Health Care

I’ve been asked about the Norwegian health care system a few times, so I thought I’d write about my (thankfully) limited experience with it.

When I first came to Norway, I had to register as a resident and then wait for my personal number, the Norwegian equivalent of a US social security number. Once I had my personal number, I was then in the health care system and able to register for a doctor, or fastlege, either online or by phone (+47 815 70 070).*

Now I ran into a bit of trouble actually figuring out the fastlege website, unsurprising considering that it’s in Norwegian. This led to me calling the health care phone number. Now one important thing to know about Norwegians is that they excel at rule following and conflict avoidance. Conflict avoidance paired with one confused and frustrated person, me, did not lead to a great phone conversation. Our circuitous 30 minute conversation can pretty much be summed up below:

Me: Hi, I’d like to register for my fastlege
Customer Service: Who would you like to register with?
Me: Well I’m having trouble with your website and would just like to have a doctor who is based close to me in Trondheim.
Customer Service: I’m sorry I can’t do that. Normally people just call and tell me which doctor they want. I’m also in Oslo so I don’t know the Trondheim area well.
Me: Well can you assign me any doctor in Trondheim.
Customer Service: Well, no. I’m sorry, but this isn’t usually how things are done. You need to tell me what doctor you want. I can’t help you.

After much convincing, I finally managed to get the person on the phone to assign me a doctor. Though instead of assigning me a doctor in Trondheim, they decided to give me one in another city. So my first experience with the Norwegian health care system was a pretty frustrating one.

After that encounter, I decided to give up on the phone line and eventually managed to piece together parts of how the fastlege website works. Here’s a bit more about what I’ve learned. While the website is far from grand, you can narrow down the list of doctors to a particular city. The problem that I was running into was that it shows you all of the doctors in the city, not just those that are available. To make things more complicated for me and my limited Norwegian, the way you can tell if a doctor is available is by looking at the last column of the website, titled “Ledig.” Google Translate has “ledig” translate to “free,” which to me originally meant that the column should be filled with some equivalent of yes/no or true/false. Instead you’ll see numbers. One of my initial downfalls was thinking that the number stood for the number of patients the doctor currently has (a zero would mean no patients while a high number would mean that the doctor was stretched thin). The numbers actually tell you the complete opposite–how much availability a doctor has (a zero would mean that the doctor cannot take on more patients, while a number will tell you how many patients a doctor can take on). And it is here that my knowledge of the fastlege website comes screeching to a halt.

One other interesting thing to note is the way that a doctor’s prescription works. Because Norway is hip with technology, a lot of your information in Norway is tied to your personal number, and this includes prescriptions. In fact, you can usually just go to the local pharmacy, tell them your personal number, and have your prescription handed back to you. Your doctor just inputs all of your prescription information online, and it’s accessible to every pharmacy in the country. Pretty neat!

Having universal health care has certainly seemed great. I haven’t really had to use the health care system since coming here, but it’s clear that its very presence (rightfully) gives a good deal of comfort to many Norwegians. Many of my students have said that they find the US health care system confusing and expensive, before proceeding to tell me how awesome it is not worry about their health (part of the reason why I suspect they tolerate such icy streets during winter–they don’t have to worry as much about injuries). And while I am a supporter of universal health care, I will be the first to admit that I cringed when I saw more than half of a paycheck go to taxes. The welfare state certainly comes with a price, and while I don’t think it will ever fully reach the United States, it’s been great to see how well it works here in Norway.

*One neat thing about Norway is that once you have a bank account set up, it’s possible to use your BankID as a login for a number of Norwegian websites, including the one for your fastlege.

April Showers Bring May Flowers

Although the saying is “April showers bring May flowers,” in Trondheim the saying would be more accurate if it was “continuous April downpours bring a vague sense of spring and greenery in May.” It is true that spring has technically arrived in Norway. The ice has been gone since about early March, and nowadays I’m even able to see the occasional cluster of wildflowers. But, be that as it may, winter has yet to fully relinquish its icy grip in Trondheim. The weather was dreary for pretty much the whole month of April, and we were getting so much rain that I felt like, unbeknownst to me, I had moved to Bergen, Norway’s rainiest city and the rainiest city in Europe.

Thankfully, things have definitely improved a bit this month. While we still get more rain than I would like, we have also been blessed with some gloriously sunny days. That being said, it has yet to really heat up. Right now a warm day would be a day that hits 14°C (57.2°F). In fact, the weather has been so cold the last few months that it wasn’t atypical to see a few snow flurries or to get actual snow in late April. However, my co-workers have told me that this May has been unusually cold. And while most people seem to think the weather is getting a bit warmer, as proven by the fact that yesterday my co-teachers and I spent some time admiring the newly shirtless construction workers who are working on a new wing for the school, I still gaze at the temperatures for my hometown in Los Angeles and sigh longingly.

While the temperatures have yet to pick up, the daylight certainly has. Today’s sunrise and sunset times are 3:28 am and 11:02 pm. The result? It never gets fully dark in Trondheim. The closest we get to complete darkness is a sort of hazy blue period between sunset and sunrise. While the sunshine is certainly energizing, it does tend to throw off everyone’s sleep schedules and their schedules in general. It’s difficult to convince yourself to go to bed when the sun is still up, and it’s also hard not to panic when you wake up since the daylight seems to indicate that you’ve slept until about noon.

The resurgence of daylight also means that I’ve stopped getting coupons for free vitamin D pills in my inbox. The handy Norwegian version of Groupon, Let’s Deal, was always sending out coupons for free vitamin D tablets in the middle of winter, something that I generally found depressing instead of helpful. Likewise, the number of spray tans seems to be going down. There are a large number of tanning studios in most Norwegian cities (something that I had stopped noticing until visiting friends pointed them out to me), and while a large number of these studios offer tanning services, I’m also told that they offer light box therapy, or time with specially lamps that help people combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

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While I certainly welcome the return of the sun, I am also looking forward to some nicer weather. Here’s to hoping that June brings some warmer days.

Winter Fulbright Seminar

Thursday was the big seminar day. My last few months of teaching have meant that I have become more and more adept at lecturing last minute, and I was pleased to talk to some of the other Fulbrighters and realize that I was not the only one who had decided to put together their presentation at the eleventh hour.

The Fulbright Commission had organized our talks so that we each had a maximum of 10 minutes and that each group of presentations had 10 minutes at the end for questions. We were loosely grouped by similar topic and the themes were:

  1. Science of the Arctic
  2. Brain Matter
  3. Social and Political Life
  4. University Writing
  5. Literature and Poetry: Online and in the Classroom
  6. Arts and Learning
  7. Reflections on Education in Norway

As you can see, we are quite the diverse group of scholars, researchers, and teachers. Thankfully the organizer of the seminar, Rena, decided to put the sciences at the beginning of the seminar, stating that she would be better engaged with the more complex topics earlier in the morning. I happen to completely agree with her. By the time we got through the Brain Matter topic I had completely lost the thread of the scientific conversation and simply contented myself with reflecting back on the days when I actually remembered high school biology.

But that’s not to say that the talks weren’t interesting. All of them were fascinating (though my comprehension was not at its peak for some of the science ones), and I thought I’d highlight a few of the talks that really stood out to me:

  • Drumlins: my nonscientific explanation of a drumlin is that it is an ovular hill that is formed by glaciers. Nobody fully understands how they are formed (which is the object of this Fulbrighter’s research), but they have some really interesting implications for climate change. Apparently one of the biggest causes for rising sea levels is NOT the melting of glaciers, rather it is the speed at which glaciers are falling into the ocean. Drumlins play a role in that they can act as speed bumps for glaciers and thus slow down their movement into the sea.
  • Human Brain Size: This Fulbrighter aims to learn more about why humans have such big and complex brains. Apparently prior research has only targeted single explanations (food, communities, etc.) but this Fulbrighter wants to develop an explanation that addresses multiple causes for increased brain size.
  • Race and Ethnicity: One Fulbrighter is both teaching a class on race and ethnicity at the University of Oslo, and is also looking at how the two things are viewed in Norway. Interestingly enough, she has noted that there isn’t really a dialogue around race in Norway and that the Norwegian government makes no effort to track race or ethnicity, unlike say the U.S. census.
  • Digital Media: One scholar is looking at e-literature and explained how there can be vast differences in the preservation of e-literature versus classic printed literature. One of the biggest challenges is that changes in software make certain kinds of e-literature near obsolete since the programs or software systems that they run on are no longer in use.
  • Lower Secondary School Roving: I really enjoyed listening to the roving scholar that teaches at the lower secondary school (middle school – high school) level. One thing that I really liked about her presentation was the difference between how outsiders might view the schools versus the way the communities viewed the schools. Having traveled to a variety of locations, some of which are very remote, she commented that most schools have some piece of artwork in the lobby that highlights the way that the students and teachers view the schools. Oftentimes the artwork presents the school as more bustling and friendly than it might appear to be at first glance.

I myself was in the last group with the two upper secondary school roving scholars. Our topic was quite broad so the three of us talked about a variety of things. The two rovers addressed the lack of participation in Norwegian schools, the role of teachers in the classroom, and the connection between child poverty and education.

I decided to look more at student motivation, school structure, and homework. I was even able to talk briefly about my students’ obsession with Justin Bieber. No, I’m not kidding. One Direction is the runner up when it comes to being the heartthrob of choice amongst my Norwegian teenagers, but Justin Bieber seems to be the true ruler of their hearts.

Photo on 2-12-15 at 8.11 AMThe proof is all on my morning whiteboard.

Moving along, I think that the U.S. and Norway schools systems differ a lot in their structure due to student motivation. Disclaimer: I could only really speak about my own high school experience and would say that it’s hard to generalize my experience across the whole country.*

One huge difference that I see in U.S. students versus Norwegian students is their attitude towards university. When I went to high school everyone was incredibly motivated to do well in order to get into their school of choice and to qualify for things like scholarships. My Norwegian students on the other hand don’t really seem to worry about going to university. They are almost guaranteed a place at a university and the bigger question is which university they are going to go to. Additionally, university is free for them.

Furthermore, because U.S. universities place a great focus on having well rounded students, or Renaissance men and women, I found that there is a much greater focus on breadth instead of depth. Students are typically in class for around an hour, which allows them to take a variety of classes. Additionally, they can choose to be in more difficult classes if they wish, such as honors or AP level courses. In Norway, the shortest class period that I’ve worked with is 90 minutes and the longest is four hours. There are no options for honors or higher level courses, and it is actually illegal to have them, unless your school has a workaround with an IB program. In short, Norway has a greater focus on depth instead of breadth.

Another difference is that U.S. high schools have a variety of extracurricular activities that you can immerse yourself in. In fact, participation in these is encouraged partially because it is a huge component of the college application process. In Norway, extracurricular activities are unconnected with the school and are never asked for as a part of the university application process. Thus, students don’t seem to really be involved in any after school activities.

Lastly there is also a huge difference in homework. Now at my old high school, we were told that for a regular class we could expect 4-6 hours of homework per class per week. For honors level classes, the workload was higher at 6-8 hours of homework per class per week. From what I can tell, my Norwegian students would be having a pretty bad week if they were assigned 6 hours of homework for the whole week. One of the Fulbrighters who is a student here in Norway has even said that he knows university students who refuse to study on the weekends just out of principle. Overall I would say that homework is not assigned as regularly in Norway, the work that is assigned is short, and at the high school level there doesn’t seem to be an expectation that students will do the work. It reminds me more of university classes in the sense that teachers seem to adopt an attitude of “If you do the work you should pass and if you don’t you’ll probably fail. Either way it’s on you, the student.”

Overall, feedback systems and major projects tend to be lacking. I was talking to some of the other ETAs and we were speculating that the reason why so many Norwegian students struggle with writing at the university level is because they only write about five essays during their entire high school career.

I concluded by saying that while the U.S. might have a more rigorous curriculum, it can also be a bit more competitive. In contrast, Norway has a greater focus on depth in their education system and the students are more relaxed. Both systems have their pros and cons and hopefully we will get an education system somewhere in between the two.

During the Q&A I was asked by an embassy official whether or not I thought the more relaxed attitude of Norwegian students is related to the comprehensive welfare system that exists in Norway. Funnily enough I have talked to some of my co-teachers about this very question and I think that the answer is yes. In the United States higher education is much more closely linked with better jobs and financial security than it is in Norway, and I believe that this helps push American students to perform. In Norway, my students don’t have to worry about falling through the cracks, and even if they do, they have a good safety net to catch them. The welfare system in Norway provides for its citizens in many ways, and one of the biggest ways is that it helps alleviate the worries associated with poverty. It’s possible for my students to leave school and still do very well in Norwegian society without higher education. And while that is truly a wonderful thing, it also does seem to affect classroom performance. Many of my co-teachers have said that students are much less focused or driven than the students they’ve had in previous years, or when Norway was a poorer country.

BUT the seminar was not all that we did on Thursday. Once we were done, we made our way to the U.S. ambassador’s residence. The way was slippery and my shoes were not the best for sliding on ice (one Fulbrighter took so much pity on me that he offered me a piggyback ride), but we all made it to the residence in one piece. We had a great time mingling with the various guests, listening to the final two Fulbright presentations, and of course eating.

Currently the U.S. doesn’t have a Norwegian ambassador, but the flip side of that is that the chef was quite excited to have someone to cook for. I have to admit, he really outdid himself. The dinner was scrumptious. I did get a bit held up though when after grabbing a plate of food I was drawn into conversation with an embassy official. Luckily he noticed after a while that my hand carrying my very full plate of food was beginning to shake and let me run off and eat. I would clearly make a terrible waitress.

I do have to say though that the culinary highlight was dessert, entitled “The World’s Best Cake.” Now with a name like that you both have to eat the cake and be skeptical of it. It was in fact pretty fabulous. It was covered with meringue on the base and the top, as well as slathered with cream. In fact, I don’t know anyone who didn’t go back for seconds. I even asked someone at the embassy if they could get me the recipe.

But we couldn’t stay at the residence indefinitely. Having boozed and schmoozed for several hours, all that was left for us to do was to return back to the hotel and dream of skiing in the morning.

*Interestingly enough you can pretty much generalize across Norwegian schools. Many of the schools are very homogenous in terms of curriculum. Abby, the Bergen ETA, and I teach the same course and use the same materials even though we’re in different cities and counties.

Winter in Oslo

It seems as though the theme of February is Norwegian travel. The day after I got back from Røros I was yet again off on another trip. For those of you who are wondering, I do in fact really enjoy Trondheim and my travels do not reflect a desire to escape from it. This time my trip was somewhat mandatory. I was off to Oslo for the winter Fulbright seminar and ski retreat.

The seminar itself was on Thursday, but I was able to fly in on Wednesday. Because I arrived in the afternoon, I had some time to walk around the city. Having really loved my visit to Vigeland Park in August, I thought I’d pay it another visit to see if I could catch some snow on the park’s statues.

Unfortunately it was too warm for snow, but not too warm for ice. The park’s paths were incredibly icy, and to make matters worse the ice was melting. Because ice has more or less disappeared in Trondheim, I have stopped wearing ice grips on my shoes and didn’t bring them with me to Oslo. So when I initially saw the icy roads going through Vigeland Park my face fell. Lucky for me, I have managed to develop enough skill when it comes to walking on ice that I managed to avoid falling.

IMG_9397  IMG_9389  IMG_9401IMG_9417  IMG_9422  IMG_9432IMG_9446  IMG_9466  IMG_9493IMG_9472  IMG_9507  IMG_9483IMG_9514  IMG_9520  IMG_9524Even though I didn’t get to see any snow on the statues, I still had a great time walking around and seeing the park in winter. Vigeland Park still remains one of my favorite Oslo sights.

From there, I went back to the hotel to meet two other Fulbrighters, Alyssa and Meghan. The three of us set off on the 1 subway line for Frognerseteren. Our goal: sledding. Not just any sledding though, we were going out to Oslo’s most popular run, Korktrekkeren, or the Corkscrew. The run is 2000 meters (1.24 miles) long with an elevation drop of 255 meters (836 feet). The course starts at Frognerseteren and ends at Midtstuen, seven subway stops away (approximately a 13-20 min ride). The course itself is free, but the sleds are not. There are two kinds of sleds, wooden and metal, and Alyssa told us that we should rent the metal ones. Apparently when she and her friends had tried renting the wooden ones many of them were broken or falling apart.

Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures. Because we went late in the evening, my iPhone wasn’t able to do justice to either the course or the magnificent view of the Oslo skyline. Overall, the sledding was incredibly fun and the run took us about 15 minutes from top to bottom, not factoring in the subway ride. A few things to note are:

  1. The course is groomed every evening so it’s best to do the run in the morning. By the time we went, there were a number of snowy mounds that had formed, which depending on the size of the mound meant that you either caught some air on your sled or simply slammed into the mound.
  2. I wouldn’t recommend going on a weekend since I’ve been told that it’s absolutely packed.
  3. Lastly, there is only one restaurant at the subway stop, so if you intend on eating be prepared to either eat at the restaurant or to bring your own food.

Rørosmartnan

This past week proved to be incredibly relaxing because school was out. My upper secondary school was off for winter break so I had the entire week to myself. Since I had just gone to Sami Week up in Tromsø, I thought that my next adventure should be a bit closer to home. Luckily Røros is only a 2.5 hour train ride away from me, and it just so happens that their annual winter market, Rørosmartnan, was going on during my winter break.

Rørosmartnan has been taking place since 1644, and it began as a way for hunters to trade their products with the local miners in exchange for supplies. Due to a royal decree issued in 1853, Rørosmartnan is now held for five days starting every penultimate Tuesday of February. It attracts around 75,000 people every year (keep in mind that the population of Norway is just over 5 million so this is quite substantial), and consists of street markets, live entertainment, and cultural programs.*

The first time I went to Røros was in October on a day trip with Alix. Unfortunately, Alix wasn’t able to make this trip down to Røros, but I was accompanied by two other friends, Nicole and Juliana.

Now I generally have a soft spot for the Norwegian train system. Coming from California and its near nonexistent train system, pretty much any functional train system is an upgrade. The trains in Norway are generally pretty good in that they are clean, large, and have wifi. My one quibble with the more regional trains is that they don’t announce stops. This means that I’ve generally been dependent on asking my neighboring Norwegians if I have arrived at my destination (which has been an entirely effective strategy). Luckily, since I had already gone to Røros, I pretty much remembered where the stop was. To make things even better, pretty much everyone on the train was getting off at Røros. While the three of us had decided to make a day trip out of Røros, there were a good number of people on the train who had suitcases and looked as if they intended to stay for several days.

The market itself was excellent. Røros is a fairly small town, but its two main streets, and even a few side streets, were overflowing with people and stalls. Considering that Tromsø’s winter market consisted of only three stalls, I was excited to see how much was on offer in Røros.

IMG_9234  IMG_9235  IMG_9236IMG_9238  IMG_9245  IMG_9344IMG_9248  IMG_9253  IMG_9266IMG_9262  IMG_9264  IMG_9247As you can see from the pictures, there was lots variety when it came to the different products for sale. I was also very pleased to see that Elmo and Winnie the Pooh seem to be fairly universal.

There was also quite a bit of diversity in dress, as shown with the huge fur winter coats. Additionally, a number of Sami attend Rørosmartnan, and there were a number of traditional Sami crafts on sale, such as the leather bracelets shown above. I walked away with a number of products, but the thing I was most proud of purchasing was a Norwegian sweater! Being short means that I am occasionally able to buy a children’s size, and I managed to leave with a lovely children’s sweater for just 200 NOK (26 USD). Considering that most nice non-itchy Norwegian sweaters sell for upwards of 1,500 NOK (197 USD), I was really satisfied with my purchase.

After wandering around some of the stalls, Nicole, Juliana, and I walked around the rest of town. Now you may remember from my previous October post that Røros in one of Norway’s coldest towns, and in 2010 temperatures were recorded as going below -44°C (-47.2°F), so I was hardly surprised to see huge mounds of snow, even though most of the snow and ice has disappeared from Trondheim. One thing that we did appreciate about the market was that there were plenty of outdoor and indoor areas where you could sit and have warm food and a hot beverage.

IMG_9276  IMG_9278  IMG_9283IMG_9270  IMG_9285  IMG_9293IMG_9296  IMG_9297  IMG_9298IMG_9301  IMG_9306  IMG_9326Unfortunately, the slag heaps were really icy so we didn’t get to climb up the bigger ones, but we still managed to get quite a nice view of the city. From there, we went to the local church to catch the beginning of the sunset, and we eventually situated ourselves at one of the local eating joints to have some hot tea and listen to live music before catching the train home.

All in all this was probably one of my favorite trips in Norway.

IMG_9356  IMG_9353  IMG_9363*Since moving to Norway I’ve noticed that I’ve become incredibly averse to crowds. The number of people at Røros probably wouldn’t have bothered me when I just moved to Norway, but having lived here for over six months, I found the number of people at the fair suffocating. To make matters worse, Norwegians are unaccustomed to crowds, which means that they are bad when it comes to things like moving out of the way and (accidentally) hitting people with their elbows, backpacks, purses, shopping purchases, skis, etc.

Vitamin D, Where Did You Go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chugga Chugga Choo Choo

Again, I’m really not very creative with titles, but, in case you can’t tell, I was on a train! After a drawn out series of family debates, my Dad and I decided to spend part of our Christmas holidays in Vienna and Salzburg. To get there we decided to go by train. Now, you’re probably wondering how long that takes. The answer: four trains, four cities, and about 26 hours. We went from London St. Pancras to Vienna via Brussels, Cologne, and Prague. Yes, it took awhile. Yes, this travel plan was part of our family debates. But hey, we made it.

Our first stop was in Brussels. Unfortunately, it was only for about an hour so we didn’t bother to leave the station. But, this did mean that we had a chance to wander around and explore the station. The one thing that really intrigued me was the special charging stations that they had. Instead having standard outlets, they had outlets that were connected to bikes. In other words, if you wanted to power your electronics you had to be prepared to hop on a bike and power them yourself. I had used my laptop for a bit on Eurostar (I’m sad to report that they did not have wifi) and decided to try testing out this bike system in order to charge my laptop for a bit. The system definitely worked, although I don’t believe it charged my laptop as quickly as a regular outlet would. But, it was a fun experiment. I was also thoroughly impressed by the middle aged woman next to me who managed to pedal her bike, charge her phone, and talk on the phone all at the same time. Granted, she wasn’t able to sustain this for too long.

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From Brussels we boarded an ICE train to Cologne. Unlike the last time I boarded an ICE train, this time I was supposed to be on it. Like the last time, it was an incredibly pleasant experience. The seats were plush, the atmosphere was nice, there was wifi, and we were even offered snacks and drinks. Before we knew it we were in Cologne.

Now I had heard two very different things about the city. One friend living in Germany told me that Cologne was supposed to be nice, while my German cousin told me “I can’t stand Cologne, although the Rhine bridge and the cathedral are nice.” So my Dad and I arrived in Cologne without a clear idea of what to expect. We had about three hours to kill and it just so happens that the Cologne Cathedral, one of the two things that my cousin likes, is right next to the train station. Unfortunately we arrived around 7:15 pm and couldn’t go inside, but we contented ourselves with walking around the cathedral and taking a few pictures.

IMG_6417  IMG_6412  IMG_6414

But, not all was lost. We were very lucky because Cologne’s Christmas market is right next to the cathedral. So, once we had finished taking pictures of the cathedral we spent our free time wandering around the market. In retrospect I think it’s probably the best Christmas market that we went to.

IMG_6430  IMG_6434  IMG_6436 IMG_6440  IMG_6445  IMG_6451 They sold just about everything. They had Russian dolls (as you can see in the picture), Christmas baubles, food, Christmas drinks, and more. The market was pretty large so we managed to spend a good two hours or so there just snacking and looking around. The Christmas market closed at 9pm so after that my Dad and I made our way back to the train station to wait for our night train to Prague.

IMG_6483  IMG_6476  IMG_6479 The night train wasn’t anything special and we managed to get to Prague without a hitch early the next day. We had about an hour before our final train to Vienna and so we went for a quick walk around Wenceslas Square (above). It was here that in a happy twist of fate I happened to catch up with my Brazilian roommate, Nicole, and her boyfriend. I knew that she was spending Christmas break in Prague but didn’t bother to tell her that I would be there since I was only there for an hour. I figured the chances of us meeting were pretty remote. Guess I was wrong!

After we boarded our train to Vienna it was all a matter of just sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying the final stage of our journey. We spent the majority of our trip going through the Czech Republic (for a better idea of our trip I pinned all of the major stops we made on the Map page) and I managed to snap a few pictures before we crossed into Austria.

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Füssen and Neuschwanstein

Having been born and raised in Los Angeles, I have always had a slight obsession with Disney and Disneyland in particular. Going to Disneyland as a child was the highlight of any day, and I admit that going to Disneyland as an adult is still pretty fun. So when Julie suggested that Michael and I take a trip to Neuschwanstein, the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty castle, I was more than happy to agree.

The game plan was to take the three hour train ride from Munich’s central station (Hauptbahnhof) to Füssen, where Neuschwanstein is located. We struggled a bit when it came to actually leaving the house in time to catch the morning train, but luckily the trains runs regularly enough that it was fairly easy to buy a ticket for a train leaving around noon. The confusing thing about the train tickets was that they didn’t have any information printed on them beyond the fact that we had purchased them for the day. This made Michael and I a bit worried since the tickets didn’t list the train times or platform numbers. At a bit of a loss, we wandered over to the information desk and asked for help. To our surprise (and later on Julie’s), the woman at the information desk printed out all the information we needed for our trip to Füssen, including information on where we needed to switch trains and the platforms we need to be at. More than just a little bit grateful we then went in search of brunch.

Having been told multiple times, usually by Alix, that the Turkish food in Munich is amazing, the two of us found a well rated Turkish place on Yelp and decided to check it out. We gleefully followed Google Maps to the restaurant only to pull up short once we were outside. It was a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. Now I have nothing against vegetarian/vegan meals, but Michael and I had definitely been thinking about having something with a lot of meat in it. We tentatively walked in and inquired if the signs outside the restaurant were accurate. Turns out they served chicken! Not all was lost.

It was with big smiles and happy stomachs that we eventually left the restaurant, and we caught our train in plenty of time. The plan was to take one train to Augsburg and then transfer to Füssen. Thanks to the lady from the information desk things went smoothly. The train ride itself was also beautiful. We even saw deer!

IMG_5794  IMG_5806  IMG_5810 IMG_5816  IMG_5819  IMG_5822 Once we arrived in Füssen we decided to take a cab up towards the castle. Luckily the cab drive was only around 5 minutes and cost about 10 euros. The cab dropped us off at the foot of the mountain and we decided to walk the rest of the way up to the castle, following Julie’s recommendation to do the Marienbrücke hike, a 30 minute endeavor.

IMG_5826  IMG_5827  IMG_5829 We eventually made it to the castle and it was worth the trek. We didn’t actually go inside the castle for two reasons 1) apparently you have to buy tickets at the foot of the mountain–something that we had neglected to do 2) Julie had informed us beforehand that the interior of the castle was originally unfinished, making modern day attempts to finish it a bit disappointing.

IMG_5838  IMG_5845  IMG_5851 IMG_5862  IMG_5875  IMG_5878It was around this point in time that Michael and I encountered a slight dilemna. Before we had set off on our adventure, Julie had told us that if we wanted to get the classic shot of the castle from a distance we should follow the path labeled Marienbrücke. Following Marienbrücke had led us to the castle, but it was clear that we were not in a position where we could get the panoramic view. We texted Julie to make sure we had the right path, and were again told to follow Marienbrücke. Still confused, we left the castle courtyard and sure enough saw a sign indicating that Marienbrücke continued beyond the castle. Now feeling less confused, we continued along the path until we got to a bridge. Once on the bridge, Michael and I were finally able to take the classic picture of the castle. I would say that the trip was worth it for that view alone.

IMG_5884  IMG_5885  IMG_5903Julie had also told us that we could visit another castle in the region called Hohenschwangau. Unlike Neuschwanstein, this castle has a finished interior, but at this point Michael and I were ready to call it quits. It also didn’t seem like anything could compete with the view we just saw.

On our way down the mountain, we were accosted by a man dressed up like a king and wheeling around a baby carriage. The strange thing was that the baby carriage contained beer and had beer cans trailing behind in. On our train ride down to Füssen one of our ticket collectors had tried to talk to us about “the king of the mountain.” It was in this moment that Michael and I realized that this must be who he was referring to. Our conversation with the king went as follows:

King of the Mountain: You English?
Us: Yes, we’re Americans.
King of the Mountain: Perfect! You must help me with my question!
Member of the king’s entourage: No dude, it’s quest. Not question.
King of the Mountain: Yes, my quest. You must help me with my quest!
Us: Uh, what does that involve?
King of the Mountain: You give me three euros for a picture and I also give you free beer!

This seemed like a decent deal to us, so having given the man a few euros we finished our walk down the mountain with a beer in hand and later on with a pretzel.

After waiting for the bus to take us into town and later waiting for the train, Michael and I finally began our journey back to Munich. This time we ended up having to take three trains instead of two. When we arrived in Augsburg we happily boarded the next train leaving for Munich and didn’t really bother to look at our surroundings. Once we sat down, it was very clear that we were on a much nicer train than any of the other trains we had taken that day. The seats were comfier, there was wifi, and people were dressed in suits drinking beer out of real glasses. We glanced around, glanced at each other, and more or less shrugged it off. We figured that if we were on the wrong train the ticket collector would let us know. To our great surprise, the ticket collector did not bother to check our tickets and after about two stops we were in Munich. When we told Julie what had happened she told us that we had definitely been aboard an ICE train, which was something our ticket did not cover. I suppose ignorance is bliss.

We ended the day at a restaurant that Julie suggested, Weinhaus Schneider. She mentioned that it was a fondue restaurant and both Michael and I happen to love cheese. After a bit of a wait, we were led to a table and given an English menu with a German alcohol menu. I zeroed in on a red wine, while Michael attempted to figure out German beer brands. We ordered and soon realized that we were wrong on two counts. While Michael and I thought we had figured out which section of the menu was selling beer, it turned out he had inadvertently ordered wine. German: 1 Michael and I: 0. The second surprise was realizing that instead of cheese fondue we were simply cooking our food in some sort of oil. After we realized our mistake, we snuck a few glances at our neighbors to make sure that we eating things correctly. While it was not the cheese extravaganza we had hoped for, it was still quite good. Afterwards we hopped on the S-bahn for the last time that day and made our way back to Julie’s apartment.