Newspaper Struggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home Sweet Home

I’ve been back in Norway for the last three or so weeks, but a combination of sickness and laziness have prevented me from blogging about the present until now. Clearly blogging regularly is not one of my New Year’s resolutions. Anyways, now that I’ve gotten back into the swing of things I’m happy to continue typing out my random thoughts and experiences.

I will say that one of the things that surprised me upon my return to Trondheim was realizing that I consider Norway home. Granted I was sick when I arrived, so being able to sleep in my own bed and consume American meds definitely contributed to my excitement, but not even my tiny college bed and modern medicine could entirely account for the level of happiness that I experienced when I came back. So it seems a bit fitting that I should take a moment and reflect on my experiences thus far and the reasons why I love Norway:

  1. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking and it’s never far away. I wouldn’t label myself as outdoorsy, but I definitely appreciate that nature is never more than a short walk away. Plus, the reindeer are a pretty huge perk.
  2. As a whole, things function really well here. Things tend to run on time, everything works, wifi is everywhere, and you can accomplish quite a bit (banking, travel arrangements, public transportation, grocery store discounts, etc.) on your smartphone.
  3. Overall Norwegians seem to be super active, which means that I’m guilted into exercising.
  4. Norway is an incredibly safe country. I’ve seen five year olds take the bus without assistance and I’ve been told that people regularly leave their young children outside and unattended to nap.
  5. There is a huge focus here on family and less of a focus on work. Almost everything is built to be child and stroller friendly, there are playgrounds everywhere, and Sunday is pretty much a day dedicated to spending time with your family. I’m not a huge fan of the fact that everything shuts down on Sunday (or is super expensive if it’s open) but it’s still nice to walk around and see a lot of families getting in some quality time by going skiing/hiking/running together. The childcare and other welfare benefits for families are also pretty incredible from what I’ve heard.
  6. Work scheduling is really flexible. It’s pretty easy for me to lesson plan at home and I’m really able to take ownership of my time. Granted I, as well as most other teachers, probably have a more flexible schedule than most Norwegians, but overall work scheduling seems to be pretty accommodating.
  7. The small population. Having lived in Los Angeles and Boston for most of my life, I have to say that I enjoy cities. In fact, I’m pretty used to living in crowded areas. That being said, it’s nice to have things be a bit smaller. The biggest perk: public transportation is almost never crowded. Seriously though, Norwegians think having to sit next to someone on the bus qualifies as “crowded.”
  8. A pretty functional public health system (I promise to blog more on this later).
  9. I’m pretty sure that I will never live anywhere more expensive, which means that when I travel everything seems ridiculously cheap.

Now that’s not to say that there aren’t some things that I struggle with or critique. I mean people go out of the country just to buy groceries and alcohol. It’s a bit ridiculous. But any country is bound to have its pros and cons, and overall Norway’s pros weigh heavily in its favor.

It’s recently hit me that in the six or so months that I’ve lived in Norway I’ve come to see it as home. And the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve come to realize that I would actually be quite happy to live here for another few years. Just living here these past six months has shown me why past Norwegian Fulbrighters keep returning to Norway, whether it is to stay permanently or just to visit. And while I don’t intend on moving to Norway permanently, it’s still pretty cool to realize that I’ve fallen in love enough to consider staying for an extended period of time.

Rome Wrap Up

Even though I was pretty travel weary when I arrived in Rome, I still managed to really enjoy the city. Here are my tips and tricks:

  1. Rome is a city that you can easily visit multiple times, so there is no need to rush through the city.
  2. I went in winter and I have to say that going during the off season was a good choice. You can still expect crowds at all of the major tourist attractions, but they are pretty manageable. I think the longest wait that I had was about an hour.
  3. Rome is a fairly walkable city. All of the buses that I saw were packed, but I’ve heard that the subway is pretty functional. You can use this website to figure out how to navigate the public transportation system, though be aware that things generally don’t run on time. If you want to avoid public transportation, all of the big tourist sights are probably within an easy 20-60 minute walk no matter where you are in the city.
  4. All of the fountains in Rome offer clean water that you can easily fill a water bottle with. Now when I say fountain I don’t meant that you should dip your water bottle into the nearest Bernini fountain, I mean small water fountains that are scattered throughout the city.
  5. When ordering water at a restaurant it will be bottled (and expensive) unless you specifically request tap water.
  6. Many sights are close to each other so be sure to glance at a map beforehand so that you can be efficient with your time.
  7. If you are a Dan Brown fan and want to follow the major sights listed in Angels and Demons check out this blog.
  8. People in Rome eat late so many restaurants won’t open until late.
  9. I was warned by pretty much everyone I know to watch out for pickpockets in Rome. Honestly as long as you keep an eye on your things and take preventative measures such as zipping up your pockets you’ll be fine.
  10. You do not need to tip at restaurants since a service charge is generally included.
  11. Sights run by the city of Rome should be free on Sundays.
  12. On Sundays the Pope occasionally appears at noon to give blessings to people in St. Peter’s Square.
  13. Many churches have their most famous pieces of artwork in shady corners. Many of these shady corners have lights that are activated when you feed a few euros into a machine.
  14. Have gelato
  15. Italians HATE it when you don’t have exact change so try and keep track of those pesky coins.
  16. While reservations and tours would probably enhance your experience in Rome I was honestly just fine without them. That being said, the standards for tour guides are quite rigorous so if you do hire a guide you will probably have someone who is very knowledgeable about the city and its major sights.
  17. For me the permanent must sees were: the Pantheon, St. Peter’s Basilica (go through the catacombs and the climb up to the dome), Villa Borghese (you should probably make reservations for this, although you can try and weasel your way in), Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, Church San Luigi dei FrancesiSanta Maria Maggiore, Roman Forum (you can buy combination tickets for the Coliseum and the Roman Forum so buy them at whichever sight has the shortest line), Coliseum, Piazza Navona, and Trevi Fountain (though it’s currently undergoing renovations).
  18. The temporary must sees were: the M.C. Escher exhibit at Chiostro del Bramante and the Henri Cartier-Bresson exhibit at the Museo dell’Ara Pacis

Church on Sunday

Sunday was my last full day in Rome, and because I was a bit travel weary I decided to take it pretty slow. My initial plan was to spend the majority of the day across the Tiber River. I had yet to visit the Vatican or Castel Sant’Angelo so I was planning on visiting both sights that day. Plus, it seemed appropriate to be going to the Vatican on Sunday.

Unfortunately, I got a bit of a late start in the morning, so by the time I walked across the river, had lunch, and arrived at Castel Sant’Angelo it was early afternoon. I had read online that the castle closes at 2 pm on Sundays, and when I took a look at the line it was pretty clear that by the time I managed to get inside the castle would be closing. So instead of getting in line, I snapped a few pictures before heading off to the Vatican.

IMG_8305  IMG_8309  IMG_8312IMG_8322  IMG_8333  IMG_8332IMG_8330  IMG_8347  IMG_8318Iman was feeling better today so she met me at the Vatican. Now remember how I said I didn’t book any tours? This still holds true for the Vatican, though it’s the closest that I got to taking a tour in Rome. I’ve had a ton of friends give really good reviews of Rick Steves’s Walking Tours so I decided to test one out while I waited in line for Iman. I didn’t get far in the audioguide, but what I heard was pretty good. Here’s a bit of what I learned: St. Peter’s Basilica was built on the site where St. Peter was crucified and buried, and the current church was created in two stages. The old church was left intact while St. Peter’s was built around it. Once the newer building was complete, the old church was knocked down and moved out. The columns in front of the Basilica are built in a circular shape since they are supposed to represent the welcoming arms of the church. Basically it’s supposed to be a big hug. The statues that adorn the columns are ten feet tall and each represents a different saint. Originally it used to be quite difficult to see the dome since when you approach the church the facade hides the dome (see below). It wasn’t until Mussolini closed off the street leading up to the Vatican that people were able to get a good view of the entire structure.

IMG_8356  IMG_8368  IMG_8371IMG_8374  IMG_8375  IMG_8377IMG_8389  IMG_8410  IMG_8405Although the line to the Vatican was long, I have to give them credit and say that it did move pretty quickly. Without too much ado, Iman and I were let inside the church after about thirty minutes. It was well worth the wait. It was stunning.

IMG_8419  IMG_8416  IMG_8421IMG_8467  IMG_8438  IMG_8451IMG_8473  IMG_8431  IMG_8454After we walked around the church, we took stairs down to the catacombs and saw what we think was the grave of St. Peter. We’re still not entirely sure since talking was not encouraged in the catacombs and all of the signs were in Italian. The grave of Pope John Paul II was towards the exit and we paid our respects before leaving.

After that all that was really left for us to do was to climb to the top of the dome. Now there are two options for the ascent. You can either climb the whole way to the top (around 550 stairs) or take an elevator up about halfway and then take the remaining set of stairs (around 350 stairs). Considering that Stephansdom in Vienna was around 340 stairs and I found that to be plenty, I was happy to pay the extra two euros and pass the first 200 or so stairs on the elevator. After a bit of a wait, we caught the elevator and were whisked up to the base of the dome. From there you could get a really good view of the dome’s artwork before continuing up to the top.

IMG_8485  IMG_8482  IMG_8489IMG_8493  IMG_8500  IMG_8497There were two things that surprised me on our way to the top. First the complete lack of handrails. When I mentioned this to Iman she just laughed and said something along the lines of “Welcome to Italy.” The second thing that surprised me was that the stairwell actually curves to match the curve of the dome. This means that you couldn’t stand up straight as your approached the top of the dome, otherwise you would risk hitting your head on the curved ceiling. But soon enough we were at the top. The views were great and were enhanced due to the fading daylight. We had inadvertently timed our ascent with sunset.

IMG_8503  IMG_8505  IMG_8507IMG_8508  IMG_8511  IMG_8510IMG_8518  IMG_8519  IMG_8521Once we were done we began the descent back to street level.

I did have to laugh at the public toilets at the Vatican. Based on their signs it’s clear that the male dominated church has only recently had to include female restrooms.

IMG_8535  IMG_8541  IMG_8538IMG_2294  IMG_8556  IMG_2296Now one of the great things about Sundays in Rome is that apparently sights that are run by the city (usually things like museums) are free. My original plan was to go to the Capitoline Museums, but cold symptoms made me decide to cut my day short. Overall I had a great day though. I don’t happen to be religious, and going to a Lutheran school from a young age means that I am definitely not Catholic, but it was it was really nice to go to such a holy place. Even though I don’t share the beliefs of many of the visitors, it was still very touching to see how much St. Peter’s meant to them.

Bymarka 2.0

Because Alix and I traveled so much during the week, we decided to take this past weekend a bit slower. In traditional Norwegian fashion, we decided to go on a Sunday hike. So this past Sunday, we along with several other families piled onto the tram to go to Bymarka.

The last time I went to Bymarka was in September, but I was quite happy to go again because Bymarka is a fairly large city forest. It is 80 square kilometers (just over 30 square miles) and contains 200 kilometers (124 miles) of hiking trails, which means that there was still much we could explore. Unfortunately, because it was mid-October and we’ve experienced rain the last few weeks, most of the trails were fairly muddy. On the plus side, Alix has gone to Bymarka more often than I have and she was able to direct us around the many bogs that have formed in the park.

I have been told by people who love me that some of them really just like the pictures I post, so here are a few for you to look at. Unfortunately, our trip to the Lofotens has spoiled us a bit, and Alix and I were definitely less appreciative of the landscape since it couldn’t really compared to what we had just seen up North.

IMG_1137  IMG_1129  IMG_1144 IMG_1143