Cruise to Norway - Part 1
We only signed up for a cruise to Norway and the Arctic circle because two friends we met and really connected with on our last cruise, to the middle east, invited us. I had been fantasizing about the Amazon or Antarctica, not Norway. But we wanted to hang with Susan and Phil, and they had already signed up for this one, for the coming August. It would sail from Edinburgh through Norway up to the highest point in the world, above the Arctic Circle, then down, ending in Amsterdam.
My dreams of an Amazon journey on a narrow river with zillions of animals swimming next to the ship and staring at us from the banks nearby – jaguars, pink river dolphins, black spider monkeys and over a thousand species of birds—didn’t exactly map onto my Norwegian illusions of a cold, barren land peopled by very tall, sullen, blond humans unable to smile.
But we liked our artsy, hilarious new British pals so we didn’t resist Norway. “An adventure is always an adventure” has been one of our life’s mottos, even the last cruise which turned out to be pretty much a disaster. We don’t talk about that one, not even in private.
So, we prepared a few months ahead of time, reading about the glories of Edinburgh from where we would launch. I had gone to summer school there many decades ago and relished the churches, the castle, cobblestone streets, and plaid shawls which are warm and soft enough to use as a blanket.
We’d spend three days there with Susan and Phil who, sadly could not go on the cruise they had planned with us, due to a sudden illness he’d acquired the previous month and spent several weeks in the hospital. But they came to Edinburgh for three days with us. Our happiest memory was visiting the huge ship the Royal Brittania, which was owned and used frequently by the Royal Family, until the government stopped paying the exorbitant costs. Now it’s governed by tourists; no chance of seeing Queen Camila eating breakfast, but compensated for by walking past the King’s small bedroom with the teeny single bed covered in chintz. It’s definitely more than we wanted to know about him. There’s also the splendidly clean Rolls Royce ready to zoom off the ship when needed. It has a stuffed corgy living in the back. I don’t have words for that.
Settling sail is always exciting, leaving land and living on the sea for sixteen days.
We are told there are 500 passengers on the ship and a crew of 500. That registers as few customers and giant staff. I discover that seeing or passing crew members on the vast narrow hallways is unusual, as the crew have their own hallways on low floors, with their own kitchens, sleep rooms and all needed facilities. They do not, in general, traverse the same land as the passengers, except where specifically needed.
Our days are mostly spent cruising on the fjords, a fjord being a long narrow inlet with steep sides or cliffs created by a glacier. They are, for the most part, everywhere around you; we rarely saw landless sea surrounding the ship. We always seemed to be surrounded by islands with waterfalls, summer snow, reindeer, giant rocks, and no humans. Dramatic sights that we had never seen anywhere. Breathtaking. (I used that word dozens of times on this cruise, unable to find a synonym that would really express the surroundings as well.) Forgive the overuse.
Aside #1: The vast array of reindeer is all privately owned, each wearing markers. I have no idea how the owner gets to find his own giant beasts and guide them home for the night.
The towns along the Fjords and North Sea are an odd mixture: Some quaint, with brightly painted old homes that are charming, well-preserved, most right on the water. Then there are the new buildings, sizable, lacking in charm, gray and unattractive. Factories, offices, stores. We are told by the guides on our shore excursions that this area was once overrun by the Nazis and when they were forced out at the end of the war, they destroyed as much as they could of the local cultures. The ugly new buildings were constructed to replace what was decimated.
Shore excursions occur on most days, except when we’re at sea with a large area to travel. They are either bus and walking jaunts or small boat trips. We usually choose the boats. Our ship – named JOURNEY -- offers a choice of 5 or 6 a day, all at extra cost. On our first fjord, to Stavenger, we walk through the town, an obvious tourist attraction with one restaurant or café after another, all on the water. I’m rattled to see a Burger King and a 7-11, here in the heart of obscure northern Norway. The tourist shop has socks with Norwegian slogans knitted onto them, well-decorated heavy sweaters, and a massive amount of rain gear. I know the town sounds terrible, but Stavenger is actually a lovely spot, the cafes filled with smiling blond people, all thrilled – I’m imagining – to have a sunny springish day.
Ah yes, the weather: Before we left for Norway, we studied the predictions for August. We found information about the same trip from exactly one year ago. Every one of those sixteen days was either cloudy or rainy, almost no sun. We thought about cancelling but it was too late. So, we packed all the jackets, hats, bags of books and our hardy optimistic spirits that would deal with crappy weather and we ploughed ahead.
Normally, there are 220 days of rain a year in these parts of northern Norway. In these small towns, life pretty much shuts down for months as the rain becomes snow, the icy roads are closed, no tourists visit and the citizens pretty much burrow into their homes for months at a time. They are a stoic bunch; very little laughter fills the air and I could never get a clear answer from anyone about what they do for food and provisions, not to mention entertainment. I imagine they stock up in the summer and eat the same defrosted reindeer burgers for five months.
Well, thank you God and Goddess, we have perfect spring weather every one of our 16 days, never see rain, and when I walk past one of the outdoor cafes in Lofoten on a Wednesday afternoon, it’s packed with local folks, drinking beer and laughing. The sounds of ecstasy and relief. On one excursion, we see that everybody in the area is out and journeying, Norwegians being a hardy bunch in good weather. The roads are clogged with vans, campers, hikers, bikers, walkers and joggers. Almost everybody blond. All ages.
In a town called Alesund, our guide takes us to the small Giske Church, surrounded by a cemetery, one side with decorated tombstones, neatly kept, the opposite side scruffy with bleak tombstones. Not a shock, I suppose, that one side is for the rich, the other for the poor. The shock is that everybody, I mean EVERYBODY, is named Giske on their tombstone. Someone told me that the whole population is named for the church. That is the strangest experience of the whole journey.
Aside #2: The population of the ship. I know 500 passengers sounds overwhelming, but it’s actually homey. (One day while stopped in a port, a Celebrity Cruise ship that is anchored across from us held 3000 people.) None of our bars, restaurants, cafes or the gym is ever crowded and difficult to navigate, none has waiting lines. We can always get a table at the nightclub whenever we choose to brave the rock music at the club. There was a magical magician one night and a group of five singers/dancers/actors who we always go to see when they perform.
Most of the American passengers look, to my critical eye, like Trumpies. Tom thinks I’m doing ridiculous stereotyping but I can tell, I just can tell. Everybody is very pleasant, we always have a brief mindless exchange in the elevators with nice folks. Definitely Trumpies, but nice. No political conversations ever.
Until we make our few friends on the ship, Judy and Isaac – very funny Orthodox Jews from New York and Jerusalem – and Paula and Steve, world-travelers from their years as American Airlines stewards. Not a romantic couple, just traveling buddies who know all the inside tracks of creating our own short excursions with Ubers, cabs and walking. With these new friends, we can rail on about American politics over dinner, speaking quietly of course. But it was much needed as an outlet for all those suppressed and silent emotions.
Part 2 to come. A lot more about food.
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