Putanga – Life on the Road

Stories from my journeys around the world…

Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

All Roads Lead to Rome

Posted by Monica Johansen on July 24, 2011

I am sitting in the lobby of my hotel in Rome, soon about to head to the airport to catch my flight home to Singapore. I have been on holiday in Italy since Tuesday July 12, and it has been two interesting weeks with train rides, Italian food, photography, art, history and hanging out with good friends.

Colosseum in Rome

I started my journey in Rome almost two weeks ago, and it was by time I finally visited the famous Italian capital that used to be one of the most influential ancient cities in the world. Rome is a city filled with history, and I have always wanted to see the ruins of Colosseum, the Spanish Steps, the Sistine Chapel and Saint Peter’s Basilica. While walking around in Rome, with old buildings, impressive ornaments and ruins on almost every corner, I could almost imagine what it would have been like to live there during the days of the great Roman Empire.

It was quite easy to get around in Rome. The metro is convenient and quick, but the city center is in fact so small that you can easily walk from sight to sight, which I ended up doing. However, what I didn’t like about Rome was all the beggars and people trying to sell you all kinds of crap on the street, and I would also recommend avoiding the peak tourist season because the streets are so crowded you are sometimes walking in a queue. Also, I didn’t find the Romans particularly polite, and some of them were quite rude, but maybe they were just fed up of all the tourists visiting their city in the summer.

The Vatican

The Vatican Museum was interesting but also very crowded. I had very high expectations to the Sistine Chapel, but I must admit that I was rather disappointed. Firstly, I expected the famous chapel ceiling pained by Michelangelo to be even more impressive than the museum ceiling, but in fact it wasn’t at all. Secondly, people were informed that talking and photographing was not allowed, but most people ignored it so it was very noisy inside the chapel. I have been inside a significant number of religious buildings in Asia, such as Hindu temples, Buddhist temples and Christian churches, and although I am not religious I always try to be respectful and quiet to avoid disturbing people who are there to worship their Gods. Unfortunately, not everyone seems to show the same courtesy, and it is a shame that the Sistine Chapel has been turned into a tourist trap. However, Saint Peter’s Basilica was very impressive. The walls and ceiling are filled with ornaments and statues, and apparently the basilica was designed by Michelangelo himself. It is definitely a sight worth seeing.

I spent the first two days alone in Rome, but on Wednesday evening a good old friend of mine from Oslo, Evi, came down to celebrate my 40th birthday and spend some time with me in Italy. Her journey was rather challenging as the airline (Norwegian) forgot her luggage in Stockholm and two men in a pirate taxi tried to swindle her, but in the end we managed to sort everything out and the rest of the journey was good.

Pisa

On Friday afternoon we jumped on a train to Bologna where we met my Norwegian-Italian friend Edward and some other friends from Norway. Edward’s family owns a large apartment in Bologna and a house in a village outside Bologna called Fontanelice. We spent the weekend in Fontanelice with our friends and Edward’s lovely Italian mother who looked well after us and made sure we had a wonderful time. I ended up suggesting to Edward that his mother should adopt me, because I would love to have a family just like that.

On Sunday night Evi and I said goodbye to the bunch and went back to Bologna to do some sightseeing. Bologna is probably more famous for shopping than Italian history, but the San Petronio Basilica is quite interesting. The lower part of the cathedral was built in marble and the building was originally meant to outshine even the Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but when the Vatican discovered this Pope Pius IV made sure no more money was provided to the project, and the rest of the cathedral was built with red bricks. Bologna is also known for the numerous towers in the city, with Asinelli and Garisenda being the two most famous ones. Asinelli is the tallest rising 97 meters above the ground, and it is possible to walk up all the steps and get a great view of the city.

Ponte Vecchio in Florence

On Tuesday morning Evi took the train back to Rome to fly home to Norway and I jumped off in Florence and took another train to Pisa to meet my friend, Jarle, also from Oslo. Jarle and I spent the first day in Pisa to check out the famous leaning tower, and on Wednesday we took the train back to Florence to spend a few of days in one of the most historical cities in Italy. Florence was extremely touristy, but also very charming. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is a stunning sight, but the thing I was looking most forward to was to visit the Uffizi Gallery with work by famous Italian artists like Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo and Sandro Botticelli. Unfortunately, the queue to enter the gallery was gigantic, so we ended up jumping on a guided tour to skip the at least two hours waiting time in the queue. It would cost us a bit more money, but it was definitely worth it.

Close to the Uffizi Gallery is the famous bridge Ponte Vecchio, which is thought to be the oldest bridge in Florence. The interesting thing about this bridge is all the shops along both sides. In the 15th century these shops were greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers, but then perhaps because of their bad smell, Ferdinando I replaced them with goldsmiths, making the road more elegant and cleaner. Hence, if you are looking for jewelry in Florence, Ponte Vecchio is the place to go.

Jarle took the train to Rome on Friday morning and flew back to Norway the same day, while I spent another day in Florence before I finally jumped on a train to Rome where my journey now has ended. I have had a great holiday in Italy, but nevertheless I am really looking forward to getting home to good old Singapore. After all, there is no place like home…

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Posted in Europe, Italy, Travel | Leave a Comment »

Happy Constitution Day, Norway!

Posted by Monica Johansen on May 17, 2011

May 17 in Norway

We are in May already, and today is an important day both in Singapore and in Norway. Singapore and many other Asian countries are celebrating Vesak Day, a Buddhist holiday sometimes informally called “Buddha’s Birthday”.  In Norway they are celebrating their national day or Constitution Day, and pretty much the entire nation dress up for a gigantic party in every city and town in the country. Many Norwegians prefer to wear the national costume, the “bunad”, and outfit based on traditional folk garments from the 18th and 19th centuries.

I don’t get to celebrate Vesak Day and the Norwegian Constitution Day this year because I am working in Australia. After finishing in Canberra I traveled to Sydney where I have spent the last 7 days, and today I will jump on a plane up to Brisbane for 10 days before I can head home to Asia. I am starting to get tired of living in a suitcase, but I guess the alternative – being stuck in one place for months and months – is not very appealing to me.

Anyway, I hope all my fellow Singaporeans and Norwegians enjoy the holiday! 🙂

Posted in Asia, Europe, Miscellaneous, Norway, Singapore | Leave a Comment »

Happy National Day, Norway!

Posted by Monica Johansen on May 17, 2010

Today is a very important day for Norwegians around the world. May 17 is our constitution day, and the day where pretty much everyone in Norway – young and old – goes out to spend the day with their fellow citizens.

The children's parade in Oslo

The main events are the children’s parades, which are organized by schools in every city and town around the country. In the capital, Oslo, the parade passes by the royal castle where the king and queen greet the cheering participants, i.e. children, parents and teachers. The children’s parade in Oslo starts in the morning and ends around mid day. In the afternoon there is another parade that many people like to watch, the “russ” parade. The “russ” are all the teenagers who are about to finish the last year of high school, and around May 17 they dress up in red or blue jumpsuits depending on which school they graduate from.  The “russ’ parade is quite fun to watch because some of the teenagers put on funny costumes and there is always a competition on who as the most original outfit.

 Norwegians overseas sometimes organize their own little local parade where they often dress up in the national costume, the “bunad”. However, the “bunad” is designed for the cold Norwegian climate, which means that it is made of wool and other warm fabrics so that people are able to wear it outside without freezing to death. Hence, it is not really suitable for the hot and humid weather in Southeast Asia.

I am not going to celebrate here in Singapore because it is just another busy working day for me, but I hope all my fellow countrymen have a great national day!

Posted in Miscellaneous, Norway | Leave a Comment »

A Cold Experience

Posted by Monica Johansen on January 31, 2010

I have just spent a week in the freezing cold Northern Europe, visiting my old home towns London and Oslo. I arrived in the UK on Sunday evening, but I didn’t get to see a lot of fascinating London since I had two days of meetings in Reading on the schedule. Since I had come all the way to the UK I also decided to pay a visit to Oslo and see some of my old friends that I haven’t seen since I left Europe almost 3.5 years ago.

Drøbak

Hence, Tuesday evening I arrived in Norway and I was met by heavy snowfall and subzero temperatures. It was in fact quite a shock coming from the tropics to the extreme cold in Northern Europe, and the minute I came out of the airport the only thing on my mind was “what the hell was I thinking?” I knew it was going to be cold, and I was relatively well dressed, with long underpants, woolen cardigan and a thick winter jacket, but I was surprised by how the cold was penetrating all my layers. I am pretty sure that it was no colder than I used to experience when I lived there, but today I am simply not used to it anymore because my body is completely acclimatized to the hot and humid tropical weather.

The three days in Oslo were extremely hectic. There were so many people that I wanted to see, but time simply didn’t allow it, so I was prioritizing people who have been like a family to me. Besides, the cold and the snow made it very difficult to get around as much as I wanted to, and some of the visits I had planned had to be cancelled. However, I was much exited to see the little girl I am godmother to. She was born after I left Europe so I have never had a change to actually meet her, but she was an absolutely lovely 2-year old.

Unfortunately, I found it really hard to get around in Norway due to the low temperatures. I simply couldn’t walk around outside as I would like to because I was freezing too much, so I ended up being very dependent on people driving me. I must admit that I felt a bit imprisoned, which made me rather frustrated and depressed, and the experience did not encourage me to return any time soon. Snow is so incredibly unpractical, and the clothes you have to wear to keep warm are heavy and uncomfortable, so now I can’t really believe how I managed to survive all the years I lived in Oslo.

The Tryvann Tower

The UK was a little bit warmer than Oslo, as expected, and there was no snow that I had to struggle with. But the short stay in Reading made me realize that I have become too used to the fantastic service in Asia. I was in fact surprised when nobody came out and assisted me with my luggage when I arrived at my hotel on Sunday night, and I found most of the people working in the hotel to be relatively grumpy. But I was trying to remember that Asian hotel staff is particularly friendly and accommodating, and that it may not be quite the same in the rest of the world. I think the two years I have lived and worked in Asia have made me very spoiled.

Now I am heading south again, but instead of going back home to Singapore I have to fly directly to Delhi in India for a two weeks project. Luckily the schedule was decided before I left Singapore, so I have brought with me everything I need for the trip. I am looking very much forward to getting back to Asia.

Posted in Europe, Norway, Travel, United Kingdom | 3 Comments »

Happy Constitution Day, Norway!

Posted by Monica Johansen on May 17, 2009

I woke up this morning and realized two things. Firstly, it is the Norwegian Constitution Day, which probably is the most important day of the year for all Norwegians. If anyone has been visiting Norway – and Oslo in particular – on this day they will know what I mean. Secondly, Norway won the Eurovision Song Contest held in Moscow last night, and not only did we win but we completely outclassed the competition.

The Royal Castle in Oslo

The Royal Castle in Oslo

To give you some brief background, the year 1814 was a turning point in Norwegian history, where the Danish-Norwegian union was dissolved after almost 400 years. A Norwegian Constitution was developed by the national assembly at Eidsvoll and signed on May 17 1814, and the Danish prince Christian Frederik was selected to be the new King of Norway. In 1859, almost 50 years later, the famous Norwegian writer Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson and his cousin, the composer Rikard Nordraak, wrote the song that was going to become the Norwegian national anthem. The song opens with the line “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” which in English translates to “Yes, we love this country”, and I suppose it says everything about the Norwegian nationalism.

The way the Norwegians celebrate the National Day today can be traced back to another famous writer, Henrik Wergeland, who started the tradition with the children’s parade. In every Norwegian city, town and village all the school children will line up for a parade dressed up their finest clothes and carrying Norwegian flags. In the capital Oslo, the main street (Karl Johan Street) is completely blocked off by the police, and the parade is walking up the street and passing the Royal Castle where the king and the queen will waive and greet the children while the proud parents are watching the from the side. In other cities and towns the children will parade to a local monument or town hall, and the mayor will make a speech to the locals. In the afternoon schools have organized social and sports activities for kids and their parents, and most people are rather exhausted when the day is coming to an end.

Fjord on the Norwegian West Coast

Fjord on the Norwegian West Coast

May 17 is mainly a day for the children, but in the afternoon there is another parade in the cities that many are looking forward to, i.e. the student in their final year of high school, or so-called “russ”. These teenagers form a crazy parade of busses and other vehicles, equipped with huge stereos and filled with alcohol, and they are having the party of their lives. They typically dress up in their red or blue jumpsuits representing the education direction of their school, but many of them also dress up in all kinds of funny outfits to entertain the audience. It actually reminds me a little bit of the Mardi Gras parade in Sydney in February, although maybe not as vulgar.

Every year on May 1, the “russ” are starting their celebration and partying more or less constantly until May 17. Unfortunately, it also involves some negative incidents where the teenagers are fighting and bothering other people with loud music and unpleasant behavior, and the police are kept quite busy during the first two weeks of May. In addition, some students are forgetting all about their exams, and they need to retake the exams later because they failed. As we say in Norwegian, “when the beer goes in, the sense goes out”.

Frankly, when I lived in Norway I always tried to stay away from the city center on May 17. It was too much of a hassle to navigate through the chaos of crying children and their stressed parents, and I must admit that I really hate crowds. When I was at my final year in high school I didn’t even celebrate being a “russ” like most of my friends, for two main reasons. First of all, I didn’t drink alcohol (I still don’t), and hanging out with a bunch of drunken teenagers when you are sober is no fun at all. Secondly, I didn’t see a reason to celebrate since I knew that the coming years at University were going to be much harder than high school. Well, I guess I am too much of a pragmatic.

Southern coastal town, Arendal

Southern coastal town, Arendal

I suppose the Norwegians have more than one reason to celebrate today. The Eurovision Song Contest is one of the bigger events in Europe every spring, and it has become of these things everyone will bitch about but still will watch, almost like a soap opera. I think I stopped watching it when I was a teenager, and I have had no idea about the artists and songs unless Norway was in the final and the newspapers were writing about it. Now that I live in Asia I am even more dissociated from it, and in fact, this morning one of my friends from Sydney made me aware of the Norwegian victory in the contest, which is a bit funny. I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise.

So, how am I going to celebrate the National Day? I don’t have any plans actually, but I suppose I will be putting on some nice clothes, walk down to Clarke Quay, find a nice restaurant and have good meal in 30 degrees Celsius while watching the Singaporean sunset over the river. Not a bad way to spend the evening.

Once again, congratulations Norway! I miss your furrowed, weather-beaten mountain landscape very much and I hope to see you again soon. 🙂

Posted in Miscellaneous, Norway | 3 Comments »