20 April 2011

My (Expensive) Norwegian Adventure

 The past few days have been...interesting. The weather has been wonderful here in London and spring (perhaps even summer) is truly in the air. As a result, I have been hit with a huge wave of homesickness. I am burnt out from school. I am tired of reading articles, writing papers, and studying. All of this hard work is paying off and I am well on course for merit, but I need a break. I really do. I spent most of this morning before my run taking photos off the wall and packing. Yes, I am aware that I have 27 days to go but I don't mind living out of a suitcase. It helps deal with the homesickness. It also alleviates the inevitable problem that I would have otherwise faced: how to find time to pack when studying for exams and chair-bound after the marathon.

Anyway, enough of that nonsense. Time for the Oslo recap!

Because I am a poor grad student, I flew one of Europe's leading budget airlines, RyanAir, to Oslo. This meant leaving my flat at 4AM on the 12th in order to catch a bus to take me to Liverpool Street where I caught another bus to Stansted Airport, roughly 1 hour outside of London. I had hoped to get a bit of sleep on this second bus ride, but was lucky enough to have a woman with a screaming baby sit next to me. It is never a good sign when the baby is screaming when it gets on to the bus. As if this were not enough, the baby apparently suffered a gastrointestinal meltdown ten minutes into the trip. Needless to say, sleep (and comfort) were not to be found and it was a relief when we arrived at Stansted.

Flying on RyanAir is always something of an experience, and this trip did not disappoint. Since it is a budget airline, most of its flights depart at odd times of the day. My flight was the exception, departing at the reasonable time of 8AM. Still, I waited in line at the baggage drop to get my passport checked (non-EU citizens have to go through an identity check) for an hour and a half after arrival since there were no less than 15 RyanAir flights departing within 45 minutes of mine. The highlight of the wait had to be watching a woman with seven (!) children in tow attempting to argue with the check-in desk over her need to have priority seating. I don't believe such decibels have been achieved by the human vocal cords before. (Seating on RyanAir is something of a free-for-all. If you pay extra, you get 'priority' seating, which essentially means that you board the plane first. But for everyone else, you simply have to hope that you join the queue early enough so as to get your pick of seats once on the plane.)

Yes, that is snow that you see in the background. In April.
The flight itself was uneventful and we landed at Oslo Rygge airport around 11:30. After easily passing through customs, I boarded the Rygge Ekspressen for the hours ride to Oslo proper. During the coach ride, I was shocked to see snow on the ground in some areas. Snow. In April. Granted, it was not everywhere and concentrated mostly in large mounds, but its overall disbursement was not so important as its mere existence. I couldn't help but think: 'if there is this much snow remaining in April, how much snow did they originally receive?' (Edit: Yes, I am aware that some of the areas of the US currently have snow, but you must understand that I live in London. I haven't seen snowfall in any significant amount since the blizzards of January/February 2010.)

The view from the coach windows showed that it was raining quite steadily outside, but it wasn't until that I actually emerged from the Oslo bus terminal into the city center. The wind and rain were ferocious and there were very few people to be seen braving the outdoors. My umbrella, which had survived the winds off the Thames for the better part of a year, proved a weak force against the Norwegian winds and surrendered after 5 minutes. It literally snapped in half, leaving me holding the end and watching helplessly as the actual covering blew off down the street. What strange and brutal land had I come to?

Norwegian pastries
My first stop was to a nearby cafe to grab lunch, thus providing me the first opportunity to interact with an actual Norwegian person and use Norwegian krones. Unfortunately, between traveling and studying during the weeks preceding my trip, I had been unable to find time to learn more than a few scant phrases in Norwegian. As I pitifully attempted to order a shrimp sandwich (the only non-meat item on the menu) and a Diet Coke, the server interrupted me in English to ask for my order. Well, I tried. Lesson 1 from Oslo: Most Norwegians speak English better than I can. Lesson 2? Oslo is EXPENSIVE! $1 is equal to 5 Krones. My basic meal of a shrimp sandwich (8 inch baguette with shrimp, some mayo, a cucumber, and a tomato) plus a Diet Coke cost 109 Krones. And this was a standard cafe, nothing fancy. Later meals (very similar in nature to this one) at food places equivalent to 7-11 (which are everywhere in Norway) or Sheetz were about the same in price. If I had actually gone to a cheap restaurant, the meal would have probably cost around 200 krones. I never thought that I would see the day when I would travel to a place more expensive than Dublin, but here it was. (Needless to say, my next trips to Oslo and Dublin will be contingent upon my winning the lottery/marrying a billionaire.)

Karl Johan's Gate - The main thoroughfare
Lesson 3 of Oslo? It is very hard to ascertain what is in food if you can't understand Norwegian. I would spend about ten minutes staring at the food displays trying to determine whether or not I saw meat in the sandwich that I was planning on ordering. Since almost all sandwiches in Norwegian cuisine contain meat, it was a hard time to be a vegetarian. That said, they did have some very tasty looking pastries. Waffles were huge there. No, I did not have one. Why? Because a) I am on a strict pre-marathon nutrition plan and b) (the more important factor here) I did not want to financially bankrupt myself by buying one.
Oslo Domkirke - taken on a better day

 After eating, I braved the weather to travel up the main thoroughfare, Karl Johan's Gate, to the Oslo Cathedral (Domkirke) to seek shelter and pray for some divine intervention in alleviating the financial poverty that I was about to plunge into by staying in Oslo for five days. (I did not want to eat nothing but apples for two days as I did in Dublin, so I was destined to spend some money.) According to the Cathedral's official website, the church was completed in 1697. It was rebuilt in the late 1850s and renovated in 2010. In 2001, it was the site of the royal wedding between Crown Prince Haakon and Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby. As far as cathedrals go (of which I have seen many), it's exterior was not all that impressive, but still boasted an ornate interior. And it provided an opportunity to get out of the rain for a brief spell. Unfortunately, there was little to no information about the cathedral's history provided in the church itself, so my stay was brief.

Genuine Viking helmet!
Next on my list of places to visit was the University of Oslo's Museum of History and Culture. In addition to an interesting exhibit about Norway's prehistoric and Viking past, it displayed information about the cultures of the Arctic. In Norway, the Sami people are the most well-known. They reside in the northernmost territories of the Nordic states and survive off fishing, sheep and reindeer-herding, and fur trapping. The museum also had an extensive exhibit on the history of the Native Americans, which was interesting simply because it provided a non-American viewpoint that I had never been exposed to before.

Day 1 in sum: wet and windy
After leaving the museum, I found my way to the tourist center in Aker Brygge near the harbor and then to the nearest 7-11 to buy a tram ticket so that I could check-in to my hostel. A single tram ticket was 27 krones (roughly equivalent to $5.50). *Sigh* I walked to the Oslo Central Station (railway station) in the center of the city and caught Tram 17 toward Grefsen Station. For a major city, Oslo has surprisingly few hostels and since there was no way that I could have possibly afforded to stay at even the cheapest of hotels, I made the decision to stay outside of the city center at the Youth Hostel Haraldsheim. Located about 4km outside of the city, it took about 20 minutes to reach by tram. The hostel itself was situated upon a huge hill, and so, after trekking through the rain and wind, I arrived at the reception looking similar to a drowned rat. I must have appeared a pretty miserable sight as the employee on duty immediately handed me a towel and asked if I was ok. After checking in and assuring him that I was, I all but collapsed in my room. I ended up staying in a four-person room. It was one of the larger hostel rooms that I have stayed in and very, very clean. Entry to individual rooms was by key-card, with a shower room (with individual stalls!) and a bathroom down the hall. Overall, I was quite pleased.

After recovering, I ventured out again to make my first visit to a Norwegian supermarket, REMA 1000, to buy the ingredients for dinner. After spending half an hour trying to navigate around the market and decipher ingredient lists, I finally settled on buying a bowl of frozen fiskesuppe (a traditional Norwegian fish and vegetable soup in a milk-based broth) that was not half bad and a bag of spelt rolls. I finished off the night by sitting in the television room with a group of 40-year old men (who lived in the hostel on an almost permanent basis) reading one of my IR textbooks (because I'm a good student), and getting distracted by watching the Norwegian version of X-Factor. Overall, a good (albeit wet and windy) first day.

Coming Soon (but no idea as to exactly when): Day 2: My trip to Bygdoy, the summer island of the Royals -- and Day 3: Lessons in Resistance at Akershus Fortress.

As a side note, for those readers caught up in the Royal Wedding fever: this is exactly how events are going to transpire:

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