Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A Shot Across the Bow Over Excessive Demand Letters

A recent California Superior Court decision in Los Angeles rejected an anti-SLAPP motion filed by Hollywood celebrity attorney Martin Singer and held that an extortion complaint filed by Martin Malin could proceed to discovery and possibly trial.  In a pre-litigation demand letter, Singer sought a large payment to his client and threatened that, if action were withheld, he would file a complaint alleging that Malin had engaged in sexual misconduct, naming three individuals allegedly involved and enclosing a photograph as evidence of the seriousness of his intent to expose Malin.  The letter stated that because a draft of the complaint was being sent to a third party, “I have deliberately left blank spaces in portions of the complaint dealing with your using company resources to arrange sexual liaisons with —, —, and —.  When the complaint is filed with the Los Angeles Superior Court, there will be no blanks in the pleading.”  Apparently, one of the redacted names is that of a retired Superior Court judge,

Singer, represented by leading California anti-SLAPP attorney Mark Goldowitz, relied on a decision dismissing a suit over demand letters from DirectTV threatening suit over pirating satellite television signals to argue that demand letters could be speech protected by the anti-SLAPP statute.  According to a report of the oral argument on a Hollywood blog, Malin’s counsel, however, argued that Singer was implicitly threatening to take his accusations to the press, because “It is well known that the filing of complaints in court are picked up by the press, particularly in Los Angeles County.”

According to reports of the oral argument reported by the blog and by the Los Angeles Daily Journal, Judge Mary Strobel rejected the anti-SLAPP motion because the inclusion of the names of specific sexual partners, and the enclosure of a photograph of one of the partners, took the demand well-beyond the typical cease-and-desist letter.

Although the decision seems right on the merits, the mode of analysis is disturbing.  In deciding anti-SLAPP motions, the California court normally look first to see whether the speech is on a matter of public interest, or otherwise within the four categories of speech to which the anti-SLAPP statute applies; if it is, then it is the plaintiff’s burden to show a likelihood of success on the merits of the claim, both legally and factually.  Judge Strobel relied on an outlier from that principle, Flatley v, Mauro, in which the defendant had sent a demand letter threatening to sue for an alleged sexual assault and explicitly threatening to expose the sexual matters to the media.  The California Supreme Court said that the SLAPP statute does not apply ot speech that is illegal as a matter of law and that, on its face, the defendant’s communication was extortion.  According the Judge Strobel, because Singer’s demand letter was extortionate, it is unprotected speech and hence not protected by the anti-SLAPP statute; she thus did not need to decide whether plaintiff could show a likelihood of success on the merits.

The troubling aspect of this analysis is that a variety of speech is unprotected by the First Amendment if the court concludes, after trying the facts, that, for example, speech was defamatory, false, and published with actual malice.  What could have distinguished Flatley was that the extortionate aspect of the speech – the threat to go to the press with claims of sexual misconduct — was apparent on the face of the demand letter.  Here, though, plaintiff argued that it is enough that the speech at issue is “allegedly illegal,” and the quoted oral argument is only that the extortionate threat was implicit, because everybody knows that the press combs through new courthouse filings in Los Angeles looking for Hollywood dirt.  Although that seems to me to be a sound argument on the second prong, it is disturbing to see an expansion in the class of cases that can be deemed outside the anti-SLAPP statute without the plaintiff ever having to make a showing of merit.

Singer has reportedly stated his intent to appeal.  It is hard to work up a great deal of sympathy for a bully like Singer, but the case will be worth following.  At the same time, lawyers sending demand letters might draw some lessons of their own about not going too far overboard in their threats.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A long weekend in Portland during Reed College's Centennial Celebration

This past weekend, I headed for Portland Oregon for Reed College’s Volunteer Weekend, scheduled this year to coincide with Reed’s Centennial Celebration.   I participated in meetings both as  representative of the DC chapter, and as a member of the class of 1972 helping to plan our 40th reunion.  But I also had the chance to visit with many old friends in Portland, to have some nice meals, and to get in a good hike on Mount Hood.

I got in late Thursday night, and Friday morning met Moshe Lenske for breakfast; at his suggestion, we ate at the HiS Bakery at the corner of 72nd and Woodstock.  The prices were low and the pecan buns were particularly scrumptious; and at Moshe’s urging I picked up some cookies and muffins to take on my planned hike on Sunday and then save for eating on my flight home.  That evening I had dinner with Reed friend Darcia Krause, who was hosting me for the weekend. 

There were meetings all day Friday and for most of Saturday, but Saturday morning I managed to get in another breakfast, this time at the St. Honore Bakery in Lake Oswego with Reed classmate Martha Hicks, whom I hadn’t seen since leaving Reed for the McGovern campaign in December 1971.   This bakery was considerably fancier and, as befit its location, considerably more expensive.  I had a nice vegetable quiche, plus a bag of choquettes to go.

Saturday at lunch time, a collection of food carts gathered at Reed College as part of the Community Day celebration.  The idea was a nice one, but the operations were pretty inefficient as long lines formed and students and alumni volunteers waited to get lunch.  I had a couple of tacos as well as a kim chee quesadilla at a Korean Fusion cart.  Delicious food, but as a result of having to wait so long, I could only catch the last hour of the brown bag session discussing the search for Reed’s next president.

That evening, several volunteers gathered for a no-host dinner at Suzette’s Creperie, an institution run by Reed alumna Jehnee Rains (‘93).  The crepes themselves were less than memorable, but there was a very nice appetizer – a small gougère stuffed with fig, bacon and arugula, and an exceptional dessert – a bruléed fresh peach half served with a dollop of mascarpone, strewn with fresh berries and decorated with a fruit sauce.

I had to rush off from dinner to meet Lorene Scheer, a friend from my TDU days, at the annual La Voz  Salsa Party held at the SEIU local union hall where Lorene works.  I got there just too late for the salsa lesson, but the music was good and I did my best to fake it on the dance floor.  The only beer available was a home-made IPA – delicious. 

We had to rush off from that as well, to get to the fireworks display back at Reed.  The fireworks were stupendous, comparable to the annual Fourth of July fireworks display over the National Mall in DC every year.  But, with an important difference.  For years we have skipped the crowd scene down on the mall, with its security restrictions, the ban on alcohol in one’s picnic basket, and the heavy traffic coming back to Adams Morgan.  Instead, we have been watching at a distance from Cardozo High School, which is at the crest of a hill looking over downtown DC.  But at Reed, the firework display was up close, closer indeed than when sitting on the National Mall, less than a city block away.  It reminded me of the special power that fireworks have up close.  Maybe we should try going down to the Mall again.

Sunday I met up with Lorene again for a hike on Mount Hood.   (Breakfast at Toast was decidedly ordinary).  We were aiming to hike up Cooper Spur on the north side of the mountain (I have always done my hiking on on the southern and eastern sides).  But when we arrived at the road into the trailhead at the Cooper Spur resort, we found that the road had been closed because of fire danger.  Instead, we opted to hike into Elk Meadows even though we were worried about having to cross Newton Creek without a bridge.  The first creek crossing was easy, but the only way across Newton Creek was over a few logs that trail workers had placed across the stream in various locations. 
Newton Creek

The first creek was easy to cross

Crossing Newton Creek via logs

Here is the side of the ridge we had to climb after crossing the creek (by switchbacks, of course) to reach the meadow.  
Ridge wall overlooking Newton Creek
 We passed many huge old growth trees along the way.  Rain was coming down for much of the hike, and we did not get the marvelous views of Mount Hood that are reportedly available from the meadow on nice days.   

Instead, it was raining steadily when we reached the meadow, and we ducked into a shelter at the edge of the meadow to eat our lunch We encountered on section of the trail in which one bare tree after another could be seen with its branches curled around itself, like a bramble.   

The mountain was shrouded in clouds the entire time; when we got to the top of Elk Mountain we could only stare down into the fog, although at one point the mists lifted at least enough to show us this view of the lower slopes of the mountain.

Before I headed to the airport to catch the red-eye home to DC, I had a chance to continue exploring the fascinating menu at Pok Pok, a restaurant featuring Thai pub and street-stall food that has become a must-visit for me every time I get to Portland.  As is usually the case, the restaurant was jammed, but we were early enough that the wait for a table was only a half hour.  I have known for some time that those waiting for a table have the option of heading down the street to the Whiskey Soda Lounge. Pok Pok will call over when your table is ready.  But this was the first time I took that opportunity; I’m glad I did.  The lounge has common ownership with Pok Pok and a similarly great menu.  We shared Neua Sawan, a dish of  deep fried marinated dried beef with deep fried kaffir lime leaves (I have used the leaves for flavoring when I make Tom Kha Gai but the leaves are too tough to eat; deep frying made them delicate as well as delicious) and Som Tam Thawt, a deep fried version of som tam.   The couple at the table next to us said that they only eat at Whiskey Soda Lounge any more because Pok Pok is so hard to get into and they find they like the lounge’s menu even better.  

We had to finish up quickly to head over to Pok Pok for dinner (we considered blowing off Pok Pok and lingering where we were).  For dinner we shared Khao Soi Kai, a mild curry soup that could be heated up with a very spicy curry paste that came on the side, and Mou Paa Kham Waan, a dish of spicy “boar collar” meat served with iced mustard greens to cool down the palate.  The drink special, a spicy vodka martini, was also delicious.  We were so full that Lorene had to take half the food home in a doggy bag, and I had to rush off to the airport.  A great end to a nice long weekend.

Visiting Seattle to see DC United play the Sounders

I spent September 16 to 18 in Seattle, taking advantage of DC United’s first weekend away game against the Seattle Sounders. I stayed with cousin Phyllis Levy and her family, who despite being Sounders fans, gamely put me up and took me to the game. Friday we celebrated the 86th birthday of my aunt Essie, with dinner at a Chinese restaurant followed by Phyllis’ carrot cake at home.

I had the opportunity to reconnect with several old friends while I was in town  — Reed College classmate Jon Grudin, Freeport High School classmate Tom Kellock, and Litigation Group colleague Michael Bancroft —  but going to see the game was the highlight of the weekend.  The game itself was eminently forgettable from a DC United perspective: we got trounced three to nothing. I accept that this is a rebuilding year, but we never know which team is going to show up — the team, that team that gives the ball away and yields soft goals, or the exciting attacking team that displays real grit in the back (for example, the team that beat Real Salt Lake at RFK stadium the following weekend). This time it was the former, and it was depressing evening to be an away fan. The problem was compounded by the boorish behavior of some of the other DC United fans, who took out their frustrations on Sounders fans who were seated nearby or passing by. Some of the Barra Brava leadership in particular could not stop yelling at the opposing fans. And as much as I have come to detest the "wings of an eagle, ass of a crow" song, it seems especially perverse to fantasize about "shit[ting] on the bastards below" when the singers themselves were there in the stadium to be shat on.  I was embarrassed to be part of the same supporters section.

Beyond that, however. the fan experience was stupendous. The Sounders’ Stadium is in downtown Seattle, only three blocks from Pioneer Square. Fans gather by the hundreds, growing to the thousands, as a brass band plays.

Then they march to the stadium, chanting and singing and displaying their colors. I marched along with them, concealing my DC United jersey under my red DC United raincoat.

There were many empty seats when I got into the stadium, but the numbers continued to flow in, eventually reaching a sellout crowd of more than 36 thousand spectators. The team covers part of the seats so that it can sell all the tickets and hence create more demand for advance ticket purchases; but the number of covered seats has been getting smaller and smaller. The main Sounders supporters group is situated behind one of the goals, but fans throughout the entire stadium were intense supporters of the team. They showed their support by dressing in the team’s chartreuse colors, or wearing scarves of blue and chartreuse – well over half the fans were wearing the colors (including lots of green raincoats) and many were also painted accordingly.  For me there was a stark contrast with the atmosphere at RFK stadium at DC United games, where there are various supporters groups arrayed along one side of the stadium but most of the rest of the fans are largely passive except for cheering when a goal is scored.  We do have one plus over Seattle though:  Seattle needs to have seats that bounce when fans jump up and down.

And fans throughout the stadium made noise – chanting Seattle.... Sounders, and clapping their hands over their heads. Maybe it was easier for them on the night, because their team was kicking butt, but I was impressed. In the first few years of the league, DC United supporters in the Screaming Eagles and eventually Barra Brava set the standard for MLS fans, but we have now been far surpassed. If we can reach the same energy and fervor and broad-based support that the Sounders enjoy, we will have come a long way.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Vacationing in Southern New Hampshire

Mount Monadnock seen from our walk along Stone Pond Road

Hal and Nancy relaxing on the deck

Cabin seen from the edge of the lake

Rona, Nancy and Hal enjoying grilled cheese for lunch

Nancy and I arrived at Stone Pond in the early hours of Friday morning August 19, after a grueling ten-hour drive from DC. Friday was a lazy day – a morning swim, a walk along the Stone Pond road (see the view of Mount Monadnock from the road), relaxing on the deck, having lunch.

t rained Friday afternoon and evening, but the weather forecast for Saturday morning suggested that it could be a good day for a hike up Mount Monadnock.
View of Mount Monadnock as we drove to the trail head

Saturday morning was, indeed, sunny, so Nancy and I headed out early for the hike up the mountain, wanting to get down before the thunderstorms that were predicted for Saturday afternoon.  We chose the Dublin Trail for our hike, which ascends from the Old Troy Road at about 1420 feet up the north slope of the mountain. 

It was like getting reacquainted with an old friend – this was the trail we had chosen for Sam’s first hike up the mountain, when he was two and a half, and for Joe’s first hike at age two.  But  we hadn’t up that way for several years at least.  Most of our recent hikes had been up the Marlborough Trail, ascending from the west, or the White Arrow or White Dot trails ascending from state park on the south side of the mountain.

Although the trail was in many ways familiar, there were several improvements– a new parking lot for a new trailhead on the south side of Old Troy Road, a wooden walkway over one often-boggy area.   For several of the especially hard parts where it was a few feet to the next stepping place on the stones, intermediate rocks had been carefully placed so that short-legged types could make it more easily.  Many of the tree blazes had been replaced by nailed-in plastic reflectors, and above the tree line many of the blazes looked freshly painted.  In fact, about two-thirds of the way up we encountered a man repainting a big “D.”   We thanked him profusely for his work.

Paul with Pumpelly Ridge to the left

Paul with view down to Stone Pond
After about an hour, we reached the first viewpoint; Paul can be seen here with Stone Pond to his left, and then with the Pumpelly Ridge, a trail we have never taken but one that I very much want to try (it is always vetoed because it is the longest trail to the top). 

Paul and Nancy at the summit of Mount Monadnock

View to the north as we headed back down from the summit

Clouds over Dublin Pond
Nancy at the summit with clouds -- thunderheads?

After that we climbed through smaller trees and brush before coming out on the bare rocks, heading to the summit (3165 feet over sea level). When we reached the summit, there was crowd of maybe 75 or even 100 people, including many small family groups as well as a couple of groups of campers.  Monadnock is said to be the most climbed mountain in the United States, perhaps because it is within three hours of Boston and five hours of New York.  There are spots on the mountain named for Emerson and Thoreau, who were among the hikers who spent time on the mountain in the middle of the 19th century.

Nancy and I are both pictured at the top, along with some clouds that seemed to promise thunderstorms to come. We had a nice lunch of cheddar cheese, salami, fruit, and gorp.  
Paul emerges from Stone Pond while Hal sits on everybody's favorite rock

Mount Monadnock seen over Stone Pond

Then we headed back down to enjoy an afternoon swim; I walked around the lake for this nice view of the mountain over Stone Pond. 

It never did rain.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Why Can’t The Washington Post Get Its Labor History Right?

In a story published in the Washington Post last Friday, three paragraphs about a side issue contain a remarkable number of errors that regrettably are all biased in one direction.

The story was about Congress’ failure to extend the budget authorization for the Federal Aviation Administration, and the layoffs that would result, especially in the DC area.  The story noted that a major reason for the delay was the existence of some contentious issues, including a battle over whether Federal Express should be subject to the same rules for union organizing as United Parcel Service, and, indeed, what those rules should be.  The story then explained that point as follows:

"After a series of crippling railroad strikes decades ago, Congress sought to curtail union organizing by stipulating in the Railway Labor Act that eligible voters who did not cast ballots in a union bid to organize should be counted as “no” votes.
"By contrast, the National Labor Relations Act says a bid for union organization should be governed by a simple majority vote of those who participate in a union election.
"With unions trying to organize FedEx, and UPS already unionized, the National Mediation Board overturned the Railway Labor Act provision that counted non-voters as “no” votes."

These paragraphs seem right out of the playbook of those who object to the NMB’s new rule on certification elections and hope to overturn it.   It is not correct that Congress “stipulate[ed]” in the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”) that voters who do not cast votes should be counting as voting no, and it is not correct that the National Mediation Board ("NMB") overturned the RLA provision that counted non-voters as no voters.”  It is not correct that the provision in the RLA on the manner of selecting representatives was added to curtail union organizing.  And the implication that the RLA generally, or its voting provisions in particular, were deliberately written in contradistinction to the National Labor Relations Act ("NLRA") and for the purpose of curtailing union organizing, is historically inaccurate in several ways.

First of all, the RLA was first enacted in the 1926, and was amended in 1934.  The NLRA (Wagner Act) was not passed until 1935, and it was not until 1936, in the RCA case, that the NLRB adopted the  interpretation of the NLRA's majority rule statutory provision that it still follows to this day.  It is true that the RLA was adopted in 1926, in part, as a reaction to widespread strikes.   But the provision regarding elections to choose bargaining representatives was added in 1934; the same amendments created the National Mediation Board.  It is not true that this provision in particular was added to deal with widespread strikes, or indeed to curtail organizing. There was no wave on railway strikes in the early thirties (as there had been in the early 1920's).   Moreover, the Democrats controlled both Congress and the presidency in 1934.

Second, like the majority rule provision of the RLA (29 U.S.C. § 152, Fourth), the text of the NLRA (29 U.S.C. § 159(a)) does not speak to the issue of majority of those eligible to vote versus majority of those voting.  The language of the provisions of the two statutes is quite similar.  In the RLA, Section 152, Fourth says, "The majority of any craft or class of employees shall have the right to determine who shall be the representative of the craft or class for the purposes of this chapter. “ In the NLRA, Section 159(a)  says, “Representatives designated or selected for the purposes of collective bargaining by the majority of the employees in a unit appropriate for such purposes, shall be the exclusive representatives of all the employees in such unit for the purposes of collective bargaining.”

Third, administrative agencies do not “overturn [statutory] provision[s]”. They interpret them.  The Post’s statement that the agency overturned a provision enacted by Congress just reflects anti-union and right-wing political rhetoric.  Hopefully, the reporter just carelessly relied on a biased source.

Fourth, there has been controversy about the meaning of the majority rule provision of the RLA.  Does it mean that a majority of all eligible voters must pick the winner (that is, a President of the United States cannot be elected unless more than half of all eligible voters picks him; absent such a vote, the incumbent remains in office?).  This approach, which makes non-voting a way of voting against the status quo, in effect can deprive those who want to vote for change of the right to a secret ballot. After all, the very act of going to vote, which happens in public, becomes a statement of position.  That was a major reason why the NLRB decided as it did in the RCA case;  the employer and its chosen union were deliberately intimidating voters who supported the United Electrical workers union.

Or,  does the majority rule provision mean that a majority of the voters wins, so long as a majority of all eligible voters participate in the election, as the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held in the Virginia Railway System case in 1936 affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1937?  Or does it mean that a majority of those participating in the election must vote favorably, as in the states that require runoff elections when no candidate receives a majority? There has been wrangling over that issue for years.  (In most US elections a fourth option is followed – only a plurality of those voting is required).

The NMB changed course in 2010, and now the question is whether to overrule that decision by writing a statute that specifically requires a majority vote of those eligible to vote. Now, this is a legitimate policy debate, but saying that Congress made this choice in 1934 is simply wrong.  There is nothing in the text of the statute that decides that issue.

Obviously, the facts might have been a little too complicated to include in a story that was largely devoted to a different topic – impending furloughs at the FAA due to Congress’ failure to extend its funding.  But having addressed the controversy over the rule in light of the history, it is fair to insist that the Post get the history right and especially that it not bias its reporting on the rule by reciting phony history.  I have asked the reporter and the Post to correct the errors in the story.  Regrettably, they have not done so.

Bob Giolito points out that there is one provision in the NLRA that specifies the need for a majority of those eligible to vote:  29 U.S.C. § 158(a)(3)(ii) creates an exception to the rule allowing union security clauses where "following an election held as provided in section 159 (e) of this title within one year preceding the effective date of such agreement, the Board shall have certified that at least a majority of the employees eligible to vote in such election have voted to rescind the authority of such labor organization to make such an agreement."

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Guides and airlines – some final thoughts on our trip to Norway

Before we went to Norway, it had no place on my list of new places to see; but I had the opportunity to travel to Europe for the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue meetings, and Nancy and I decided to find a place to visit for roughly a week afterward.   We settled on Norway because it was nearby, we had never traveled in northern Europe together, and, well, there was a supercheap Ryanair flight to Oslo from Brussels.

In retrospect, we were very pleased with the choice.  Oslo was a nice visit, we could have spent an extra day there, and we would have spent a few more days exploring the beautiful fjords.  I strongly recommend Norway as a tourist destination.

We owe a special debt of gratitude to two people for their extensive travel advice.  Colleague Craig Holman, who kvells to us all about Norway (his country of ancestral origin) a couple of times each year, gave lots of advice about about Bergen and the Norway in a Nutshell route.  And after I mentioned in passing to Thomas Bartholdsen of the Norwegian Consumer Counsel that we were headed to Oslo after the TACD meeting that brought me to Brussels, he sat down with me to outline a very ambitious day of touring.  In the family I am notorious for trying to cram too many sights into every vacation day, but Thomas’s proposed day was more ambitious than even I could manage.  Still, in the 36 hours we were in town we got to see most of his proposed highlights, and every one of them was an excellent choice. 

Unni-Marie of the Balestrand Hotell also offered very extensive advice about how to make independent reservations for our trips around the fjords, even before I had committed to a reservation there.  In the end, I took the easy way out and booked the Sognefjord in a Nutshell route,  but even after I found the neighboring Midtnes Hotell on the Fjord Pass site, and noted that it was a somewhat less expensive alternative, I decided we ought to return the favor by following through with the Balestrand Hotell booking. 

Over the past couple of decades, I have come to rely on the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides for planning my foreign travel, supplemented by copies of the relevant pages from Frommers and Fodors for day-to-day choices, but for the Norway trip I was especially impressed by the Rick Steves’ book on Norway.  It had good walking and restaurant advice and was particularly helpful as I was thinking through how I should plan our two days traveling in the fjords.  Had we been able to spend even more time in the fjords we could have made even more use of it. When I misplaced the book in Bergen the night before we left for Balestrand, we knew right away how much we missed it.

When I couldn't get the especially recommended budget lodgings recommended in the Lonely Planet, I found the Fjord Pass web site and used the Fjord Pass to locate some better priced lodgings, as well as to book our fjord tour transportation choices.  It saved us some money and each of the lodgings we found on their site was fine.

Finally, our flights.  Ryanair was the same as I remember from our flights to and from Morocco – it books flights from less-convenient airports that are harder and more expensive to reach; the seats are remarkable uncomfortable; and they nickle-and-dime you even more than the worst US airline.  The only reason to book Ryanair is the price, and it is always important to figure how much extra time and money the further airports and nickle-and-diming will cost.  We also had one short leg on Norwegian Airlines, a domestic budget choice by comparison with SAS.  It was fine, with none of the disadvantages of Ryanair.

I was sad to see British Airways moving in the same direction as Ryanair, requiring an extra payment for any advance seat selection, not just the selection of preferred seats. The food on British Airways compared unfavorably with recent trans-Atlantic flights on KLM and Air France.  The in-flight entertainment selection, however, was marvelous – a selection of two dozen recently released movies plus hundreds of CD’s that could either be heard entire or formed into playlists like an iPod.   This was not much use on the flight to Europe where my goal was to sleep from the moment I hit my seat after 10 PM until just before our arrival at Heathrow (I succeeded).  But during the day flight home I was able to catch three movies that Nancy had been unwilling to see, plus listen to some good music than gave my iPod a rest.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

One last fjord expedition -- and a steep railway ride

It was raining hard when we woke up, and the fog on the fjord was so dense we couldn’t see anything across the way.  But the boat for our final fjord expedition was not due late morning, so we read for a while, and I chatted with the proprietor of the hotel and her daughter. Because the hotel is run as a summer business, the entire family lives more than half the year in Marin County, where her husband’s family still lives, and the girls have gone to school in the US as well.  The owner’s father was part of the Kvikne family that founded the big hotel in town, although because he split his shares among his children, she has but a small stake in the Kvikne’s Hotell ownership.
Our expressboat approaches the Balestrand dock

As we rode the exspressboat toward Flam, it was clear that our ride was going to be even more dramatic than the ride to Balestram, and even though the mountains and cliffs beside the fjord were sometimes masked by clouds.

At one point a ferry approached us in the middle of the fjord and we stopped to allow some of our passengers to get onto the ferry so that they could ride to Gudvangen in the very narrow Naeroyfjord, where they would pass periloously close to towering cliffs, part of the “Norway in a Nutshell” route.  I was regretting that we were missing that. 
Note the house in the middle of the slope, peeking from behind the cloud

After that the cliffs of the fjord seemed to get still closer as we turned into the Aurlandsfjord.

Finally we reached Flam, where our boat ride ended.  Having enjoyed its amber Rallar brew in Balestrand, we were happy to have our picnic lunch in the Aegir Brewery.  We started with a witbier and then tried the sampler; finally we bought a bottle of the porter planning to have it with our dinner in Bergen.  Aegir is sold only in Norway and Finland for now, but we were told that they expect to be in the US soon— something to which we will look forward.

We boarded the Flam Railroad for the steep climb from the Aurlandfjord to Myrdal where we would meet the railroad to Bergen.

The valley walls were steep and full of waterfalls. We even stopped at one waterfall where we were able to go get out on a platform to watch the thunderous falls. 

Finally, we reached the top of the line and waited at the Myrdal station for our train to Bergen.  The scenery on this leg of the trip was familiar, because it was the last part of the ride we had taken from Oslo to Bergen.  But it was so rainy and the windows were so fogged that the visibility was generally much lower.

We arrived in Bergen, headed back to Steens Hotel, and went out to grab dinner, passing Ole Bull Plass on the way.  Where else?  We went back to Husebø’s stall in the seafood market for one last meal – I had grilled catfish and Nancy had grilled salmon, and the young Italian woman who did the cooking threw in a few slices of laks with herbs as a gift because we had been regular customers.  We enjoyed our dinner with the superb Aegir Sumbel, the porter we had brought from Fläm.  A fitting last meal for a great vacation!

Monday, June 27, 2011

A rainy day in Balestrand (and Vik)

We set our alarm the night before to make sure we were up in time to catch the morning express boat to Vik. We woke up to see the rain falling steadily; it was to rain off and on all day.

Hill across the Esefjorden

The views across the fjords and into the mountains were still dramatic, but different — instead of being able to see mountains into the distance, sometimes the clouds were so thick that we couldn’t see across the fjord or even nearby mountains.  Other times, it was clear at close range but the clouds hung across the mountains or in patches on the mountain sides so defined as to look like wisps or bits of cotton clinging to the slopes.

We had breakfast and caught the 7:50 expressboat to Vik. The land here was much flatter and more arable, which was reflected in the fact that there were several churches visible in the landscape, including the very old stave church that was our main destination for the morning, the Hopperstad Stavkirke (photo), built in AD 1130.  We walked up the main road out of town past interesting houses (photo) to the  Stavkirke (photo).  A stave church is so named because, instead of the roof being supported by both the walls and the interior columns, in a stave church the roof is wholly supported by the church’s massive interior “staves.” (photo)  We noted the intricately carved door jambs and lintel at the main entry door (photo) and the carved pulpit (photo) with sweet faces (photo).  Otherwise the church was relatively plain.   The church can be seen from tee outside for free, but there is a nominal charge to go in; the guide whose services come with the entry fee was excellent.  The cemetery in the churchyard was jammed with headstones, almost all with one of five surnames such as Tryti (photo) and Hopperstad.  We were told that this did not reflect that just five families were part of the church community, because originally surnames reflected the area of residence rather than the identity of ancestors

Then we walked another kilometer to find the Hove Steinkirke, a church built entirely of stone in about AD 1180. All of the tombstones in this much smaller cemetery bore the surname Hove, as did the mailboxes for the families in the area.  We could not get into the church itself so had to be content looking from the outside (photos).  Like the Stavkirke, the Steinkirke is now just a heritage site, and is not in regular religious use.

We took the expressboat back to Balestrand and had a picnic lunch in our hotel room because it was raining so much.  After lounging around for much of the afternoon, we tried to get to the Arboretum at Dragsvik; but although it is only a few hundred yards across the mouth of the Esefjorden,  a ferry runs across the fjord only once each day and the road around the fjord goes 10 kilometers.  We walked down the main road around the Esefjorden in the off and on rain until we got to the spot where the water from the waterfalls forms a raging river that plunges into the fjord.  Then, we turned around and came back for supper.

Finally, having had several cheap lunches, we decided to splurge for dinner.  We went to Kvikne’s Hotell, the fancy hotel in town (see photo of the “historic”wing), and feasted on their famous buffet, a range of smoked, marinated and cooked seafood and fish, cheeses, meats, salads, breads and of course desserts.

 Having returned to our room in the Balestrand Hotell, the view out the window was particularly striking.