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Tour through Norway

We are maybe two miles out of Alta when we decide to review the soiled mental list of reasons why we have chosen Norway, of all places, to spend our summer vacation in. There are exactly six:

  • fjords;
  • the midnight sun;
  • the lack of any responsibility to visit three-star Michelin restaurants, since there are no three-star Michelin restaurants;
  • the absence of hordes of foreign tourists;
  • the feeling of getting away from it all;
  • absolution of foreign-language guilt, since no one could fairly expect an American tourist to speak Norwegian.

I see now that only two of these reasons can be construed as positive. Three are downright negative; one is ambiguous. In short, we have a problem common to tourists everywhere: insufficient purpose. We had allowed ourselves to become intoxicated by the quixotic idea of a Norwegian vacation. I had forced upon Norway my own idea of a wonderland without pausing to consider what the country has been for several millennia: cold and wet.

"The only person who ever thought of Norway as a place to get away from it all was Wittgenstein," I had said. "Norway was Wittgenstein's idea of a holiday." Only two types of people had ever come to northern Norway: invading Germans and Minnesotans who had seen Roots once too often. We were going to do something really different! (And I was going to get the credit for it.) But as we reminisce about the lovely times we had imagining Norway back home on the sofa, I sense that my companion is losing interest in the discussion. "The car is stopping all by itself," she says.

It is true. hi class is behaving strangely. Suddenly it is as if the front end intends to keep on going 100 kilometers an hour, but the back end is unable to keep up. Desperately, the machine farts its way into an alcove off the highway on the top of a treacherous cliff. There it dies, instantly.

My first impulse, naturally, is to think of someone to blame; and, of course, the car-rental man pops handily to mind. But then I have a hunch; the hunch becomes a thought; the thought, investigated, becomes a fact. I have put regular gasoline into a diesel engine. But since I cannot accept responsibility for the full horror of the situation-- not only have I dragged my companion to this frozen hellhole, I have stranded her miles from nowhere-- I blame hi class. I get out and kick the door three times. My companion tries to calm me down.

"Michael," she says, sharply. "You are behaving very badly."

Whatever I say next causes her to grab one of the two giant lemonade-type drinks we have just bought at the gas station and hurl it over the cliff.

The other one she keeps for herself.

Day 3: Tromsø
The plane makes several stops in rapid succession. We stay on until, in the port city of Tromsø, we are told it will fly no farther. It is unlikely that anyone actually would choose to vacation in Tromsø, but once you are there you have reason to be pleased. We check into the Grand Nordic Hotel, which with its deep cushions and dark antiques resembles a fancy New York hotel circa 1930, and fall into a shallow, restless sleep. I awaken at 2:30 in the morning and take a jog through the bright gray streets. It is light outside, and yet everyone is asleep. It feels like a trick.

In the morning we take one look at the industrial side of town and return to finding the quickest way out. The Midnight Sun Marathon is tonight, and as a result there are, once again, no rental cars. We spend the rest of the morning at a flea market, where we buy snazzy wool garments. Indeed, everywhere we turn there is a low-priced thick white sweater decorated with Norwegian iconography-- reindeer, polar bears, fish. Thus warmed and cheered we pass the afternoon at the Northern Lights Planetarium. After a stroll through the gardens below we are led into a round theater to watch a film about the midnight sun. It exists!

Days 4‚6: Kragerø, Stavanger, Bergen
The next day we fly to Oslo, where we are very efficiently provided with a car. We head south in a desperate dive for sunshine. Although we see no sand beaches, the small towns squished down in the rocky coves are picturesque. They are, in fact, indistinguishable from the sort of places where you often stumble across charming little inns or amusing water sports. But we do not.

We are beginning at last to understand. Norway is so touristically innocent that, even concerning its actual novelties, the country remains perfectly unselfconscious. The advertisement for one Norwegian hotel chain, for instance, features a series of photographs and a text that virtually shout: This is a dull place. There's a picture of an extremely bored-looking businessman sitting in his hotel room . . . fishing. Through a hole in the floor. The corpses of six cod lie stretched out near the desk, and another is being hauled up through the neat hole between the desk and the bed. Many people, I think, would enjoy fishing for cod through a hole in their hotel room floor. Even if this isn't a typically Norwegian activity, there's nothing stopping the Norwegians from pretending it is, and yet they don't.

Two days later we arrive in Bergen. Happy fountains spurt water high in the air in the middle of public squares surrounded by pretty pastel-colored buildings. Handsome old Norwegians putter around, as if on parade. Lovely young Norwegians sit at café tables sipping cappuccinos and holding hands. The sun lights up their faces and the pink and lavender buildings behind them. Had we started our trip in Bergen, I think, things might have turned out differently.

But every trip, like every story, has its theme. And the theme of our trip is: The Bad Vacation. We have forgotten why we came here; we cease to desire novelty. We find the biggest, grandest, and thus least Norwegian-looking hotel, and check in. Although we are no longer mentally in Norway, physically we still must cross the fjords to get to the airport and the plane to Spain. The fjords are our last hope of finding something worth bragging about. The best way to see one is to hop a boat in Bergen and cruise to Balestrand or Kirkenes. But when the temperature is 40 degrees and the clouds are so low you can touch them, the best way to see a fjord is in a PBS documentary.

The highway weaves fetchingly through the western archipelago; a ferry takes us and our car from island to island. Before long we are actually crossing fjords. I wish I could tell you what they look like, but all we see is water lapping against the hull. Foiled again, we gaze off the back of the fifth and final ferry and are greeted by gray haze. Through it we can dimly see the sign hanging over the back of the boat: no motorin under the overfarten. I don't know what it means, but it captures my sentiments exactly.

Day 7: Exit
The scene at the airport crushes any remaining illusions about our vacation and the guidebook that says, "The Norwegians are a patient people." There is no assigned seating on the airplanes. The people who board first get the exit rows; those who board last get the middle seats between the fat people. At the gate Norwegians pile on top of other Norwegians until in the end they form not so much a line as a rugby scrum.

Norway is of course famous for its intrepid Viking explorers. But in my opinion their bravery has been overrated. The various Olafs and Thors who floated small boats around the world are not nearly so admirable as explorers who come from places that are pleasant to live in. It is far more intrepid to travel to Norway than to leave it, I think.

If only I'd known how.

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