February 15, 2015. They do celebrate Valentine’s Day in Norway, although it’s not as splashy or as commercial as it is in the States. You can purchase Valentine’s Day cards in bookstores. (I haven’t yet run across a pure paper-and-card store — business opportunity, anyone?) But the cheap boxed chocolates and bland bouquets of red carnations are nowhere to be found. Instead, flower shops feature heart-shaped tabletop topiaries made of ivy, while confectioners display fantastical Valentine-inspired works of art sculpted in chocolate and marzipan.
Because Matthew had to be in Washington D.C. all week for a series of stressful meetings, I decided relaxation would be this year’s holiday theme. He arrived home late in the afternoon on Valentine’s day and took a little nap before we headed out to our hard-won dinner reservations at Savoia, a cute Italian place I’d just discovered right down the street. We were lucky to get in anywhere, honestly. Not only is a Valentine’s dinner traditional here, but it’s almost impossible to dine in any Oslo restaurant without reservations made far in advance.
Inside, we found that Savoia possessed the highly desirable quality Norwegians describe as hygge (cosiness) — it’s a trait used to measure and rank all restaurants, bars, and even private homes. Copious candlelight, lambskin pelts, and wood-burning fireplaces are just some of the requisites for achieving this accolade. Interestingly, music rarely plays a part in adding to the atmosphere. Many restaurants have no background music at all, while others have the sound turned down so low that it can’t really be heard. I think the idea may be that quiet conversation is valued above the cacophony that’s created when people yell over the competing orchestration — a definite difference from American eateries.
But back to Savoia. Although they have many different pasta dishes, they specialize in the thin, cracker-crust pizza that is Matthew’s favorite, which is why I selected the place. We had a hankering for veggies (they’re rarely featured on most Norwegian menus), so our waiter offered to have the chef make up a special salad just for us (!) The heaping pile of incredibly fresh red peppers, blanched asparagus, and mushrooms mounded atop a bed of arugula were just what we craved. Fantastic appetizers of melon with prosciutto and mussels in white wine were followed by a veggie-stacked pizza possessing a perfectly crisped crust. With no room for dessert, we rolled ourselves home and swore we’d fast for the rest of the week.
To continue our rest-and-relaxation theme the next day, I’d made a spa reservation for us at the Holmenkollen Park Hotel. Truthfully, neither Matthew nor I are big on spas, as we both get restless when having to sit still for too long and endure pampering. But one of our goals when moving here was to learn how to unwind and take better care of ourselves, so I’d searched for somewhere to meet this need cheaply.
Surprisingly, Norway isn’t nearly into the sauna culture as much as countries like Finland or Sweden — probably because of Lutheran missionaries who stamped out the once popular, public (mixed-sex) bathhouses — so finding options for “spa day” was harder than I’d imagined. Holmenkollen met the bill by offering a half-hour massage for around $70 per person that also allows guests to come early and swim in the heated indoor pool, make use of the jacuzzi, and hang out in the sauna.
We decided to make a day of it and caught the T-bane at noon so we could grab a light and leisurely lunch in the hotel lobby cafe before our 3:00 p.m. appointment. Boarding the train gave us our first clue that we might not have picked the best day for Holmenkollen — which also happens to be “the site of the world’s most modern ski jump and the gateway to cross-country skiing” (according to Norwegians, who actually invented both sports, so I’d take their word on it.)
Hordes of banner-waving, flag-toting folks crowded the train on their way to witness the ski competitions being held that day. Germans, Swiss, Russians, Norwegians, Swedish, and several other nationalities took turns chanting their team cheers and arguing about the skills of each skier. We thought about joining them but were told it was probably too late to get tickets and too cost-ineffective, since we’d only be able to view the end of the week-long competition.
So after arriving at the park entrance, we stood on the hillside and watched some of the women’s relay skiers zip by from afar, then we headed into the hotel for lunch. Holmenkollen Hotel itself was built in 1894 in the charming “Dragon Style” that conjures up images of Vikings and Hobbits. The lobby has been modernized to give it that Alpine-chic flair, and it accommodates a nice little cafe / bar where we grabbed a beer and yummy shrimp smørbrod (open-faced sandwiches).
As we dug into our meal, an older couple joined us to watch the ski event on TV. After realizing that they spoke English with an American accent, we asked them if they were ski fans, or just on vacation. They responded that their daughter had raced in the ski relay that day, and went on to explain that she was part of the first American biathlon team, which made their debut in the 2014 Winter Olympics at Sochi. (I later looked her up via Google, and her name is Susan Dunklee. Both her dad and uncle competed in cross-country skiing at the Olympics during the 1970s and early ’80s.)
For those of you who aren’t familiar with biathlon skiing, it was invented by the Norwegian military, who call it skiskyting (literally “ski shooting”). There are many variants of the sport, including relay, pursuit, and sprinting, but the basic idea is that skiers strap a high-powered rifle to their back, race around a cross-country trail, and stop periodically to stand or lie prone while shooting at targets. You can imagine the fitness level and biorythmic training involved in skiing at top speed, then quickly slowing your heart-rate so that it doesn’t influence your aim. What’ll we crazy humans think of next to entertain ourselves?
With all that talk of exercise, Matthew and I retired for a lazy swim in the hotel pool and a dip in the jacuzzi, but avoided a stint in the sauna. (As it turns out, the heat takes getting used to and was too much for us weenies!) We followed up with a massage from a physical therapist, whose signature technique was a Spock-like neck pinch both oddly painful yet paralyzingly relaxing. Our day of leisure ended with a rowdy ride back on the fan-filled train and a long nap at home. Ahhh.