Archive for June, 2008

Catching Red Sox at a really away game

June 27, 2008

“Where they Went” by Diane Daniel
(Published May 25, 2008, in the Boston Globe)

From Di’s eyes: One of the best ways to experience a foreign country is to go to a public event where you’re not a tourist, but one of the crowd. This group certainly  was treated to some authentic Japan.

WHO: Michael Zimman, 58, his wife, Ellen Rovner, 59, their son, Sam Zimman, 18, all of Brookline, Mass., and Michael’s brother, Jon Zimman, 53, and his partner, Glenn Roberts, 42, both of San Francisco.

WHERE: Japan.

WHEN: Ten days in March.

WHY: To attend the Red Sox season opener and sightsee.

THE BIG IDEA: “My brother promoted this,” Michael Zimman said. “He thought it was an unusual opportunity and could get tickets through the Oakland [Athletics] organization.” The brothers, who grew up on the North Shore, are huge Sox fans, as is Roberts, who is from Connecticut.

TRANSCENDENT VIEWS: In Tokyo they stayed on the 46th floor of the Park Hyatt. “It’s where ‘Lost in Translation’ was filmed,” Rovner said. “I don’t know how Scarlett was bored there,” she said of the character played by Scarlett Johansson. “The views are amazing. Wherever you were, it was like floating among the skyscrapers. There are windows everywhere. At night it was just spectacular.”

Ellen Rovner and Michael Zimman at the Tokyo Dome during the Red Sox gamePREGAME SHOW: “When we got to the game, they had the World Series trophy on display, with armed guards, and there were literally hundreds of Japanese taking photos,” Zimman said. “The opening ceremony was quite the extravaganza,” Rovner said. “They had these kids in traditional costumes, wearing bright colors, and it was very choreographed.”

SOUND AND FLURRIES: “There were about 2,000 Americans out of 55,000 total in the stands. They were selling sushi in the stands with bento boxes for snacks,” Zimman said. “In general it was much quieter. They played ‘When you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands.’ ” Fans also made “funny electronic noises when there was a foul.” The vendors were all young, attractive women in short shorts, Zimman said. “They’d run down the aisle to the bottom, bow to the crowd, and then walk back up to sell their beer.”

Glenn Roberts, Jon Zimman, and Ellen Rovner in front of Buddhist Temple in KyotoUBER-URBAN: They stayed in Kyoto and Tokyo for several days each. “Kyoto is physically more beautiful, though Tokyo has some incredible new buildings,” Rovner said. “Tokyo at first was overwhelming, but after a few days, when we could get around, we thought, wow, this is great.”

Ellen Rovner and Michael Zimman sampling scallops at the Tokyo fish marketSEAFOOD SENSATIONS: After visiting the giant Tokyo fish market, where they saw huge tunas wheeled around in motorized carts, they came upon a vendor. “They were grilling these giant scallops, like the size of a small orange. No one spoke a word of English, but a flight attendant who was there ordered a couple for us,” Zimman said.

FLOWERING FINALE: On their last day they happened upon blooming cherry trees. “All the Japanese were taking a gazillion pictures of them,” Rovner said of the blossoms. “It’s such a part of their culture.”

Nicotine a hot commodity in Norway

June 25, 2008

I’ve already related my astonishment (yes, even when forewarned) about $12 to $15 beers and $15 to $20 glasses of house wine in Norway, thanks to the dwindling dollar and those oil-rich Norwegians. (I spoke with one German couple whose beer cost a whopping 12 Euro, or about $18, at a cafe in the tourist district in Bergen.)

Rack of plastic cards for tobacco products in supermarket. Click to ENLARGE

Rack of plastic cards for tobacco products in supermarket. Click to ENLARGE

So it’s a good thing we don’t imbibe in tobacco as well, as packs of cigarettes in Norway cost about 76 NOK (Norwegian Kroner) or $15. I was fascinated by the way they were sold at the ICA supermarket and I assume elsewhere. At each checkout counter was a rack of plastic cards, kind of like gift cards, with tobacco brands and bar codes printed on them. You take your card/pack of choice, have it scanned by the cashier and then pop it into a nearby vending machine that resembles an ice machine and out comes your cigs.

I’d like to say that the high price of cigarettes has helped cut down on smoking, and perhaps it has overall, but, as I mentioned earlier, I was very surprised by the number of young people smoking, especially the gals. Many of the guys, meanwhile, have turned to “snus” or snuff, the nicotine powder product kept in one’s mouth for a time-released charge. Snuff use has been called an epidemic among male teens, according to a 2007 article in the country’s leading paper, the Aftenposten. I saw older men use it as well, including a businessman I sat next to on a plane. I don’t know the cost of snuff, but I’m sure it’s high.

I should mention here that the smoking stats for the US and Norway are about the same — an estimated 21-22 percent of adults smoke. Wessel says we notice it more in Norway because more people in general, including smokers, are outside — at cafes, using public transportation, etc. I think he makes a good point.

warning labels on cigarette packages

Warning labels on cigarette packages

Norway was one of the first countries to ban smoking in buildings, and, like many European countries, they have GIANT warning labels on the packages, so it’s not like they’re not trying. I hope they also consider banning smoking near doorways, as we had to rush through clouds of smoke before entering many restaurants, large stores, and office buildings.

As Americans used to say before half of us quit smoking, there’s nothing more annoying than a reformed smoker! Now they’re so many of us, we don’t stand out. (That would be me. Wessel has never smoked. Anything!)

Midnight sun shines brightest today

June 21, 2008

We would be remiss if we didn’t send out a greeting from the land of the midnight sun, on this, the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Summer solstice on Google NorwayEven google.no (Norway) honored the event with one of its trademark graphics, which we’ve done a screen grab on here. Norwegians in different communities across the country and especially in the north celebrate with giant communal bonfires, although it is unclear to us on exactly what day this happens.

Although as of a few hours ago we returned to Oslo, in the south (we fly home tomorrow!), we were indeed above the arctic circle last week during our cycle trip on Lofoten (photos and a few highlights to come). Midnight sun at Ramberg beachNot only did the sun never go down, it truly shined all night. I’d expected “light” not “bright.” I even wore eyeshades to sleep a couple nights when we didn’t have proper curtains. Some nights were cloudy and the sun was hidden. But on one of the clearest nights, we had an oceanfront cabin in the small town of Ramberg on Flakstadøya and could watch the midnight sun out our living-room window. At exactly midnight, about two dozen tourists, including us and a lot of Germans, poured out of their cabins and campers to see the show. It was a crazy scene!

All cycling paths lead to Lofoten

June 19, 2008

We met two Canadian touring cyclists at the amazingly beautiful and filled-with-info tourist information center in Bergen. (Much bigger and better than Oslo’s, suprisingly.) Like all Canadians do, it seems, they were sporting a maple-leaf flag.

Barb and Janne“Are you really Canadian or Americans posing as Canadians?” I asked Janne. “I’m really Canadian, eh,” he answered in that unmistakable accent. Janne’s family is Finnish and he has dual citizenship. He and his girlfriend, Barb, who live in Calgary, are on a five-week holiday, cycling in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. Like us, they’re headed for Lofoten, so perhaps we’ll see them there. They’re taking three night trains to get there, while we, on a much-shorter holiday, are flying. (By the time you read this time-released blog entry, we should be on Lofoten, without email, freezing and enjoying the amazing beauty that the chain of islands above the Arctic Circle has to offer under the light of the Midnight Sun. That was a long sentence, wasn’t it?)

Interestingly, Janne told me, they couldn’t put their bikes on trains or buses in Sweden and had to box them up like freight and “ship” them on the same train they were on. For such a forward-thinking country, that is pathetic.

Lancome pink bikeIn other cycling news, we spied a pink Lancôme bike in Bergen. Funny, I thought the French cosmetics company made only makeup. Must have been for a promotion. If they gave away pink bikes instead of little “makeup gift bags” with a $50 purchase, I’d be first in line to buy a tube of overpriced lipstick. I’d love to post a photo of the bike on a website I found featuring only pink bicycles, but now I can’t locate it. Perhaps a loyal reader can. My friend Alice is good at that. Al, you there?

Oslo highs (we’re not talking prices)

June 16, 2008

This is the last dispatch from Oslo, I swear. And, now, for some superlatives:

ToveBest Norwegian hospitality: Our Sunday lunch hosts Tove and Øystein win the prize here. Tove is the sister of Pusa Gundersen, the mother of my long-time friend Erik. I celebrated many a Norwegian-style Christmas dinner at the Gundersens’ home in West Newton, Mass., near Boston. Coincidentally, Pusa is also in Oslo on holiday, so it was fun to see her here as well. Tove and Øystein’s lovely home, a little south of Oslo, is near the Oslo fjords, which Wessel and I had a view of during our delicious meal.

Best transportation: Loved the public transport here, which include trams, subway, trains, and bicycle sharing. But the highlight was maneuvering a two-seater Th!nk City electric car through morning rush-hour traffic and onto the highway, hitting about 60 mph. Without Wessel navigating, I wouldn’t have made it. The cars, to be released in August, are coming to the US in 2009. Read all about it in my Ode magazine story sometime later this year. Very exciting! (I also drove a hydrogen-powered Prius for another story. That was cool too)

Regional traditional folk costumes for sale at HusflidenCoolest wool clothing and yarn store: Husfliden, which carries totally modern clothing and throws, including contemporary wool blankets made at Røros-Tweed, a historic textile factory with a wonderful story of reinvention that I can’t seem to find written in English anywhere. The store also carries clothing and accessories for the elaborate regional traditional folk costumes, called bunad.

Coolest cool-clothing store: Design Forum, a national chain. Reasonably priced for here, funky, feminine, great-for-layering tops, pants, skirts, sweaters, all made in Norway. Really great shoes too. Totally my style. Maybe I’ll convince someone to open an outlet in North Carolina. Can you imagine?

Hippest street: Grünerløkka is where the groovesters go, so of course Wessel and I were there, fitting right in with our American garb. The main drag of Thorvald Mayers gate (gate = street) has the usual assortment of trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and bars and from what I can tell is the only such street in Oslo. But since it’s become well known enough for us to find it, I’m guessing there’s something a little artsier and a little more fringe.

restaurant SultBest restaurant: The foodie favorite Sult, in Grünerløkka of course. The name means hunger, and it adjoins the bar Torst, or thirst. Small room, small menu, biggish meals at a reasonable price. Beautiful plating, ultra-cool photos on wall that matched the tabletops. Wessel had pork; I had catfish and we had one beer and two glasses of wine, for $130 plus a 10 percent tip. The waitress gave us a cocktail/cookbook from the original chef (now gone) that I wish I could read. It’s a great souvenir, anyway.

Most annoying smell: Cigarettes. Young people, especially women, smoke like chimneys, we were disappointed to discover. (They all have tattoos too.)

Best news out of Norway: Norway’s parliament last week adopted a new marriage law that allows gay folks to marry and adopt children and permits lesbians to be artificially inseminated. 

Loudest music: Under our hotel window on a Saturday night. That’s because one of the many stages around town for the annual Musikkfest Oslo happened to be quite close to us, which made our downtown street – and many others — quite lively. Most of the music was rockin’ and surprisingly very good. (I say surprising because bands were free and plentiful, not because they’re Norwegian! I mean, let’s not forget a-ha. Or rather, let’s.) The live music stopped by 11, but not the raucous partiers, who were still going strong when I finally fell asleep around 2. And was it truly dark out? Not really!

 

Peace, art, and old boats in Oslo

June 12, 2008

What would a visit to any international city be without checking out a few museums?

“The Scream” perfectly matched our moods just before arriving at the Munch Museum. We’d spent a couple hours online trying to find lodging for Bergen and our first night on Lofoten and either there was no room at the inn, or a totally plain room would cost $400. ARGH….

We were so happy to leave the hotel and be tourists, and we started the day viewing Edvard Munch’s masterpieces. I really love his paintings and think it’s a pity he’s mostly if not only known for “The Scream,” which of course has been commercialized in a hundred ways. (Even I, yes, have displayed blow-up Scream dolls at several jobs.) The guy was talented but not what you’d call upbeat, a few titles to wit: “Melancholy,” “Angst,” Despair.” He does, however, have several versions of “The Kiss” and a lovely “Starry Night” of his own.

The newest “museum” in town is the Nobel Peace Center, which opened in 2005. It’s near City Hall, which is where the Nobel Prize for Peace is awarded yearly. The overriding messages as well as the current exhibit, “The Places We Live” about slums worldwide, are tremendously moving. But also, the center’s displays use the latest technology. It’s a very hip place, with a cool gift shop to boot.

Sculptures in Vigeland ParkAt Vigeland Park, an open-air gallery of more than 200 sculptures of Gustav Vigeland, you also can’t help but be moved. Vigeland’s work celebrates the humanness of humanity, young and old, fat and thin, angry and loving. Everyone, including us, loves his most known piece, “Sinataggen” or “Little Hot-Head” which humorously portrays a little boy having a tantrum. But, like with Munch’s “Scream,” this shows but one side of the artist.

On the peninsula of Bygdøy, a quick ferry ride from the harbor, you can see old wood-beam farmhouses and a glorious stave church at the Norwegian Folk Museum. There’s also more contemporary housing, from the 30s, and even a look inside a stereotypical Pakistani immigrant’s home. (Most taxi drivers here are from Pakistan.) I loved the exhibit on the indigenous Sami (f.k.a. Lapps), both past and present. The museum was filled with schoolchildren, many wearing fluorescent safety vests with the school’s name and phone number. Very cute.

The Oseberg Viking shipJust around the corner at the Viking Ship Museum we marveled at the three Viking ships from the ninth century that were excavated from 1867 to 1904. Just that they are there is amazing; their ornate carvings were a bonus. So was the busload of Russians there, chattering among themselves.

But the vessels that most fascinated us were the balsa raft that sailed from Peru to Polynesia in 1947 and the reed boat that crossed the Atlantic in 1970. Both were piloted by late Norwegian explorer extraordinaire Thor Heyerdahl and are at the Kon-Tiki Museum in Bygdøy. Wessel had long wanted to see them. Me, the ignorant American, had never heard of Heyerdahl or his scientific and cultural explorations. If you’re in the same boat as I was, do yourself a favor a read a little about this fascinating man. We need more like him.

Øskår Mæyer? My first Norsk dachshund

June 10, 2008

Shira of NorwayWe met Shira, a three-year-old long-haired dachshund, on the grounds of the Natural History Museum in Oslo. Her aunt and uncle were house/pet sitting while mom and dad were on a weekend getaway. We struck up a conversation while they strolled through the lovely botanical gardens connected to the University of Oslo and near the Munch Museum.

Shira was very friendly, as were her humans. Shoot, I just realized that I forgot to ask them what the Norwegian word is for dachshund. Does anyone know?

Since meeting Shira, we’ve spied two wire-haired wiener dogs, but I wasn’t in the mood to stop the owners for a chat and a photo. Maybe next time.

 

Norway goes gaga over ‘Sex and the City’

June 9, 2008

Ad for Sex and the City on tramNorwegians seem as excited about “Sex and the City” as Americans are. Buses, taxis and subway stations are plastered with “Get Carried Away” (get it?) billboards touting the opening of the movie. On Friday, when the film debuted here, a bar held a “Sex and the City” happy hour, featuring “rimelige” (discount) cosmopolitans. On Saturday we saw gaggles of galpals pour out of the theater after a showing.

Wessel’s big thrill for the weekend: he found a 50-Kroner bill on the ground – a whopping $10. Woo-hoo! Saturday he found a 10-NOK coin, worth $2. He’s on a roll!

Kafe CelsiusOur most enjoyable night out was in the happenin’ courtyard at Kafe Celcius near the harbor. I had the mussels appetizer ($20) with a glass of white wine ($13) and Wessel had spareribs, of all things ($40), along with a $12 beer, covered by his big finds. Not so expensive by Norsk standards. Last night at a less-remarkable place I had a $30 Greek salad and Wessel had a $40 Turkish chicken meal. I slowly sipped a $14 wine and Wessel savored his $12 beer.

Speaking of beer and wine, we keep arriving just a little late. On Thursday night, we tried to buy beer (a bargain $5 for a tall can) at the supermarket at 9 p.m. They stop selling it at 8 p.m. We were prepared for the weekend, when they stop at 6 p.m. We went at 5 p.m. Saturday to buy a Diane tests shopping basket on wheelscouple beers and a bottle of wine only to discover that you can purchase wine only at the liquor store, which, on Saturday, closes at 3 p.m. I wonder if all these restrictions keep alcoholism and drunken driving down. They’re certainly cutting down on my intake.

Speaking of shopping, cool supermarket invention: Plastic shopping baskets here have long handles and wheels if’n you’d rather roll it than carry it. Are you listening, Whole Foods?

 

Cool stuff in (very) warm Oslo

June 6, 2008

Finally, we’re in Oslo, where it’s sunny (until 10 p.m.) and unseasonably warm (until Tuesday). Woo-hoo!  To catch folks up, we barely made our connector flight at Newark Wednesday night. There was no Delta agent on hand to help with connections, though that had been promised. We discovered that we needed to go to another terminal, which meant going outside and back through security. Ridiculous setup. We were running through the airport like fools, but it paid off, with only minutes to spare. Had we been out of shape, we wouldn’t have made it.

I could gripe further about snippy Continental flight attendants or how I didn’t sleep at all (unlike Mr. Snooze-o-rama Wessel), but let’s focus on the positive, shall we?

How about, do enjoy your $4 a gallon gasoline, because it’s about $13 a gallon in Norway.

Some other random tidbits:

Ceramic sculpture in window of Galleri FormatCoolest art gallery/shop: Galleri Format, which sells work by members of the Norwegian Association of Arts and Crafts. The association runs a store in Bergen too.

National Opera House in Oslo, NorwayCoolest building design: National Opera House, opened in April 2008. Angles and curves gloriously mingle, while walkable roofs attract a vibrant stream of visitors.

Oddest B&B: Stage Café B&B, an old ship that’s a B&B, café, and small-production theater. You gotta love it. A bonus: It looks out onto the Opera House.

Detail of National Opera House atriumYou know you’re not in the US when: women’s restrooms stay open while male maintenance workers clean and restock them; women breastfeed in very public places; a 20-minute taxi ride from airport to city costs $130 to $150 (we took the $35 train) and a small salad costs $20.

Friday day is a work day, but tonight we’ll celebrate the weekend with $12 beers!

 

Packing panic and Norway neuroses

June 4, 2008

I’m sending this from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, were, alas, our flight to Newark is delayed. We think we’ll still be able to make our connection to Oslo. We think….

I’m glad I crack myself up, because I’ve been having a lot of laughs at my expense over the past couple days. After planning a trip to Norway for more than a year, Wessel and I are finally on our way! As always, the last few days before leaving on a longish journey (18 days) are the craziest. I understand how the anxiety of leaving home for several weeks is enough to inspire the now-trendy “staycation.”

The location was Wessel’s idea, the highlight being a bicycle tour on Lofoten, an archipelago above the Arctic Circle that I’d never even heard of. Now that’s exciting! Since then, it was ranked in the top five of best-preserved islands by National Geographic Traveler.

We “bought” tickets with Delta Sky Miles almost a year ago, always an ordeal. Although we knew Norway was expensive, with the dollar so low and the Norwegian Krone strong, sticker shock got the better of us. So what began as a vacation with a travel story thrown in is now a working vacation, with three alternative-energy stories planned for Ode Magazine and two travel stories planned for the Boston Globe.

So, back to packing. Despite my frequent travels, I’ve never learned to pack light. I’ve taken classes, bought books, written stories on how to do it, but I seem to be a lost cause. This is a trip with work, play, warm weather, cold weather, outdoor, indoor activities. The usual. I put way too much thought into everything, trying to predict my every need. Then there was the choice of reading material. I changed books three times (settled on “What is the What”) before chucking the whole idea and going with four unread issues of The Sun Magazine.

Here’s the part that really cracks me up, and I wonder if others do the same thing. Suddenly, two days before leaving, I had to finish everything I had put off for the past three months. Filing, sending long overdue emails, cleaning a room. Meanwhile, I wrote a small book for our house/dog sitters Paul and Michelle, with about 12 headings. They came over twice for tutorials. I was very relieved that they scored well on last night’s pop quiz.

But the final hour today was the most outrageous. Even though people will be staying at the house, I ended up in the kitchen finishing every half-eaten thing in the refrigerator, things that had gone untouched for a week. When it was the agreed-upon time to leave for the airport, Wessel found me standing over the kitchen sink frantically eating half a leftover orange, juice dripping all over. “OK, hon,” he said gently, placing his hand on my shoulder as if I were a mental patient, “we really need to go now.” First, I had to put the peels in the compost. And then, finally, we were off!