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From Norway (Oslo, Myrdal, Flåm, Gudvangen, Bergen, Stavanger)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Oslo, Myrdal, Flåm, and Gudvangen

Dear Friends,

I arrived in Oslo via Copenhagen by early afternoon, meeting my parents and brother at the airport before taking the train to the city center. We had arranged a night in Oslo to serve as a launching point for an early train the following morning. The stark, minimalist hotel across from the station served its purpose well and its austerity reflected the overall mood. Oslo was virtually dead this Sunday afternoon with an intermittent drizzle disrupting our search for the least inedible food around. We settled on a shawarma stand.

The next morning, we boarded a train for Myrdal, due west of Oslo and right into the core of the spring onion's bulb. Like many other tourists alighting at Myrdal, we had tickets to transfer to another train for the short journey to the hospitality village of Vatnahalsen. With the connecting train some forty minutes away and the station house packed with other tourists and their cargo bulked up by Nordic-weather attire, we decided to take our chances by foot. We descended from the platform to a rocky walkway, holding our suitcases overhead as we trudged through the coarse gravel, constantly looking down to plan our footwork.

Once we checked into the bed and breakfast, we set out along a path through the Flåm Valley along the narrow Flåmselvi river. The path led us through an idyllic verdant valley framed by rolling hills, blue skies, and rainbows. Along the way, we sampled some cheese at a popular goat farm. That night, we enjoyed a rare good meal at the hotel before turning in.

The next morning, we tempted fate by going on a longer-than-expected walk before our scheduled train. Our itinerary on this day was comprised of a train, boat, and bus, part of a well traveled Norway-in-a-Nutshell package. Nevertheless, with all the different modes of transport involved, I could not shake the romantic feeling of somehow being part of a heroic Bourne-like escape.

Despite losing our way during our morning hike, we arrived at the train station just in time. The Flåm Railway train was deliberately tacky, but it offered the aerial perspective of the same valley that we had traversed partway by foot the day before. We arrived in the colorful port of Flåm and enjoyed a mediocre lunch at a local brewery. From there, we rode a ferry through Aurlandsfjorden, a branch of the larger Sognefjorden. Our boat docked at the town of Gudvangen, where we had once spent a few nights as a family some sixteen years earlier. This time, we had barely touched land when we boarded a bus for Bergen on Norway's west coast.


from Bergen

Dear Friends,

Bergen is a beautiful city, as vibrant and joyful as Oslo is grave. A sharp inlet divides the harbor and forms two rows of colorful Nordic facades. The restaurants' outdoor patios foster a convivial atmosphere, belying, of course, the inevitably awful food that is prepared within. We strolled through the town that evening, letting the hours slip away unnoticed under the interminable summer sun.

The next morning, we intended to set out for a casual hike, riding the funicular up the side of the mountain to Fløyen, one of the seven peaks that surround Bergen. Once atop the mountain, we decided to follow signs to another peak, Ulriken, for a hike along the plateau. Miscalibrated by countless hike-time estimates in less athletic geographies, we took the task before us for granted. Little did we know that the Norwegians (including their children) were no strangers to mountaineering. The ten-or-so kilometers were off to an easy, paved start, but this soon gave way to treacherous terrain and muddy waters. At times, the path was uncertain and the telecom spire at Ulriken grew impossibly far. Ill-equipped but in too deep, we had no choice but to carry on. In constant disbelief over the apparent distance of the spire, we inquired of every passerby whether indeed that yon spike was Ulriken, hoping that eventually someone would admit the hoax and enjoy a brief chuckle before pointing us down toward the exit just beyond the bushes. No such thing happened. Time and again our fellow hikers confirmed the terrifying truth as we marched on, surviving on the dwindling fumes of breakfast and water from the streams. All the while my leather shoes sustained permanent trauma and the bald crater in the back of my head broiled in Mother Nature's oven.

We probably completed the task in just over the estimated five or six hours that had been promised from the start. By the end, we were exhausted. We rode the funicular down the mountain, which placed us somewhere in the outskirts of town. The information office and the shuttle bus were closed for the day, however, and were it not for a rare taxi completing a journey nearby, we would have struggled to find our way back into town. That night, we celebrated our feat with a true Norwegian feast of expensive, bland, and white mush. My palate was generous, though, with the completion of the herculean task, so I shoveled down the mush with enthusiasm and collapsed into bed.


from Stavanger

Dear Friends,

The next morning, we arrived in the coastal town of Stavanger by plane, completing what must have been the shortest scheduled commercial flight of my life at a mere thirty-five minutes. I had found us a cozy apartment near the water in the center of town for our three-night stay.

We changed pace a bit in this final stretch. Once we discovered the fishmonger in a free-standing glass hut by the port, we started to cook our own meals, liberating us from the agony of eating out in Norway. We cooked generous portions of fresh salmon and halibut on the induction stove of the IKEA range in our apartment. The design was perhaps too minimalist and sleek at times as we struggled to find the right knobs to control the heat. When in doubt, and it was often, we would reset the fuse in the laundry room and reinitialize the stove, a hard boot of sorts. At some point, after we had set off the building's smoke alarm and caused our neighbors to evacuate but before we had found the false hardbound volume on the bookshelf that magically activated the stovetop vent, we took turns holding the vacuum cleaner tube over the frying pan and vigorously waving a blanket toward the open French doors of the balcony. All this was for the love of food and desperate culinary relief.

For all of the apartment's quirks, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay there, even though a light tap knocked the mounted television arm right out of the drywall. The fact was that we didn't need it. We were out on a cruise through Lysefjorden on the first day, and the next day we hiked along the same fjord from above to the iconic overlook at Pulpit Rock (Prekestolen). After the Ulriken affair, this Pulpit Rock hike seemed like child's play.

On Saturday, my brother departed Stavanger to begin his return journey home, so the three of us who remained spent the day spotting street art throughout town with the help of a Stavanger City phone app advertised in one of the coffee table magazines. The Stavanger scavenger hunt led us to an edgy part of town in both the literal and figurative sense. At the end of this rainbow was a pot of gold in the form of an excellent beer pub serving some worthy local craft brews. We sipped some piney ales on the outside deck, in broad daylight, as midnight approached. The trip ended on a high note, but the end was bittersweet as home beckoned just as we had hit our stride.


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