Well, that was Norway

I’m sitting right now in a bar in the Oslo airport, enjoying 0.6 liters of Carlsberg. It’s the morning, but I’m leaving Norway and in my entire time here — more than a week — I did not go to a single bar. This may count as an effort to artificially inflate the Bars of the World Tour statistics, but there you have it.

As I sit here let me add that there are worse places on the planet for people-watching. Here in the international section of the airport there are weary travelers moving slowly while the odd breed called “morning people” weaves among them. Airport personnel have large scooters, including cargo scooters with a platform for carrying goods up and down the concourse.

There are, of course, some fine examples of the female of our species, for which Norway is justifiably famous. There is a softness to their curves that makes them appealing in a way unlike the czech women I will be appraising in just a few hours.

It is raining outside, and as I sit here in shorts, an aloha shirt and a baseball cap, long-haired and bearded, enjoying a morning beer, I seem to be just as interesting to the people passing by as they are to me.

I had a good time here, if not a particularly blogable one. I

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And that’s where my battery died. Should have gone ahead and bought a new one while in the states. Right after that two girls jogged past, late for their flight – a sight to warm even the darkest heart. Then came the guy who walked like a chicken. Like I said before, good people watching.

So, then onto the plane (Czech airlines, which still serves free beer and snacks; in this case in some sort of cooperation with Korean Air. It was a fight much like any other.

As you know by now, I’ve been skating rather tenuously around the new tourist visa regulations enforces across much of Europe. One of the reasons for my side trip to Norway was to cross a legal threshold. Still, my last trip I had stayed past the legal limit, and I didn’t know if that would lead to trouble. I didn’t think the Czechs would mind, but now they have to follow the same regulations as their rather more officious neighbors to the west. The two main terminals in the Prague airport are now configured so that one handles flights from within the Shengen zone, while Terminal 1 handles the flights from outside. Mostly.

Norway is not part of the Shengen zone, so I was a bit surprised when the plane turned off the taxiway by terminal 2. Huh. I got off the plane, walked through an empty hall that had once had passport control, and there I was. Not only was I not hassled about my previous overstay, but they don’t know I’m here. Since all the rules are based on the date of entry into the zone, it’s going to be difficult for them to hassle me.

So, I’ve got that going for me. I’m sitting in the Little CafĂ© near home, sipping my first czech beer (Staropramen, unfortunately). Franta bought me some Fernet. Others are coming later, but I don’t plan to stay long. It’s going to be nice just relaxing the quiet of my little apartment tonight. Also, I don’t have much of the local currency.

Here I am, back in Prague for a long stay for perhaps the last time, sitting at LCNH (the weather is near-ideal, but I’ll drink outdoors tomorrow). There’s a new bartender, of course, there always is when I come back from traveling. The joy with which Franta welcomed me suitably established my regularness, I think.

For those keeping score at home, my transport today went: car, train, airplane, bus, metro, tram, and a little bit of walking.

Plan D

As I write this I’m sitting on the patio of a rural Norwegian home, looking down on a deep blue fjord, sipping a Tuborg, and reflecting once more on just how good my life is. Off in the woods there is a soft clanking sound — the sheep all seem to be bellwethers here. It is peaceful here, quiet. My host is, I think, a bit worried that I will get bored, but in fact I thrive in an environment like this.

My host is known across the Internet as Dr. Pants, who stumbled across this humble blog many years ago, left a comment, and is now stuck with me. Funny how life works, sometimes.

The journey from London to Oslo went smoothly, right up until I got off the plane. I had my instructions: call Dr. Pants and get on the train to Drammen. Piece of cake, right? I found the automatic ticket dispenser and worked my way through the ticket selection process without trouble. The price came up and I inserted my credit card. “Enter PIN” it said.

What? A PIN for a credit card? Needless to say, if I have a number for my card, I don’t know what it is. No problem; there’s always plan B. I went over to the ticket counter. A sign told me that I would have to pay extra to have a human issue my ticket, but I was OK with that. “Drammen, please,” I said. “I can’t sell you that ticket,” the guy said. “I can only sell you one to [some town that started with A].”

Hm. That was inconvenient. Time for plan C. The ticket guy directed me to a bank machine. I put in my card, pushed buttons, and the machine instantly told me “Transaction refused by your bank.” Plan C2: find a different bank machine. Same result. Fortunately, next to the second bank machine was Plan D: automated currency converter. I had (by pure luck) some English money handy. In went pounds, out came Norwegian kroner, and I was golden. Thank goodness for Plan D.

I went down to the train platform and while I waited for the train I typed up a message to Dr. Pants. I hit send, and a few minutes later that the message had not gone through. I was out of credit on my Czech phone account. With a sigh I considered plan B.

Remember a while back when I was complaining about AT&T’s “more bars in more places” ad? After that I realized that all the ads were focussing on AT&T’s coverage in Europe. Problem solved! I still had a bit of time left on my AT&T chip, so while I scooted through the Norse darkness and scattered showers I switched chips and fired up the phone. No bars. I left the chip in for a while, to see if perhaps we were just in a dead zone. No luck. (It turns out this was the time Dr. Pants chose to try calling me, but of course I had the wrong chip in the phone.)

Time for plan C. Drammen was the last stop for the train, and when I got off the station itself was closed. At least it wasn’t raining. Out front were a pair of pay phones, but if they functioned at all I never found the secret to their operation. No other phones in sight. Hm… plan D? The town was dark and quiet, and I knew that hotels are more than just pricey here.

There was one other person in sight; the conductor from the train had stopped for a smoke before moving on. I asked her, timidly, if I could borrow her phone. She agreed and I made it through to Dr. Pants, and shortly afterward I was in his car and on the way.

Plan D, not once but twice within the space of two hours. I didn’t even know I had plan D’s. But here I am, and all is well. I’ll save the details of that for another episode.

Medal Count

I haven’t been paying much attention to the Olympics, but is anyone else out there annoyed by the fixation on medal counts by nation? Sure, I can appreciate rooting for “our guys” (whoever those guys might be for the rooter), but once you start aggregating the results of individual efforts into some national scheme you lose sight of the triumphs and disappointments that are what sport is all about.

Yeah, I know, I’m old and grumpy. Next I’ll be asking for sportsmanship.

Fudoki

There are several books in the queue for me to write blurbs about, but I’m going to skip to the one I just finished an hour ago. Fudoki, by Kij Johnson, has got me thinking, and we all know that can only lead to trouble.

Before I get too far, I should note that I know the author, and though I have not known her long I consider her a friend. She was the head of the novel writing workshop that was the core excuse for my travels this summer. Take this into account when I say that this is a very good book and you should all buy multiple copies. (Only half of the above is a joke; this is a very good book but you only need to buy one copy each.) My association leads inevitably to bias, but please be assured that in this case the bias is simply that if I didn’t like the book I would just never mention it.

So, the book. Japan again. It begins as a journal of Princess Harueme, daughter of an emperor, half-sister of another, aunt and great-aunt of others. She is clever and curious, traits that are not appreciated in a woman of her station. She is also dying. She has spent her entire life confined by her station, by the obligations of serving at court, unable to chase the dreams that truly inspire her. Now she takes up brush and ink to tell us the story of a cat made human, and a journey to places the princess has only heard about, places she longs to see but never will.

There is magic in the story of the cat. Magic and adventure and war and death. The cat is transformed into a woman by a capricious god, the god of the road, but she never loses her intrinsic catness. Through her eyes we see the behavior of humans, and perhaps from this vantage we learn a bit. Harueme certainly does; as she writes her story she writes about herself as well, and we watch over her shoulder as she transforms, and along with her the past changes, as she sees old events with new eyes. She is a little surprised, I think, when she discovers how deeply she is capable of loving.

It’s a fantasy story, I guess, in the way that magical realism is fantasy. Here we are, back in Japan, in the year 1129, and the world is filled with inscrutable gods, demons, ghosts, and magical creatures. In fact, magic is so prevalent it’s not thought of as magic at all. It’s nature. Or you could argue that this book not a fantasy at all; the magic is contained within Harueme’s story of the cat. It is her invention — though maybe the magic starts to leak out of the story and into Harueme’s life. Maybe. Read the book and then we’ll talk.

(By the way, I know Princess Harueme is writing her tale in 1129 because the author included some notes at the end. Thanks, Kij, for adding those references and other insight. I have commented several times in these sporadic reviews that many books would benefit from a bit of extra info at the end. On the other hand, the list of characters at the beginning was totally unnecessary — she does a fine job reminding the reader of the relationships between characters during the narrative, and the list at the beginning just made me feel like I was going to be tested later. You, dear reader, enlightened by this review, can skim the list and read on, confident that all will make sense.)

Fudoki is a word used by cats to mean the history of the clan, the generations-long story of who they are and how they fit in. It is, for a cat, “self and soul and home and shrine.” Princess Harueme’s tortoise-shell protagonist is stripped of her fudoki, stripped of her very identity, and is put on the road. “I am nothing and no one,” she says. After a while it becomes apparent that Harueme is writing this to discover her own fudoki, her own tale of who she is.

This really is a very good book. It’s well-crafted — the language is natural but manages to surprise, and the atmosphere Johnson creates works very well. It really does feel like Harueme is writing the story; her voice is clear and her perspective permeates everything, even as her perspective changes. They are the words of a woman who is learning as she goes, in ink, with no way to revise what she has written before.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

A Day of Many Airports

Sometimes plans made far in the future turn out to be flawed. Some of you might wonder how I even know this, as planning is not regarded as something I’m inclined to do that often. I did, however, make one decision long ago that I’m still recovering from. I chose months ago when I would fly back to Europe, and where I would fly from. It seemed a reasonable plan at the time, but events (and my own laziness) conspired to make it rather inconvenient.

So it was that at 4:30 am I boarded a shuttle bound for Albuquerque International Airport. There I would catch a flight that would take me San Jose, California, where I would catch my flight home.

Well, almost. To be precise, I was catching a plane to Phoenix, where I would get on another plane to San Jose, where I would get on another plane bound for Houston, Texas, where I would finally board a plane to London Heathrow. Five airports, and still not home. From Heathrow airport I would catch a bus to Luton Airport, where I would board yet another aircraft and end my long journey in Prague. Naturally, because I’m me, there were a couple of variables in play, which made things a bit more complicated. A bit. You might be interested to learn, for instance, that I am not in Prague as I write this.

The first leg of my journey was uneventful; the only hitch was that I had to transfer a few pounds of stuff from my checked bag to my carry-on luggage. My suitcase was pretty darn heavy, filled with books and notes from the writing workshop. The plane didn’t impress me much. It seemed… just a little bit run-down. The fluorescent cabin lights flickered annoyingly, all of them in synch, and occasionally they would flash very bright. Iffy wiring is annoying, but on a plane it makes me nervous. It was difficult to read, so I turned on my little reading light which shone directly on the shoulder of the large man next to me. Let’s just say that US Air failed to impress me. They also charge for tea, and I had no cash.

So it was that as we took off I was acutely aware that I was on an older aircraft and maintenance was not as diligent as I would like. We all arrived in Phoenix safe and sound, however, and I got off the plane and checked the monitor to see where to go for the next leg of my journey. Right back on the same plane. I scored caffeine in the terminal and away we went.

The clouds formed a solid blanket over San Jose, with the hills that surround the city poking up, acting as a rim to hold them there. We descended into the murk, and I considered idly that there was a time when the pilot would have been going on little more than faith. Indeed, the airport would likely have been closed. Yet here we were, and the pilot knew exactly where we were going, exactly where the ground was. As I considered this I watched the flaps on the wings retract, the engines changes pitch slightly, and we began to climb.

Once out of the clouds the plane began a long turn to loop around and make another run. The captain came on the speaker and said that planes had gotten too close together for safety. When I’m suspended a thousand feet over the ground in a metal cylinder with tanks of kerosene attached, I don’t mind a bit of caution.

We approached again, passed over That Girl’s parents’ house again, passed what I think was That Girl’s sister’s apartment, and set down. That Girl didn’t live very far away, but I would not be seeing her; instead I would be collecting my bag and taking it to another person to give it away again, then I would be doing the Homeland Security hokey-pokey and hopping on another plane for the next leg in my long journey. It all went smoothly, but I was acutely aware of That Girl’s nearness, even though it may as well have been 10,000 miles.

Continental was much more comfortable — more leg room, free tea, and a much fresher-feeling aircraft. There was exactly one empty seat on the plane, and it was next to me. The guy in the aisle seat was friendly, and my passage to Houston went smoothly.

I had a fairly short turnaround in Houston Bush Airport, but it went smoothly (except, janitorial crews please note: Do not close consecutive men’s rooms for cleaning). Away I went, London-bound. Ten hours is a long time to sit in a seat, but time passed. I read, watched a movie, and even dozed a bit. The guy in the seat next to mine was nice enough, even if his respect for personal space was a bit soft. He was heading for a 5-week stint on an offshore drilling platform. There’s a job I would not want.

Right, then. London Heathrow Airport. There is a big tax on airplanes that land there, so the cheap airlines use other options. Sky Europe is one of those lines, and I had a seat on one of their planes, bought far in advance and practically free. (They have a few seats on each flight they sell for esentially nothing beyond taxes and fees.) The bus ride from Heathrow to Luton cost more. That all went smoothly, but then there was the variable.

You see, right now I might be in violation of the immigration laws for the Shengen zone (your spelling may vary), which aggregates most of Europe into a single region with no passports required to move about between countries. It’s a good idea overall, but there’s always a catch. Now that the Czech Republic has joined, they are not as able to ignore their own immigration rules. Whereas before they would allow people from wealthy nations in with a shrug and a look in the other direction, now they are integrated with the same data system the Germans use. What I was counting on was that airlines, which have a vested interest in not transporting people who will be refused (forcing the airlines to take them back), can check the status of a given passport. I have personally experienced this on many occasions. My plan was to make sure that I would be allowed into the Czech Republic before I boarded the plane.

So there I was in my sixth airport of the trip, having slept almost none in the last 48 hours, and I learned that my airline didn’t check immigration status. That wasn’t a big surprise, but then I learned that they couldn’t. “It’s a US passport,” the woman said. “It’s fine.”

But is it fine? in a few more days my status will be much clearer, as my time away hits the magic 90-day mark. Why didn’t I just time my trip for 90 days? Hmm… it seems like there was a reason back then… I think I assumed that I would have papers in hand and an appointment at an embassy. Should have done something about that during the previous three months.

So, if I got on the plane and then was turned away at the border, what would happen? Would I be detained? If I bought a ticket back out of the zone some time in the future would that placate them? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. There would be cheap flights (though not as cheap) tomorrow. I lost my nerve. Sleep, that’s what I needed. Sweet, sweet, sleep. I walked from the airport to a nearby hotel, paid extra for spotty Internet access, and fought off the raging slumber gods long enough to have a beer.

Very early the next morning I reviewed my options: fly to prague, take a train or a bus to France (getting turned back would be less of a hassle, and on a bus the check might not be rigorous), or visit a non-Shengen country for a few days until my legal status is less unclear.

My days as a resident of Europe are winding down, and there are many places I haven’t got around to visiting. Two sprang to mind: Estonia, where a friend lived (you may remember Brutus), and Norway, where resides Dr. Pants, a guy I’ve never met but who long ago was a regular commenter on this blog. I sent some emails. My Estonian connection is back in the states, but Dr. Pants came through, and I started checking flights to Oslo. (I also stumbled on very low fares to Jersey, but I wasn’t sure what I would do when I got there.)

I write this in a bar at Gatwick, the eighth airport of my journey, and not my last. Norway beckons; I just wish I had more socks.

Across the Desert

Spent a good evening with a buddy at his house north of Sonora, CA. Then it was time to head east, over the mountains and across the desert, with a goal of getting as close to Northern New Mexico as possible without undue stress. Road trips are not about stress. Quite the opposite.

The day was all about roads; there were curvy roads, straight roads, steep roads, flat roads. Mountains and desert, cool and brutally hot. Potholes and fresh asphalt. First up for my driving pleasure was Big Hill Road, a shortcut from my friend’s house to eastbound highway 108. (I spent a few seconds trying to coax a URL out of Google Maps to which I could link, but without success.) It seems every time I’m in the neighborhood the road is closed over Sonora Pass, but at last I’ll be passing over during the brief summer.

Big Hill Road has two flaws: occasional patches of broken-up pavement, and it’s just too damn short. It was an ideal way to start a day of driving, zipping around corners, the road sun-dappled as it wound through the forest. After that bit of road 108 seemed like a superhighway – at least for a while. Sonora Pass has, I believe, the steepest stretches of paved road I have ever driven. There was only one thing wrong with that part of the drive: Traffic. It’s not that there were a lot of vehicles, it’s that three vehicles in particular really gummed things up.

Here’s the deal. Let’s say you’re driving on a stretch of road in which there are no opportunities to pass safely. For the sake of argument, let’s say the speed limit is 40 mph. Now, this is a particularly twisty and turny bit of road, and you’re not comfortable going 40. You want to drive your big-tired station wagon (some people call them SUV’s), oh, how about 15 mph. I have no problem with that. Absolutely you should not drive faster than you are comfortable doing. But — BUT — when there are ample opportunities to pull over and there are people stacked up behind you, just get the hell out of the way! How much time are you losing, considering you’re just crawling along anyway? Obviously you’re not in a hurry or you’d be on a different road. Just pull over for a moment and let the SV (my car has no U) go by. Seriously. We’ll all feel better.

Thanks. Back to my narrative.

Climbing up to Sonora Pass, I drove my car as fast as it would go for the first time. On that hill, that wasn’t very fast, and even with a 6-speed transmission I was caught between second and third, winding the engine way up in second, but not pulling hard enough in third. The scenery was nice, sometimes even interesting, but not spectacular; trees pushed in close, denying breath-taking vistas. As I climbed, I could smell the brakes of the vehicles heading the other way. A sign warned of 26% (!) grade somewhere ahead (vehicles with trailers not advised), but 15% was more common.

Down the other side, past a small Marine base (sign read: “Caution Marines Training Ahead”). The buildings, otherwise identical to any other rural business site, were painted a light olive color. I imagine that this is simply a matter of habit; I don’t think the people who ordered the pre-fab steel structures spent much time thinking about what sort of attack the base might be subject to, and what coloration would best thwart it. I’m just saying that other colors might be more practical in some cases, like white for the propane tanks. (I assume, here, that there is a reason that propane tanks are always white.)

After a southward stint on US 395, I turned east once again on Highway 120. That was a great stretch of road. The terrain goes through several stages and climate zones, and there were plenty of sights that proved intellectually stimulating as well, like stumped trees dotting a field of tuff (compressed volcanic ash), which led me to ponder that the longest-lived organisms on our planet live in harsh circumstances. 120 is an old-school road, built before the cut-and-fill strategy had taken hold. As I drove through the forested stretch the road seemed to twist for no appreciable reason except to provide people like me with the feeling that they are driving. I wove between the trees, left right left right in an easy cadence like a skilled skier sliding down a powdery slope. Farther along, the road passed over flatter terrain, and I smiled as I passed a sign reading “Dips next 5 miles”. I have always liked dips; I remember as a kid staring out the windows of the familymobile hoping to see the next sign that said “The road is about be fun”. Some of the dips on 120 west of Benton were the real thing, providing an almost weightless moment that had me exclaiming out loud more than once.

Then it was time for the desert. US Highway 6 was my new friend, and as I drove I applied sunscreen more or less constantly. The high desert was not oppressively hot (at least, not while I was moving), and I slid easily into my desert driving mindset, a contemplative frame that discerns significance in unexpected places. Out there in all that vastness the small things matter most.

East, east, as far as Tonopah, delaying the critical decision as long as possible. I have a choice: South through Las Vegas and an easy drive tomorrow, or east over some exceptional roads, winding through the Utah rockies, but adding hours to the trip? A deadline loomed, alas (the bane of any journey is the destination); I chose south. Not that Highway 95 doesn’t have its own charm. I passed mysterious, seemingly purposeless dirt roads that ran from the highway up into the mountains to end abruptly. There were the occasional buildings, painted pink and surrounded by palm trees. Brothels, out in the middle of nowhere.

I worried about rush hour in Las Vegas, but it turned out to be the weekend. As I drove through Henderson (now no more than an estension of Las Vegas sprawl), the moon climbed over the mountains, almost full, almost invisible. The same color as the sky around it, it seemed translucent, ephemeral. I followed Highway 93 toward Hoover Dam. “No trucks or busses!” the signs exclaimed. “Use alternate route!” In boulder city I was presented with two ways to go — the truck route or the business route. Truck route? I hadn’t gone far on the truck route when I was reminded once again that trucks were not allowed.

There is a massive construction project going on there, appalling amounts of money being spent in the name of Homeland Security. The result will be: 1) more efficient 2) less fun and 3) spectacular. They’re cooking up one hell of a bridge over there. From there, south to Kingman as darkness asserted itself. It was time to stop, time to sleep, time to reflect on a day of many roads.

Road Haiku

Road Haiku

Mile post fifty
Night monsoon flash and grumble
Mile fifty-one