Tromsø Wrap Up

I would say that Kari was quite accurate when she once told me that Tromsø is a vibrant town. It may be small, but it certainly has character and some wonderful views. Here are my tips and tricks:

  1. As with all major Norwegian towns, Tromsø has mobile applications that you can use to buy public transportation tickets and to map out a route on the public transportation.
  2. Unfortunately the buses do not actually list or announce the stops, so if you’re confused or a newcomer to the town definitely ask the driver to help you get off at the correct stop.
  3. You can take the flybussen or the local 42 bus into town from the airport (or from town to the airport)
  4. To be honest I think that Tromsø’s biggest draws are the reindeer races during Sami Week and the scenery. I wasn’t able to take the local cable car, but I’ve been told that it’s well worth the effort.
  5. The burgers at Blå Bar are surprisingly delicious and Smørtorget is well worth the stop for both cheap eats and some cheap shopping.

The Arctic Cathedral

Although my first two days started out with bright and sunny weather, I did not have such good luck on my last day in Tromsø. My initial plans had been to either ride the local cable car or to go to Kvaløya, or whale island, but because the visibility was quite low I decided to scratch both plans. Luckily two of my good friends from Trondheim, Nicole and Juliana, had also come up to Tromsø, and we hung out together in what remained of our time in the city.

Because there wasn’t too much for us to do, we spent the majority of our time wandering around the city center. I had seen Kari early on in the year, and she had really downplayed Tromsø. When I arrived I was expecting little more than a one street town. To give Tromsø due credit, its city center is about 6 blocks by 6 blocks. Plus, considering that I had been to Svalbard the week before it really did seem like a town.

After wandering into some of the local shops, we decided to go to the Arctic Cathedral. Unfortunately it wasn’t open, but it was still nice to go take a look at the imposing structure. It’s one of the few buildings that dominates the skyline when looking from Tromsø to mainland Norway.

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After that, all that was left for us to do was to catch an excellent burger at a place called Blå Bar and to then catch the local bus to the airport.

Reindeer Races

The post you’ve all been waiting for! Considering that I missed seeing any polar bears on Svalbard I’m pretty sure that I can already call the reindeer races the highlight of my Norwegian animal experience.

Now the website for Sami Week is pretty atrocious, but after much button clicking we eventually found the schedule for the reindeer races. Considering the website only has something like five tabs, it’s almost impressive how much effort it took to find the schedule. I’m convinced the webmaster is secretly an evil mastermind since it took us a good 30 minutes to find the schedule hidden away on an obscure section of the Norwegian version of the site. BUT we finally realized that the races weren’t starting until about 1 pm on Sunday. That meant that we were able to introduce the very American concept of Sunday brunch to a few of the local international students. One student, Caspar, graciously agreed to host brunch and let a few people cook in his house. After some deliberation, Kari and I decided to arrive a bit on the late side of things. Our strategic planning meant that we avoiding cooking but arrived just in time for eating. It was perfect.

After we gorged ourselves on pancakes, bacon, scones, and sausages we all bundled up and headed into the center of town. All of the Fulbrighters were quite happy to pay to enter the reindeer races, but some of the international students decided to set up shop at the local Burger King and view the races for free on the second story. Although there were some venues around the racecourse that would provide you with a view, many people were quite content to pay and stand along the course. In my eyes, the most impressive spectator was a guy in a reindeer onesie. How could you tell it was a reindeer and not a moose? Why, the red Rudolf nose on the costume. Sidenote: out of the five Fulbrighters who went to Sami Week only one of them had yet to see a reindeer. The fact that the rest of us were incredulous about this just goes to show how in touch with nature you are in Norway.

IMG_9016  IMG_9014  IMG_9055The main street in Tromsø, Storgata, was blocked off for the race and announcers even translated some of their commentary into English. From what I could gather, there were two different kinds of races. The first race involved one person and their reindeer and was timed. The second race was what we would think of as a more traditional race since it took place between two people. They had junior races for some of the younger racers and I suppose what you would call professional races for the adults. There were even people from Russia who had come to compete.

IMG_9037  IMG_9040  IMG_9081You can sort of see how the race actually worked from the pictures, but it mostly involved a skier being dragged along by a reindeer. Apparently different kinds of skis are chosen depending on what the skier is trying to do. Slalom skis allow for easier control, while cross country skis are better for speed.

IMG_9024  IMG_9046  IMG_9047IMG_9051  IMG_9060  IMG_9061IMG_9070  IMG_9127  IMG_9145IMG_9111  IMG_9116  IMG_9141Once the races were finished, Kari and I bunkered down at one of the local coffee shops. Kari was lost in a book she was reading for graduate school interviews, while I was lost in The Amber Spyglass (the snowstorm didn’t stop me from racing through the sequels to The Golden Compass).

We eventually made it back to our original brunch location and settled in for a pizza party and the first Harry Potter movie. After that, we went back to Kari’s place and called it a night.

Playing Tourist and Winter Storms

Tromsø actually boasts quite a few Fulbrighters (I met at least four of them during our August orientation) and two other Fulbrighters, Alyssa and Sarah, made the trip up to Tromsø for Sami Week. All in all we were a solid group of five people since two of the Tromsø Fulbrighters were out of town. Even though not everyone was able to make it, it was still great to have a mini Fulbright reunion and to have some of the local Fulbrighters show us around town. Lucky for us visitors, the Tromsø Fulbrighters had planned out some weekend activities for us to do.

My first full day in Tromsø was slightly more adventurous than the day I got in. To my delight I woke up to a bright and sunny day so I was quite happy to do some outdoor exploring.

IMG_8970  IMG_8971  IMG_8973Although there were five Fulbrighters attending Sami week, we were all scattered throughout the city. Luckily Tromsø is quite small, and I managed to catch up with most of the other Fulbrighters at the Sami Week lasso throwing competition. While I was hoping that the competitors would be lassoing actual animals, this was not the case. From what we could understand of the competition, the competitors had to lasso a set of reindeer antlers at different distances. Once someone had successfully lassoed the “reindeer” at each distance they were declared the winner. While it didn’t seem like the lassoing involved much technique, I suspect that probably wasn’t the case. I assume that their skills were such that it just made everything seem casual and effortless.

IMG_8980  IMG_8981  IMG_8983IMG_8982  IMG_8988  IMG_8990Once the lasso competition was finished we quickly stopped by the Sami Winter Market. Unfortunately the market was quite small (it only had three stalls) so it didn’t take us very long to look around.

From there we headed to one of the local art museums, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum. Considering that the gallery was free it was pretty good. There is a permanent exhibit on the second floor and a rotating exhibit on the first floor. One of the things I found really fun about this experience was going with Alyssa, the Fulbrighter who works with Munch paintings. It was fun watching her walk around the paintings and learn a bit more about what conservationists and chemists look for in artwork. She said that part of the time what she is doing is keeping an eye out for conservation work. When I asked if the conservation work is obvious she said that it is supposed to be, but that it’s probably much less obvious to the layman than it is to the specialist.

One story of hers that I enjoyed was about a conservation conference she recently attended in Barcelona. She went to one of the local art museums with some of the other conference attendees and said their group managed to drive the security crazy. Apparently all of them would crowd around the pictures and do atypical things, like kneeling on the floor to catch the painting at a particular angle, in order to examine the conservation work that was going on. I was told that they created quite the spectacle. Fun fact: Picasso used to paint new paintings on top of old paintings, so in some of his paintings, particularly ones with peeling paint, you can actually catch a glimpse of an older painting underneath the one on display. You can now understand why the conference attendees were having so much fun staring at the paintings.

IMG_8998  IMG_9000  IMG_9002IMG_9004  IMG_9006  IMG_9007After that we for a nice lunch at a place called Smørtorget, a combination of café and boutique shop. Once we had filled our tummies we wandered through a few of the local stores before settling down at a different café called Aunegården.

Once we had finished our cakes and hot beverages, we decided to make our way towards one Fulbrighter’s apartment. The weather had forecasted that a storm would hit Tromsø at 4 pm, and for once the weather forecast was correct. At almost 4 pm on the dot we started to see the first snowflakes fall. By the time we made it to Meghan’s apartment it was a full blown snow storm with limited visibility. A quick check of the local news consisted of dire capitalized headlines proclaiming that you should not leave the your house for any reason.

IMG_2643  IMG_2645  IMG_2648Because Kari and I didn’t particularly want to spend the night sleeping on Meghan’s floor, we decided to risk it and see if we could catch one of the buses back to Kari’s place. To our great surprise, in the middle of our wait for the bus a car pulled over and the driver asked if we needed help. We told the driver that we were waiting for the bus and were told that if we were still waiting after the driver dropped off his son he would happily drive us to wherever we needed to be. Of course as soon as he left the bus came, but we were quite touched by the kind offer. We made it back to Kari’s place without too much of a hassle and found out afterwards that we had managed to catch one of the last buses before the bus system shut down. The whole city truly shut down for the storm. On the plus side it did mean that I managed to snuggle up with a book and occasionally watch the storm rage on outside from the comfort of Kari’s couch.

Trip to Tromsø

For those of you who are wondering, the ø in Tromsø means that it’s pronounced more like Tromsa than Tromso. While Tromsø is not as far North as Svalbard, Tromsø is Norway’s northernmost town and boasts a population of roughly 70,000. It’s the biggest town in Northern Norway (and I believe the only place in Northern Norway that can technically claim the title of town) and, to my surprise, is pretty much shut off from the rest of Norway. The train system in Norway doesn’t go much further than Bodø, where Alix and I went for part of our trip to the Lofoten Islands. As far as I can tell, the only really ways in which Northern Norway is connected to the rest of the country is by car, boat, specifically the Hurtigruten ferry, and by plane.

I’ve been interested in visiting Tromsø for a while but I decided to plan my trip in early February so that I would be able to attend Tromsø’s Sami Week. The Sami are the indigenous people in Northern Scandinavia, specifically Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula (part of Russia). To make matters more complicated, there are different kinds of Sami, and they have different rights and living situations depending on where they live. In Norway, the Sami are well known as reindeer herders and to this day reindeer are an essential part of their culture. Sami have a much stronger presence in Northern Norway than they do in Southern Norway and they even have their own capital, Karasjok, and parliament in Northern Norway. That is not to say that everything is rainbows and butterflies. The Sami have historically experienced a good amount of discrimination in Norway, and this discrimination continues to the present day. According to recent a survey, the Sami experience ten times more discrimination than ethnic Norwegians (United Nations Regional Information Centre for Western Europe). Other obstacles the Sami face include the loss of their native languages and issues surrounding land rights.

Tromsø’s Sami Week coincides with Sami People’s Day, or the Sami national day, on February 6th. This date marks the meeting of the first Sami Congress in 1917 in Trondheim. Why Sami Week is not so well celebrated in Trondheim or even in Trondheim remains a mystery to me. Anyways, Sami People’s Day has grown into a week long celebration in Tromsø and consists of things such as a lasso throwing competition, winter market, cultural events, and reindeer races. Yes, reindeer races are a real thing. In fact, the races were the main reason I was in Tromsø.

Lucky for me, flights from Trondheim to Tromsø are pretty short and easy to catch. My hope was that I’d be able to see the northern lights in my time above the clouds, but unfortunately the sun was up for the duration of my flight. Once we descended however it was a completely different story. I was greeted with snow.

Thankfully the Fulbrighter that I was staying with, Kari, gave me very detailed instructions on how to get to her place, and it didn’t take me too long to find the correct bus into Tromsø. Once I arrived, I was pretty happy to settle in for the night and to curl up with my chosen post-Svalbard reading: The Golden Compass. I’m proud to say that I got unreasonably excited over the Svalbard sections of the book and of  my ability to identify terms such as sysselmann, or governor.

Going South to Go North

I realize that my title doesn’t initially make sense, but it will in a minute. Not too long ago I paid a trip to Svalbard. Unfortunately the only way for me to get there from Trondheim was to go through either Oslo or Tromsø. It ended up being cheaper and more convenient for me to go via Oslo, so I did in fact go South in order to go North.

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Svalbard has been a place that has captured my imagination since I was a child, specifically since I read The Golden Compass. In fact, both Svalbard and The Golden Compass were featured in my Fulbright essay, so I was really excited to finally get the chance to go there. Sidenote: if you haven’t read The Golden Compass you should and if you have no idea where Svalbard is check out the Map section of my blog. It’s the northernmost pin and Longyearbyen is actually the world’s northernmost settlement.

While organizing my flights to Svalbard was a bit of hassle since they only fly on certain days, it was pretty exciting to go, and I wasn’t the only one who was thrilled. I’ve never seen people so excited to travel. Everyone on my plane was upbeat (or intoxicated), constantly taking pictures, and pressed against the windows of the plane. I never really recognized how toxic the atmosphere can be around airports until I boarded my flight to Longyearbyen and experienced such a drastically different environment. I have to say it was quite a nice change to have everyone so happy.

But before I talk a bit more about my flight into Longyearbyen, I need to talk about my flight into Oslo. Why you might ask? Well it’s because I had a medical emergency happen on my flight. Not just on my flight, but to the person sitting next to me. Now for those of you who don’t know me you should know that I could never be a doctor. Not only did I hate most of the subjects that you need for medical school (mainly chemistry and physics) I’m also just a bad person to have in a medical emergency. Bodily fluids gross me out, I struggle to even watch doctor shows, and I tend to lose all common sense in medical situations. The thing I am most famous for is when my best friend fainted and when coming to I asked her what she thought the best course of action would be. So my number is clearly not the one you call when you have a medical emergency. That being said, life loves to have its little ironies so I was hardly surprised that this medical emergency happened right next to me.

Now the second thing you should know is that I can sleep through almost anything. Something I happen to specialize in is sleeping on planes. I have mastered the art of falling asleep before takeoff so it was only when I heard a lot of panicked sounds that I woke up from my nap against the window. Looking around I spotted a few alarmed flight attendants shaking the woman next to me and seeing her look pale and nauseous with the vomit bag clutched to her face. This rapidly escalated as she seems to go in and out of consciousness. An oxygen tank was retrieved, and at this point the man in the aisle seat was relocated and I was asked to move. Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible due to the hunched position that this woman had taken. So medically incompetent me stayed squashed between the window and the medical emergency.

The first problem occurred when they either couldn’t managed to open the oxygen tank valve or the tank just failed to work. A second tank was retrieved and this time the oxygen mask was successfully applied to the woman’s face. This seemed to help incrementally, but after a while the woman continued to drift in and out of consciousness. The flight attendants indicated to me that we should get her horizontal. Now thanks to my fainting best friend, I’ve learned not to be wholly incompetent when people faint. So my first course, and really the only course, of action that I could take was to help move this woman so she was lying down and prop her legs up to increase blood flow to the head. Luckily by the time we finished doing this the plane was preparing to land. All in all, our landing scene had a man across the aisle holding an oxygen tank, a flight attendant in the aisle seat holding the woman’s head in her lap and placing the oxygen mask on her face, the woman having the medical emergency, and me attempting to prop this woman’s legs up.

Once the plane landed the flight attendants instructed us to all remain seated and a medical team was quickly ushered on board. Of course knowing no Norwegian and having slept through the beginning of this escapade, I was completely useless when it came to giving the medical team any sort of helpful information. The woman seemed to recover once we landed and she was able to walk off the plane on her own. The unfortunate realizations that I had after this episode included: flight staff don’t seem to have much medical training, there isn’t really too much you can do to help a person on a flight, and that I’m lucky that most domestic flights in Norway aren’t more than three hours. Lucky for this woman, I think the closest airport we could have landed in was Oslo, our actual destination. Oddly enough no one asked if there was a doctor on board the plane, but then again that could have happened while I was blissfully sleeping.

But back to Svalbard! It was with a certain amount of relief that I left my Trondheim to Oslo flight and prepared to board my flight to Longyearbyen. As I mentioned earlier, there was also a significant change in attitude on the flight. I again slept on this flight, albeit I slept more peacefully. But I didn’t sleep the entire time and I was amazed when I woke up and saw beautiful snowy peaks underneath the plane. Flying into Svalbard was just incredible.

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Unfortunately my iPhone couldn’t quite do justice to the view.

But flying in was simply breathtaking and we landed between these gorgeous mountains. On the other hand walking outside was a bit of a shock. Some weather screenshots below for your benefit. The picture on the right is in Fahrenheit while the first two are in Celsius. I find the middle picture the most fascinating since you can see that there isn’t sunrise or sunset (both listed at 12 am) and that’s because the sun has yet to come back to Svalbard. When I visited they had just reached civil twilight, which means that the sun is below 6 degrees of the horizon. Other things to note are the wind chill and effective temperature (-32°C/ -25.6°F) as well as the nonexistent UV Index.

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Longyearbyen is located in an arctic desert so the weather is very dry and pretty extreme. The town is situated in a valley which means that the mountains help create a huge wind tunnel. To make matters worse, the island is situated in a windy area. That’s not to say that this is all bad. Svalbard gets cold winds but it also gets the warm Gulf Stream, which is why you can see such extreme differences in the temperature (based on the pictures above you can see the jump from -23°C to -6°C in the same week). Sarah, a fellow Fulbrighter and my host, later told me that frostbite is an everyday concern. Apparently when classes go on trips you are assigned a buddy that you check on regularly to monitor any frostbite that they might be developing. You can tell if you are getting frostbite if white patches develop on your skin. There are also degrees of frostbite, similar to how there are different degrees of burn (first, second, and third), and these white patches are a good indicator that you are developing a low level of frostbite. One of the big dangers is that in such cold conditions it can be hard to tell if what you’re experiencing is frostbite or simply the cold. And yes I’ve never warn so many warm winter layers in my life. Ski pants became my new favorite article of clothing.

But back to my trip. Because there are a limited number of flights going in and out of Svalbard, the airport bus waited until we were all on board before setting off. Due to Longyearbyen’s  size (population roughly 2,000), there aren’t that many stops for the bus to make, and it didn’t take me too long to reach Sarah’s place.

Although I had to get up early to catch my flights, my series of plane naps meant that I was happy to go explore town as soon as I dropped my things off. So we set off to explore the settlement.

The funny thing with Svalbard is that it truly does look like a settlement. It’s more or less a one street place, and none of the buildings look that permanent. In fact, the student housing is called barracks, which just seems to reinforce the idea that nobody stays in Svalbard for very long. According to Sarah, the average length of time that people stay is five years, though we’re assuming that students are not counted in this figure. Most people who are in Longyearbyen are there for the university, coal mines, or tourism. Nobody really stays and develops a legacy or family on Svalbard. You actually are not allowed to give birth on Svalbard or die there. Additionally, because most people who come to Longyearbyen are in their 20s and 30s and there on a short term contract, they tend to have young kids but leave before the children are fully grown. This means that there are 3 kindergartens on Svalbard but only two children in upper secondary school/high school.

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There is only one grocery store in town and it’s pretty much a one stop shop for most of your basic needs. While the price of food is quite expensive, even by Norwegian standards, pretty much everything on Svalbard is tax free…which means that the alcohol is very cheap compared to mainland Norway. The store does make an effort to remind you that you cannot stash alcohol in your carryon bag for the trip back home. One thing that does make Svalbard and their alcohol store unique is that the island has alcohol quotas if you are a legal resident. I’ve been told that the quotas are quite generous (2 liters of liquor and 24 cans of beer per month) and it only counts beer and alcohol bought in the store. The reason for this was back when Longyearbyen was almost completely a mining town, the mining companies felt the need to regulate their workers and make sure that they were not getting completely inebriated–hence the alcohol card. You might be wondering why wine isn’t monitored, and that’s because that’s what the mining company bosses would drink. Of course they didn’t feel the need to monitor their own alcohol supply. Sarah told me that not too long ago the residents voted on whether or not they wanted to keep the alcohol card, and they overwhelming decided to keep it. Apparently they like being the only place to have an alcohol card and quota. The other funny thing about it is that Sarah told me her alcohol card is pretty much the only evidence she has showing that she’s a resident on Svalbard.

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Other things to note are polar bears! Polar bears are a very real danger in Svalbard and there are number living on the islands. It is legally required that you have adequate polar bear protection when you leave certain areas of town. In practical terms this means that you should be carrying a rifle. I’ve even heard that when the schools let out for recess the teachers form a protective circle around the playing children and that all of the teachers are equipped with rifles.

If you encounter a polar bear the proper procedure goes something like this: fire any and all flash and bang flares (the idea is to hopefully scare off the polar bear), at 200 meters you fully prepare your rifle to shoot, and at around 50 meters you are well within your rights to shoot. If you get to the point that you are using your rifle, you are shooting to kill (and it’s estimated that it will take you 2-3 shots to accomplish this). If you do shoot a polar bear you have to explain why to the local government because polar bears are an endangered species. Unfortunately for both us and them polar bears are 1) incredibly smart and 2) see humans as food. Polar bears will actively stalk humans that they encounter because they see them as food. Additionally, the bears are also getting much smarter when it comes to our defense mechanisms. Polar bears are slowly starting to realize that the flash and bang flares won’t actually harm them, and although the local government has two helicopters that it can use to scare off polar bears (the loud noise really disturbs them) the bears are coming to realize that the helicopters won’t hurt them either.

Because of all of this it’s quite common to see people with rifles. Proper rifle etiquette dictates that you leave rifles outside of public buildings (there is usually a coat room or outer room where you can do this). Most people also leave part of the bolt open to show that there is no ammunition in the gun. In the student barracks each room is provided with a safe so that you can safely store your rifle bolt away from your rifle.

IMG_2491  IMG_8608  IMG_8612I was clearly getting quite the education in my walk around town. The next place that we went to was a seal store. I was somewhat tempted to buy a pair of seal boots (see below) but then Sarah informed me that seal products are banned in the US and that they would be confiscated. There went that dream for warm footwear.

I was also excited to see the musk ox below! My colleagues have been telling me about musk ox and how it’s quite a dangerous animal (supposedly it’s bad tempered, pointy, and can run quite fast) but I haven’t seen one yet. They’re pretty rare animals, so although this musk ox was a rug I was excited to see one and get a better idea of what one looked like.

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After that we stopped by a place called Huset to catch the end of the student elections and to grab some cheap beer (only 25 NOK/ 3.28 USD–guys this has got to be a record for beer prices at a Norwegian bar) before finally wandering back home. Before we turned in we took some pictures of the moon and the landscape. Enjoy and sorry for the somewhat haphazard blog post!

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