Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dungeons and Dragons: My Trondheim Bucket List

Two months for what could essentially be described as a vacation is a long time. But, as the saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun”. And before I’ve really had the chance to settle in, I’m leaving. With two weeks left to go for this trip in Norway, I made a list of the things I would really regret not having done. It was pretty long. So time—and money—helped dictate which activities would make the cut. My selections also came from a desire to experience things from a wide range of cultural reference points that make Norway a little bit of what it is. And I wanted to have fun as well. I did.

Last weekend I was in Steinkjer for the last time this summer. That made me sad. But my visit was fortunately timed with an extremely Norwegian spectacle that only happens once a year: the Viking festival in Egge. There was no way I was going to miss this event, one that captures so much of where Norway came from, and what it still is. I had wild expectations of people in stereotypical Viking garb, roasting animals and medieval weapons. Those expectations were pretty damn close.

The Viking festival has an egregious price tag, but it’s worth the cost of admission. Smoke from kettles and open wood-fire grills wafts through the fields, trees and around tjalds—Old Norse tents. Men and women tend various activity stations, food stands and shops while dressed in traditional Viking regalia. The event is mostly staffed with local volunteers eager to show off their heritage. They exude pride in their crafts and foods of antiquity. I’ve been to living history museums and the like in the United States, but never to an event that is trying to reproduce traditions with this much age: life was often a bit tougher in the Arctic Circle around the turn of the first millennium than it was in much of the tobacco country of the New World.

I ate up the relative absurdity of the festival, imbibing local Viking ales, guzzling stews containing items of unknown provenance and hurling throwing-axes at giant slabs of plywood. Fueled by testosterone provided from tankards of beer and hearty meats, I was actually decent at the barbaric stuff—I was complimented for my accuracy with the throwing-axes. Although Tonje only managed to sufficiently mangle and re-sod the ground in front of the plywood aiming target, she was actually quite good at chiseling designs into soap stone. I was quite good at severing slabs of soap stone in half. Like any good American tourist worth his salt, I now have a t-shirt commemorating my triumphs at Egge that day. For one day, I was a Viking.

The next bucket-list item for my remaining time in Norway was to experience a night on the town. I know it’s shocking that I haven’t really done this yet given the fact that I’ve been here for two months, but as most of you know, it’s a cost-prohibitive endeavor. Yeah, I’ve been out for some drinks, but nothing that compares to the hedonistic revelries of my “younger” days. So, with several friends, and plenty of disgusting beer in the fridge—the only stuff that even approaches affordability—Tonje and I hosted a “vorspiel”—a pre-party—to kick off an evening on-the-town. After three hours, I realized that, because of the cost of alcohol, many nights-on-the-town don’t involve being on-the-town. And when you do finally head out on-the-town you are about ready to plant your face on-the-ground. You get the gist: you drink a lot before you go out so that you don’t feel the need to cough up kroner at the bar when you get there. It’s fun to sit around and toss back drinks with friends; we call something similar in the United States a pre-game. It’s a way of life for the youth here, though.

After the vorspiel, we went for a beer at the coolest café/pub/library in Trondheim—Antikvariatet. Some of the famous Norwegian rains had moved in while we were there, and, instead of continuing the night, four of our party of seven decided to head back to Tonje’s. I wasn’t about to let my last chance—for now—slip by, and braced the monsoon with two others en route to what was described to me as “the ultimate Norwegian heavy-metal, underground, dungeon bar”. I’m in. The description was an apt one. The place was legendary: set a few meters below street-level, the milieu resembled a blood-smeared dungeon with equally “dark” patrons. The ambiance and relatively inexpensive cocktails were great, but the characters in there were truly exceptional: this was, without a doubt, a locals only joint. I was accosted by a couple of belligerently-drunk individuals with shaved heads and foot-long beards as I left—they had probably picked up my English. One of these chaps began following my friend and I home all the time talking about how he was a true Viking, and about the merits of his country and the shortcomings of mine. But the mood changed a bit after I spoke Norwegian to him, and told him I actually liked Norway. Suddenly breaking his pro-Norway screed, he stood there, drunken, stunned, and said, “Why????”. I told him that I thought the news of my approval of his country would have pleased him, but he was already deep into a rant about all the failings of the Norwegian government. Oh, the people you meet.

The steeple of Nidaros cathedral constantly reminds anyone in Trondheim of the city’s ancient roots. I have walked its grounds several times, and even been inside it on occasion. But I had never received a tour of the place, so Tonje and I put on our tourist hats and did some guided sight-seeing of Nidaros the other day. This bucket-list item seems to be in odd juxtaposition to drinking at bars, but I was just as eager to knock this one off the list. The history of the place is a long one: different religions, various re-buildings, etc…. But what remains today is a product of the violence, proselytization and other ills that helped make Nidaros what it is today. I’m fine with that. Nothing inspires me quite like being in an ancient and overwhelming structure, preferably one from the Gothic Era, but Roman is good too. Nidaros has influences from both. Parts of it date back 1000 years, while others are still being worked on. It’s a grandiose tribute to tenets that were once much more important in this country.

But the majesty of the cathedral wasn’t all that caught my eye: ah, those two organs. I’m a piano player. And although I can’t play the organ—it’s a different beast altogether—I’ve always been entranced by the power of a really big one, and the talent it takes to wield that power. As our tour of Nidaros was ending, I asked the guide if anyone ever plays the organs and found out that a well-known organist actually plays the famous German one every day at 1 p.m. I knew where I’d be the next day. So, at 12:55 p.m. the following day I was back in Nidaros listening to three of the best Bach organ pieces there are: what a treat. It’s hard to explain, but when the organist opened up the pipes for Toccata and Fugue in D Minor I got chills. That kind of musical spectacle gets me more than any concert of one of my favorite modern bands could. Go to Nidaros at 1 p.m. if you’re ever here.

I didn’t get to do everything in Trondheim that I wanted to this summer: lacking was a trip to Munkholmen island, a dinner in the rotating tower overlooking the city and several other things. But I saw a lot of great stuff, and I’ll be back again before long—perhaps to live here. I stood in a room built before the year 1000 AD. I also saw an X Men movie in a modern theater while making myself sick with black licorice candy. I ate moose and waged medieval battles at a Viking festival. And I grilled out with friends atop a high mountain overlooking the sea. These activities exemplified what Norway is: a mix of the ancient, the wild and the new. One night you’ll see someone in party clothes dancing in a club, and the next day they’ll be dressed in tradition bunads to celebrate Norway’s heritage. I appreciate this, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to experience such diverse parts of Norwegian culture. And although I’ll return to the United States this coming weekend the same person, I’ve got plenty of new experiences under my belt and have new perspectives on some things. And I’m also pretty good with a throwing axe.

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