Sunday, August 30, 2009

The village tourism built

The train ride up to Flam was nice, along with the train itself. And the views looking down to the valleys were spectacular; the mountains appeared to get higher after each turn. Since the demographics of the train is aimed towards tourists, the ride lasts an hour to reach it's destination 25 kilometers away. Being a scenic ride, the train also stops close to a waterfall. I mean, reach-out-and-touch-the-gushing-waters, soaked-to-the-bones-from-the-mist, watch-out-so-you-don't-get-blown-away-by-the-wind, close.

Flam, population 500, was just as beautiful as the train ride. Unfortunately, it would have been more so without the 1000 tourists congregated at the information desk and main souvenir shop. And even though I could really understand how insignificant I was compared to the vast amounts of space and majestic mountains... and knowing that the valley could hold 200x's the amount of people who were already there, it was just too crowded. But without it being the tourist trap that it is, the residents of Flam probably wouldn't live quite as comfortably as they do.
Sure it's one of the most beautiful locations I've seen in my lifetime, but if asked if I'd ever go back... I'd have to respond no. At least not until the tourists have grown tired of it's beauty and seek other destinations to explore.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

How to say "Happy 29th" in Norwegian.

How does one celebrate the first day of the very last year in their 20's? Should they wake up in a hostel and fall asleep in a 4 star hotel? Would they eat their way through Oslo? How about celebrate with a huge slice of red velvet cake, which they haven't seen in well over a year and a half since moving to the
Netherlands? Maybe going to museums would be more their thing, or quite possibly sitting at the waterfront would suit their fancy. OR, since it is their 29th birthday, maybe they'd start that year off right by doing it all. At least, that's what I did.

The day I had planned was entirely different from what had occurred. If everything had gone as planned, we would have left the hostel around the same time the sun came up in order for us to make our 8:00am train. We would have then spent half the day riding one train after another, and the other half in Flam. I thought it would be an awesome way to spend a birthday -- seeing what was proclaimed as the most beautiful parts of Norway, even with a horribly early start to a day. But, alas, if I've learned one thing in my life it is this: all the plans I make that inevitably fall through always turn out so much better than I could have imagined.

Due to the plan changes, we were able to have a relaxing morning and enjoy the buffet breakfast at the hostel. By 9:30 we were back at the tourist information booking our night's stay at the Radisson for half the price. And by 10 am we had our luggage safely packed away in our room which had a wonderful view overlooking the entire city from the 22nd floor.

The rest of the day followed suit in the relaxation department and couldn't have been a more pleasant birthday. Upon leaving the hotel, we explored the newly built Opera House and took the ferry over to the museum section of town where we spent a large chunk of our day. First stop was the folks museum. They had an entire exhibit just for me: on the 1980's. Made me wonder how they knew I was coming! I saw toys I grew up playing with, posters of TV shows I watched, old school computers, and the quintessential 1980's living room which left me wanting to wear high tops, bright colored clothing and poofy bangs. The best part of the exhibit, though, was the huge banner which said "But out of the entire decade, the most important event that occurred was Claire's birth!" Such a shame I forgot to take a picture of that. The rest of the museum was just as nice with folk dancing, flat bread, wooden houses and horses who roll on their backs.
We then saw the Viking museum, that could have been more detailed, and the Kon Tiki museum which was about the voyage of a Norwegian scientist on a balsa raft. My birthday dinner was top notch and we were in definite need of an evening walk after having eaten so much. So, we made our way down to the castle and fortress located on the waterfront before heading back to the hotel to eat a giant slice of red velvet cake and ice cream.

And Oslo gave me the best present it could: not a drop of rain!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Rainbows only come AFTER the storm

I'm beginning to find it humorous that all my holidays need to have at least one mishap. Is it so that the bitter can make the already sweet taste even sweeter? Would I not recognize how sweet the sweet really is without it? Well, I'm not quite sure about the other vacations I've taken, but I'm positive that our stay in Norway wouldn't have been half as nice if things would have gone as planned when we arrived.

For the past few months my friend Kim and I have been going over the details of our trip. We decided to buy a travel package called 'Norway in a Nutshell', which pays for all modes of transportation within the chosen locations. The package we saw went from Oslo to Bergen and back (by train, boat and bus) that could all be done in a 24 hr period. We actually wanted to enjoy our trip, so we decided to make it a week long journey instead, and booked accommodations along the way.

The week working up to our trip, the both of us were constantly checking the weather in Norway in hopes that the rainy forecast would change. But as we descended into Oslo last Saturday afternoon, rain hit the plane leaving wet streaks across the windows to welcome us to the start of our adventure. Before leaving the airport we went to the information desk to buy our 'Norway in a Nutshell' tickets. See, even though we had made all the preparations and booked accommodation during our stay, we decided to wait until we arrived to buy the package, since it was just as easy to do in person than online. Bad idea.

Our plan was to start out on our travel the very next day, but to our horror we were informed that all trains leaving to Myrdal (which is stop #1 on the trip) were booked solid on Sunday. Then, to add to our dismay, the attendant also stated that the trains were booked on Monday as well. She then suggested we try our luck at the main information desk in the city center. So, we waited on the cold platform, praying for the rain to cease, for 30 minutes until our train arrived. After the then 40 minute train ride, we finally made it to the tourist information building across from Oslo's central station, slightly wet. While waiting in line though, Kim had found an entire brochure on extended 'Norway in a Nutshell' trips. We found one that looked much better than the one we had planned, and knowing that accommodations would have to be changed/canceled anyway we decided to re-route our entire trip in 5 minutes time.

We were again told that Sunday's trains were all booked, and the soonest we could leave from Oslo was on Monday at 10:30am. After making our bookings, we then inquired about hotels for our unexpected Sunday night stay in Oslo. The attendant gave a few suggestions and said that if we came back the next morning the hotel prices would be cheaper; ... we wanted a 4 star hotel since Sunday was my birthday. It finally looked as though the rains were starting to cease (not literally however). We at least had everything settled, and had dried off enough to venture back outside to our hostel with our umbrellas and luggage in tow.

When we made it to the tram stop we discovered that, due to construction, the tram we needed wouldn't stop there. So we walked up the hill, sloshing through puddles, and waited for the tram... the tram which turned down a road we had just passed and stopped abruptly. Everyone started piling out of the tram, and not knowing Norwegian, we just followed blindly hoping to figure out where to go next. Everyone, us included, transfered over to a bus which took us to our stop. However the map we had and the lay of the land didn't quite match up. We ended up getting off on what we initially thought was our stop, but after checking the map again saw that 1 stop too far, or so we again thought. We chuckled as we thought about our luck for the day, and agreed that at least the hostel was located downhill instead of up, especially since it was still raining quite hard. And we chuckled even more when we were told that we actually had gotten off the bus one stop too soon and had to hike back up the hill we had gone down in order to reach the hostel.
But we made it. We finally made it, and with only half the things in our luggage soaking wet.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How to visit Russia: step 2

Obtain a visa. Check.

It's unbelievable the hoops you have to jump through in order to cross the Russian border. First, receive an invitation from the country in order to apply for a visa. You can get one through the travel agent you booked with, the hotel you're staying at, or online (like I did) if you are staying with friends of a friend and found a flight on your own. In the end, all the whole purpose of the invitation is all about money.

Second, tackle the visa application. I've dealt with my share of visas in the past few years, but never have I gone through such an intensive process as I did to get this one. I tried contacting the Russian Consulate a number of times to request clarification on which documents were needed for the visa, but to no avail. Each attempt would result in a busy signal or 20 minutes worth of a recording, which in the end would get you no where. Frustrated, because I didn't want to go all the way to Den Haag only to be rejected due to not having all the correct documents, I scoured the internet for 3rd party agencies that could handle the entire process for me. It was then that rain ceased, the clouds parted and sunlight shone upon me... because I found an agency that would help! They stated that I would need to bring the filled out visa application, 2 passport photos, my passport, the invitation, a copy of my residency permit, and (since I'm living in Europe) proof that my insurance will cover me in Russia.

I filled out the visa application provided on the Den Haag Russian Consulate website, made a copy of my travel insurance that I had (thankfully) gotten a few months prior, grabbed the rest of the required items and biked my way over to the 3rd party visa agency after work. I was on a time constraint though, in more ways than one. I arrived 40 minutes before the agency closed for the day and I only had 9 working days to get the visa before I needed my passport again. The agent took my paperwork and started looking over them. Within 30 seconds his face scrunched up as he said "um, there's a slight problem here." Oh geez, of course. Apparently, I filled out the visa application for European citizens. The application for American citizens is different.

The American citizen application is an entire page longer and essentially asks for your life story in 500 words or less. I had to provide my parents full names, the name and address of the schools I attended- indicating the years I graduated, the names and addresses of my previous employers and the positions I held, all organizations with which I belong or ever have belonged to. *(Slight pause to avoid an even longer run-on sentence.)* I had to verify that I don't have skills or experiences relating to fire-arms, explosives, or nuclear matters, that I was never in the military, that I have never been involved in an armed conflict either as a member of the military or as a victim, along with listing all the countries I had visited in the past 10 years.

During the 30 minutes it took me to fill out that form, the agent again scrunched up his face and said, "um, there's another problem... about your health insurance." The insurance did not clearly state that it was world wide coverage, or more specifically, that the coverage included the Russian Federation. I called the insurance company and requested a certificate proving such, and was told I probably wouldn't receive it until the end of the week. So, not only did I leave the 3rd party visa office after closing hours, I ran into the possibility of not receiving my visa by the 14th.

But, as luck would have it, my insurance certificate arrived last Thursday, all documentation was sent to the consulate on Friday and I was approved for a visa. So, I don't mind the fact that I had to pay the astronomical fee it took to put a rush on the visa process along with the 3rd party fee, since I received my visa yesterday. Because the cost of having my passport back just in time for my Norwegian birthday extravaganza is... well, priceless.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Riding "high"

On most trains you can sit wherever you please, as long as that seat is part of the ticket class you paid for. However, on the high speed trains you are required to make a reservation which, in turn, assigns you to a specific seat. My trip into Frankfurt was assigned seating.

On Saturday morning when I entered the train I was delightfully surprised to find I had a window seat with a table. I was even happier to see that I would have all 4 seats (which included the one next to me and the two on the other side of the table) to myself for the first few stops, since the arrival locations of my seat partners were indicated next to the seat numbers. I set down my purse on the seat next to mine, took off my sandals and put my feet up on the seat across from me, pulled out my breakfast and a book and set it on the table. I was all set for a relaxing start to my 4 hour train ride.

Five minutes after the train started a guy walked in from the adjoining car, walked down the aisle and decided to sit down next to the seat my feet were occupying. I grudgingly removed my feet from the seat out of respect, right before he initiated a conversation which was as follows:

Guy [speaking quite loud] : "Mag ik je iets vragen?" ("Can I ask you something?")

*Note: he has severely blood shot eyes.*

Me: "Ja, in het Engels..." ("Yes, in English...") -- being immediately cut off.
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "AH! You're English! I'm from the UK, where are you from?"

*Note #2: he doesn't have a British accent*

Me: "America"
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "Oh yeah? Where from?"
Me: "All over."
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "Yeah, but where?"
Me: -- Oh, geez. How long is this going to go on. Maybe if I pretend I'm reading he'll get the hint. "Really... all over."
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "Cool. I'm from here in Holland."
Me [picking up my book] : "Mmm..."
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "So, where in America are you from?"
Me [opening my book] : "California" (just to satisfy his insatiable determination)
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "That's great. I've been to California."
Me [pretending to read] : "Nice."
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "I'm also from Africa."
Me [still pretending to read] : "Cool,... um, I'm just going to read now."
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "So can I give you a present?"
Me [not looking up from my book] : "No, that's ok."
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "Here, " as he hands me a handkerchief "it has the British flag on it."
Me [momentarily looking up] : "No thank you, I appreciate that, but no."

*I hand the "present" back to him*

Guy[speaking quite loud] : "Do you speak Dutch?"
Me [eyes glued to my book]: "No" (lying in hopes that the conversation ends)
Guy [speaking quite loud] : "Would you like me to teach you?"
Me: "No, and really, I think I'm just going to read now."

-- a few moments pass--

Guy [speaking quite loud - pointing to the headphones of my ipod] : "Didn't your mom ever teach you to take those things out when talking to people?"
Me: "um, no... and really," as I point to the book in my hand "I'm just going to read."

-- a few more moments pass --

Guy [speaking quite loud] : "So have you ever smoked weed?"

Monday, August 3, 2009

Petition for a name change

Sometimes the name of a location fails to provide an accurate description of it's surroundings. I once lived in a city in Brazil called Campo Limpo, meaning clean field, -- it was anything but. However, even with that in mind, I was still a bit concerned with what I would encounter in Bad Homburg, a village just northwest of Frankfurt. Granted, Bad actually means Bath, but for the non-Germanic speaker (such as myself) Bad just means... Bad. I had gone for the weekend to meet up with a friend from Vienna and to go to the temple. But, after the 4 hour high speed train ride into Frankfurt, missing the first S-Bahn to Bad Homburg which only runs every 30 minutes, walking to the hostel to drop off my luggage once arriving in the village, stopping for a nice sit-down lunch, then walking an hour from the restaurant in Bad Homburg to the temple in Friedrichsdorf, we managed to arrive right as the temple had closed... for the weekend. Not feeling defeated, though, we sat on the grounds under the statue of Moroni and chatted for a few hours while enjoying the weather and the sweet spirit.

The remainder of our stay was spent in what I hereby deem "Nice" Homburg. It just so happens that every time I go to Germany I always end up in a quaint little village that I fall in love with and proclaim as my favorite. This time was no exception. With it's whimsical statues, picturesque hills, and beautiful Germanic houses, "Nice" Homburg would be the perfect place to move to after an early retirement in order to open a Bed and Breakfast in one of the greatest locations with a previously misleading name.