Thursday, July 26, 2012


I've been spending so much time writing about my travels, I've neglected to comment on where things are at in our lives. 

It has been 14 months since my last mortgage prepayment and I've never looked back.  Only now can I say I feel lighter.  D is responsible for the rest and I'm happy I was really able to let it go.  I just wish my annuity can be paid back in one lump sump rather than biweekly.  In the end probably a good thing as I am more than capable of spending money with the best of them should I wish.

It has been 2 years since I've moved into my own office and almost a year since I've transitioned to part time.  My income has dropped but I'm happier and am starting to take advantage of my extra time.  It really did take the year for changes to sink in and for me to believe in what it means.  I'm doing a bit of catch up in the health department. 

Even if I didn't do the volume of travel I have been doing or like the things I tend to like, I would still continue to work because D is not yet ready to retire.  We do not take his income or future pension for granted.  And having my income gives us wiggle room and security should things go south for either one of us.  If things go south for both of us at the same time, then that's a different matter.

We've been looking into country properties (for increase privacy, silence and darkness) and have decided against moving because the properties we like are in the price range where we'd need to pay another 200K - 250K.  The thought of spending that much more makes me weary.

As for future expenses, the biggest ones for me are education related.  I'm not quite over wanting to learn to fly a helicopter amongst other things.  The timing isn't right as I'm still wanting to travel.  The amount of money I'm spending to travel could fund other hobbies once I'm ready to transition into something else.  That time hasn't come yet.  What I know for sure is I'm not willing to go back to full time work to make both happen at the same time. 

Work for me is manageable right now.  Like with everyone else, I have my days.  D's work is more tedious in different ways.  He has been working towards moving to a different department where the work environment is healthier.  Disappointingly, after a couple of interviews and one job offer, he has found out the other department isn't as open minded to him working remote.

Currently D is able to work from all our locations.  He has an excellent working relationship with his current boss.  It's just the type of people his current dept (very niche) has that is the problem.  He believes it may be possible to achieve the same level of trust with someone else but will take time.  While I was away he did a lot of mental and emotional weighing about his professional future and concluded he would stay put for now.  He definitely has no desire to move to the next level on the pay scale but would consider a position in a different part of the world. 

Flexibility is the name the game with us right now.  We enjoy a good amount of it and the thought of it being reduced doesn't appeal to us if we can help it at all. 

It is this flexibility that has gotten me into an extra trip this summer.  I wouldn't normally book things this close together but when the opportunity came about, I was feeling pretty energetic and thought I would be able to do it when it came around.  And here it is already.  I'll be spending time soon in the unique heat that is Southern Italy and Spain in Aug.  Complete opposite of Norway.   My goal is to make it through without heat exhaustion.  Back in a couple weeks or so.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Norway Review Pt 4

Twenty four degrees Celsius in Oslo really did mean 24 degrees C that day.  I spent an hour or so looking for larger hand luggage.  The only thing I liked cost about 600 Cdn and was one size down from a bag I already owned and knew to be available cheaper in Canada.

So I decided to wait until I returned to Amsterdam as I remembered there was a luggage store in the mall underneath the airport.  A better solution came about.  I found a fold up in a pouch instant hand luggage bag (kinda like those fold up bags by Longchamp but at a fraction of the price).  It weighs next to nothing and will now accompany me in my travels in case I decide to go on a heavy sweater buying frenzy again.  More importantly I like how people wouldn't suspect the value of goods I was carrying inside.

Oslo was a feast for the eyes.  It appealed to the architect in me (remember I spent a summer working as a Jr architectural technologist).  What I didn't expect was the variety of design styles in the city.  It blew me away.  The city is clean with wide avenues.  Even the buskers seemed to have more talent.  What a way to spend my last day in Norway.

Because of the well developed, people friendly port area (with loads of ice cream options), business men and women would buy their lunches (full out meals on plates and everything) and sit out on the steps leading to the water.  So I did the same.  A gentleman sat beside me and started chatting.  He is an industrial painter and had been to Canada before and wanted to know if job prospects for his line of work were good (I didn't really know).  We talked about the cost of living in Oslo (7 - 8 million NOK to get an apartment near the port) and other general topics.

Despite it being lunch time, wide out in the open with lots of people around and fairly neutral conversation, my spidey senses told me something wasn't quite right so I quickly finished my lunch and bid farewell.   I can count on one hand the times where I've had that feeling in all the years I've travelled.  But I've learned not to ignore it.  Important to trust your gut whether you are a solo female traveller or not. 

Oslo is a very walkable city (didn't need to consult map much at all, streets made sense) so that's what I did for the remainder of the day.  Because it was such a beautiful sunny day, the outdoor areas of restaurants and cafes were packed.  I love how the restaurants gave you blankets or faux fur to sit on.  The day passed too quickly.  I wished D could have been there. 

Funny enough, I met my last Norwegian person not in Norway but completely by chance at the Montblanc counter at a duty free store in AMS.  She was in the midst of testing out a ballpoint pen.  Because you have to show your boarding pass upon purchasing, I heard her say she was going home to Norway.   I couldn't help myself and piped up that I just came from Norway and just how much I was entranced by her country.

She was attractive, young, well put together, confident, very obviously intelligent and from Geiranger.  She lamented about how she had heard the weather had been quite cold recently.  I told her it didn't bother me as everything was still so beautiful.  Currently she lives in Stavanger and had just come back from Beijing on business.  I got the feeling she didn't really love growing up in a small village.  It took 8 - 10 hr by bus to get to Oslo as Geiranger did not have an airport.

Then we got talking about pens as we both have a thing for fine writing instruments.  Her love of fountain pens began when she studied in France (she had my dream upbringing) where everyone writes with them.  I nodded as I knew it to be the case and told her why I was at the counter too.  I was looking for a regular pen as fountain pens and airplanes equals one big mess due to air pressure changes.  Plus I was tired of using leftover hotel ones as my Waterman (a graduation gift from my aunt) was a bit too large and heavy.  (Believe it or not, there are 4 or more weights and barrel sizes of pens.)

I was extolling the virtues of my Montblanc fountain pen vs other brands when I found out she didn't own one yet.  This pen purchase was her first foray into the brand.  Her fountain pen is a Parker (my first one also) and it had some problems that didn't exist with my current one.  I think I did a good enough sales job so when she is ready to buy her next one, she'll make the leap.  We wrapped up our respective purchases (she was so cute, she asked to have her pen gift wrapped so it was like a true gift to herself), wished each other well and went our separate ways home.  My chat with her was icing on the cake on an already wonderful experience.

I'll end this review series with a few comments on the "cost" of Norway as I heard a lot of moaning and groaning about it during my trip.  I've listed some of my costs along the way to give you an idea.  Compared to Canada, yes it can be more expensive.  Compared to Central and South America, it is seriously expensive.  Compared to the big cities like Paris, Zurich, NYC, LA, it's about the same to eat and sleep there.  Compared to Monaco or Cannes, it's cheap.  Like most of life, it's all relative.

If you just want a cheap beach with all inclusive drinks and food for next to nothing, if that is what value means to you, then go to Mexico, Dominican or Cuba.  If you want a beach where you aren't in a compound or hassled every 5 seconds and where most people there make more money than you, go to Bermuda or the South of France.  You see what I mean?

I'm thinking most people just don't land in Scandinavia by mistake.  You go there for a reason, knowing you have chosen a relatively pricier place.  So make peace with it and don't go back if you don't want to.  Norway is going to be just fine with that.  There are many other cheaper beautiful places in this world.  Go forth and be happy.  As for Me, I'm going back.

The value of Norway does have something to do with cost.  You are going to a country where people are literate, skilled, employed, where the economy is strong and it's cities clean and safe.  It also happens to have a treasure trove of unique physical beauty.  That's what you are paying for.

"Man's mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions." 

Oliver Wendell Holmes  US author and physician (1809 - 1894)

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Norway Review Pt 3

I'm really missing the seemingly perpetual daylight of Norway.  The colours of the sky in the wee hours of the morning are so gentle, full of pastels and does not resemble a sunrise or sunset.  There was a noticeable difference between Molde (the most north I went) and Oslo.  It didn't throw off my sleep like I expected.  When I first got home, it felt like I returned to the shorter days of fall.

I had high hopes for Bergen because of their famous fish market.  The vendors actually have cooked food and will also prepare their catch for you.  There were large vats of steamed mussels and flat tops with fish and shrimp being seared.  And lots of people offering free tastings of smoked and sashimi grade salmon.  You can buy vacuumed sealed packages to take home.  All in a compact area.

Me?  I was ready to eat.  I tried their prawns and squid.  Preparation of the food didn't include a lot of seasoning so the flavour of the fish could come through.  I have to admit, the food didn't wow me but I was happy to participate and give them my business.  The vendors were super friendly and were happy some people were interested in eating vs just taking up space photographing their stalls.  Norwegians are serious about doing business.  I washed my lunch down with some deliciously sweet cherries. 

The Bryggen area of Bergen is where the shopping is concentrated.  The alleyways between the old wooden buildings (Merchant Houses) are deep and filled with artists studios -- jewellery, hand knit items, paintings, wood work etc.  I loved that.  You could spend hours just looking at all the art.

Bergen is popular place for visitors and the city is large enough to handle it.  One thing I try and do when I find myself in a new place is visit a local supermarket if I can find one.  I want to see what people buy for food.  We've seen some crazy food items over the years.  From what I could gather, Norwegians cook (unlike the Germans).  The supermarket I went into was "large" -- Remember large in Europe does not mean Costco...

And true to Scandinavian design, the food packaging, notably their canned goods were beautiful!  How does one make a can beautiful you ask?  By surrounding it with a label that looks like and is the quality of a well done magazine ad, that's how.  From dog food to canned soup, they were like designer cans!  Who would have thought?  When was the last time you saw an artistic black and white photograph on a can?  It was in this supermarket where I finally bought myself a bottle of the famous Olden water as well as some more of my recently discovered chewy candy -- The sour kinds are the best!

The itinerary I sailed is only done once a year by the company I went with.  They spend a couple of weeks of June in the upper half of Norway and another couple of weeks in the lower half.  I'd be lying if I didn't admit I want to go north of the Arctic Circle with them in the coming years. 

Cruising isn't for everyone.  Some might find the movement of the boat difficult.  Personally I like being on the water so it didn't bother me.  Mainly it was a means to get me to where I wanted to go at a certain comfort level (I like my sleep and privacy).  Honestly, I didn't care for all the shows and various entertainment they had on the ship.  I wasn't there to "get my money's worth" in volume of food consumed either.  I found the evening 5 course meals too heavy for my liking.  So I opted for Sushi or Indian or Asian instead.   There were 6 restaurants on board. 

Satellite Internet and cell phone service is spotty when the ship was in a fjord (which was a lot of the time) and because of satellite regulations, even docked in Oslo, there was next to no signal.  So if staying connected is important to you, you'll end up spending a lot of money battling the ultra slow Internet at $0.75 a minute.  I purchased a small package so I could email D and complete my airline check in.  It took forever and cost $50 for 90 min (which went fast). 

One aspect of this cruise I did enjoy were the lectures.   They had an Astronomer from Australia as well as a Political Science professor on board each give a series of 5 lectures.  One of the astronomy lecture days coincided with the announcement of the discovery of the Boson Higgs particle so we got an extra talk about it.  Plus, we found out that a fellow guest actually worked on the flap mechanism and the thermo insulation of the Hubble Space Telescope!

The poli sci prof spoke about the history of Norway and Sweden and how they had completely different viewpoints on world trade which has been critical in their development as countries and to their status today.  Norway was looked upon as Sweden's "poor brother" for a long time.  Not any more. 

He also covered viking history and their explorations and how viking heritage is still alive today in how tough and independent the people are.  Norway is a harsh country weather wise to live in with a large majority of people in rural areas.  It's not surprising why Norway doesn't want to be part of the EU and is cautious with any NATO efforts.   

My cursory description above does not come close to the the depth of what was covered in the lectures.  I was pleasantly surprised with the level of information taught.  Having never taken a course in poli sci, I found it all very interesting especially now that I have been to a number of places already.  It helped me to tie things together on a bigger scale than just studying one country at a time.

I however have taken a course in Astronomy.  Because I was in Sciences, I chose electives as far away from science as I could.  Or so I thought.  Italian renaissance history, Modern Canadian Literature, Gothic Cathedrals of France...

Turned out Astronomy was all physics!  I was hoping for beautiful photos from the Hubble telescope, learning about galaxies, supernovas, red giants... Instead we were calculating distances back to the Big Bang using Einstein's and Hubble's equations and theories.  It was a bit of a nightmare although it gave me an eye opening realization of how small and insignificant our world is compared to what's out there.  Here's a beautiful excerpt.

The timing of the astronomy lectures and Wimbledon (I ended up watching Federer play 3 matches) brought back a forgotten memory.  The guy I was dating at the time was also taking the same elective and he was uber competitive.  When he creamed me in the first couple of quizzes, I took it upon myself to make sure it wasn't going to happen again.  Even though I had 30 hr/wk in classes and labs, I went in for extra tutorial sessions, 8 in fact.  He didn't clue in I was getting better until I was able to help him out with a calculation late in the term. 

Well, he didn't take it well and we broke up shortly before I kicked his behind in the course.  The men's semi final tickets in Centre Court I managed to win us via Wimbledon's international lottery ended up unbought.  The Me today would have gone by myself.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Norway Review Pt 2

Weather in Norway is deceiving.  I think the North Sea and the Arctic Ocean has a lot to do with it.  When I landed in Amsterdam (North Sea) having just been there less than a month before, I thought I was dressed appropriately.  When I got into the city (16 degrees Celsius), I froze my legs off (shouldn't have) and promptly started looking for a cafe for something warm to drink and a place to change. 

Not much was open at 8 am on a Monday so I headed to one place I knew was -- my favourite bakery (30 min walk) and felt better after eating a warm pain au chocolat and a phyllo apple pastry.  At one point I entertained the thought of just putting my pants on underneath my skirt right then and there in a public square because I was so cold.

It took a day at sea before we arrived in Stavanger and I did not see anyone out on deck because it was uncomfortably cool and windy.  I found it colder than Alaska in May.  Seventeen degrees Celsius didn't mean what it meant at home especially on a moving boat.  We all had pants and fleece on.  And in my case, ski socks so I could stay outside. 

And what happened in Stavanger?  It was 23 degrees Celcius and actually felt like 18 with strong strong sun.  So much so, I had to quickly buy this for my nose and cheeks despite having spf 55 on my face.  We only had strong sun there and in Olden and Oslo in the two weeks.  Even so, I managed to come home with a "Made in Norway" farmer's tan.  Super...

It may not have been apparent in the pictures, but it was pouring rain in Molde, Geiranger and Skjolden.  Anyone going into fjord country I would highly recommend proper rain gear.  The 80's KWAYs I saw people sport didn't cut it.  You need a waterproof and windproof jacket that preferably breathes.  It doesn't take long for the novelty of cold rain and soaking wet skin to wear off.  An attached hood with adjustable toggles is often superior to an umbrella which can be rendered useless from gusty winds.

Stores are open til about 2 pm on a Saturday and closed on Sunday.  It was tough to even find a restaurant or cafe that is open outside of those hours unless you go to a hotel.  I was in Alesund then.  Norwegians take their time off seriously.  I respect that.  And if you have to buy some impromptu gear in Norway, prepare to pay about 50% more than you would find in NA.  Helly Hansen is the brand there.

I took a public bus from Molde (which by the way is home to a renowned jazz festival) to almost Kristiansund, to be able to experience the Atlantic Ocean Road.  Most of the people on the ship opted for organized excursions but I preferred to just find my own way.  Often it was cheaper (not talking about the helicopter here...) and it provided more opportunity to talk to different people.  I had some memorable fish and chips (Arctic Char with paprika fries) just before catching my bus. 

It took 7 hours to navigate the ship through the Geiranger Fjord (arguably the most famous of Norway's fjords) to the town of Geiranger.  Before my trip started, I actually wondered if I would be all "fjorded out" after the first few stops.  I thought I might be seeing much of the same geography for the 2 weeks.  Glad I was wrong.  Each stop had its own appeal.  You cannot really compare them because they were different.  Just when I thought I might have seen it all or thought nothing could top it, I would be happily surprised once again. 

It was in Geiranger I found something D had been looking for for a while -- A vintage inspired ski sweater.  Dale of Norway is a well known name in knitwear.  You can find their sweaters at better ski shops.  They are often the official manufacturers of Olympic wear for our winter athletes.  If you've ever held one, you'll know very quickly you are dealing with something serious.  Those sweaters are heavy!  There is a significant amount of wool used to make them.  For the first time I had to go searching for a larger carry on bag for the flight home. 

If you are into hiking, all those small fjord towns will offer a lot.  If you are into shopping, the larger villages/cities will be more to your liking.  I was enjoying my stroll into the non existent "downtown" of Skjolden (inner most town of the Sognefjord -- 2nd longest fjord in the world) when I overheard a number of people complaining about how there is nothing here that remotely appealed to them.  Isn't it funny how different people view things?  I was just thinking about how great the air smelled and how the rain cast a mysterious hue.  I was happy for a "day off" from the busier towns and cities.

One other thing -- I found the rock in Norway to be really slippery when wet (increase density?).  At first I thought it was because I hadn't broken in my new hiking boots yet (bad timing).  But I saw a number of people on the ship after the first week with ankle supports/braces/casts so I no longer believed it to be just me.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Norway Review Pt 1

If I had to end my trip after Olden, it would have been just fine.  I was already contented.  It is hard to put into words how much I enjoyed Stavanger and Olden.  While they are completely different they represented all the good things I thought I would find in Norway.

Stavanger is known as the oil capital of Norway.  There is a lot of money there and the population is diverse.  I was told the highest concentration of Porsche owners live there and they had to pay double what we would pay in Canada for their vehicles (200K+) due to taxes and various environmental fees.  So basically you couldn't get away with being a "poser" there. 

The old part of Stavanger city is made up of small wooden houses with flowers everywhere.  The port is lined with restaurants and shops.  There wasn't a huge outdoor market on a weekday but I broke my first 100 NOK to buy a container of raspberries (45 NOK) to snack on while I wandered.  Their raspberries were huge but wasn't as sweet as I had hoped.  Still good though if you prefer more tartness! 

If you enjoy shopping you'll like the pedestrian area.  There are cafes galore to rest in and people watch, many with good menus.  Unique trendy shops will catch your eye if the distinct Scandinavian design doesn't first.  I had a great lunch by the port.  Serving sizes are large!  It cost 255 NOK (tip included) for my entree and a bottle of sparkling mineral water.

A highlight of my day there was my helicopter ride over the Lysefjord (called "light fjord" because of the colour of the granite) and Preikestolen (Pulpit rock), a well known Norwegian landmark.  When you see an advertisement for Norway, it is common to see a picture of it with a couple sitting there looking down upon the fjord.  In real life, it is much smaller than the impression given from a magazine advertisement.

Originally my plan was to hike up to Preikestolen until I found out it wasn't going to be the hike that make it impossible but getting there.  You need to take a ferry and a bus before the hike could get started.  The schedule was such I wouldn't make it back to the boat on time.  I've filed this away for when I return to Stavanger for a longer stay.

So I decided last minute to splurge on the helicopter tour.  As you saw on the receipt, it wasn't cheap for 30 min.  When the pilot found out I had taken an intro lesson before, he proceeded to continue to teach and allowed me to hold on to the controls and learn.  I really hoped I didn't offend him but I wasn't into the impromptu lesson as much as he was expecting (especially knowing how expensive lessons are in Norway)because I wanted to look out to take it all in and take some pictures too.  Thirty minutes goes by fast.

We had a longer chance to chat as he ended up driving me back into the city.  Norway isn't a cheap place to live.  Especially for young pilots hoping to get into the lucrative off shore oil field industry.  He had a totally different job in order to make ends meet and lived in the company barracks until he was able to move into his own apartment.  One interesting observation I made was that at no time did anyone assume I did not work. 

Olden (next day) was so picturesque I was barely able to eat my breakfast.  I just sat there gawking at what my eyes were taking in.  I wanted to splurge on another helicopter ride over a glacier but it turned out I was the only one on the ship (can you believe it?!) that day interested and they needed 3 people min to make it worth their while (jet helicopter vs Stavanger where they were happy to take just me in a R44).  During my 45 min wait, I got to talk to the pilot and the driver about life in rural Norway.

Jobs are more scarce outside of the major city centers and when you live in a very small village, you have to drive sometimes 100 km each way to work.  The highest paying jobs are in the oil and fishing industry.  Ask any Norwegian why alcohol is so expensive and you'll get a dissertation on their tax system.

Gasoline is sold in litres and is almost 3 times the cost of what we pay in Canada.  The average price in my area is $1.25 a litre.  They are pretty strict with speeders too.  The driver recently got charged over 1000 NOK for being 9 km/hr over!  I told him you can get away driving 120 - 125 km/hr in a 100 km/hr zone where I am.  They use studded tires in the winter.  Most homes have metal roofs and are built super solid.

Hydroelectric energy (harnessing all those waterfalls) powers 98% of Norway.  Income tax is pretty much the same as Canada (High!) and we share the same universal health care system.  Post secondary education is "free" if you can pass the required aptitude tests.  The guys felt very strongly against social programs for people who are "too lazy" to work and didn't like their tax dollars used that way.  They believed more and more people are taking advantage of the system. 

They also believe the price of real estate is squeezing many young people out of home ownership.  The pilots I met were in their early 20's.  You need to have 15% down before you can get a mortgage.  Mortgage rates are similar to what we get in Canada with the usual 25 yr amortization.

What I enjoyed most about the Norwegians was their no nonsense way of being.  They weren't in the habit of saying the default "great" when you asked them how they are doing.  You hear a lot of that in North America even when you know they are not doing "great".  They tell you how they are feeling and it is so refreshing (also why I love France so much)! 

Their English is way better than any of my other languages.   And if you are in the market, they are tall, fit, alluringly intense, hard working, good looking (the pilots I met looked like they ought to be in the Norwegian version of Top Gun) and have hand grips of steel.  I have pretty decent hand strength but theirs were surprisingly strong.  And as a woman I was treated like and expected to be their equal.  I felt stronger just hanging around them.

The guys razzed me pretty good because I didn't buy the "right" type of water while I was waiting.  The biggest employer in Olden is a bottled water company and they boast the best glacial water.  I told them I did not have any choice during my purchase (they didn't believe me) and they ought to take it up with the cafe because of course they ought to be selling the local water!  I manage to find myself some authentic Olden water later when I was in Bergen.  They were right.  It did taste good.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012


If I could afford to work and live in this great city, I would.

Cool restaurant.

I have been happily basking in the afterglow of Norway.
My trip review begins tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Bryggen (wharf)

Bergen has great public spaces.

The bustling fish market.

The alleyways house all sorts of artist studios.

Monday, July 16, 2012


Weather changes just like that.

This shot reminded me of Newfoundland.

This is what people do in the summer. 
Drive to all those wonderful fjord towns.

Trying to capture the colour of the water.

See all those little buildings to the left?
They are vacation apartments for sale.
The "owner" of Skjolden is very entrepreneurial minded.

There is a small white round structure at the bottom left of the center.
It is the opening to a road tunnel through the rock.

Sunday, July 15, 2012


Art Nouveau.

For those up for it, you can climb up to the local viewpoint.

Saturday, July 14, 2012


For scale, those are a group of kayakers on the lower left.

Going up the Eagle Road, 11 hairpin turns.

Love all the mountain farms.

All those white dots are mountain goats.

I was trying to capture the rush of water down the Flydal Gorge.

The sound of all the waterfalls!