Stockholm: Ticking Hands of Time

 We woke up first thing this morning and grabbed breakfast to-go during our walk to City Hall. Stockholm City Hall is the center of governance for the municipality, and also the location of the Nobel Prize banquet every year on December 10th. You may recall my previous post from Oslo concerning the Peace Prize. However, it is the only Nobel Prize that is presented in Oslo rather than in Stockholm. This is because Alfred Nobel specifically wrote this request into his will. Originally there were only 5 awards, Chemistry, Physics, Literature, Medicine, and Peace to award individuals who had made significant contributions to the progress and welfare of humanity. The Economics award was added by the Swedish Central Bank in 1968.

Interestingly enough, City Hall is not an old building. It’s celebrating only its 93rd birthday this year. Designed by the architect After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact Ragner Östberg in 1923, he desired for the building’s structure and facade to look old without actually being old. Ragnar drew inspiration for the interior rooms from a variety of historical eras, but also made major design changes as the building progressed and his whims of fancy changed. 

 

The Blue Room (although not actually blue) recalls the elegance of a wide open Italian piazza, an assembly space for various events and banquets. Knowing that patrons would be making their entrance via the grand staircase, Ragnar included a star on the far-opposite wall. It is said that if a person focuses on that star as they descend, they will maintain proper posture while all eyes are focused on them; and so far, no Nobel Prize winner has ever tripped or fallen as they enter a banquet in their honor. 

 The Gold Room is opulently decorated in colorful gold mosaic, bringing to mind the glitz and glamour of the Byzantine Empire. The artist and his assistants only had two years to complete the room’s walls prior to a certain event that had to take place on a specific date for historical reasons. As a result, some mistakes were made with no time to correct them. The depicted castle is missing one of the three crowns (this was supposed to depict Tre Kronos, the Castle of Three Crowns), and the king riding the horse is without a head due to scaling errors (although it is historically accurate since the king was eventually beheaded). 

After City Hall, we stopped for lunch before heading over to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a the only almost fully intact (98% original) 17th century ship to ever be recovered. The ship was built on the orders of King Gustavus Aldophus in due part because of a military expansion campaign he initiated with Poland-Lithuania and his desire to enter the Thirty Years War. At the time, Sweden’s political and military power was an afterthought and neighboring nations barely acknowledged its presence. Gustavus is widely regarded as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. He was progressive in his governance, innovative in his military weaponry, raised Sweden to be a Great Power.

 The Vasa would have been the first double-decker war ship of the time, and one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world. She was constructed under contract by private Dutch entrepreneurs between 1626 and 1627. The ship was richly decorated in symbolic carvings illustrating his ambition for Sweden. However, due to severe time constraints, and a lack of expertise (as no one in the country had ever built a double-decker), the Vasa’s final design proved too unstable and top-heavy. 

 On her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, she was only 1300 meters out of port when a wind caused her to keel and ultimately sink. Fortunately for us, the ship-channel she sank in has a low salt content. This allowed her to lay relatively undisturbed and remarkably well-preserved for over 300 years. The Vasa did not sail again until her hull was lifted from the harbor floor in 1961.

 

I was personally astounded by the size of the ship. She is the first thing you see when you enter the museum, and she simply dominates the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of her intricate carvings and exquisite detail.

Our take-away from the day is that time is a double-edged sword. For some, time is a luxury, while for others, time is a looming specter. In both the cases of the Gold Room and the Vasa, had the designers had sufficient time to complete the tasks at hand, we believe that the inherent flaws could have been avoided. 

 Speaking of time, Tom and I spent the rest of our afternoon enjoy the Swedish tradition of Fika. Fika is equivalent to the British Tradition of tea-time, where people take a break from their day to savor some coffee and sweets. We went to Vette-Kaffen a traditional Fika institution. It was both tasty and relaxing. 🙂

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Stockholm: Voulez Vous La Musique

Anyone born in the in the 50s, or the child of parents born in this period are familiar with the band ABBA. To date, they are the most successful pop band to emerge from Sweden, and have been only second in success to the Beatles. Furthermore, they are the only band from a non-English speaking country to ever top the charts of English-speaking countries.   

 I remember fondly the songs I listened to with my mother as a child, popular hits such as the “Dancing Queen,” “Mamma Mia,” and “S.O.S.” would regularly feature on our car rides. Therefore, how could we not take some time to visit the ABBA Museum while we were in Stockholm?

 The museum documents how Agnetha, Björn, Benni, and Anni-Frid found their musical starts. It then demonstrates their creative process and the transpiring events that served as their inspiration. Memorabilia, outfits, and props are proudly on display while imaginative use of technology allows you to do anything from record a vocal track, dance in a music video, or take the stage as their fifth member alongside their holograms. 

 Tom and I tried the first two with mixed results. It turns out (although I’ve always known this), that I am beyond tone-deaf. Once I bowed out of trying to sing Dancing Queen, Tom’s solo vocals gained a much better score. It was abundantly clear that my inability to carry a pitch was bringing the team down. :(. We also tried to dance in a music-video but couldn’t manage to stop laughing. The hologrammed stage would have been interesting, but there was a line, and the performance would have been public to any passerbys. Stage-fright, a lack of dance moves, and not being a fan-girl were sufficient enough reason to hold back.

  
We then headed to the highest point in Stockholm to enjoy a breather and take in a scenic view of the city before heading back to the hostel for a break.

 After a brief repose, we grabbed dinner at an Irish Pub nearby before heading on an adventurous walking tour of our own. There are some well-documented odd, secret, and hidden items to be found around Gamla Stan, so Tom and I went on a hunt calling it our own Ghost Walk (quite a few of them were particularly morbid). We visited Hell, commemorated the Stockholm Bloodbath, and admired a Bartizan.

 One of my favorite stops was the statue, “Boy Looking at the Moon.” Arguably the smallest public sculpture in Sweden, it was sculpted by Liss Eriksson in 1954 and retells the memory of his childhood when he would sit on his bed and stare at the moon through his window on sleepless nights. It is made of sandstone and wrought iron. Superstition says that he will bring good luck to anyone that rubs his head. He was wearing a cute knit hat and scarf when we visited him, a gift that Stockholmers like to provide him with during the winter, so we merely patted him on his head. 

Alta: Our Predecessors

Every morning so far, we have woken up to the howling of the dogs, and this last day in Alta was no different. I’ve actually found myself enjoying the sounds of the wilderness around us. It awakens our soul’s connection to the natural world, and reminds us that it or she must be given respect. 

Our ancient predecessors, and even the descendants of ancient indigenous tribes such as the Samí, have always respected the gifts that she gives us. While the daily lifestyles and survival tactics of the prehistoric man are not readily known, much information is often derived from the fragments that they have left behind. We explored some of these shadowy traces with a visit to the Alta Museum. 

Author Andreas Haldorsen

Credit: Andreas Haldorsen:

Alta is home to the largest concentration of Rock Art in Northern Europe. The first stone, dubbed the “Pippisteinen,” was found only 60 years ago. In the present day, over 6000 carvings and paintings have been registered. The art is dated to be from 7000 to 2000 years ago, and depicts a Hunter-Fisher Society. 

On the panels, there are many scenes depicting hunters stalking prey with spears or bows and arrows; Fishermen are seen fishing with lines in the water. Of particular interest or the boats, which start off small in earlier drawings but progressively show larger and more ornately carved boats in later drawings.  Since similar carvings were found in Southern Norway, one hypothesis is that long-distance voyages may have come into being. 

Credit: Petr Brož

 A creature that is featured prominently is the bear. It is believed that bear was not only hunted, but also worshipped. There are drawings showing tracks leading vertically through a carved image and crossing the horizontal tracks of other animals. Anthropologists have speculated that this indicates the bear’s connection to the afterlife, that the tracks indicate an ability for the bear to pass between the different layers of the world.  

Credit: KSENIA NOVIKOVA / NRK

 Before we visited the Alta Museum, we had gone to the Alta city center for a late brunch. We also got to catch some of the finishers of the Finnmarksløpet, the northernmost sled dog race in the world. The 1000 km (about 630 miles) race entrants had left on March 5 with a 14-dog team. This means that they spent a total of 6 days racing around Finnmark, Wow!

After the Museum, we went into town looking for a coffee shop and cinnamon rolls, but ended up settling for ice cream since Tom saw a shop and started craving it. We then returned to the hotel to pack for our travel day tomorrow and take a nap before our last day of Northern Lights hunting. The forcast wasn’t looking optimistic, but after driving south for about an hour we saw a few shimmers. The lights were more tranquil than the previous two nights, so it seemed as if they were sad to see us go.  

 

Alta: At First Sight

 The trade-off we made to stay in Alta, which is a bit off the beaten path, was having fewer day activities unless one wants to shell out $$$ to go dog-sledding or snowmobiling. I personally would have liked to visit the Sorrisniva Hotel, a hotel that is carved entirely out of 250 tons of ice every year, but at an entrance fee of $24, the price was too steep for either Tom or I to justify.

We intended to have our time in Alta be a bit lazy hazy, so we slept in and savored some extra sleep. As a result, we didn’t roll into town until the early afternoon. We popped-in to check out the inside of the Northern Lights Cathedral before grabbing some coffee and free wi-fi at a nearby pub.

The current design of the church is the result of a competition in 2001 that was won by a collaboration between schmidt hammer lassen architects and Link Arkitektur. The city council wanted an icon that would highlight Alta’s role as a gateway to the Northern Lights. In the words of founding partner John. F. Lassen, “The Cathedral of the Northern Lights is in its design a result of the surrounding nature and local culture. The building is a landmark, which through its architecture symbolizes the extraordinary natural phenomenon of the Arctic northern lights,…The cathedral reflects, both literally and metaphorically, the northern lights: ethereal, transient, poetic and beautiful. It appears as a solitary sculpture in interaction with the spectacular nature.”

 The sun sets earlier in the North than it did in Oslo, so we were greeted by darkness when we exited the pub. Outside, waiting for us was a varied display of ice sculptures. Some depicted human forms while others were animal sculptures. My favorite, however, was a realistic human heart that had a beating red light inside it. The heart was enclosed by icy brick walls, and I interpreted it as a metaphor for the warmth and life that lies in each of us despite whatever cold, outer, exterior persona we may present to the world. Tom thought I was overthinking it, but I personally like trying to analyze the message an artist is trying to convey.

 We then hopped into the car for Day 2 of our hunt. This time we drove about 2-hours west. The forecast was looking good for clear skies, and based on the lessons from yesterday, we knew we had to look for the stars. After all, if you can see the stars clearly, then you know that clouds are not obstructing the view. Eventually, I started seeing a light green shadow to our back right. At this point, I wasn’t sure whether I was hallucinating it due to my deep desire to see the Northern Lights, but Tom pulled over to have a look and verify my suspicion. It turned out I was right!

 Not too long after, bands of green danced across the sky. Tom and I were so excited about our discovery that we couldn’t help but laugh, and hug, and smile. It was a glorious gift that the universe had presented us, the gift of light. After you truly see the lights with the naked eye for the first time, you know exactly what to look for. It is true what they say, that the lights dance. You can see the shape and the density of the bands and swirls change as the particles shift with the wind. I was so happy to be able to share the experience with someone that is so special to me. 

P.S. I didn’t exactly have the right photography equipment for this shot, so we faked the lighting we’d need by using the car’s headlights.  

Oslo: Munch and Vigeland

Edward Munch and Gustav Vigeland are two of the most notable artists with Norwegian descent, but for very different reasons. Each utilized a different medium but jointly they sought to evoke an interpretation of the human experience. One quite more morbid and grotesque than the other.

To explore the works of Munch, we visited the Munch Museum. He is best known for “The Scream,” which, to be honest, is exactly what I had hoped to see in the museum’s exhibits. Unfortunately, despite owning 2 of the 4 known versions of this drawing, neither were on display; Tom and I did not feel like paying an additional entrance fee at the National Gallery for the experience of seeing the original 1893 pastel, so we were pretty disappointed.

  In his pastel, Munch’s simplified forms and broad bands of garish color, focus the viewer’s eye on the agonized figure at the center. It’s form is that of a garbed skull who is commonly interpreted as being in the throes of an emotional crisis. The commonly accepted interpretation is that his drawing represents the anxiety and angst of the modern man. Munch had sucessfully looked within himself to depict his personal state of turmoil at that time. He expressed this with his own words years later, “You know my picture, ‘The Scream?’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”

 Tom’s favorite was “The Sun,” which we didn’t see in person, butwas one of 11 murals painted by Munch on the walls of the University of Oslo’s Assembly Hall to celebrate its centennial  in 1911. Compared to the other works Munch is known for, this seemed bright and welcoming, a contradiction to his darker, more violent expressions.

 My favorite was “The Kiss,” which shows a couple kissing, however their faces are amorphously fused together representing their unity. Other interpretations, including one from the MOMA have more pessimistic analyzed it as showin, ” a loss of individuality, a loss of one’s own existence and identity.”

P.S. The Maplethorp and Munch cross-exhibit that was on display was a little too graphic for both of us. Robert Maplethorpe was an American photographer who bluntly addressed controversial topics through his work. All-in-all the pictures on display were far more erotic and vulgar than what we would consider “child-friendly.” 

Gustav Vigeland happens to be the designer behind the Nobel Peace Prize medal. His largest installation of sculptures in Oslo is in Frogner Park, so we went for a winter walk amidst turbulent flurries that wet our faces. Today was probably the coldest it’s been for us in Oslo since we’ve been here! 

 In total there are 212 bronze and granite sculptures. The most iconic of this is a monolith with shows 121 figures struggling to reach the top. Tom and I took some time to walk around this massive pillar, before we realized that the figures carved into it seemed to be dead or in pain. This could be attributed to the fact that experts consider his works to be expressions of Nazi or Fascist aesthetics. After all, he had been a Nazi sympathizer even after Nazi Germany unprovokedly invaded Norway in 1940.

And, in between our artist adventures, we stopped by to take a quick pictures with Oslo’s most photographed citizens, the tiger outside Central Station. FYI Tom does not seem to like being in pictures; he was not the least bit interested in taking a selfie with me and my new friend. 

  

Oslo: City of Tigers II

In 1870, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson wrote a poem titled , “Sidste Sang”. In it, he illustrates a dramatic fight between a horse and a tiger. The tiger, metaphorically represented the dangerous city, while the horse symbolized the security of the countryside. This is where he first referred to Oslo as Tigerstaden, which represented his perception of the city as a cold and dangerous place. 

 This has not been the case for Tom and I. We have found this snowy, northern city to be warm and friendly. Our barista from earlier this morning graciously gave us a list of restaurants to eat at, and even attempted to teach me the word for “thanks” in Norwegian, “Taak”. (I hope I haven’t been butchering the word too much, but I always like to learn how to say “please” and “thank you” when I travel. I’ve found it is a simple way to show your enthusiasm for the local history and, even though they may laugh, the locals often appreciate your effort.) 

 Making use of one of the barista’s recommendations, we ventured towards Aker Brygge, a unique, waterfront development that was completed in 2014. It was formerly the site of a shipyard and industrial buildings. Vingen, a restaurant attached to the Astrup Fearnley Museet was difficult to find, but incredibly tasty! Tom had the Eggs Benedict, while I had their version of a Katz Pastrami Sandwich.

 After a brief break, we ventured back into the cold to explore the history of the Akershus Fortress. Construction of the fortress is believed to have started around 1290 when King Hakon V realized that the city needed a stronger defense center than that which currently existed. Since it lied adjacent to the sea, it allowed Norway to prosper commercially while providing the nation with a strong military presence. 

 The Akershus Fortress has never been successfully besieged by a foreign enemy. However, in 1940, it surrendered to Nazi Germany without combat. The Norwegian government evacuated the capital when it was unprovokedly assaulted.

  
Our feet getting wary, we decided to make our last stop for the day before heading back to the hostel to rest our laurels. The Oslo Opera House is uniquely designed such that the roof of the structure angles to the ground level. This creates an elevated plaza that allows pedestrian interaction with the building. Tom and I climbed all the way up and were greeted with a panoramic view of the waterfront.

As a structural engineer,the fact that this roof is merely supported by thin angled columns is intriguing. How, exactly did they analyze the load paths/patterns through the asymmetrical characteristics of the column geometry?  The minimalistic framing and specialty glass allows for optimal views of the surrounding water. 

 From the roof, and at ground level, we observed the sculpture, “She Lies.” The stainless steel and glass fabrication resembles ice and depicts a symbol of power for the region. As it lays on a transient concrete platform, it is free to turn with the bidding of the tide and the wind. I think the sculpture is a metaphor. For as quick as the tides change and the wind changes direction, so too can the power shift.  

P.S. Tom is currently passed out next to me. If anything, my boyfriend could certainly hibernate through a long winter if instinct required it of him. 😛

Travel: Elephants

imageElephants are creatures that are revered in India. According to Hindu Cosmology, the earth is supported and guarded by mythical World Elephants at the compass points of the cardinal directions. Sanskrit literature even attributes earthquakes to the shaking of their bodies when the elephants tire of their burden.

The deity Ganesh(a) is the god of wisdom, and he is distinctively represented by a human form with the head of an elephant, which was placed after the human head was either decapitated or burned from the body.

imageHowever, this is not how the Elephanta Caves, with origins dating between the 5th and 8th centuries, received their namesake. In the 16th century, the Portuguese named the island “Elephanta Island” in honor of a huge, monolithically rock-cut black stone of an elephant on a mound; this unfortunately has been relocated to the Mumbai Zoo.

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

Credit: Nikhil Kulkarni

 Despite being just 7 miles east of the port, the ferry ride took an hour to get there! Fortunately, I caught some great views of the Gateway of India, the exit causeway through which the last British troops passed through on February 28, 1948, signalling an end to British rule and the beginning of Indian independence.

In each of the caves, Shiva or Mahadeva, “Great God” is aniconically represented by a Lingam, a single rock rounded at the top. Aniconism is the avoidance of using images to represent divine beings, prophets, and religious figures.

However, I happen to find the monolithic rock to be an appropriate manifestation of Shiva.

image 

At his highest level, Shiva is considered limitless and transcendent, unchanging and formless. Why not abstractly represent him as something from nature that also adheres to these characteristics? Are rocks not powerful? Do they not withstand the test of the time?

I may not be Hindu, but even I was moved. I couldn’t help but place my palm against the rock and close my eyes, taking some time to summon my faith, and chant the Buddhist Mantra I learned as a child beneath my father’s wing.

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