Today was going to be a simple transition from Oslo to Sandefjord, the small seaside town with the airport we fly out from tomorrow morning. When we bought the Oslo-Aberdeen plane ticket we overlooked the fact that Sandefjord airport is actually two hours out of the city. With our 11am flight, and check-in beforehand, there were no ways to get down there in the morning in time, so we had to stay a night here. A pity that we lost a day in Oslo, but it was a nice opportunity to see a bit of the Norway countryside.
Yesterday, I'd bought the rail tickets, so we breezily made it to the central station organised and with plenty of time to spare. And then we looked at the departure board to discover the train had been cancelled. Damn. They had a replacement bus service, so instead of a two hour train ride we had an indeterminate bus ride to look forward to instead. We loaded up our gear and settled into what we actually a surprisingly comfortable coach - our first bus of the trip, actually.
After about an hour, we pulled up to a train station, barely halfway down to Sandefjord. Turns out that just that section of railway was being worked on, and the rest of the way would be by train after all. Another half hour, and we were there, albeit a bit behind schedule. Our hotel was barely five minutes walk from the station, though that's not really saying much since the town is pretty small.
Once we had checked in, I headed out into the overcast weather to see the sights. It didn't take long. You have a couple of main streets and a port area with a large ferry dock and a smaller marina. There's a surprising number of clothes stores and cafes on squares, which you could picture swarming with visitors on a warm summer's day, but the place was basically a ghost town. It's probably well beyond the typical tourism season, but it was strangely empty, with many bars not even open on a Saturday night.
The one real tourist attraction in what is basically a weekend retreat and spa town is the Whaling Museum. Unfortunately, it was after 4pm, and being a Saturday, the place was going to close at 5pm. The woman there, when I asked if it was worth trying to see the place in such a short time, kindly offered if I wanted to wander through for free. There were some impressive skeletons, a life-size blue whale model, other taxidermy arctic creatures, and a larger section on the history of whaling.
Sandefjord was basically a whaling town that transitioned to broader shipping in the mid-'60s. Looking at the harpoons, the images of bloodied waters, and the brutal descriptions of how the whales we harvested, I felt sorry for the poor creatures that these days we think of only as endangered creatures and sensitive, mammalian, gentle giants. Two hundred years ago, though, they were a commodity, so plentiful that they could be relied on for both human consumption and the soap and perfume industries. It was a different time.
And so, there I was, sitting dockside at a restaurant with the menu in front of me. "Steak of minke whale, served with root vegetables, fried potatoes and pepper sauce," it read. Whale, on the menu. Not two hours ago, I'd seen pictures and descriptions of the horrible ways in which whalers caught their prey. And yet, here it was, sandwiched between duck confit and tuna. I was wracked with indecision. When was the next time I'd have the opportunity to try it? I mean, the steak was in their freezer right now. They weren't going out to kill a whale for me. Someone else would eat it. But then again, if I buy it, I reinforce the demand for it. Without that steak in the freezer, they'd have to buy more. Harpoon more.
When the waitress asked, I ordered it. I sat there, still in two minds and feeling uncomfortable by the choice. Surely there'd be more regulations these days about how the creatures were treated, like there are regulations about chickens or cows? It would have to be humane, right? If they're serving it, it would be under watchful scientific eyes. And then, far sooner than I'd anticipated, it was sitting there, in front of me. Whale steak, on carrots, covered in pepper sauce. I grabbed a knife and sliced a corner off the steak. It was a deep red; seared on the outside, but rare in the middle. I'm not a rare steak person at the best of times. Gulp.
I ate it. It was stringier than I'd expected, with sinews not unlike beef. For some reason I'd expected a consistency and taste like tuna, but it's surprisingly more like a red meat. Your brain fluctuates between tasting beef, and then getting a whiff of the dark, briny, saline undertones. It tastes like the smell of a fisherman's dock. You can sense the years of deep sea marination. It's at times potent, at times almost bland. Having it served with pepper sauce was jarring, and doesn't help identify its unique flavour - you'd expect it to be served with lemon wedges.
When I left, I wandered to the end of the jetty, where the Southern Actor, a whaling vessel, was moored. It was an uncomfortable reminder of what I had been struggling to ignore. After all, I can quite easily put out of my mind the fact that chicken was once a bird, and lamb once an animal, but that is probably as much due to years of dissociation to get used to seeing it on the menu. It's hard to shake the picture in your head when it's something so unusual; I imagine tourists to Australia would have the same problem with kangaroo steaks, though they would not have the endangered species issue to contend with.
I had asked the waitress whether whale was eaten by the locals, or if it's just something for the tourists. She had said it's still eaten regularly in the region, though the whaling occurs up north rather than from this port. When I got home and looked it up, it seems that there are over one hundred thousand minke whales in the northern Atlantic, and that yearly fewer than one thousand are caught. Both facts eased my mind a little, but of course I could quite fairly be said to be looking for ways to justify it. Thoughts, anyone? Would you have eaten it?
Tonight marks our last night in continental Europe. It's a little hard to believe. We still have about five weeks left until our return, and yet only three regions: the United Kingdom, Canada and Japan. We've done thirteen countries already and have just five left. Eight days doing a road trip through the UK from Aberdeen to Cardiff, a week on either side of Canada, and a little over a week in Japan. It's strange to think we're almost in the last third of the trip, and about to say goodbye to a continent that has offered us so many different sights. It's nice that Sandefjord, subverting my expectations, was able to offer on my final night one last notable experience to take home with me.