We improvised the fjord section of our trip, so when we needed to book a train to Oslo, our helpful agent couldn’t find two seats together (train seating is assigned in Scandinavia). I sat next to an elderly woman two rows ahead of The Fabulous Wife, and The Fabulous Wife sat with an elderly man.

We fixed them up and they’re getting married next weekend.

Kidding!!! While my seatmate and I said nothing except when she needed to go to the bathroom (which I gleaned from her body language, not her amiably imperative Norwegian), The Fabulous Wife and her seatmate engaged in a charming conversation that lasted until he insisted on changing places with me.

Let’s call him Mr. Helversøy. He had just retired from teaching Norwegian literature to high school students near Lillehammer, and had celebrated Constitution Day in his native Bergen for the first time in half a century. He assured The Fabulous Wife that Bergen has the best Constitution Day celebration in Norway, and we believe him.

She inquired about the chalets dotting the high country landscape, and he explained that the “huts” were occupied only in winter by affluent skiers. She marveled at all the flowing water (as any Californian would), and Mr. Helversøy said it’s used to generate hydro power — the oil pumped from the North Sea is exported for revenue. When she started seeing farms, he noted that they grew hay for grazing stock. When she started seeing goats, Mr. Helversøy explained they were kept for their milk, which was used to make cheese. After he and I traded seats, he still wandered back to chat with us, asking as many questions about California as we did about Norway.

When he got off the train at Drammen, we felt bereft.

Scandinavian cities discourage driving in a variety of ways, one of which is to make a critical street in the town center pedestrian-only. In Copenhagen it is the Strøget. In Bergen it is the Torgallmenningen, where we watched the parade. And in Oslo it is Karl Johans Gate, which ends at the Kongelige Slott, or Royal Palace.

Karl Johans Gate from the palace.

After wandering along the street and palace grounds, we headed to the National Gallery of Norway, where we fed our art addiction. Later we happened on a diversity festival near City Hall. White canvas booths were set up in a plaza, and representatives from twenty or thirty immigrant nations, many in native dress, engaged a sizable crowd. It was fun to see the immigrants in native costumes after seeing so many Norwegians in theirs earlier that week.

On Sunday we took a long, pleasant walk through leafy neighborhoods to Bygdøy, an island in the southwestern part of Oslo full of museums. The Fabulous Wife went to the Norsk Folkemuseum, which depicts life in Norway from the 1500s on, and I went to the Viking Ship Museum, which displays Viking ships buried during funeral ceremonies in the ninth and tenth centuries and preserved by the clay soil. This is the Oseberg, built around 820 and used mainly for inland voyages:

Not bad for 1200 years old.

You know those horned helmets the Vikings supposedly wore? They’re a myth. It’s possible horned helmets were used for ceremonial purposes, but there’s no archaeological evidence that Viking raiders ever wore them. The horned helmet thing owes more to Richard Wagner’s operas than fact, which may be why Oslo poured so much money into its new opera house. Check this out:

The Good Ship Kirsten Flagstad

The thing looks like it’s about to slip under the surface and fire torpedoes. What’s even cooler is that you can climb the roof (as many people are doing in the photo) to get a view of the city. Just like Phone Company Park in San Francisco, the opera house has fostered construction and economic growth in the entire neighborhood, so whatever the City of Oslo paid for the exotic design was worth it.

On our last night in Oslo we took a walk along Karl Johans Gate in search of ice cream. Not much stays open past 5 pm on Sundays, but we found a convenience store. The Fabulous Wife and I selected our goodies and I brought them to the counter. The young cashier broke off his chat in Arabic with a friend to address me in Norwegian. I shrugged and confessed I spoke only English, whereupon he switched to my language and told me the price. Effortlessly trilingual! I told him I was flattered he presumed I was Norwegian. He smiled wryly and said, “Who can tell the difference? Everybody looks and dresses the same these days.”

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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