By Losing Everything I Made It – Welcome to Never Never Land: Bergen

After four months of traveling I didn’t think my trip could get any weirder. My time in Bergen changed that. Following my brief stint in Oslo, I boarded a seven hour train ride to Bergen, Norway. Bergen is a small and quaint fishing town nestled between mountains to the east and fjords to the west. The train ride to Bergen was a journey in itself. Hailed as the ‘most scenic’ train ride in all of Europe, the passage from Oslo to Bergen didn’t disappoint. Over the approximate 450 kilometer journey I saw high mountain passes, glaciers, rivers, thundering waterfalls, dark winding tunnels, and massive fjords. My gaze didn’t leave the window the entire time.

When the trip ended, like in every city, I departed the train and made my way to my accommodation. Since hostels in Bergen were even more expensive than in Oslo, I decided to go the CouchSurfing route. A week before I arrived, I was browsing the app and by pure chance I happened to find a location owned by a guy named Stian. Stian had strong positive reviews and from what I could tell he had had many backpackers come stay with him over the previous months so the location seemed rather appealing. I sent him a message explaining who I was was hoping that I would be able to stay at his place. Thankfully in a day’s time he responded yes.

His house wasn’t in Bergen but on Askoy Island, an outlying coastal island about an hour’s bus ride away. After fumbling around for an hour or so I found the correct bus, ticket, and bus stop. The time was 8:30 pm. The bus only ran every hour so for the next forty-five minutes I sat there in anticipation of what was going to come. Finally the bus arrived, I boarded, and began my hour long ride through Bergen’s rural landscape.

With a sudden stop, I arrived at the Hop bus stop. Thankfully Dusan, one the people staying at the house, was there to meet me. I introduced myself, and we proceeded to walk up the steep hill towards the house. After about ten minutes and summiting a mountain, I saw my accommodation for the next three nights, a mansion.

Built in 1793 this was no ordinary house. It was an estate. It had twenty or so rooms. There was a parlor with pool table, a fancy dining room, a massive kitchen, two living rooms flanking a massive foyer, and of course a reading room. To complement the massive house, the estate was situated on a plethora of land. The land had a lake, a massive patio with a fire pit, and several gardens. All I could think was….how did I end up here?

I was still in awe when I finally I entered the house and introduced myself to Stian. Apparently Stian had worked in consulting, and similar to me, had had enough of that type of career when he decided to quit his job. In December 2014, he rented this mansion with the idea of turning it into an open source school for backpackers. Over the next seven or so months, Stian and several others created  ‘The International School of Common Sense.’ The website and subsequent Facebook page are located below:

http://www.askfreeschool.org/

https://www.facebook.com/askfreeschool

From what I could gather and with a little help from the website, the school was designed for “people who want to share knowledge, skills and ideas with others from around the world in a communal living environment.” While some of the space is occupied by backpackers, the school does have a some ‘permanents.’ Typically these permanents live at the school for a period of  several months. They teach classes to fellow travelers including but not limited to creative writing, meditation, yoga, guitar, and nature. They also volunteer for the city of Bergen. At the present moment, they were helping the city prepare for a Tall Ships race on the 24th of July. The permanents are also responsible for maintaining the house. They work daily; cooking, cleaning, and working for the betterment of the house. The beauty behind this idea is that there is always a constant coming and going of new people to and from the school. These new people bring new classes and new skills. So while it is always a school, it is always changing.

The rest of the space is designated for CourchSurfers. It was hard to figure out, but from I could tell, there were usually anywhere from fifteen to twenty-five people in the house at a time. I hate to use the cliche of ‘hippie commune’ to describe what Stian has built, but it definitely had more of that vibe than that of a tradition hostel. Regardless of what you call it, the setup was amazing, the people were fantastic, and my experience there was unique and exhilarating.

The night I arrived was Stian’s 28th birthday and as such I was greeted with a free rum & coke, a draft beer, and some birthday cake. After a brief chat with Stian he gave me a tour of the house and showed me my room. Turns out I would be sharing a room with an Estonia couple and two Spanish girls on the first floor in the southwest corner of the house. I didn’t stay in the room long. I left to join the party.

I meandered around the house and soon met a Norwegian, John Arna, and his German girlfriend; name can’t remember. John doesn’t live in the house, but down the road maybe fifteen minutes away. For prominent occasions he comes over. In our discussions I learned that most native ‘Bergenians’ don’t believe him when he tells them of his adventures at the house. After talking with the couple, I ran into another permanent, Nicole. Originally from California, Nicole was currently in Bergen visiting family and working at the house. Her specialty was yoga and mediation.  Curious, I picked her brain over exactly what she does. Over the course of an hour we chatted about yoga, mediation, the house, politics, and personal property rights. During this conversation, I learned that the house had a nickname, ‘Never Never Land.’ That nickname made perfect sense for a mansion filled with kids living in a communal harmony.

Following this conversation and brief pool match, I went into the foyer and met a group from Washington DC. They all went to JMU and were on a brief three week vacation around Norway. Experienced travelers, they were also in awe of what they happened to stumble upon. We ended up chatting for maybe thirty minutes before I decided to head to bed. I had enough excitement for the day. While I went to bed, the rest decided to head to the lake for brief swim.

The next morning I made my way into town and spent the whole day traversing the old city and wharf of Bergen. I don’t think I need to describe just how beautiful it was. I will let the pictures below do it justice. By the time I was finished taking in the sights in it was nearing 7 pm. I made my way to the train station to meet Annabelle.

If you can recall, I first met Annabelle in Stockholm mostly during our intellectual sunset conversation. My last day in Stockholm was also Annabelle’s last day. I went to Oslo, Annabelle went to Helsinki via the ferry. After Helsinki, Annabelle was going to Bergen. Since our time in Bergen overlapped, we planned to meet up. Prior to her arrival in Bergen, she had texted me saying that she was having some difficulty finding accommodation in Bergen. I informed her about the mansion so she sent Stian a message and he accepted.

Since she was staying at the mansion and I had such difficultly working the bus system, I thought I would meet her at the train station to help find her way to the house. Also let’s be honest, I wanted to impress her with my acquired ‘knowledge’ of Bergen. Turn’s out she had met a fellow Norwegian from Bergen on the train who had a superior knowledge of the city. Upon her arrival, he showed us directly to the bus station, the one right next to the train station (I didn’t even know that one existed), and within five minutes we were on the correct bus with the correct tickets. Damn.

That night most of the people were dead from the following evening so everyone was taking it easy. Though while people weren’t drinking there was still a lot of fun to be had. Also staying in the mansion were a group of professional jugglers. They were originally from the US but were in Europe for the ‘European Juggling Convention’ which was being held in Ireland for 2014.  From our conversation, I learned that this convention is the largest juggling convention in the world. Jugglers and non-jugglers from all over the world come to learn and teach new skills. They had arrived early and were traveling a tad bit in Europe beforehand. I’m glad they did because for the next three hours they performed acts for us and gave us personal lessons on the basics of juggling (which isn’t very basic at all). I didn’t participate but instead spent the whole time filming. It started to get dark.. sort of, so we eventually all made our way inside. I went to play pool but maybe ten or so people went into the kitchen. In twenty minutes or so, I began to hear a lot of laughter so I proceeded into the kitchen to see what was the commotion. Annabelle and maybe nine others were busy hitting balloons up into the air. Apparently it was a game and the rule was that the balloon couldn’t hit the ground. I decided to join them. Soon we had maybe thirty balloons flying all over the kitchen. To be fair this balloon exercise was rather tiring, and after about thirty minutes of this I went to bed. I had to get some rest, the next day Annabelle and I had a ‘big’ hike planned.

I awoke just in time for the 12 PM bus and Annabelle and I hurried into the city. The hike was to the top of Mount. Ulriken, the tallest mountain in Bergen. At 2,100 feet, the mountain isn’t actually that high. Still it goes from sea level to 2,000 feet so it is a challenging hike nonetheless. The top is also free of trees so the views are stunning. It took us about an hour or so to hike up, and once on the top, we spent three or so hours resting, chatting, and taking in the sun. Soon we headed back down and made our way to the fish market. I settled for Burger King since it was the cheapest option. Annabelle went for the fish platter. It was $32 USD, but in hindsight, I think I would have paid it. It looked wonderful. Thankfully she let me have some.

Afterwards we took the bus back to the mansion. It was the last night of being abroad, and I was sort of feeling sad and relieved at the same time.  I didn’t do much that night other than slowly pack my things while thinking and reflecting on my past four months. It was a weird anomaly. At that moment I had very little money, I had worn the same shorts for weeks, and had very few possessions in my backpack. Yet, I somehow was staying in a beautiful mansion on top of a beautiful mountain with a beautiful woman overlooking the beautiful bay surrounding beautiful Bergen. I literally had nothing, but somehow I had everything.  No where in my travels have I felt so at peace and so scared at the same time. I had everything and was going to lose everything at once. It was one of the weirdest feelings of my life.

Sadly the night turned into the following day, and I slowly said my goodbyes. This was one of my toughest goodbyes particularly because I had met fantastic people at the mansion, and I knew there would be no more random meetings with amazing strangers. Plus I had to say goodbye to Annabelle. Over the last week I had really grown fond of her. Though we were mostly opposite in mostly about everything, we still got along pretty well. With one final hug and kiss, my time abroad was over.

The House:
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View from the Toilet:
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Plankton – Sponge Bob’s Square Pants
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Annabelle’s Fish Platter
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