Monday, September 19, 2011

Norway:There Are Places You Leave and Places That Never Leave You

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…silence the pianos and with muffled drum…. let the mourners come.” These poignant and heartrending words from W.H. Auden’s poem Funeral Blues seemed to be exactly what was happening on Saturday, July 23, the morning after the unspeakable tragedy that had just occurred in Oslo, Norway. At home, the day before, we’d listened to a report of the bombing of Oslo’s government buildings and then were quickly off to the airport and our flight. We were oblivious to the enormity of this outrageous attack and the massacre of dozens of innocent young people who were attending a Workers’ Youth League summer camp on the serene island of Utoya

After checking into our Oslo hotel, we hit the streets in search of lunch and on our walk through the city center around Karl Johans gate, we were stunned to see the stores shuttered and a pervasive quiet all about. It was only when we sat down at a sidewalk cafĂ© and began chatting with some diners at a nearby table that we learned the full scope of this unspeakable occurrence - more horrific than at any time since the Nazi occupation here some 70 years ago. To be sure, this day the clocks were stopped, pianos were silenced, mourners walked the streets, and it almost seemed that the sad sound of muffled drums permeated all. As we’ve learned since then, the perpetrator, Anders Behring Breivik, was, to the shock of everyone, a Norwegian and a right-wing radical.

Flags flew at half-staff, and despite the drizzling rain, crowds formed along the intersections leading to the bombed-out square. Already mounds of flowers stacked the sidewalks, memorials with candles flickering and tiny flags fluttering in the wind. The next day I attended a service at the famed Oslo Cathedral, built in 1697, the city’s main church. It was attended by the entire royal family of Norway and standing in the long queue waiting to enter the cathedral, I had a chance to chat with Sofie, a pretty teen clutching a bouquet of pink and yellow roses. Both she and a woman named Maia, a tiny baby in her arms, echoed the same word over and over: “Shock.” When I brought up the fact that the perpetrator was a countryman, Maia smiled sadly and said “No, he is not one of us.”

With its 1,000-year-old history, Oslo is the oldest of the Nordic capitals. The city is surrounded by islands and forested hills – and from its Viking days until today, Norwegians have considered this place a safe haven for trade, industry, cultural enrichment and as a comfortable way of life. It is the city of Munch, Vigeland and Ibsen, and, notwithstanding the recent utterly uncharacteristic events, a safe haven it remains.

Very, Very Cool
From the somber heaviness which enveloped us, the next day we had a light, white, airy and beautiful experience: we visited the Oslo Opera House which opened just four years ago. It is Norway’s largest music and performing arts institution with three stages featuring opera, ballet and concerts. Made of white granite and glass, it is the largest cultural building constructed in Norway since the 1300s and it looks like nothing so much as a frosty, giant iceberg soaring out of the Oslofjord that inspired its Snohetta architects. Because it is so utterly unique and innovative and just happens to be the only opera house in the world where one can walk on the roof (a popular tourist attraction), when you’re in or on or even near this building, you cannot help but smile.

Sculptures Everywhere, Alive As They Can Be
Before leaving this city, we visited Vigeland Park, that amazing site of 200 magnificent sculptures, each so perfect that it’s hard to believe they’re not human. Gustav Vigeland’s gift to the city, it is the largest sculpture park in the world made by a single artist, and one of Norway’s most popular tourist sites. I felt a bit giddy and euphoric as I tripped the light fantastic through columns of sculpted men, women and children, each with their own distinct personality. Leaving the park, it struck me that this experience and the happy mood it created was a fine and good way to depart Oslo.

The Little Engine that Could
We traveled to Myrdal where we boarded the Flam Railway, one of the world’s steepest railroad lines. It is a short 12 ½ mile ride to the town of Flam but during that time, we traveled through no less than 20 tunnels and panoramic views of rushing rivers, rustic farms, towering mountains, and - the majestic Kjosfossen Waterfall - 309 feet of gorgeous plunging water. The conductor stopped the train so we could photograph and told us that wood nymphs, it’s said, gather here and dance to Norwegian folk tunes. I clambered out quickly to see if I could spy one. Roaring and roiling, the falls spewed tiny droplets of foam and water over us and as I looked to the very top, I’m convinced I saw several tiny, cute wood nymphs frolicking above. Later, recounting this sighting, a few of my fellow passengers said they thought it just might have been the water spray, not nymphs. Ok. Nonetheless, I’m sticking to my story.

Here Comes The Sun!

After an hour, we arrived in the quaint village of Flam, situated in the innermost part of the Aulandsfjord and surrounded by steep mountains, many waterfalls and deep valleys. This spot is a paradise for anyone looking to experience spellbinding natural beauty in an intense way. We took a ferry through the Naeroyfjord, one of the narrowest fjords in Norway and a UNESCO World Heritage site. After several days stumbling around in low clouds and fog, as we sailed through the narrowest passage, the sun suddenly broke through, its appearance causing a mild sensation and all of us passengers erupting in spirited applause. Sheer granite walls towering on each side, the sea a crystalline blue, mighty waterfalls thundering around us – and sun! This was a very dramatic ferry ride to be sure. Flam is peaceful, albeit with several huge ships docked in its harbor. That evening we enjoyed just sitting on a bench in the town square with an ice cream watching the world stroll by.

Waterfall Country
We sailed the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest and deepest fjord to Bergen, the city known as the Gateway to the Fjords, also inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This region is called Waterfall Country and is considered one of the most beautiful travel destinations in the world. On our six hour sail along the coast we saw many villages with small red houses, and on the hillsides, grazing goats and seals sunbathing on the rocks. The city of Bergen was founded in 1070 AD and was Norway’s first capital in the 13th century; today it is the largest city after Oslo. It is a major university town and was once an important trading and seafaring port. This town is known as one of the rainiest places on earth, yet the sun had followed us and stayed throughout the rest of our Norway visit.

There’s lots to do in Bergen: we took a funicular from city’s center to the top of Mount Floyen. In seven minutes we were viewing a panorama of the city, the surrounding mountains and fjords. Later, we jumped on a hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus called “City Sightseeing Bergen,” took a seat on top, kicked back and watched this colorful city pass before our eyes. Before leaving for home we found time to take the Bergen Express, a cute touring train, for some astonishing views and good snapshots.

Our last evening in Bergen. It’s 7:30 and the sun is shining as if it were midday. It is one week today since Norway’s tragedy. We decide to walk over to the city square where the largest memorial, at an icon called The Blue Stone, lies covered with tens of thousands of elaborate bouquets, simple sunflowers, votives and candles twinkling amid little handwritten notes of sadness. We hear in the distance the roar of motorcycles. The noise goes on – and on and on for perhaps twenty minutes. Is Bergen one of the cities chosen for biker gatherings? Then, parting the crowd and coming to encircle the memorial, nearly 300 members of biker clubs, from the Hell’s Angels and the Outlaws to the Banditos. A leader of the group asked for a minute of silence. Men and women bikers stood solemnly, lost in thought, bending to add their flowers and candles. Then, turning as a group, they walked slowly back to their bikes and rode away.

Now, whenever I think of Norway I think of a quote by Krzyszof Kieslowski, the Polish film director and screen writer: “For me, optimism is two lovers walking into the sunset, arm in arm. Or maybe into the sunrise – whatever appeals to you.” The people of Norway, descendents of Vikings, are brave and strong of character. And optimistic.

If You Go:

For Further Information:

American Airlines
Daily one-stop flights to Oslo, Norway from JFK

Good News: In July, American Airlines announced its decision to replace American’s narrowbody fleet over 5 years. The new aircraft will allow American to reduce its operating and fuel costs and
deliver state-of-the-art amenities to its customers.