Going South to Go North

I realize that my title doesn’t initially make sense, but it will in a minute. Not too long ago I paid a trip to Svalbard. Unfortunately the only way for me to get there from Trondheim was to go through either Oslo or Tromsø. It ended up being cheaper and more convenient for me to go via Oslo, so I did in fact go South in order to go North.

IMG_2437  IMG_2435  IMG_2439

Svalbard has been a place that has captured my imagination since I was a child, specifically since I read The Golden Compass. In fact, both Svalbard and The Golden Compass were featured in my Fulbright essay, so I was really excited to finally get the chance to go there. Sidenote: if you haven’t read The Golden Compass you should and if you have no idea where Svalbard is check out the Map section of my blog. It’s the northernmost pin and Longyearbyen is actually the world’s northernmost settlement.

While organizing my flights to Svalbard was a bit of hassle since they only fly on certain days, it was pretty exciting to go, and I wasn’t the only one who was thrilled. I’ve never seen people so excited to travel. Everyone on my plane was upbeat (or intoxicated), constantly taking pictures, and pressed against the windows of the plane. I never really recognized how toxic the atmosphere can be around airports until I boarded my flight to Longyearbyen and experienced such a drastically different environment. I have to say it was quite a nice change to have everyone so happy.

But before I talk a bit more about my flight into Longyearbyen, I need to talk about my flight into Oslo. Why you might ask? Well it’s because I had a medical emergency happen on my flight. Not just on my flight, but to the person sitting next to me. Now for those of you who don’t know me you should know that I could never be a doctor. Not only did I hate most of the subjects that you need for medical school (mainly chemistry and physics) I’m also just a bad person to have in a medical emergency. Bodily fluids gross me out, I struggle to even watch doctor shows, and I tend to lose all common sense in medical situations. The thing I am most famous for is when my best friend fainted and when coming to I asked her what she thought the best course of action would be. So my number is clearly not the one you call when you have a medical emergency. That being said, life loves to have its little ironies so I was hardly surprised that this medical emergency happened right next to me.

Now the second thing you should know is that I can sleep through almost anything. Something I happen to specialize in is sleeping on planes. I have mastered the art of falling asleep before takeoff so it was only when I heard a lot of panicked sounds that I woke up from my nap against the window. Looking around I spotted a few alarmed flight attendants shaking the woman next to me and seeing her look pale and nauseous with the vomit bag clutched to her face. This rapidly escalated as she seems to go in and out of consciousness. An oxygen tank was retrieved, and at this point the man in the aisle seat was relocated and I was asked to move. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible due to the hunched position that this woman had taken. So medically incompetent me stayed squashed between the window and the medical emergency.

The first problem occurred when they either couldn’t managed to open the oxygen tank valve or the tank just failed to work. A second tank was retrieved and this time the oxygen mask was successfully applied to the woman’s face. This seemed to help incrementally, but after a while the woman continued to drift in and out of consciousness. The flight attendants indicated to me that we should get her horizontal. Now thanks to my fainting best friend, I’ve learned not to be wholly incompetent when people faint. So my first course, and really the only course, of action that I could take was to help move this woman so she was lying down and prop her legs up to increase blood flow to the head. Luckily by the time we finished doing this the plane was preparing to land. All in all, our landing scene had a man across the aisle holding an oxygen tank, a flight attendant in the aisle seat holding the woman’s head in her lap and placing the oxygen mask on her face, the woman having the medical emergency, and me attempting to prop this woman’s legs up.

Once the plane landed the flight attendants instructed us to all remain seated and a medical team was quickly ushered on board. Of course knowing no Norwegian and having slept through the beginning of this escapade, I was completely useless when it came to giving the medical team any sort of helpful information. The woman seemed to recover once we landed and she was able to walk off the plane on her own. The unfortunate realizations that I had after this episode included: flight staff don’t seem to have much medical training, there isn’t really too much you can do to help a person on a flight, and that I’m lucky that most domestic flights in Norway aren’t more than three hours. Lucky for this woman, I think the closest airport we could have landed in was Oslo, our actual destination. Oddly enough no one asked if there was a doctor on board the plane, but then again that could have happened while I was blissfully sleeping.

But back to Svalbard! It was with a certain amount of relief that I left my Trondheim to Oslo flight and prepared to board my flight to Longyearbyen. As I mentioned earlier, there was also a significant change in attitude on the flight. I again slept on this flight, albeit I slept more peacefully. But I didn’t sleep the entire time and I was amazed when I woke up and saw beautiful snowy peaks underneath the plane. Flying into Svalbard was just incredible.

IMG_2449  IMG_2458  IMG_2479

Unfortunately my iPhone couldn’t quite do justice to the view.

But flying in was simply breathtaking and we landed between these gorgeous mountains. On the other hand walking outside was a bit of a shock. Some weather screenshots below for your benefit. The picture on the right is in Fahrenheit while the first two are in Celsius. I find the middle picture the most fascinating since you can see that there isn’t sunrise or sunset (both listed at 12 am) and that’s because the sun has yet to come back to Svalbard. When I visited they had just reached civil twilight, which means that the sun is below 6 degrees of the horizon. Other things to note are the wind chill and effective temperature (-32°C/ -25.6°F) as well as the nonexistent UV Index.

IMG_2492  IMG_2522  IMG_2520

Longyearbyen is located in an arctic desert so the weather is very dry and pretty extreme. The town is situated in a valley which means that the mountains help create a huge wind tunnel. To make matters worse, the island is situated in a windy area. That’s not to say that this is all bad. Svalbard gets cold winds but it also gets the warm Gulf Stream, which is why you can see such extreme differences in the temperature (based on the pictures above you can see the jump from -23°C to -6°C in the same week). Sarah, a fellow Fulbrighter and my host, later told me that frostbite is an everyday concern. Apparently when classes go on trips you are assigned a buddy that you check on regularly to monitor any frostbite that they might be developing. You can tell if you are getting frostbite if white patches develop on your skin. There are also degrees of frostbite, similar to how there are different degrees of burn (first, second, and third), and these white patches are a good indicator that you are developing a low level of frostbite. One of the big dangers is that in such cold conditions it can be hard to tell if what you’re experiencing is frostbite or simply the cold. And yes I’ve never warn so many warm winter layers in my life. Ski pants became my new favorite article of clothing.

But back to my trip. Because there are a limited number of flights going in and out of Svalbard, the airport bus waited until we were all on board before setting off. Due to Longyearbyen’s  size (population roughly 2,000), there aren’t that many stops for the bus to make, and it didn’t take me too long to reach Sarah’s place.

Although I had to get up early to catch my flights, my series of plane naps meant that I was happy to go explore town as soon as I dropped my things off. So we set off to explore the settlement.

The funny thing with Svalbard is that it truly does look like a settlement. It’s more or less a one street place, and none of the buildings look that permanent. In fact, the student housing is called barracks, which just seems to reinforce the idea that nobody stays in Svalbard for very long. According to Sarah, the average length of time that people stay is five years, though we’re assuming that students are not counted in this figure. Most people who are in Longyearbyen are there for the university, coal mines, or tourism. Nobody really stays and develops a legacy or family on Svalbard. You actually are not allowed to give birth on Svalbard or die there. Additionally, because most people who come to Longyearbyen are in their 20s and 30s and there on a short term contract, they tend to have young kids but leave before the children are fully grown. This means that there are 3 kindergartens on Svalbard but only two children in upper secondary school/high school.

IMG_8611  IMG_8666  IMG_8614IMG_8651  IMG_2503  IMG_8669

There is only one grocery store in town and it’s pretty much a one stop shop for most of your basic needs. While the price of food is quite expensive, even by Norwegian standards, pretty much everything on Svalbard is tax free…which means that the alcohol is very cheap compared to mainland Norway. The store does make an effort to remind you that you cannot stash alcohol in your carryon bag for the trip back home. One thing that does make Svalbard and their alcohol store unique is that the island has alcohol quotas if you are a legal resident. I’ve been told that the quotas are quite generous (2 liters of liquor and 24 cans of beer per month) and it only counts beer and alcohol bought in the store. The reason for this was back when Longyearbyen was almost completely a mining town, the mining companies felt the need to regulate their workers and make sure that they were not getting completely inebriated–hence the alcohol card. You might be wondering why wine isn’t monitored, and that’s because that’s what the mining company bosses would drink. Of course they didn’t feel the need to monitor their own alcohol supply. Sarah told me that not too long ago the residents voted on whether or not they wanted to keep the alcohol card, and they overwhelming decided to keep it. Apparently they like being the only place to have an alcohol card and quota. The other funny thing about it is that Sarah told me her alcohol card is pretty much the only evidence she has showing that she’s a resident on Svalbard.

IMG_2509  IMG_2510  IMG_2516

Other things to note are polar bears! Polar bears are a very real danger in Svalbard and there are number living on the islands. It is legally required that you have adequate polar bear protection when you leave certain areas of town. In practical terms this means that you should be carrying a rifle. I’ve even heard that when the schools let out for recess the teachers form a protective circle around the playing children and that all of the teachers are equipped with rifles.

If you encounter a polar bear the proper procedure goes something like this: fire any and all flash and bang flares (the idea is to hopefully scare off the polar bear), at 200 meters you fully prepare your rifle to shoot, and at around 50 meters you are well within your rights to shoot. If you get to the point that you are using your rifle, you are shooting to kill (and it’s estimated that it will take you 2-3 shots to accomplish this). If you do shoot a polar bear you have to explain why to the local government because polar bears are an endangered species. Unfortunately for both us and them polar bears are 1) incredibly smart and 2) see humans as food. Polar bears will actively stalk humans that they encounter because they see them as food. Additionally, the bears are also getting much smarter when it comes to our defense mechanisms. Polar bears are slowly starting to realize that the flash and bang flares won’t actually harm them, and although the local government has two helicopters that it can use to scare off polar bears (the loud noise really disturbs them) the bears are coming to realize that the helicopters won’t hurt them either.

Because of all of this it’s quite common to see people with rifles. Proper rifle etiquette dictates that you leave rifles outside of public buildings (there is usually a coat room or outer room where you can do this). Most people also leave part of the bolt open to show that there is no ammunition in the gun. In the student barracks each room is provided with a safe so that you can safely store your rifle bolt away from your rifle.

IMG_2491  IMG_8608  IMG_8612I was clearly getting quite the education in my walk around town. The next place that we went to was a seal store. I was somewhat tempted to buy a pair of seal boots (see below) but then Sarah informed me that seal products are banned in the US and that they would be confiscated. There went that dream for warm footwear.

I was also excited to see the musk ox below! My colleagues have been telling me about musk ox and how it’s quite a dangerous animal (supposedly it’s bad tempered, pointy, and can run quite fast) but I haven’t seen one yet. They’re pretty rare animals, so although this musk ox was a rug I was excited to see one and get a better idea of what one looked like.

IMG_8607  IMG_8609  IMG_8610

After that we stopped by a place called Huset to catch the end of the student elections and to grab some cheap beer (only 25 NOK/ 3.28 USD–guys this has got to be a record for beer prices at a Norwegian bar) before finally wandering back home. Before we turned in we took some pictures of the moon and the landscape. Enjoy and sorry for the somewhat haphazard blog post!

IMG_8616  IMG_8622  IMG_8632

Vitamin D, Where Did You Go?

My family likes to give me suggestions for things to write about, and I was reminded repeatedly that I have not talked about the weather since I wrote Winter is Coming back in October. So here’s a bit more information on what winter in Trondheim is like.

We’ve actually had a fairly mild winter. Temperatures haven’t been that bad and tend to range between -4 and 4°C (24.8 – 39.2°F). So far the lowest temperature that we’ve gotten was -16.7°C (1.94°F) on Christmas. Lucky for me, I spent Christmas in the relatively tropical Vienna.

I would also say that winter has come in stages. We started out with a lot of frost and then transitioned into ice. We only got our first snowfall in late November just before Thanksgiving. The little snow that we have gotten hasn’t stayed around for very long, which means that the Norwegians are particularly sad since it limits their ability to cross country ski. Personally, I’ve never been the biggest fan of snow unless I’m alpine skiing, but I’ve come to embrace it more in Norway. This is for one reason: ice.

Ice is everywhere on the streets. Having lived in Boston for four years I’m accustomed to seeing people salting the roads as soon as snow is forecasted. In Norway, they more or less refuse to salt the roads. I’ve mainly been told that this is for environmental reasons. The Norwegian solution (if you live outside of Oslo and don’t have heated streets)? Gravel. Gravel is almost completely ineffective. The one use case where I’ve noticed gravel working is when there is so much gravel on the ice that there is essentially a new road on top of the ice. But that rarely happens since they do not gravel the streets regularly. To make matters worse, when it gets colder the gravel freezes and becomes trapped in a new layer of ice, thus becoming more useless (you can kind of see this in the picture between the two shoe pictures). To give you an idea of how icy it is, some areas have become ice skating rinks, not because they were actually planned, but simply because there is enough space and enough ice to make it work.

The only real relief happens when it snows. The snow at least gives you some traction on the ice and makes it much less slippery to get around. But you’re probably wondering what the solution is when there isn’t any snow. Well if you’re Norwegian the solution is to do nothing. I kid you not I see people running on the street (and when I say street I should really say poorly done ice skating rink that resembles a street) with regular footwear. Me, the other international students, and the elderly rely on walking incredibly slowly and on traction cleats. These cleats tend to have spikes on them to help your shoes grip the ice more firmly. They aren’t the best solution, but they are definitely better than nothing.

I realize that some of the pictures below may seem pretty, but the white stuff on the roads is almost entirely ice. In some places it’s as thick as about 20 cm (8 in).

IMG_1945  IMG_1949  IMG_1950IMG_2304  IMG_1954  IMG_2305IMG_2615  IMG_2322  IMG_2617Although adjusting to the ice has been difficult, I would actually say that the most difficult aspect of Norwegian winters is the lack of sunshine. Our shortest day of the year was December 22. Sunrise was at 10:02 am and sunset was at 2:32 pm. That means on some days I would go to school to teach an 8 am class and leave school before sunrise. It’s a little disorienting to finish work before the sun is even up. But as with most things, the lack of daylight has a silver lining. I have seen some gorgeous sunrises and have really come to appreciate the sun. Not to mention, I could be farther North. At least I have the sun.

These days the daylight is coming back at a rate of about 6 minutes per day, so it won’t be long before things fully transition from polar night to midnight sun. But until then, I shall continue to pop vitamin D pills and to wear my traction cleats.

Newspaper Struggles

I would say that I do a pretty good job of keeping up with the news. In any given day I’m guaranteed to receive at least five different emails on things ranging from current events to news on the latest in the technology industry. But here’s the catch: it’s all US news. And while it’s great to be keep up with the day to day events in my home country, it can occasionally prove a bit frustrating to not have a better idea of what exactly is going on in Norway. Norway does have English language news, but from what I’ve seen most of it is quite limited or fails to really capture the nuances that are conveyed in Norwegian news. Despite all of this, I have come across two Norwegian events that I thought would be interesting to blog about.

The first was a strike! Yes, it was my second strike of the year, the first being the teacher’s strike in August. I was surprised last week when I went to school and was told by my co-teacher that there was going to be a strike that day. From what I could understand from both this English language article and my fellow teachers, the strike was over changes that the national government is proposing. Some of the main complaints are: the removal of full time positions in favor of temporary positions, increased hours, and work on Sunday. Now I realize that I probably haven’t emphasized this enough, but Sunday is a big deal in Norway. Pretty much everything shuts down on Sunday, and stores that are open are more expensive than normal and have very limited hours. Sunday in particular is seen as a day when people can relax with their families and go hiking. In fact, I was recently talking to a Norwegian who told me that she found the American work system quite sad because “everyone deserves at least one day off together.” Sunday seems so embedded in Norwegian culture that I was surprised the current government even dared to try and change things. So although I was slightly exasperated by what appeared to my non-Norwegian-news-reading self as a last minute strike, I wasn’t exactly surprised to hear that people were upset enough over these proposals to strike. It seems like quite a few unions were participating in the strike, but the most notable ones for me were one of the teacher’s unions and the transportation unions. Pretty much all forms of transportation were shut down from 2-4 pm last Wednesday. So buses, trains, and planes around the country were more or less inoperable during this time period. Because Kirsti was participating in the strike and is far-sighted she decided to let our class out early so that they could catch buses back home before the system shut down completely.

The other thing that I wanted to talk a bit about was reactions to the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I was recently talking to a cousin living in Germany when he told me of a group called PEGIDA. In German the name is Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes which translates to Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West. That last sentence was more or less taken from Wikipedia so I apologize if there are translation/spelling errors. Unfortunately my German consists of a lot of useful tourist nouns and phrases (zoo, castle, mountain, bathroom, etc.) and thus is pretty reliant on said German cousin and Google Translate. But moving beyond language, it’s pretty easy to understand what the group is advocating for just based on the name. The group was founded in Dresden before the Charlie Hebdo shooting but has only really gotten popular in the aftermath of the shooting. It has sparked quite a few protests and counter-protests and the numbers are not insignificant on either side. Most of the rallies seem to draw tens of thousands, demonstrating that this is an issue worthy of some thought. When I talked to my cousin a bit more about PEGIDA he postulated that one reason for its popularity is that Germany is defined as a Christian state, thus it has a bit of a negative reaction towards Islam. When I asked about other non-Christian religions he dismissed them by saying that they don’t really have a large presence in Germany.

Now I just assumed that this was a German specific group, so I was initially surprised when one of my co-teachers told me that PEGIDA is also in Norway. Now I wouldn’t say that immigration is really a topic that Norwegians are fond of. My first semester teaching International English was spent examining multiculturalism and immigration, and while the course aims to teach tolerance, I did have a few students happily state that they are xenophobic. Norwegians have not always had a welcoming approach towards immigrants, and I think a number of Fulbrighters have come to Norway over the years to study attitudes towards immigration. While I might not be painting the most friendly picture, to give the Norwegians due credit, according to this article the anti-PEGIDA demonstrations in Oslo have far outnumbered the PEGIDA demonstrations.

While PEGIDA Norway is certainly something noteworthy, if only for its existence, it isn’t the thing that intrigues me the most. It’s actually Norwegian reactions to its leader, Max Hermansen. Hermansen is a teacher who was working for two different Norwegian schools. One of the schools has since fired Hermansen for his views and this has sparked a debate. Questions range from: Should he be allowed to teach students, some of whom are immigrants, if he has anti-immigration views? Should he be allowed freedom of speech? Are teachers in a special position where their freedom of speech is restricted due to their important role as educators? Can teachers teach and still keep their personal views separate?

As an educator I think it’s important to try and keep my personal views separate from what I teach. That being said, it can sometimes be a tough line to walk, and when pressed I’ll give my opinion. I’m not sure where I fall on whether or not Hermansen should have been fired, though I think that I as well as some of the other Norwegian teachers seem to lean towards supporting the school that fired him. I do believe that freedom of speech is important, as are non-traditional viewpoints, but I grow a bit concerned when I think of Hermansen teaching young students, some of whom are probably Muslim. In this interconnected age, I can’t imagine how students would not find out about Hermansen’s involvement in PEGIDA and how that might affect their classroom experience. While I don’t support PEGIDA I think the movement has caused some interesting questions to arise. I think Norway (as well as most countries, including the United States) will have to re-examine the way that it treats immigrants and continue to grapple with the double-edged sword that is freedom of speech. As my class transitions into examining global issues I hope that both of these topics are things that we’ll be able to discuss.