I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

One time grills and the Paris Hilton effect

Every time I come to Norway, I’m fascinated by their experiment in government. When I report on it, I routinely get fellow Americans angry at me for bringing home news of a land where the desired alternative to big bad government is not little good government but big good government. I’m not necessarily in favor of this (and I certainly wouldn’t want to run my business over here). But I don’t find it offensive either. In fact, I’m challenged by it. Here are a few observations gleaned from conversations I just had here in Oslo. (In response to a comment below: Norway is resource rich–lots of oil money. But without oil money, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have essentially the same priorities and somehow manage.) Norwegians look forward to November. It’s “half tax month” as the government wants people to have some extra money for the upcoming holidays. With their current booming economies coupled with tax incentives for new babies, the Nordic countries are experiencing a baby boom. Paternity leave is very generous here. Scandinavian families get nine months leave at 80 percent pay which the mom or dad can split as they like. On top of this, men are required–use it or lose it–to take a paid month of paternity leave when their baby arrives.

While there are more babies around here, there’s less smoke. Just a few years ago, smoke was a real problem for American travelers in Europe. Now, much of Europe is actually less smoky than the USA. Italy went smoke free…then Ireland…now Scandinavia. The bars, restaurants, cafes, trains…it’s clean air for all.

I was just in one of Oslo’s infamous old “brown cafes”–so named for the smoke stained interiors. It was so old and brown that it still smelled of tobacco…but there hasn’t been a smoker in there for months. With the strict no smoking rules (a bar can lose its license if it allows smoking inside), restaurants are now routinely equipped with blankets so smokers can eat outside–even in the cold season. (To consume nicotine indoors, locals are using snuff–“snus” in Norwegian.)

Oslo has its prostitutes and needle junkies. In fact it seems most of the prostitutes are drug addicts too. Cameras panning the streets from atop buildings seem to ignore the sale of drugs and sex as this society is more tuned into violent crimes rather than what it considers “victimless crimes.” While wasted people who always remind me of Vikings and their whores after payday still seem to rot on the Oslo curbs, the lack of violent crime in the country is impressive by any standard.

I don’t know how the down and out manage to afford their alcoholism. Restaurants and bars are too expensive for the average Norwegian to use carelessly. Young Norwegians love their alcohol. But they b.y.o.b. These days young people “vorspiel” (pre-party) at home, go out for a couple hours around midnight to nurse one expensive drink with a wider social scene, and then “nachspiel” (after party) with close friends at home. In a Norwegian bar or restaurant a beer costs $8 (compared with $4 in Ireland and $1 in the Czech Republic). But beer is only $1.50 a bottle when purchased in a grocery store. $10 six packs, no problem.

In Denmark tourists see countless young revelers out on the streets, canal-side, and littering the parks drinking beer. It’s off-putting until you realize that the consumption is no greater than in England or Ireland…it’s just that while pubs there are affordable, in Scandinavia (because of the extremely high alcohol taxes in bars), “going out” means “going outside.”

Another way Norwegians cope with the high cost of eating out is with the “one time grill.” These foil grills–which cost about $3 at a supermarket–are all the rage. On a balmy evening the city is perfumed with the smell of one time grills fired up as the parks are filled with Norwegians eating out.

Another difference many American visitors notice in Scandinavia is the casual approach to nudity. I’m not talking just mixed saunas. Parents let their kids run naked in city parks and fountains. It’s really no big deal. Norway has co-ed PE classes with boys and girls showering together from the first grade. If you ever end up in a Norwegian hospital and need an x-ray, I hope you’re not modest. Women strip to the waist and are casually sent from the doctor’s office down the hall past the waiting public to the X-ray room. No one notices…no one cares. I find it ironic that while America goes into a tizzy over a goofy “wardrobe malfunction,” it is our society that statistically has the problem with sex-related crimes.

And what about dogs you ask? Small dogs are the rage these days in Oslo. They call it the “Paris Hilton effect.” Chihuahuas sell for $3,000 each in Norway. Bulgarians are routinely caught smuggling dogs in (they then kill the dogs). I asked my Norwegian friend about Chihuahuas. She said “We have two.” “Why two?” I asked. “So they can have babies. We just sold some and I paid off my credit card debt.”

Yoko Oslo

Following the news from overseas, it seems more like entertainment than ever. A journalist is caught intensifying the smoke in a photo ornamenting his covering of a Holy Land bombing. It seems CNN reporters are getting progressively sexier–blondes filling their flack jackets, husky voices under desert-colored helmets, bringing home the heroics and the carnage. Today, all day, is coverage of an event that didn’t happen–a horrific, multi-plane cataclysm with the marks of al Qaeda all over it. Thousands of flights cancelled. You can take only wallets onto the plane. No liquids! A reporter with an exotic Man-From-Uncle-type name is at Heathrow wringing as much “frustration and despair” as possible out of people delayed at the airport who seem to be taking the delays in stride. Already I’ve had several requests from news reporters for tips on packing liquids.

I’m in Oslo…a world away from the commotion. A “congestion fee” keeps most cars from the center of town. A new tunnel takes nearly all the rest under the city. The old train station facing the fjord boat landing is now the Nobel Peace Prize Center, explaining the vision of a man who dedicated the wealth he earned inventing dynamite to celebrate peace-makers. The towering brick city hall–where the prize is awarded–stands high above the harbor action. A weather-beaten sailor stands at the stern of his boat hoping to sell the last of the shrimp he caught before sunrise this morning.

There’s a light mist. A sturdy harbor front boardwalk glistens as if happy to be the city’s dancing floor. I stand at the edge of the scene and marvel at about a hundred Norwegians swing dancing–in what seems like a microcosm of a content society.

Normally Norwegians are annoying in their good looking self-assured perfection. But these are just extremely normal people–a little over-weight, a little wrinkled, maxed out in what life will bring them–dancing in content twosomes in front of yacht club-type bars and restaurants most of them likely can’t afford. It’s mostly American-style two-step to the recorded oldies…familiar tunes with unfamiliar Norwegian lyrics…there’s a line dance without much of a line and no cowboy hats. Girls looking up at their tall guys with big smiles. No one’s trying to hook up. They are hooked up.

Then, I turn around. Like a mirage, a small, fragile, older Japanese woman with a huge aura walks by otherwise unnoticed. Her attendant holds an over-sized black umbrella over her head…keeping a white beret dry. I have to say hello and thanks and mucho gusto or something. I walk fast to reach her but her attendant grabs my arm and says gently, “I’m sorry sir…not now.” And Yoko Ono walks on by.

(Back in my hotel, cursing my lazy decision not to lug my camera along, I Google “Yoko Oslo” and discover she’s performing here…the day after I fly to Stockholm. Oh well.)

Tetrapods to Lindberg with the Gift of Gab

Here in the land so famous for the gift of gab, there seems to be a passion for communication much deeper than just good craic in the pubs. I’m trying to get my mind around this:

Many paleontologists (at least many Irish paleontologists) believe the first fish slithered out of the water on four stubby legs 385 million years ago onto what would become the isle of Saints and Scholars. (I actually hiked down to see their “tracks.”) Over time those tetrapods evolved into bipods…like the Irish scribes who–living in remote outposts like the Skellig Islands just off Ireland’s southwest coast– kept literate life alive in Europe through the darkest depths of the so-called “dark ages.” In fact, around the year 800, Charlemagne imported monks from this part of Ireland to be his scribes.

Evolution, literacy, communication. Just over a thousand years later, in the mid-19th century, Reuters–who provided a financial news service in Europe–couldn’t get his pigeons to fly across the Atlantic. So he relied on ships coming from America to drop a news capsule overboard as they rounded this southwest corner of Ireland. His boys would wait in their little boats with nets to “get the scoop.” They say Europe learned of Lincoln’s assassination (1865) from a capsule tossed over a boat here.

The first cables were laid across the Atlantic from this same desolate corner of Ireland to Newfoundland giving the two hemispheres telegraphic communication. Queen Victoria got to be the first to send a message–greeting an American president in 1866. Marconi achieved the first wireless transatlantic communication from this same place to America in 1901. And in 1927, when Charles Lindberg ushered in the age of trans-Atlantic flight, this was the first bit of land he saw.

Today, driving under the 21st century cell phone and satellite tower crowning a Ring of Kerry hilltop on the far southwest tip of the Emerald Isle while gazing out at the Skellig Islands, you just have to ponder the evolution of communication through the ages and the part this remote corner of Ireland played.

It’s not a doodle bag…


Enlarge photo

Best thing to happen to me on this trip was when my son, Andy, called me and said he’d like to join me for a few days “to see how I do my work.” He cut his alone time short and flew from Paris to Galway, checked out the pub scene there for a day, and then joined me and my Ireland guidebook co-author Pat for five days of research before our planned family get-together in Dublin. It was great to have him along. It reminded me of travels with my grandparents in the 1970s in Norway (even thought they would stay at the fancy hotel and I’d sleep down the street in the hostel to enjoy a livelier crowd).

Andy has had a marvelous trip–assisted on three of our new Best of Europe family tours, was in the streets of Rome the night the Italians won the World Cup, was at the finish line of the Tour de France in Paris a week later, and has a long list of new friends from all over the place. Rather than sit at his hotel desk writing a blog…he’s out there wringing the fun out of Europe. When I bragged to my Irish friend what a fine traveler Andy is at age 19, “He didn’t get that from the stones on the road.”

As a dad, it’s so fun to think of the life experience my son is enjoying.

A few random thoughts from this trip: After all my “life experience” from spending a third of my adult days romping around Europe, I sometimes lose track of what’s impressive to Americans. Recently while filming in Italy, the barista made a smiley face in the foam on my cappuccino. Impressed, I asked Simon (my director) if we could film it. He said “that’s no big deal–they do it all the time in the states.” Later, in Austria, a pear tree was growing like ivy up the wall of a mountain chalet, attracted by the heat the white stucco held. “Wow!” I said to Simon…”let’s film it.” He said, “that’s an espalier, I have one in my Seattle back yard.”

A guide told me that if the building that was there before was still there it would be the oldest building in the town. Vienna’s Ministry of War has been downsized and what was their equivalent of our Pentagon now houses Austria’s ministry of social affairs. Here in Ireland, people keep asking “are you okay?” The Irish are a bit put off by the German inability to appreciate their treasured bagpipes. In German a bagpipe is called a “doodle bag.”

Beans for breakfast…it’s Ireland

I just spent a week in Dublin. It was our annual family vacation. Anne and Jackie flew in from Seattle. Andy wrapped up his 70 days in Europe here. And I took a break from researching. I had a hunch Dublin would be great for a week of family fun…and it was brilliant.

The city is safe, thriving, easy, and extremely accessible. Each night we enjoyed fun and affordable entertainment. Andy drank enough beer to tarnish its allure. Both kids connected with their Irish heritage. (In a week Andy will be back as school–Notre Dame…trying out for the “Irish Guard”–the big intimidating guys who precede the marching band at fighting Irish football events.) We were all pretty wide eyed at the thriving late night scene in Temple Bar. In Dublin the girls are wrapped up like party favors. The guys look like they’re on the way home from a hurling match.

And Ireland’s becoming a melting pot. It seemed everywhere we went young Polish people were serving us: bringing breakfast, cleaning our hotel rooms, taking our tickets. Ireland’s a land long famous for exporting its labor, but today the economy is booming and they’re experiencing a population boom–of immigrants. Of the 10% of Ireland’s population that is not Irish, most are Polish (Catholic, kept down by a bully neighbor…they can relate).

Poles are famously hard working here. My friend who runs a youth hostel employs a Pole who unnerves him by almost shouting “I can do dat” every time he’s given a task. It’s disorienting to hear rough Irish types (historically the under-class at home as well as abroad) talking about their Polish housecleaners like a great latest accessory. “I’ve got a wonderful new Pole…very low maintenance…don’t know how I managed without.”

Except for the beans at breakfast…forget “eating Irish” in Dublin. Going local here is going ethnic. I was at a multi-national food court and it was confusing: Chinese were cooking Mexican, Poles were running the Old Time American diner, a Spaniard was serving sushi, and Irish were running the Thai. Save your craving for pub grub for the small towns.

Yesterday, I was at Croke Park with 50,000 Irish football fans (like soccer but you can run with the ball as long as you bounce or kick it every three steps). Each fan paid €30 ($40) for a ticket. I get talking to my friend, telling him I went to the Abbey Theater the night before to see a play by Oscar Wilde. He asked me the cost. I said €30. He said to his wife, “imagine paying €30 to see a play?” I reminded him that, to a playgoer, spending €30 to see the game we were at would be just as strange.

Ireland’s charming rough edge is surviving its new affluence…but it’s becoming a little less rough. We spent €30 outside the stadium so everyone in my family would have a scarf or hat or flag with the correct colors (gold and green–we were rooting for Donegal). I remember twenty years ago–when the “colors” were cheap dye on crepe paper hats for a buck. I was in the humble stadium on this same spot (where Europe’s thunderous third biggest stadium stands today). The rain was causing my colors to run from my hat down my face–gold and green…still for Donegal even back then. I put the hat atop the umbrella next to me…not thinking it would run in eight small rivlets…coloring those around me. Luckily, they were Donegal fans too. Colors hold fast today. With affluence, the Irish no longer bleed on each other.

During that game twenty years ago I’ll never forget the creative cursing. My vocabulary grew like never before. The Irish–even in polite company–have always been loose with the “F word.” The Irish rock star Bono got in trouble on American TV for saying it, but the station avoided the FCC fine–apparently on a technicality: because, in common Irish usage, it’s considered an adjective rather than a verb.

On this current trip I’ve noticed the Irish don’t say the F-word so much. A decade ago it was f-in’ this and f-in’ that. And the air’s cleaner of smoke too. There’s no smoke indoors anywhere. Pubs come with fresh air and a few blokes smoking outside the front door.

Today, I had breakfast with Noel Dempsey, the Irish minister of communication–who, cabbies I interviewed in the last few days figure, is in line to be Ireland’s next prime minister.

(I made friends with Noel in Seattle when I was the Grand Marshal for St. Patrick’s Day and he was the visiting dignitary. Noel explained that each St. Patrick’s day the demand for Irish dignitaries empties their country of politicians as they fan out to St. Paddy’s Day festivals around the world. They post a listing of all the requests each winter and if you don’t choose one, you’ll get assigned a destination. He liked Seattle.)

Noel said Ireland is very pleased with the performance of their economy. In 1987 their per capita income was 65 percent of the European average. Today it’s 130 percent.