2 July 2008: Flight to Brunei, Dubai, London, Oslo
I got up at 5.30 a.m. to drive to Brisbane international airport at 9.45 a.m. Christine was at the Royal Brunei check-in to meet me. The aircraft was blessed before take-off with Muslim prayers – a nice touch and somewhat reassuring – and the on-board video screens pointed showed the direction of Mecca at all stages. For a cultural Christian who has shamefully little knowledge of Islam, this was all very interesting. (I did have a Malaysian teenage boy penfriend when I was a teenager, so I learned a little bit about it then.)
A pleasant surprise was, for no apparent reason, an upgrade to business class for the first leg to Brunei (about 7 hours) – more leg room, fairly comfy seats, real crockery plates and metal knives. I guess terrorists only travel economy. A 2-hour wait to get on the plane for the next leg ended with another security check – putting all hand luggage through the machines again.
But, alas, back to ‘cattle class’ for the next two legs. Back to plastic knives (but metal spoons and forks and even wooden toothpicks – one could kill someone with a toothpick to the right spot).
The next leg (8 hours, then a 1.5 hour stopover at Dubai airport) involved Christine and me getting split up, but I was lucky with my two new companions – a Brit from Toowoomba going for a visit home and a 20-something woman going on a backpack tour of the Continent. They were pleasant and intelligent companions.
The 1-hour break at Dubai involved getting off the plane and getting on again with yet another security check, this time with a body pat-down. They are really paranoid there. At 1.30 a.m. local time, the airport was absolutely buzzing with interestingly dressed people – Indian ladies wearing lots of gold jewellery, Muslim women in full-length black abayas, all sorts from all the Middle East and India around the world. Then another 8 hours to London. The ladies had to take all their jewellery off to go through the metal detectors. Shoes, belts and watches, too, for all of us.
After arriving at one terminal in Heathrow airport, which is huge, I had to take a shuttle bus to Terminal 5 (totally occupied by British Airways) and endure a 6-hour wait to fly to Oslo, to arrive zombified, after a 2-hour flight, at around 4 pm Oslo time. Total time from leaving Australia to arriving in Oslo – about 36 hours. YAAAAWWWWNNNN!
At the Oslo end, my luggage did not turn up on the baggage carousel, so I had to put in a written claim. The Norwegians are very efficient, and I had every confidence the suitcase would turn up. At last I walked out to be greeted by Andrew’s aunt Rosemary and her partner Kari, who took me by very modern and swish train (50 minutes) to their local railway station, then by car to their townhouse in Vollen. That evening was spent settling in and chatting, as I had never met them before, having only talked to Rosemary briefly on the phone at Christmas times. She is very happy with her life (originally from Ireland, she has been with Kari 20 years and loves Norway), is mad keen on bridge (plays locally at the Community Centre and on the Internet), paints, and also fishes locally in the Oslo fjord at a spot a few minutes’ drive from her place.
Their townhouse actually overlooks the Oslo fjord – there’s a good view from the upstairs balcony to watch the catamarans and the ferry to Denmark. I was pinching myself constantly to remind myself that I was really on continental Europe, my first time there. Jet-lag added to the dream-like state. Fjords! Ferry to Denmark! Drive to Sweden! In Australia, we don’t have the luxury of experiencing different countries and cultures so close, so can be a bit parochial. Indonesia is a bit too far for casual visits. (What about New Zealand?, my Kiwi friends cry!)
Ro and Kari drive to Sweden (about 3 hours) when they feel like saving some money on food and vitamin supplements. Everything is very expensive in Norway. Kari gave me some melatonin pills to help with the jet-lag, but I was still feeling exhausted from broken sleep. The jet-lag was cut short, certainly, compared with when I got back to Australia.
The lack of darkness throughout the night (even though the sun goes below the horizon) was very disorienting. At 11 p.m. we were sitting on the balcony drinking Borg beer (a local brew) and eating strawberries and cream in fairly bright sunlight. Waking at 2 am, the sky was still light, though more a twilight. Further north, the Arctic circle has the midnight sun. I want to see that one day, and also the aurora borealis (northern lights).
The houses were intriguing with their very steep roofs – so that the winter snow falls off. There are furnaces in every basement – or people would die. In Australia generally we have no need for such climate control, although air-conditioning for summer is becoming more common at home. The gardens have to be replanted every year as they die every winter. The Norwegian pines do well enough, though. The flowers are the familiar ones in our urban gardens in Australia. Norway has a ‘green winter’ (summer) and a ‘white winter’. Many Norwegians go to the Canary Islands, where the weather is kinder, for the winter months.
I was surprised that, despite being high summer and plenty of trees and gardens, I saw only one bird. Perhaps there isn’t much wildlife in the suburbs there, unlike in Australia.
On my first full day, Ro drove me around the local suburb, to her community centre where she plays bridge. Because the weather was unusually warm and sunny (30 Celsius – I had obviously brought the weather with me from Australia) for several days, the locals were ecstatic and many were out picking strawberries at farms to eat as a snack, as well as sunning themselves (very pinkly) in their bikinis and board shorts on the beaches of the fjord. Big, delicious juicy strawberries! Kari kindly prepared me some traditional Norwegian meals and desserts – yummy!
While we were away, my luggage was delivered in a taxi. I knew it would turn up eventually, so wasn’t worried.
Rosemary took me to see her fishing spot on the fjord, only 10 minutes’ drive from her house. She has a mighty collection of fishing flies that she made herself, and she used to give courses in tying them. It is quite a skill.
Norwegians drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road compared to Australia. This took some getting used to as a passenger, but I decided to just go with the flow and not worry about it. I stopped flinching after a while.
Oslo is a very clean and ordered city, and I loved the mixture of old and new. The stone carving on older buildings was, well, very European.
This was a big day out. Kari took me by train to the city, first to see the relatively new Opera House – a very modern glass and concrete structure overlooking a bay. The trains are astoundingly modern, clean, fast and efficient – moreover, frequent and on time! I guess it says something about our own system that I should find this unusual.
I wanted to buy some Hardanger fiddle CDs, so we went in a music shop. The Hardanger fiddle is a traditional Norwegian instrument, and I like the strange rhythmic structures that some Norwegian tunes have. They’re somewhat akin to Irish fiddle tunes, yet somehow – not. Luckily Kari knew exactly what to look for, although the shop assistants didn’t. One of them said in English ‘Are you an Aussie?’. She wanted to visit Melbourne and Sydney, but for her it’s a long way and expensive.
I also picked up a musical rendition of the Kalevala, the 19th century Finnish epic poem. Again, interesting rhythms in music and in Finnish, which is a peculiar language. A Finnish friend in Sydney refuses to speak it as she thinks it is ‘stupid’ – she has several other European languages at her disposal, as most Europeans do (oh, how impoverished we Australians are), so feels no obligation to her own. I found that if I said ‘Hello’ or something in English before anyone had a chance to talk to me, they immediately switched to English. If I didn’t get in in time, it was Swedish or Norwegian, and I had to admit my ignorance.
At the National Art Museum, we saw, among other things, Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and ‘Madonna’ – not the stolen versions, but one of the four originals. They are a lot smaller than I had imagined. A whole room of his paintings revealed perhaps a disturbed character – his people look surreal and slightly sinister somehow. He certainly spent time in an asylum. (‘Munch’ rhymes with ‘plonk’ in case anyone is wondering.) The museum has many other paintings, both modern and old – it was great to see the ‘real thing’, rather than just looking at them in art books. The size of the paintings (some very large) and the textures of the paints really make a difference to the ‘viewing experience’ – and of course the colours are usually different in books as this is hard to control.
I was highly embarrassed when Kari showed me the actual theatre used by playwright Henry Gibson (I immediately thought of the American comedian of yore) – I admitted I wasn’t familiar with him, then realised she meant Henrik Ibsen! Gaah – ignorant peasant that I am!
I just love the Moomintroll kids’ stories, so we went to a toy store, where I bought some Moomintroll merchandise for myself, for Andrew and for Alison’s (a work colleague) son. (Alison was very pleased with the small set of four characters and the illustrated pencil case.) I’d hoped for more choice, but some things (posters) would have been difficult to get home safely. Apparently there is a huge Moomintroll theme park in Finland, where the artist and writer Tove Jansson lived and worked. Must go there!
Then on to lunch on the picturesque waterfront – blue mussels, apparently a local speciality, in a white wine and cream soup – most delicious. Non-alcoholic beer for afters. Yummo.
Next on the menu was a bus to the Folk Museum – I had to choose between this and the sculpture park, and alas no time for the Viking Museum. Next time!
The Folk Museum is an outdoors exhibit of about 150 old-style buildings, both residential and storage, from different regions of Norway. I was blown away by the medieval stave church, which is just wonderful. I had never heard of these. There are only 28 left, and all are being conserved. We weren’t allowed to take photos of the inside for conservation reasons.
The buildings are wood with grass growing on the roof, for insulation. I’m told old German roofs have this, too. It seems sensible, given the climate.
Then back to the main railway station and home to Vollen. Kari was 70 but could easily out-walk me, especially in my jet-lagged state. She walks in the forest every Sunday with a friend. Because Rosemary has only one leg, she could not take me on any walking tours.
And suddenly it’s time to go back to England for the next stage of my trip. Awoke to clouds, rain and cold – ‘normal’ Norwegian summer weather, apparently – and off to the airport all too soon. I’d love to have stayed longer, but I have a firm return invitation. I hope to do the cruise up the coast (cue Peer Gynt Suite) and perhaps back by train through the mountains. Here’s a shot taken by Ro when she and Kari did the coastal cruise.
Local food, architecture, history and archaeology were on my wish-list, and Ro and Kari managed to tick all the boxes for me. Many thanks to them – I’ll be back!