Scandinavian Travel, In Retrospect

I started writing this when I looked at the calendar and it had been a month since my husband and I spent our last day in Norway. Now, another month has passed. We returned to a very fast paced fall where the weeks have slipped by, faster each one. I think of our trip a few times a week though and the shifts I've experienced in my thinking as a result of traveling.

This vacation to Scandinavia was a dream, but on that last day in Norway, we were by the fish market after hours of walking around town on a drizzly day, almost aimlessly in a daze, and we watched on as a two year old melted down on the street, crying and dropping onto his knees next to his mother. I said to Matt, "I think I know how he feels. 'Get me out of this fishy town!'"

Norway was actually beautiful, as expected, and we were so lucky to be there visiting. But much like the Pacific Northwest, it was rainy and overcast and chilly, even in August. I was hungry, tired, wet and cold. We'd been walking, sometimes in the rain, all day, every day for eight days. Food was terribly expensive in Sweden and Norway so I was fueled on a backpack full of granola bars and trail mix from home, baguettes and fruit from the grocery store, and usually one small but square restaurant meal a day. Matt gets by just fine without eating much. I, most definitely, do not.

Yesterday I ran across this Moth Story Slam (we're a little obsessed) by Gail Simmons of Top Chef fame where she talks about planning her honeymoon in Vietnam and the lengths she went to eat a particular dish at a particular restaurant and when the restaurant was closed, multiple times, she melted down on the steps of the restaurant to the point where her husband had to pick her up off the steps and carry her into a cab. I haven't lost it on vacation quite that badly, but let's just say when I saw that little boy on the ground crying and I heard Gail's story, I could relate.

She talks about taking advantage of every experience, needing it all, making lists and researching and planning to have the very best experience. This was our 10th anniversary trip. Our first time visiting Europe. An ripe occasion for overdoing it.

Yet, I have learned, a little, over the years to temper my intense need to fit it all in. It's a requirement for a sane marriage. On our honeymoon we stayed in 4 hotels in 3 cities in 2 countries in 7 days. Since then, I've slowly learned to take a red pen to my well-researched vacation plan. Fewer hotels. Fewer destinations. Fewer plans.

For this vacation, I spent a month in all out research mode, but once the (two) hotels were booked, I'd read a few guidebooks from the library and about 50 websites, I really tried to let it go. A couple month before we left, I had second thoughts and considered adding a day in Denmark, taking an overnight train to Copenhagen for Stockholm. Who knew if we were every going back to Scandinavia? When I asked my good friend who has traveled in Europe a few times (and is an editor by the way) she wisely advised me to forget about it. The important thing is just being there, not to see everything.

We still over did it a little. We started in Stockholm and bought the 5-day Stockholm card which allowed entry into 80 of the city's museums. The temptation to see it all was enabled by practically open access. We went to art museums, Nordic museums, a music museum, an architecture museum, and even Skansen, an amazing historic open air museum much like Detroit's Greenfield Village that had a small zoo with black bears, moose, wolverines, and a lone grey wolf that was hiding from the crowds. We rented bikes on our last day in Stockholm and biked all over town, stopping at a few more museums on the way, thoroughly exhausting ourselves.We even squeezed in one museum 30 minutes before closing time, speeding through all 3 floors of exhibits like lunatics.

We fit a lot into those 4 days, and yes, in one my hungrier moments, I may have had a bit of a meltdown outside a restaurant after discussing whether it was worth the expense to splurge on a meal of traditional Swedish meatballs or salmon. Definitely not my finest performance while traveling. In the end, we shared a small plate of salmon and ate every bit of free bread and cracker board we could.

After Stockholm, we flew to Bergen, Norway. The main objective for visiting Stockholm was to see great design and in Norway, it was to see the fjords. I'd done my research, of course, but I didn't buy a tour ahead of time, in an attempt to not over plan and to go with the flow.

In Bergen, we spent our first day walking all over town looking at train, boat and bus schedules, trying to see if we could manage to save money by arranging the tour ourselves. We couldn't. Around dinner time, we gave in and booked a guided walking fjord tour for my birthday - by far the moment of true extravagance in our journey. It was and likely will be the most expensive train ride, walk, and boat ride of our lives. In a stroke of luck, no one else booked our tour that day so we had a lovely British guide all to ourselves who brought us tea, biscuits and apples and pointed out all the best sights and made sure we tried the local brown goat cheese, which tasted like pungent caramel. I was not hungry at all that day.

Looking back, my favorite memories are the ones where we just took everything in and talked about how it was different from home. We talked a lot about how Scandinavians incorporated American culture into their culture, or how we wished Americans would incorporate Scandinavian social values into our culture.

One evening in Stockholm, the museums were closing and it was too expensive pay for a long leisurely dinner at a restaurant so we picked a line on the subway and took the train out as far as we could go. This was Matt's brilliant idea for slowing us down. We could sit and still sight see.

He got out his MP3 player and we listened to Bon Iver and Tallest Man on Earth. Very appropriate choice while surrounded by tall blonde Swedes. We watched Stockholm fade and the suburbs approach. Bicycle commuters rode in the same direction on the paved path between the expressway and the foggy evergreen woods. Flat after flat zoomed by and we talked about how the housing in Sweden seemed much more equitable from the outside than housing in the States. If there were slums or even rundown buildings, we never saw them. We remembered our conversation with the young Moroccan man in a bike shop who told us every Swede has a dream of having a summer home in the archipelago. I imagined people living in their flat during the week and heading to the sea for weekends and holiday, blissed out from the midnight sun and bits of smoked salmon.

Although it was on my list, we never made it out on the archipelago to see the Swedish dreamland. Instead spent that day biking around Stockholm, and saw things we otherwise wouldn't have seen. The world championship mini golf tournament and Swedish kids having field day in the park. We biked along the watery edges of the city's many islands, passed by commuters bike home.

When we came home, I started biking to work and around town more often and it's been freeing to experience my city this way. Souvenirs were expensive (actually everything was expensive) and so for most of the trip Matt's only souvenir was a free pencil he picked up at the architecture museum. Instead, we picked up impressions of a different way of living. Now that we are home we have been weaving those impressions into our daily life here.

I am much more thankful for our little garden planted on an unused plot of land, because in Stockholm people wait many years for the opportunity to buy a garden allotment. A limited number of plots were created after WWI for growing potatoes and now these private gardens are the only spots in which to grow your own food in a city of flats.

I'm even more aware (if it's possible) of our twisted national conversations about 'class warfare' and the super wealthy, understanding even more deeply now how our policy choices as a nation actually do create the crushing poverty in my city and that we could, we really could, collectively choose to take better care of each other. The man in the bike shop told me when they think as a society of what do about an alcoholic man out of work, they ask themselves, "What is the best thing for all us?" Keeping the person housed, clothed and fed so he does not commit crimes of hunger or desperation is their first priority. Sweden has more multinational corporations operating there than any other country in the world so their social policy does not seem to be hindering business development any.

I'm also more thankful for our music and how it's embraced all over the world. In a moment of homesickness, I sang along to Beyonce in a 7-11 in Norway. I came home more thankful for how people strike up little conversations with me around town (Scandinavians were a pretty tight lipped bunch). Over the past couple months, my routine has been pretty much the same as before, but I live in this place a little differently now. Overall, I was surprised by how much was new to us there. How many times a day we said to each other, "Look at that!" How many times we compared there to here. We did what we set out to do - we saw some stuff and then we came home and saw home differently too.


Heidi said...

Oh I love travel stories! Thank you for this. It really sounds like you made the most of it despite the financial challenges. And it's wonderful you have been able to reflect on the experience and use what you learned going forward. Now I want to go there too! :)

Elizabeth Downie said...

This post was worth the wait. Wonderful narrative and pictures! I'm so glad you posted! :) I can't wait for more (but no pressure)!

Stephanie said...

Now you need to go back so you can use your "relax and take it in skills" some more. After, of course, convincing Matt that one should eat food whilst vacationing, too! hehe ;) xo