Greetings from Norway

That’s right, I am in the land of the Vikings. I am told it is beautiful here, but I wouldn’t know. I got here yesterday around noon but I haven’t been able to see more than a couple hundred yards…oh, sorry, meters…due to the fog, or mist, or whatever that non-pollution-based stuff is blocking my view. Hopefully things will clear up before my flight back to Amsterdam on Wednesday evening. I am teaching a workflow class on the 23rd floor of a building connected to the central Oslo train station. I am told the view is especially good from up there.

The trip up here was pretty nice. It was my first flight on KLM and I got bumped up to Business Class. That was because I checked in using my Northwest Airlines Silver Elite status. Normally you get these status levels on various airlines after flying a bunch of miles, but one of the benefits of working for a big company like Microsoft is that I got bumped to upper levels on a few airlines just by asking the travel department. I was instantaneously Silver Elite. I have never even been on a Northwest plane. I left Microsoft over a year ago, but the bump was good for two years. Woohoo!!!

As soon as I arrived in Oslo I noticed one big difference from Amsterdam. In Amsterdam, most things are in Dutch, but then there are other items in English too. And if its only in Dutch, there is a good chance you will be able to figure out what the word or phrase means. In Norway NOTHING makes any sense unless you speak Norwegian. All of the words are bizarre. I guess it could be worse, like Welsh or Czech with long runs of consonants between the precious few vowels. But its still fun trying to figure it what it all means. From the airport to the Oslo city center there is a great express train. Don’t ask me how much it costs…everything is in Norwegian Kroners which I think are roughly 1/10th of a Euro. If they are actually closer to a full Euro, then I have blown a lot of money in the last 24 hours!

One of the benefits of my hotel is that it is right next door to the Oslo central train station. Door to door is roughly a hundred yards…erm, meters (sorry, I still think in feet and yards and Fahrenheit). Unfortunately, the train station has many doors and I made the worst choice. I ended up wandering the streets for a good 45 minutes before I gave up and walked into a competing hotel to ask the reception desk staff. They pointed me in the right direction and I was able to check in soon after.

After the last few hotels I have stayed in in Europe I was starting to believe that they had all done away with one of their most annoying features: the need to slip your key in a slot to get power to the room. But no, there are still some hotels that use this ass backward scheme. Ugh. So I got into the room and spent a few minutes trying to figure out why every lamp seemed to be broken. In case you have no idea what I am talking about, there is a slot near the front of the room that accepts your hotel room card key. Slip it in and the power to your room is turned on. When you leave the room and take your key, power is turned off. This may have been a good idea 10 years ago when people didn’t carry around many electronic devices, but now a visit to the hotel restaurant is a perfect time to charge your cell phone or laptop. But with this scheme, you can’t do that because as soon as you take the key out, all power turns off. Even power to the outlets. And this hotel claims to cater to business folks. Its just wacky. But thankfully I found a way around this ridiculous limitation. It turns out that the slot just needs a stiff item the size of the card key to be slipped in. So I ripped a few sheets of paper off the pad by the phone, folded them to the right size, and slipped them into the slot. Power on, problem solved!!!

Another weird trend are the beds. I am not sure if they have ever heard of a queen or king sized bed. They are all singles. If you need a bigger bed, they squeeze two single beds together. But then there is the valley of discomfort in the middle. Having a single bed in a small room may make sense, but the room I am in right now has two singles squeezed together, but made up as two beds. I don’t know if I have ever seen a hotel bed in the US smaller than a real queen size. But I can live with this. Its not really a big deal, but I always notice it.

So anyway, yesterday afternoon, I wandered the streets of Oslo to see what is here. My next shock was that everything was closed. Midday on a weekend and all of the shops in the central shopping area were closed. The streets were crowded with people, but all the stores were shut. Is there a law in Norway that says stores can’t open on Sunday? This evening I wandered again and had better luck, though by 6 it seemed that most of the stores were getting ready to close anyway. One of the guys in my class today made a suggestion of walking to a big fortress which is I think to the south. I guess he wasn’t suggesting that route for the evening but rather if I found myself back here on a weekend. The sites on my stroll weren’t quite what I was expecting.

As soon as I veered off the main drag, the number of people walking along the street thinned out. The further I went, the more I saw people walking in the other direction. And they all gave me funny looks as I passed them. I figured I must just stand out as the obvious American. So as I got closer to my goal I started to notice clusters of people just standing around, often at the corners of the streets. It wasn’t until I had gone several blocks that I noticed that they were all women. Thinking about it later its obvious that these must be ‘working’ women. But it wasn’t immediately obvious. In Miami or New York or Seattle or San Francisco, they are a little more obvious. You know, just like in the movies: fish net stockings, mini skirts riding way too high, tight tops, etc. But here all the women were in jeans and padded winter coats. Not exactly the sexy look that you would normally think of. And it wasn’t until they started coming up to me offering their ‘services’ that I realized what they were and that I was probably walking into an area I didn’t want to be in. I turned around and started getting back into a friendlier area of town.

Back on the main drag I was able to find a nice restaurant (The Grand Café), have a very nice meal (Reindeer!!! Who knew that Rudolph would be so tasty?), and get back to my hotel. And now its now. Bed time. Tomorrow is day two of the class, focusing on using Visual Studio with Workflow. Should be fun…

Privium in a word: Awesome!!!

This morning I got to Schipol earlier than I had planned…well…actually all of the delays I expected from it being my first experience with public transport around Amsterdam didn’t occur, so I got there on time: 2 hours before my flight. I knew I had wanted to sign up for Privium a few weeks back, so I stopped by the office to fill out the application. Thirty minutes, one form, 110 Euros, and an iris scan later and I walked out of their Schipol office ready to go. Privium allows you to skip all lines at the airport: security screening on the way in, customs on the way out, closer parking, and business class check in. So now it was time to try it out for the first time.

There were a dozen or so people waiting to go through security, but I skipped them and went to the Privium line: no wait. Slide my card in, wait a few seconds, walk over to the iris scanner, look at the mirror, and the gate magically opens. The attendant on the other side then guided me to a x-ray machine and pulled me to the front of the line: no wait. I just went through what should have taken 10 minutes or more in two. Next week when I come midday I am looking forward to seeing the monstrous line I will be able to skip.

Now skipping a long line at the beginning of your trip is nice, but the last thing you want to do at the end of a long day is sit and wait in another long queue waiting for the customs officials to view your passport and ask those questions. You just want to get out of the airport as quickly as possible. Tonight after coming in from London, the line for customs was huge. But I sailed right past it.

Just like I mentioned a few weeks back, if you travel through Schipol at least 3 or 4 times a year this is totally worth it. I am expecting to be going through these lines a couple dozen times so it just gets better and better each time.

Upcoming travel…

The travel schedule is already beginning, though the first trip is only partially work related. Tomorrow I head to London for the day. And its only to get a document stamped. Crazy, I know. My stuff is getting shipped from San Francisco to Amsterdam, but in order to get it here I need to prove that I live in Amsterdam. In order to do that I need to register with the local municipality. In order to do that I need to have a birth certificate with an apostille on it.

Bookstores in Amsterdam

In every city I have ever lived in, visiting good bookstores has always been important. And thus, finding good bookstores is always an important first step. In the Seattle area, I always loved visiting Elliot Bay Book Company, down the street from my first apartment there, as well as the Borders in Redmond Towne Square for one of the better computer sections in town. In San Francisco I visited the Books Inc in my neighborhood on Chestnut, and occasionally checking the B&N in near Fisherman’s Wharf for something more mainstream. In my first stay in the Bay Area, I loved Stacey’s in Palo Alto and on Stevens Creek for uncomparable technical sections, but unfortunately those stores have closed and the sole surviving store in downtown SF is probably close to closing as it now sucks.

Today I went to find a store I had learned about online: The American Book Company on Kalverstraat. ABC is a wonderful store and had exactly what I was looking for, well, mostly. I picked up another copy of an Amsterdam map (I think I left my other copy at work, and the map store on my block is closed on Sundays), and a walking tours guide to the city and surrounding areas. I was also looking for a tourist guide to Norway as I will be there next week for a few days. Unfortunately all they had was a single pricey version that didn’t interested me much. I was planning to use the walking tour book later on but as soon as I walked out of the store, the rain started in force and threw that plan out the window. So I wandered down the street and found another massive English-language book store just a few doors down…Waterstones. A little fancier, but similar selection. Their range of choice of Norway books was a bit better but I still walked out without one. Oh well, I will probably head back in the next few days before I fly off to Oslo next Sunday.

Dinner in Amsterdam

Dinner in Amsterdam…well…dinner in the Netherlands…and possibly dinner in Europe in general, is different from dinner in the US. Actually what I am thinking about is dinner out. You go to any nice restaurant in the US and you will get a good meal, service will be quick, and when you are done you get the check. You leave and someone else comes in to take your table for their turn. Of course, that is assuming that you go to a restaurant with good food and service, but thats not my point. Here in Amsterdam almost everything is the same, except at a much slower pace. And that last part doesn’t happen because there aren’t enough hours in the evening to allow for a second sitting.

Last night I met up with a bunch from Expatica at Uyt on Runststraat at Prinsengracht. I got there a little late…fashionably late? Well maybe just late…reservations were for 8 and I got there at about 9. They were just getting a second round of bread and had recently placed their orders. I got an order in pretty quickly after I arrived and about 10 minutes later everyone’s first course came out, including mine: Carpaccio with parmesan cheese and a few other things that the WorldLingo site translation can’t figure out. Sometime around 9:45 the main course came out. I had the roast of lamb in a rich sauce with mashed potatoes. Apparently one of the things this place is known for is the quality of their meats, and this dish was stunning. Around 10:45 or 11:00 the desserts came out: Pear pie with white chocolate ice cream. Then coffee and after-dinner drinks. Of course, throughout the night we went through three bottles of wine and a beer or two.

We finally got out of there approaching midnight. Its not just because we were a large group (7), but that just seems to be the way meals out work here. You are given time to allow the food to digest, for conversations to flow, and just to enjoy. There is no rush. But then when I have eaten out alone, the service speeds up to accomodate the lack of conversation. Overall it turns the process of going out to eat into a much grander experience. And how much do you have to pay for such an experience? Not a lot. For the three course meal we all ate, along with 3 bottles of wine, beer, coffee, and after-dinner drinks, the shared cost between 7 came out to about 45 euros each after tip. Not a bad deal. A similar restaurant in Seattle or San Francisco with similar style of service would probably have set each person back about 75–80 dollars. Not something I will do every night, but a fun experience.