High Definition

12 May 2007

Flying low over Sandefjord, a hundred kilometers south of Oslo, I'm initially confused by shiny squares that are scattered over the landscape. As we descend further, I can see that they're houses. It appears that the Norweigans polish their rooftops.

Or maybe they don't have to. The entire landscape, from the splotchy coastline to the forests, is startlingly clear and bright. Even from thousands of feet in the air the level of detail is amazing. It's like the whole country is in High-Definition.

A visit to the national gallery shows that I'm not the only one to experience this. The majority of the works, largely landscapes, exhibit a stunning level of detail - down to the veins on the leaves. The ones that aren't upliftingly bright are chillingly dark. From across the room, one small painting looks only like two blue dots on a black background. Up close, you can see that they are the eyes of a wolf menacing a black-cloaked figure.

It's not hard to understand how the Scream was painted here.

The blue skies and warm weather on our first day bring out the sunbathers, including at Akershus fortress, which is open to the public (but patrolled by soldiers) and has spectacular views along with large grassy areas for lounging about. It's a considerable improvement on Hyde park, although it would be much harder to play frisbee in.

The days are long, and necessarily somewhat empty. Most places close at 5, but it won't be dark, and therefore reasonable to start drinking, until at least 9:30. On the second day we don't even get up until 11, because we slept in a windowless room and so have no idea of the time. It's only when our Couchsurfing host's poor roommates tentatively start cooking breakfast - they'd waited hours to avoid disturbing us - that we realise how late it is.

Speaking of drinking, it's not an easy thing to do in Norway. Alcohol shops close at 6pm sharp. Even when they're open, you can only buy beer. To get wine or spirits, you have to go to a special government-operated monopoly. Apparently they exist, but we never found one. Clubs are open late, but cost a fortune - upwards of 50 kroner a drink in some cases. In aussie dollars, that's a $15 beer, near enough. We got through nearly four hundred pounds on the whole trip, and I think we must've drunk most of it, because we sure as hell didn't spend it on accommodation or food, and the flights, including transfers, were this side of a hundred.

That's a thousand-dollar weekend, for those of you on sensible currencies. Previously that would have been unthinkable, unthinkable.. and here it happens by accident.

Enjoy your five dollar pints, guys.

It was worth the money. Used to swinging past Tesco's on my way somewhere at 10pm, I ended up boozeless on my way to a houseparty. Subsisting on scavenged vodka and a hip-flask of scotch brought along by a Dutch rock guitarist visiting to audition, I saw a very good-looking Swedish guy make out with at least three different women before passing out on the kitchen floor of a beautiful apartment full of beautiful people. We hopped the last metro to a club, had a few rounds, then hiked home and sat up until 4am with the hard-rocker and his wife, our host and her roommate, and some random guy who just wandered in (the front door won't lock) and serenaded us with a fairly tuneful rendition of Black Betty before we shoved him out the door.


There was no language barrier. As usual, I made a point of learning a few words, but it only made things difficult. You shouldn't authenticate in a language you can't speak - in a country where the locals aren't distinctive, if you say "hej" instead of "hello", they'll treat you like one. Absolutely, absolutely everyone speaks fluent English. In fact, when I asked one woman "unsheld, forstar du engelsk?" she gave me a fairly testy "Yes, of course." without a trace of accent.

She may have been testy because she thought we were trying to break into her house. The only security for the complex was a fearsome and certainly unclimbable front gate, which locked us out every single time we left and forced us to either tailgate another housemate or phone our long-suffering host to get back in. And then, of course, my phone stopped working. The region that gave the world Nokia doesn't have a lot of payphones.

In fact, Monday was a rather rough day. We hopped the bus to Sandefjord, not the nearby airport (Torp) so that we could see more of Norway than just Oslo. We saw quite a lot more, because the local push-button-to-stop busses in Norway are so classy and so expensive that it's easy to mistake them for always-stops-at-the-terminal coaches. At least, that's my excuse. We overshot and grabbed another local bus back.

Not that there's much in Sandefjord - it's a Summer town, and we hit it in Spring, in the rain. It was entertaining to watch a ferry the size of a cruise ship unload a ridiculous number of ridiculously sized trucks, starting from the smallest and finishing with a monstrous B-double that really didn't look like it belonged on a boat.

Apparently a better choice is to take the train over to Bergen and cruise around the fjords there. We did a two-hour cruise through the Oslofjord, which is indeed pretty but not the spectacular treats to be found on the other coasts. Holmenkollen is at least as exciting; it's a massive tower that complete lunatics use to launch themselves over a hundred metres through the air on skis. Standing at the top it's daunting, but from the bottom, you can see how steep it really is. It's a miracle that anyone survives.

I would like to come back in winter, though. Not for the jump; I think we'll start with some gentle cross-country or snowboarding. Apparently parts of the Oslofjord used to freeze and you could walk between islands.


Whereas France is full of paintings of naked babies, further north they prefer to sculpt them. And they sculpt a lot. We explored the Vigeland sculpture park while waiting for the fjord cruise. While the centre-column, made out of what looks like a pile of bodies, was distinctly unsettling for me, some of the others were memorable. There's one that appears to be a man being attacked by a horde of flying babies.


I spent the runup to the trip steeling myself for Norweigan cuisine - the stereotype is rotten fish - but we never actually ate any, apart from a kind of sweet cheese. In fact, we subsisted on pasta, pizza, and Thai. We were having something of a cultural relapse by that last one, and went to see Spiderman 3 at the multiplex. It was a much more pleasant experience than cinema here; to start with, the ads aren't anything like as annoying if you can't understand them, and your seat is reserved. A good chunk of the audience left after the final battle and before the kissy bit at the end. I guess they knew what they'd come for.


We have learned that the five pounds you have to pay for online checkin is worth it. Waiting in a long queue, the only travellers without luggage to check in, is miserable. Ryanair also uses the "boarding scrum" boarding technique, which is fast but not totally pleasant if you don't have the priority coupon that online checkin gives you. Still, they took off on time, landed on time, and didn't kill us, and that's really all I'm looking for in an airline. In fact, sitting in the airport lounge trying to get our heads together after a 3:30am start, we heard an announcement that the plane we'd just flown in on was reboarding for the flight back. It was out of the airport before we were. Respect.