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). 

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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New Year’s Eve

So I didn’t bother writing about the 30th since we spent the day going back home to the UK from Salzburg. How did we do that you might ask. By train. I’m currently very happy not to be taking a train anytime in the near future. Though to be somewhat fair this time it took less than 26 hours.

Anyways, on to New Year’s Eve. As much as I enjoy traveling with my Dad and spending time with him, I decided that I would rather spend NYE with friends. It just so happens that I know a few Italian Fulbrighters and we all agreed to meet up in Rome.

So I dutifully packed up my things on NYE and took an afternoon flight out to Rome. When I landed I encountered my first surprise: people in Italy eat late. After I landed I managed to send a message to my friends letting them know that I was 1) alive 2) awaiting transport from the airport into the city. It was then that I was told that we would be eating at 9pm. Now I’m the sort of person who normally starts eating any time between 5 to 6 pm. Even 7 pm on an adventurous day, though I make notable exceptions when visiting the Taylor family (love you guys). So to me a 9 pm dinner seemed like madness. Then again I wasn’t actually due to get into the city until around 8 pm so I figured I’d just roll with it.

As for getting into Rome, I had initially planned on taking the train; however, the man at the ticket office convinced me to take a shuttle since he claimed it would be faster. So I paid the extra euro and hopped onto the shuttle with around seven other people.

Now having heard terrible things about the taxis in Rome, my attitude towards cars in Rome was more or less the same as my attitude towards New York City taxis, which is: pay, buckle up, and pray. Turns out my logic wasn’t totally off. After about 15 minutes of driving, we heard a loud bang and a continuous grinding sound. Our driver appeared completely unconcerned with the state of things. My fellow passengers and I were not in the same mind frame. Once it became clear that our driver had no intention of pulling over, one of the other passengers finally pointed out that we had probably blown a tire. I’m not sure if this speculation  just didn’t phase our driver or if he simply didn’t understand what we were trying to say, but he continued to drive until a few more concerned murmurs got him to pull over at a rest stop. To give him credit, we had not blown a tire, and from the quick way our driver hopped back into the car he didn’t see anything that troubled him. But as soon as the car got going the grinding sound continued. Eventually whatever was causing the noise fell off the car, and I suppose it will simply remain an unsolved mystery. Anyways we made it to Termini Station without any more problems and I made it to my hostel safe and sound.

So I got settled in and then headed out to meet friends for our now 9:30 pm dinner. I’m not going to lie I was pretty hungry at this point. Luckily food was forthcoming and I tried Rome’s specialty, carbonara. So it was over pasta and a bottle of wine that I got to catch up with friends, Gargi, Matt, and Naji, and meet new ones, Dan and Iman. With the exception of Matt, all of them are Italian Fulbrighters, so I had fun learning more about what it’s like to be living in different parts of Italy.

I particularly enjoyed talking to Gargi since she has my same ETA job in Sicily. I found out that our students are pretty different and, from I could tell, this largely seems to be a product of the different cultures that we work in. Here are some of the biggest differences that we talked about:

  1. Italian students apparently chatter all the time. From my very brief experience in Rome, Italians seem to be both social and loud people. In Norway, I often face very silent classrooms and Norwegians (at least from an American perspective) are practically antisocial. I have never had a real problem with my students interrupting me or talking when I’m lecturing, a fact that I am now more grateful for.
  2. Gargi also mentioned that her students don’t always do the best job when it comes to paying attention (see point 1). Most of the time my students at least appear like they are paying attention. Plus I occasionally have them play games based on my lectures, which of course requires them to listen to what I’m saying. Now like most teachers, I am fully aware that my students spend a good portion of their time on Facebook (and don’t think I know), but I prefer this to them talking when I’m lecturing.
  3. Language abilities also seem different. From what Gargi told me it looks like Italian students have a lower level of English than my Norwegian students, or at least the ones that I teach in the college track. Turns out starting a language in preschool and kindergarten really pays off.
  4. Lastly our students also have different vocational tracks. I had a good time talking to Gargi about a tourism track that she works with (obviously reflecting the fact that tourism is one of Italy’s biggest industries). In contrast to this, I’ve worked much more with engineers, people going into alternative energy, and the shipping industry. To be fair, being based at the science and technology university significantly skews my viewpoint.

But back to NYE. In classic European style it took us about two hours before we managed to leave our restaurant. So it wasn’t until around 11:3o pm that we finally managed to extricate ourselves and walk towards the Roman Forum. It was here that I learned my second major Italian lesson: in Italy rules are really just suggestions. Both low and high grade fireworks were being set off sporadically, and many them were clearly being set off by amateurs in the middle of the street. There were even a few times that we were concerned for the surrounding trees since they were being peppered by fireworks. Despite the madness around us, we managed to buy a bottle of champagne and get a good fireworks watching position by the Colosseum. This means we managed to ring in the New Year in some sort of style, though unfortunately we did not manage to find glasses for our bottle of champagne. Oh and of course the fireworks went off late. But hey, as one of my new friends succinctly said “It’s Italy…what did you expect?”

From there we wandered to one of Rome’s many piazzas where we bar hopped into the wee hours of the morning.

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Off to Munich: Stranger Danger on Planes

I was told a few months ago that I one of my Friday classes was cancelled so I was really excited to plan my first trip out of Norway. It just so happens that one of my college roommates, Julie, happens to be working full time in Munich and was happy to host me. So I eagerly booked my flights and even managed to get another friend, Michael, to come along. Because Michael was flying in from a different city, we agreed to meet at Julie’s suggested airport location, Airbräu, which also happens to be a beer garden.

When I actually boarded my flight to Munich I think I was in a state of disbelief since it hadn’t really sunk in that I was 1) leaving the country 2) seeing some friendly faces in the very immediate future. I reached a second stage of disbelief when the only other person in my row happened to be American. Now, I’m generally not the sort of person who talks to people on planes. It’s not something that I’m opposed to, but it generally isn’t something that I seek out. In this case, having seen so few Americans in Norway, I was more than happy to chat with my aisle mate. Little did I know that the conversation would eventually take a turn. While the conversation started out with the standard get to know you questions (Where are you from? What do you do? Why are you going to Munich?) it morphed into getting career advice and the suggestion that I should take a Myers Briggs test to identify my strengths. While the conversation became a bit preachy I decided to simply nod along and thank the man when he said that he would pray for me. If only it had stopped there.  As the plane was about to make its descent into Munich, my aisle mate turned to me and asked me if he could give me one last piece of advice. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but it was not for this person to give me a lecture on chastity and the virtues of saving oneself for marriage. Luckily the plane was just about to land, so I didn’t have to do much other than courteously nod my head and smile, but as soon as I disembarked I rushed to meet Michael so that I could tell someone about my plane ride. Needless to say, both Julie and Michael told me that I should stop talking to people on planes. Lesson learned: no airplane buddies.

After Michael and I met up, we snacked and drank for a bit at the beer garden and the local McDonald’s before following Julie’s incredibly precise instructions to her apartment. The trip took us about an hour, but overall things were fairly navigable. We managed to ride both the S-bahn (subway) and the bus without a hitch. Luckily the ticket for the S-bahn happens to also work on Munich’s tram (U-bahn) and bus system, though to be honest our bus driver took so much pity on us somewhat lost Americans that he waved us onto the bus without bothering to check our ticket.

While the trip to Munich was not the smoothest trip that I’ve ever had, it was nice to end the day lounging in Julie’s enormous couch, talking with friends, and exchanging strange airplane stories.