WHO: Wendy Hiller-Clark, 50, and Laura Denoncour, 46, of Manchester-by-the-Sea; and Jan O'Neill, 51, of Kennebunkport, Maine
WHERE: Sweden and Norway
WHEN: 10 days in May
WHY: ''It was my fifth time, Jan's second, and Laura's first," said Hiller-Clark, whose brother lives in Norway. ''That's why we chose the trip we did. I got to see my family, Jan wanted to do the side trip to Stockholm, and Laura wanted to see a fiord."
FIRST STOP, STOCKHOLM: ''Laura planned everything. We flew into Stockholm and stayed in Old Town at the Scandia Hotel, right across from the train station," Hiller-Clark said. ''Everything is accessible by foot. We took a harbor tour. Stockholm is very cosmopolitan. You won't see your typical blue-eyed blond Scandinavian type. There was even a little bit of litter and a lot of graffiti."
BAGS OF GOODIES: From Stockholm, they took the five-hour train ride to Oslo, Norway's capital. Hiller-Clark's brother, whose wife is Norwegian, played host to the trio. He, his wife, and two teenage daughters live in Kolsas, about 20 minutes outside Oslo. ''The first thing we did was unload our gifts," Hiller-Clark said. ''We brought over stuff not available there or that's too bloody expensive. Hard liquor and wine are very expensive. There, peanut butter is $14 for a jar. We went to BJs and bought two honkin' jars for $5. We took Ziplock baggies, dryer sheets, Snickers, and peanut M&Ms. We were lugging all that stuff around."
A PROUD PLACE: ''Everything is unbelievably pristine, but it doesn't give you that 'Stepford' feeling. Everybody's yard looks great. They take great pride in everything, especially because everything is so expensive," she said. ''My sister-in-law has linens that are four or five generations old. They soak them in cold water and sprinkle them with salt. They sun-dry everything and then fold them up in acid-free tissue to store them."
ALL DRESSED UP: ''One of the reasons we chose that time of year is that May 17 is their Constitution Day, equivalent to our Fourth of July. We went anticipating a Fourth of July similar to our own, but over there, it's more of what I call a very proud event. My brother got dressed up in a suit, my sister-in-law wore bunads, the traditional dress, with hand em-broidery," Hiller-Clark said. ''We stood out like sore thumbs. Everybody goes to their school and they raise the flag and offer prayers. In Oslo, there was a big parade with hundreds of school groups, bands, and parents. They carried banners called faner, elaborately embroidered and appliquéd. . . . It was eye candy for us."
PARTY HEARTY: ''That night, we learned about the russ [rhymes with moose], which was just ending. It's for graduating high school seniors," Hiller-Clark said. ''They buy tour buses and gut them and paint them red or blue, depending on their team. They rent these incredible sound systems. They have drivers and drive around 24 hours a day drinking and playing music. They're smoking and screaming and drop in on teachers at 4 in the morning and do stupid stunts. And the kids still go to school. Everybody just looks the other way."
NUTTY DEAL: ''They have a grand little package deal called 'Norway in a Nutshell,' " she said of the organized three-day trip that combines a boat journey on the Sognefjord, the country's largest fiord, a train journey on the mountainous Flam Railway, and a stay in Bergen, the western capital. ''It's a beautiful, breathtaking city that's very small, very walkable. It has adorable architecture, gingerbread houses. Boats come in and they sell fish every day. The cafes had outdoor heaters and a blanket on every chair. They take advantage of the nice weather and sun. It's a very small window for them."