Four days in Oslo

Well, I’m finally back in London after nine days of travel. I’m a little bit worse for wear, but I spent the most amazing vacation in Vienna, Prague, and Oslo.

You may be wondering how I ended up vacationing in Norway. To start, Norway fascinates me: the people, the history, the culture, the government, and the way of life. Norway is a peaceful Scandinavian nation of stunning physical beauty (and I could equally be referring to the landscape or the Norwegians – tall, blonde, and fit). They have universal health care, subsidized higher education, and a comprehensive social security system. I did not see the northern lights, or snow, or the extreme seasonal variations in daylight. And yet it is still magical to think of Norway as a land of midnight sun and winter darkness. Sadly, I didn’t spot any trolls or Father Christmas – I imagine I’d have to go farther into the northern forest for that. But although I’m fascinated by the country, the real reason that I chose Norway was the opportunity to visit my good friend Katja.

Katja is smart and adventurous and loves to travel; she has spent the last few years alternately traveling through Europe and Africa and studying in France and India. We met in 2010 at the Université Paul Cézanne in Aix-en-Provence, where we struggled together through ten hours of grammar class per week. By inviting me to stay with her this past weekend, she unwittingly agreed to be my full-time tour guide in Oslo, navigating the city, answering my non-stop questions, and directing us to great cafes, bars, and restaurants. I want to take a moment to thank Katja and her family for welcoming me into their home. After a long week of travel and youth hostels it was heavenly to sit down to a family dinner, curl up on a sofa, and generally feel taken care of. Katja was generous with her time, her family, her friends, her food, and her clothes – she shared so much with me and made my experience unforgettable. I hope that one day I can return the favor. Takk! Thank you so much!
I left Amy in Prague on Thursday morning. Amy had been my travel companion in Vienna and Prague, but we were separating and she was headed for Bruges. Arriving at the airport three hours in advance of my flight was definitely unnecessary, as I spent over two hours sitting at the gate before boarding. On the positive side, I did finish A Certain Justice by P. D. James, which I had bought at Heathrow. I couldn’t put it down. When I arrived, I took the train from the airport to Oslo Central Station where Katja was waiting for me – with chocolate! We were thrilled to see each other, and walked around the city center as we caught up. That evening, we had dinner with her family – salmon and vegetables over rice – before meeting her friend Kristin for drinks in a hip part of the city. Unfortunately for me, prices are high in Norway and the exchange rate was brutal. I chose a Norwegian beer, Aass, for 66 kroner ($12). 60-66 for a half liter of beer or a glass of wine is standard. We talked for a long time about the bombing and the youth camp attach this past summer, Norway’s intervention in Libya, and the problem of rape in Oslo - mitigated with silly girl talk, of course.

Friday morning began with a typically Norwegian breakfast – Kaviar. Before you get the idea that Norwegians are ridiculously wealthy lushes who eat caviar like cream cheese, let me just explain that Kaviar is a salty, salmon-colored fish paste, which is very healthy and very cheap and also extremely pungent. We spread it on thick brown bread. Breakfast also included a pear, an orange, and some brie. The weather outside was chilly and overcast, but dry. We left around noon for Vigeland Sculpture Park. The park is the life work of the sculptor Gustav Vigeland, and includes more than 200 statues depicting the stages of life and the range of human emotions. The scale of the project was incredible, and the nude statues in bronze and granite were moving and thought-provoking. I loved the maze in the ground around the main fountain, which, according to Katja, takes several dizzying hours to complete. The park is well used and well-loved by the residents of Oslo.
 The maze

Afterwards, we headed towards the posh residential area to the Viking Ship Museum. The Viking ships and tombs discovered around Oslo were very cool, and there were sleighs, tools, and textiles on display as well. It was fun to compare the truth about Vikings to my cartoonish image of them. It may be inaccurate, but I picture Viking men seated on the benches of a long boat rowing for days on end, while a hulky bearded Viking in a horned helmet oversees them, eager to punish any slackers. Wherever they disembark they wage war, pillaging and plundering coastal villages. At least according to any parody I've ever seen. If you're interested in the Vikings, and their legacy in Britain, check out BBC'S Blood of the Vikings series (start here). But be warned, you may be disappointed to learn that Viking helmets did not have horns!

We devoured an enormous portion of Thai food at the Rice Bowl for a late lunch/early dinner and then went home to shower and change for our night out. Katja, Nora, Vanda, Kirstie, Kajsa, and I chatted over several refreshing Moscow Mules before venturing out so that they could show me the trendy bar scene. I was really impressed by how well the girls spoke English, and they were gracious and convivial hosts. We got on really well and had a blast. 

At breakfast on Saturday I tried Norwegian goat cheese, which is a semi-hard cheese with a rich ochre color. I was also introduced to an ingenious Norwegian invention: a special cheese cutter. I bought one later that day as a souvenir.

Katja and I explored downtown Oslo at a relaxed pace. It was beautiful outside, and the Opera House was a popular place to be that afternoon. The architectural design of the Opera is meant to invite everyone to come, not just those who can afford to attend the Opera. You can walk up wide paths to the top of the building, where a fantastic view of the Oslofjord awaits.

 The roof of the Opera


We sat up there for a while admiring the view before declaring the necessity of caffeine and leaving in search of coffee. Katja lead us to Café Jaegar, where we ordered two lattes and one cookie, and sat on a couple of porch swings on the patio with comfortable cushions and blankets. It was a great place to take a brief rest before heading to the old harbor.

Katja enjoying her swing and her coffee

As I mentioned earlier, I bought a couple of souvenirs in Oslo: a cheese cutter, some ugly troll magnets, and a stuffed moose. Oh, and chocolate...


We ate sushi for dinner that night before turning up at Katja’s friend’s apartment for a “pre-party.” Having a few beers or glasses of wine with friends before leaving for the bar or club is common, even imperative, with the cost of alcohol in Norway being so high due to heavy taxes. I laughed the entire time we were there – here are some snapshots of the people I met, though I couldn’t possibly do them justice. There was Maria, our host, beautiful and riotously funny if very politically incorrect; Vidar, her unlikely but surprisingly well-matched boyfriend, nerdy and an advocate for Labour politics; Marius, an art student, who entertained us all by sticking Maria's novelty Star Wars chopsticks through his gauges; Christian, soft spoken and intelligent, interested in linguistics and chemistry; Kajsa, outspoken and animated, her personality fills a room. We talked about: making mistakes in other languages (and in the process teaching me everything NOT to say in Norweigan and Swedish, which actually wasn't too helpful), recounting embarrassing stories and fabricating alternate endings (ahem, Katja’s cameo in a Bollywood film), politics, stereotypes of Americans, and Norwegian culture. I learned a lot and laughed a lot, and after several hours we went to a nearby club called Blå.

The next morning, we caught a subway train to the entrance of the forest north of Oslo for a hike. The forest was a beautiful landscape of evergreen trees, bright yellow-green moss, and streams of clear dark teal water. We took a less trafficked trail, breathing in the cold damp fog as we ascended 700 meters to the Ullevålseter Lodge. It took just over an hour. Ullevålseter is a summer farm where hikers, cyclists, and skiers can rest and eat lunch. There were dogs and children everywhere, which seemed to illustrate two things to me: first, that rigorous physical exercise in nature is part of the Norwegian lifestyle; and second, that ir precisely the reason why the welfare system can work – the active lifestyle that is part of the culture means that the government can rely on a physically fit nation. Health care can be provided to all because in general the people of Norway are exceptionally fit. On the way down, we passed several lakes with surfaces as smooth and still as black glass. It was a wonderful end to the trip. 

Curry Night & Flea Market, east London

At the risk of sounding like my professor (no offense, Anthony!), the cultural significance of a curry night in England cannot be over exaggerated. In the last two months, I have noticed that Indian cuisine is at least as prevalent in London as British cuisine. I first experienced curry on the plane from America - I was served chicken curry on a British Airways flight, and I wasn't quite prepared for it. To be honest, I had never been properly introduced to Indian food.

When CAPA offered a free "curry night" in east London, I was curious. Not one to turn down a free meal, I signed up tout de suite. Fifty or so students turned up at SHERAZ Bangla Lounge on Brick LaneBefore the meal began our professor, Dr. Gristwood, gave us an introduction to the food, the restaurant, and the area. 

I would have expected Britain's national dish to be a hearty meal of roast beef and yorkshire puddings, or maybe some salty fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. But no, according to former foreign secretary Robin Cooke (and popular opinion) chicken tikka masala is "Britain's true national dish."

The restaurant is located on Brick Lane, in London's East End. The next segment of the introduction took an unexpected (and unappetizing) turn toward murder. Sheraz Bangla is supposedly located on the site of the pub where serial killer Jack the Ripper's first victim downed her last pint in 1888! Below is an illustration of the discovery of Mary Ann Nichols' body. Mary Ann was the first of his 'canonical five victims.'
East London has long been an area associated with poverty, immigrants, and crime. Various immigrant communities have settled there over the last two hundred years, including Hugenots, Jews, Bangladeshis, and recently, Somalis. But the East End's reputation is recovering, and its residents are no longer strictly immigrants. Walking around the area I saw plenty of hipsters on Brick Lane and fashionable young professionals closer to Spitalfields Market. 

My meal was excellent: chicken with Saag sauce (spinach in medium spices), a side of Bombay Aloo potatoes, and naan. I also tried some of Kristina's chicken in Korma sauce (a yellow sauce with a sweet coconut flavor). 

Afterwards, Kris and I decided to do some shopping. My friend Aalia had recommended that we come down the street to the American Apparel London Flea Market once we had finished eating. We had absolutely no clue what to expect. At around 8:00pm, we arrived at the Old Truman Brewery at #81, as per Aalia's directions. There was a long queue out front, but we decided to wait and see if it would move quickly. It did, and about five minutes later we were allowed to enter the warehouse...

Inside, there were racks and racks and racks of discounted clothing. We searched through endless rows of dresses and leggings and tank tops. In the end, I bought five things. Usually I try to save rather than spend, but it's against my beliefs to turn down quality clothes at 75% off. I walked away with two thick acrylic scarves, a lace and raglan shirt, a bodysuit, and pink tights for just £30 ($46). Not bad for thirty quid!

In other news, my beautiful cousins sent me a Halloween card and it made my day! My aunt is Japanese, and the girls are learning to read, write and speak Japanese alongside English. On the inside of the card, both sides are decorated with drawings, Japanese characters, and a few short and sweet sentences in English. Thank you, Maya and Julia! I'm sending my love to you stateside!

** I know that I haven't written much in the past three weeks. My mom and stepfather, Jamie, were here to visit from the 6th through the 17th, and I couldn't find the time in between class, my internship, and pretending to be a tour guide. However, I promise updates on their visit soon. Hopefully there will be plenty of photos of Windsor Castle, Devon and Cornwall, and the Oyster Festival in Falmouth!

Also, I will be traveling through Prague, Vienna, and Oslo in the coming week. Although I have traveled extensively for my twenty-one years, I'm a bit nervous. I've been to most countries in western Europe, the Caribbean, and even to South America, but this will be my first time traveling to eastern Europe and Scandinavia. It's time to rally my sense of adventure (and my roommate Amy) and prepare for an amazing trip! The night before a trip is like Christmas Eve to me, as if I bought myself a fabulous gift back in September and had to wait to open it! OH, WAIT - I DID! A trip to Austria, Norway, and the Czech Republic :) Wish me Bon Voyage! 

Borough Market and a Football Match

Before coming to England, I made this sort-of bucket list. It began last spring and continued to grow through the summer. I added to it every time I learned something in a guide book, or read something in a magazine, or saw something in a movie, or was given a recommendation. By August, it was full of events and experiences I felt I couldn't miss out on in London. 

I'm surprised, looking back over the last four weeks, at how much I've crossed off that list that once seemed so extensive. In fact, the last two bulleted points on the list below were crossed off this weekend. 
  • See Shakespeare performed at the Globe
  • Attend a proper afternoon tea
  • Tour Buckingham Palace
  • London Fashion Weekend
  • Explore the markets and clubs
  • See a show in the West End
  • Attend an English football match
On Friday night, Kristina and I saw The 39 Steps at the Criterion Theater in Piccadilly Circus. It was wonderful. I was laughing the entire time. I think imdb sums up the plot concisely and accurately: 
"A man in London tries to help a counterespionage agent. But when the agent is killed and he stands accused, he must go on the run to both save himself and also stop a spy ring trying to steal top secret information." 
The top secret information is the nature of the mysterious "39 steps," revealed at the very end. What makes the play so fantastically funny and playful is the fact that only 4 actors play all 139 roles! At times, they may only switch their hat and their accent to become a new character. The plot moves quickly along as a result and the play is only 100 minutes total. Kris and I were seated next to a polite Welsh couple who were enjoying a holiday weekend in London to celebrate their anniversary. They said that the film version directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935 is considered to be one of the greatest British films of all time. I may have to add "watch Hitchcock's 39 Steps" to my to-do list.

The next day, all of the CAPA students were excited to attend our first football match. CAPA had given us tickets to see Millwall v Burnley at the Den in South Bermondsey. It didn't take us long to sort out why the tickets were free, but I'll come to that later.

touristy photo op!

Jill, Amy, Kristina and I decided to grab a pint near Borough Market before the match because there is usually a pretty lively crowd there on Saturday mornings. Borough Market is one of the largest food markets in London, selling not just fresh produce, but also artisan baked goods, fish, game, cheese, tea, jams, olive oil, honey, chocolate, and more. It was bustling with tourists and Londoners on Saturday morning. It seems to be a fashionable place to buy food. I want to go back again soon and visit the Southwark Cathedral: a large white church near the center of the marketplace, which gives the market a European atmosphere and feel. 

sampling an Indian chutney

We drifted into the Old King's Head Pub across the street around 1 o'clock. I opted for a Kronenbourg 1664 and the other girls chose cider. We stood outside to drink our pints, enjoying the warm weather and discussing movies (Amy is a film major). It was probably a good thing that we only had time for one drink before navigating to the stadium in the 85 degree heat. On the overground train from nearby London Bridge station, it was only a 5 minute ride, plus a 10 minute walk from station to stadium. 

"The Den"

The Millwall stadium looked run down, and the fans were rowdy but disappointingly unimaginative with their jeers and swearing. I had expected better from football fans nicknamed "hooligans" who are known for chanting "No one likes us, we don't care!" At least I can say I attended a football match in England! I wish I could go to a real game - like Manchester, Chelsea, Liverpool or Arsenal - but tickets to games at the Premier League level are over £100. Perhaps the next time I'm in England... when the pound isn't 1.5 times as strong as the US dollar... :)