British Parliament

I was back at Byåsen this week and helping with my favorite British social studies class. I talked to my co-teacher Maria earlier this week and she enthusiastically told me that our students were learning more about British Parliament and how the political system works. She asked me if I’d be willing to pull small groups of students out during class and talk to them about Britain’s Parliament. This sounded like a good idea to me…until I got to some of the discussion questions she had proposed. While some of the questions were on the easier side (What is a coalition government? What are the pros and cons of Norway’s system of proportional representation? What do students think about a two party system?) some of the others stumped me (Compare and contrast the House of Commons and the House of Lords. How are laws passed?). I began to feel a bit embarrassed for a number of reasons:

  1. I’m British on my dad’s side so I should in fact know how the British government works
  2. I did my undergrad on British history

In my defense, I never actually learned very much about the structure of the British political system when doing my undergraduate degree. I’m much more competent when it comes to talking about the rise and fall of political parties or certain noteworthy prime ministers than I am at actually talking about how these people and political parties passed laws.

Anyways, it was clear that I need to bulk up on my knowledge of British politics and clear away some of my ignorance. I duly set to work and played “God Save the Queen” in the background to make me feel slightly better about myself (this also means that I now know some of the lyrics beyond “God save the Queen”). So, here are the more important bits of what I learned:

What is the House of Commons?

The House of Commons is the lower house of Parliament and consists of 650 elected members, or Members of Parliament (MPs). Each constituency in the UK is allowed to have one MP and each MP wins their election by having the most votes, not by having the majority of the vote. So an MP could win with say 25% of the vote as long as the MP still had more votes than any other candidate. This voting system is known as first past the post.

What is the House of Lords?

The House of Lords currently has 760 members and is composed of hereditary members, archbishops and bishops, and life peers. The House of Lords Act 1999 ended the right of most hereditary members to sit in the House of Lords and there are currently only 92 hereditary members. Archbishops and bishops are senior members of the Church of England, and then there are life peers. Life peers represent the majority of the House of Lords at around 700 members. Life peers are, as the title implies, people who are elected to the House of Lords for life. They are nominated to the House of Lords and are oftentimes experts in their fields. The reason why so many of the current members are experts is so that its members can contribute relevant information on the topics being debated and discussed. The modern day concept of the House of Lords is that it should act as an independent advisory body of government. The composition of the House of Lords is also supposed to keep it less political. There are a significant number of peers who do not support a political party.

How are laws made?

If you prefer the written version of the video essentially what happens is this:

  1. A proposal for a law, or a green paper, is published.
  2. The green paper is open for discussion and consultation from interested parties and groups.
  3. A white paper is published which puts together the feedback that the green paper has received and gives a better outline of a proposed law or policy.
  4. Cabinet ministers vote on whether or not the proposal should continue.
  5. The bill is presented to one of the Houses of Parliament.
  6. If the bill is looked upon favorably, a committee of knowledgeable members is formed to read through the bill line by line and edit the bill. It then goes through several stages of debate and editing.
  7. Once the bill is approved it goes to the other House of Parliament where the same process is repeated (introduced, discussed and debated, looked at in detail, potentially amended, voted upon).
  8. The bill goes back and forth between the two Houses until both Houses agree upon the final language of the bill.
  9. If the Houses are unable to come to an agreement, the House of Commons can still pass the bill without the House of Lords. Usually both Houses come to an agreement.
  10. The monarch gives royal assent and the bill officially becomes a law.

So, having beefed up my knowledge with the help of Parliament’s website, YouTube, and Google I strode into class on Thursday confident that I would be able to actually have an intelligent discussion about Britain’s political system.

I spent about half of my time asking my students if they could explain how Britain’s Parliament worked, and then had a more informal discussion after that. Here are the questions I asked my groups and their most common responses:

What are your thoughts on the House of Lords?

Most of my students were not huge fans of the House of Lords. They preferred the House of Commons because its members were democratically elected. Even for the students that did like the modern idea of the House of Lords, those students still disliked the hereditary peers and peers from the Church of England.

What political party would you be a member of/vote for?

Most of my students said that they would be Liberal Democrats, thinking that it offered the best of the Conservatives and the Labour Party. I did have one brave student who said that he would probably be a member of the Pirate Party, so kudos to him. Yes, the Pirate Party is a real thing.

Most of my students dislike the fact that there are only three major political parties in the UK. In Norway, the number of sizable political parties is closer to eight, thus many different parties have seats in Parliament.

Would you prefer to vote for a political party or for an individual?

I realize that this may seem like a silly question, but in Norway people vote for a political party as opposed to a particular politician. Many of my students prefer this system, thinking that the party has better knowledge as to who would make the best MPs. They also thought that systems in which you vote for a particular individual are more likely to allow for that individual to abuse their power or break their campaign promises.

Why do you think more people vote in Norway as opposed to places like the UK and the US?

I got a variety of answers to this question but there were four answers that I got repeatedly

  1. Norway is a small country; therefore, people feel as though their vote matters much more.
  2. Norway is a small country; therefore, people are more likely to actually know or be acquainted with their MP and are thus more invested in politics and voting.
  3. Norway’s system of proportional representation encourages voting. Essentially, the number of votes each party gets determines the number of seats each party has in Parliament, thus people feel as though their vote actually matters.
  4. There are more political parties to choose from; therefore, it is easier to find a political party that you agree or identify with

I personally had a lot of fun on Thursday and really enjoyed the lesson and getting to learn a bit more about both British and Norwegian politics. Looking forward to the next class!

TEDx Trondheim

One of the great things about the Fulbright is its flexibility. The Fulbright limits the number of hours I can work to 26 hours/week, the idea being that I will have enough free time in my schedule to explore Norway and to better understand and interact with Norwegians and Norwegian culture. One of the things that I have taken up in my free time is volunteering with TEDx. I have always been a huge fan of TED talks and was excited to get involved with the local organization here in Trondheim. I became a volunteer about a month ago and have been working as a member of the creative team, which means that my primary job is to work with speakers on their talks and general stage presence.

The speaker that I primarily worked with leading up to our main event was Espen Holmgren. Espen runs drug and behavioral rehabilitation programs in the wilderness, and the focus on his talk was on how the wilderness can help you break down barriers, start to embrace yourself, and start to fix your own problems. It was really wonderful working with Espen, someone who is so passionate about what he does, and to help him craft a compelling story that he could tell to the audience.

While I primarily worked with Espen, I gave feedback to some of the other speakers and found it fascinating to hear from so many different people and experts. One of the people that I really enjoyed listening to was Åslaug Kihl, a social worker who works in Norwegian prisons. It was fascinating to learn about how in Norway the focus of prison is less on punishing prisoners and more on rehabilitating them to make them productive members of society. Part of what Åslaug does to help fascilitate this process, is to work with other people involved in the justice and prison system (primarily police officers and drug addiction specialists) to help gain the trust of prisoners and encourage them to be lawful citizens after they leave. I think the most fascinating story she told was of a prisoner who had been released and was contemplating taking drugs again. This person called the police officer he had been working with inside prison and asked him to come over and support him so that he wouldn’t in fact take any drugs. The police officer responded to this call and helped the man stay on the right path and out of prison. This story blew me away not only by the amount of trust that was displayed in this relationship, but also because it was hard for me to envision someone in America calling up the police and asking them to support them and stop them from committing a crime.

While working with the speakers was a lot of fun, it was even better to finally see them up on stage. We had our big event for 2014 last night and had a total of ten speakers. The event went really well and it was good to see everyone’s hard work pay off. If you’re interested in seeing some of the speeches from last night, the video should be added to this page in the next week or so.

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Bymarka 2.0

Because Alix and I traveled so much during the week, we decided to take this past weekend a bit slower. In traditional Norwegian fashion, we decided to go on a Sunday hike. So this past Sunday, we along with several other families piled onto the tram to go to Bymarka.

The last time I went to Bymarka was in September, but I was quite happy to go again because Bymarka is a fairly large city forest. It is 80 square kilometers (just over 30 square miles) and contains 200 kilometers (124 miles) of hiking trails, which means that there was still much we could explore. Unfortunately, because it was mid-October and we’ve experienced rain the last few weeks, most of the trails were fairly muddy. On the plus side, Alix has gone to Bymarka more often than I have and she was able to direct us around the many bogs that have formed in the park.

I have been told by people who love me that some of them really just like the pictures I post, so here are a few for you to look at. Unfortunately, our trip to the Lofotens has spoiled us a bit, and Alix and I were definitely less appreciative of the landscape since it couldn’t really compared to what we had just seen up North.

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Lofoten Islands Wrap Up

I’ve had a few friends tell me that they were planning on traveling to the Lofoten Islands so I figured I should wrap up and summarize the advice that I have for a trip:

  1. Depending on where you are coming from, you should budget for at least a day to get to the Islands and a day to get back.
  2. Your schedule will probably be dictated by ferry times (many of which you can look up here). The ferry runs fairly infrequently and is the quickest way to get to and from the Islands.
  3. Rent a car. Having a car makes it extremely easy to see the many beautiful sights that Lofoten has to offer. Many of the attractions on the Islands are also fairly spaced out, so it’s handy to have a car so that you can see everything on your bucket list. Alix and I did notice bus stops on our road trip, but I can’t testify as to how frequently the buses run.
  4. If you are planning on seeing some of the sights, double check their opening hours. Many places have limited hours in the off season or only open upon request.
  5. Rent a rorbu. Not only are rorbu fairly cheap and quaint, they also tend to offer you great views. Most of them come with kitchens so that’s one easy way for you to cut back on costs.
  6. This one is fairly obvious, but bring a camera. You’ll kick yourself if you aren’t able to document your trip.

From what I’ve heard and read, I would say that the best time to actually visit the Islands are during the on season (summertime) up through October. Many of the locals said that we had picked a great time to visit since we avoided other tourists, still had nice sunny weather, and were there for the beginning of the Northern Lights season. I would also say dress appropriately and keep an eye on the weather forecast. Alix and I apparently missed a spectacular display of the Northern Lights when we were traveling, so it’s worth keeping your eye on sights like Aurora Forecast and the Geophysical Institute. As for daylight weather, I’d recommend looking at yr.no.

That’s pretty much it for advice! Safe travels!

Lofoten Islands: Svolvær, Bodø

Thursday was essentially the last day of our trip. Alix and I had opted not to retrace our steps back to Moskenes and instead decided that we should drive overland back to Bodø. Little did we realize how long that would take. Eventually, with the help of our GPS system we decided that the best way to head back to Bodø was to drive to Lodingen, catch the ferry to Bognes, and drive the rest of the way to Bodø. In short, an eight hour journey.

Although we had a long drive planned for the day, we decided to spend part of the morning looking around Svolvær. Compared to many of the other towns we had stopped by, Svolvær was huge. Not only did it have a grocery store, it also had several well known companies established there. Because the weather was wet and dreary we only spent a small amount of time walking around, but we did enjoy stopping by the store of a local photographer and ended up leaving with our arms fuller and our wallets emptier.

IMG_1091  IMG_1095  IMG_1098Once we had safely bundled up our purchases we hit the road. While the drive itself was long it never failed to offer us some beautiful views. Alix and I were also incredibly lucky–we spotted a sea eagle! Lucky for us it flew right over the bridge we were crossing so we could hardly fail to miss it. We were much less successful in our attempts to spot a moose, but were pretty content with having seen the sea eagle.

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IMG_5627  IMG_5644  IMG_5673While our journey was long, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It did take eight hours, but one hour involved waiting for the ferry and the ferry ride itself was another hour. So, in total we had six hours of driving and two hours involving the ferry.

After we arrived in Bodø, Alix and I had dinner, returned the rental car, and admired some local graffiti before heading to the train station. We had decided to take a sleeper train back to Trondheim and were excited to see what it looked like. It was in fact cramped, neither of our standard airport carryons could fit underneath the bunk bed, but we managed to do just fine. I will also say that although I buckled in a harness around the top bunk, it wasn’t really necessary. NSB train rides aren’t always the smoothest (walking down the aisles while the train is in motion is usually similar to walking along any sort of path highly intoxicated) but the ride wasn’t so bumpy that I was actually in danger of falling out of the bed.

IMG_1114  IMG_1116  IMG_1118The train ride proved to be a fairly uneventful one, and we pulled into Trondheim’s central station at 7:47 am on Friday.

While getting to and from the Lofotens was a bit of a trek, I will say that it was definitely a worthwhile trip and one that I would highly recommend.

 

Lofoten Islands: Bøstad, Henningsvær, Svolvær

Today was our last day in Nusfjord so Alix and I spent some extra time exploring the town and taking pictures.

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IMG_5141  IMG_5148  IMG_5172After we were finished, we hit the road heading North. Our first stop of the day was the Lofotr Viking Museum near Bøstad. The museum was built after a farmer discovered Viking relics in one of his fields. When archaeologists came to examine the relics more closely, they realized that they were on the site of a Viking Age house. Now the house has been fully reconstructed and is an impressive 83 meters long. The Viking Museum is comprised of many different parts: the reconstructed chieftain’s house, the museum, Viking rowing ship, reconstructed forge, historical garden, and several other Medieval and Iron Age settlements. Unfortunately, most of this was closed since Alix and I arrived during the off season. We were however able to take a look around the museum and the chieftain’s house. The museum itself was surprisingly uninformative but Alix and I enjoyed wandering around the museum and having a look in the Viking house.

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I freely admit that I tried on the Viking helmet and played with the sword. The helmet was shockingly heavy and the sword was about as tall as I am. Afterwards, we walked around the grounds and enjoyed impressive views of the surrounding area.

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Once we were done looking around, we drove to Henningsvær. Henningsvæer is a fairly quaint town and has a small artist community that we wanted to check out. Unfortunately, most things were closed by the time we arrived but we enjoyed seeing one of the local glassblowers at work.

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After our quick stop in Henningsvær, we drove to our final destination for the day, Svolvær. Once we arrived, we were quite happy to check into our new rorbu and settle in for the night.

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Lofoten Islands: Å, Ramberg, Flakstad

Sleep, a shower, and breakfast helped Alix and I start to feel somewhat more human Tuesday morning. We were also excited to finally have a quick look around Nusfjord. Nusfjord is one of Norway’s best preserved fishing villages and it used to cost you 30 kroner just to walk around. According to Lonely Planet, many artists believe that the town captures the essence of the Lofoten Islands (pronounced Lu-fu-ten).

As far as Alix and I could tell, we were the only tourists staying in town. The main tourist season is in the summer, so coming in October meant that we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We had opted to stay in a rorbu, or a traditional fishing cottage. Rorbuer (the plural form of rorbu) are often renovated for tourists and come with their own kitchens and sea views. Alix and I were pretty big fans of ours. The beds were fine, the kitchen was sufficiently stocked, and the view was good (more pictures of the view later).

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Because Alix and I had had such a scattered amount of sleep, we decided to take the rest of the day at a slower pace. We hit the road for about an hour to get to the city of Å (pronounced Oh). Of course it just so happened that along the way everything we passed was breathtaking.

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Norway in its infinite wisdom decided to create roads called National Tourist Roads, in other words roads that are particularly scenic and geared specifically towards tourists. It just so happens that the main road through Lofoten, the E10, happens to be a National Tourist Road. This means that what was technically a 40 minute drive turned into an hour long drive since Alix and I kept pulling the car over to take pictures. We did eventually make it to Å though.

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Å used to be a fishing powerhouse, and until World War II was drying more than 700,000 cod a year. Cod is king on the Lofoten Islands and cod has been one of the biggest industries in Lofoten for decades. Even now, the Islands have an annual catch of around 50,000 tons. Little of the cod goes to waste. The cod is dried to make stockfish, cod tongue is eaten as a local delicacy, roe is salted, cod heads are sold to Nigeria where they are used in a local dish, and cod liver is used to make cod liver oil. Å used to process so much cod that a fishy smell was pervasive year round. The local attitude towards this was to simply say “you can smell the money.”

Cod is also a major player in local politics. According to Lonely Planet, in some northern Norwegian districts up to 90% of the population voted against joining the EU. Membership in the EU would grant other EU countries, specifically Spain, access to Norway’s inshore waters, thus allowing them to compete with local fishermen.

We spent most of our time in Å walking around the town and the Norsk Fiskeværsmuseum (Norwegian Fishing Village Museum). The museum was fairly low tech and Alix and I read sporadically from a paper guide that we were given. While we didn’t find the museum particularly informative (which to be fair was partially on us) we did enjoy walking around and seeing the dried fish, ship models, and cod liver oil vats.

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After the museum, we walked towards the edge of the city and the seashore. Apparently the area around Å has some of the world’s most dangerous waters due to the whirlpools that form with the tides. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of the whirlpools and instead saw placid waters. Oh well, we still had a nice time admiring the view. Afterwards, we piled into the car and prepared to slowly drive back to Nusfjord.

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On our way back we stopped by Ramberg and Flakstad. Alix and I had to stop by Ramberg for its grocery store, but we were also excited to stop since it gave us the opportunity to check out Ramberg’s much more famous landmark: its beach. Yes, Ramberg and Flakstad have actual sandy beaches. It’s as if you were miraculously transported to California–at least until you get outside and realize that going on the beach requires several layers of clothing, a hat, and wool gloves.

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It was an absolutely amazing day.