Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Fresh Whale Meat at The Bergen Fish Market + Moose (Norway)

King crab, lobster, salmon, halibut, moose, and whale, all fish caught in the local fjords and sold here at the Bergen Fish Market.
fish- it's what's for dinner
Some of you who are more adroit might scream out, "Rich, you made a massive error in your previous statement!!"
Well thank you for pointing it out (though I wish you'd do it more quietly) and you're right, halibut is a deep water fish and thus not available for capture in your average fjord.
But oe thing you can do is purchase a slice of the ocean's largest fish- whale. Yes, the delectable and fresh local catch makes its way into the hands of consumers right here.
Minke whale
Business Idea: The smiling whale pictured above found in so many restaurants around the world, the "classy pig" with a monocle, the plump chicken giving me the thumbs up to dig in; all cartoon mascots employed to increase consumption of their flesh by making the animal "cute." As this bizarrely seems to work, does anyone want to open a Vietnamese restaurant with me? If so, I already have the logo.

Prices here are, in a word, "large." $11 for a baguette, $10 for a beer, $32 a pound for locally caught salmon. The vast flow of Norway's oil revenues merging with high sales taxes are like rocket fuel, pushing prices into the stratosphere.
Interestingly, many of the workers at the market are foreigners, attracted by wages for service jobs far higher than they could dream of earning in their native country, I walk from stall to stall and meet motivated Spaniards, Chinese, and Russians, working as long and hard as they can, living as frugally as possible in the world's most expensive country, in hopes they bring home substantial savings to start a business, to purchase a flat, etc.

I sample the available cuisine. The salmon is unbelievable tasty, fresh, spiced just a touch. I'm also offered Minke Whale meat. I'm rarely one to say no, and before you PETA types get all in a huff, I didn't contribute to the demand by purchasing. The catch is limited to 500 a year, and carefully controlled by the givernment (as are all things in Scandinavia.)
trying Minke whale meat in Bergen

In an area where it rains the majority of the year, an unblemished sun is celebrated by all with smiles. Normally reserved Norwegians blossom like the flowers around them and the market's atmosphere warms.
 I chew on the moose sausage I've purchased, watching the surrounding hustle in the busiest part of this touristy town, as I dream of my Vietnamese restaurant and the crowds that would gather-- WOOF WOOF!

As a seasoned traveler, if I could offer one piece of advice, embrace the reality of where ever you are, of whatever the moment offers. And if you come to the grand opening, and you're not a fan of tasting dog, here, try some whale; it's Norway after all.

Bergen, Norway- the Gorgeous Pictorial

Norway's second biggest city, Bergen, sits on its Western Coast with a population of a mere 270,000, Nestled snugly between mountains on three sides, the ocean on the other, its center sits by the fjord (an inlet where fresh and salt water mix.)
Here is a pictorial of the town for a quick glance. It's an absolutely lovely town, and when visiting Norway, worth taking a day or two to visit :) Enjoy!
the very pretty center of Bergen
Flags remind you what country you're in

Norway in the summer is lush and gorgeous

these houses run up the mountain about as far as they can before it gets too steep

Bergen is on a fjord, which is the actual center. The town merely surrounds it. 

Norway has forever been a mariners life. 

I stayed way way up the hill in this area, Norway has amazing nature

Monday, September 22, 2014

Frogner Park, Oslo + Sexuality in Scandinavia

Frogner Park- 84 acres of public beauty in Oslo, Norway

In the middle of Oslo lies the most beautiful public park I have ever seen. It's massive size, immaculately kept grounds, small rivers bubbling through, and beautifully crafted statues make it a sight to behold.
a quick walk through Frogner Park

Gazing around at this beauty, available to all, no litter, no graffiti, the emerald green colors shining in the sun, I am filled with a deep sense of peace. I walk meditatively absorbing the magnificence of it all.
paths through the park

So lush! 
I note the statues throughout the park are nude-
beautifully crafted nude statues of Frogner Park

check out the gorgeous nude statues that reside throughout Frogner Park

it's enough to make one pull out their own hair
At the park's highest elevation grows the 14 meter tall Monolith. It's composed of 121 human figures rising towards the sky, meant to represent man’s desire to become closer with the spiritual and divine. It portrays a feeling of togetherness as the human figures embrace one another as they are carried toward salvation.
At least this is one explanation. One cannot help but notice the phallic shape, and the fact that all figures carved into the monument are nude.
The Monolith

The Monolith and surrounding statues

I stop and ask a couple Norweigens about the nudity, "Is this representative of a more relaxed attitude Scandinavians have towards sexuality than America?" I inquire.
"Well, it's definitely partly that. Without a doubt," they answer, "It's also the artist's (Gustav Vigeland) style."
I thank them with a smile, and meander slowly through the park, imagining how vociferously these stunning sculptures would be protested in America, as being "indecent" and "blasphemous," by the same puritanical factions the who don't raise an eyebrow to the countless perpetrated murders on television,
As great as America is, there are still values that we'd be better off incorporating which exist in other societies, and as a guy, a more relaxed attitude towards sex, definitely one of them.
an ad in central Oslo, nudity far more accepted

Oslo, Norway- Immaculate and Stunning Beauty + the search for Lap Land

 "Your bus leaves in one minute," matter of factly drones the woman working Oslo's airport information center. I grab my bags, juggling them like water balloons filled with electronics I pray not drop as I race outside, and board with only seconds to spare. I perk up, a self satisfied smile spreading across my face; until the driver let's me know how much I owe him-
"$35?! Are you driving me to Lap Land?" (note- contrary to your assumption, "Lap Land" is Not a strip-club! Though it would make an excellent name for one ...)
I fork over the money and stew for the next 60km, wondering how long I can afford (literally) to spend in the world's most expensive country.
I'm dropped off at the very edge of town, the last stop. Greenery surrounds me. An adjacent mall and a some condo/apartment units are all that exist here. Make a wrong turn, and you'll end up in the forest.

"Rolf Cola"- Norway= expensive!

The reddest moon I have seen, the photo takes away color sadly ..
maybe it was the sun, given how much light there is at 3 AM
The train takes a half hour to get back downtown. As I walk around, the locals enjoying this rare warm Scandinavian summer day, I'm wowed by Oslo's architecture, its immaculate gardens, public parks, and cleanliness.
Pale Norweigen women sunbathing

I traverse the streets for hours, with little human interaction, admiring the city and taking in the atmosphere, doing all I can to avoid reaching into my pocket.
I'll stay quiet for the rest of this post, let you get a feel for Oslo via the photos and video. In the meantime, I'll be looking for Lap Land.

video of the immaculately kept ground in Oslo's city center

downtown Oslo is Lovely! The Grand Hotel 

video of the architecture surrounding the Grand Hotel 
interior of the "Grand Hotel"- Scandinavians use their words literally

Pan, I believe? One of the numerous statues in central Oslo

Norway's national theater

Beautifully maintained gardens by gorgeous buildings

Welcome to my garden
Note the bemused look of the guard at the Royal Palace as he silently poses with Scandinavian children.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Christiana- The Greenlight District- Copehagen, Denmark

One of Copenhagen's great tourist "attractions"- Christiana. 
the entrance to Christiana is clearly marked

Established in 1971, it's Copenhagen's "greenlight district." The country's designated druggie zone. 

In Hollywood, "Green Lighting" has a much more positive connotation

The main street is appropriately named "Pusher." Men in sunglasses, often in large jackets, with tall collars pulled up, partially obscuring their faces sell marijuana and hash in the open. Those brown blocks below, hash of various grades, Moroccan at the top.  
Hash and pot straight up for sale- in the open

The area is downtrodden, a "hippyish" vibe to it, odd shaped buildings with more murals than upkeep. It feels dirty.
the type of hippyish, tie-die buildings you'll find inside

Not far from Pusher Street are bars where the local fare is consumed. I'm in favor of the legalization of drugs. Actually, make everything legal which doesn't do harm to others.
If people want something, they'll find a way to get it, better to legalize/ tax it. One only need to examine the deleterious effects of Prohibition in the United States in the 20th century, and the criminal syndicates in Mexico and Afghanistan growing in strength today (terrorism anyone) profiteering from laws intervening with the free market.
That said, you walk into these dingy bars and look into the worn faces of lifetime users, and your gut instantly fires up a message: "I'm in the presence of very stupid people."
Maybe it's that they're high in the moment, maybe it's the numbing effects of their continued use, but it's impossible for me to look at the evidence before me and deny there are negative consequences.

I explore further, I bend to examine a plant which looks marijuana. "No, no. Don't touch it!" yells a 60 year old woman who's watering her lawn nearby, one of the almost 1,000 local residents.
"Cannibis?" I inquire.
"No, no, it's a stinging plant, best to stay away from it. It just looks like marijuana."
I speak with her for 10 minutes. Her husband was one of the early members of Christiana. They've been living here almost 40 years. She extols the virtues of daily smoking. She's nice enough, but again, the effects of lifelong use are written in bold headlines all over her being.
no idea what "Foleaktie" is- but an added feel of the area
The 84 acre area is surprisingly green. Where nature exists it's quite lovely, where the druggies have built up, much less so.

Divergent paths rarely cross. and we're often completely unaware of others' reality when they're so dissimilar to our own, yet in Christiana, what's usually hidden in the shadows and corners of society, is on full open display.
If this what people choose, I'm okay with it, but as I walk down my path, I'm grateful it leads back outside.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Helsinki, Finland- Get a Flavor and Feel of the Capital

wild geese crossing a path in Helsinki
The majority of Finland's population resides in but a few cities, the rest of the country predominately wilderness, the blurry boundary beginning where I am staying, six km outside Helsinki's center.

A palette of lush greens make up the summer color scheme, as I walk to the main road, the artery leading to the heart of the city. The hoot of an owl reveals the presence of small rabbits hidden in the grasses around me as they who hop away.
At 10 PM in late June, there's as much light in the sky as at noon, our owl friend likely finding it frustrating and confusing.
The lush greenery around Helsinki

I board a bus, five Euros for the ride, As the center grows closer, I'm a little taken a little aback by the architecture; buildings of grey and brown, with minimal upkeep, they feel worn and unappealing. It's not quiet Soviet-Communist ugly, but it's not terribly far ahead. Helsinki will never make a most beautiful list.

Finland has two national pastimes, hockey and drinking with clubs facilitating demand, staying open til 4 AM Thursday to Saturday.
Outside of myself and the ubiquitous blackjack dealer there to augment the club's income, everyone is staggeringly drunk .
Despite the high taxes on cigarettes, a large percentage of patrons lurch into and out of the designated smoking room, leaving their beers and cocktails behind at the cubbyhole bookcase at its entrance, ownership not trusting its sloshed patrons to perform two vices at once. 
cubby-hole for drinks outside the smokers room
"I'm going to take you to a gay bar. I'm going to take you to a gay bar," the lyrics echo over and over, the girl I'm dancing with notices the confused look on my face.
"They're talking about Sweden," she yells in my ear, barely audible over the music, "And how the men there are gay because they're so fastidious about their appearance compared to us."
I look around the club, the heavy drinking showing on the Finnish faces, their bodies more rotund as a result. Actually, Finnish people look genetically more closely related to Russians than Swedes anyway.
while there are some pretty people in Finland, a lot of the guys look like this. I'm not complaining
One thing Finland has in common with Scandinavian countries are high prices, taxes, and an overly generous welfare system. In recent years there's been an influx of immigrants from the Middle East and former Eastern bloc nations, and while the percentage might be small, some come to take advantage of the welfare benefits without any contribution, creating a backlash that's rippled through the country's natives and sadly contributed to the reactionary forces of the society growing in popularity.

two things- notice the long braided beard, generally associated with heavy metal. There were a surprisingly high number of these in the city. Also, the weather- very cold and grey.

Maybe it's the weather- cold, rainy, grey, maybe it's that Finns aren't the most open people, or both in combination with the high prices, but I find little in Helsinki which makes me want to extend my stay. I pack my bags, ready to move on to Denmark.

Discussion question:

1Under the cover of 24 hour a day darkness during the Finnish winter, owls deafen the population with incessant hooting. Explain.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

High Prices in Sweden- where the Sky is the limit

Ahhh, the old American favorite- McDonald's, where a weary traveler can stretch his dollar, where the worst father can be a momentary hero to his children, where the poor and stupid go to get fattened up ... Discount this completely in Sweden! Haha, I used the word discount, a word for which the Swedish language has no equivalent because such things simply do not exist. 
You'll see from the below menu the cheapest burger on the menu is 62 Swedish Kroner; yup, $10 for a burger at fast food joint! Still hungry? 
Burger King menu in Sweden 

Have a hot date? Want to take her somewhere decent where you'll have a chance to score? Check out the below video to see what that might run you.

I took a girl for tapas; a few slices of churrasco (literally), a couple of pieces of calamari, plus some veggies, and I'm talking about some seriously ungenerous portions, like it's the year 1491 and we're lost at sea and by captain's orders the cook is giving each sailor the thinnest shave of the salami. "Don't like it, go catch a gull!"
And that total was over $50! No drinks, just water, which by the way is the only free item in Sweden and can be drank directly from the tap, pure and clean.

The grocery store: prices two to four times those in the United States.
A beer at a club- $10.
An HDMI cable At Amazon will run $8, in Sweden it's close to $100. Want something higher up the electronics ladder- the prices would make Bill Gates flinch
Want to use the public restroom? That'll be $1.50 thank you very much.
10 kroner to use the toilet- that's a buck and half

I'm having a hard time staying afloat financially. Wish I could leave, but I'm stuck here for another few days and I have to a date coming up, and we're both hungry. I don't think I have much of a choice, I'm taking her to McDonalds. A cup of water on the side please. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Understanding Swedish Society and "Lagom"

downtown Sweden, I mean Stockholm ... same thing really
The sign reads "Private property" and is all that stands between us and a lush garden decorated with sweet smelling rose bushes and a small apple tree.
"No Richard, you musn't!" yells out a concerned Annie as I step onto the grass. I pick a ripe apple off the tree, look back at her slightly bewildered and urge her to join me in the splendid surroundings. She hesitates, held back by years of conditioning, but at last, like a child dipping their feet into freezing water, she takes a tentative step onto the lawn. I've infected her with my rebellious Americanism.

Lock and Step
Swedes are expected to walk in lock step with each other. Behaving differently or standing out being the quickest avenue to social pariahism. Swedes follow the rules, the well being of their trusting, interwoven society dependent on it.
Apartment buildings have a shared laundry room included in the rent,  but if you don't have a pre-existing reservation, even if available, better not use.
A prepaid public transport card allows you to borrow a bike from the station and return it closer to your ultimate destination. In other countries this service would quickly disappear, as someone would undoubtedly augment their income from the sale of public bicycles.
You'll see many bicycles, not only in Sweden, but throughout
I'm in the Espresso House, Scandinavia's ultra-fancy version of Starbucks selling beverages and food at copious prices. Sitting at a table with my $6 coffee,  I pull out some bread, smoked salmon, and lettuce and make a cheap sandwich. I feel the icy, taken aback stares from the tables around me. Walk in tune or prepare to pay the price.
check out one the numerous Espresso Houses in Central Stockholm

Social Classes
Me and Aleksandra- my Polish amiga
While a very tiny upper class exists, along with a distinct upper middle-class (entrepreneurs in industries like IT, pharmaceuticals, and medical equipment) the vast majority of Swedish society is comprised of the working and middle-classes, with a tiny underclass at the very bottom- people who have somehow slipped through the finely woven welfare net, almost all of whom are alcoholics or junkies.
Greatly helping blur class distinctions, powerful labor unions have successfully fought for very high working-class wages (bus drivers, waiters, construction workers, etc.) which sometimes eclipse those of their middle class counterparts who generally have a higher level of education (doctors, professors, academics.)
A male construction worker married to a female journalist will often bring home more than his wife.
A department store cashier I got to know, brought home, after taxes, in excess of $4,000 dollars a month. A department store cashier! A comparable American job would pay out a third of that total.

A system of escalating income taxes, a VAT of 25% on most items, and high prices to begin with make it exceedingly difficult to accumulate wealth. Couple this with a welfare system that keeps almost everyone afloat, uniformly strong public education and health care, and the high-wages paid to the working class, and you'll find a tremendous amount of perceived parity between Swedes.
This equality is an integral part of the Swedish social fabric as there is less jealousy than in countries with greater wealth disparity.
It helps create a much more harmoniously functioning society, where no one starves and few turn to crime.

"Lagom" is Swedish word meaning "just enough." The temperature of that water is "lagom"- not too hot, not too cold. I have "lagom" food on my plate- nothing excessive (in fact, this a large contribution to Swedes as a population having low obesity.) It's a word that extends to social behavior, penalizing those who behave out of sync, too boisterously, or brag about themselves.
Indeed, an even quicker way to draw indignation to oneself than making your own sandwich in the Espresso House is to state you're better than someone else. The anvil will fall swiftly, and hard.
And it plays out in personal relationships too. Right now Annie is yelling that one step onto the forbidden lawn is "lagom" and she wants to go, while I insist that she join me by the roses. It's an exchange of cultural values, and having learned much about Sweden, at this point I'm insistent she take a bite of the American apple.
Go home Americano- you are not "lagom"