Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Fjords

Today we took a boat trip through the fjords. Interestingly, most people choose to take the trip up the Søgnefjord, which is about 3km wide, making the contrast between the cliffs and the water less dramatic. My dad learned that a much less known fjord, the Nærøyfjord (which we think translates to "narrow fjord"), is actually the one that was named a World Heritage sight. And because it's a much narrower fjord, the mountains literally tower over you as you're cruising down the waterway. Many of the mountains are so tall that they are covered with several feet of snow at the top! The waterfalls we saw along the way were some of the most spectacular in the world, dropping hundreds of feet. Plus, the bus ride out here took us down the steepest road in's one of the stunning views we saw:
To top it all off, the train ride back to Bergen winded up through the top of the snow-capped mountains, where we saw undescribable waterfalls and even an icy lake. The air was so brisk and clean, all day I felt like I was in one of the purest places in the world. Today was literally one of the most beautiful days of my life.


We took the speed ferry from Stavanger to Bergen on Tuesday, which took about 4 hours. I spent the time sleeping, writing, and admiring the scenery along the fjord and I've concluded that there's not an ugly part of this country.

Bergen is another lovely port town on the west coast of Norway. With houses and shops dating back hundreds of years, Bergen is called "the gateway to the fjords" because you can access Norway's most spectacular fjords, which have been added to UNESCO's World Heritage List (which is the modern day equivalent of being one of the wonders of the world).
We're all very excited because we finally sampled fiskerbøller (fish ball soup) aka Bergen stew, which is a tradition in my family. The name may sound displeasing but the dish is phenomenal.


We spent Monday in the darling port town of Stavanger (on the west coast), touring the historic district and a church that dates back to the 1100s (I'll post pictures later as I don't have that memory stick with me at the moment). We visited the hall of records - which we imagined would be this gigantic library-esque place - to see if we could track down any of the Neilson family relatives. As it turns out, it's a tiny room on the third floor of a poorly marked old building with computers that are at least 5 years old. Plus, everything is written in Norwegian, which, unless it's numbers 1-10 or the days of the week, means nothing to me. Luckily, we were able to hire a researcher to look for records on our known ancestors. We came back an hour later to learn that she had found nothing. This, of course, piqued our interest. My first reaction was one of dismay...maybe our trip was going to turn out like that credit card commercial and we were going to learn that we're really Swedish. But then as Stina showed us her search process we realized that a number of variables were at play. Did we know the exact year the family traveled to the US? Which port did they leave out of? Did we have the correct spellings of their names? All questions we were not 100% sure of. Luckily, we were able to hire Stina to continue the search and contact us once she finds something. We've resolved to go back to the US and research some of the holes in our information.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Family Tree

Sunday was an amazing day, one of the most amazing of my life. As far as journeys go, boy do we have a story for you. Let's just say we made some tremendous discoveries when exploring Dave's Norwegian heritage. Unfortunately, his mom is on vacation at the moment and he wants to share the details with her and the rest of his family before I post it on our blog. So in the meantime I will continue to write about our adventures over here, but it will be a few more days before I can share this story with you. Believe me, it will be worth the wait ;)

Monday, May 26, 2008


There are no words to describe what happened to us on Sunday. It was easily the most surreal travel experience either of us has ever had. We left Kristiansand right after breakfast and headed out to explore Dave’s heritage, equipped with only a family tree that goes back to his great great grandparents and a loose understanding of the towns his ancestors lived in (Farsund, Lista, and Eitland). Farsund is a “kommune” which is basically like a county, as it contains many towns within it. Farsund is an area that would've never made it on to our itinerary had it not been a piece of Dave’s heritage. What a mistake that would’ve been. When we arrived in Farsund, we could barely keep our car on the road; mountains loomed tall all around us and plunged into crystalline waters that spanned as far as the eye could see. Of all the places we've seen in the world, this was easily one of the most exquisite.

In Lista, we stopped in the “Sentrum” (center of town) to use the bathrooms and get a kaffe (coffee) before beginning our search. Lista is a hip little waterfront town with tiny cottages tucked into the hillside and a harbor with sailboats and dozens of deserted islands off in the distance where the fjord empties into the North Sea. When we arrived most of the town was closed because it was Sunday, with the exception of a local bar. We took a chance and asked a group of older Norwegian men if they'd ever heard of Dave's distant cousin, a once-prominent Norwegian, Louis Jacobsen. One of the men, Olav, knew a fellow named Jan Jacobsen (in Norwegian the letter "j" is pronounced like a "y"...i.e. Yan Yacobsen) and offered to take us out to their house. Hoping that Jan was somehow a link to Dave's ancestors, we set off for what turned out to be one of the biggest adventures of our lives.

When we arrived at the Jacobsen's lakefront house, we learned that Jan had sailed to Denmark and wasn't home. Our hearts sank. But his wife graciously took a look at the family tree and recognized one of the names, Torlaif Borhaug. She made a few phone calls as we sat in anticipation. She spoke very little English, so Olav had to translate for us. Every time she said "nay" our hearts sunk further but finally we started hearing a string of "ya's" and grew hopeful. Olav explained that she had reached Torlaif's sister, Synnave, and again he offered to take us to her house. A short drive and we arrived at a quaint apartment building and were greeted by 83-year old, Synnave.

(photo: Synnave Maberg and Olav, the kind soul who made this whole adventure possible)

Again, Olav translated as we showed her the family tree. When we pointed out the names of Dave's great grandmother, Jenny Christiansen, we hit the jackpot. "Ya, tanta Jenny!" she exclaimed. It turns out that Dave's great grandmother, Jenny, was Synnave's aunt, making Synnave and Dave third cousins! As we pointed out the names of Jenny's parents, her smile grew wider in recognition...Kornelius and Otelia Eliasson (Dave's great great grandparents) were Synnave's grandparents! Then Synnave picked up the telephone and began chattering in Norwegian. Olav explained that she was calling one of her English-speaking cousins who lives close by and the next thing we knew, we were following Synnave to another relative's house.

We followed Synnave by car for about 15 minutes. We stopped at a great big white farmhouse, where she and her husband lived and raised their children. We continued along the road until the paved road ended and turned to a dirt road and raw Norwegian countryside. As we came up over the hillside, a panoramic view of the North Sea unfolded in front of us and literally took our breath away. Was this a dream?

A few minutes later we arrived at a simple little cottage with a splendid view of the North Sea. Inside, we were greeted by Oddny and Bjorn Reitkersen. It turns out that Oddny is also a third cousin of Dave's. We learned that she and Bjorn lived in New York for 14 years before moving back to Norway and starting their family. She actually worked at Barney's in Manhattan over 40 years ago! We showed her the family tree and she immediately recognized the names of Dave's great aunts and uncles, as well as his great grandparents and his great great grandparents. To top it all off, she pulled out a family tree that her son, Lars, had created many years ago. He worked on it for three years and has the names of all the people and the towns where they lived dating all the way back to the 1600s!!

(Bjorn showing Dave the family tree dating back to the 1600s)

(Dave with his newly-discovered cousins Synnave Maberg, left, and Oddny Reitkersen, middle.)
We didn't think our luck could get any better until Oddny told us that they could take us to Biland (pronounced "Beelan"), the house that was owned by Dave's great great grandparents, the home where his great grandmother, Jenny, was born. They warned us that we could only drive so far and that we'd have to hike the rest of the way because the conditions of the road are so poor. At this point, the sky had clouded over and it was pouring rain outside but everyone agreed that this was something we just had to see. So we put on some rain gear and drove out to the little town of Vanse and up a tiny dirt road toward Biland. We drove as far up the hillside as possible and then we hiked about a mile up a steep dirt driveway. The rain was pouring down on us, challenging us every step of the way but the fire in our hearts burned on and kept us pushing forward. And then the most unexpected thing of all happened. We reached the top of the mountain and in the clearing we saw the most charming little home you could ever imagine sitting right at the mouth of a fjord with the best view in Norway. We stood there in disbelief, looking out at the endless body of water and the mountain ranges that Dave's great grandmother grew up looking at. And with that the rain stopped and the blue skies descended upon us, like Jenny welcoming us to her home.

(Biland, the house where Dave's great grandmother, Jenny, was born)

(The view from the Biland house is simply spectacular)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Neilson's Corner

The white building behind us is where my ancestors lived generations ago. It's now a storefront on the bottom and apartments up top, but in its day was a beautiful single family home known as "Nielsen's Corner."


Yesterday's drive through the Norwegian countryside was filled with some of the most breathtaking sights we've ever seen. Evergreens cover the mountains and span as far as the eye can see. Sparkling lakes greeted us every turn and inspired dreams of having a summer cottage on the lake.

(photo: Grimstad)
My ancestors are from the adorable little town of Grimstad, on the southeast coast of Norway. My great, great, great grandfather, Captain Christian Paulsen, came to America during the gold rush and struck gold. He brought his fortune back to Grimstad and built a huge shipbuilding yard (seen below).

(These three buildings, dating back to the 1800s, make up the shipyard).

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Off we go...

After three fabulous days in Oslo, we're setting off for Grimstad and Kristiansand today. Not sure when I'll have Internet access again, but stay tuned for more...

Ski Museum

Holmenkollen also has a ski museum that recounts the 3,000 year history of skiing. When we got to the display of antique wooden skis, Dad pointed to the tiniest pair and told us that they were like the little wooden skiis he learned on, leather strap bindings and all. No wonder he's such a good skier today. Can you imagine trying to maneuver those things?


After Munch and lunch, we took a short train ride through the countryside to Holmenkollen, which is home to the world-famous ski jump and former site of the winter Olympics. No picture can do justice to this unbelievable structure. We climbed all way to the top and peered out over the edge to see what the skiers see before they take off. From the top you can see all the way out to the Oslo fjord in one direction and the peaks of snow-capped mountains in the other. The shoot and the landing hill below are so steep that you cannot even see where the skiers land. What's even crazier is that the skiers fly off the jump head first and maintain a position that's horizontal to the earth (nose to your ski tips) going 130 km/hour. We asked Dad if he would try it for a million bucks. Nope.

Getting our Munch on

Yesterday was another full day of sightseeing, good food, and laughter. As Cheryl put it, "we got our Munch on" at the Munch museum, which displays the works of famous painter, Edvard Munch. One of his most famous works, The Scream, along with The Madonna, were stolen right off the walls in 2004. They were recovered in 2006 and restored by the museum. Sadly, they had been mistreated during the two years they were gone, especially The Scream, which now has visible scratches and a water stain in the lower left corner.

Real estate

The real estate here is charming. Most of the houses have wainscoating exteriors and black tile roofs to absorb the heat from the sun.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Kroner

The Norwegian currency is called 'the Kroner.' Here is a picture of 5 Kroner, which is equivalent to about USD 1.25. Unfortunately, 5 Kroner doesn't buy much of anything...a cup of coffee costs 20 Kroner and a gyro costs 60.

The beers of Norway

To fully explore any culture one must taste the native beer. The two Norwegian beers we've tried so far are Frydenlund and Ringnes. Interestingly enough, they serve their beers in glasses with the name of the beer on the front and diagrams on the back that measure each beer's sweetness, fruitiness, and bitterness. They obviously take their beer VERY seriously!

Norwegian Museum of Cultural History

This museum took us by surprise. At first we weren't even going to go, but at the last minute we decided to stop in and were pleasantly surprised. We toured the outdoor portion of the museum, which featured a restored town with little shops, tiny homes, and an apothecary, where travelers could find a drink in Norway's "dry" days.

Another section of the museum featured dozens of tiny wooden farm houses that had been relocated here from Telemark. Inside there were no more than two rooms. Wood burning stoves provided heat and tiny beds, not much bigger than a twin, slept an entire family. We also found a little farm with a charming pony, who we adopted and named, Gretchen.

Viking Ship Museum

The Norwegian Ship Museum featured enormous wooden boats that were sailed by Viking Chieftans and required 30+ oarsmen. My favorite boat was the Oseberg - you might recognize it from that popular credit card commercial where the father and son go to Norway to explore their heritage. This magnificent boat was built in 820 AD and after sailing for about fifteen years, it was used as a burial ship for the Queen of Oseberg. She was buried with her life’s belongings, including jewels, clothing, food, and even her slave girl, as the culture of that time believed that those items were needed for the journey to the grave. The ship was then buried deep in the ground in and covered in clay, forming “burial mounds.” These boats were discovered hundreds of years later with many of the artifacts still intact. The restoration of this nearly 1,200 year-old ship was absolutely remarkable.


"Borders? I have never seen one. But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people." - Thor Heyerdahl
Then we strolled over to the Kon-Tiki museum where we learned about the great Norwegian scientist and explorer, Thor Heyerdahl. Some of his life’s greatest accomplishments included building boats out of papyrus and successfully sailing them across major oceans to prove that the New World was likely influenced by contact from the Old World. He proved this by sailing his Ra 2 boat from Morocco to Barbados and later, he sailed Kon-Tiki, which was a raft made of balsa leaves, from Peru to Polynesia using nothing more than the wind and the ocean currents. He also did a lot of work to raise awareness about the increasing pollution levels he was witnessing in the oceans and went on to win an Oscar for his documentary on the Kon-Tiki expedition. We all shook our heads in utter disbelief to think that a crew of men survived 101 days on the ocean on such anemic looking water crafts.


Next, we walked down to the pier and took a ferry to the other side of the harbor where a number of interesting museums are located. A quick peek in the FRAM museum to see the strongest wooden boat in the world, FRAM. Built in the late 1800’s, it has sailed further north and further south than any other boat of its kind.

Back to Akershus Fortress

Our bags finally arrived by 11am on Thursday morning and by 11:30 we were on our way. Our first stop was a trip back to the Akershus Fortress. This time it was open to public, so we took a tour of the inside, admiring the chapel, the dungeons, and many grand rooms for social gatherings and government affairs. Compared to the castles we’ve seen in England and Italy, the décor in Akershus is minimal, much like the rest of the culture; no flashy jewels or overabundance of gold, just simple, unassuming beauty.


“Simplicity is making the journey of this life with just baggage enough.” - Charles Dudley Warner

Thursday began with a good dose of irony. After breakfast, we waited around the hotel for two hours for the courier to deliver our luggage from the airport. While we were waiting, a family came tramping through the lobby far too early to check in to their room. As they passed by on their way to the restaurant, we heard the mother say under her breath that she couldn’t wait to get rid of their bags. “We’ll take them,” my Dad said, immediately noting the irony of our situations. I suppose a hotel room is no good without your luggage and luggage is no good without a hotel room to store it in.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Resistance

Yesterday, we stopped at a fortress perched at the top of the Oslo fjord (Akershaus). This fortress was used to defend Norway against the German invasion in 1940. Unfortunately, the Germans were successful in their efforts and occupied Norway from 1940-1945. It's hard to imagine that this lovely building, with its breathtaking views, was once a place of such turmoil.

(Funny we were walking up to the fortress we were talking about The Resistance and Jackie asked if Norway won. We all laughed. Then she scrunched up her nose and with a look of perplexion, added, 'Well, what I meant was, were they successful in...resisting?')

Downtown Oslo

Spent yesterday afternoon exploring downtown Oslo. The weather here is in the upper 50s and comfortable for lots of walking. Our first meal was at a little Greek restaurant and then we had dinner at a Thai place. No Norwegian food yet but we're heading down to the Oslo fjord tonight for dinner on the water.

Days of the week

This is a sign I found in a local bank here...thought you might like to see the Norwegian names of the days of the week. Mandag (Monday) is named after the moon, Tirsdag (Tuesday) is named after 'Tyr' the godess of love, Onsdag (Wednesday) is named after 'Odin' the god war, Torsdag (Thursday) is named after 'Thor' the god of thunder, and Fredag (Friday) is named after 'Freyya' the goddess of beauty. Not sure about Saturday or Sunday...I'll have to get back to you on that ;)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Normally before a trip abroad, I spend some time learning the basics of the language. Hello, thank you, check please, etc. French, Spanish, Italian...they're similar in so many ways, but Norwegian is next to impossible. Not only do the words not have any Latin roots that make them easily identifiable, in many cases two, three, even four words are strung together into one! As you can imagine from the pictures above, we're having a ton of fun trying to pronounce them.

The airport...

The Oslo airport looks like Ikea...hard wood floors (and ceilings) the color of warm honey and stainless steel accents.

Getting here...

Chapter 1: Have to be at Dad’s house by 11:30am. Dave’s emergency trip to the doctor’s office adds a little extra excitement to our already jammed schedule. Turns out sitting through a cold, windy, rainy graduation ceremony is NOT the way to treat a cold. Luckily, Dave is okay…no ear infection, no strep.

Chapter 2: Jackie forgot her passport. Luckily we were only at the Princeton train station when she discovered it, so Dad was able to sprint home (in the pouring rain) and grab it.

Chapter 3: Accidentally, insulted fellow traveler on the monorail to our terminal talking about Dave’s experience with the staff at the doctors’ office. The group’s conclusion: doctors’ office staff are (for the most part) unhappy and mean. Fellow traveler’s wife is a doctor. Luckily though, he claimed her staff is a nice bunch.

Chapter 4: The plane’s right filange is broken and after two hours of waiting, we have to wait an hour and a half more for the crew to fix it. At first they give us the option to de-plane but we stay on-board, having snatched a comfortable empty row. Then, they announce that they’ve changed their minds and they want everyone off. Dad jumps into action and gets all six of us rebooked on a different flight – a direct flight, better yet!

Chapter 5: Our new plane doesn’t even have a filange! That’s right. After packing up all of our stuff and lugging them on to a new flight, we learn that our new plane has some sort of mechanical problem too. What is with these planes?! We sit on the tarmac for over an hour as they drill something down below and then r’off (family slang for “we’re off”).

Chapter 6: We recount all of our memorable moments so far and decide that this is truly is going to be a great vacation!

Chapter 7: Our luggage is lost.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

To travel...

“Travel is the perfect liberty to think, feel, do just as one pleases.” -William Hazlitt

In the months leading up to this trip, Dave and I were acutely aware of our need to just...wander. In every sense of the word. To clear our minds and let our thoughts journey where they may. To free ourselves of schedules and daily demands, to be spontaneous and carefree. To soul search. To reflect. To go where the wind blows us.


A trip to Norway has inspired this blog but has also made me realize that I don't have to travel 3,809 to have a journey; everyday is a journey. So, this blog is dedicated to all the journeys, big and small, that make up my well as my trip to Norway.