Back in Beautiful Bergen – Barely

It’s been a couple of years and I was feeling pretty nostalgic for Norway. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get back. And I am so glad I did. There were a few changes, but not very many. It was, however, a little more difficult to arrive this time. You see, for the first time in 28 years, the Norwegian public workers were on strike. The cost of living salary increase for one public worker union was not as high as that for private industry workers. Not only was that public union on strike, but all the other public unions were in on a sympathy strike. This included the garbage collectors, the security guards at the airport, harbor boat pilots and teachers, among others. If you’ve been to France or Italy, odds are you’ve been there during a strike, and it usually means a headache. In Norway it does not happen often and even when it does, the headache is less than it would be anywhere else. For example, instead of no security personnel showing up to work at the airport, only half of them are on site. Of course the Norwegians, being prepared and logical people, were careful to arrive very early for their flights. So early, in fact, that it got crowded. The airports were not equipped to handle the capacity once all those people were waiting at gates several hours early. And it made my life rather interesting too.

To get to Bergen, I connected from Amsterdam through Oslo. While Norway is part of the Schengen agreement, they are not part of the European Union. This means you don’t have to have your passport stamped by immigration, but you do have to collect all your luggage and re-check it when you get to Norway. You have to effectively start over as though you were coming in off the street. With a 50 minute layover and a security personnel strike, this is a challenge! Thankfully, people let me ahead of them in the security line and the airport isn’t that big. I had to run, flat out, for the last 200 yards, but I got on the plane before they shut the door. Sweating and panting, but aboard!

After I found my seat, I learned that Bergen was hosting a jazz festival that week. There were long-haired old guys and big bass cellos at baggage claim when I arrived, and there were plenty of people consulting concert schedules. I was keeping an eye out for my cousin, Lars Bjarne. I started out looking for a tall, fit man, but soon realized that description fit far too many Norwegian people in the airport pick up area to be useful. But we found each other soon enough, hit the road and headed for the grocery store. Yes, that’s right. You see, my dear cousin Marianne, the gourmet cook, was away in the north to celebrate a family birthday and would not be home until Sunday night. That left Lars alone to manage the house and their two children. The kids are mostly self-managing so that was hardly an issue, but the food was another matter. After a little sheepish hemming and hawing, it came out that he was hoping I’d be able to do some cooking. Well, certainly that would be easy. We picked up some seafood and headed for home – one that’s been in the family for generations.

Upon arrival, I dispersed the chocolates and other foodstuffs that I’d been collecting from around Europe. My suitcase was lighter and the kids looked pleased. Which was important because I’d be imposing on the youngest this time. She was giving up her bedroom for me, and was even gracious about it. What a sweetheart. Turns out she is interested in photography and has a good eye. It was a treat to talk to her about it, and her trust to show me her work meant a lot to me.

Lars Bjarne and I went down into town to look around, have a coffee and take a little tour. We saw some strange public artwork that had been erected for the jazz festival, and several people were gathered around some sleek, modern longboats in the harbor. Apparently a traditional Viking-style rowing race, called a Dragon boat race, had been held that afternoon and prizes were being awarded. We checked out the abundant fish market. There is every kind of fish you could want there, looking fat and sassy and in the prime of its life. These are just such fine specimens it makes you want to take them all home and eat them one by one, if only they would keep. And I am not the only one who thinks so. The fish market does so well financially that it was able to command the construction of an entirely new building smack in the middle of the historic downtown harbor – pretty impressive. We walked down the quay, looking at the shops and the people and generally enjoying ourselves. Eventually we stopped at a restaurant for a bite to eat, after learning that the kids had eaten at friends’ homes. The groceries would keep until tomorrow, after all, and in the meantime, there were some lovely mussels to be had.

I found out that the Schengen policy has not been an easy one for Bergen. Crime has become so bad that you cannot even leave a pretty flower pot at your garden gate or it will be stolen in the night by foreigners in vans, stealing all over town and selling the loot at their home markets elsewhere. Diesel is siphoned and shoes left next to the door will disappear. Bergen is such a trusting town that this has been a sad adjustment. We took a walk after supper up the hill, to the old fire station and then a gentle walk back down through a traditional Bergen neighborhood complete with white houses and glazed tile roofs. And lots of smugs – that’s the Norwegian word for a little alleyway. It was sunlit the whole time since it was early June, and wasn’t even twilight by the time we got home after ten.

A day or two later, I got to see the historic “old town” of Bergen: Gamle Bergen. It’s where antique houses and workshops that were in good condition but were in the way of progress have gone to have a new life. They are moved there, board by board, tile by tile, and carved moulding by moulding, then carefully reassembled and repaired as needed. A little town was created, and crafts and industry of the day revived and practiced by local people for the entertainment and education of the visitors. Young people volunteer there and play the old games and teach visiting children how to play. It is a charming place, really, and very fun to see. There was a bakery with a line around the corner, a silversmith, a toy and dry goods shop, and a metal working shop, among others. Lars Bjarne and I imagined how a father might, in secret in the workshop, make the dollhouses and toys we saw on display, perhaps for his child’s Christmas present. And I watched, fascinated, as the metalworkers made very clever little whistles. Apparently my interest was noted because they asked me if I wanted one. I said “oh yes please” and I have been playing with it ever since. What a wonderful place is Bergen – I am so glad I got to go back. I feel so very lucky.

*Author’s note: it took me a while to make this post, but the journey to Bergen was part of the European trip in mid-May and early June.

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