Tips for Visitors to Norway

I’ve had several people come and visit Norway, and for those whom I wasn’t able to see, I came up with a general list of tips for visitors. Enjoy and go visit!

  1. Norway is expensive, so come in with that expectation. Don’t come in thinking that this will be a cheap holiday; HOWEVER, now is a great time to come since the dollar is strong.
  2. Norwegians generally speak superb English so I wouldn’t worry about language barriers.
  3. We use the Norwegian kroner. Yes, there are three types of kroner in Scandinavia (Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian). No, Finland is not a part of Scandinavia (they use the Euro).
  4. In the event that you don’t want to carry cash, never fear. Cards are accepted almost universally.
  5. Keep in mind what time of year you’re visiting Norway. In the summer you’ll experience very long days, while in winter your daylight will be minimal. If you’re visiting in winter you’re also going to want to invest in some sort of crampon type things for your shoes. I know a lot of people liked using Yaktrax.
  6. If you plan on drinking, buy all of your alcohol at duty free since booze is expensive (think $12 for a beer at a bar). If you’re flying in from abroad you’ll notice that:
    1. You will have to pass through duty free anyway in order to leave the airport.
    2. All of the Norwegians are also going there to stock up on booze.
  7. It’s pretty easy to get a SIM card if you want data. Go to a Netcom store (they are everywhere) and ask for a 14 day SIM card/starter pack. It’ll cost you 99 NOK (12.27 USD). More info here at this old blog post.
  8. It’s actually really easy to get around Norway. 
    • The train system can be found at nsb.no/en. Tickets are usually very affordable if booked in advance, the trains are clean, relatively new, AND they have wifi. 
    • For flights you qualify for youth tickets if you are under 26.
      1. Finding the youth tickets on SAS is a bit of a hassle, but it can be done and tickets apply for both domestic and international flights. 
      2. Norwegian Air also has youth prices, but only for flights within Norway (code UNDER26). They also have the newest planes and wifi on all of them. I love them. 
    • If you’re coming at the right time of year you can also snag some great ferry trips on the Hurtigruten ferry (combination of a postal ferry and cruise ship). 

Quirky Norwegian Things

I’ve had a number of draft posts sitting around that never quite seemed to make it onto my blog, but, as it’s time for me to start wrapping up my scribblings on Norway, I thought I’d give these drafts some body and talk about some of the quirky Norwegian things I’ve noticed here in list form.

  1. Overall, I would say that Americans tend to fall into the action based go-getter category. Norwegians on the other hand tend to be a bit more passive and like to avoid conflict. In my experience, this has led to a few interesting interactions. Sometimes my assertiveness can lead to things happening, while at other times it seems to cause people to shut down.
  2. Norwegians tend to be a bit anti-social. In fact, many of my students have said that when they go to the States they are considered rude. It’s not uncommon for people to avoid eye contact on public transportation, resist striking up conversations with strangers, and sometimes just go out of their way to avoid people. One Norwegian told me that she’s perfectly happy to hop into a nearby store if it means avoiding saying hi to someone.
  3. Norwegians have a large amount of respect for personal space. A bus in Trondheim is apparently considered crowded if you have to sit next to someone. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to stand on the bus in order to avoid sitting next to someone.
  4. Norwegians tend to avoid being very expressive unless drunk. This tends to lead to interesting situations, especially around drunken social events like julebord, or Christmas parties. One Fulbrighter mentioned getting a guide on how to deal with the aftermath of a drunken julebord party, including what to do in the event that you hit on your boss.
  5. Norwegians are shockingly law abiding and have a large amount of common sense. In the middle of winter, people would light streets with candles (since street lamps are somewhat uncommon), and as far as I could tell this harmed neither people nor candles–if this were to happen in the States I would predict fiery madness.
  6. If you ever go to dinner with Norwegians, you might hear the phrase “Norwegian elbows.” In Norway, there is no need to ask someone to pass a dish–just grab it!
  7. Taco Friday is a tradition in Norway, where the “Mexican” food in the supermarket is discounted on Fridays.
  8. Alcohol is expensive in Norway, so home brewing is pretty popular, as is raiding duty free whenever flying in from abroad, and buying alcohol in Sweden.
  9. Norwegians tend to have what I like to call the Norwegian sigh. They will do something that’s  somewhere between a sharp intake of breath and a sigh. If you encounter it, don’t worry it’s not an asthma attack, just a sign of agreement.
  10. Smoking! Most Europeans seem to smoke like chimneys, but this is generally not the case in Norway. Snus, powdered and packaged tobacco, is preferred. That’s not to say that smoking doesn’t happen in Norway, it’s just that it’s not very common. This makes sense considering how cold it is for most of the year. In fact, on Svalbard the smokers apparently have a smoking bus, an old bus where people go to smoke since no one wants to smoke in negative degree weather.
  11. Once winter starts to approach, Norwegians become obsessed with candles. Lighting candles is important to create a sort of cozy feeling, referred to as koselig, and I would also argue that it actually helps you get through the winter months.
  12. In Norway there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing
  13. Tanning salons are incredibly popular here
  14. Cod liver oil is considered nothing short of the fountain of youth. It’s a medical cure all.
  15. Norwegian roads seem to be constantly undergoing construction. While I found this a bit silly in August, when perfectly good roads seemed to be constantly being repaved, this now makes much more sense in June, when a number of the roads have pretty significant potholes in them from winter.
  16. Although there are debates as to how fit Norwegians are, on the surface Norwegians seem to be incredibly active. People LOVE cross country skiing in winter and constantly seem to be moving year round. I kid you not, I once saw an elderly man on his bike going faster than the bus that I was riding on (and no the buses here aren’t slow).
  17. Many people dress and style themselves similarly. Most of my students seem to have the same closets (granted there isn’t as much diversity in clothing as there is in the States), and they all seem to have the same two or three hairstyles.
  18. Sunday is the day when everything shuts down. It’s a day set aside so that people can spend time bonding with their families, with the most popular bonding activities being hiking and skiing.

These are just a few of the things that I’ve noticed, but if you’d like to learn a bit more about Norwegian culture, I’d recommend The Social Guidebook to Norway, a book that I recently discovered filled with fun and accurate comics on life in Norway.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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The Bacon Bus: Or Grocery Shopping in Sweden

Like I mentioned, grocery shopping in Norway can be a bit pricey, especially when it comes to meat and alcohol. The solution to this? Go to Sweden!*

Trondheim is conveniently located close to the Swedish border and there is a free bus that runs from Trondheim to Storlien. Just to give you an idea of how much traffic this place must receive from Norway, the bus is free and the shopping center seems like it’s the heart of the town (though calling it a town might be a bit of a stretch).

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As you can see, Storlien is literally as close as you can get to the Norwegian-Swedish border.

The bus is quaintly nicknamed the fleskbussen or “bacon bus” because many of the people take the bus to buy cheap bacon. When I took the bus I used the Thorleifs Bussreiser system and called ahead (+47 72 55 33 94) to make a reservation on the bus.

Getting there takes about an hour and a half, and the bus leaves you about an hour to shop before returning to Trondheim.

As for prices, two kilos of boneless chicken costs around 120 NOK and beer is cheaper at about 70 NOK/six pack (and thankfully the stores accept Norwegian kroner). Other forms of alcohol are also cheaper, but for alcohol over 3.5% you have to order in advance, usually at least two days before your trip. In order to do this you have to go to the systembolaget website, select the appropriate shop (in this case Åre), select your desired alcohol, and checkout. An email with a confirmation code will be sent to you and you have to present this code at the store in order to pick up your purchases.

Funnily enough, it’s not just broke college students who try and take advantage of the cheap alcohol and meat in Sweden. About half of my bus was filled with non-college students, and the elderly man sitting in front of me actually asked if I would pretend to own half of his alcohol in the event that we were stopped by customs. To my surprise, there were no customs or passport control at the Swedish border, and as far as I could tell it seems like you can cross the Norwegian-Swedish border without having to do anything special.

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*I’ve even heard of people flying to Poland to go grocery shopping since the total cost is still less than it would be in Norway, but I have not reached those levels of desperation.

Vinmonopolet

This past week I made my first stop to the wine monopoly, or vinmonopolet. Alcohol in Norway is prohibitively expensive and also more tightly controlled than it is in the United States. All drinks that have an alcohol content higher than 4.7% (strong beer, wine, and liquor) are exclusively sold in the vinmonopolet.

Again, alcohol in Norway is expensive. For those of you who have Skyped with me, I like to think you have learned that references to Trader Joe’s three buck chuck are prohibited since I’ve more or less gone teetotal in Norway. So, for those of you who are curious about how much things really cost (and keep in mind that these prices are just what I’ve experienced in Trondheim) here’s a short summary:

  • A “girly” drink (Smirnoff Ice, cider, Bacardi Breezer, etc.) will typically cost you around 70 NOK (10 USD) at a bar
  • A beer out depending on the quality of the bar and the beer will probably cost you anywhere from 90 NOK to 110 NOK (13 to 16 USD)
  • Wine out will probably cost you around upwards of 100 NOK a glass (14 USD)
  • Normal beer at the supermarket for a cheap brand will cost you around 30 NOK (4.40 USD) a can–and yes it’s okay to pull beers out of a six pack and just buy however many you want

And now I can finally answer the question of how much a bottle of wine at the store actually costs here in Norway. To be frank, when I went to the vinmonopolet I was really just looking for a decent bottle of red wine to give as a thank you gift. Because I was in a bit of a hurry I didn’t spend too much time in the vinmonopolet, but from what I could see the cheapest wines were around 90 NOK (13 USD), with most wines being in the mid-100 NOK range. It’s been a bit of a shock to find wine that I was formerly able to buy for 5 USD at nearly double or triple the price.

I didn’t peruse the liquor too carefully, but it seemed like most prices were approximately what you would find in the US if not a bit higher.

I will say that overall the vinmonopolet was actually quite nice. The people working there were very friendly and helpful and thankfully were willing to accept my Norwegian residence card as proof of identification. I will even say that the store had a hint of sass–I appreciated how boxed wine was candidly labeled “Bag in box.”

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Arrival & Oslo

Fast forward to the present. I am in Norway, and it turns out that I’m not alone–my parents are here! My dad has been dying to get back to Norway ever since he took a trip there 45 years ago, and my mom has never been to Scandinavia. Thus, they both saw my trip as a great reason to travel to Norway (though I think they technically told me that the purpose of the trip was to make sure that I was properly settled in). I can’t complain though since the company is appreciated and going with my parents means that I get to knock a few things off of my Norwegian bucket list early on. The current plan is to fly into Oslo and explore for two days before catching the train to Bergen. After staying in Bergen for a few days we are catching the Hurtigruten ferry up the coast of Norway until we land in Trondheim. After we land I assume that a lot of unpacking and Ikea raiding will commence.

Everything went pretty smoothly once we arrived at in Oslo. Immigration was easy to go through since all they needed was my passport and confirmation from immigration (UDI) that I had been granted a temporary residence permit. The thing that really struck me about the airport was that in between immigration and baggage claim was a large duty free shop. The first thing that they were selling (and that many people were rushing to buy) was alcohol. I was warned before my trip that alcohol in Norway is prohibitively expensive so I had to smile watching people claim their reasonably priced alcohol while they could.

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Note: only 3 of the 5 bags are technically mine

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My first glimpse of Norway

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I kid you not, at least 40% of the duty free store consisted of alcohol

 

You can see a bigger version of all of these photos by clicking on them.

After we checked into our hotel we set off on our first adventure. First stop: Bygdøy (note the partial mastery of the Norwegian keyboard–that and copy and paste). In order to get to there we decided to take a ferry which gave us a great cityscape view of Oslo.

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Bygdøy has most of Oslo’s maritime museums, and I was determined to see the Viking Ship Museum before stopping by the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History, also known as the Folkemusem. The Viking Ship Museum was both impressive and small. The main attraction is, yes you guessed it, a huge viking ship. The museum actually has three ships but the other two are smaller, simpler, and more run-down than the main ship. Considering that the Vikings lived from the 8th to the 11th century, the size of these ships and their attention to detail is stunning. While the ships themselves don’t have very complicated designs carved into them, the items that archaeologists managed to preserve from these ships showcase the Vikings’ skill and creativity.

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The Folkemusem was a completely different experience from the Viking Ship Museum. First of all, it was huge. The museum covers Norwegian history from 1500 onwards and has approximately 34 acres and 160 buildings. Not all of these buildings contain exhibits and many of them are simply traditional Norwegian buildings that you can visit and explore. Most of the buildings we looked at were old Norwegian farmhouses, guest houses, and storage buildings. The thing that initially surprised me was how much more ornate the guest houses were when compared to the farmhouses. The guest house was the first building that I walked into and had drawings painted on the walls and nice furniture. When I then decided to poke my head into the neighboring farmhouse I was expecting something fairly similar. To my surprise the farmhouse was sparse and contained no decorations. When I asked a guide she explained that this was because you want to provide your guest with the best of everything. Unfortunately I couldn’t take any pictures for comparison, but here are a few pictures museum and the exteriors of some of the buildings.

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After the Folkemuseum we decided to walk around the docks before calling it a day. One thing that struck me was how many modern buildings there are in Oslo. I’ve never been a huge fan of modern architecture but some of the buildings here are just stunning. My favorite building was an apartment building that was right next to the water. Apparently the water is pretty clean because they had a swimming station complete with diving board right into the harbor. Some more pictures below and more to come tomorrow.

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