Scandinavia

A slight fleshing out of the former brief update. Please excuse occasional swapping of Y and Z – they have been switched around on German keyboards. The effort of typing correctly is making me bleed through my ears.

Norway

I arrived in Oslo on a Wednesday evening, just as the sun had set. The flight from Edinburgh was uneventuful, but we did pass through some very aesthetically pleasing clouds.

Oslo airport is a typically modern Scandinavian construction – a soaring structure of glass and wood, with stylistic references to Viking longboats and North Sea fish. And another typically Scandinavian touch: a kiosk selling ham sandwiches for about AUS$14. I think they should rename this place “Scamdinavia”.

I located the hostel (and, to my relief, my cousin Lachlan) and went to bed.

The next day, we ventured out to central Oslo, 24-hour public transport ticket in hand (the public transport in Scandinavia has been universally amazing. On-time, clean, frequent, comprehensive and well-integrated. Compare with, for example, Dublin’s new Tram system where the two small tram lines don’t even meet).

After a certain amount of dazed wandering we located the Nobel Peace Prize Museum, opened just two months earlier. It is a technological marvel. From the moment you walk in the door, you are surrounded by flowing curved information screens that display information on current and past world conflicts in both textual and iconographic form, as well as quotes from both great and despotic leaders on the subject of people not getting along. Including one from Homer Simpson. Nice.

The exhibition also includes a book whose text is projected onto it from above. When you turn the page, the camera projects a different image. But that’s just the start. When you wave your hand over the page, different parts of the text and images expands to reveal additional information. So, for example, there may be a picture of Alfred Nobel holding a beaker and some text that says “Inventions”. Waving your hand at it (which also triggers the movement of a kind of swirly mouse pointer) will open a text box describing how his invention and refinement of devastating military-grade explosives enabled him to fund an eternal peace prize. If the world ever stops waging war, the loss of revenue for the Nobel Foundation would probably also mean the end of the peace prize. At this stage, I’m seriously considering re-reading Catch 22.

Another series of screens enabled the user to browse the biographies of every prize winner in incredible detail. A metal slider at the side of the screen enabled you to browse the list mechanically, while a chunky joystick-switch at the bottom allows you to switch languages.

In the afternoon we caught a boat across to… some place whose name I forget. Byg Doy I think. There were many museums – Vikings, old homes, fishing – all of whose foyers we explored meticulously after discovering there was no way we could afford to go in. Finally, we snuck into a boat museum just after closing time when they forgot to lock up.

In the early evening we caught a boat back to central Oslo, ingeniously leaving my only jumper behind on the dock. We were haphazardly making our way to the ritzy eat-out suburb of Grunne Lokke when we bumped into an American lady who had seen us on the boat and recognized my cornea-scarringly-bright orange coat. Her name was not Leanne, but that’s what I’m going to call her in this blog and, continuing the Peace theme, she works for the US Association for Peace (or some such thing) in sunny downtown Baghdad. That’s right – she’s trying to bring Peace to Iraq. Likes a challenge, this woman.

We hung out and had a few drinks – Leanne bought us both Ice Teas of the alcoholic variety, myself the Long Island and Lachlan the Jamaican. Very very nice, as indeed they should be at $20 a pop. Leanne told us things about Iraq, the US and the UN that would make your hair curl and bookcases fall over. The brain-damaged incompetence of the UN, the late-night editing of Iraq’s constitution by one of the interested local parties just before it went to the UN for printing, the US forces ignoring all the NGO’s advice and pressing ahead with timetables for nation-building that are simply unfeasable in a last-ditch attempt to get the Hell out before the domestic political damage becomes too great.

Yes, actions like that deserve a long and brutal sentence. Bdm-tish.

Leanne herself participated in gathering evidence and lessons from every other nation-building exercise in recent history in order to provide instruction on how to avoid, for example, civil war. In her words, they have now done “absolutely everything wrong”. Until a month ago she saw the process as salvageable. Now, she believes the scales have tipped in favour of all-out civil war and the descent of Iraq into a haven for terrorist cells, Islamic fundamentalism and anti-western sentiment.

In a happy coincidence, she caught the same train as us to Bergen the next day, and we all sat together snapping photos out of the window of the train as it snaked its way across the top of Norway’s fjords and plains. It was a spectacular train ride, and introduced us to the full range of Norway’s practically-uninhabitable landscapes.

Once at Bergen, we trekked around for a while before finding a hostel with spare beds, at Montana, a few km’s out of town on the side of a beautiful mountain. In the morning, we climbed the mountain to a height of 645m and took loads of photographs of the spectacular landscape. Bergen is surrounded by 7 mountains and 7 fjords, and at the end of our trek we caught the cablecar from the nearest mountain back into town. During the day we wandered around town trying to find the Hurtigruten (it was misplaced on the map – not the first time we would find the Lonely Planet maps wanting). By chance they were having an open day, so we were able to explore the boat and snag some free shit, including fruit and icy poles. By this stage we had already become accustomed to stealing and exploiting our way through Norway, as it’s the only way to survive when your currency isn’t worth spit on the ground.

In the evening we met up with a Special Friend of Lachlan’s, with whom he disappeared to places unknown once it became clear that she was bang up for it. I spent the evening hanging with her rather cool friends, whom I drunkenly created arguments with in a way I normally wouldn’t enjoy so much. I slept on their couch.

The next day we recovered, shopped, and groggily made our way to the Hurtigruten Coastal Passenger Ship, OVDS line. This. Ship. Is. Awesome. Then again, it’s my first and only experience of passenger ship life, but there’s nothing like quaffing Cuban Rum while sitting in a spa at the back of a ship watching the fjords roll by to get things off to a good start. We also availed ourself of the gym and sauna facilities, helped a Norwegian salesman called Eirich with the English in his PowerPoint presentation. We spoke to a teary elderly American whose wife died 9 months ago, as they were planning the trip together, and he has taken it anyway in her memory. The passengers were almost all elderly or middle aged, and the only 20-somethings we saw boarded just as we were leaving in Trondheim. Nevertheless, it was great fun.

We spent a few uneventful hours in Trondheim looking at a spectacular medieval church and attached museum, and I got my head shaved. Then we caught an overnight train to Stockholm via Östersund.

Sweden

Stockholm is huge and beautiful. Spread over, I think, 14 islands and teeming with art and history. One of our first finds was a shop full of old Soviet war memoribilia. I bought a few badges and some poster prints that I thought would be of interest to friends and relatives, but have yet to send them to Australia. We wandered up the main street and saw the changing of the guard at Europe’s largest Royal Palace. Lachlan discovered the Design center, to his delight, and we checked out an exhibition called Extra Ordinary, which reinterpreted common household objects in interesting ways. It included some amazing electronic carpet whose textures changed as you walked over it (rather like the book at the Oslo Nobel Peace Museum). Also, we saw:

– A table that contained a display in the center that showed aerial view of England, at street-level, that moved according to the pressure from objects sitting on the tabletop.
– A one-person disco with mirrors, music and strobe that gave the impression you were in a room full of copies of yourself. Malkovich malkovich malkovich, Malkovich!
– A mirror with a 3-second delay, constructed using a small camera and a large LCD display. If you were quick, you could get a photo of yourself arguing with your own reflection.
– A fantastically stupid Japanese collection of nonsense machines, mostly based around the theme of Fish. For example, there was a fish-operated toy car. No, really. And a mallet used to smashing a fish to death, which opened to reveal a casket for the fish, and a fish-eye lens through which you could stare your newly-deceased fish friend in the eye. And they demonstrated it. With a live (then dead) fish.

Lachlan also obtained the details of a woman called Camilla who organised a visit for us to see an energy-efficient hotel on the Swedish island of Gotland. The next day, we caught the train-and-enormous-boat to Gotland, found ourselves some bicycles and a tent, and started riding to the North of the island from the port of Visby. That night we camped on a beautiful, isolated rocky beach and made ourselves a small fire, just big enough to see the still-unfinished bottle of Cuban Rum by.

The first day we rode 56 kms, the second we were to ride over 100 kms, the remainder of the way to the North and then all the way back to Visby to have a drink with Camilla. The scenery was beautiful, the air clean, the roads and towns well-maintained, and I almost died of exhaustion.

As a side-note, Gotland is covered with wind turbines. We saw dozens, and apparently the southern part of the island has many more. It makes sense – it’s a flat place in the middle of the sea, so I expect they get pretty consistent wind. Since then we have seen countless wind farms through Denmark and Germany. Europe is pretty keen on them, it seems. It’s good to see!

After one night spent camping next to a road in Visby, we caught the boat and train back to Stockholm, expecting a connecting train to Copenhagen but… we had misread the timetable. No train. We eventually found a bus that would take us, but as a result I hardly slept (though Lachlan did quite well).

Denmark

That brings us to Copenhagen.

Arrived 8am Sunday on overnight bus, walked around but not much happening. Watched fantastic Viking games and the Sun Chariot and Star Wheel display at the Danish National Museum, and checked out some fascinating exhibits of the history of civilisation in Scandinavia.

Next, we went to the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, the biggest collection of Greek and Roman sculpture outside Rome. It was under renovation, but the parts that we were able to see were lovingly put together and we spent a lot of time there. As well as the sculptures, they had quite a few paintings by Monet, Picasso, Matisse etc. and a really extensive collection of mummies and sarcophagi from Egypt.

That night we found the hostel, Vandrehjem, a few kms out of town on the very new (2002) computer-controlled Metro. Lachlan was fascinated by the way it was put together, and we both took quite a few photos and debated how it was powered etc. It’s a lot like the Singaporean system, with doors along the platform lining up with the train doors, and plenty of natural light in the underground stations during the day.

The hostel was great. We played some basketball with a ball that wasn’t round on a surface that wasn’t flat, shooting through a ring that was too high. We were ably umpired by our roommate, Chris, who was the least interesting person we have met on this trip. He’s a perfectly lovely English lad of 26 who came to Copenhagen, complained there was nothing to do, saw the Madame Tussauds and Guinness World of Records exhibits and drank himself stupid and went home. His favourite films include Stealth and Pearl Harbour, and his least favourite include Team America World Police and basically anything else that I like. We were absolutely polar opposites in taste. The only way in which were were similar is that we both frequently complain that other people have no idea about anything.

The next day (Monday) we went to the very beautiful Louisiana modern art museum, which is on the way North to Helsingor, about 30 minutes train ride out of Copenhagen. They had some great exhibits: Matisse’s “new life”, featuring correspondance and art from the period following Matisse’s long illness in the early ’50’s, including the original cut-outs for the “Jazz” book and some HUGE montages. There was also an installation called “Louisiana Manifesto” by French architect Jean Nouvel (sp?), who has won awards all over the world for his buildings, notably including the amazing Centre for the Arab World in Paris. The centerpiece of the exhibit was the manifesto itself, a decree that basically public structures need to be more responsive to the will and environment of the people for whom they are built, rather than imposing themselves on the environment. It was accompanied by some huge cartoony murals that depict Nouvel’s recent projects. It managed to make a profound statement without teetering into a huge puddle of wank, despite threatening to do so several times. Finally, there was the standard Louisiana modern art exhibition, which was brilliant.

We never made it to Hamlet’s Castle at Helsingor, because we got caught up all day at Louisiana. Instead, we caught the train back to Copenhagen and headed out to a blues club called Mojo. Local blues musician Paul Banks was playing, a brilliant and virtuosic guitarist. Apart from the first and last tracks, they were all originals from his almost-40-year career.

The next day we headed into town to catch an early screening of SteamBoy. Unfortunately they only had one ticket left, so I let Lachlan take it (I’ve seen it before) and I went off to finally buy myself a replacement for the jumper I left at the dock in Bygdoy. I also bought some shoes that wouldn’t destroy my feet (up to this point I had been trekking around in stylish but ridiculously unsuitable loafers, which left my feet an abraded, peeling mess) and a belt to hold my trousers up. This led to fewer arrests for inadvertent public indecency.

Lachlan and I met up again at 12:30 and walked several kilometers to Christiania, an experimental hippie commune that has been around since the early 70’s. Until recently, it had a reputation for being a haven for drugs, both soft and hard, and one street earned the name “Pusher Street”. In the last two years, a crackdown by police has removed the visible criminal element, but it was still no trouble to walk down Pusher Street and score a handful of high-quality hash. Christiania has been built on the remains of an old Naval base, and takes up both banks of a scenic river. There is a lot of natural scenery and it feels a world away from the density of the city right next door. There are a few really impressive experimental house designs among the heavily-graffiti’d tumble-down shacks, and around 1000 people live in the area full-time. They run their own schools, maintain their own infrastructure, cars are banned in favour of bikes and walking. Rent there is extraordinarily cheap for Copenhagen, about 1500 DKr/month, or AUS$350 (in fact, it was originally conceived as a cheap place to live, a huge squatter’s paradise – the organisational structure arose naturally from that).

We walked a full lap of Christiania before heading off towards the Little Mermaid around dusk. I was keen to find the English Church where my Dad sang as a child, and I think we did finally get there – Dad, check out the photos to see if I’m right. It was very picturesque, right next to the island castle.

We took a few photos of the Little Mermaid (the guide said most people are disappointed by her, but I thought she was lovely, perhaps because my expectations were set so low) and walked back into town. After grabbing some all-you-can-stand pizza, we walked to the red light district south-west of the central station, where we passed just a handful of hookers before reaching one of those used-to-be-dodgy-so-lots-of-hip-bars-suddenly-appeared parts of town, where we settled into some conspicuously heavy drinking and chatted to a few lovely foreigners.

One of them was an Aussie guy of Indian extraction whose accent was very much 70’s Australian – to us, he sounded Aboriginal, which is probably a naive thing to say but these days it’s true. The Australian accent has definately changed, but after satisfying himself that we weren’t complete wankers, he told us his story, which was a fascinating one. He makes documentaries (he’s been to 103, 110 or 118 countries, depending on how much he’s had to drink) and has opinions on just about everything. He has been living in Copenhagen for 14 years, and currently associates with a clique of young lesbians who all seem to be planning to move to Berlin because “that’s where it’s at now”. I had a long chat with a Somalian girl who spoke with a Washington DC accent but had lived in Copenhagen for a few years. She’s a designer of some sort, it all got fuzzy around that point, but she somehow manages to live very well without having a regular job. Good for her!

After decorating the footpath for a good half-hour, an equally disabled Lachlan bundled me into a cab and we made our way back to the hostel.

Germany

The next day we boarded a train for…

Berlin!

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