Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Norway



Entering Norway

2 lanes. "Nothing to Declare" & "Something to Declare". I stop and declare. No one comes out. It's pouring rain. I can’t back up and just change lanes now that I’ve pulled into the “Something to Declare” line. There are cameras. I run in. They look at me with dismay. "Damn. Some golden heart is actually going to tell the truth?" They get the forms out. It took ten minutes and cost $12. Like Norway needs another $12. I had read that Norway is notorious for catching and fining people for bringing in undeclared liquor from Sweden. I wanted to avoid any trouble so I decided it’s best to disclose a little so they don’t tear me apart and find a lot. 



We stocked up in Sweden. When Norway makes Sweden look cheap... You know the next month is going to hurt.



Norwegian Taglines

“Norway... You won't run out of sunblock”

“Norway… Patagonia with money.”

“Norway… A very expensive way to get to know the inside of your camper”

“Norway... Scoured by glaciers”



Making Friends With the Locals

Here's how you can get the dirtiest look in Norway..."Excuse me - is this water safe to drink?" 



Man am I dumb. Everything is super clean. It is the first of the first world. The head of the line. The most expensive country on the most expensive continent complete with freshwater deliriums. The purest of aquifers in the midst of pristine fjords. The guy just stared at me. I realized my mistake. We didn’t exchange another word. I lost my posture. I turned. I left.




Norway Is A Lot Like Scuba Diving

Scuba diving is a visual activity. It's not meant to be any effort at all, you just float along, passively looking at what there is to see. You’re not supposed to interact with anything. Don’t touch the coral, don’t harass the fish, don’t even stir up the silt. The diver is merely a voyeur just staring at a foreign environment. Substitute “Diver” for “Driver” and for us, Norway was exactly the same. We just came to look. We hardly interacted at all. We barely met anybody because we just drove through gawking at the landscape. The people are nice enough but it’s one of the richest nations on earth so unlike the developing world; which is constantly trying to capture the attention of all the tourists so they can eat tonight . . .the Weegies don’t really need you (In theory, due to their government oil fund, they are all millionaires on paper). They tolerate you because they are noble, not because they need to sell you something. And yes, it is completely permissible to refer to all Norwegians as Weegies. They appreciate the moniker. Use it at will, and you’re welcome. 




We Did Meet A Family

I’m a sucker for a cute dog and it’s an easy way to meet people as I accost their canine. I approached a family on a ferry and they told us about their island which was one more ferry ride away. The son tempted me with “There are red rocks and some monuments and a cave and the second largest Viking mound in Norway is actually on our property.” “Son – you should have led with the Viking mound. You couldn’t keep us away now.” 



We made plans to meet them the next day to see their Viking mound and museum. That evening we had one of our prettiest campsites yet.



The 2nd German Invasion

The last time there were this many Germans in Norway it was World War II, and they were trying to develop heavy water. Half of the license plates are from Germany. There are Germans everywhere. It's all Germans all the time. It’s hard to meet Weegies when the country is so saturated with Germans. Are there any Germans left in Germany? It was the same when we were in Croatia.

This was a Weegie bunker that the Germans enlarged after capturing it during WW2

Don’t Be A Hater

If it's a bad time to be a rich old white guy... It must suck to be Norwegian. On a global scale they are very rich and it is the part of the world where white people originated. However, based on the few that I met, I somehow think the old Norsk patriarchs are doing just fine and have avoided the loathing. They stand tall, are ruggedly handsome and have time to share.




Driving around Norway

You're not going to listen to a lot of podcasts. The scenery is too strikingly beautiful, and the roads are dangerously skinny. Driving in Norway demands active concentration. On more than a few stretches it becomes a 1 lane 2 direction skinny road with a “pull over passing place”. You speed up to pull over. Silly. If they are so rich, why don’t they build better roads?






Speed Trap Norway

Norway is well appointed with speeding cameras that love to give tickets when the only infraction is not being a mind reader and knowing what the speed is. They post zero signs designating the proper speed. That's not cool Norway.



“So What Did You Do There?”

More like – what didn’t we do there…We didn’t bungee jump or zipline or ride a gondola or river raft or pub crawl. Way too expensive. We ate only one meal in a restaurant and the mediocre pizza was $26 and the beer was $9. Our sole entertainment was that big movie screen of a windshield and the hikes we went on. It was enough. The visual feast that is Norway suffices the senses and quenches the adventure lust. 




Living In A Van Down By The Fjord

The Lofotens look like Halong bay and the Marquesas’ Islands had a love child while on vacation in Norway. It’s as if Santa granted a child’s dream of paradise and it was built by his elves while on summer break from the north pole.




This island chain has been on my bucket list for years and I’ve now bagged it. They were absolutely precious and if you never own a motorhome, you can still fly into Narvik rent a car and stay in hotels. It’ll be shockingly expensive but you too can do this trip, and you should. But if you get the motorhome don’t settle for just the Lofotens. Make sure you hit the chain above them as well.



The Vesteralen Island Chain

The Inca would have loved it here. It's a cold harsh environment with lots of megalithic stones for building. The Inca were at the top of the food chain and so were the Vikings. The Inca built roads and the Vikings built ships. With a coastline this long and punctuated with this many islands they were destined to be accomplished sailors. They went everywhere and they didn’t even have performance fleece. You have no excuses.

The requisite drone shot with the moho in the foreground


We Never Drive At Night

It’s a maxim that has evaporated because it never gets dark. We now drive at night, even late at night. As do others. Sometimes it's a bad thing because it's 11:30, you are trying to sleep, and somebody pulls up and parks next to you with doors opening and dogs being summoned. Damn overlanders. It didn't used to be the case because nobody would drive in the dark, but there's no more dark. In the normal world we would time our park up arrival for 5pm, in case our first choice turned out sour we’d then still have enough daylight to reach our backup spot. Now sometimes we start driving at 5pm because we know we have endless light in which to continually upgrade our parking spots. The long days are like ADHD for overlanders.



Good thing I never had kids

My non-existent children’s college fund went into the fuel tank. Fuel prices have never been higher, and I picked the most expensive country in the world in which to do a road trip. When paying only $9.73 per gallon of fuel it's a good idea to drive every road,

Everyone loves a hanging glacier


“What’s The Point?”

It is so distractingly gorgeous that while at some of the most scenic places I didn't even take a picture. Hell, I didn’t even take my phone out of my pocket. My lens can capture about 150 degrees of beauty before I have to admit defeat and use the panorama feature which is always a disappointing result. Norway broke the photographer within me. There's no way I can capture the three-dimensional experience of a place like this. It’s utterly spell binding, the way the sunlight attaches to the flat water and illuminates the adjoining gentle hills surrounding the drama of the fjord, and there, too small in the view finder for the scope of the landscape, sits someone’s perfect little pastural house they call home. Paradise.



Your man on point,

Bobby


Sunday, October 2, 2022

Sweden



Nikville

I have a bit of a social head start when it comes to Sweden. Back in the USA of the 90’s I met the enigma named Niklas Gunnarsson at the rock-climbing gym. He’s literally good at everything, smart, patient, and a hell of an athlete. In my faulty memory I recall that once we met, we immediately became fast friends and spent every weekend together camping and climbing. But that’s hero worship clouding reality. The truth is less rapid and dramatic but it is factual that he introduced me to his circle of Swedish students and nannies and I would thereafter become fixated on the Nordic cultures. We eventually became house mates and even when he ultimately moved back to Sweden, I would hunt him down and force my company on him. From Stockholm to Sundsvall with Mora and Uppsala thrown in for good coverage he showed me his country 25+ years ago and I’ve been showing up on his doorstep ever since. In fact, you may have heard me refer to Sweden as “Nikville”. 



“Welcome To Sweden!”

We took a huge ferry with Encore riding in the bowels of the freighter and AB and I warm in the upper decks watching the German seaside give way to open ocean and then closing on the Swedish port of Trelleborg. Our first night was in a serene little village with free wifi, a giant grocery store with a huge selection of delicacies, and roving hoards of cute polite blonde kids who said hello to strangers. There was a rustling in a nearby bush and Aleja said, “wait, look – there is a rat in there and it’s coming out. Shh…” 30 seconds later it appeared and it was the worlds cutest hedgehog. I think that’s a fitting “Welcome to Sweden story”. Everything is cuter, safer and friendlier.



From The Balkans To The Baltics

This leg of the trip started in Zagreb Croatia. Aleja’s mama flew in and we spent 8 days driving from there to Hamburg, Germany. We traveled through Slovenia, Austria and of course Germany. She marveled at the heights of human civilization. She noticed things that our eyes had missed. There are no billboards as you travel through Germany. We didn’t catch that. I repaid the favor when we were in Goslar: “Aura, listen – do you hear that? Total silence…” Maybe civilization is neighbors respecting your peace and quiet. (And if you order now, we’ll throw in well-behaved children for free.) 



Malmo

Ullet was 20 when she moved to Tempe AZ. She met Greg and Annelie. She married Greg, and Annelie married her brother. I’d say that American trip had a lasting impact. Greg and Ullet gave us a very soft fun landing in Malmo and the friendship trail began. 



Greg, Ullet and Petter - The Malmo Mafia
Vaxjo

Stefan is another friend from Tempe in the 90s. A gentle soul who grew up to be a business executive. It’s so rewarding to see these Swedes all grown up in their comfortable homes when the last time I knew them they were living in beat down college apartments and riding bicycles. Stefan and his wife Annelie (different Annelie) cooked us a great meal and we bore witness to her green thumb gardens that surround their home. 




Stockholm

I told you this was the friendship joyride around Sweden. I just went from smiling face to smiling face. Anders Eldh is the man who christened me an honorary Swede decades ago and I’ve tried to live up to the integrity ever since. Occasionally I fall short. We were quickly joined by Martina and Annelie (yes – that Annelie) as the long afternoon refused to dim into night. Drinks were had, stories were remembered and long-standing friendships were reinvigorated. 

Anders, Annelie and Martina - Some of the best

Midsommar In Falun!

These are the gentle Vikings that the world has inherited from their hardscrabble ancestors. They pay homage to their pagan rituals of old and we lucky tourists delight in being welcomed into this brass ring experience. 



Decorating the May Pole



Raising the May Pole

May Pole festivities. It’s all fun and games until the human sacrifices begin

Perfect Swedes in training
Swedish Midsommar Delicacies

I’ve never been to a 48-hour party before. Here are the secrets to success: Drink pacing, highly structured, regularly planned feedings, a theme planted in the middle, a gorgeous setting, generous hosts and Swedes – lots of Swedes. Annika and Thomas were our gracious hosts who opened their lake house to us all. Contests, paddle boarding, high quality food, sauna, rinse and repeat. The sun never sets so we pulled the blinds in the camper, got our 7 hours and woke up to do it all again. The cast didn’t change. We welcomed the day with the same smiling people who wished us goodnight the well-lit evening before. The bubbling of the Swedish language melds with the water lapping the lakes shore and paradise is realized with a rhubarb gin & tonic in hand. Was it the best party ever? – it might have been. It just might have been.

So inclusive!! - They made us feel like old friends from the minute we walked in




Bingjostamman!

Is music really just math? Let’s do the numbers: Take 2 brothers, 1 jovial married guy with a hall pass and 1 Clark Olafsson sound alike - pitch their tents next to Square Bob Encore in a field of 1,000 musical geniuses and let’s see what happens… Roving packs of minstrels! I’ve never seen anything like this and I doubt many have. Highly accomplished musicians roam around the enormous campsite/temporary village and create impromptu music with total strangers who soon become good friends. 




The Long Drive North

Sundsvall, Umea, Lulea, Kiruna. We spent one night in each spot. That’s rare for us. As a standing order we usually spend at least 2 nights at each stop so we can poke around and look under the skirts of the city, but not on this leg. Our marching orders were clear – “Wake up and drive! Norway or bust!”



Sweden loves to put a speed camera at the bottom of a hill with the smallest of road signs to announce the max legal speed. We squint and brake. It’s a dirty trick but that and the mosquitos are about the only thing I can complain about. The roads are good and the rest stops come complete with everything a motorhomer needs

Do you see a resemblance? Maybe something in the eyes?


In the north they don’t say “yes” with a “ja” (pronounced “ya”) they just suck in air through pursed lips. It’s the oddest thing when you first encounter it. You’re telling a story and as confirmation that they are listening they start practicing birthing labor techniques. One thinks: “Are they in distress?” No, they are just being good listeners. I think only the Swedes are smiling now. That’s ok. Only my Mom, Audrey, Brina and 5 Swedes ever read these dispatches anyway.



Return to Sweden (Norway will be the next dispatch)

We drove back to Nik’s house for one more party and then made our way south to Malmo and entered Denmark. We had a few more fikas, admitted to ourselves that this place is a utopian summer playground and toyed with the idea of spending every summer in Scandinavia. That’s how good it is. 

Ahh - the Swedish Crayfish Party - An absolute must! The singing binds together the schnapps with the crayfish. Smooth transitions make for a buzzy feast



Fika & Lagom

In order to truly understand Swedish culture, you must at least stand a little closer to the customs of Fika and Lagom. Fika (pronounced Fee-kuh) is the Swedish love affair of coffee breaks with friends, usually with something sweet. “Let’s Fika!” Will always generate a smile and is seldom declined. It’s a noun, it’s a verb, it’s a tradition of bringing people together and promoting wellbeing. And it’s not a Fika if it’s done alone. Companionship is the real goal. 



Lagom (pronounced Law-gum) is a little deeper and transcends their entire life’s approach. It’s origin story dates to the Viking times of 1000 years ago when the communal cup of beer or wine was passed and the drinker would take only their share – not too much, not too little, just the right amount. Today’s Swedes still practice this moderation in their daily lives. One could find average to be boring but that was not my take away. I saw it as an emphasis on consensus and fairness. Their demure demeanor allows for everyone, and I find that refreshing. 

And they are completely addicted to bearnaise sauce. 

Harvesting lingonberry (another keystone of Swedish culture)

My Salad Days

I'm pretty sure I peaked in college. I had long curly hair, the ability to garner free drinks and I only got beat up once. It was the 80s. Lately I've focused my observational skills on spotting excellence. I meet lots of people, from lots of different places. It comes with the lifestyle. I'm tuned up to watch quietly when today’s youth outperform expectations. I see it now and then when a young man behaves with chivalry, generosity, or silent inward reflection. Or when a young woman betters my history dissertations and exhibits restraint when she could call me on my nonsense. Their manners and panache give the future hope. It’s even all the more rewarding to witness when they are the children of my friends. The former were Ullet and Greg’s sons, the latter were Niklas’ daughters. 

The other sparkle that I get from youth is the glow from igniting that nuclear reactor within this tabula rasa individual standing before me. Usually, kids are too self-absorbed to listen, but occasionally I can witness them realize the scope of my travel stories as their parents introduce me with a synopsis. It's rare, but it's happened that it causes a dilation of the pupils and a visible pulse in the carotid, and though they contain it from those closest to them (we are all experts at that) … I caught it. It was a flash, but I saw it. It’s a gratifying feeling to know I can still have an impact on the same generation that used to buy me drinks and only beat me up once. That's time travel for me. Maybe these are my salad days. And what a rich dessert they are.

Your Honorary Swede,

Bobelibob


Sunday, September 18, 2022

The Balkans Part 2

 


Albania

This guy's been smoking since his ninth birthday and he’s 36. He looks 50. He drives a stolen German Mercedes 200d that's 40% bondo. He's got way too much hair on his arms and the best tan you've ever seen and he's never owned a pair of sunglasses. His squint would make Clint Eastwood blush. I’m not describing an individual. This accounts for 70% of the male population of Albania, and 20% of the female population.



Shkoder

We entered near a lake and spent nearly a week gorging ourselves on Albanian cuisine. Who knew it would be so good? I don’t think I’ve ever seen an Albanian restaurant, and now I know what we’ve all been missing. We passed horse pulled wagons as we buzzed the long distance on the e-scooters to buy fruits and veggies from a tented fresh market. No one speaks English and their hands are rough from the fields. The currency is colorful and extravagant in order to make up for the earth tones of their lives.



Put The History Here

Albania has a rich and deep history with many epochs of deserved pride. However, most recently there hasn’t been much to brag about. After WW2 ended, the murderous communist dictator Enver Hoxha ruled with a cruel paranoid iron fist. Albania was essentially cut off from the world from 1976 until Hoxha’s’ death in April 1985. During that time, he forced the nation to build over 173,000 bunkers. That’s almost 15 bunkers per square mile (5.7 bunkers per sq KM). You see them everywhere. Talk about paranoia. It was money that could have been better spent as the country barely had roads and not enough housing. One bunker contained enough concrete to build a 2-bedroom home. 

Photo courtesy of Marc Morell


Death On The Road

It started with. "Wow, there's some bad drivers here." it quickly became "Holy cow. These people are terrible drivers." Then it graduated to, "I think these people are worse than Peruvians". Peruvians are now the second worst, and the Colombians are in third place. Titles change hands. New champions are crowned. Congratulations Albania, you are the world's worst drivers.



"I am Albanian. I drive around looking for job..... or causing accident, whichever pay more."

In reality the common citizen could only recently afford a car and the roads were so bad up until 20 years ago that buying one would have been silly anyway. 20 years of driving is less than one generation. No one’s dad ever taught them how to drive. In fact, I don’t think anyone every taught them to drive. Somewhere, there's an Albanian waiting to pull out in front of you.

Durres

There are cities that are so breathtakingly beautiful that words can never approach the adoration that they deserve. Durres in NOT one of those places. There is no reason to go to this city other than the archeological museum. And if you go to the museum, you won’t be impressed. There are far better museums. But… Walk behind the building and see what awaits you. 




The Balkan Real Estate Market

Croatia is no longer cheap. You and I should have bought there 2 decades ago. Montenegro is soaring now as the world looks south of overpriced Croatia. We missed that real estate market too. Do yourself a favor and buy seafront land in southern Albania and hope past results reflect future trends.


The Smoking Is Out Of Control

The woman at the table next to us when I asked her if they were smokers before choosing our table: “No, but I understand you. Everyone here smokes. But here is different. In your country only the lowest of people smoke. The trash at the bottom. I know USA. I work Disney cruise line 8 years.”

Ahh - Eastern Europe.... What you save in prices, you pay for with your lungs. I've seen Spanish hams that were less cured than these faces. In almost all of the Balkans they still smoke INDOORS! It's unbelievable - restaurants, retail shops, damn near everywhere. The cashier rings me up with a cigarette hanging from his lips. Total barbarians. We used to go to the restaurants that had the best reviews but those are crowded with smokers. Now we have to preference bad empty restaurants. Can you imagine saying: “It looks good but it has a 3 star average. It’s gonna be way too smokey. We need to be looking at 2 stars.”

The black lung emphysema gag choking smokers of the Balkans love their children too

If you're begging and smoking you won’t get a penny from me. Furthermore, I would cruelly add that you deserve your poverty and ill health. That's how little I think of people who smoke. If your thing was gnawing on cyanide in the privacy of your own home, I wouldn’t say a word but your rights end when I have to breathe your smoke. Don’t hit me up for food money with a cigarette in your hand. That disgusting habit just exposed your lie.

Berat

This place might have been the highlight




A fortressed city at the top of the hill. Many people still live there. Fascinating to walk the old ramparts

The Jews

Albania is the only country in Europe that had more Jews after WW2 than before (11 times more!). Absolute Heroes! Why? Albania was the only European country with a Muslim majority and they were committed to saving their Jews even under German occupation. So, the next time someone bad mouths the Muslims or Albanians make them aware of this fact and their custom of “Besa”. 

The Muslims

I don’t know how you can sing 5 times a day, every day and still not have any rhythm or melody. It’s just this headache inducing warble.



One good thing about Muslim countries is that there isn't a lot of dog poop to step in. They are so anti dog. You don't have to worry about it.

Muslim cultures make wonderfully delicious desserts. My theory is that because they can't drink alcohol, all that energy they don't spend brewing and distilling and drinking, they put into making excellent sweets, plus they can afford the calories, because - no alcohol. 



The frequency of beards has increased with the Muslim populations. I grew one to show a little solidarity with my hosts.   I now comb my face with a toothbrush. This is literally werewolf training 101. I did this to myself in the 90’s once. There was a lot less grey. I might try it again in 30 years.

The Balkan Uniform

Sweatpants and a collared track suit top.... The Balkan uniform. All the better to criminal. I know that statistically the crime rate is incredibly low, but they are so good at looking sketchy. When worn with a beard, one instantly becomes Balkan macho. The added bonus is the ease in which you can disappear into the crowd. When your hobby is money laundering and human trafficking there's really only one respectable fashion. Once the sun sets, you can change into your “designer sweats” and show up fashionably late for your dinner reservations. No one will look at you sideways.



Test Case Albania

Albania, like the rest of the world, was Capitalist for thousands of years. Then they had Communism for 45 years and for the last 30 years they’ve been Capitalist again. In the city of Berat our host’s name was Elizabeth. She was 65 years old. She was born under Communism and was 35 when Capitalism began to return (it doesn’t happen overnight and, in the beginning, it consists of a land grab by the connected who then try to grasp how to monetize what they control from a populace that isn’t used to paying. It’s clumsy and markets aren’t quick to reveal themselves to those untrained in the art) Her family grabbed a children’s playground and rec center. Over the years they’ve turned it into a camp ground for motorhomes and backpackers. Somewhere, someone is lamenting the loss of their land, when before the communists, it was their orchard. 

“Elizabeth – was it better under communism or Capitalism?” “Under Communism we no have things! No makeup. No earrings. Only the scent of butter. Now have things but now must pay. Must pay gas. Must pay electric.” I’m not sure she was the brightest person to interview. She spent most of her time trying to trick Aleja into giving her sunglasses. 

Capitalism Vs Communism

I think if we had to distill it down to one determining factor to decide which is better: Communism or Capitalism, maybe it could be the number of patents. You can google it yourself.  The communists invent almost nothing. There's no incentive to innovate. When the very definition of their lives is uniformity and life quality equalized across the spectrum of all humanity - they aren’t trying to better lives through innovation. Redistribution yes – innovation no. Why strive when your surplus is taken from you and given to the average?

It's the antithesis of what occurs naturally with humans; where we work to improve our lives. We’ve been homo Sapiens for 300,000 years and constantly innovating. When the reward is taken away and you know that your life can't ever get better (No Tall Poppies!) than creativity stagnates. Nobody invents. Nobody is encouraged to do so. There is zero incentive. When you remove the reward system nobody wants to spend one calorie to build a better mouse trap. The proof is in the patents. We loved the Balkans under Capitalism. I doubt we would be saying the same had we visited in the 80’s.


These last 2 dispatches on the Balkans were a little challenging. I had to cover war, ethnic cleansing and long lingering hatreds, and then I threw in the lecture on economic systems for free. I do apologize. I can promise you that the next dispatch will be only positive and fluffy: Next up – SWEDEN!

Your man on point,

Captain Bobby




Georgia

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