In the village of Gan, Norway. An uncooperative Volvo does not make for a enjoyable travel experience.
I visited Norway for the first time this summer with my girlfriend Kat.
The story starts in Gardermoen, Norway, with a man named Werner Hålien. We’d met Werner in San Diego through the hospitality exchange site couchsurfing.net, and he had invited us to his home in Norway in return.
It’s almost midnight August 7th when we land at the Oslo Airport – actually in Gardermoen, 30 miles outside of Oslo. Outside, when we finally see him pull in to pick us up through the curtain of rain that’s started, it’s in a small blue Volvo that by all accounts looks like a nice car.
We get in and are informed that the car doesn’t have its up-to-date stickers, needs to get checked for smog and other testing, and is technically illegal to drive. But we thought, that’s fine, you know? Sometimes you have to sidestep some bureaucracy in order to have a functional lifestyle.
We make polite conversation and find out that he has taken a week off from work for a cracked rib received in a bicycle accident. Werner is a triathlon enthusiast. Onward into the night we go, to Werner’s home in Gan (left), a little hamlet outside of Oslo. Gan is 38 kilometers (24 miles) outside of Oslo, but we can get there by train, which is a 10-minute drive from Werner’s house.
“Werner,” Kat ventures to ask – up until now she’s been quietly sitting in the back seat, counting the red flags popping up in her mind about our current situation and host – “would you be willing to drive us to the train station in the mornings?”
“Oh no, I’ll let you borrow the car,” Werner states cheerfully in his fantastic Norwegian accent. “It runs much good.”
To this I ask Kat if she could drive stick (did I mention it’s a stickshift?), and when she vigorously shakes her head I let him know I'd only had a lesson a year ago.
“It’s ok. You will pick up quick and drive much good soon. The gears are old so don’t worry about grinding them and what is life without a little danger?”
We finally reach Werner’s home, a dean’s house attached to a school off the main road with a long gravel driveway, and are introduced to Fritzel the cat. His closest neighbor is a farmer with mules and roosters. It’s about one to two in the morning when we’re shown to our room, the storage room for his scuba, biking and other recreational supplies with a nice queen-size bed out for us.
The next morning we awake to the greenest, most beautiful fairyland that we could’ve imagined – and our own private petting zoo next door. Yes, we pet the ponies and mules; they're adorable, how couldn't we?
We have our breakfast, a mix of dried berries, almonds and trail mix bars my mother had given us for our trip over the Atlantic – thanks Mom! – and then head out to the Volvo.
Werner lets us know that of all his cars (he has three he's working on), this is the one where the brakes aren’t shot so it can still stop, start slowing down early but it’ll still stop. He then informs us that the locks on the doors don’t actually work anymore, but to just roll up the windows and leave the car in the parking lot of the train station and we should be fine.
I wasn’t sure about this. What if something happens while I have the car?
To which Werner groans and says, “Americans are too eager to sue each other. It’ll be fine, if anything happens don’t worry just call me. Have a good time!”
And off we go like a rocket! The car lurches forward for a split second and stalls. On my second try we start making headway, down the driveway and on to the main road. We stall again at the main road, and I quickly learn that slowing down is not the best friend of a new stick-shifter.
“It’s ok, you’re doing great. The hardest thing about driving stick is going from first to second,” is Kat’s calming voice from the passenger seat.
But then we come to the first roundabout that will get us to the highway that crosses the bridge to the train station. And then the car stalls at the stop sign leading into the roundabout. Then it stalls again, and again and again until we are living an American in Europe’s nightmare: stuck in the middle of a busy roundabout. Luckily the speed limit in Norway is in kilometers; while cars are flying by at 60, it's only 37 mph.
There we are freaking out trying to get the car to go, I’m turning it off, throwing it into first with Kat next to me slowly building in crescendo. “You gotta put it in neutral then into first. I’m pretty sure that it’s neutral into first. Just go neutral to first already!”
So after having beaten my head into the idea of straight to first then go, I finally listen. And lo and behold: the car goes, and we are off to the bridge. We make the rest of the trip without incident, get to the train station, roll up the windows and walk away to buy our tickets.
I learned a lesson that day. Always give an idea a chance when yours didn’t work the last six times – especially when whomever you’re traveling with will be the voice of wisdom the next three weeks.