In Certifiably Happy Norway, a Cranky Traveler Finds Some Bliss (Within Reason)
Posted January 2, 2018 5:24 p.m. EST
The big white mountain goats lazed on a path of an alpine park last August overlooking Bergen, Norway’s second-largest city, where a crowded funicular had taken us to the top.
“Tourists,” muttered Ira, my husband, as he and my college pal Steven forged ahead down a mountain trail of wildflowers and towering spruces. The lovely hike in this world-heritage city that I had always wanted to visit — with its 14th-century wooden buildings on a stunning harbor — could only lift my mood so much. It wasn’t the jet lag. It was the disappointing hotel room.
Not the best behavior, I will admit, in the country named the happiest in the world in 2017. A United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network survey attributed this fact to social and economic factors, including gross domestic product per capita (oil is a major export), life expectancy, strong social support systems and trust in a corruption-free government.
But happiness, of course, is relative and modal and not just applicable to where we live but where and when we travel, too. What makes us happy on a trip? Thomas Jefferson was happiest, he declared, when traveling alone. Author Bruce Chatwin liked the road less traveled and always on foot.
“If walking is a virtue,” he wrote, “then tourism is a sin.”
I don’t need foodie-beckoning restaurants like Steven does or spa treatments like Ira. I need a balcony room and ambles through leafy city neighborhoods, agricultural mountain towns or fishing villages, all with a sense of an authentic life different from my own. Public ferries are a plus, too.
Steven and I, both as opinionated as we are controlling, had exhausted ourselves plotting this trip. Although I like boats, he didn’t like the look of the crowds packed on the typical cruises leaving Bergen that go up the Sognefjord, the longest of the saltwater cliff-flanked straits defining western Norway. We mapped out a weeklong drive instead. It would allow us to use an extensive national ferry system to visit several villages in a strategic arc ending in Oslo.
But regardless of our obsessive planning, there was absolutely nothing we could do about the rain, plentiful in western Norway in late summer and obliterating our sense of control, something that according to Daniel Gilbert, author of “Stumbling on Happiness,” is key to human satisfaction. Without control, we become anxious. On the other hand, a happy trip always leaves some room for spontaneity and, in my opinion, a swim. That’s how we ended up taking an unplanned detour through Klosteret — a sweet Bergen neighborhood of homes with flower-boxed, cobbled streets and one lovely cafe — to a large public pool. It was uncrowded, heated and looked out at all manner of boats on the deep, dark waters of the harbor. If only there wasn’t a buzzing drone overhead. It was hovering so close that the lifeguards called the police.
“I hope it isn’t a guy I dated who’s mad at me,” a woman treading in the next lane said.
This led to an unsolicited conversation, a pleasure on any trip, first about her disdain for Donald Trump, then about her incongruous support in the coming Norwegian election for the restricted-immigration conservative Erna Solberg, who was subsequently elected prime minister. Leaving the conversation (and a memory of the 2011 massacre near Oslo by a Norwegian xenophobe) for the sauna put me in a better mood. So did the handsome clerk back at our hotel.
“We were able to find you another room,” he told me.
It was smaller and without a balcony, but with big windows looking at a mountainside.
“Are you happy now?” Ira asked. During Viking times and until the 14th century, Bergen was the seat of the medieval Norwegian kingdom. Since then it has been the home of Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Grieg and more recently author Karl Ove Knausgaard. These days it is known for its university scene, black metal music and Kode, which is the name for its group of art, design and historical museums. One Kode building housed the catalyst for our happiness Saturday night — Lysverket, a foodie destination. According to a Norwegian food blogger that Steven (diligent in planning meals) had consulted, it wasn’t stuffy.
“Eighteen-course meals that go on for hours don’t make me happy,” he said.
The four-course meal, though, did — fresh and inventive with lots of local fish and seafood.
On Monday, after a satisfying visit to Kode’s Edvard Munch exhibition, my mood sank as the rain came down in relentless sheets and we drove north to Brekke, our first overnight stop on our fjord adventure. Out the windows we couldn’t see the scenery that brought us to Norway. What would happen if the weather ruined our views all week? Would I have to invoke the mindfulness prescribed by the Dalai Lama in “The Art of Happiness” to ease my disappointment?
That night, in a quirky motel with grass on the roof, I tossed in bed, unsettled by the sound of the hard rain. But when dawn came, I looked out and saw two sloping land masses rising from the water. A fjord as I had imagined it. The weather had broken to give us a sublime view.
It rained more as we took ferries and sodden highways to Fjaerland, where the handsome, longhaired owner of the small wooden Fjaerland Fordstue Hotel gave a thoughtful talk to a dozen guests. He told us about how he had found happiness by moving his family from Oslo to live closer to nature. Then he told us about Jostedalsbreen, the glacier we could see between the clouds and mist to the north. “In summer, when the ice melts, it nourishes the land,” he said. Later, when the drizzle subsided, I took a walk and found that Fjaerland, also known as Mundal, was my Platonic ideal of a Norwegian village, scrappy and unassuming with a few shops and cafes. The setting — snowy mountains against the water of the Fjaerlandfjorden — shocked me into total happiness by satisfying all my desires.
Plus there were the books. They were everywhere — in shops, in abandoned chicken coops, on shelves on docks and by the sides of emerald meadows. To attract more travelers, in 1996, sleepy Mundal became Scandinavia’s first official “book town.”
“But like anything else, it takes effort to make it work,” a woman running the book-laden tourist office told me. Yes, I thought, effort can bring happiness. But that’s not all it takes.
The villages we visited after that, Balestrand (where we had an excellent if costly hyperlocal lunch at a cider house in an apple orchard) and Solvorn (famous for its charm and natural beauty) didn’t make me as happy as Fjaerland. Both places felt too upscale and updated.
Ira raised an eyebrow at my self-sabotaging sensitivities. “Compare and despair,” he said.
At our historic, family run and expensive Solvorn hotel, the Walaker, a lovely manager listened to my complaints about our viewless room. She couldn’t help. It put me in a bad mood on our ferry from the local landing across to the Urnes Stave Church, a 12th-century UNESCO world heritage site in a setting as dramatic as any in Scandinavia. Ferrying back, we saw black dolphin-sized whales leaping out of the water, daring me to smile. Then as if on cue, a gauzy rainbow appeared. Moments later I was told we could move to a balcony room, which made my spirit soar as swiftly as a hot-air balloon. Naturally I was as ashamed for being so demanding as I was pleased. So why didn’t I feel happier? It had something to do, I think, with the gap between my fantasies and the reality of Norway. Samuel Johnson may have had it right when he wrote that traveling helps us stop thinking about how things might be and instead see them for what they are. Mainland Norway, it turns out, has in recent decades become too posh to offer much old-world charm. Most fishing is contained on farms far outside of towns, so fishing boats aren’t around to lend villages a rustic ambience. Agriculture, because of rocky soil, isn’t visible around each bend. The most scenic spots are more for weekenders and vacationers these days than for modest locals. They have a kind of tameness I hadn’t expected so far north of the rest of Europe. Yet I still hoped that our trip would have one peak experience.
“Let’s climb a glacier,” Steven said over breakfast the next day.
I told him that mountain climbing isn’t my thing because I hate going downhill and worry I’ll slip and fall. “Oh, come on,” Ira said. “When will we be able to climb a glacier again?”
That afternoon, in a wilderness area around a glacier called Nigardsbreen, I worried as a cheerful guide helped strap spiked metal crampons over my boots for traction. With a group that included several senior women from Singapore, who hiked up haltingly but without complaint, I dug my pole into a field of supernaturally blue ice and ascended an arm of the largest glacier on mainland Europe. Later, as we descended, I was too scared to enjoy the view of the turquoise lake and valley below. My heart pounded as I took tiny frozen steps, like a cross between a toddler and a very crabby old man, desperate not to slip.
“The crampons won’t let you fall,” Steven said. “But you really have to try to give up some control,” Ira said.
I don’t know why, but that’s all I needed to hear, not just for the hike but for the rest of the trip. Was it as simple as letting go of expectations and finding the good in good enough? On our glorious boat ride back from the glacier, our ruddy ferryman was beaming. I asked why. He told me it’s hard not to be happy in summer in a place that never needs air conditioning.
“And in winter?” I asked.
“That’s when I go to Thailand,” he said.
The days on our drive south that followed included two uninspiring villages and one, Undredal, where there are said to be more goats than people, so rugged and lovely that I thanked Steven for his willingness to take a detour to find it. He had been driving and navigating the entire trip without complaint. It made me happy that as difficult as I can be on a trip, our 30-year friendship was intact, as was my 10-year marriage. Maybe Norway wasn’t what I had imagined. But it gave three dear friends some lovely days and modest adventures, and that was enough. “I really liked that there were very few tourists in the way of the views,” Ira observed.
At the airport in Oslo I asked our young ticket agent if he knew about Norway’s happiest country status. Like most I’d asked on the trip, he did and wondered if self-satisfied and happy were the same thing. He admitted to being happy with a good job and a warm bed.
“But,” he added, “I’d be happier surfing in Australia.”
A Norwegian after my own dark and difficult heart.