Oslo Wrap Up

I adore Oslo. It’s one of my favorite European cities and one that I’ve never gotten tired of.

  1. DO NOT TAKE A TAXI. Taxis in Oslo charge a minimum 200 NOK (24.80 USD) fare. You should absolutely take advantage of the public transportation system, especially since it works pretty well. The apps to use are RuterBillett (to buy tickets) and RuterReise/Google Maps (to plan out a trip and navigate the system). Note: you don’t actually have to validate your transportation tickets (and you can freely walk through the barriers in the subway system), but they do randomly check to make sure that you have tickets. The fines are very steep if you’re caught without a ticket (~150 USD) so just keep that in mind if you decide not to buy one.
  2. In order to get to the city from the airport you’ll either take the flytoget (airport train) or the flybussen (airport bus). The train is much faster, but depending on where you’re staying the bus might drop you off closer to your accommodations.
  3. The city’s main street is Karl Johans Gate and quite a few major sites are near it as is a ton of shopping.
  4. The Oslo Opera House is quite possibly my favorite site in Oslo. It’s a stunning piece of architecture and you’re free to walk in it, on it, and around it. The view from the roof also isn’t half bad. I would highly recommend either doing a tour of the opera house or going to see a performance there. The opera is required to sell 100 tickets at 100 NOK (~16 USD) for every performance so it’s pretty easy to get affordable tickets and good seats.
  5. Absolutely go to Vigeland Park (which is in Frogner Park). The park is a ways away from the city center so I would recommend taking the tram or subway, but the sculptures are great and it’s nice to just walk around.
  6. Definitely pay a stop to Bygdøy peninsula. Depending on the time of year, you can reach it by either bus or by ferry. If the ferry is running I would recommend taking it, even if it’s just to get a view of the city from the water. Here’s what you can see there:
    • Viking Ship Museum – It has three different viking ship relics + a few other Viking things. It’s kinda cool to go and see but there isn’t actually much to do at the museum
    • Folkemusem – Great if you want an overview of Norwegian history and culture. It also has 24 acres of land with 160 different kinds of historic buildings. If you’re dying to see a stave church and won’t make it out of the city then definitely stop by.
    • Fram Museum – Unfortunately I haven’t spent enough time here. What I did see what great, especially if you’re interested in Arctic exploration and/or ships (plus all of the other major ship museums are literally next door).
  7. The Nobel Peace Center – Does a pretty good job of talking about the Nobel Peace Prize and the latest winners. I would recommend going if you want to learn more about the prize.
  8. Nasjonalmuseet (The National Museum) – A pretty good museum and the location of Munch’s famous The Scream. It’s small though so it’s pretty manageable to do in about an hour or two.
  9. City Hall – If you can manage to go to the room where they give out the Nobel Peace Prize you should since it’s stunning. I’m pretty sure that they organize tours.
  10. Ekeberg Park – Go if you want a good view of the city (but if it’s a cloudy or foggy day maybe give it a pass). It’s an interesting place since it also has a ton of famous artwork scattered throughout the park (Rodin, Salvador Dali, etc.). Walking down from the park to the city will also give you the same backdrop that is painted in The Scream.
  11. Holmenkollen – Go if you want to see the famous ski jump, walk around the forest, and get a good view of the city. I’ve heard that the museum is also pretty good and has a ski jump simulator.
  12. Vigeland Museum/Mausoleum – There are actually two Vigeland sculptors, and this is a “museum” done by the less famous brother. It’s a bit outside of the city center, but if you have the time to check it out it’s pretty neat.
  13. If you want to see some nice graffiti/street art go check out the area around Mathallen (food hall).
  14. If you are there in winter, you absolutely have to check out Korktrekkeren, a large sledding area that will take you about 15 minutes to go down. It’s fantastic. For the best sledding go early on a weekday.

Berlin in a Whirlwind

One of the best and worst things about being a teacher is your ability to wake up early. I’ve regularly gotten up at 6 am in order to get to school early; however, I was largely hoping to sleep in for most of the conference. It was not to be. On the third day of the conference, Abby and I agreed to a 7am breakfast in order to try and get 8 am tickets to the dome of the Reichstag. Unfortunately, the 8 am time slot was already filled, but we were able to get tickets for later on in the day.

IMG_0391  IMG_0393  IMG_0395Undeterred, we set our feet in another direction. When we walked to Brandenburg Gate two nights before, one of the Fulbrighters had taken us to the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered Under the National Socialist Regime (Germans are not fans of short memorial names). The memorial happens to be almost next door to the Reichstag, so Abby and I thought we’d stop by and see the memorial during the day.

The memorial is located in the Tiergarten and is actually quite calming. It was designed by Dani Karavan and is supposed to be deprived of everything except tears, which are represented by the fountain in the middle of the memorial. The stone in the center of the fountains has new flowers placed on it each day and the stone rises and sinks over the course of the day, deliberately concealing and revealing the flowers. According to the information pamphlet, this is supposed to serve as a way to remember the tragedy anew each day. There is also recorded Sinti music playing in the background, which only adds to the ambience of the memorial.

IMG_0396  IMG_0398  IMG_0400IMG_0402  IMG_0405  IMG_0409Once we were done, we headed past Brandenburg Gate, to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The Memorial was officially dedicated in 2005, and is perhaps better known as the Holocaust Memorial. It was built by Peter Eisenman and is made of 2,711 concrete slabs. From a distance, the memorial doesn’t seem very tall, but the street actually dips down and begins to undulate, making you feel slightly off kilter when you walk through it. While it might seem a bit impersonal, it is certainly powerful. It grows more and more disorienting the longer you stay in it.

IMG_0411  IMG_0414  IMG_0416IMG_0422  IMG_0424  IMG_0427From there, we took a short walk through the gorgeous Tiergarten and appreciated the early morning sights and sounds. After a bit of a wander we stopped by our last World War II memorial, the Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted under the Nazi Regime. The memorial is very nondescript. It was designed by Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset and when you look into one end of the cube you’re able to see a looped video of a gay couple kissing.

IMG_0429  IMG_0438  IMG_0431IMG_0439  IMG_0444  IMG_0449Although our memorial tour made for a sobering morning, it was interesting to see how the Germans have grappled with and taken ownership of their history. While the memorials to the gay community and the Gypsies were not nearly as grand as the Holocaust memorial, it was still nice to see these other persecuted groups recognized in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city.

But, because Abby and I were on a bit of a tight schedule, we didn’t dally too long in the park. We rushed past Brandenburg Gate in the hopes that if we were quick enough we would have some time to go do the Berlin Cathedral before the start of the day’s conference events.

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Luckily the two of us are quite accomplished power walkers. We made it to the Cathedral with 30 minutes to spare before the day’s first event. Now before Abby and I rushed in, we had to stop and laugh at the door. The two of us are both around 5’3” (160 cm) and the door handle to the church came up to about our eye level. Now I like to think that we would’ve been considered tall back when the church was completed in 1905, so I find the height of the door handle a bit surprising, but oh well. The door didn’t stop us for long.

After we purchased our tickets, we took a quick walk around the center of the church before rushing up stairs to the dome. Although we were in a hurry, we did manage to slow down and appreciate the view from the top of the cathedral. It was a pretty neat sight, especially since this was our first sunny day in the city.

IMG_0476  IMG_0482  IMG_0480IMG_0486  IMG_0490  IMG_0492IMG_0493  IMG_0496  IMG_0497But time was ticking and we had to tear ourselves away so that we could make it to that morning’s first panel. Still, we were still pretty happy to get so much in in just two hours.

Our first event of the day was at Rotes Rathaus, or Berlin City Hall. It is currently the home of Berlin’s Senate and mayor, though historically it used to be the town hall of East Berlin. The first thing on that morning’s agenda was a “European Dimensions Panel,” where people residing in more out of the way countries got a chance to present. The countries represented were Andorra, Bulgaria, Finland, Turkey, and Spain. The presentations really ranged in their content, but it was generally interesting to hear from each representative. If anything, it convinced me that I should explore Andorra at some point.

I will also say that the arbitrator stumbled a bit since he habitually called Sweden, Denmark, and Finland Scandinavian countries. This left the Norwegian crowd a bit confused as to when we had been dropped from Scandinavia and the Finns a bit confused as to when they had been added. For the record, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway comprise Scandinavia, while Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland make up the Nordic countries. But overall, things went quite well for this set of presentations.

After that, there was a short coffee break before we heard a welcome speech by Mark Rackles, the State Secretary for Education. Rackles oversees the Berlin education system in particular, and allowed time for questions at the end. Unfortunately for Rackles, he was largely overrun with questions that were a bit beyond the scope of the Berlin education system. For example, he was asked to provide information on Berlin’s Olympic bid and when the new airport might finally be finished.

But all’s well that ends well. Before too long the questions ended, and Abby and I were off to make our appointment for the Reichstag dome. This ended up being my favorite stop of the day. We had to get there slightly ahead of our 1:30 appointment for security purposes, but once we cleared security we were taken into the building and whisked up to the top floor in an elevator. Once we stepped out we were given an audioguide and told that we could walk around the dome.

Now I’m generally not a huge fan of audioguides. I’m often just too impatient to wait and listen to all that is recorded. To my surprise, the audioguide was excellent. There was no need to press any buttons, and the audioguide started once you began your walk up the dome. The guide also managed to monitor your walk, and if you happened to travel past whatever the audioguide was talking about, it smoothly transitioned into the next track, allowing it to consistently give you relevant information.

IMG_0512  IMG_0513  IMG_0514IMG_0523  IMG_0517  IMG_0519IMG_0535  IMG_0529  IMG_0538As for the building, here are some of the more important events that were mentioned in the audioguide:

  • In 1894, the Reichstag was completed under Paul Wallot.
  • In 1918, Philipp Scheidemann declared Germany a republic from the Reichstag.
  • In 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire shortly after Hitler came to power. The search for the arsonists was used as a way to end parliamentary democracy and begin the persecution of political opponents.
  • In 1945, the Soviet flag was flown over the building to demonstrate victory over National Socialist Germany.
  • In 1961, the building was restored, although it was later reconstructed by Sir Norman Foster.
  • In 1995, Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the building in fabric. The building’s unveiling marked the start of the building’s reconstruction under Sir Norman Foster.
  • In 1999, Sir Norman Foster presented the President of the Bundestag with a symbolic key to the building and the Bundestag moved in.

After walking up and down the dome, Abby and I took some time to enjoy the view before heading out for some chocolate.

IMG_0527  IMG_0532  IMG_0544IMG_0548  IMG_0560  IMG_0545IMG_0565  IMG_0563  IMG_0570IMG_0571  IMG_0572  IMG_0573That’s right, our next stop was a chocolate store, but not just any chocolate store. We went to the Ritter Sport store. Not only did it provide us with excellent chocolate, but had we chosen to stick around, we could have purchased our own customized chocolate. Unfortunately it takes 3o minutes to create and process your own chocolate, so Abby and I decided to give it a pass. We did not leave empty handed though, and we were able to snack away on our walk to the Pergamon Museum.

IMG_0580  IMG_0581  IMG_0583Now you if take a look at the picture above, you can see a few cranes. That’s because the Pergamon is currently undergoing renovations. But the museum was still open! Lucky for us, there are still about two floors of the museum that are accessible to the public.

I didn’t have a clear idea of what to expect of the Pergamon, but boy was I blown away. The Pergamon has a number of famous antiquities, notably the Pergamon Altar, Market Gate of Miletus, the Ishtar Gate and Processional Way from Babylon, and the Mshatta Facade, and these things combine to help make the Pergamon the most visited museum in all of Germany.

I knew none of this going in, so I was pretty stunned when the first thing that I saw was the Ishtar Gate. Unfortunately it was too large for me to capture on my camera, but you get the idea.

IMG_0584  IMG_0587  IMG_0588The gate itself is only a small part of what the original would have looked like. The gate was originally part of Babylon’s northern city wall and was dedicated to the goddess Ishtar. The animals that decorate the gate are bulls and “dragons.”

Right through the gate is the Market Gate of Miletus. It’s a spectacular recreation of a Roman trading town in what is now Turkey.

IMG_0589  IMG_0591  IMG_0590Now I thought that we had actually reached the end of the museum at this point. Due to the reconstruction work, we had entered the museum back to front. Normally you would enter through the Market Gate of Miletus, and then pass through the Ishtar Gate. Abby and I quickly figured things out and did a U-turn. It was only then that we noticed the Processional Way. It was hard not to be blown away at this huge Babylonian walkway. I admit, if I had been an ancient invader, I would have been thoroughly intimidated by the wealth on display.

IMG_0597  IMG_0601  IMG_0598The remaining sections on the ground floor were also impressive. Thanks to Jenny Bionda, Abby and I were told that if we kept our eyes peeled we’d be able to see replicas of some of the artwork that ISIS has been destroying in Iraq (see below). Unfortunately, while much of what was on the ground floor was impressive, there were definitely a number of pieces that were replicas, including the Iraqi pieces below.

IMG_2912  IMG_2910  IMG_2913Once we finished with the ground floor, we moved up to the Museum für Islamische Kunst, the Museum of Islamic Art. There was a wonderful array of Islamic art with plenty of paintings, carpets, and ceramics, on display. The most impressive thing however was probably the facade of the caliph’s palace of Mshatta. The facade was made in the 8th century and was originally located in Jordan. Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II gave the facade to Kaiser Wilhelm II as a gift after the king expressed interest in the palace. Family and friends take note, your gift giving could be improved.

Another impressive room in the museum was the Aleppo Room, a reception room of a 17th century Christian merchant. The wood paneling and the design work was absolutely fabulous.

If you haven’t noticed yet, the Pergamon has a large number of magnificent reconstructions.

IMG_2925IMG_2917  IMG_2921  IMG_2924IMG_2916Now you might think that Abby and I would have called it a day at this point, you would be wrong. We actually powered through to another museum. Yes, our feet were dying at this point. But that didn’t deter us! Our next stop was the nearby DDR Museum, a museum that focuses on the GDR and life for East Germans.

The first thing I noticed about the DDR Museum was that it was crowded. Remember, even though I live in Norway’s third largest city, its population is only around 172,000 people. I have now become completely inadequate at handling large numbers of people.

The museum is also clearly designed for families, and is thus highly interactive. Maybe too interactive. The museum had a lot of really interesting information, but unfortunately it was unclear how you were supposed to walk around the museum and you often had to open up special compartments and drawers in order to read any of the information plaques. In short, it felt a bit disorganized. I did learn quite a bit however, and here are a few of the facts that I found most interesting:

  • A nudist movement developed in East Germany despite the displeasure of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED). Even though the Germans were repeatedly asked to “spare the eyes of the nation,” the trend continued until about 80% of Germans swam naked. Lucky for them, only about 10% of the population was uncomfortable with such blatant nudity. According the the museum, this trend came out of a desire to do something forbidden, not a desire for sexual liberation.
  • The German Democratic Republic (GDR) was in dire economic straits due to the way that they organized their economy.  The GDR was forced to import raw materials and often didn’t have the necessary cash to pay for them. In order to generate the money to pay for these materials, it was forced to sell basically whatever it could lay its hands on–including the cobblestones! To make matters worse, Western countries wouldn’t buy East German products, and everything that could be sold was sold at the cheapest possible price. Because of this trade imbalance, it was often difficult to buy things in East Germany, creating a huge black market.
  • Because the SED marginalized the church, it became a political rallying point, eventually attracting thousands of people in the 1980s and helping launch peaceful revolution.
  • Interestingly enough, the GDR has a claim to fame since it was technically the greenest state in the world. Provisions for the environment were written into the constitution in 1968, although in reality the government was far from green.
  • Although I didn’t learn this fact at the museum, I thought this would be an appropriate place to put it. The traffic man, or pedestrian crossing signal in Berlin, more fondly known as ampelmännchen, was actually from East Germany. It attained a sort of cult status and is one of the few things that survived from East Germany.

IMG_0749                                                                                                   IMG_0751After that, Abby and I finally made our back to the hotel for dinner. However, we weren’t there for long. Thanks to a recommendation from Alix, our Norwegian Fulbright group had signed up for a classical concert at Piano Salon Christophori. Thankfully Alix warned us that it was in an old S-bahn station and a bit difficult to find. With her warning ringing in our ears, we didn’t get too discouraged when we had a few problems finding the appropriate door to the salon.

We weren’t allowed to take any pictures of the salon, but I would say that it would best be described as in artful disarray. There were old instruments haphazardly stacked around the salon, with a space cleared for seats and for the performers. Because we made a reservation beforehand, we had a row of seats reserved towards the front of the room, and were able to just sit back, relax, and enjoy the concert. It wasn’t the best concert that I’ve ever been to, but it was nice to just sit down and appreciate the music. To make things even better, drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, were provided and we all felt very Berliner. Once the concert was over, we made our donations (the concerts are all donation based) before heading back for an early night at the hotel. 

Conference Beginnings

The first day of the conference was mostly devoted towards getting people registered and settled into their hotel rooms. Because of this, the schedule for the day was pretty open, although there were a number of city tours on offer. Iman and I signed up for a “Neighborhoods Tour,” but it didn’t start until 1:30 pm. Since the two of us had quite a bit of time to kill until the tour, we decided to spend the first half of the day walking around the nearby area.

We had originally decided to go to Museum Island to look at either the DDR Museum or the Berlin Cathedral, but because we weren’t in any particular hurry, we made sure to stop and appreciate the nearby sights. One of the biggest ones was the Fernsehturm, or TV Tower. Neither of us had any interest in going up, but we took our fair share of pictures. The TV Tower was an iconic landmark of East Berlin and was completed in 1969. To this day, the tower still dominates the Berlin skyline. The tower was originally supposed to demonstrate the strength of the GDR, and although it did demonstrate their engineering prowess, it also became a bit of a joke. The Fernsehturm was purposefully built near the Berlin Cathedral. The idea behind this was that it would demonstrate the triumph of the people and atheism over the church. When you first see these two buildings you might think that the GDR accomplished their goal; however, when the sun strikes the tower the antenna produces the reflection of a giant cross. This was later dubbed ‘the Pope’s revenge,’ and made the GDR a bit of a laughingstock.

We also paid a quick visit to Marienkirche, one of Berlin’s oldest churches. It was finished in the 13th century and you’re able to see some medieval frescos when you enter the church. The church wasn’t anything particularly special, but it was still nice to enter such an old building.

IMG_0240  IMG_0241  IMG_0251From there, we continued walking towards the Berlin Cathedral. Just outside the cathedral, we ran into two other Italian Fulbrighters, two Jenny’s from Naples. I soon learned that in Italy they distinguish themselves by calling themselves Blonde Jenny, or Jenny Bionda, and Brunette Jenny, or Jenny Bruna. It just so happens that Jenny Bionda is an archaeologist and was intent on going to the next door Altes Museum. Iman and I decided scrap our plans to go to the Cathedral and to tag along with the Jennys to the Altes.

The Altes Museum specializes in Greek, Etruscan, and Roman art, so it’s filled with ancient statues and ceramics. For me, this kind of art is a bit out of the ordinary, but hardly something new for the Italian Fulbrighters. In the words of Jenny Bruna, “we see Roman art in Italy, and when actually we leave Italy…we still go and see Roman art.” I’m not a huge Greco-Roman fan, but it was great to walk around the museum with Jenny Bionda and ask her questions about the various pieces that she was looking at.

IMG_0257  IMG_0260  IMG_0265IMG_0271  IMG_0273  IMG_0276Again, Greco-Roman art isn’t something that I’m particularly fond of, so I wasn’t too heartbroken when we had to leave the museum early to catch our tour. Iman and I had signed up to go on the “Neighborhoods Tour” since we were told that it would focus on showing us some of Berlin’s more diverse neighborhoods. Unfortunately, almost as soon as we boarded the bus we were told that our tour guide wasn’t going to be able to make it. Because we lacked a proper tour guide, the tour didn’t prove to be too informative, but it did pick up a bit when were arrived at the Şehitlik Mosque in Neukölln.

The mosque provided us with a proper tour guide who gave us an overview of the mosque’s history, the architecture of the mosque, and an overview of Islam. I’ve had the good fortune to have been to several mosques before to this, so I found most of the information old hat. That being said, the mosque was still beautiful, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about its history. The land that the mosque rests on is actually the property of the Turkish government, and was originally set aside to be used as a Muslim cemetery. We were told that traditionally Muslims should be buried in a Muslim cemetery, which presented the Germans with a bit of a conundrum in 1798 when no such cemetery existed and their Ottoman ambassador died. Because travel was much more time intensive in the eighteenth century, the King ended up allocating this particular plot of land to be a Muslim cemetery so that the ambassador could be buried properly instead of being shipped back to the Ottoman Empire. The land was eventually given to the Turkish government, and a number of prominent officials have been buried here. The mosque and cultural center were added to the property in later years.

IMG_0281  IMG_0284  IMG_0285After the mosque, we returned to the bus and made our way back to the hotel. Now because alcohol is prohibitively expensive in Norway, the seven Norwegian Fulbrighters who were able to make it to the conference decided that we should all get beers before dinner. Lucky for us, there was a beer garden, a Hofbräuhaus, right next door to our hotel. It was definitely the toned down version of the Hofbräuhaus that I went to in Munich, but it was perhaps more enjoyable because of it. While we all managed to relish the fact that beers were affordable, we were not quite prepared for how much our tolerance levels had gone down since we moved to Norway. One beer in and we were all pretty pleasantly buzzed.

After that, it was just a short walk back to the hotel for the welcome dinner. Again, because everything is so expensive in Norway our entire group took full advantage of the buffet and the open bar. The other Fulbrighters soon learned that the Norwegians would have a minimum of second helpings for every meal. But it turns out we weren’t alone! We quickly found some kindred spirits when we met a few of the other Nordic Fulbrighters, specifically people from Finland and Sweden. We all enjoyed bonding over how wonderfully cheap everything seems outside of the Nordic countries.

But all good things must come to an end, and in this case dinner ended at 8 pm. Luckily the hotel didn’t mind us lounging around in the lobby, allowing us plenty of time to mix and mingle. The result of this was a large group of us deciding to walk to Brandenburg gate (something we would later realize was about 1.75 miles away). But walk we did. The weather was wonderful and we ended up having a great time bonding and appreciating the landscape. Not a bad way to end the evening.

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Svalbard Wrap Up

I have to say that Sarah officially wins the most badass Fulbrighter award. While I really enjoyed my visit to Svalbard, I couldn’t imagine living there for more than a few months, much less the two years that Sarah intends on living there for. That being said, Longyearbyen is located in a truly beautiful area and I’m happy that I made time for the trip. Here are my tips and tricks:

  1. Bring your passport with you to Svalbard, even if you are taking a domestic flight from Norway.
  2. Svalbard is not a budget location and I wouldn’t consider it a place that people should visit in a flight of fancy. Svalbard is a very dangerous place, even though those dangers are atypical.* Be aware that Lonyearbyen is little more than a one street town and that leaving town requires going with someone who is quite knowledgeable about the area and the risks. This pretty much means that you can only leave town if you book a tour (which tends to be expensive) or if you happen to know someone who can show you around.
  3. If you are going in winter definitely keep an eye on the sort of daylight that you will be encountering. I was lucky that my trip coincided with twilight, meaning that I didn’t need a headlamp when I went hiking.
  4. Keep an eye on the weather and pack accordingly. Keep in mind that Svalbard can be VERY windy so bring a few things that are windproof.
  5. Public transportation doesn’t exist in Longyearbyen so your only options are walking or a taxi.
  6. I would highly recommend exploring the area around Longyearbyen since it’s beautiful. I would also recommend the Svalbard Gallery, Svalbard Museum, and polar bear sign.
  7. Many places will have an area for you to store your coat and boots during the winter. If you have space in your bag, I would recommend bringing a pair of slippers that you can wear whenever you are indoors.
  8. If you go in winter and go outdoors I would recommend bringing hiking boots and some sort of waterproof pants/ski pants that are designed to help keep the snow out of your shoes

*In terms of typical crime Svalbard is very safe. Most people leave their cars unlocked and keep car keys and snowmobile keys in the ignition. Apparently the crime of the decade occurred when someone had their photography equipment stolen out of their unlocked car, but that was highly unusual and something that the community found really shocking (it was also assumed that the perpetrator was a tourist as opposed to a resident). I found I had no problem leaving my very expensive camera at a table when I went to the front of a coffee shop to order something, and lost items are easily returned to their owners on the island.

I Am 16 Going On…Wait

I would argue that one of the few perks of turning 16 was being able to sing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” Now that I’m a twenty something that doesn’t really work as well anymore. Now I don’t know about you, but my family is one of those families that is obsessed with watching The Sound of Music. We think it’s a movie that never gets old. I have seen the movie more times than I can count, and one of my more distinctive childhood memories is of one cousin who liked to continuously rewind and watch Julie Andrews tripping in the middle of singing “I Have Confidence.” GIF below for your viewing pleasure. Welcome to my childhood.

So because we were going to Salzburg, my Dad and I were more or less required to go on a Sound of Music tour. Or at least that’s what I thought. My Dad might have had a different opinion on that score. I admit I even rewatched the movie before our holiday. I hadn’t seen the movie in years so a lot of the things that I had difficulty understanding as a kid (literally anything to do with the Nazis) now made a bit more sense.

But The Sound of Music tour wasn’t actually the first thing we did that day. We booked a combined tour with Viator that involved going to the region’s salt mines. And when I say “region” I really mean Germany. So, early in the morning we hopped on a bus and crossed over into Germany. Now let me just say that it was very cold in the morning (this fact becomes more relevant later on). If memory serves me correctly, it was around -10°C (14°F) so our tour bus was feeling really nice and cosy. After a short bit of driving, we stopped on one of the local mountains to stretch our legs and admire the view. It also happens to be the same mountain that Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest is built on. The Eagle’s Nest was a 50th birthday present to Hitler from the Nazi party and many of the buildings that were built lower down on the mountain were the homes of other high ranking officials. The Eagle’s Nest is inaccessible during winter but we could JUST make it out on the top of the mountain (right picture on the top row).

IMG_7528  IMG_7531  IMG_7536IMG_7539  IMG_7540  IMG_7543When we had finished walking around we were driven to a nearby town called Berchtesgaden and allowed to wander around before climbing back into the bus to go to the town’s salt mines.

IMG_7551  IMG_7553  IMG_7558IMG_7560  IMG_7563  IMG_7561The salt mine tour was a ton of fun. Unfortunately the mine doesn’t allow photography, but you can get a good idea of how everything looked on Google Images. The first thing we had to do for the tour was to suit up into special overalls. Once everyone was ready we took a train down into the mines where we were led on the actual tour. According to our guide, the area where the mine is used to be under the ocean. Once the mountains formed and rose out of the ocean they created a small salty lake. Over time the lake evaporated, leaving the salt behind. The composite rock that remains contains on average a 50% salt content.

The mine has been operating continuously since 1517 and still produces several tons of salt a day. Right now it’s hard to believe that for such a big operation they only need 100 people to keep everything running smoothly.

The way they currently mine the salt is by drilling a test shaft see if there is enough salt to make further drilling worthwhile. If the salt content is high enough, a tunnel is drilled and then a hollow pocket is created using fresh water. This pocket is then filled with fresh water, which soaks up the salt and creates brine. The brine is then taken out of the pocket and boiled. Then voilà! You have salt.

Overall I had a really great time on the tour. The content was interesting and things were spiced up when we were allowed to take slides down to different levels of the mine and by a lake that we crossed by boat. The tour took about two hours and once we were done we hopped back on the train and rode it up to the surface. And when we got there it was snowing. Remember how I said it was cold? This was the result. Some enterprising kids had even built a snowman. Carrot nose and all.

IMG_7568  IMG_7566  IMG_7571After that we went back to Salzburg and had about an hour to kill before The Sound of Music Tour. When we finally did get on the bus it was packed. I think at one point our tour guide said that it was a 72 person bus and I’m pretty sure that every seat was full. To my delight, there were actually a number of kids on the bus. I was wondering if the current generation also watches The Sound of Music on repeat and based on the singing seven year old sitting across from me the answer is yes. She knew every word to the lyrics. Thankfully not everyone else was really up for singing the whole time and most of us were content to just listen to The Sound of Music soundtrack.

Now there are a few things you should know about The Sound of Music. The first is that most of the indoor scenes took place in Hollywood. This means that pretty much all of the things we were going to see on the tour were outdoor locations. And to top things off it was still snowing.

So, first things first. We went to the lake that Julie Andrews and all of the children famously fall into.

It was here that we learned that there were actually two houses used when filming the exterior of the von Trapp house. The exterior shots of the grounds were all done at this location while the house itself (the one you can see behind Captain von Trapp throughout this scene) is actually a completely different house. Unfortunately the snow didn’t really make for good pictures, but the house to the left is the one with the outdoor scenes and the lake (the lake is in the very front of the picture covered in snow), while the two pictures on the right show the house that was actually depicted in the movie. The yellow wall you can see is the wall Maria runs along when she’s singing “I Have Confidence.”

IMG_7580  IMG_7586  IMG_7587So now you’re probably thinking that the gazebo where Liesl famously sings “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” would be close to this first lake property. Well it used to be. The land that the gazebo rested on was bought by an American company and walled off. If I remember the numbers correctly, Salzburg receives 11 million tourists every year and 20% of them come JUST for The Sound of Music. Now with that many people coming through every year not everyone is really going to be daunted by a wall. So the company experienced problems with people hopping into private property and generally making themselves known by poorly singing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” especially when they’ve been helped along with some glühwein, or mulled wine. So eventually the company decided to have the gazebo moved in order to make everyone happy. Hellbrunn Palace was eventually chosen as the final destination, so it was there that we could finally see the gazebo.

IMG_7597  IMG_7590  IMG_7593Now you probably can’t tell from the pictures, but the gazebo isn’t actually that large. It’s definitely not large enough to contain the dance number that happens in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen.” So this gazebo was only used in outside shots. For the dancing, they danced in another gazebo. Apparently Liesl, or Charmian Carr, actually ended up putting her foot through one of the glass window panes and was given a BandAid before being told to continue dancing. After all, “the show must go on.” All of this just makes the dancing that much more impressive.

And it was still snowing. Our tour guide was talking to a family sitting towards the front of the bus and told us that apparently one little girl was pretty satisfied. Why you might ask? Well she had asked Santa for snow. When she was asked if she had really been that good this year she responded “Yes” without hesitation. We then asked her to just wish for a little less snow next time.

Because of the weather, we encountered a few hang ups in getting to our next destination. Salzburg is apparently a one way city so when accidents happen they stop the whole city. After encountering two accidents, and even being stuck behind a bicyclist, most of our attempts to get out of the city were being thwarted. They even had to shut down the highway so that they could finally get someone out there to clear the snow.

So, while we waited for things to get sorted out driving wise we were told the real von Trapp story. Captain von Trapp was in fact a widower with seven children and had been a captain in the navy. Now something that I had never actually thought about was the navy part of that sentence. Austria as it currently exists does not have a coastline. BUT it did before World War I, which is how Captain von Trapp ended up working in a submarine.

Maria on the other hand was not a novice at an abbey. She was a step below that. Apparently in order to be a novice you must take a two year vow of silence in order to see whether you are capable of taking a lifelong vow of silence. Maria wasn’t quite at that point. She was however working to finish up her teacher’s license when Captain von Trapp asked the Mother Superior if she could recommend a teacher. The Captain’s wife had died of scarlet fever and his daughter had also suffered from it. While it had killed his wife, it had spared his daughter, also named Maria, although it had made her feeble due to a weakened heart.

So Maria was sent to the von Trapps. There was in fact a Baroness in the picture…but she was the housekeeper. Apparently the children also had governesses but because of their aristocratic upbringing were kept separated by age group. Maria found this strange and started to take the children out as one large group. They sang Christmas songs, built Christmas wreaths, hiked through the forrest, etc. It was the first time the children had been together since their mother had died. Which means that…

The captain received a letter from one of his children telling him to come back and marry Maria so that she could stay with them forever. The captain on the other hand had been on holiday with a certain Princess Yvonne (the equivalent of the movie’s baroness). So the captain left the holiday early (effectively cutting off any engagement plans) and returned home. Here he confronted Maria. He asked what had been going on and proposed oh so romantically by saying “The children think we should get married. What are your thoughts on that?” Maria, who was in fact very religious, went back to the abbey to ask the Mother Superior for her thoughts. The Mother Superior thought that it was God’s will that she marry the Captain and help them become a family again. So Maria returned to the von Trapp residence. Here she encountered the Captain in the library. He asked her what her thoughts were and apparently she burst into tears before saying something along the lines of “I guess I have to marry you.” Talk about faith in God.

Thankfully they had a very happy marriage. But they encountered one major problem. The bank where Captain von Trapp had stored his wealth (as well as the significant wealth of his late wife) went bust. Because he was a very kind man he withdrew his remaining wealth and invested it in another branch of the bank, hoping that it would help sustain the bank. No such luck. So the von Trapps fell from spectacular wealth into poverty. They let go of their servants and moved into the servants quarters before renting out the rooms of their home.

One guest happened to be an opera singer who heard the family singing. The singer was there for the Salzburg Music Festival and managed to enroll the family into a locals competition where the von Trapps won. Due to their success at the festival, they started to travel around Europe and make money through concerts. They were even invited to go and tour in the United States, which they turned down until…

Hitler invaded Austria. Now the Captain was not actually wanted for active duty. When he had been a submarine captain exhaust systems hadn’t been perfected. This meant that all of the exhaust that was theoretically supposed to leave the submarine was instead recirculated inside the submarine, causing many men, including the Captain, to develop lung cancer. Anyways, the family knew that they did not want to stay in Salzburg under Hitler’s rule and managed to use their US connection to get a gig in the United States. They unglamorously escaped Austria via train and boat.

Once in the United States, they settled in Stowe, Vermont. Maria then had their tenth child in the United States which allowed the whole family to stay.

Maria eventually wrote a book about her experiences. Being a religious woman, she wanted to book to show the importance of perseverance and faith. Broadway apparently offered to buy the rights to the book and she refused, thinking it wasn’t in line with her reasons for writing the book. She did however sell to a German producer for a few thousand dollars, who later sold to Broadway for over a million dollars. Maria to her credit didn’t seek any of this money. Maria herself apparently liked the movie but her one quibble was with the portrayal of the Captain. Apparently he really was a very nice man so she didn’t approve of his aloof movie persona.

Now a few more Sound of Music facts before I get back to the tour. A large number of people in Salzburg actually haven’t seen The Sound of Music. Now considering the sheer number of Sound of Music tour buses and tourists that come into the city you might be wondering why that is. It’s because a German version of The Sound of Music wasn’t made until much later. Apparently listening to the songs in German is not a recommended activity.

Lastly, The Sound of Music actually hurt the careers of everyone in the movie other than Christopher Plummer, Captain von Trapp. Although Julie Andrews was nominated for Oscars for both Mary Poppins (which was released a year prior to The Sound of Music) and The Sound of Music, she was never quite able to shake the image of the singing woman who looks after children. None of the children in the movie ever managed to make it big either.

But back to the tour. So having almost literally climbed every mountain and forded every stream we eventually arrived at the town of Mondsee. You’re probably wondering what we’re doing there. Well it has the church where Maria and the Captain get married.

Salzburg used to be a very important religious center so there are plenty of churches in Salzburg. The problem is that none of the 50+ churches in Salzburg were willing to have Hollywood producers film inside them. In fact, none of the church scenes in the movie are filmed in Salzburg EXCEPT when Maria leaves the abbey to go to the von Trapp house. Mondsee on the other hand was thrilled to have Hollywood visit their small town. So the famous wedding scene was filmed inside their church.

IMG_7603  IMG_7610  IMG_7623After we were done with Mondsee we hopped back on the bus where we were treated to a video documenting some of the filming behind The Sound of Music. I have to admit, it was nice to see clips from the movie paired with sights that we had just been to.

Once we finally arrived back in Salzburg (in total we had experienced about a two hour delay due to the snow) my Dad and I stopped by the Mirabell Gardens for one last photo op. The Mirabell Gardens is where they filmed most of “Do-Re-Mi,” though you honestly can’t tell from my pictures because yup, you guessed it, everything was covered in snow.

IMG_7646  IMG_7653  IMG_7650But even with all of the snow, it was still a very good day. I have to say that I left Salzburg the next morning a very happy camper.

Christmas

Funnily enough, more things were open on Christmas than on Christmas Eve, and most of them were open for longer. My Dad and I were pretty content to just call our trip our Christmas present, but our hotel had graciously given us holiday slippers and sweets the night before. So, after testing out the slippers and eating a few of the sweets we prepared to begin our Christmas adventures.

The first thing we went to was Schwedenplatz so that we could board a Ring Tram Tour. The Ring refers to the road called Ringstraße, which also happens to be where Vienna’s city walls were. The tour mostly consisted of riding a yellow tram around the Ring and listening to an audioguide point out notable sights along the way. All in all the tour took about 25 minutes. While the tour wasn’t particularly exciting, I still found it worthwhile since it pointed out some of the major sights in the city, taught us a little bit of history, and helped orient me.

IMG_6993  IMG_6982  IMG_6987After the tour finished, we made our way to the Belvedere museums. The Belvedere property contains the Upper Belvedere, the Lower Belvedere, the Winter Palace, and the grounds. Unfortunately it was raining, so my Dad and I decided against exploring the grounds and immediately made a beeline for the Upper Belvedere. The Upper Belvedere is famous for having a large number of Klimt paintings, most notably The Kiss, but it also contains other well known pieces such as Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. I’m a Klimt fan so I enjoyed seeing his artwork, but I didn’t find much else in the Upper Belvedere particularly exciting.

I will also say that the Belvedere has particularly confusing photography standards. Some rooms you could photograph, others you couldn’t, some statues you could photograph, others you couldn’t, etc. Because I’m a shutterbug I was alternately yelled at and encouraged a number of times.

IMG_7025  IMG_7023  IMG_7026IMG_7046  IMG_7036  IMG_7052My Dad and I hadn’t originally planned on going to the Lower Belvedere since it mostly speicalizes in modern art, but a sign caught our eyes saying that the Lower Belvedere currently had a Monet exhibit. My Dad and I happen to be big Monet fans so we made our way over to the Lower Belvedere to upgrade our tickets. To our surprise, we ended up liking the Lower Belvedere much more than the Upper Belvedere. The Monet exhibit was fantastic and featured a large number of his paintings. The rest of the Lower Belvedere was interesting, but the Monet was what made the entire Belvedere trip really worthwhile.

IMG_7056  IMG_7062  IMG_7065Once we had finished with the Belvedere, we made our way towards Schloß Schönbrunn, or Schönbrunn Palace. My Dad and I initially had some difficulties remembering the name Schönbrunn and so my Dad decided to dub it “Sunnybun.” The palace lies just outside the center of Vienna so we had to take the subway to get there, but it was well worth the trip. Because we were going later in the day we only had time to do a tour around the palace. The guide that we were provided with turned out to be an audioguide, and while I’m generally not a fan of audioguides, this one wasn’t actually too bad. Some of the audioguide numbers were a bit outdated, but overall it was a pleasant experience.

Schönbrunn was originally commissioned in the 17th century to serve as a hunting lodge, but under Empress Maria Theresa it became the focus of court life. Since then it has hosted a number of momentous events and notable people. Some of the rooms that we saw featured great historical events, but the majority of the rooms were the private rooms of the Habsburg family. In retrospect, Schönbrunn was one of my favorite sights.

After we were done with the tour, we wandered around the grounds and paid a visit to the Christmas market.

IMG_7120  IMG_7092  IMG_7093IMG_7099  IMG_7108  IMG_7116IMG_7121  IMG_7140  IMG_7131Once we finished, we went back to our hotel before coming back again for the Christmas concert. The concert primarily featured two of Austria’s golden boys, Mozart and Strauss. The music was great and to top it all off there was also some opera and ballet mixed in. So, in honor of the concert I leave you with Austria’s unofficial national anthem, Blue Danube.

Munch Museum

I have to say that one of the coolest parts about being a Fulbrighter is getting to meet other Fulbrighters. One of the current Norwegian Fulbrighters, Alyssa, happens to be the only conservation scientist in Norway and works at the Munch Museum. Alyssa graciously agreed to take me and another visiting Fulbrighter, Kyle, on a tour of the Munch museum and show us what she’s been working on. I have to say that I never really considered myself a Munch fan, so while I was not particularly excited to go through the museum, I was very excited to catch up with Alyssa and learn more about her work.

Once Kyle and I checked into the museum’s staff entrance, Alyssa came out and brought us to her workspace. I have to say her office is probably the most exhilarating and terrifying places I’ve ever been. There were about a dozen Munchs that the conservationists were working on, and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever be to that many priceless paintings with no security in the immediate area. Needless to say, Kyle and I spent the whole time terrified that we’d end up accidentally damaging one of these paintings. Luckily we managed to be accident free.

I learned a ton from Alyssa about conservation and came away from her office pretty awed. For her Fulbright project, Alyssa is working on identifying what exactly went into the paint that Munch used, something that is very important from a conservation standpoint since it helps researchers better understand why and how Munch’s paintings are deteriorating. First, Alyssa told us a bit about some of their non-destructive methods for examining the paintings:

  • Sight: I was pretty impressed listening to Alyssa talk about how much you could tell by just looking at a painting. I for example could not quite see the difference between say cerulean blue and prussian blue, but am now impressed by those who can.
  • Lighting: Putting the paintings under UV or infrared light can give conservationists an idea of what metals or other elements are in the paint, helping them guess at what specific paints were used.
  • Other Instruments: We didn’t get to see this in action, but Alyssa says there are instruments they can use to can analyze the chemical composition of the paint without actually scraping any of the paint off.

As for destructive methods, this involves taking minuscule pieces of paint off of the painting and them analyzing them directly. Alyssa told us that overall it’s much easier to analyze paintings that don’t have flat surfaces and don’t have a matte finishes since it’s easier to get samples.

Alyssa also told us that Munch is a bit of a hassle to work with from a conservation standpoint, and that Munch provides them with a lot of interesting ethical questions. Munch believed in subjecting many of his painting to a “Kill or Cure” treatment, or leaving his paintings outdoors for a few years. If the paintings survived, Munch figured that they would last forever. But because these paintings underwent such harsh treatment, it leaves conservationists with the question of whether or not paintings should be restored to their original form, or left in their dilapidated post “Kill or Cure” state. There is even debate as to whether the bird droppings that have been left on these paintings are now part of the art or are something that should be removed.

Munch is also a finicky artist in other ways. Some of his paintings have been left looking unfinished, which calls into question whether or not the unfinished paintings are in fact finished, or whether they are actually works in progress. Additionally Munch loved experimenting with different types of materials. One of the paintings we saw is in a truly sorry state, partially because Munch painted the picture on cardboard. From Alyssa’s standpoint, Munch’s experimentation makes it much harder to figure out what exactly he put in his paint. Not only did Munch mix different ingredients into his paint, apparently the paint tubes that he used don’t always have accurate ingredients labels.

Things are also made more difficult for the conservationists because the museum often loans out Munch’s works. While sending Munch’s paintings out on tours helps generate money for the museum, it can be hard on the paintings since they can suffer damage when they are constantly moved about and put on display. In case you’re wondering why you aren’t allowed to take flash photography in museums, Alyssa told me that it’s because older paint tends to contain unstable chemicals. This means that they are reactive to light, so your flash photo is actually changing the color of the painting, and causing it damage.

Additionally, conservationists still don’t have a complete grasp on all the things that can damage a painting. Alyssa told us that she used to work with someone who has been working for almost eight years on why cadmium yellow occasionally darkens over time.

Alyssa also told us a bit about conservation philosophy and how it functions in Norway. Everything that conservationists do should be both reversible and visible. Things don’t necessarily have to be visible to the naked eye, but they should show up under UV light. Alyssa even showed us one of the paintings to demonstrate. To the naked eye the painting looked completely normal, but once it was put under UV light it was clear that a great section of the painting had been damaged and restored (unfortunately Kyle and I weren’t allowed to take pictures in Alyssa’s workspace so you’ll have to use your imagination for this). Furthermore, in Norway conservationists believe that paintings should not be restored. Conservationists simply try to prevent paintings from deteriorating further and try to preserve their current state.

As for what Alyssa does, she is working a lot with Munch’s old paint tubes. Munch left everything he owned to the city of Oslo, even his hats, and that included approximately 1200 paint tubes. While many of these are from the brand Windsor Newton, their ingredients labeling isn’t always accurate. Alyssa analyzes these paint tubes as well as bits from Munch’s paintings and uses special instruments to determine what exactly went into his paint. The picture below is some of modern day paint that Alyssa occasionally uses as a baseline sample in her work.

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After patiently answering all of our questions, Alyssa showed us around other parts of the building. Unfortunately, Alyssa doesn’t have access to the museum’s vault of Munch paintings, but Kyle and I were pretty happy just to stand in awe outside of the vault door and stare at the retinal scan. She also showed us a hidden exhibit of Munch’s printing stones. Apparently the exhibit isn’t on display (and can’t be photographed) because of their reproducible quality. Since the stones are meant to mass produce Munch’s work, it would be incredibly easy for someone to take a picture of them and do just that–in short they present a copyright issue that the museum would like to avoid.

Afterwards, we went to the museum itself. The museum currently has an exhibition of Munch’s work in conjunction with a natural history exhibit. The connection between the two wasn’t really well explained but I suppose it was still nice to see the two all at once. The museum itself is pretty small and took us less than an hour to go through, but I’m definitely glad that I went. Not only did I find Alyssa’s work pretty amazing but it was nice to get a better idea of what Munch’s work is like beyond The Scream.

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