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Sunday, May 25, 2008, in Ålesund, Norway

Hi all. We’re making progress up the coast of Norway, and are as of today at a good dock in a cute town, so maybe we’ll slow down our northward progress for a few days. Last time I wrote to you, we had just arrived in Bergen. Bergen’s the second-largest city in Norway, so we knew that we could focus on getting some errands done. There were some tasks that had gone undone in Stavanger. One was to get an invoice signed by Customs. The other was to procure a battery backup for Art’s navigation computer.

The Customs office was along the other side of the harbor, and this time the agent understood our need to export our purchases out of Sweden, signing the invoice we needed him to sign. He also understood our need to document our departure from the European Union, and provided a fitting piece of documentation that we could store with our ship��s papers. A lot of Norwegian officials insist that we don’t need to get this paperwork to visit Norway. We know that. We need the paperwork to avoid paying a large tax in Sweden. This Customs guy understood our needs and took care of them. We finally could check that task off of our list.

Our next task was to buy a UPS, a computer battery backup. The shop that sold it was in a mall in the commercial harbor of Bergen. We decided to walk, having heard that it would take about forty minutes. It took considerably longer, but we got there.

Paying for it took the rest of the day. The shop couldn’t take our US Visa card. We had cash, but not enough. The ATM in the mall didn’t accept our ATM card, nor did the post office/bank in the mall. The clerk in the computer shop ordered us a taxi, who took us to the nearest ATM, about two miles away, and the ride cost $30. He wasn’t a crook. Prices in Norway had been spooking us for days.

There are lots of reasons that Norway is expensive for us. Oslo is among the most expensive cities in the world. Norway is rich, for the same reason that Saudi Arabia is rich. Also, the dollar is faring poorly against European currencies. And products in high-tax Norway have a 25% value-added tax in the price.

We haven’t been able to eat lunch for under about $40 for the two of us. To reach the $40 goal, we have to go to a café or equivalent. We can order a salad or a sandwich or an omelette. We can’t order a beverage. I bought three parsnips and a leek at the outdoor market in Stavanger. The vegetables cost $10. We haven’t seen it yet, but we are pretty sure that a pizza for two would cost $40. We could sit home and eat rice and beans for every meal, but that isn’t the traveling we expect to do. But it has taken some time for us to stop feeling anxious about the bills.

Of course, that wasn’t our problem in the computer shop. He couldn’t take the money we wanted to give him. We had to find cash. The taxi dropped us at a large bank in town. We’d expected him to drive us back to the computer shop, too, but we didn’t want our taxi ride to cost more than the battery we were buying. The UPS, a model that sells in the US for about $50, cost $200. But traffic was dense, and we realized that getting cash in Norway wasn’t going to be all that easy. So we let him go.

The ATM at the largest bank in Norway turned us down. We went to the service desk. The customer representative looked into it and told us that banks in Norway no longer accept US ATM cards. I found that hard to believe. We’d gotten cash from ATMs in Norway before. “No,” she said. “They no longer accept ATMs. Only VISA. The only thing you can do is go to the train station and maybe you can get cash from Western Union.”

Art turned to me and said, “This is quite a country. We can’t afford anything, and even if we could, they won’t let us have any money.” Hours were slipping away. Buses were slow, and the computer store wasn’t close to town. Traffic was getting worse. The national day was the next day, and the day after that was Sunday. Nobody would be working until Monday. We crossed the street and found another ATM on the other side of the street. Art got cash with no problem. The biggest bank in Norway simply had it wrong.

We thought we’d take a bus back to the shop until we realized that it would cost us $8.00 to travel the distance of a twenty-minute walk. Halfway through our walk, we realized that wed miscalculated where we were and the walk would be more like 40 minutes. Of course, now the bus ride would still only cover a twenty-minute walk. We trudged on.

Finally, we made our purchase and took a long, cost-effective bus ride back to our boat. Though it was already late in the day, we needed to make one more stop, to the supermarket around the corner. I could tell we were already getting accustomed to the prices. Four pork chops cost $10. Cherry tomatoes were about 25 cents each. We spent $100 and hoped that the food would last us for three more months. It didn’t help our spirits that low tide had dropped the boat from its already-low position on the high commercial dock. We used the old tires as stair steps and prayed that we wouldn’t fall into the freezing water.

The next morning, a parade went by before we had even eaten breakfast. National Day was on. We stayed aboard through the early ceremonies, but left in plenty of time to get a good spot along the head of the harbor to watch the parades. We looked like the embarrassing cousins of the finely-dressed Norwegian celebrants. More than half of the women were wearing traditional clothing, and the men were in suits and ties. Many of the adults wore long tags in Norway’s flag colors, and nearly everyone waved a small flag.

The traditional costume is called a bunad, and there are regional variations, perhaps about 200 versions. Women’s long dresses were embroidered, and many wore matching embroidered shawls. The women’s outfits were festooned with traditional jewelry and sometimes a purse. The costume for men was equally vibrant, and looked to me like lederhosen. The official look is traditional from head to toe, with some sort of bonnet or hat, down to the Mayflower-esque shoes. The bunad is ubiquitous at National Day celebrations, but it will also show up at other festive occasions, such as weddings.

Cannons announced the holiday and the parade began. It wound its way around the old town area, which had been completely closed to automobile traffic. I felt like I was watching the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, the weather felt like New Year’s Day as well. But the sun came out and I could unpeel in its warmth.

The parade went on for hours. There were representatives from the army and navy, with brass bands, and bands and floats from all walks of life: sports, including golf, skiing, karate, swimming, gymnastics and soccer, schools, professions, such as nursing, organizations in town, and theater groups. There were antique fire trucks and classic cars, and a tank made out of cardboard from a military school. Some of the bands wore top hats, and some wore bowlers. The parade was interspersed with regular folks, who were dressed in traditional garb or not, who were pushing strollers or walking dogs, or who were talking on their cell phones. After a few hours of groups followed by groups, we began to wonder how, in a town of 200,000, there was anyone left in town to watch the festivities. But all along the circuitous parade route, people were three deep, waving flags, singing along, and enjoying the festivities. They lasted for hours, even after we went to bed.

The city-states of thirteenth-century Germany joined into leagues of merchants, the most powerful of which was the Hanseatic League. This league had more than 150 member cities and included many of the cities of Scandinavia, including Bergen. The street along the harbor where we were docked was Bryggen, once a major commercial center. By the fourteenth century, there were about 30 buildings on the harborside road. The buildings along the street, carefully restored, are charming wooden three-story structures that now house tourist shops and restaurants and no longer smell of the fish that were once packed there.

The German merchants who resided there were always unmarried men. They weren’t allowed to mix with, marry or have families with the local Norwegians. The Hanseatic League fell into decline a few hundred years later, partly because of competition from English and Dutch trading companies, and partly because the Black Death killed a third of Europe’s population.

One of the charming buildings along the wharf (Bryggen means wharf, incidentally) has been turned into the Hanseatic Museum, so we took advantage of its proximity to our boat and visited what were once offices and workrooms for pressing the fish. Because of fire hazard, the buildings weren’t heated, including the living areas. Beds were tiny and often occupied by more than one man, simply for warmth. Even the manager’s office didn’t look very grand. It was a tough life.

Another 4 AM alarm and we were on our way again. The weather was again cold, dry, and windless. I knew that Art was frustrated with all of our motoring; the journey itself is much of the enjoyment for him. We motored between the mainland and out-islands, often without the assistance of our AIS system, the system that identifies nearby ships. For some reason, AIS has a perplexing tendency to crash and take down our chart plotter with it when we need them both the most. The first time it happened was in the heavily-traveled channel into St. Petersburg during the boat’s maiden season. One theory is that it choked when too many vessels were in the area. This is a disheartening theory: the consequence is that you can only monitor ship traffic when there isn’t much of it. The cure, for the moment, was to turn off the VHF radio, which transmits the AIS data.

There were some bridges and some overhead cables to duck through, and these always provide no small share of optical illusion and anxiety for me when we go under them. Looking up from the boat, even a bridge that’s three times the height of the mast looks as though we’re going to crash right into it. When the bridge is only five meters (fifteen feet) higher than the mast, and all we have for validation is the chart data and somebody’s estimate of the tidal range, the moments just before we go beneath it are tense. But the charts are always right, and I breathe a sigh of relief and worry about the next one.

We decided against another hundred-mile trip to a city, and were both looking forward to anchoring near Florø and resuming our trip in the morning. Art found two anchorages that were a few hours from the city. We passed the first one, which didn’t have the best protection against the light winds we’d be getting overnight. An hour later, we got to the second one. There were three entrances. One had a power cable across it that was too low for our mast. A second had a bridge that was normally open. The third required a small circumnavigation of the island and would add a half hour to our arrival and departure. This was beginning to sound like a fairy tale to me.

We opted for the bridge. It was open. But Art looked at the angle on the open span and wondered whether our rigging would make it through the space. I couldn’t tell either, but I knew that we’d underestimated the length of the boat on several occasions, and it wouldn’t be shocking if we’d underestimated the width of the rigging sometime. In the end, I couldn’t stand the risk of using the bridge. We went around the island to the other side.

As we navigated that entrance, we were deterred by the submerged rocks on the course and even inside the anchorage. I didn’t want to take the risk of this rocky entrance either. I could tell that Art didn’t think the risks were as high as I did, and that he really wanted to be settled in for the night. We’d both been up for many hours, but I’d been able to sleep during his watches and he hadn’t done the same during mine. I had really wanted to anchor, too, and our only options were to return to the first anchorage, losing two hours of progress, or press on to Florø, losing two hours of our evening, and missing out on an idyllic night at anchor. We pressed on and docked at the marina in Florø.

It was raining for much of the morning, so we had a little gratification that we didn’t have to be at sea in that weather, had we been able to anchor the night before. Each of us had a maintenance item to perform. Art rode off in the dinghy to find gasoline, a commodity we hadn’t seen anywhere in Norway yet. I went to the marina service building to do some laundry. I put a load of dirty linens into one of the two identical machines and closed the door. Then I decided to open the door. It was impossible. I tried every combination I could of pressing buttons, with and without the on/off switch. The washer door was locked forever. I began to think Id never see my bed linens again.

Doing laundry in a different environment each time has its challenges. It’s not only that it’s a public place. If I’d gone to a Laundromat at home, I could ask someone for help, either an employee or another person doing their laundry. Laundromats serving marinas are by their nature unfriendly places; they’re completely empty, so there’s nobody to ask, or there’s a line for the machines and a sometimes disagreeable competition for the limited facilities. In my case, there was nobody around at all. I busied myself for twenty minutes or so pressing buttons in various permutations to no avail. At one point, I closed the door on the other washer, just to practice opening it again. It too locked up like a vault. Now I had two machines I couldn’t use, and I imagined that we’d sit in the little laundry room all summer, waiting for someone to come and free my linens.

I finally mustered up the drive to ask a bystander whose van was parked next to the building. He read all of the Norwegian signs and the labels on the buttons, and he was flummoxed as well. By now I thought that Art would be back from getting fuel, and maybe he’d come by. If he didn’t help, then maybe he would commiserate. But he and the dinghy were not in view. I hoped it wasn’t too hard for him to find fuel, because I knew that the tank in the dinghy was very low.

Finally, I went across the street to the hotel that sells the services to boats in the marina. A clerk graciously came with me back to the laundry room, read all of the signs, read all of the labels on the buttons, and nearly gave up when she hit a magical combination of buttons that included an electronic payment machine on the wall. There was a click, and the door could finally open. Starting my laundry had taken more than a half hour.

Yet Art wasn’t back. I began to get concerned. He knew that, too, because he was trying very hard to get back to me to let me know he was okay. He was having a bad day, too. He’d taken the dinghy to one place, then another, then another, because nobody seemed to have any gasoline. Diesel, the fuel of large boats, was no problem. But gasoline for small outboards apparently wasn’t in any demand. Perhaps here in Norway, people just drilled for it in their own back yards.

He finally found a fuel dock with gasoline. He said to the attendant “Gasoline, not diesel”. She said “Yes, this is gasoline.” She began to pump. Then she said, “Oops. Wait. This is diesel.”

You can’t use diesel in a gasoline engine. Furthermore, if you try to use it, and get it into the lines, it makes cleaning it out a big deal. This was a big problem for Art. Having a working dinghy is extremely important for our safety. And he’d tried to verify that the fuel was correct.

At least the error was discovered before he had started the engine and gotten the diesel into all the hoses. And, as Art explained to me later, at least the mix-up was diesel for gasoline and not the other way around. If you start a gasoline engine, like our dinghy, if it’s filled with diesel, it simply won’t work. If you start a diesel engine, like our boat, filled with gasoline, the engine explodes. We have a very large diesel tank onboard. I’ll be thinking about that now every time we get fuel from here on out.

The fuel people agreed to clean out the tank and fill it with gasoline, and they drove Art back into town, as he was sure that I’d be calling the Coast Guard in search of him. And I probably would have been, if I hadn’t wasted so much time pressing ornery buttons in the service building.

By this time, it was well after noon and we were both hungry and cranky. We found a place in town, had a small, casual, expensive meal, and walked back to the fuel dock to retrieve our dinghy.

We wandered around Flor�� in the afternoon, not looking for anything in particular. There isn’t a lot of sightseeing to do there, just a small fishing museum. Spring brings with it the situation that we unimaginatively call “Norway Syndrome”, so named during our first visit in the summer of 2000. This is how Norway Syndrome works: you leave the boat covered in layers of clothes. You might have a turtleneck under something of fleece, and all that under a heavy jacket. On a day with a good forecast, it’ll be a light jacket. I walk around in that gear, and when it’s cloudy or there’s a breeze, Ill zip my jacket as high as it will go, and I might put on the fleece gloves I have stashed in the jacket. Then the sun comes out and there’s no breeze, and I take off the gloves. Then I unzip the jacket. Then I swelter and I take off the fleece shirt, and tie it around my waist. Then the sun goes behind a cloud, and it all goes on again.

The way that Norwegians deal with Norway Syndrome is simple. They wear short sleeves and sandals. It’s May, for heaven’s sake.

Our itinerary for our second full day in Florø was similar to our first day. After spending an hour or two brushing anti-fungal solution on the teak decks, we had lunch in a bistro that had the traditional Thursday meal of raspeboller. These are potato dumplings the size and color of a softball, always served with the accoutrements of sausage, lamb, and mashed turnip. As in all of Scandinavia, even when the main course is a potato, it’s served with a boiled potato. I understood that raspeboller is considered an acquired taste, but apparently I’ve already acquired that taste at countless Jewish dinners. Without the bit of flour that’s in it, it’s virtually a potato-based matzo ball suitable for Passover, had it not been covered with minced pork. And cream sauce.

Our departure from Florø was at the more respectable time of 6:45 AM into calm seas under a sunny sky. We made our way through islands and the mainland, along with a small amount of commercial maritime traffic. Our AIS was working fine again, and we began to distrust our theory that the number of recorded vessels alone was causing the unit to fail.

Mountains seemed as though they were closer to the waters edge, and there was a noteworthy increase in the frequency of snow sightings. Little waterfalls made vertical streams and dropped their cargo into the sea. Small towns were sprinkled on an otherwise empty landscape save the occasional fish farm. I wondered what it would be like to be hours of mountain road from seeing any slightly unfamiliar face. Around us was a palette of primary colors: bright green deciduous trees, deep evergreens, brown bare rock, and purplish distant peaks, all bordered with the bright clean blue of sea and sky.

Instead of a long day, we stopped at Silda, an island of twelve full-time inhabitants and many more summer residents. As always, we were there pre-season and had the whole guest dock to ourselves. Indeed, we had most of the town to ourselves. A walk around uncovered the harborside restaurant open weekends during May, and we were there on a Friday night. They were setting up, but told us that the restaurant specialized in fish. Though we normally eat dinner aboard, we’d eaten lunch underway and we viewed the availability of a restaurant as a sort of sign. So we came back for dinner.

Ironically, the meal we got seemed to be lunch anyway. The menu was very short, like a menu you’d design if you were limited to the contents of your pantry. And nothing was a hot meal, unless you counted the hot dog. We both ended up with a plate that might be at home in Italy or Croatia. In Italy, it would be a first course of a seven-course experience, and even Croatians would eat a course or two afterwards. It was called speke and refers to brine cured and dried meat. There were three kinds of sliced meat on the plate, one from sheep and two that might have been pork, or maybe some other animal. One of the meats was very much like prosciutto, another like the Spanish jamon. The third was like pepperoni. After all an animal goes through to provide speke, it probably doesn’t matter what it was once upon a time. The meat (about a dozen slices in all) was laid out in folds and served with a creamy potato salad and some very thin flat bread.

During our meal, we were entertained by a charming 13-year-old who seemed to adopt us. He told us that he spends his summers in Silda. He’d gotten the only sunburn he’d ever had on a July visit to Orlando. And when we told him that we’d be moving on to Bodø, he said, “that’s really, really cold there.” This from a boy in a tee shirt in May.

Silda isn’t really a two-day town, even though we were well ahead of our itinerary. But it was clear to us that we didn’t want to arrive in Bodø too early in the season, like before the streets were plowed from last week’s snowstorm. There’s nothing more depressing than having to brush the snow off of your decks before heading out to sea at 4 AM. We decided to move on to here, Ålesund, because we knew it would be the sort of place we could settle down for a few days. I’ll tell you about Ålesund next time.

Enjoy your Memorial Day. We miss you.

Love, Art and Karen