One Last Trip to Oslo

Now that the sun has (sorta) returned to Norway, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few visitors! Thanks to great discounts on Norwegian Air, one of my friends from university, Alyssa, and her friend Kani decided to make a spontaneous weekend trip to Oslo. Because I’ve already blogged about some of these Oslo sights, I thought I’d keep this trip a bit on the simpler side and opted for a list format with this post.

Oslo Opera House

I absolutely adore the Oslo Opera House. It’s definitely one of my favorite places in Norway, and a part of that has to do with how affordable it is (even by non-Norwegian standards). Alyssa and I were lucky enough to get last minute tickets to the opening night of La traviata, one of Verdi’s operas. La traviata is based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, La Dame aux camélias, which is based on Dumas’s life and affair with Marie Duplessis, a famous Parisian courtesan. Sadly for the two lovers, Marie dies from consumption at the young age of 23. If this story sounds familiar that’s unsurprising. The story has been retold in countless art pieces and movies, one famous example is the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!. Unfortunately, we actually turned up a few minutes late due to a slow restaurant, but, lucky for us, we were still allowed to enter the opera once there was an opportune break in the singing.

Although the set was surprisingly bare, overall the opera and the singing was great. I especially enjoyed the singing done by the lead, the soprano Aurelia Florian.

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Mathallen Area

Following one Susan’s suggestions, I took a stroll by Oslos’ Mathallen, or literally translated, food hall. I only popped my head into the hall for a minute, but it had quite a nice selection of produce, fish, and the like. My main reason for walking around this area was to check out the local graffiti. To my delight, most of it was actually quite good, and there were a number of nice looking bars next to the nearby river, something that I wouldn’t mind checking out in the future.

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The Fram Museum

Because I didn’t really have a chance to walk around the Fram Museum when I visited in winter, I was determined to give it another shot on this trip. Alyssa, Kani, and I still didn’t have time to get through everything before the museum closed, but I learned a bit more than I did last time.

The Fram Museum is notable for housing the Polarship Fram, a boat was used by Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen on their North Pole expedition and Amundsen’s South Pole expedition (it is the boat that helped Amundsen be the first person to reach the South Pole). One of the big reasons why the Fram was revolutionary was that the ship was deliberately allowed to freeze in the Arctic Ocean. No ship had ever survived the ice pressure before, so Nansen’s desire to knowingly subject the ship to the ice was considered nothing short of insane. Lucky for Nansen and his crew, the ship’s special design allowed it to withstand the ice pressure. There were several design choices that allowed this to happen, but the one that is talked about most often is the rounded hull and smooth sides, which were built to mimic a round nut. The idea was for the ice to push the ship up onto the ice (similar to squeezing a nut between your fingers and having it slide along your fingers instead of being crushed) which would prevent the ice from crushing the ship.

Nansen also happened to be a very careful planner and prepared to spend 3-5 years on board the ship. Because of this, not only did the ship have plenty of food, it also had plenty to keep the crew occupied. There was a library of 600 books, paintings, card games, and even an organ on board. Overall the crew did quite well, remaining both healthy and well entertained.

The crew and its ship was only gone for three years, and upon its return Nansen was greeted as a national hero. Afterwards, Nansen was primarily known for his political career, becoming an ambassador to Great Britain in 1906 and later working in the League of Nations.

Sadly we weren’t able to finish exploring the entire museum, but again it’s something that I would pay another visit to. It was a really well laid out museum, and at times hilariously blunt and/or politically correct (our favorite translated sentence was “The friendliness and generosity of the Inuit was repaid by the white men’s goodwill and respect.”).

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Vigeland Park

Another one of my Oslo favorites is Vigeland Park. No visit would be complete without it, so I was happy to take Alyssa and Kani there. We were blessed with a gorgeously sunny day, so sunny in fact that we actually ran into a zumba dance class that was going on in the park.

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Vigeland Mausoleum

The three of us also went to the Vigeland Mausoleum thanks to a recommendation from Susan. While Gustav Vigeland is the mastermind behind Vigeland Park, Vigeland Mausoleum is actually done by his brother, Emanuel Vigeland. The mausoleum requires taking the subway to Slemdal, but it’s well worth the trip. The mausoleum is tucked away in a nice residential area, which also happens to have a nice view of Oslo.

The Vigeland Mausoleum is also known as the Vigeland Museum, and it was originally supposed to house Vigeland’s future sculptures and paintings. Vigeland later ended up changing his mind, and now the mausoleum is a huge dark room covered in frescoes. Many of the frescoes have a religious undertone, and more information on them can be found on the museum’s website. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the mausoleum, but Google Images can still give you a good idea of what the interior looks like.

The museum itself resembles a church, not only in its construction, but also in its silence. We were strictly told not to talk before entering, and we soon found out why. One visitor accidentally knocked into one of the museum’s chairs and echo was unbelievable. It’s definitely not your classic museum, especially considering that Vigeland’s cremated remains are stationed above the door, but I would definitely recommend a visit if you have the time.

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Graduversary

Today is my graduversary, or millennial speak for my graduation anniversary. Exactly one year ago today, I woke up  to the traditional sound of bagpipes.* Exactly one year ago today, I proudly marched with my roommates and many of my good friends into Harvard Yard. Exactly one year ago today, I was surrounded by the sound of cheers, words of encouragement, and a glorious cacophony of sound–the product of many sleep deprived graduates, multiple bagpipers, and a jazz band. Exactly one year ago today, I was finally able to walk across a stage and proudly hold my bachelor’s diploma–something that I had worked hard to achieve for four years. It’s all so hard to believe.

Even now it’s still hard for me to process. I’ve commenced. I’ve begun a new journey. I’ve survived as a “real” person for a year. I haven’t even burned down my kitchen! And while I have enjoyed embracing the future, I’d like to take a moment, on this arbitrary yet special day, to reminisce a bit about the past.

The funny thing about my commencement was that nothing turned out the way I expected it to. It rained profusely in the days leading up to commencement. In fact, it was so cold that I had to open a few of my bulging suitcases to dig out some of my winter clothing. I even got a sinus infection, and, to top it all off, later found out that I was allergic to the antibiotics that I had been given.

And yet there were many ways in which my graduation was perfect. I had a wonderful time with my family–the people who supported me and made it possible for me to even dream of going to Harvard. I was able to show them part of my world, the world that they had helped given me access to, to show them the places and people that I had discovered, the people and things that I loved. At the same time, I was able to draw my friends close. To celebrate with them. To remember the last four years, and to feel like I was and am a part of an incredible community. And while I felt a bit sad at the time, to be leaving behind so many great people and things, I found it helpful to remember that it was a beginning. That commencement at its core means to start something new.

And start something new I have! I embarked on a new chapter of life in a totally new country. I’ve learned a lot about myself and gained a morsel or two of insight as to what I want in my future, but, most importantly, I’ve been able to keep in touch with most of my closest friends. So although I still feel a pang of envy for this year’s graduating class, I’m proud to say that I’m very happy with the new chapter that I’ve written since commencement. Congratulations to the class of 2015, and may you all be as happy with your new beginnings as I am with mine.

*Why this is a Harvard commencement tradition is still a mystery to me.

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Stavanger Area Wrap Up

Although I didn’t spend a large amount of time in Stavanger itself, I really loved what I saw and also really enjoyed the nearby area. Here are my tips:

  1. If you want to look around the nearby area (which you should) I would highly recommend getting a car and driving around. I would particularly recommend driving the two nearby national tourist routes, Ryfylke and Jæren.
  2. Ryfylke
    1. Definitely make a trip to Pulpit Rock, though be aware that it’ll be a hike to get there and that it’s mountainous. Go early in the morning to avoid crowds and check with the local tourist office to make sure that it’s open. The other famous rock formation in this area is Kjerag, which Abby and I didn’t make it to since it was still buried in snow even at the end of May.
    2. Pay a quick stop to Sandsfossen and Høsebrua to admire the waterfall and walk over the bridge.
    3. Definitely stop by Svandalsfossen waterfall. It’s incredible. Be sure to bring a waterproof jacket though.
  3. Jæren
    1. If you have the time, continue past Ogna towards Egersund, since the surrounding scenery is gorgeous.
    2. Check out the quaint church at Varhaug old cemetery.
  4. Stavanger is pretty small and easy to walk around so I would recommend doing that. It’s vibrant colors and street art also set it apart from most Norwegian towns.
  5. Check out the Norwegian Petroleum Museum to learn more about Norway’s relationship with oil. Also stop by the next door playground and see how they’re repurposed old shipping parts.

Stavanger

Our last day in Stavanger was a bit of an odd one. In Norway, May is the month of public holidays, which meant that Abby and I had Monday off for Pentecost, but then again so did everyone else. Most things were closed due to the holiday, which meant that we were able to start the day off at a leisurely pace. The first item on our agenda: breakfast.

Now, one of the things Heather asked us to do with her hotel points was to enjoy a hearty breakfast. Abby and I were pretty confident that we were up to the challenge. Norwegian hotel breakfast is by far some of the best I’ve ever had in terms of options. So, taking some inspiration from Heather’s husband Jason, an avid fan of Norwegian breakfast, we did battle with the buffet table and managed to go away stuffed after a few courses. For another perspective on Norwegian breakfast, check out a blog post that Jason did on breakfast amongst other things.

IMG_3928  IMG_3929  IMG_3930After loading our things into the car, Abby and I wandered back into town and checked out the local market before moseying over to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. Now whenever I mentioned that I was going to Stavanger to Norwegians, the general reaction was something along the lines of “Ugh, oil.” Stavanger is the home of Statoil, Norway’s largest energy company, and is also the headquarters of many other energy companies. So while my Norwegian compatriots weren’t thrilled that I was going to Stavanger, I was excited to go Stavanger, and I was particularly excited to go to this museum to learn a bit more about Norway’s relationship with oil.

The museum itself is pretty well designed and very family friendly. Much of the museum is dedicated to the history of oil and gas in Norway, how it is monitored and regulated, and of course what life is like on board oil rigs. I’m not entirely sure when all of the information was published in the museum (so some of the stats might be a bit outdated) but here’s some of what I learned.

Although Norway is well known for its oil wealth, as of 2009, the Norwegian continental shelf only contains .6% of the world’s found oil reserves and 1.6% of its gas reserves. While plenty of other countries have more oil and gas (Norway is 18th for oil and 12th for gas), in 2011 it was still the world’s seventh largest exporter of oil (exporting over 1.5 million barrels of oil per day) and in 2010 was the second largest exporter of gas (100 billion sm³ of gas per year).

There are 10 “oil commandments” that govern Norwegian oil policy. These commandments, or the Norwegian model, essentially focus on establishing the oil and gas industry in such a way as to benefit the whole country. Since Norway began recovering oil and gas in 1971:

  • They have recovered more than 7,000 billion NOK worth of oil and gas
  • More than 200,000 people are employed due to the industry (though that number has definitely taken a hit since the recent drop in oil prices)
  • The current oil fund is worth more than 2,000 billion NOK or approximately 500,000 NOK (64,444 USD) per Norwegian

While prosperity has certainly come to Norway, studies on the country’s happiness levels show that the huge increase in wealth in recent decades has had a small impact on overall happiness. In other words, money isn’t everything.

One oil related government objective that Abby and I found interesting was the idea that “every house should be occupied in every corner of the country.” Basically, people shouldn’t feel obligated to move to the city in search of jobs. Oil revenues have been used to help ensure that wealth is extended to every corner of the country, and although this is an expensive policy, Norwegians are quite happy to help ensure that smaller communities thrive. To give you a better idea of how spread out and sparsely populated Norway is:

  • In January 2010 Norway had a population density of 16 people per square kilometer (the second lowest in Europe)
  • Norway has 430 local authorities, 43 of which don’t encompass an urban area, 130 with a population of less than 2,500, and 25 with a population of less than 1,000
  • Less than 100 settlements in Norway have a population of more than 5,000  people

Abby and I also had fun looking at some of the model oil rigs and climbing into some of the diving equipment. Personally I found the diving rigs to be a bit too claustrophobic, which wasn’t helped when I learned that in order to work at depths of more than 50 m (164 ft) divers have to go through a 12 hour saturation process for their bodies to adjust to the pressure. In Norway, divers are only allowed to work for 14 days at those depths, and afterwards it takes about 3-6 days before the body recovers and returns to normal pressure. This sounded wholly unappealing to me. Clearly oil extraction is not my calling.

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Once we finished up at the museum, we took a drive out to Stavanger’s Swords in Rock monument, or Sverd i fjell, before heading over to the airport. It was there that we realized that we were on the same flight. My supposedly direct flight back to Trondheim was really a flight to Trondheim with a pitstop in Bergen. Turns out the flight to Bergen is so short (25 minutes) that it hardly makes a difference to stop in Bergen and drop off and pick up new passengers, than it does to just fly to Trondheim directly.

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Winding Roads, Flat Lands, and Dreary Skies

The next day we decided to tackle the second national tourist route, Jæren. While Ryfylke had directed us North, with Jæren we were headed South into Norway’s agricultural area. Now I’m used to seeing soaring mountains and towering peaks in Norway, so it was pretty strange to drive through the Norwegian heartland and not see a single mountain (granted it was raining so poor visibility might have had something to do with that). The sheep that we had seen on our Northern drive were replaced with fields, and, in one case, small trees that marked the beginning of a Christmas tree farm. Both Abby and I suspect that planting and harvesting happen later in Norway than in other countries, since it didn’t look like there was anything even beginning to sprout.

Not only does Jæren pass through one of the flatest parts of the country, it also passes by some of Norway’s most dangerous coast. The area is highly treacherous for ships, so while there are a number of beaches along the coast, there are also quite a few lighthouses. Although Abby and I did try and visit one of the lighthouses, it, as well as most of the sights along Jæren, was closed. Additionally, the weather was simply too miserable and rainy to really warrant getting out of the car and going for a quick adventure.

But we still managed to have a good time. We even managed to see one of the sights, Hitler’s teeth, largely from the warmth of our car. The “teeth” are cement blocks that were made during World War II to prevent the Allied forces from making landfall (see the second row of pictures).

IMG_3232  IMG_3231  IMG_3221IMG_3208  IMG_3210  IMG_3212Another stop at MingarWalker Glassblowing studio was actually a huge success. Abby was able to buy a wedding gift, and the local glassblower was incredibly helpful. We had originally planned to stop our drive at Ogna, the end of the tourist road; however, the glassblower advised us to continue past Ogna and on towards Tengs and Egersund. This ended up being great advice. The terrain slowly started to change and became more rocky and hilly, and of course was beautiful. To top things off, we even passed one old place that was modeled after an old American saloon.

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Our last notable stop was at Varhaug old cemetery. Our glassblower had told us that it was worth a stop since it has an incredibly quaint church on the premises. To give you a better idea of how small it is, it’s about 15 m² (161 ft²) and fits only 14 chairs. Lucky for us, we were the only visitors, so it wasn’t too cramped when we went. We even got to have some fun ringing the church bells.

IMG_3242  IMG_3236  IMG_3246IMG_3248  IMG_3241  IMG_3243After that we slowly made our way back to Stavanger. Thanks to the generosity of Heather, one of the Roving Scholars, we were able to use some of her accumulated hotel points to stay the night in Stavanger.

Once we arrived, our first task was to find the parking garage. We got directions from the hotel and then parked the car in what is by far one of the strangest car parks I’ve ever been to. The parking lot was solidly underground, and it also came with handy things like sinks. We speculated that it used to be a bunker, and sure enough after inquiring at the front desk we had our suspicions confirmed. Compared to most European countries, Norway doesn’t have many visible reminders of World War II, so it’s always a bit shocking to stumble upon something that shows the impact that it had on the country.
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The weather continued to be a bit dreary, and because it was a Sunday most things were closed when we walked around town. That being said, we still really enjoyed looking around. Compared to most Norwegian towns, Stavanger is filled with vibrant colors and quirky parks. Abby and I had a lot of fun playing in a playground next to the Norwegian Petroleum Museum. The park is made out of repurposed shipping tools, so we had fun bouncing along on buoys and crawling along old shipping pipes. One of the things we also enjoyed seeing was a memorial “DEDICATED TO THE MEN AND WOMEN OF NORWEGIAN BLOOD WHO HAVE CONTRIBUTED TO THE BUILDING OF AMERICA.” Stavanger even has a Norwegian Emigration Center that has an exhibit on Norwegian emigration to the United States.

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After that, we gratefully returned to our hotel and put our feet up. We felt like we were living the life of luxury by being in a hotel and having access to a TV. Neither Abby nor I has a TV in our student housing, so we had a lot of fun channel surfing and trying to decipher some of the Norwegian ads between our combined (and limited) Norwegian vocabularies. If you’d like to try it out, I’ve included the link to the one commercial that we did manage to figure out.

What we deduced is that this is an advertisement for Jarlsberg, one of the two big cheese brands in Norway (the other being Gulost). Things come to a head when the guy asks for Jarlsberg and is told that Gulost is fine since cheese is cheese. For the rest of the advertisement, the woman essentially says that “x is x” (even though it’s clearly not the case) and that her significant other should be satisfied. So for example, she says “hjem er hjem” or “home is home” when he’s being admitted to a mental institution. Basically the point of the advertisement is that cheese is not in fact cheese and that only Jarlsberg is Jarlsberg. Screw Gulost! Basically Abby and I spent a significant amount of mental energy deducing a Norwegian commercial for a cheese that neither of us particularly likes, but hey we felt somewhat accomplished by the end of it.

Ryfylke, Pulpit Rock, and More

Norway is a beautiful country. No matter where I go, I’m always amazed by the scenery. But, there are of course some things that are more beautiful than others. That is why the Norwegian government, in its infinite wisdom, created national tourist routes in Norway. Now you may remember me mentioning them when I was documenting my trip through the Lofoten Islands, but in case you forgot, they are supposed to be the most beautiful roads in Norway. They are also specially designed for tourists. They have many strategic turn outs to allow you to stop your car and take pictures, and many of the roads have notable landmarks and works of art scattered along the route. Now Stavanger happens to have two such roads, which is a large part of the reason why Abby and I decided to rent a car.

Today we decided to dedicate ourselves to driving Ryfylke, the more well known of the two roads. Now we weren’t able to find a good map of the road online, or at least not one that didn’t look vaguely like a cartoon, but after combing through the Internet and the Apple App Store, I was finally able to find a more useful app. So, if you happen to be driving Ryfylke and want to know where all of its landmarks are, I would recommend downloading Ryfylke MultiGuide.

Our first destination of the day was Preikestolen, or Pulpit Rock. Pulpit Rock is probably Norway’s most famous natural landmark, and thus has a lot of facilities catering to the large number of tourists who go there. Because Preikestolen can get crowded, Abby and I decided to go early in the morning (it turns out teaching 8 am classes is useful in helping you get up early). Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t really on our side for most of the drive over, BUT just as we were debating coming back later in the day, the skies slowly started to clear and we decided to go ahead and hike the trail.

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Now unlike the United States, where you can usually just park your car next to your chosen major landmark, Norway makes you work for your pictures. So after Abby and I parked the car, we loaded up our hiking backpacks and started out on the 3 km (1.8 mi) trail. The terrain was hilly, but overall it was very well marked (maybe even too well marked–just about every rock along the way had a red T painted on it) and very well maintained. Although we were slowed down by crowds and my constant picture taking, we eventually made it to Preikestolen without too much of a hassle. It was well worth the trip. It was also terrifying.

IMG_2632  IMG_2635  IMG_2640IMG_2673  IMG_2694  IMG_2676IMG_2707  IMG_2727  IMG_2749Now I happen to have a fear of heights. It’s not debilitating by any means, but I would say that my fear is greater than that of your average person. So while I was thrilled to finally make it to Preikestolen, I was also absolutely terrified of its sheer rock faces. If you fell off of Preikestolen, I have no doubt that you would die. But, I figured that this was also a great time to try and conquer my fear. Trial by fire. That didn’t really happen. I was definitely less scared of the edge by the end of our trip, but I think it’s safe to say that my fear isn’t going away any time soon. That being said, I still did venture to sit on the edge. I owe Abby a debt of gratitude for putting up with my nervousness and shouted expletives.

IMG_2733  IMG_2732  IMG_2751IMG_2753  IMG_2755  IMG_2759IMG_3809  IMG_3805  IMG_3810After a quick hike back down to the car, we hit the road again. Before too long we were in Solbakk and searching for our second landmark, a set of prehistoric carvings. Unfortunately they were a bit difficult to find. We also ran into trouble when we misread a parking sign, thinking that it was telling us that parking was straight ahead, as opposed to right underneath the sign. But we managed to figure things out eventually.

The carvings were found in 1923 and date back to around 500 B.C. The petroglyphs depict two different types of ships and sun figures–telling us that Bronze Age people had sailing technology and that they possibly worshipped a sun god. After stopping for a few quick pictures, Abby and I hopped back in the car and continued driving. Our next stop was Svandalsfossen waterfall, but because it was located towards the end of the road, we simply spent the next few hours chatting and admiring the passing scenery.

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But before we could get to Svandalsfossen, we actually stopped by another sight first. Intrigued by a large plastic salmon figure next to a road sign, we decided to aggravate our GPS system and change course. We ended up stopping by Sandsfossen and Høsebrua bridge. Sandsfossen is a waterfall along one of Norway’s most well known salmon rivers, Suldalslågen. There is a salmon studio at the falls, but unfortunately it wasn’t open yet for the season. Apparently the salmon are particularly large here and a 10 kg (22 lb) salmon is not unusual, with some fishermen catching some that weigh around 20 kg (44 lb). The local record is a 21.5 kg (47 lb) salmon.

After stopping to admire the waterfall, we stopped by Høsebrua bridge, a short bridge built in 2013 that spans the river.

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From there we kept driving until we entered the small town of Sand. One of my co-teachers later informed me that this town is near the mountain that she famously fell off of (the story does have a happy ending since she ended up marrying the medical intern who was looking after her). It was also here where we were utterly confused by the ferry. Because we didn’t see a clear way to board the ferry, we simply parked our car in front of the ferry barrier and waited for the ferry to arrive. After much failed hand waving on the part of the captain, we were finally told that we couldn’t park in front of the barrier since we were cutting the line. Only after the captain came down to talk to us, did we realize that about a block away the road divides into a separate ferry lane. So Abby and I, as well as another tourist car, backtracked and got in line behind about five other cars. Luckily, our other ferry goers seemed more bemused by our confusion than annoyed at our inadvertent attempt to cut the line.

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Once we crossed the fjord to Ropeid, we continued to our last stop, Svandalsfossen fall. Svandalsfossen has to be one of the biggest and most powerful waterfalls that I’ve ever seen. The waterfall is next to the road, and due to the heavy rains we’d been having, the spray was so strong that driving past it was similar to driving through a car wash–and we weren’t even passing the largest part of the waterfall! Luckily the surrounding area is designed for tourists, so it was easy to park the car, walk around, and climb up a series of stairs in order to explore the waterfall. The waterfall has a 180 meter (590 foot) fall, and the waterfall used to power a sawmill. Nowadays, the waterfall is unregulated, but it’s still quite a force of nature. The first few pictures of the waterfall were taken at shutter speeds of 1/8,000 and 1/5,000 of a second, yet you can still see that the water moves too quickly for the camera to fully stop the action.

IMG_2987  IMG_2995  IMG_2997IMG_3009  IMG_3004  IMG_3030IMG_3040  IMG_3031  IMG_3060IMG_3053  IMG_3068  IMG_3066 Abby and I got as close as we dared, and while that wasn’t particularly close, we still ended our visit looking like we had just gone for a swim. Thankfully some genius invented both car heaters and heated seats, so we weren’t cold for too long. From there we took a longer route to head back to Sandnes via Stavanger. All in all we ended up driving in a loop, and although we were exhausted by the time we got back some time around midnight, it was definitely one of the best days that I’ve had here in Norway.

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One Last Norwegian Adventure

I have been incredibly lucky to have traveled up and down Norway (see the Map page for more details), and even luckier to have a great set of Fulbright friends who have been willing to host me and show me around. So it was with a touch of sadness that I boarded a plane for my last Norwegian adventure this year. The destination? Stavanger.

Now there aren’t any Fulbrighters based in Stavanger, but Fulbright was still very much a part of my trip. My travel buddy for this trip was none other than Abby, the Bergen ETA, and one of the fabulous Roving Scholars, Heather, even gifted us some of her Thon Hotel points so that we could spend a night in one of the local hotels.

Both Heather and Lud couldn’t speak highly enough of Stavanger, so Abby and I were pretty excited to start our adventure. The two of us met at the airport and then went to go pick up our rental car. Because we would have a car for the duration of our trip, Abby and I had decided to stay at an AirBnb located in a small town just outside of Stavanger called Sandnes.* Although the town was tiny, it quickly put our driving knowledge to the test. Neither Abby nor I have driven a car in over a year, and we both happen to be from cities that don’t have roundabouts. Sandnes, on the other hand, has a roundabout just about every other block. Luckily we didn’t run into too many cars whenever we were crossing the roundabouts, so our roundabout etiquette was never truly tested.

Because we arrived late on a Friday afternoon, not too much was open. That being said, we walked around the street or two that Sandnes had to offer before stopping by the local supermarket.

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Now one random Norwegian tradition that we decided to take advantage of was Taco Friday. Why and how Taco Friday became a thing is a mystery to me, but all it really means is that the “Mexican” food brands are discounted on Friday, thus causing many people to eat tacos on Friday. Because Abby and I would have access to a kitchen for the majority of our trip, and because we had a car that could transport all of our groceries, we had fun stocking up on road trip snacks and on the appropriate ingredients for breakfast, tacos, and quesadillas. Unfortunately, our AirBnb host had just moved into his apartment, meaning that there was an odd assortment of IKEA kitchenware and no dining room table. While this certainly made cooking and eating its own special adventure, we eventually were able to rustle up some tacos before eating them picnic style on the floor. Once we finished eating and had debated the difference between salsa and taco sauce (we didn’t think there was a significant one), we fiddled with the one heater in the apartment before calling it a night.

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*The dorky knitter inside of me wondered if this was the origin of Sandnes Garn, the yarn that I’ve been using for my knitting projects. Unfortunately I was never able to resolve this question, although I’m inclined to think that it is.

The N-Word

If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that students will always surprise you.

A few weeks ago I was spending most of my time conducting oral exams for my russ students. Because oral exams are easier to double team, my co-teacher Maria and I had a nice system set up where I would lead the students in discussions, while Maria took notes on their performance. My task was simple: students had to choose cards from a stack and then discuss whatever prompt was written on the back of the card. My job was to keep the discussion going and to try and make sure the students were showcasing what they’d learned during the course of the year (this was harder for some hungover russ students than others). While some of the students gave pretty standard answers to the discussion prompts, some really went above and beyond. The prompt that generated the most original thinking? This one:

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the word “nigger” is used repeatedly. What connotation (meaning, association) does it have in the novel?

Today, has the meaning of “nigger” changed? How do you feel about the n-word? Is this a word you use? When do you use it?

Should blacks be able to use the word nigger in ways forbidden to others? Why or why not?

Now I’ve struggled a bit with the n-word and other derogatory words, such as faggot, this year. For many non-Americans, these words don’t necessarily seem problematic. However, when they are used around me, I find it hard not to flinch.

For those of you who are less familiar with the n-word, or “nigger,” I thought I’d give you a short history of the word. The word comes from the Latin word “niger,” meaning black. It acquired its notoriety in the 17th century beginning with the Atlantic Slave Trade. Since then, it has generally been used in America as a demeaning word; one that is laced with hatred. It has been used in a number of ways and has appeared in many different forms, some more controversial than others. It’s common for American high school students to struggle through Mark Twain’s famous 1884 novel, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and to skirt, stutter, and attempt to avoid the novel’s many references to Jim, a saintly and kind slave, as a “nigger.” More recently, the rapper Nas tried to name his 2008 album “Nigger” but changed the title to “Untitled” due to pressure from leaders in the African American community. The National Football League (NFL) even tried to ban the word in 2014.

While my students were all correctly able to explain the n-word’s dark past, they struggled a bit more with the question of whether the meaning has changed and who should be allowed to use the word. Many of them talked about the word “nigga,” a derivative of the n-word that is usually interpreted to mean something like “bro” or “dude.” Most of my students argued that the usage of either “nigga” or “nigger” by African Americans was a way of taking ownership of the word, or limiting the power of the word to hurt, something that linguists call semantic inversion (other examples of this would include the gay community’s usage of words like “queer” and “dyke”). If you want a more thorough overview of either word I’d recommend this article on The Washington Post.

Where my students tended to differ was on who could use either version of the n-word. For some context was key, while for others the context didn’t matter. For some race also played a role, while for others it was irrelevant. To this day, the answer is far from clear in the US, and it is one that is argued about both inside and outside of the African American community. But I have to say that I was impressed with how critically my students were thinking about the word–something that is not always the case, as I’ve found out from living in international student housing.

And while discussing the history of the n-word and its usage was enjoyable, the part of the exam prompt that I enjoyed the most was having my students examine the use of the n-word in To Kill a Mockingbird (the rest of this is full of spoilers and will probably make more sense if you’ve read the book)All of my students were able to correctly tell me that the word is almost universally hurled as an insult by the book’s white population. The word comes up repeatedly and is even discussed within the context of the book. Atticus, the father of the protagonist, is the first person to tell the heroine, Scout, not to use the word, and makes it clear that it’s a “trashy” insult. From then on both Scout and her older brother Jem begin to take issue with the word, specifically when it comes to their father being critiqued for defending a “nigger” and being a “nigger-lover.”

What really made me proud however was when a few students were able to go a bit more in-depth and examine how the word is used by the African Americans in the book.* The only times that it is directly used is when Jem and Scout are brought to the local black church and during Tom Robinson’s trial. Both times the word is used to draw a distinction between the town’s black population and the town’s white population, and it is only used in a self deprecating way. It’s most powerful usage is probably when Tom Robinson explains why he ran away from a white woman trying to kiss him: “if you was a nigger like me, you’d be scared, too.” It’s the color of Tom Robinson’s skin that makes these advances troubling for the town’s population, what makes it impossible for the town’s jury to fully believe Robinson’s story, and ultimately what leads to his death. Robinson’s conscious decision to use a racial slur in his explanation perfectly captures how he is put in a life threatening situation purely based on the color of his skin. Having my students come to that conclusion on their own, and to even have one say “I never thought of it that way” was one of my teaching highlights for the year.

The n-word and other slurs have been something that has repeatedly popped up in my year here. I’ve heard many people use these words without thinking anything of it, and I’m sad to say that part of this definitely comes from the mass consumption of American media. They hear these words in American music and on American TV shows, and oftentimes it seems as though few stop to think about the history behind these words, the power of these words to wound, or to even care about these things. In fact, I’ve even had people argue that because they aren’t American or because English is their second language, that their usage of derogatory words is different and allowable, simply because it is placed outside of an American or native English speaking context. It’s something that I disagree with and something that I’ve struggled to explain this year. And although this topic generally has had me feeling a bit melancholy, I was incredibly proud of my students for taking the time to think critically about at least the n-word. I definitely left my class with a smile on my face.

*It also just made me happy since it showed that they had actually read the book.

17th of May

The 17th of May! Also known as Constitution Day, or in norsk syttende mai. The 17th of May is the Norwegian equivalent of America’s 4th of July, and although both holidays definitely have some overlap in the ways they are celebrated, there are also some notable differences.

One of the first things that I noticed right off the bat is that the 17th of May is a formal holiday. In America, our national day is celebrated in things like shorts and bro tanks, while in Norway, many Norwegians get dressed up in their bunads, or traditional Norwegian clothing. In Norway, a bunad is considered the most formal piece of clothing that you own–even more formal than black tie–and they are usually only worn for the 17th of May and for special events, such as weddings. The clothing itself is spectacular. Yards of intricately stitched wool is worn (which my co-teachers have told me is warm but incredibly heavy). I noticed that it was mainly the women and children who wore their bunads, while the men tended to prefer suits. Unfortunately, it was difficult for me to get any really good pictures of the bunads without seeming creepy, but you will still be able to get a sense of what they look like in the pictures. You might also notice that there are different types of bunads. This is because each region in Norway has its own traditional bunad pattern and design, with some being considered more desirable than others. I have to admit that I thought the bunads were marvelous, and I even half entertained getting one, at least I did until I casually asked one of my co-teachers about the cost. I was floored. For an authentic bunad, one that is done by hand and follows a particular set of traditional guidelines, the cost is around 20,000 NOK (2566.54 USD). Because of the exorbitant cost, it’s rare for people to buy the authentic versions. Children are usually given them (since they are smaller and less expensive) and young adults are usually given one at their confirmation (in their late teens). Because it’s not uncommon for adults to grow out of their bunads, it’s not unheard of to get a new one, although most people will then buy a cheaper and less authentic version.

Additionally, I would also say that the Norwegian national day is much more community and family oriented. Many people go to the day’s parades with their family or local groups, and because things are so community oriented, the festivities seem to be much calmer than they are in the United States.

However, one big similarity to the 4th of July is the parades. Parades are clearly the highlight of the day, although there were also a number of memorials, services, and performances going on throughout the day. The parades in Trondheim broke down into three different groups:

  1. Barnetoget – The children’s parade. Barnetoget is when children march with their schools into the city center. Many of the kids are dressed up in their bunads and walk into town singing.
  2. Folketoget – The citizen’s parade. Where different community groups band together and march in a parade. My TEDx Trondheim team was there, but so were a number of other groups, such as marching bands, dance groups, and a number of the university’s student organizations.
  3. Russetoget – The russ parade. When all of the drunk russ students march to the beat of their own loud stereo systems.

Because May 17th fell on a Sunday, a visiting friend, Olivia, and I decided to sleep in, thus missing barnetoget. We did however manage to make it to the city center with plenty of time to spare for folketoget. I even brought a small Norwegian flag with me. This didn’t fool many people though. I think the big indicator that Olivia and I were American was the way we answered the cheer, “hip hip.” The two of us would respond with “hurray,” while the Norwegians would shout “hurrah.” Oh, well.

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Folketoget was definitely an interesting parade to watch. There were so many different community groups that I didn’t even know existed in Trondheim. My favorite marchers were the ones in the photo above who marched on what I can only describe as a set of group cross country skis.

Afterwards, Olivia and I decided to have lunch in town before looking for the russ parade. We didn’t have to walk far before we found them–though I suppose we technically heard them before we saw them. The russ has gathered in a parking lot towards the beginning of the parade route and seemed to be having a blast. It was neat to see how even though all of these kids were collectively celebrating russ, each school was doing so in its own unique way. I was particularly impressed with the bunch that managed to all have Hello Kitty balloons.

Luckily, we didn’t have to wait long before the russ began their parade–and my students were actually the ones leading the charge! Their collective enthusiasm was both infectious and hilarious to watch. The students ran around and had plenty of parade floats, flags, confetti cannons, and of course, russ cards. I had shown Olivia my collection of russ cards, but my collection paled in comparison to the ones the children had. The average collection had to be about three inches thick, and many children simply shoved their collections into large plastic bags because they were simply too big to hold in one hand. Watching the children follow the russ go by was also interesting. It was clear that the kids idolize the russ students and look forward to one day being old enough to participate.

Now that the 17th of May, and thus russ, has come and gone, I even admit that I sometimes miss seeing the russ around with their bright red overalls and hearing advertisements for Russ playlists on Spotify. Still, it’s also nice to have everything settle down and returned back to normal. If you’re interested in hearing a different 17th of May perspective, definitely check out this post done by my friend and fellow Fulbrighter, Lud Baldwin.

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Testing and an Open Internet

Norway does not have the same test taking culture that we have in the United States. Going through the US education system I remember being regularly tested. Up through middle school, I remember taking at least one form of standardized test each year, and in high school I took the SAT in addition to several AP tests each year. On top of that, you also have your standard classroom tests.

In Norway, things are very different. Students are not assessed as regularly or as often as students in the United States. Homework is rarely assigned or handed in, and major assignments and tests are few and far between. The one glaring exception to this is the end of year mock exams and national exams.

Mock exams are designed to emulate the national exams and thus help students prepare for their exams. The name is a bit deceiving however because these exams still count towards a student’s grade. They are effectively final exams. Students have mock exams in all of their classes, but they will not have a national exam in all of their classes. When students first begin upper secondary school they are unlikely to take national exams, but as they continue to move up the education ladder they are tested more and more. Here’s how things break down for the college prep track:

  • First year in upper secondary school (Vg1) – Maybe 1 exam. Approximately 20% of students will be given an exam.
  • Second year in upper secondary school (Vg2) – 1 exam (Two thirds of students will take a written exam and the remaining students will take an oral exam)
  • Third year in upper secondary school (Vg3) – 4 exams (3 written and 1 oral) are necessary in order to graduate. It is required that one of the written exams is in Norwegian.

Rarely is a student given both a written and an oral exam in the same subject. Students aren’t told what subjects they’ll be tested on until a few weeks before their national exams.

Although students should be prepared to take an exam in any subject, I’ve been told that things hardly appear to be completely random. For example, it is rare for those in the sciences to ever be tested in the humanities. In essence, students are tested in their strengths. While there is some value to that, one of the downsides is that it’s easy for students to dismiss subjects that they don’t think that they will be tested in. For example, it is not uncommon for mechanics students to be blasé in their English classes, secure in the knowledge that they probably won’t be tested in the subject at a national level.

I’ve been told that national exams are good for schools because they give the school a good idea of how well the students and teachers are doing. As for the students, I’ve been told that although the national exams do not factor into their grades, their scores are looked at during the university admissions process and might even hold more weight than a student’s transcript.

One interesting development that has taken place in the last few years is the introduction of the Internet to the national exams. My school is participating in a pilot program that has the students to take their exams online and allows them open access to the Internet. Although this is technically a pilot program, everyone I’ve talked to agrees that the pilot program is not to determine whether or not students should have access to the Internet, rather it is to work out any kinks before rolling the system out across the entire country. So far there are no restrictions as to what websites students can access during the exams, meaning that in theory the students could spend their entire time on Facebook instead of on the exam. Maybe it’s just my suspicious American mind, but it seems to me that this leaves a very clear opportunity for students to plagiarize, cheat, and collaborate during an exam. The Norwegians on the other hand seem fairly unconcerned with this possibility. I suppose that’s what happens when you live in a largely law abiding society.

Beyond the possibility for cheating, I generally think open access to the Internet is a bad idea. First, from the teaching perspective, it makes it very difficult to know what to actually teach your kids. Because the Internet gives students access to so much information, the scope of the exam increases, making it more difficult to try and guess what will be on the exam. This forces teachers to focus more on breadth instead of depth, making them feel as though they have to cover more material in the same amount of time.

Second, I think that it makes it more difficult to encourage critical thinking. Because students are covering so much information in such a short span of time, it means that students don’t have as much time to really engage with texts. I think that the biggest thing education can offer students is how to think on their own. Because teachers aren’t able to cover topics in depth, this can prevent students from learning the nuances of a topic and allowing them to create their own informed opinions. It’s much easier to read an opinion piece on the Internet and regurgitate it on a test than it is to critically engage with the facts and come up with your own answers.

But so far it seems like only me and a few of my co-teachers have that opinion. I suppose we’ll just have to see what happens and hope for the best.