August 10, 2005

More Scandinavian Berries

Norwegian raspberries

When we started our trip to Finland and Norway, all we knew about Scandinavian berries was that we wanted some cloudberry liqueur. We began to get an inkling of what else might be available as we walked around the wonderful open-air market in Helsinki. Past all of the crafts and tchotchkes, every day there were many big booths selling all manner of produce, and the tables were piled high with strawberries, raspberries, cloudberries, blackberries, and cherries. We'd come at the right time. We sampled some of the strawberries there, and they were quite lovely, if a bit small.

It wasn't until we reached the open-air market in Bergen, though, that we discovered just how good berries could get in Scandinavia. The basket of raspberries artfully displayed in Kathleen's hand was a revelation. These berries are huge. These are not the thumbnail-sized raspberries of home, these are the size of the whole first knuckle of my thumb, easily twice the heft of what we were used to. And they didn't just look good, they were sweet and flavorful, with just the right touch of tartness that we expect from good raspberries.

Later, on the first excursion from our Norwegian coastal cruise, we took a long bus tour out of Geiranger. Along the way, while waiting for a ferry, the daughters of a farmer were walking among us with big flats of raspberry baskets, and we indulged again, wolfing down all of the nice big beauties before we reached the far side of the fjord.

It turned out that the tour company had a deal with the farmers: each day, they called the farmers to let them know how many buses would be coming through, and when, to let the farmers arrange to be there waiting for us. I don't know what the tour company got out of it, other than the satisfaction of customers like us.

Pursuant to that plan, at a later stop on that tour, there were more daughters of farmers, this time selling baskets of strawberries. Now, the raspberries were enormous, and certainly tasty, but that was nothing as compared to these strawberries. They were of normal size, but truly unbelievable flavor. Oh my god, they were good. So good, that as we worked out way through the basket purchased by a British couple we'd befriended, I swear, every single time somebody started on a new berry, they moaned audibly. They'd forgotten, since the previous berry, just how mind-blowingly marvelous these strawberries were. I could have cried when the last berry was gone. (The daughters, having quickly sold out, were also gone by then.)

Let this be a lesson to you, should you find yourself traveling in midsummer in Norway (and probably Sweden and Finland, too): missing out on the berries is tantamount to missing out on juicy little missives from heaven.

(Oh man, now I really wish I had another basket of those strawberries! This must be how Lucifer felt after the Fall...)

August 05, 2005

Back Online, in Kirkenes, Norway

Kathleen and I spent the last week living in cabin 644 onboard the M/S Richard With (pronounced here as "RIKard VIT"), with the advertised lack of network connectivity. I'll be posting more on the cruise experience later, along with many photos.

We arrived at Kirkenes, the northern terminus of the coastal steamer route yesterday morning, just in time for our last organized excursion, a riverboat trip to the Russian border (see photos). It was a truly beautiful day to be on the water.

We then got a ride from the riverboat owner to our hotel to settle in for a day here. We're staying in a hotel in the old European tradition; for one thing, that means that there's no elevator up to our room on the third floor. But Mette, the innkeeper, was quick to point out, they did have a small luggage lift, so we wouldn't have to carry our heavy bags up the stairs. Unfortunately, our new primary bags are too long to fit in that lift lying down. At the urging of our hostess, we pushed Kathleen's bag in all the way to the back and then lifted up the near end, which allowed the bag to fit entirely within the bounding box of the lift compartment. To keep it there, we stuffed our smaller new bag under the near end, pulled the lift doors closed, and hit the button for the third floor.

Obviously, I wouldn't be telling this story if all had gone well from there, and indeed it did not. As the lift went up, we heard an odd kind of clunking noise, and when I went up to the third floor, I couldn't open the lift doors there. Nor could we open the doors on the first or second floor. The lift was apparently stuck somewhere in the middle.

Unlike the people-carrying elevators we're used to, this baggage lift didn't have separate interior and exterior doors; the baggage compartment is completely open to the inner surface of the lift shaft, struts, door mechanisms, irregular walls, and all. As the lift, well, lifted, the handle on the top of Kathleen's big bag caught on one of the horizonal shaft struts. The lift kept going up, though, pulling down the top of the bag like a lever, using the smaller bag as a fulcrum. This was a tight squeeze, of course, but the lift motor was up to the challenge. It finally became stuck with the big bag completely vertical, upside down, jammed against the shaft wall, its handle still holding onto the strut, halfway between the first and second floors. The gypsum wallboard above the first-floor lift door was cracked and bulging a bit. Oh dear.

I could go on (as you know), but suffice it to say that it took Mette the innkeeper, her husband Stein, an assistant, and I a couple of hours to climb into the shaft, chip away gypsum board, hand turn the lift pulley, and generally get bruised, sweaty, and tired before finally freeing the bag from the strut, using just my fingers around the lift edge to manipulate the 50-pound bag into a new position, and lower the lift, millimeter by millimeter back down to the first floor. Miraculously, the bag eventually emerged infused with gypsum powder but otherwise essentially intact and undamaged.

We all found this a real bonding experience, so much so that we ended up having drinks after dinner with Mette and Stein, and we're off soon to visit their house and see their collection of tavern puzzles (!).

Travel is broadening, eh?

July 28, 2005

Gone Cruising

I know I've been blogging pretty regularly for the past week or so, but that's about to stop for a week as we head off tomorrow on a six-day cruise up the Norwegian coast, all the way up above the Arctic Circle, to Kirkenes. According to the cruise company's website, there's no Internet connectivity on board the ship we'll be taking.

Comment approvals and blog additions will resume once I'm back online again.

Idyllic Ulvik

I wrote a couple of days ago that we were "holed up" in a hotel in Oslo, and the choice of words was pretty apt. The room was tiny, and simple in the extreme, though admittedly clean and secure. The hotel was a half block off of Karl Johansgate, the main pedestrian thoroughfare near the Oslo central train station, so you couldn't really fault it on location, but it was a real step down from the Grand Marina in Helsinki.

Last night, however, was different. After a two-bus trip from Flåm, we ended up at the Rica Brakanes Hotel in Ulvik, at the northern end of a finger of the deservedly well-known Hardanger Fjord.

Check out the photos. The fjord view from our hotel was just transportingly beautiful, carrying us away from all of the hustle and bustle it had taken us to get there. Oh my, what a pretty place, and we only get to spend one night there! What a crime!

Ulvik itself is small and comfortable, fun to wander around in, and completely surrounded by this transcendently beauty. In the winter, we're told, there's a lot of rain, sometimes turning to snow, and everything is very dark and depressing. But in the summer, it's a perfectly lovely place to while away some hours, or days, and leave the nasty real world behind.

NOK, NOK: Kroners are a Queer Currency

Finland uses the European Union's common currency, the "euro", and that's pretty easy for Americans to get used to. Right now, the exchange rate is about 1.2 dollars to the euro, so you can get along OK thinking of the prices as being like ones in the US, but more expensive. Norway isn't a member of the EU, so of course it's still using its own currency, the kroner. There are currently about 6.5 kroner to the dollar, and that's much trickier for us. I'm constantly trying to divide by six (conservatively, to round up the rate), and the arithmetic isn't helped by the fact that food prices are unexpectedly high here. A packaged chocolate muffin is 23 kroner (over $3.50), a slice of cake in the hotel lobby is 55 kroner (almost $8.50), and a chicken entree at a mid-range Oslo cafe is 190 kroner ($29.25)!

The really odd thing about the Norwegian kroner, however, is not the exchange rate itself, but what that implies about prices. With a single kroner worth about 15 cents, it makes sense that most products are priced as an integral number of kroner. Indeed, the smallest Norwegian coin is the copper half-kroner. Grocery stores, though, like more precision than that coin can afford, so they still price everything in units of a tenth of a kroner (e.g, 24.90, 8.30, etc.). So what happens when you get to the checkout stand and the total comes up as 75.70 kroner? How do you pay that last 0.20 kroner when the smallest coin is 0.50? Simple. The cash registers automatically round all totals to the nearest half-kroner. Sometimes you win a few tenths of a kroner, and sometimes you lose, but always the grocery pricers get their illusion of fine-grained control.

Scenic, and Not-So-Scenic, Routes

The Wikitravel article on Oslo describes the Oslo-to-Bergen rail trip as "the most beautiful train journey in the world". We didn't take it the whole way to Bergen, getting off instead in Myrdal, but what we saw was indeed pretty nice.

Initially, on leaving Oslo, we just had the more prosaic beauty of the Oslo suburbs, with lots of greenery on the hillsides surrounding the loosely packed houses. As we got further out, though, the scene became dominated by Norway's seemingly endless supply of trees, densely whipping past the train windows. Every once in a while, through a break in the trees, we'd see lakes. And such lakes! The worst of them was picturesque, and the best were breathtakingly beautiful. As we headed up into the hills and mountains, the highlights shifted. There were still many gorgeous lakes, but now there were also waterfalls. Lots of them. Sometimes small or far away, sometimes right next to the tracks. By this time of the summer, of course, the flow was much lower than it would have been in late spring, during the height of the snowmelt, but that didn't dampen our enjoyment.

As I said, we left that train in Myrdal, to transfer to the wonderful Flåm Railway, established in the early 20th century to provide a link from the Oslo-to-Bergen rail route down to one of the fingers of Sognefjord, and the village of Flåm. Over the course of one hour and 20 kilometers, this train drops from 865 meters above sea level down to just two, in Flåm. At one point, we entered a very unusual switchback, with the tracks leading us into a sharp U-turn entirely within the bulk of the mountain: you enter going one way, with the view on the right, and exit again a few minutes later going the other way, with the view now on the left. It's a pretty weird feeling.

There is a brief stop a bit later at Kjosfossen, easily the most exhilarating waterfall I've ever seen. The railway platform / observation deck there brings you right up to the falls, maybe 10-20 meters away, close enough that the spray from the water's impact on the rocks regularly washes over the viewers, giving you a real sense of its mighty presence.

Kathleen had visited Flåm before, some 25 years ago, and she was dismayed to see how touristy it had become over that time. Her memories were all of brightly painted cottages, each with its window box of geraniums. Some of the cottages are still there, but many have been replaced by newer houses, and the village is now a tourist hub, with fjord cruises, buses, trains, and gift shops dominating the scene. Some friends of ours had stayed in a waterfront cottage in Flåm a few years ago, and loved it, but their stories hadn't prepared us for what we saw.

The bus trip from Flåm to Voss isn't mentioned in Wikitravel, but the first part of it would surely rate pretty high in the ranks of least beautiful routes. We spent 18 of the first 20 minutes of that trip underground, in two different tunnels, each extremely long by American standards; I think one of them was something like 15 kilometers long! Ever the optimist, I tried to find something of interest in the tunnels (aside from their mind-numbing eternity), and I succeeded, noticing that Norwegian auto tunnels show the raw rock, exactly as it was blasted or picked or dug or whatever. Unlike American tunnels, with their geometrically regular wall sections and lighting, Norwegian tunnels display their violent origins, roughmade wounds through the stony flesh of a mountain.

July 26, 2005

Passing through Oslo

We flew from Helsinki to Oslo this evening and are holed up in a simple hotel a couple of blocks from the central train station here. Tomorrow morning, we have an 8:11am train reservation to start our two-day "pre-excursion" overland across Norway to Bergen. We'll be taking two trains, a ferry, and a couple of buses to pass through Flåm, Ulvik, and Hardanger Fjord on the way there. We'll then get a day of sightseeing in Berger before boarding a cruise ship for a six-day trip up the Norwegian coast, almost to the Russian border. Woo-hoo!

On the flight here from Helsinki, there was a packet of sugar in the napkin-and-fork bag with our airline snack. Written on the packet was the following:

     Imagine if it snowed sugar
     It would still look like snow,
     but a lot more people
     would be eating out


July 22, 2005

Travelling the Wiki Way

Shortly before we left for Helsinki, I rediscovered wikis. In particular, although I'd heard about Wikipedia pretty early on, I hadn't really paid much attention to it until something induced me to go see if anything had been written up there about the London bombings. I was amazed and impressed at the depth of the article there, even just a few days after the event itself.

A link from that article, I think, led me to discover WikiNews, a wiki-based news-coverage site. This is, in some ways, an even more ambitious effort than the Wikipedia, aiming to provide wide-ranging news coverage in as timely a fashion as any of the big commercial outfits. I found it particularly fascinating to page through the early revisions of the first London bombings article, and see preserved there the process of slow realization going on around the world at the time.

While bouncing around between those two wikis, I ended up typing the word "wiki" into the address bar of my browser a bunch, and as usual, IE kept offering me completions for that text based on the URLs of recently visited pages. At some point, I noticed that the top completion offered was for "", which I must have visited at some point via a Google search for Ashland wireless hotspots.

I didn't remember noticing when I did the search that I'd turned up a wiki-based online travel guide, but there it was, large as life. Now, in my newly wiki-wakened state, I found the idea intriguing. Wikitravel aims to produce high-quality online travel content, suitable for (and available for) republication in paper-based guides (in addition, of course, to use as-is online).

In preparation for our Helsinki trip, and almost constantly while we've been here, I've been making use of, and contributing updates to, the Wikitravel Helsinki article. Its restaurant recommendations, getting-around information, etc., has been invaluable, especially because we forgot to bring along the paper guide we originally bought for this purpose.

Like many of the articles in Wikitravel, most of the content already there was written by locals, not by actual travellers. This is evident from the some of the choices of content, and from the point of view of the authors. This is not a hit against Wikitravel, just an observation. Certainly, there's much to be gained by a traveller from a resident's local knowledge. Of course, the wonderful thing about a wiki is that it makes it so easy to augment what the locals have written with the traveller's on-the-ground experience, and that's what I've been doing.

I've enjoyed contributing to the Wikitravel Helsinki page, adding information about airport shuttles, more detailed restaurant descriptions, updated taxi fares, etc. I can tell from my own experience that this is work that'll be useful to future travellers, and there's a great feeling of balance, giving back to the very resource that has helped us out in visiting here.

Like blogs and MUDs, wikis provide what Amy Bruckman called an "authentic context for writing", so widely lacking in the pre-Internet age. Certainly I'm enjoying it, anyway.

July 19, 2005

Fighting off jet lag

With ten hours of jet lag to work through, one turns to less demanding tourist activities. Yesterday, Kathleen and I exerted ourselves to the extent of walking through the main Helsinki open-air market on our way to meet a tour bus; even just that almost completely wore us out.

The market, located right on the waterfront near a lot of tour boats of various kinds, breaks down into two specialties. First, there are a lot of booths selling both reasonable-quality local crafts and the usual run of tourist souvenirs, with even the latter having a reassuringly local flavor. Many of the craft booths sell furs and clothing made from furs, even now, in the summer heat and humidity. (It was in the mid-seventies yesterday, but has hit the mid-eighties recently, we're told.)

The second specialty of the market is local produce, and there's a lot of it. Particularly ubiquitous right now is berries and cherries, and it all looks very yummy. Kathleen picked up some wild strawberries that were so tiny, I'd assumed they would be sour, but no, no, really, they're just fine. Also ubiquitous are fresh peas, still in their pods, great huge mounds of them. There are people everywhere eating them, tourists and locals alike, some without even removing them from the

The tour bus had been recommended to us by Expedia when we bought our plane tickets. It's focused on Finland's Art Nouveau period, around the turn of the 20th century. We first drove to Hvitträsk, the home of the architects Eliel Saarinen, Herman Gesellius, and Armas Lindgren. Everything man-made on the grounds was designed by the residents, from the buildings and gardens to the furniture, fixtures, decorations, and textiles. The museum there only really covers the Saarinens' portion of the main house, but that's a lot of fun to see. (Kathleen took a lot of pictures that I've used as an excuse to try out Flickr.)

The tour's other stop was Ainola, the home of Finnish composer Jean Sibelius and his wife, Aino (after whom the house is named). Overall, this was much less interesting than Hvitträsk, but I still snapped a couple of pictures.

Fortunately, this kind of tour doesn't involve a great deal of walking or other exercise, because by this time, Kathleen and I were nearly asleep on our feet. After returning to downtown Helsinki, we barely had enough energy to buy and consume a couple of pretty good ice cream cones before making our way back to the hotel to crash.

The jet lag has been getting better today, though.

July 18, 2005

Travel Trials

I enjoy travel, really I do. That is to say, I enjoy being in interesting new places, seeing new things, and meeting people of new cultures. It's the getting there I'm less keen on.

Our flight to Helsinki was the expected interminable sardine experience, with a brief episode of liberty in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, some people whose luggage was checked through failed to check in to the next flight, so our take-off was delayed almost an hour. Naturally, that was an added hour of sardine time, not liberty time. Overall, we left Seattle at about 1:30pm on Sunday and arrived here in Helsinki at about 1:30pm on Monday, essentially losing a full calendar day in fishy fermentation.

But I'm not bitter.

I did make one interesting observation during the trip, though. The bathrooms on our flight to Amsterdam had a feature I've never encountered before, and now I have to wonder why not. There was a tall, thin, cylindrical compartment alongside the door, with a tall, thin, spring-loaded door at the top, labelled with a picture of a hypodermic needle. It's clearly intended to allow diabetics a place to safely dispose of their insulin injectors, which is so obviously a great idea.

Now I'm curious, though: how do diabetics (and other regular hypo users) usually dispose of their used equipment when such a handy option isn't available? Or maybe that's something I don't actually want to know...

Hello from Helsinki!

I'm writing this from my hotel room in Helsinki, at about 5:00am local time. Kathleen and I arrived yesterday afternoon and, of course, the ten-hour jet lag is causing a little sleep-cycle disruption.

We're here for the 25th annual International Puzzle Party (IPP), an invitational gathering of serious collectors of mechanical puzzles. The definition of "serious" is pretty vague, but is intended to exclude the merely curious. (Though, as anyone here would admit, there are a number of pretty curious people here nonetheless.) To give you a sense of how serious "serious" can be, though, my collection of 600-700 puzzles is well down at the low end of the size distribution. There are many people here with several thousand puzzles, and a few amazing collections of 25,000 or 30,000 puzzles or more, some dating as far back as the 13th century. Believe me, Kathleen's getting off easy in the "whacko spouse" department (as least as regards collections).

The party location rotates every three years among Europe, the United States, and Asia. There will probably be around 200 collectors here, many with their families, from 25-30 countries all over the world.

The party doesn't actually start for a few more days yet, but we decided to come early to give ourselves extra time to explore the area and to get over our jet lag. To our inexplicable surprise, several other folks had the same idea, so the puzzle conversations have already started echoing around the lobby here.

I hope to be posting pretty actively for the next while, so keep checking back for more on Helsinki, puzzles, and Norwegian coastal cruises!