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Fri, 25 Nov 2005
It takes a long time to get to Norway from California. After an 11-hour flight from San Francisco to London, I had a three-hour layover in London before the short (1.5-hour) flight to Oslo. I took a shower at the airport hotel, then hopped on a train to central Oslo and immediately climbed aboard the train to Bergen....which took another 7 hours or something like that. (If I had planned a little better at the start, I probably could have flown directly from London to Bergen). It all made for a verrrry looooong travel day, more than 24 hours from leaving San Francisco before I was able to check into my hotel.
Bergen is a lovely city, or at least the downtown area is. It includes what must be one of the smallest U.N. World Heritage Sites: a one-square-block area of 800-year-old wooden shops. I spent a couple of hours in the morning (it was a Sunday) wandering around, but must things were closed --- Sunday morning, off-season. Around noon I took the funicular up a steep hill at the edge of town, and found myself on an attractive overlook along with dozens of other people. Apparently (according to my friend who lives there) Sunday is hiking day for families all around the country. The miles and miles of paths above Bergen were swarming with day hikers like me, all out enjoying the fall colors and the fresh air.
I took a look at a map, chose a route, and set off, but I eventually started branching off in whatever direction looked the most interesting. The paths went to dramatic overlooks, through peaceful forests, and along wind-swept rocky ridges. At one juncture, there was a warming hut doing a brisk business selling soup and coffee. A chilly rain started up suddenly and lasted for half an hour or so, but no one was deterred; they just zipped up their rain jackets and pressed on.
After a few enjoyable hours of hiking, I wound my way down the hill and into town for an early dinner. (My body clock was so out of kilter, the time didn't really matter).
The next day I continued the "Norway in a Nutshell" tour by taking the train to a bus to a boat that took us -- me and a dozen passengers (on a boat that could carry hundreds) -- on a two-hour ride through the narrowest of Norway's southern fjords. We stopped in briefly at a few tiny towns, and passed several others that showed little sign of people about...although all of the buildings were in good repair. The concessionaire on the boat said that these little towns are shrinking, since there's not much employment and not much that is of interest to young people. These towns of 20-40 hourses jammed onto a little bulge of land next to a steep cliff were very picturesque, but I can definitely see why it would be hard to retain people; to me, it's amazing that some of these towns have been there for over 500 years, at more or less the size they are now.
The boat dropped us all off at the small town of Flam, at the end of a tongue of the fjord. Most of the other passengers continued on by railway, either to Bergen or to Oslo, but I was staying the night in Flam. Unfortunately I was too tired and jet-lagged to do a big hike in the hills as I had planned, so instead I rented a bike and rode to a town a few kilometers away, poked around a little, and then rode back. I was one of only about 20 tourists in town for the night, and was disappointed that there wasn't anything to do in the evening. If a pub were open, maybe with some live music, at least 20 of us would have been in there, I guarantee.
The next day I took the Flam Railway, a steep and scenic route, up to its connection with the main line to Oslo. It had been dark for most of my trip from Oslo to Bergen a couple of days earlier, but this time it was afternoon and I got to see the scenery. Lots of areas with forest (all in lovely fall colors), and lots of rather barren-looking rocky ground, sometimes with lakes or streams. Certainly a lovely country.
I spent Wednesday wandering around Oslo, by foot and by tram. I went to the Viking ship museum, which includes a couple of incredibly well-preserved Viking ships and is a must-see (although the exhibits were unimaginative), and the museum for the polar ship "Fram" (meaning "Onward"); this was the ship Nansen took on his trip across the arctic, and was later used by Amundsen for his Antarctic expedition. The whole ship is there and you can wander around in it; there are also some nice exhibits, although the English-language descriptions were rather short.
Thursday I met for a few hours with researchers at the Norwegian Building Research Institute. I described the work that my group does, related to building ventilation, and heard about the Institute's work in that area, and in others. I also got a tour of their impressive facilities. Afterwards I went to the University of Oslo to meet with the other members of the dissertation review committee, to discuss the dissertation defense (or "disputation", as they charmingly call it)...oh, I guess I forgot to mention, the reason I was in Norway in the first place was to serve on the dissertation review committee of Astrid Kristofferson, a doctoral candidate who had spent a year working in my group (though I didn't work with her myself). Astrid's advisor, Jan, kindly took me out to an excellent dinner on the waterfront that night
Friday was the day for the "disputation." First the candidate gave a one-hour lecture (pretty good) about the current state of affairs in designing and building low-energy-consumption houses in Norway. Then, after lunch, I gave a brief talk about the work in the dissertation, and posed some questions for the candidate to wrestle with. She partially answered my questions and then dodged the tricky bits, in a thoroughly appropriate and professional manner (they were hard questions). The other "opponent" then grilled her on a few more points. And that's it! Congratulations, Dr. Kristofferson! We all --- family, friends, committee --- repaired to a restaurant for a celebratory dinner.
Saturday, at the recommendation of one of Astrid's friends I spent the morning walking several miles along a river that runs through Oslo to the harbor. Sometimes it runs through little neighborhoods, sometimes through parkland...a very pleasant stroll. I got to central Oslo just in time (well, a little late) to meet Astrid and her friend at the "Frognerpark", which is sort of Oslo's Central Park. Very popular spot, and it holds the life work of a somewhat eccentric sculptor/designer. Astrid and I spent a while walking around, then drove out to her house for dinner with her, her husband, and their two kids. And then the next day, I flew back home.
All in all, it was a very pleasant trip. Norway is a lovely country, although stunningly expensive; Bergen and Oslo are both attractive cities that relate very well to their waterfronts, sort of like Vancouver or Seattle.