Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Notes from Norway

I just spent five days in Norway at a board meeting and retreat.
We spent three days in Beitostolen, which is a 3.5 hour drive north of Oslo, about 50 miles west of Lillehammer, site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. Beitostolen has both alpine and nordic skiing, but the mountains are not as big as the mountains where the Olympics were held. The last two days of our trip were spent back in Oslo. I am flying home now and here are some of my observations.

• The snow is spectacular. In places it reaches the eves of houses.

• I now understand why Norwegians win so many Olympic medals in Nordic skiing events: the entire population cross-country skis. For practically the entire drive up to Beitostolen, I saw perfectly groomed trails along the side of the road with two perfect ski tracks in them. Occasionally, we’d see a skier making his way somewhere or other although he seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Other times, we’d see a lonely track split from the big trail and head across a wide frozen lake, only to end at a tiny house on a distant shore. When we got to Beitostolen, it became clear that skiing is a way of life. On the weekend, whole families were clothed in expensive gear, skiing around – carrying packages, pushing and pulling sleds with bundled up babies in them, only noses showing, back and forth to the market, lunch, shopping, or just in a big loop to get some exercise. Every car had three or four pairs of skis on top and people in restaurants were as likely to be wearing ski boots as regular boots.

• I’ve eaten nothing but Cod and Reindeer for five days.

• I’m not kidding about that five days of Cod and Reindeer.

• I only saw a bit of Oslo, but what I saw was pretty, if unspectacular. It has a beautiful waterfront which looks like it would be tremendous fun in the summertime, although it was dominated by the hulking, ugly City Hall, which looks like a parody of the headquarters of a socialist bureaucracy (which, in fact, it is).

• Here's from my hotel room - better.

• Norwegians drink. Hard. Until late at night. Sometimes they fall down. Then they go to sleep. Then they get up and ski.

• It’s cold.

• I’ve learned a bit about Norway, which is a very interesting country. Here is the very, very short version as told to me by a local. Norway is currently enjoying only its second period of prosperity in its long history. The first was during the heyday of the Vikings, and was driven largely by pillaging. The second began during the last half of the twentieth century and was driven by the discovery of a massive stash of oil just off the Norwegian coast. The Norwegian government has used the proceeds from the sale of this oil to provide for its citizens, and today the country’s sovereign wealth fund is worth about $500 billion, or something like $100,000 for each of its five million citizens. There are a lot of comfy cars like Land Rovers that people use to drive around in all that cold air and snow.

• It occurred to me that all that skiing is probably a cultural relic. Before the discovery of oil, Norwegians were very poor people. They didn’t have Land Rovers to get to the market. They probably had to ski there. This is also probably why they’re very good at bundling up.

• Regrettably, the women in Norway are not as attractive as the popular conception.

• Notwithstanding any of the above, I like Norway and Norwegians very much and look forward to my next visit.

The Devil Kindle

I was over at a friend’s (Doug Merrill) house one day when I was about thirteen years old. Standing in their cavernous living room, I happened to notice the family’s spectacular collection of books. Such things would not normally command the attention of a hormone-sopped teenager, but the Merrill’s book stash was particularly impressive to me because it required a gleaming, track-mounted stepladder to reach its topmost heights. The room itself was always impressive: ceiling many stories high, arched by truly substantial wood beams, and floor to ceiling windows overlooking a cliff on the most glorious point on the Severn River - maybe all of Anne Arundel County.

But for some reason that day, it was the books that caught my eye.

“Man, you all have a lot of books,” I said to Doug. “Where’d you get them all?”

Doug looked at me with a bit of a confused expression. “Those are my mom & dad’s books… They’ve read all those books.”

I didn’t argue, but nor did I believe that any two human beings could devour such a towering stack of prose and history. I didn’t really believe him.

Well, now Teresa and I have our own budding library. It’s not quite as impressive as the Merrill’s, but to be fair, Teresa and I have not had as much time as the Merrills when I stood marveling at their hoard that day. But now that I look at our own, I am beginning to think that ours might rival Phil & Ellie’s someday in the not-too-distant future. I’ve revised my calculation of whether the Merrills actually read all those books, and offer my apologies to Doug. In retrospect, it’s not all that surprising – his parents had to get all that formidable knowledge from somewhere.

The End

Well, now Teresa has gone and gotten a Kindle. She won it at a charity auction and was up all night, playing with it, downloading various books, articles & newspapers. I was similarly intrigued, and although I’ve been avoiding it because I don’t want another travel gizmo that needs to be recharged in my hotel rooms, I must admit that I was smitten.

But walking through the library today, I stopped, looked around and realized that our unofficial book collection project has officially ended. We’ll never catch the Merrills. From now on, every book that Teresa buys will be electronic. It will sit on the virtual shelves of her Kindle, rather than on our real shelves.

And that’s a real shame. There’s something majestic in a hoard of real books with real pages and real worn bindings. I’ve even got a section in our own library with all of our college textbooks, from Serge Lang‘s Calculus to Nordhaus’s Economics. What a pleasure it is to walk into someone else’s library, crane your neck sideways and learn a little about what makes them tick.

As technology has continued its ineluctable march through history, delivering one feature packed device after another to make all our lives easier, I’ve often made fun of those who choose to spurn the latest thing, calling them Luddites.

But standing in our library today with a hole deep in the pit of my stomach, I couldn’t help but think that maybe even I might have to spurn this latest bit of technology. Who knows, maybe all those Luddites were onto something.