Bergen, Fjords and Norwegians
I bought two books on Norway before my trip, but neither really prepared me for the stunning beauty of Bergen and the quiet friendliness of Norwegians. Yet before I could be pleasantly surprised by that Nordic country I had to endure delayed British trains which caused me and many others to nearly miss our flight from Stansted airport to Bergen.
I woke up at 6 a.m. on Friday in order to catch my 7:30 a.m. train to Leicester, where I was to change to another train that would, theoretically at least, get me to Stansted in two hours, in time for my 12:05 p.m. flight. Alas, that was not to be. Instead, just minutes before our arrival at Stansted our conductor announced that the train would be ending its journey in Cambridge because of technical problems. We were told to switch to another train on another platform. We ran to the next train and got on it in time. Then we realized we would have to switch again to yet another train. Luckily it was to be our last train, as it was going straight to Stansted.
Seated next to a group of young Norwegians who had spent the week in London, we all worriedly kept muttering to ourselves that we were going to miss our flight. At Stansted we ran up the long ramp to the check-in desk, with only minutes to spare.
“Are you Norwegian?” the young Norwegian guy who had been seated next to me asked me as we waited to check-in.
“No,” I replied.
THAT was the short answer to a question that I could have answered at length had I not been out of breath from running up that ramp. You see, my American mother is of Norwegian descent on her father’s side. The Storksons migrated from Bergen in the early 1900s to North Dakota in the United States, and some of them later moved south to Illinois and then Missouri, where my mother grew up.
My great-grandfather, Stork Storkson, was one of many Norwegians who made the trip across the Atlantic in search of a better life, and I had always wanted to visit Bergen to see for myself what sort of place he had left behind.
“So you are Norwegian? So are we,” said the slogan of budget airline Norwegian Airlines on the headrest in front of me. It seemed like an odd and semi-rhetorical way of stating the obviously patriotic fact that we were indeed flying on a Norwegian airline.
Since I was hungry I purchased a sandwich and soft drink for 60 kroner, or around $10. Yes, ten dollars! Norway, I had been warned, is extremely expensive, which is why the two young female students sitting next to me declined to buy anything onboard.
After telling me where to buy Norwegian music, since Bergen is the music capital of Norway, they both squealed with delight when the pilot told us that the weather was going to be good in Bergen when we landed.
There is an old joke that the weather never changes in Bergen, which is to say that it is constantly raining. Luckily for me it didn’t rain at all when I was there, and the city is always a few degrees warmer than the capital Oslo because it is on the North Sea and near the Gulf Stream, which moderates temperatures.
BERGEN was Norway’s first capital, founded in 1070 by King Olav Kyrre, and was the largest and most important city in medieval times.
But the city’s prosperous trade as a fishing port was hijacked by the German-controlled Hanseatic League in the 14th century, which forced local fishermen to sell their fish to the Germans at below market rates. This of course enriched the League, and made Bryggen, Bergen’s main wharf area, a rich enclave. Norwegian kings were also to blame for this situation, which lasted well into the 19th century, for they were happy enough to collect taxes from the Hansa merchants and did not much care that there own people were living in poverty.
By the 1550s the Hanseatic League was crumbling, but a local lord, Kristoffer Valkendorf, assumed the position of the Hanseatic League, which left the locals equally impoverished. It wasn’t until well into the 1960s that Bergen became a well-to-do city for all of its inhabitants.
Now I understand why my great-grandfather and so many like him were forced to seek greener pastures in America.
MY local guide in Bergen was, of all people, a Filipino who has been in Norway for only one year. Charles, a 24-year-old native of Cebu City, is a web designer, and it is through his weblog that I became friends with him.
Already fluent in Norwegian, Charles took me to the Bryggen wharf area, the main shopping district and up to the top of one of the seven hills that ring Bergen. The view was spectacular, the whole of the city and its harbor spread out beneath us.
From left to right: Savitra, Charles, my guide in Bergen, and Karim
ON Sunday I decided to take the well-known “Norway in a Nutshell” tour which takes the whole day to complete. I left Bergen on a train at 8:40 in the morning, going eastwards. After just over an hour we arrived in Voss, which lies at the foot of snowy mountains, where crowds of young Norwegians were going to ski and snowboard.
I next boarded a luxury bus that took us through the mountains to Gundvangen, where I boarded a small boat for a breathtaking two-hour cruise on two fjords, which are lakes at the bottom of deep valleys.
After a break for lunch at Flam, we took the famed Flam Railroad through the snowy mountains, going up a tiny track that verged on deep precipices that were covered in bright, white snow and ice. At Myrdal, I changed again for my final train back to Bergen, where I arrived tired but satisfied at nearly 6 p.m.
EVERYWHERE I went in Norway, people tried to speak to me in Norwegian, which isn’t surprising since my height and coloring do indeed make me look like a local. Fortunately for me, everyone spoke English since it is taught to them from the third grade.
With only four and a half million inhabitants and a GDP per capita of $30,800 thanks to oil revenue, Norway is an extremely wealthy and content country.
Flying back to rainy England, I felt satisfied that I had finally visited the land of my ancestors, if only for a little while.