Scenes from Scandinavia

A jaunt through Denmark, Sweden, and Norway

Cred: Fiona Foster (who took most of the photos seen throughout this piece)

It’s a strange thing to read House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski while traveling abroad, in lands that don’t speak your language and where your expectations are met with a pesky, shifting reality. Ghost story aside, House of Leaves filters the reader through layers and layers of accounts: A man named Zampanò critiquing a documentary film called the Navidson Record about a house whose proportions are larger, much larger, on the inside than that of the exterior, which leads to all kinds of speculation and, ultimately, trouble. But Zampanò dies. Old age, or possibly something more nefarious. The next account is by Johnny Truant, a kid who lives in the same apartment complex and happens upon the wad of papers that comprise Zampanò’s analysis of the documentary. Truant makes his own annotations of the piece and often footnotes Zampanò’s footnotes, illustrating that you, as the reader, cannot know whether or not anything Zampanò writes is for real or total bullshit.

Layer this next with the fact that Truant himself is known to be a liar. He proves as much with his many asides and random stories that appear as gigantic footnotes among Zampanò’s. And yet another, anonymous editor appears on top of all of these, adding still more notes and correcting or translating what the two other writers typed above.

Traveling in other countries, or traveling in general, is a lot like trying to find the truth in Danielewski’s novel. You read the sparse Yelp recommendations (not really a thing in Scandinavia or Europe in general it seems — how do they function??) or the Google reviews to get a sense of how a place is going to be or look or whether it’s going to fit your vibe. And then there’s the startling realization that perhaps you yourself don’t know your own vibe, or what exactly it is you’re looking for. This is the curse and also the blessing of travel. The constant contingency: the rude surprises, and cheerful jolts of happiness when it dawns on you that you’re having a great time all by accident.

Of course, there is a general consensus in nearly every city in the world which locations you should “hit,” though I’m never sure exactly how to act when I get to them, particularly with art or museums or famous places and buildings. It seems generally acknowledged that you are supposed to be in awe or feel a particular thing when you witness a place or walk in the footsteps of some past conqueror or king (or “Frederick” or “Christian” as is the regnal tradition in Denmark). Too often, however, I’m just glad I checked the box. I can tell people that I’ve been there and done it. For me, the truly memorable experiences lay in the unexpected, sometimes terrible, events that occur spontaneously.

Scene I: Rad seafood and cycling through Copenhagen

The second day in Copenhagen, and a raucous one. It’s hot and that Danish lager, Tuborg, goes down so smooth and refreshingly (okay, it’s sort of like the Budweiser of Denmark, but sometimes even this is called for on a hot-ass day. You can keep your fancy dry-hopped, high IBU, hazy whatevers during times like these).

Things start early shortly after our e-assisted bike ride through Kastellet Fort. Man, I love forts. It’s kind of a pity that nuclear weapons and airpower make awesome behemoth military constructions like star-shaped coastal forts obsolete.

We’re knocking back those lagers in a beautiful piazza/square called Nytorv by 1:30pm. It’s roasting.

Dinnertime rolls around and now it’s on to Høst, one of those places that did receive enough positive coverage on the apps that we knew to go. Five courses of fresh Baltic seafood with a wine pairing for each.

Then we’re on to Ruby, which holds the title of one of the best cocktail bars in Scandinavia.

At this point, we’re a bit affected, but the party’s just beginning. From here, it’s on to a stretch of bars and establishments which chemically blur together. I know for sure there was a tiki bar, some type of night club, and an interesting basement full of board games.

My memory cuts rapidly back to our Airbnb apartment, dancing and revelry. Then sleep.

Also, while we eat what is now lunch at the Royal Cafe, we see some kind of fancy-pants military parade going on outside.


Scene II: Exploring Stockholm

Gamla Stan. The island heart of Sweden’s small empire, which, over the centuries, was bullied about by the Russians or the Poles or even neighborly Denmark (at certain instances: a pugnacious Frederick or Christian). Expansion stifled, for the most part. No fruitful partaking in the great colonial era, when Britain made English the language of record in most places in the world, and even the galaxy. The language of Vader and Jean-Luc Picard.

This small island contains the Royal Palace and endless alleyways that slink between towering old world structures. Mostly tall, three or four-story residences. The place smacks of Italian influence. The cozy piazza containing elegant cafes with patios stretching into the square, as well as the Nobel museum (which is not actually the place where the prizes are awarded I was disappointed to learn. It merely houses interesting artifacts and backstory on prize winners of old). Neoclassical architecture everywhere, but with, like, a Scandinavian touch — my high-brow architectural vocabulary is exhausted with the word “Neoclassical.” The corridors narrow so much in places you almost have to suck in your belly to squeeze through. The roads are cobbled and irregular.

Our first day in the city, also notable, consists of the museum tour of the Vasa (the incredible, well-preserved hull of a 17th-century Swedish warship that sank only moments into her first voyage, covered with silt and raised in the 1950s) and cycling around Djurgården, then the boat bars off of Söder Mälarstrand, and a remarkable cocktail place called Bar Hommage, where Rob falls in love with the bartender (Frida).

Our apartment in Gamla Stan is where we begin our second day and, man, it’s hot out. They keep saying everywhere that the whole of Scandinavia is experiencing record-breaking temperatures at this moment. Every conversation we strike up with waiters, bartenders, or bicycle rental staff points us right back to the almanac. Daring us to figure out what normal May weather should be. Is something wrong? Must be global warming. Definitely climate change. Or perhaps it’s just because I’m in town (zing!).

Breakfast at pretty subpar tourist cafe. It’s a minefield out here. This persistent lack of credible reconnaissance foils us in ways that would never happen in San Francisco, where the Yelpy collective wisdom has achieved critical mass.

We wander through Gamla Stan’s snaking pathways until we find a bridge connecting us to Norrmalm.

Then walking, walking. Damn, it’s really cooking. Cross through a few parks and more neoclassical stretches.

We don’t have a particular agenda today, and so decide to dip up a few streets, away from the water to checkout a regal-looking dome on the horizon. We find this belongs to the Army museum. It used to be a military college, but they cleared out in the ’20s I guess. What a grand place to go to class…classes on artillery and blowing things up no less.

We decide against the museum tour. Might have decided differently if they had air conditioning. But no, back to the water, where some sort of evaporative cooling and breeze can dry out the sweat on our t-shirts. At least we found this awesome tank.

Me n’ Rob

Moseying around Strandvägen, we waffle on renting bikes again. The temperatures such as they are. We’re not certain if the breeze created by riding will outweigh the heat generated by pumping our legs. To a bar it is!

And what a lovely place we happen upon, even if the premium on a glass of Åbro is a bit shocking: Ångbåtsbryggan, a boat bar. Right on the water with a good view of Simonyi’s yacht, Skat, which doesn’t sound like a very complimentary name for a 232-ft custom-built monument to one’s ego, adorned with helicopter on top, like a gas-powered cherry.

On account of this unexpected heat, it is here that we make the spontaneous decision that we’re going on a dinner cruise. Perhaps the open water and the sea breeze will bring some relief, we reason.

We also reason that the boat ride might be too good at cooling us down. So, an H&M run for sweatshirts and a few hotdogs later (for some reason weiners are quite uniformly the fast-food rage across all of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway), we’re waiting at the dock to board the Cinderella II.

We learn quickly that this is less of a dinner cruise than a mode of transportation for most of those onboard; many passengers hitch a ride to one island or another in the outer archipelago. Despite its ferry-like function and appearance, the Cinderella possesses a kick-ass white cloth dining deck: Excellent food and, I’m pleased to discover, Pol Roger, the splurgy champagne of choice of Sir Winston Churchill. I just finished reading Gretchen Rubin’s compact biography of the man and I’ve been itching to try it.

Prior to dinner, we make our way to the back of the boat, the open air portion full of other sunning passengers, and a boisterous crew of Septuagenarian Swedish bros smoking cigars and knocking back Mariestads like collegiates. Inspiring, this.

The islands pass by like the sweet breeze. Refreshing; smelling of warm pine needles and summer afternoons spent fishing for herring off the dock. Little red cabins even speckle islands no larger than my small, SF apartment. The boat turns around at Möja and begins its slow chug toward Stockholm again.

We let the sunset take us home. The moon rising off to one side, a shining white jewel in the purple-orange ceiling.


Scene III: Oslo to Voss

Oslo is in the rear-view mirror and we’re all quite happy about it. It’s the hottest of all of the cities we’ve visited so far, pushing 30 degrees celsius, as they would say. The apartment’s little air conditioning unit was no match for the almanac-defying heat wave.

“It’s been at least 25 degrees for three weeks straight,” said our bearded, man-bunned guide to the Oslo beer scene — he works as a brewer or something. We ran into him at the Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri and he took an immediate liking to Rob, whose easy-going and just-the-right-amount-of-beer-snob manner at the bar makes men platonically flock to him and bartenders float him round after round. I ride Rob’s coattails like Aladdin and his magic carpet.

Schouskjelleren Mikrobryggeri

Beard-bun really wanted to bro out with Rob (Jenn and I as a byproduct. Fiona was back at the apartment recovering from heat exhaustion — which has to be an uncommon thing to say happened to you in Norway, but there it is) and takes us around to all of these insider spots in Grünerløkka, where he fist-bumps whoever is pulling taps. Free pours of Norwegian microbrews appear magically before us as if we’re at Hogwarts. But they come and they come relentlessly. We have to run away from beard-bun, who we’re pretty certain was down to throw back brews until the middle of the next day if events continued their course.

Scene IV: The fjords

We’re finally in Voss, which sits in the Fjord lands on the tunnel-riddled drive from Oslo to Bergen. The number and length of the tunnels through the solid rock of the mountains is worth remarking upon. Between Voss and Bergen alone there are some 40 of them. Enormous, cavernous, winding, descending snakes. I fully expect to cross Khazad Dum in the depths of one of these abyssal underpasses.

We emerge from our whole-house Airbnb overlooking grassy fields and a roaring, runoff-swollen river.

The river near the Airbnb in the evening

The drive today is to Nærøyfjord, next to the village of Gudvangen. This is where we meet Jan, our kayaking guide.

Jan’s the cheerful founder of Nordic Ventures, an outfit that supplies travelers with gear and outdoor experiences around the land. He’s a Dutch-born immigrant to Norway, who fell in love with the ferocious angles and brackish water of the fjords long ago. You can see it on his face. Early forties, but still as excited about being in the wild as any kid.

He runs us through the swirly paddle motions and equips us with our water skirts and life vests. He explains how to operate the rudder.

Jan shoves our kayak into the water. Fiona and I flail our arms and push the boat along to keep up with rest of the pack.

He calls out to us to dip our hands in the water and taste it. He wants to show that the top layer is sweet, though we’re technically in open ocean. It’s the product of thousands of waterfalls roaring down the walls of canyon, setting the snowmelt on top of the salty layer beneath. It’s cold like it was part of a glacier only moments before, but refreshing in the 85F+ day with the sun beating down and heating our t-shirts.

We lunch at a bend in the fjord across from Bakka. Jan spreads out fixins for coffee and tea. I grab a tin cup of Nescafe and follow Rob, Jenn and Fiona along a footpath that traces the water’s edge. A short stroll later, we stumble across a massive herd of sheep and their lambs sheltering in the shade of ancient boulders that crashed down the mountain eons ago.

We return to find that Jan’s prepped us chicken fajitas, but with an amusing European flair: Mayonnaise, corn and little cubes of cheese. I eat two of them and jump into the freezing water with a fellow British kayaker. Fiona dunks her head. The rest of the folks on the beach, mostly hungover brits, look on incredulously.

The water is frigid; it’s a searing, biting kind of cold. It’s beyond me how anything survives in such temperatures. But sure enough, we see a few seals poke their dog-like faces out of the water, observing us from a safe distance, as incredulous as our detoxing counterparts.

I mention to Jan in passing I’d love to jump off some kind of cliff into the icy fjord. Cliff jumping is one of those things that I’ve always loved to do, going back to family trips to Lake Powell. Few things touch that crazy feeling of hurling yourself out into space, with that surge of adrenaline, trusting that the surface below won’t hurt you. Better yet when the water is bone-chilling cold, another shock to your amped-up system.

To my surprise, Jan is glad to accommodate my request, and picks out a sizable rock cliff suitable for jumping. Never in the States. Not with a thousand waivers would this happen.

Rob, another kayaker from New York and I clamber awkwardly out of our kayaks and scramble up the rock and launch ourselves in.

We paddle all the way back and bid farewell to Jan, waving goodbye limply. Our arms aren’t accustomed to hours of this stuff.

But the fjord is too beautiful to abandon so quickly. Earlier on the drive from Oslo, we spotted a massive cloud of spray originating from some enormous waterfall that we couldn’t quite glimpse from the road.

But there are so many goddamn waterfalls in the Nærøyfjord area that we mistakenly go, first, to another thundering beauty of a fall called Stalheimfossen (pictured below).

After a course correction, we find ourselves at the one we originally wanted to see: Sivlefossen. The water here seems to stream down calmly enough toward the top, but then runs into some kind of massive, submerged rock obstruction, creating a massive explosion of turbulence and a ferocious white mist. The mist catches the wind, which bears it far away from its source. It billows up with the breeze and sweeps across the mossy hills on the opposite side of the canyon until it reaches us, washing across our faces and giving us goosebumps. That’s gotta be one of the most refreshing feelings in the universe.

Stalheimfossen (left), Fiona (center), view of the valley and the town of Gudvangen (right)

Scene V: Escape from Bergen

It’s 4:00am in Bergen. We’re all packed and ready to get the hell out on our 6:30am departure. Any way you look at it, two weeks is a long time to spend in cramped quarters with four people, even surrounded by stunning scenery and the intriguing Nordic culture, which is so familiar as an American, yet so full of other things like monarchies and the weight of an ancient, seafaring history.

We gather up our bags and descend the long spiral staircase to the bottom floor of the apartment building. Then clicking and clacking the luggage over the cobblestone streets. The sun’s already been up for hours. Not sure if it ever fully set — something about being in Scandinavia that seriously fucks with your circadian rhythms and wears you down after a while. But this morning the purplish hue that bathes the old town is quite pleasant, particularly with the knowledge that we’re returning home. Home means privacy and routine and familiar customs.

We’re on our way to grab the rental car to drive the last dozen miles to Flesland Airport. Since parking was a big uncertainty, we stored the car in a Europark garage nearby and responsibly paid the meter through 4:30am.

We turn the corner to the garage and (here’s that shifting reality again) the garage door is shut. Some big iron gate has descended and removed the friendly void we were expecting to see.

Huh. Hmm. Okay. Let’s try the handle on the mandoor. No, alright. Perhaps there’s a button somewhere. Doesn’t look like it. No keypad even? But, hang on, we paid through 4:30am. There must be a way to get in. Right?…Right? Europark doesn’t pick up when we call the number posted on the sign outside, which also, we now see, reads “Open 7:00–24:00.”

The horror of our situation dawns on us swiftly. No car means no way of getting to the airport and returning it to Hertz. We instantly start ticking through our options. Okay, we need internet. We need our computers to strategize this. My mind flicks for some reason to the glamorous duty-free area of the airport. The comforting in-flight movies. The smell of coffee by the gate. Is this future lost?

We head back to the Airbnb. The sound of our feet on the steps like the trudging of condemned prisoners.

We need to see what Hertz says to do. We can’t be the only ones who have done this. Adrenaline-fueled Google searches. Punching numbers into Jenn’s cracked Samsung S7 screen a she reads them out. I feel like I’m breaking it more with the force of my building anxiety.

“Try this one.”

Not even the comfort of a normal dial tone. Why is this an area where cultures have to diverge? There’s just this long, distressing beeeeeeep. Beeeeeeeeep. Beeeeeeeeeep. “Voicemail. No answer.”

“Okay, this one.”

“Uhh, something unintelligible in Norwegian. Sounds like an automated ‘nobody’s here’ thing.”

“Alright, here’s something that looks like a 24/7 line”

Finally we’re through to someone. A competent someone, fortunately. Though, the language is a bit of an issue. “You need to grab your own car when the thing opens, we have a flight to catch.” I burn 10 minutes describing and repeating the situation, giving the location of the parking garage (twice), clarifying how the whole thing will go down with Hertz.

End call. Jenn has a taxi number queued up and the next call schedules a ride in — phew! — five minutes. Maybe this will still work?

We race down to the curb in front of the Airbnb to await our cab. We see a gaggle of people down the street, sitting on the curb. One of them gets up and walks toward us. Still no sign of the driver. It’s only been two or three minutes, I guess. The person walking toward us is a kid about 25 years old, Spanish-looking. He’s waving and talking at us. Oh Jesus, what now?

He stops next to us and starts pelting us with questions. He’s drunk or high or something. He smells like booze, but he’s talking fairly coherently in accented English. I notice he’s leering at Jenn and Fiona. They notice too.

We give one-word answers. Where the actual hell is the taxi?

“Where you from?”

“America.”

He launches into a diatribe about how he got an SAT score of 118,000 and was accepted into a U.S. school but the $300,000 tuition prevented him from attending blah blah blah. I’m not making eye contact and we’re all trying to make it clear through body language that he should fuck off. But he just goes on and on, getting closer and more animated and talking at us about weird, random things. Putting together who’s with who. He’s really interested in the girls. I’m doing my best to suppress all of my frustration at the morning, at this craziness before us, at the way he’s looking at Fiona.

Finally, a silvery flash in the distance. Thank god, it’s the taxi. He pulls up next to us and he pops the hatch for the luggage. We immediately move to load the car, but the rando guy follows us; he’s all up in our business.

“Is he with you?” The taxi driver asks, sensing some weirdness about the situation.

“No. Definitely not. We have no idea who this is.”

The rando guy turns to me and pulls out some white fabric (which Rob confirms later to be a pair of boxers) and asks, since I’m leaving, if I have a gift for him, stepping closer and gesturing with the boxers as if in exchange.

“Hell no I don’t have a gift for you. Back off, man! Don’t touch me, I don’t know you. Can’t you see that none of us want to talk to you?” He stops, but cheekily pokes my arm. The dude wants to fight. What is with this psycho morning?

“Oh your man is so hard,” he sneers to Fiona. “What’s he gonna do?” He keeps trying to goad me into something. I do sincerely want to clock him at this point. But his creepy friends are lurking nearby, and we only have like 30 minutes to spare to catch our flight, most of which will be taxi ride. We all make a move to get in the cab.

The taxi driver is done loading the luggage, and attempts to close the hatch, when rando sticks his head in, preventing the driver from closing it, and tries to say goodbye and to tell us to tip the taxi driver well.

Jenn turns around and yells “FUCK OFF!” Apparently the guy finally gets the message and removes his head from the boot of the car. The driver slams down the hatch, jumps in the front seat, and stomps the gas. It all feels like some crazy, escalating scene in a movie where an obnoxious gang of passersby become psycho killers (Nocturnal Animals comes to mind); a fate we narrowly avoid.

Scene VI: At 35,000 feet

We’re on our 747 flying out of Amsterdam. Big, fluffy clouds float by the window. The engines roar, sending a soothing and constant vibration through the cabin. The tense moments of the morning drain away slowly like a storm surge. I watch Red Sparrow on the shitty seat display. The sound mixing is out of whack, or maybe it’s just the cheapo, single-use headphones they give you. It seems like most airlines haven’t really figured out the in-flight entertainment thing.

I zone out on Red Sparrow, which, even with a way to hear the finer sounds of the film, is not a good movie, mostly due to a lack of coherent storyline. Jennifer Lawrence is great as usual though, for her part.

I crack open House of Leaves again. It’s the section of the novel where the characters in the documentary within the story explore more deeply the alternate dimension inside the house. There’s a spiral staircase that seems to adjust its size relative to the psychic energy of the person who treads it. At once almost infinite for some, and a short walk for others.

The book itself, already visually complicated by so many footnotes, takes on an increasingly ergodic craziness. The words on the pages begin to appear upside down and backwards. Footnotes with gigantic, pointless lists don’t seem to end. Large rectangular spaces appear in the middle of paragraphs. It’s uncanny.