London and Stansted, England and Oslo, Norway (April 2010)

London overwhelmed our noses in a frenzy of scents: cool, clean air, pink and white flower trees blooming in grassy parks, everything moist from spring rains. We took the Tube’s Picadilly line to King’s Cross, and after making our hostel beds took a walk through the neighborhood, visiting community gardens with painted plywood cutouts of children and a playground (something we hadn’t seen for a long time, and it seemed kind of strange). Kebab shops and pubs lined the street, old red brick buildings, or painted black and white wooden facades facing statues in the road, red double decker bendy buses barreling past.

The most striking thing about being in London was how easy it was to be there. Everyone spoke English, we could read the signs. It was shockingly clean. No one really needed anything from us, for us to buy something from them–our wealth was insignificant and relatively small. No one stared at us. No one approached us upon leaving the airport or hostel, offering a rickshaw or travel agency services. We were blissfully ignored.

We took a walking tour of London, checking out the sights that everyone sees: Buckingham Palace, mounted guards, a glimpse of 10 Downing Street (where Gordon Brown resided when we saw it but not at the moment I write this post), Green Park, and the London Marathon which happened to be the day after we arrived. While it was nice to blend in and pretend to not be a tourist for a while, it was also a relief to take a guided tour and see sights without having to research or plan–something we hadn’t really done at all yet. We even learned a few things! For example, did you know that the Queen owns a gold-plated Nintendo Wii, and that her favorite game is Wii Bowling?

Since money was (is) getting pretty tight, we walked all over the center of London instead of taking the subway, and ate picnics from Tesco grocery–baguettes with feta cheese and crisp apples, milk from a tiny jug. We gorged ourselves on art, visiting the National Gallery, the Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern. We even splurged and saw a live performance of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert, the musical (about two drag queens and a male-to-female transwoman crossing the Australian desert in a bus); while the dialog wasn’t quite as punchy as the movie, the costumes and dance routines were pretty fantastic.

On the day we were flying to Oslo, we checked out of our hostel and walked about two hours to the Victoria station across the center of London. We caught a bus to the Stansted Airport, about an hour out of the city, got there early and waited around until we could check in, checked in and cleared the passport/visa check counter, and began going through security to wait at our gate when the security officer did a double take of our boarding passes and cheerily said, “oh, you’re flying tomorrow!” I started to panic before assessing our options–it was incredibly frustrating because I’ve had a few major, moneysucking, screwups and roadblocks with air travel. I nearly missed my flight out of LA in February after being forced to buy a ticket on the spot to leave New Zealand before being allowed to board the flight, then I bought a ticket from Christchurch to Auckland to see Daniel (not realizing I had inverted the cities until I checked in at the Auckland airport). Now this, only half an hour after I had started writing the India blog post which started with “After more than two months of traveling, we think we’re getting a bit better at it.” Crap. Daniel kept me calm and we decided to stay in Stansted for the night. We walked two more hours to the center of town.

Stansted itself was actually very pleasant, beautiful and quaint with cobblestone roads and little brick homes surrounded by blossoming lilacs and various flower trees which looked like they were covered in a blanket of floral snow. And the weather was fantastic. It really felt like England, moreso than London did. We stayed in a hotel built into an old house, with sea-blue walls and starched white sheets, and wifi that worked if you laid on the floor with the laptop right up by the door. We had a picnic the next day on a lovely little public footpath (which we found purely by accident) nestled between a creek and the train tracks, which felt surprisingly like being at home near the Minnehaha creek. We were definitely both starting to feel a little homesick.

We flew into Oslo/Rygge, successfully this time, greeted by a cold rain and incredibly low cloud cover on the tarmac. We took the hourlong bus into Oslo, arriving late (in retrospect, Ryanair was not the right choice for this trip, since all these bus trips pretty much negated any cash we’d saved on ticket prices). My dad’s cousin Karen graciously picked us up at the bus terminal, took us home and fed us open-face sandwiches on hearty bread before we went to sleep.

In the morning, we had breakfast with HansErik and Christina (my dad’s dad’s brother and his wife) in their apartment, open with warm wood floors and a nice book collection. They fed us bacon and eggs, hot black coffee, wholegrain bread, grapefruit juice, and anchovies (which we passed on). Through a little wooded area we walked to the bus stop and rode to the center of Oslo and they showed us the city. We walked along the edge of the fjord, where chilly-looking fishermen were selling their catches from the decks of their boats, while kids skateboarded in the plaza, and a statue of FD Roosevelt overlooked the waterfront (we learned that Norway’s royal family lived in the White House during WWII, and that FDR upheld Norway as an example of how the US could improve). Nearby was a castle that is now unused except for visiting purposes, which was once surrounded by a moat that has now been converted into a street which is full of electric cars. Oslo, like London, is much more steeped in war history than you’d ever see in the US, for obvious reasons, in both public and private ways. HansErik took us to the red wooden house he and Farfar grew up in, pointing out the cellar door where they evacuated to when the war started, and told us how the older neighbor boys who lived downstairs rode their bikes to check out the nearby site where the fighting was happening.

The city itself was pretty, clean and surprisingly walkable, with modern and historical buildings mixed up together, hills with fashionable shops, populated by people looking effortlessly well put together and street musicians playing accordion and hammered dulcimer. We got to see buildings designed by HansErik, who was an architect, and by his daughter Alessandra(Sandra) and her husband Lars, who practice the same profession–it was kind of neat to feel related to the city like that. We had Indian food for dinner with HansErik, Christina, Sandra, Lars and their son Gustav, and returned to the young family’s apartment after dinner. It was high-ceilinged with a modern, open layout, warm yellow wood floors, and a low table with Moroccan floor cushions. Daniel played on the computer with Lars and Gustav while the rest of us talked, and the later the night went the more I fantasized about coming to Norway to study architecture. It was a great night.

The next day we went to the FRAM Museum, housing the ship on which Amundsen traveled to Antarctica during the expedition which reached the South Pole successfully for the first time. Amundsen was Norwegian and the country is pretty proud of him; they seem to have a lighthearted sense of ownership of the continent, complemented by Svalbard, which has the northernmost town and is a part of Norway. It was fun to read about the expeditions, successful and otherwise, and to realize that less than a hundred years ago no one had ever been to the South Pole. Today you can get there by having a job fixing computers, fueling airplanes, or washing dishes, without having to mount an expedition and risk getting yourself killed. We went to the Vigeland sculpture park, which was interesting but got a little boring since the sculpture is all by the same artist–I think Minneapolis’ sculpture garden is better, but I might be biased. The park overlooked the cemetery where my great grandparents are buried, and we stood for a while on the hill watching the ocean clouds which, to a midwest girl, seemed unreal and more beautiful and contrasting than clouds at home, no matter how many times I saw them.

That evening we had dinner with Karen, her husband Ronnie, and their two children at their home, and Nina, the youngest of HansErik and Christina’s daughters and her two children. Karen prepared salmon sashimi with sprouts, soy sauce and wasabi, a green salad with hand-roasted pine nuts and avocado, steak and roasted potatoes. They live in the house the three women grew up in (another beautiful dwelling–I wonder if all homes in Norway look so good?), which is the same house my dad and his brother stayed at when they visited Norway as kids. We had a great evening, and I only wish that we had been able to stay more than two days.

Everyone was so friendly and kind, and we got along with the whole family really well (I have to admit I was worried before we arrived that they wouldn’t like us or that something would go wrong)–it was so nice to be able to make that connection in person, and we simply wouldn’t have been able to travel to Norway if they hadn’t been so generous to us. At one point during the evening HansErik asked me how it felt to “be a part of the clan.” It felt good.

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