Vienna At Last

We finally make it to Vienna at around 2 pm. Because most things were closed by around 5 or 6, we really didn’t have too much time to explore the city on our first day. But, we managed to make it to two major sights that day. Our first stop was Karlskirche, or St. Charles Church. Karlskirche is one of Vienna’s best baroque churches and also happened to be close to our hotel. So, we duly walked the three or so blocks to the church and were almost immediately accosted by a man trying to sell us concert tickets.Vienna is known as the City of Music so this wasn’t much of a surprise. Alix had also warned me that there would be plenty of people trying to sell us tickets.

My Dad and I had contemplated buying concert tickets before our trip, but in the end we decided to just wait and organize something once we were in the city. So, while we were surprised to see someone selling tickets outside of Karlskirche we decided to listen to his sales pitch. He ended up doing quite well and managed to sell us two discounted tickets to a Christmas concert at Schloss Schönbrunn.

After that we entered Karlskirche. Karlskirche was built from 1716 – 1739 in order to give thanks for the city making it through the 1713 plague. Both the exterior and the interior are remarkable, but the best part about the church is being able to take an elevator up to the top of the church where you can view the basilica’s frescos up close.

IMG_6547  IMG_6549  IMG_6554 IMG_6559  IMG_6592  IMG_6588As someone who is somewhat scared of heights, I found the wooden viewing platform above the church a bit too rickety for my taste, but it was still fabulous to have the opportunity to go up and see everything up close. My favorite part was one particularly well known fresco that features an angel burning Martin Luther’s German Bible. It was funny seeing the Catholic Church’s small ways of thumbing their noses at the Protestants.

IMG_6577  IMG_6578  IMG_6585After that we made our way to the Secession Museum. The Secession Museum was built and designed by the Vienna Secession art movement, which included star artists such as Klimt, Josef Hoffman, Kolo Moser, and Joseph M Olbrich. Unfortunately, it seems like the museum is only really well known for displaying Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, a work inspired by Beethoven’s ninth symphony. Although the museum staff couldn’t have hurried us to the exhibit any faster, once we were there we weren’t allowed to take any pictures (the one below is a replica of a section of the mural), but then again that’s where Google comes in handy. The mural spans three sides of the room and according to the brochure depicts mankind’s search for happiness. The mural can be summarized by saying that it starts with mankind enlisting a knight in shining armor for help. This knight then fights off “Hostile Forces” such as Sickness, Madness, and Death, but eventually succeeds and finds fulfillment in poetry and the arts. The painting concludes with a kissing couple which, again according to the brochure, is based on the lyrics to “Ode to Joy” which contain the line “This kiss to the whole world.” I personally really enjoyed the Beethoven Frieze, although it isn’t placed at eye level which makes it slightly more difficult to view.

Afterwards, we took pity on the rest of the museum (which seems a bit neglected considering how quickly the museum staff ushered us into the room containing the Beethoven Frieze). We saw works from about three or four current artists, but the one that I enjoyed the most was a piece by Renata Lucas which involved a record player. The record player was attached to a revolving door so in order to get the record to play you had to keep spinning the door.

IMG_6602  IMG_6601  IMG_6605Once we had finished at the Secession Museum we felt like it was time for dinner. I happen to have a friend living in Vienna and she highly recommended trying out a restaurant called Plachutta. So it was with food on our minds that my Dad and I duly set off in search of this restaurant. Lucky for us we were able to get a table and I ordered their most famous dish, tafelspitz. Little did I know what I was getting into. My dish included a type of vegetable soup, boiled beef, beef marrow (which was supposed to be spread on bread), creamed pumpkin, potatoes, horseradish applesauce, and a chive sauce. It was a meal big enough for two and it was superb. I have to say that Plachutta absolutely ruined any other tafelspitz that I had for the rest of the trip. It really was just that good.

IMG_2034So, it was with very full stomachs that my Dad and I concluded our first day in Vienna. We did pay a quick stop to Naschmarkt food market just to look around, but after that we called it a night.

Chugga Chugga Choo Choo

Again, I’m really not very creative with titles, but, in case you can’t tell, I was on a train! After a drawn out series of family debates, my Dad and I decided to spend part of our Christmas holidays in Vienna and Salzburg. To get there we decided to go by train. Now, you’re probably wondering how long that takes. The answer: four trains, four cities, and about 26 hours. We went from London St. Pancras to Vienna via Brussels, Cologne, and Prague. Yes, it took awhile. Yes, this travel plan was part of our family debates. But hey, we made it.

Our first stop was in Brussels. Unfortunately, it was only for about an hour so we didn’t bother to leave the station. But, this did mean that we had a chance to wander around and explore the station. The one thing that really intrigued me was the special charging stations that they had. Instead having standard outlets, they had outlets that were connected to bikes. In other words, if you wanted to power your electronics you had to be prepared to hop on a bike and power them yourself. I had used my laptop for a bit on Eurostar (I’m sad to report that they did not have wifi) and decided to try testing out this bike system in order to charge my laptop for a bit. The system definitely worked, although I don’t believe it charged my laptop as quickly as a regular outlet would. But, it was a fun experiment. I was also thoroughly impressed by the middle aged woman next to me who managed to pedal her bike, charge her phone, and talk on the phone all at the same time. Granted, she wasn’t able to sustain this for too long.

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From Brussels we boarded an ICE train to Cologne. Unlike the last time I boarded an ICE train, this time I was supposed to be on it. Like the last time, it was an incredibly pleasant experience. The seats were plush, the atmosphere was nice, there was wifi, and we were even offered snacks and drinks. Before we knew it we were in Cologne.

Now I had heard two very different things about the city. One friend living in Germany told me that Cologne was supposed to be nice, while my German cousin told me “I can’t stand Cologne, although the Rhine bridge and the cathedral are nice.” So my Dad and I arrived in Cologne without a clear idea of what to expect. We had about three hours to kill and it just so happens that the Cologne Cathedral, one of the two things that my cousin likes, is right next to the train station. Unfortunately we arrived around 7:15 pm and couldn’t go inside, but we contented ourselves with walking around the cathedral and taking a few pictures.

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But, not all was lost. We were very lucky because Cologne’s Christmas market is right next to the cathedral. So, once we had finished taking pictures of the cathedral we spent our free time wandering around the market. In retrospect I think it’s probably the best Christmas market that we went to.

IMG_6430  IMG_6434  IMG_6436 IMG_6440  IMG_6445  IMG_6451 They sold just about everything. They had Russian dolls (as you can see in the picture), Christmas baubles, food, Christmas drinks, and more. The market was pretty large so we managed to spend a good two hours or so there just snacking and looking around. The Christmas market closed at 9pm so after that my Dad and I made our way back to the train station to wait for our night train to Prague.

IMG_6483  IMG_6476  IMG_6479 The night train wasn’t anything special and we managed to get to Prague without a hitch early the next day. We had about an hour before our final train to Vienna and so we went for a quick walk around Wenceslas Square (above). It was here that in a happy twist of fate I happened to catch up with my Brazilian roommate, Nicole, and her boyfriend. I knew that she was spending Christmas break in Prague but didn’t bother to tell her that I would be there since I was only there for an hour. I figured the chances of us meeting were pretty remote. Guess I was wrong!

After we boarded our train to Vienna it was all a matter of just sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying the final stage of our journey. We spent the majority of our trip going through the Czech Republic (for a better idea of our trip I pinned all of the major stops we made on the Map page) and I managed to snap a few pictures before we crossed into Austria.

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Bergen Wrap Up

I don’t think I’ll be going back to Bergen before the end of my Fulbright so I thought I’d go ahead and summarize what I’ve learned about Bergen thus far:

  1. An umbrella is crucial. Also, be prepared to encounter multiple types of weather.
  2. Most things in Bergen and in the wider Bergen area shut down after August/September or have reduced hours. So, if you’re planning a trip to either Bergen or the surrounding area make sure that everything you want to see is actually open.
  3. If you plan on doing any driving check the road conditions. If you cross over Bergen’s mountains you’ll encounter a significant temperature drop and, depending on the time of year, snow and icy conditions.
  4. As for things to do in Bergen, I highly enjoyed Pepperkakebyen (which runs from the end of November to the end of December), Bryggen is nice to walk around, the funicular provides a great view of the city on a clear day, and I’ve heard that the Kode is an amazing art museum.

Ethiopian Food and ETA Musings

One of my favorite parts of our Bergen trip was catching up with some of the other Fulbrighters in town. We managed to meet up with both Kyle and Abby at an excellent Ethiopian restaurant called Selam. If you happen to be searching for spicy food in Norway this is definitely a good option.

Abby is my ETA counterpart in Bergen so I was really excited to see her and compare ETA notes. The first thing I asked her was whether her students were also really quiet. Lud and I had talked about this when I was in Oslo and we’ve both found it difficult to get students to participate. Abby confirmed that she’s experienced the same thing and said that it was really different for her in comparison to her last school. Abby was based at a KIPP school when she was working with Teach for America (TFA), and she said that in KIPP schools students either raise their hands or are punished. In short, she went from a school system where there was no shortage of hands in the air to one where generally only the know-it-alls and Hermione Grangers of the world raise their hands.

We also had to laugh when we realized how similar our schools’ curriculums were. We must both be in an International English class because our students cover the exact same materials, even down to the same movies.

Abby also had a one observation that I found particularly striking. Through her grading experiences at the university and upper secondary school, Abby doesn’t necessarily think that upper secondary schools adequately prepare their students to pass university classes. Even though Abby is working at the second best school in the city, Abby was telling me that the grading system is very flexible and thus it doesn’t necessarily prepare students for the university’s harsher standards. I’ve done grading for NTNU but have yet to do much for Byåsen. Additionally, the majority of my students are international students so it’s hard for me to accurately say if things are similar in Trondheim.

Like Abby pointed out, I have also noticed that grades seem to be pretty flexible, and there is not always a clear rubric that dictates what sort of grades students should receive. At a university level, all of the assignments that I’ve had to grade have only given me three real grading options (pass, fail, fail pending improvement). This can make it a bit more difficult to grade since the bar for a pass is much lower in a pass/fail system. In my opinion this isn’t a good thing because it doesn’t give students a good idea of how well they did or how much they still have left to improve.

Overall, Abby and I have found the grading and feedback system in Norway to be very different from the one in the United States. In the United States, high school students are constantly given assignments and feedback. In contrast to this, I think that my International English students have only had two major assignments this past semester. Also, from what I can tell, homework is never work that is turned in and graded.

American university students also tend to be given more feedback than ones in Norway. In Norway, it’s not uncommon to have a grade be almost completely based on the one final exam.

But, both of us have really enjoyed our time teaching. It’s been interesting working in the Norwegian school system and I can’t wait to see what the spring will bring.

Fantoft, Grieg, and More

The next day we decided to stick a bit closer to Bergen. We took the car on a quick drive out to the local stave church, Fantoft. The church was closed but the three of us still enjoyed getting to walk around the exterior. As you can see, the church and its craftsmanship are pretty incredible considering that it was originally built and designed in 1150.

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Afterwards, we headed to Edvard Grieg’s house. Kyle had warned me that the museum would be closed, but he also said that it would still be worth walking around the property. So we stopped by, and to our great surprise the administrators of the museum even offered to open up the house for us. We didn’t really want to disturb them so we opted not to take them up on their offer, but we did have a good time slipping and sliding around Grieg’s fairly icy property.

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After we had paid homage to Grieg we set off in the car. Chris wanted to check out more of the surrounding Bergen area so we drove out to one of the peninsulas around Bergen past Straume and North towards Ågotnes. Unlike our drive yesterday, there was no snow in sight. I suppose it’s a perk of being right on the water. If you want a better idea of where everything is, it is all pinned on the Map page.

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Because it was rapidly becoming dark, we decided to return the car around 2pm and walk around Bergen (sunset was around 3:30). First we stopped by Bergenhus Fortress which was closed (again most things seem to either have reduced hours or are closed after August/September). After that we walked around Bryggen and spent some time in the shops there. Bryggen was definitely not as bustling as it was when I visited around August, but it was also nice not to be surrounded by tourists. Alix has also been trying to convince me for weeks that I need to wear a hat outside. Well Alix finally won the hat battle in Bryggen. The three of us wandered into a fur shop and with some encouragement from Alix I walked out with a wool and rabbit hat. It wasn’t exactly the tourist item I thought I’d leave Bergen with, but I admit that it has kept me warm.

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Driving in a Winter Wonderland

The next morning started with us experiencing some of Bergen’s infamous rain. Because we had been repeatedly warned about Bergen’s weather, the three of us had packed umbrellas that managed to protect us from the worst of it.

Before the trip started, the three of us had agreed to rent a car for two days. Thankfully Chris knows how to drive in snow. Alix and I are both from California, so the extent of our knowledge when it comes to driving in winter conditions is minimal. In fact, it pretty much consists of what we researched on a maine.gov website when we were trying to figure out how to drive on black ice in the Lofotens.

So, once we sorted things out with the rental car company we left Bergen behind. Alix and I both wanted to see stave churches so I thought we should drive up to the Borgund Stave Church and visit some of the stave churches in Vik if we had time. However, we soon ran into our first logistical difficulty: snow. It hadn’t occurred to any of us just how much snow would be beyond Bergen. Bergen has a pretty mild climate, but as soon as you cross the mountains you enter a completely different world. Snow was absolutely everywhere. For safety reasons, we didn’t drive particularly fast, and to Chris’s credit he did a great job driving. To give you an idea of how treacherous the roads were, we saw one car that had slid off the road and a big rig that overturned. In fact, there was so much snow that the big rig couldn’t even lay on the ground properly. It had slid partially off the road and was at about a 30 degree angle propped up by a snow drift.

IMG_6228  IMG_6246  IMG_6241IMG_6250  IMG_6278  IMG_6286IMG_6292  IMG_6295  IMG_6312Because the Borgund church was just over a three hour drive from Bergen I initially intended for us to make a pitstop at the Stalheim Hotel. The Stalheim has a fantastic view, as you can see from the Google Images picture below.

Naerodalen-Hardanger

Unfortunately, the snow was making it look like the hotel might be the only destination that we would be able to make it to before dark. When we were on about hour three, Alix asked if I could look up the opening hours for the churches and for the hotel. This was where I encountered my second logistical error. All of these things closed around August/September. Turns out most attractions in the wider Bergen area close after the summer holiday season. Whoops.

Thankfully Alix and Chris weren’t too upset about this. Even though we never made it to the churches or the hotel (the driveway was completely blocked with snow) we all enjoyed the beautiful scenery that we saw along the way.

Snowy Bergen and Pepperkakebyen

First a quick PSA. In case you’re wondering why I’ve been traveling more this past month, it’s because things have drastically slowed down at my schools. Classes ended at NTNU on November 21, and December at Byåsen has mostly centered around exams and final projects. The Christmas holiday also helps in terms of giving me more free time. Additionally, I’m prone to separate more jam packed travel days into multiple posts to make things easier to read.

I was excited to travel back to Bergen for a short trip this week. Having talked with Kyle in Oslo, I managed to confirm that not only is Bergen a very rainy city–apparently it’s the rainiest city in Europe! In a fit of irony, the Fulbright Commission happened to give grants to a lot of Portlanders this year, and to the best of my knowledge they all ended up in Bergen with the exception of one person. I suppose that they all feel right at home. So, it was with Kyle’s warnings ringing in my ears that the first thing I packed in my carry-on was an umbrella. To my great surprise however, it wasn’t raining when I arrived in Bergen with Alix and her husband, Chris, it was snowing!

After we got settled into our Airbnb, Alix, Chris, and I headed out into the city. The thing that I desperately wanted to see on this trip was Pepperkakebyen, a gingerbread replica of Bergen. Residents of Bergen are allowed to bring in gingerbread houses and they are arranged to mimic the city of Bergen. Of course the gingerbread town doesn’t replicate Bergen exactly. There are plenty of world landmarks that make an appearance, such as the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and St. Basil’s Cathedral, yet happen to be nowhere near Bergen.

Now, my family has been making gingerbread houses for years since it’s our traditional post-Thanksgiving activity. It’s taken a few years, but now our houses no longer look like they’ve been hit by tornadoes. I would even venture to say that now that I have an attention span longer than that of my five year old self, some of our houses even look pretty good. So for me Pepperkakebyen was a must see it Bergen.

I wasn’t disappointed. Getting there was initially a bit confusing. Google Maps had no problem leading us to the building, but the three of us hesitated upon arrival. It looked like the building contained an odd assortment of businesses such as a gym. Alix then skeptically pointed out that there was a sign for a public pool. This renewed my hopes because Pepperkakebyen is actually held at the local pool (the pool is obviously covered and drained). So, after about a minute of searching we found the appropriate entrance.

IMG_6154  IMG_6169  IMG_6184IMG_6182  IMG_6189  IMG_6191IMG_6190  IMG_6208  IMG_6196I was enchanted. My love of gingerbread houses felt very justified as soon as I walked in. There was a real range in how well constructed the gingerbread houses were. Some of them were on the simpler side, while others had windows that looked like they were made out of sugar. We probably spent a solid hour walking around and admiring Pepperkakebyen. To top things off, Pepperkakebyen also had slides! Alix patiently waited for Chris and I to run around and test out the slides. There was both a short slide and a long slide. The long slide was a solid 30-foot drop into the empty pool. I’m personally not the greatest fan of heights, but Chris decided to try out the long slide and seemed to enjoy it.

Once we finished playing around, the three of us headed off to grab some dinner and a good night’s sleep.