My brief solo vacation back to Norway.
I spent a summer in Norway many years ago: exactly twenty years ago, which sounds like a lot but feels like just a few.
I studied Norwegian art history and language there. Lest you imagine that I know more than I actually do, the International Summer School at Oslo University is only a six-week long program. I have retained little of my art history lessons regarding the cultural significance of Johan Christian Dahl or the history and symbolism of the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. To be conversant, I would have to brush up for sure. But a little bit of the language has stuck- enough that I have actively sought opportunities recently to recapture what I once knew and expand my Norwegian linguistic skills; now I am finishing up my second semester of beginning Norwegian through Brigham Young University. Not conversant in the language yet, but also not losing it.
However, my previous experiences are not the only reasons I traveled to Norway in March. Some years I have taken a personal vacation- usually with one or more siblings/parents/children and usually to a place with a temple. This year I decided to go alone. I didn’t seek out a traveling companion because this was meant to be a retreat, a quick re-centering of the wheel, a partial internal restoration, a minor re-sharpening of the saw, a moment in the soul-spa, a short soak in the warm, healing water of self-discovery and self-recovery. It’s an investment that can provide benefits not just to myself, but to my family as well. My husband and four children need to be without me just as I need to be without them- briefly- so we can appreciate better that which we have together and so we can know our own strengths. My own “Gift From the Sea” time.
I won’t write the play-by-play of the trip because there isn’t one; these weren’t the travels of a tourist. I went to some cool places, saw some beautiful things, talked to some truly wonderful people, ate the most excellent prawns, took some pictures, memorized the rest in sound, color, smell, taste, thought, and emotion. But most of the action happened inside me, so a description of what I did wouldn’t tell you much. I will say that I walked a lot. I recently saw the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” in which the photographer claimed that “beautiful things don’t need to be seen” and that sometimes he doesn’t photograph something because he is enjoying the moment on a personal level. This was a moment like that for me: beautiful and internal. Still, I’ll try to describe some of what I gained.
Moss is said to grow on the north side of trees, but this only occurs if the conditions are right. Moss doesn’t grow on trees that are too dry. And in some places, the humidity is so high that moss grows on every side. In a forest, moss might only grow on the side of a tree that gets the least sunshine- maybe it is on the east side because there is another tree in the way and the north side is sunny but the east side is shady. Moss requires two things: moisture and shade. But it doesn’t require them all the time; I remember our stone patio in California which was quite covered in moss during the wet winter months and very dry and (seemingly) moss-free during the summer months. Moss is quietly adaptable. Patient. It likes the north and it waits for water. And Norway in March is wet.
To Norway, I brought a pair of very comfortable moss-green nubuck walking shoes. My first destination was to the grassy shore by the wind-whipped dark green water of the Oslo fjord. I brought my favorite 25 year old moss-green wool cardigan- a very useful warm layer. On day 3, I took a train to the town of Moss and met a friend, Stephanie, who took me to lunch and to a seaside farm where I photographed a moss-green barn door. I noticed that the oldest cobblestone street in Fredrikstad was covered in moss. On day 4, in the snowy woods, moss clung to the sides of rocks and hugged the edges of the ice-cold stream. I began to wonder, “What am I seeing in all this soft green?”
Norway is wonderful. It is unpretentious, subtle, detailed yet uncomplicated, reserved, natural, patient, stunning, serene, unapologetic, and comfortable. (All of which can also be said of moss.) It doesn’t cater. Norway allows you to find your own joys and thus they become more valuable to the visitor, ensuring that those who “discover” Norway will love it forever. There is a modest, modern renaissance happening there: new kinds of architecture, new ways of thinking about and presenting food, new roads and roadside art, a new look to the social milieu… subtle changes everywhere. But it isn’t all new and the trendy end of the spectrum simply gives more room for options.
For example, I know there are some of the finest restaurants in the world to be found in Oslo, like Maaemo, but still I had apples, lomper and cheese for several meals and called it local, cultural, simple, and delicious.
There is a wide range of accommodation options in the city. The Thief is a terrific new “lifestyle” hotel on the waterfront ($400), but I stayed at the Perminalen– a well-located hotel with sparse, shared, dorm-style bedrooms ($56 was my price through hipmunk.com). My roommates were a French woman on her way to lead a ski tour north of Lillehammer and a Russian girl who was there to support friends competing in a biathlon. International experiences abound. The Perminalen also has a filling, nordic-style breakfast buffet included, which is a budget-traveler’s secret to success. Pickled herring with mustard sauce, anyone? Anyone?
As for getting around, the city of Oslo has one of the best public transportation systems I’ve ever seen (I know, that doesn’t mean much coming from an American, but still). At the airport, I simply explained my needs to the Ruter service representative, and she led me to the most economical option. Done. One card, activated on the bus or train and I was good to go for the whole trip. I did purchase two other train tickets (for excursions outside zone 1) which was very easy and could have been done in English.
Four days (with a seven-hour jet lag at the time of my visit) isn’t much time. It isn’t enough time. There was much I wanted to do that was left undone, even within the Oslo city limits, not to mention the many cities I didn’t get to this time. But the time I had felt rich- not slow nor fast, but deep. Full. It was full of joy and I didn’t have to justify the way I spent my time to anyone; it was valuable because I got to choose its course according to my very own in-the-moment values. Sounds selfish, I know, but this is what a soul-spa is: that which feels good to your own soul. Living that way for too long gets to feel quite empty, meaningless, and lonely but a few days of it feels like a relief. I had sketched out plans but didn’t feel obligated to stick to them. The days were fluid (not just because I felt sleep-deprived) and I could be relatively spontaneous. I used my travel card well, taking trips up and down certain bus, tram, and train lines just for fun, discovering little shops, new foods, museums, vistas, and claiming small personal victories every time I declined to use English.
On my last evening there, I took line 1 up to Frognerseteren for a view of the city and a walk in the woods. There was still snow up there and the Biathlon World Cup was just getting out at Holmenkollen so the trains heading down the hill were packed full to the brim. But almost no one was going up at 4:30 in the afternoon. The light was a strong, horizontal warm light sliding through dark stripes of clouds. There was rain covering the east side of the city and the windows of the train, but it didn’t seem that wet outside in the western hills. At the top of the line, the train stopped and four disparate riders got out.
I walked. Not far, but deep enough. I walked until my hands got cold and my heart got warm. I walked until my green shoes were sodden and my soul revived. I walked until the moss woke up. Something in my soul is made of moss; it needs water, shade, forests, snow, and the north side of things. I have a Rock to which I cling and a family tree on which I belong. Part of that tree is Norwegian wood.
I will go back. Hopefully it won’t be 20 years from now, because that is simply too long. Even for moss.