Thursday, July 2, 2015

A day in Oslo

While I was writing my dissertation, I promised myself that after I earned my PhD, I would go travel and have adventures somewhere far away, somewhere I'd never been.  Given that I actually started writing my dissertation sometime in my second year of graduate school (or at least that's when my first Word document titled "Chapter One" appeared somewhere on my hard drive), I couldn't possibly have foreseen the other two big things that will be happening this summer: 1) moving to a new city, and 2) marrying my best friend.  It's been a whirlwind few weeks, and it's hard to believe I finished my dissertation only about a month ago; harder still to believe that in less than two months I'll be married and living in Los Angeles.  But in the meantime, I've still got some wild oats I'm fully planning to sow!

Over the next month, I'll be travelling through Oslo, Norway; Liverpool, England; Dublin, Ireland; Pisa, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, and Livorno, Italy; Bastia and Belgodère, Corsica; and Nice, France.  I'll be returning through New York City and then taking the train back to Pennsylvania, where I will get married (!) and immediately take off to honeymoon for a week on the Pacific coast of Panama.  I'll use this space to write about my travels, post some pictures of the beautiful and curious things that I see, and muse about whatever strikes my mind.  If you're interested, you can follow this blog by email (send me a message at mbyron10 [at] gmail [dot] com), or if you prefer RSS you can scroll alllllll the way down to the bottom and click on the button there.  I'll try to post a couple of times a week as I blaze my way through almost a dozen European cities in the next month or so.

The Grand Tour began at LAX with an nonstop flight to Oslo, Norway.  Though I've stepped aside a little bit from my former life as an aerospace engineer, the dormant plane nerd inside of me woke up a little bit for my first-ever flight on one of the new-ish Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes. My aircraft dynamics professor in college was a little bit obsessed with this plane, and we had several problem sets focused on the 787.  Flying in the 787 definitely lived up to the hype: not only was it more fuel-efficient than comparably-sized airplanes (lowering my carbon footprint-- yeah!), but the ride was comfortable and pleasant despite my super-economy budget, featuring a stellar entertainment system, plenty of headroom, and even a custom cabin lighting system designed to help people with jetlag.  I was flying with Norwegian Air, which has a reputation as a low-budget, nickel-and-dime kind of airline (you pay extra to check a bag, get food onboard, have a blanket in the ice-cold cabin, etc).  However, I got the better of them in the end: I bought all my flights on the Norwegian-language version of their website, and since the Norwegian kroner is really weak right now, I saved about $100 each way on my flights.  Score!

Because the Norwegian flights were so cheap, I had booked my trans-Atlantic flight to Oslo and am using the intra-Europe budget airline Ryanair to get around between countries.  This meant I had a sort of glorified layover in Oslo, with only 26 jet-lagged hours to spend in the city.  However, this turned out to be just long enough to see many of the city's major sights.

The main airport  (Oslo Gardemoen, OSL) is easy to navigate, with signs in both Norwegian and English.  There is a relatively cheap, 19-minute express train to the city center (the Flytoget) that runs several times per hour from the airport to the Oslo S (Central) train station.  Knowing that I'd be jetlagged and sweaty and hungry and all manner of cranky after my 10.5 hour overnight flight, I had opted for the comparative luxury of an Airbnb room instead of a dorm bed in a hostel.  This turned out to be a great decision-- Gung and Martin's apartment was a stress-free and comfortable 10-15 minute walk from Oslo S, in the Grønland neighborhood of Oslo.  My hosts were polite and hospitable, but not overly friendly or sociable, so after a quick check-in I was left to my own devices to drop off my things, freshen up, and strike out to see a few things before the exhaustion hit in earnest.

The central part of Oslo isn't very big, and I was able to see some of the cool architecture for which the city is known just by walking around a little. A friend had strongly recommended that I visit Oslo's opera house, which sits on the edge of the Oslofjord (which is, predictably, the fjord that borders Oslo), so my first stop was at this very hip, very modern paean to music and dance.  All the costume and prop studios are on the ground floor and have big windows, so if you walk around the back of the building, you can see people working on things for the upcoming operas or ballets.  The main performance hall is kind of like a building within a building, a bamboo structure that rises several stories inside a glass-and-stone atrium. However, the highlight was the building's exterior, which is made of a rough white stone (both granite and Italian marble).  The roof of the opera house slopes down to ground level, so that on either side of the atrium you can walk up a fairly steep slope to see a killer view of Oslo.  There are no handrails or rules or security guards, and the whiteness of the stone makes your eyes ache a little as you climb.  The building is so large that it takes several minutes to reach the top, but the view out over the fjord is really nice-- and you can just turn around to see the curious mishmash of modern architecture and old stone buildings in the city center.

Actually, I lied.  The roof wasn't the highlight.  The highlight was seeing a girl in a blue dress, who was clearly having a blast at her own bachelorette party, belting out "Let It Go" from the Disney movie "Frozen" to a crowd of confused but delighted tourists.  That was pretty excellent.

From the opera house, I meandered my way west towards more of the attractions listed in my Oslo e-book guide, hastily downloaded before I got on the plane.  I ended up on Karl Johan Gate, the main pedestrian avenue for shopping and strolling in Oslo.  The word "gate" actually means "street" in Norwegian, which was pretty confusing to an English speaker as there is no physical gate to be found on Karl Johan Gate.  But I did find some Citybikes, the solid little beater bikes that are locked to racks all over the city and can be released with a touch of your membership card.  My Airbnb hosts had given me a Citybike card with my keys, and I used it to unlock a bike and set off for the Vigelund sculpture garden in Frogner park, two miles away on the other side of the city.  Though Oslo is hilly, it was fairly easy to get to the park on my three-speed-cruiser (though the rusty brakes squealed obnoxiously every time I went downhill; it's a great credit to the citizens of Oslo that I received not a single dirty look).  The sculptures in the park were just okay, but apparently I'd gone uphill more than I thought; the view from the park's apex were incredible.  I spent a moment or two enjoying the sunshine before asking a passing tourist for the time, just to make sure my phone had synced correctly.  As it turns out, it hadn't. Instead of 4:45pm, it was actually 5:45pm, and I had very little time before I was supposed to meet my friend Greeley for dinner.  So back onto the bike I went, quickly speeding across the city and finding a place to return the bike, then rushing towards our meeting spot (and only ten minutes late-- Berkeley time, anyone?).

Meeting up with Greeley was a serendipitous treat; when I booked my flights, I hadn't realized he was working on his PhD in Wood Science at the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute (south of Oslo).  A mutual friend told me vaguely that he was "studying trees"-- this turned out not precisely to be the case, as he's actually working on finding better preserving treatments for wooden structural components (e.g. how to keep wooden beams from rotting due to fungi or disease or whatever).  Though he does like trees, and Norway sure has a lot of them.  We had a delightful pre-dinner beer at a rooftop bar whose name I can't remember, but were put off by a 45 minute wait for a table, so we ended up having Indian food instead.

Wait, I hear you say.  Indian food? In Oslo? you say, disbelievingly.  I know, I know.  This was one of the things that really surprised me about my brief time in Oslo.  From what I could observe, the city defies the blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian stereotype and is actually quite diverse, with a ton of different races and nationalities represented.  It could be that Grønland is a more immigrant-heavy neighborhood-- the wealthy western side of the city wasn't nearly as diverse as the area near the train and bus stations-- but it was definitely an international city, where you could certainly get decent, if not mind-blowing, Indian food.  Plus, after reading a sign earlier that advertised traditional Norwegian whale and reindeer meat, I have to say I wasn't enthused about sampling the local cuisine.

After a nice long dinner and a walk and some gelato, I packed Greeley off on his train to Ås, the neighboring city where he lives (pronounced like the first syllable of the word "awesome," said with a heavy SoCal Bro accent).  Even at 10:30pm, it was still fully daylight outside... in summer, the sun sets at 10:30 - 11pm and rises at 3:30 - 4am here.  But jetlag and travel-weariness made it easy to sleep despite the light cues that confused my body.

The next morning, I had a picnic breakfast of salami and cheese (packed as part of my GIANT backpack of snacks so that I wouldn't have to buy food on the plane-- I've beaten you again, Norwegian Air!) in the delightful botanical gardens only a few blocks from my Airbnb.  These didn't show up on any tourist guide but were recommended by my hosts, and they were actually much nicer than the Vigelund garden.  It was very zen to sit and read in the cold morning sunshine, and walk amongst all the beautiful plants and trees.  I especially enjoyed the Viking exhibit, which consisted of planter boxes arranged in the shape of a longboat and displaying the various plants that were used for food, medicine, tools, and trading by the Vikings.

To catch my afternoon Ryanair flight to Liverpool, I had to take an 1 hour 45 minute bus ride to Oslo Torp, the small domestic airport (be careful when booking flights to/from Oslo, as there are three different airports: Torp, Rygge, and Gardemoen).  I had booked my bus ticket online, and while watching the countryside roll by (it looks very like Quebec, actually), I realized that I had never withdrawn any cash in Norway-- it was never necessary!  Hooray for my foreign-transaction-free United Mileage Plus card, which is getting a real workout on this trip.

Though it was added to my itinerary more from convenience than any desire to visit, I really enjoyed my day in Oslo and would recommend it!  Next time I visit Norway, though, I'd love to do some hiking in the beautiful mountains, forests, and fjords.  Who's with me?

Harbor outside the opera house, with a cool ship sculpture

The sloping roof of the opera house
It's actually much steeper than it looks here; imagine climbing in winter when it's covered with ice!

Looking down from the opera house's pitched roof

Interior performance hall

Astrid-Elsa the bachelorette

Yeah no thanks, you can keep that

Karl Johan Gate

My trusty Citybike

View from the Vigelund sculpture garden

The American embassy, decorated with rainbow flags for Oslo Pride week (total coincidence as this was the day before the SCOTUS Obergefell ruling came down)

Hug the trees-- Enjoy!

People practicing staff fighting in the Royal Palace Garden.  I like to think of this as a wizard and his apprentice. Probably.

A little slice of home!

 Botanical gardens!

 VIKING botanical gardens!

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