Monday, June 20, 2011

Tour de Norge

An artist's depiction of me.
I collapsed in the field, my legs no longer able to support me. I couldn’t do much besides moan and feel the sweat slowly leak into my eyes, stinging them. The bike lay next to me with the front tire still spinning slowly. If I were a horse at Churchill Downs they would have put a bullet in my head. But while my cottony lips mouthed “water”, the other five Norwegians I was with trotted spritely up the hill with picnic materials and lit the charcoal of a small grill. We had just taken a bike ride up a large hill in Trondheim—the Bymarka area specifically—to have a small cookout and I was beaten, a victim of both Norwegian culture and the culture that I came here from.

The United States is huge. Alarmingly so at times. And because of this—in addition to relatively weak public transportation systems—we drive everywhere. If I didn’t have my car there is a very good chance I would not be able to function normally. Of course this is unfortunate for many reasons, but it’s a simple matter of practicality and culture, and, as of yet, there isn’t much we can do about it.

Norway is different. Cars are an extreme luxury item here, usually only purchased once one has a decent paying job. And even then they are used seldom. The reasons for this are myriad: high costs of vehicles (a new car here will cost at least triple what it costs in the US); high costs of fuel; great public transportation; relatively limited space; and a general sense of “environmental friendliness”. Virtually no one under the age of 25 has a car here. And having one is only rarely advantageous.

Such circumstances led to my plight the other day when we made plans to take bikes up to Bymarka to grill and have a few beers. Taking the bus costs money—and you’d still have to walk a ways after getting off—and, naturally, no one has cars. So your options are walking or cycling. Since Byarmka is a good six to eight kilometers away from the city center—up an endless hill mind you—we opted for cycling. “Opted” may not be the right word either. For the Norwegians I was with, it was simply how anyone would get there: no question about it. And even though I’m in good shape, Norwegians are much more accustomed to such strenuous treks in order to get somewhere. I wouldn’t take on such a jaunt unless I was going for a ride for exercise: it’s a totally different mindset. I tried not to appear whiny or frustrated, but those are hard emotions not to show when you’re carrying a backpack laden with picnic items up a constant 15 degree grade.

The air is clean here and the environment is virtually unspoiled: obvious signs that the Norwegian way of life spares nature by and large. I like this. But my culture hasn’t prepared me to enjoy a casual cookout when my heart is beating 200 times a minute. As women pushing strollers passed me as I cycled up the mountain, I tried to imagine myself and several American friends taking trips like that several times a week to get to our regular hangout spots: I couldn’t. Such ideas don’t jibe with American culture. I’ll adjust to the alternative means of transportation here eventually because I see their value and necessity. But it won’t be an easy transition. Whereas shifting a diet, purchasing habits or sleeping schedules are nothing more than quirky and often interesting endeavors, getting used to the fact that “getting there” is a plan in and of itself in Norway is a bit more difficult.

Laziness or an empty gas tank might prevent you from going somewhere in the United States. Such sloth doesn’t exist here. Since you have to walk or bike—or in some cases take public transportation—most everywhere here, there is no real concept of “too far” or “too hilly”. Last week, Tonje and I went to lay out at the beach. Instead of pulling a towel out of my trunk and leisurely soaking up the sun like I would in America, we biked some 20 kilometers over hill and dale to the seashore where I proceeded to fry like a fish that knew that the fisherman wasn’t tossing him back in the water (I had a great time though still!). But that’s okay. Cultural differences like this—despite the fact that this may seem like a long and whiny ramble—are part of why I love to travel and experience the world. And since this particular cultural difference benefits both the environment and me, I’m down with it. But if you see me huffing and puffing on my bike while I’m in Norway, I definitely won’t say no to a ride.

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