacre
Before I relate the event of The Great Oslo Yogurt Massacre, I need to explain something about our economic considerations. We are not wealthy people, and we were not travelling with a lot of cash or credit at our disposal. Copenhagen recently made headlines when a study found it to be the second-most expensive city in the world to live in. I'm going to give you just one guess which Norwegian city the study identified as the most expensive. (I'll give you a hint: Oslo.) We were therefore afraid that if we found a cozy little place to feed Molli we'd end up having to pay seven bucks each for a cup of lousy coffee or something, just for the right to sit there. That's why we chose Burger King. We figured we could grab a table, give Molli the yogurt we'd commandeered at the ship's breakfast buffet, tidy her up, and get out again before anyone knew we hadn't ordered so much as a five-dollar Coke Light.
And sure enough, we managed to get in, claim a table, and begin feeding Molli without attracting any attention. In our haste to keep a low profile, however, our usual parental controls suffered a little neglect. Molli saw her moment and struck. As Trine finished fastening Molli's bib and I turned my head to see whether the approaching figure I'd sensed was an employee or a patron, Molli thrust her hand out toward the open cup of yogurt before her with such lightning dexterity that our entire corner of the restaurant was instantly spattered with low-fat peach melba yogurt (no, we don't normally feed her low-fat yogurt, but we weren't reading the labels very carefully when we furtively snatched the yogurt off the buffet table on our way out of the "7 Seas" dining room that morning).
It's astonishing how much surface area 190 grams of fat-free yogurt can cover. I'd like to have the scientific minds behind all those forensic crime shows get their heads together and explain the ballistics to me, as well, because my own understanding of the laws of physics are apparently too impoverished to grasp how it is that an eight-month-old girl's arm could strike one 190-gram cup of yogurt in such a way as to splatter virtually everything in every direction. She got Trine, me, herself, her high-chair, the table, those of our bags that were on the table, the nearmost chairs, the floor, the window overlooking a construction site just outside the restaurant, the ceiling, her own pram. I no longer find it hard to believe JFK was the victim of a lone gunman. I could even believe it of Bonnie and Clyde. Hell, I could believe it of the Germany Army.
The problem with the mess Molli had created, as most parents are already anticipating, is that we could not simulatenously clean it up and begin feeding her something else. Once Molli is prepared to eat, the slightest delay will cause hysterical fits with piercing audible accompaniments. If Molli's meal is interrupted, dogs go deaf.
Feeding her had to come first, which meant we had to dig through her yogurt-covered pram and all the yogurt-covered bags therein and thereon for something an eight-month old might find vaguely digestible. Thankfully I recalled having accidentally borrowed an additional yogurt at the buffet that morning, and we were able to present our daughter with some low-fat banana-kiwi yogurt (the contents were as surprising to us as they were to Molli). Trine kept Molli calm while I prepped the new yogurt, then Trine began feeding her rapidly while I emptied two napkin-dispensers in tidying up the ubiquitous yogurt. At last the girl was fed and the area around us (except the ceiling, which was hard to reach), though still quite sticky to the touch, was at least no longer visually defaced with yogurt.
Trine suggested I run down to the men's room and moisten a cloth to wash Molli's face with before we ventured back out into the sawhorse-strewn streets, and in the bathroom I encountered a poster that warrants a digression.
Before It's Too Late!
Above a cartoon of Mount Rushmore, an English headline urged viewers to "Visit the USA before it's too late!" It was an ad for some Norwegian travel agency. Great, I thought, they're even articulating their knee-jerk anti-Americanism in ads for travel to America—in the men's rooms of Burger King! The Mount Rushmore image was confusing, though.
What could it mean, in conjunction with such a headline? Visit the USA before Mount Rushmore is eroded by the glaciers of a new ice-age? Visit the USA before George Bush tears Mount Rushmore down? Visit the USA before the arch-fiend Bush is actually added to Mount Rushmore? Or what? On closer inspection I realized they had indeed added a face to Mount Rushmore—but it wasn't George W. Bush. It was Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator, cool shades and all.
So the message was, apparently, "Visit America before Arnold is added onto Mount Rushmore."
Now, assuming our Constitution were amended and he were allowed to run, he probably wouldn't be a candidate until 2012 at the earliest. Even if he served just one term, he wouldn't be out of office until January of 2017. Assuming a masterful Schwarzenegger presidency, it's still hard to imagine him being added to Rushmore before at least a decade had passed. So the poster is actually saying, "Visit America some time in the next 22 years." And it's saying it in English. In a Burger King men's room. Clearly, we have much to learn from Norwegian ideas about marketing.
Trine, Molli, and I traipsed out of Burger King at last, and into the early afternoon listlessness of an unbustling Oslo. We made our way down the big pedestrian shopping street, as planned, and marveled at the number of American stores. They even had a Mailboxes Etc! We quickly got bored with the prospects, since they were no different than what we'd find in Copenhagen, New York, or Chicago, so we decided we'd just give up on the day, eat somewhere vaguely Norwegian, and get the hell back to the boat. After passing through a vast open square with some kind of Farmer's Market that offered only two open stalls (whose optimistic merchants were hawking colorful knit hats and gloves at Faberge prices), we stumbled into our one real Norwegian find: a butcher and fish store. They had more varieties of salmon, at better prices, than I'd ever seen in my life, so I enjoyed looking around. That's when I notice the whale.
Having a Whale of a Time!
Yes, it's Norway's dirty little secret. They love whale. I picked up a brochure from the store. "Whale!" the headline proclaims (in Norwegian), "A Taste of the Sea." The subtitle promises, "With whale you have lots of opportunities for variety. Try — it tastes giant-good!"
The brochure included a lot of recipes. Here's one for grilled whale:
First, catch your whale...Just kidding. Okay, here it is:
First, buy a very large grill...Sorry, it's just too easy. Seriously, though:
Grilled Whale SteaksI've edited out a lot of superfluous commentary about how to tell whether your whale steaks are rare, medium, or well-done, and the importance of cutting against the fibers of the meat, but that's the gist of it. (No mention is made of the vegetables after the ingredient list.)
800 g. whalemeat, sliced into in 1-cm thick steaks
1 red onion
1 yellow pepper
spices to taste
Dab the whale steaks with butter and grill them 2-3 minutes on a side. Don't overdo them or they'll get dry and tough.
Whale isn't too expensive—I calculated it at around 14 bucks a pound, which would be expensive in the states but compares favorably to the price of Gummi Bears in Norway.
"I have to taste whale," I said to Trine.
"We'll see," she said.
"They have whale burgers. Don't you want to try a whale burger?"
Trine didn't look like someone who wanted to try a whale burger. She didn't even look like someone willing to be seen with someone who'd be willing to try a whale burger. But I began trying to navigate us toward places that looked like they might offer such a dish. As we began looking at menu cards, however, my desire for whale began fading. The prices for everything were simply stunning. A Mexican restaurant, for example, was offering beef fajitas at about $34. In Mexico, that'd get you the whole cow and a pasture to keep him in.
Norwegians, by the way, have a wonderful national internet extension. It's just "no." It makes for very sarcastic reading, especially since it seems to be "cool" to have English-named internet domains. It reminded me of the Wayne-and-Garth Era "not." As in, "Very cool music, Garth—not!" It's just a slapdash thought I just wanted to include because the picture says it better than I did:
Resuming Our Wandering Narrative
It was nearly one o'clock. We decided not to have been impressed by Oslo. We decided to eat somewhere fast and cheap, so we could get back to the ship as soon as possible and resume the enjoyment of our journey.
That's how I ended up eating the only Norwegian meal of my life at Burger King.
We even got the same table.
The Second-to-Last Digression: If You're Thirsting for Power...
On our way back to the ship we stumbled past the "world-famous" Mini-Bottle Gallery.
It was apparently a gallery of novely miniature liquor bottles—you know, a Jack Daniels nip in a little ceramic boot, Grand Marnier in a little ceramic orange, famous sports heroes from decades long past. It was closed for renovations, obviously, but I enjoyed looking through the window. I noticed one miniature that I found particularly striking: a bust of Hitler, with a swastika at the base. Hee hee... those Nazis were such nuts! Cheers!
The Last Digression
I'm obviously not going to able to wrap this up tonight, so let me conclude with the obvious: Oslo sucked ass. It's the first European capital I've been to that I never want to visit again.
That's not to say I'm ungrateful: Trine seems to share my sentiments, and she knows how much I enjoyed the journey. And that is, after all, the important thing.
As the sun set over the hills on the west side of the fjord that night, our ship gliding smoothly southward, we fell into conversation with a Norwegian guy of about fifty. We'd been talking for a few moments when he asked where I was from.
"The U.S.," I answered. "New York, Chicago, L.A., Boston... All over."
"It's a nice country," he said, "unless you're talking about Bush!"
I smiled at him.
"I've been in Europe long enough to know better than to talk to anyone about Bush," I said.
He smiled nervously back at me. He hadn't been expecting that!
"But as long as we're speaking so honestly, I suppose I ought to take back the nice things I said about Oslo. I'm sure Norway is very nice, but your capital sucks ass and I never want to see it again as long as I live."
Okay, I didn't actually say that last bit, but I sure as hell thought it. I was proud of myself for biting my tongue. The better part of valor, and all that. Our interlocutor had failed miserably as a goodwill ambassador. Now I not only hated Oslo, I hated Norwegians.
Lousy whale-snarfing bastards.
Later in the week I'll relate the more positive aspects of our journey—the many pleasures of the cruise itself. But for now I need to wrap this up and move on.
© 2005, The Moron's Almanac