May 10, 2015

The Legends of Swagandinavia: NORWAY

Norway was never really on my radar until a conversation during college with my late Grandma Carol. She had taken up a fascination with Norwegian rose art when she was much younger, and told me all about her plans to see the glaciers, fjords, and the other incredible sights Norway had to offer. Grandma Carol always had a lot of plans; plans to sell her house in California, plans to move to New Mexico, plans to go to Scandinavia. It was part of her quirky charm, these dream-plans that never came true.

As a 21-year-old, I remember thinking, "I hope I go to the places I want to see before I'm 80 years old."

I didn't go out of my way to make Norway happen. However, it did occur to me after Grandma Carol passed away that if I ever did make it to Norway, I would try to appreciate it the way she would have.

Family histories can easily repeat themselves in small towns in small ways, but it is important to widen the scope and setting of the story.

So, in the spirit of keeping Carolyn's dream alive and well, let's head to Norway: the land of snow-capped mountains, deep fjords, large Vikings, dead witches, and one flying ninja.

Traversing the Tundra

Our fjord safari was scheduled for 9:30AM, and if we arrived too early in Flåm, we would have to stay packed up in the van. Doesn't sound too bad until you understand that this "van" was more like a midsize car with two extra seats in the trunk space. Technically, 5 seats with a trunk, or 7 seats with no trunk. We were 6 adults; 3 of whom had just spent 6 weeks in Sweden and had to pack all of that into the "van."

It's a good thing I only brought a large purse because we all had the medium-sized suitcases under our feet, and the large suitcases filled up the trunk next to the study abroad guy who had to sit in the way back the whole ride. Either he slept the whole nine hours, or he went into a mostly dead mode to not be completely numb after that experience.

I was in and out of my own zombie state the 9 hours of night driving. We twisted and turned around downtown Oslo. We passed through hills and valleys. I saw the dark silhouettes of trees against the whiteness of the moon.

I thought about trying to reach for my iPhone to take pictures, but it sounded too strenuous at the moment. I quietly stared at the glassy reflections of night meeting dawn on the water. There were boats, there were scattered lights, and everything was periwinkle.

After a while, I half-dreamed, half-realized there was snow all around us. What was this magical untouched land, blanketed in crystal clear snow in the month of May?! Narnia - er, I mean, Norway!

And yet, these scenes were just a glimpse into what we were about to behold.

Fjording Flåm

Fjords are spooky. Yes, they are beautiful and astounding and command the attention of your camera more than you can control. But they are also very quiet and haunting, and those deep waters and sheer-faced mountains hold more secrets than you and I will ever know.

Our hotel was a 3-minute walk from the launching point, and we were able to grab a quick bite to eat, drop off our stuff, and stretch our weary bodies before our venture began. We prepped our outfits in the tent by the dock, constantly adding more and more gear - just in case. The jumpsuit and life vest were required, then most of us accessorized with giant gloves, goggles, hats, and ponchos. By the time we stepped onto the 12-passenger boat, we were definitely warm and definitely large.

Marshall, Anna, Maggie, and me: neon Vikings hitting the fjords.

Our guide, Gustaf (I didn't have to name this one), was clearly a seasoned professional who knew all the ins and outs of the fjords. I've never seen so many waterfalls in the course of just two hours! If I understood correctly, we were in the parts of the Sognefjord called Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord. It's like naming a tree, then giving individual names to each of its branches. (Zoom out on this map to get the idea.)

The boat ride was overwhelming. This may have had something to due with our serious lack of real sleep. There was so much to take in at every turn, and all of these profound sights continued to bring me to the same awe-inspired conclusion.


Yes, I kept whisper-declaring their presence the entire time. 

Clouds hid the peaks of the snowy mountains, and rain and wind whipped our well-protected faces. Reflections mirrored the spectacular scenes in the rare moments of still waters. The mountain goats balanced precariously on "cliff meadows," waiting for their shepherds to boat them to the next location. There were miniature fjord villages every ten minutes or so.

Gustaf motioned to the highest cliff we had seen so far. "They used to take young women up to the top to test if they were witches or not."

They would throw the girl off the cliff; if she survived the fall into the fjord, she was burned for being a witch. If she didn't survive, she was "given a good Christian burial."

An entire world existed on those mountaintops, where maidens maintained their farms and the men hauled the goods down the cliffs by ropes to go to the markets. Gustaf kept pointing at rock stairs I never saw and ladders that looked terrifying as the methods for ascending the heights.

The most incredible thing I learned was that for as high as the mountains around us were, the fjord was even deeper. I noted I would not be swimming or practicing witchcraft in Norway ever.

The "Swag" beanie is always a hit! (Thanks to Tanya Schmidt!)

I love that this trip was more about spending time with Maggie, her parents, and her friends from school, than me trying to finish as many things as possible. The incredible thing was that we still did tons of stuff, but, for me, it was really all just a magnificent backdrop to hanging out with old friends and making new ones.

And I'm sure Grandma Carol would have appreciated every bit of the action!