Friday, January 2, 2015

Spending the Holidays in Norway

My First Christmas Tree

Welcome 2015! It is amazing and scary how fast my time has gone by here in Norway, with just about three months left until I depart. I can't say I'm looking forward to leaving this place that has become my home, but a part of me is ready for the next adventure. And besides, a part of Norway will always be with me.

The past few weeks have been a blur of holiday cheer and activity. I had decided last year that this Christmas was to be spent in Norway. I was sad to miss out on family and friend time back home, but not traveling and enjoying the holidays here ended up being a wonderful decision in the end. I was able to get my very first Christmas tree and bake way too many Christmas cookies for my friends and colleagues. Plus, not spending 5 hours in Heathrow in the middle of holiday travel season was a huge bonus.

The towers of City Hall as seen from a festive Tjuvholmen

Christmas Trees at Aker Brygge looking towards Akershus Festning

Oslo was decked out for the season, with lights and trees everywhere. Unfortunately snow has been little and seldom, but a light covering the week before Christmas helped to brighten up the city. I spent the weeks before the 25th going to various parties and receptions, including the required work party (called Julebord here). I ate my year's quota of pork products and had a few too many shots of aquavit, but I was definitely in good company. 

Norwegians do their major Christmas events on December 24th, so I adapted this year. A good friend invited me to her family's place in Stokke for Juleaften (Christmas Eve), which included a full itinerary of activities. We started with rice porridge, then church service, then a big dinner. After dinner we moved on to the most cultural-shocking part of the night, the dancing and singing around the Christmas tree. I have to admit, it did help settle the food and make room for dessert to hop around the tree for 15-20 mins. Then we ate more, drank more, before opening the presents. All of them. On Christmas eve. I resisted the urge to tell them how wrong this was and opted to enjoy the night. 

Two pairs of boots and a stunning view over Mylevann
On the 25th I left Stokke and headed to Larvik to join my favorite hiking partner for a low-key dinner with his family. We enjoyed leftover wild boar and venison, along with some more aquavit and an evening watching strange Norwegian animated series. The next morning we headed away from civilization for a weekend at an old farmstead/cabin. There wasn't enough snow for skiing, but blue skies, chilly temps and about 6 inches of power made for decent hiking and perfect sledding. After a busy holiday season with lots of socializing, it was amazing to get away from email and people for a couple days up in the mountains. 

Celebrating a day of sledding well done
Sunset over the snowy fields and farms near the cabin
Two nights of the cabin life went quickly, and then it was time to come back to Oslo for a couple days of work and New Years Eve. So thank you 2014 for all the good times and all the new possibilities.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

So Much to be Thankful for!

As usual, I'm still behind on writing, and I know I haven't shared the second half of my October trip pictures yet. But, before it gets too close to Christmas I wanted to put up just one picture that captures just how lucky I am here in Norway. Thanksgiving was a last minute affair, with messages and texts sent out a few days before, after I decided that yes, I would host a dinner. I cooked the basics (turkey, stuffing, potatoes, green beans and pumpkin pie) and my friends contributed Norwegian touches (kålrabistappe, sweet potatoes Norwegian style, and plenty of local beer). We were about half-half Norwegian-American, a perfect mix.

I had some help moving my dining set into the main living room, so we could dine in front of a roaring fire, with NFL Game Pass streamed football on the TV in the next room. It couldn't have been more perfect.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Birthday Backpacking Euro Vacation (Part 1: Belgium)

A classy bike in Brugges

For my thirty-third (??!!??) birthday, I decided to pretend that I was once again a college-aged vagabond and take a little backpacking voyage through a corner of the continent. With a few minor upgrades of course.

From Oslo it's a quick hour+ flight to Brussels, which puts you in the middle of Europe. From there it's pretty much a two-hour train ride to anywhere. With that in mind, I decided to use Brussels as my hub and tap into my network of friends to fill up my nine days of European vacation. I left Oslo with a sketched-out itinerary, but no set plans for my days, trusting that things would work themselves out. They did just that.

Brugges vs. Ghent

It's probably unfair to pit these two medieval Belgium towns against one another, but in consulting with friends, I was often told that while Brugges is nice, Ghent is cool. So I decided to do some day touring in Brugges and head to Ghent for a couple of nights. Correct decision. 

When in Brugges, don't think, eat the fries. 

In Brugges I wandered around, in awe at the beautiful architecture and the mass amounts of tourists, even in October. I didn't go into a single museum, but rather used food and drink as my guide. I started off with a hot cone of fries at Chez Vincent that I enjoyed while eavesdropping on some sort free tour for backpackers. I admit that I had a certain smug satisfaction in knowing that I no longer had to travel through Europe on a $15 a day budget and share dorm rooms with smelly strangers. 

Gourmet Food Festival

After a little bit more wandering, I decided to head back to the train station a little early, but on the way there got distracted by a major gourmet food festival at a park. This was a local event that featured professional chefs sampling their best dishes for a few euro a taste. Yes, Please. I got a handful of tokens for about 20 euro which provided me with four dishes and two beers. I had an Indian style burger, a waffle with fresh seafood, and a crem brule dessert. I chatted with locals who had traveled from neighboring towns for the events and listened to some live music. I had been ready to write off Brugges as a quaint old town ruined by tourism, but this stop saved it. 

Noodles in Ghent (plus beer, of course)

From Brugges it was on to Ghent, where I would spend the next two nights. My friend and travel buddy wouldn't be joining me until the next morning, so I decided to brave the rainy night for a hot bowl of noodles from a noodle shop I had passed earlier. Not since Seattle had I had a good bowl of ramen with homemade noodles, so this really hit the spot. 

When my friend arrived, trooper that she is, we headed straight out onto the town to find some champagne. We had read that on Sunday mornings there is a stand that serves champagne and oysters at the market, so we joined the navy blazer wearing locals and had ourselves a little morning bubbly. From there it was on to enjoy a day of shopping with a stop at a local brewery for lunch. On our way back to our AirB&B (an excellent way to stay) we ran across another street purveyor of champagne. Seriouly, two street carts selling champagne in one day, what an amazing place! We of course decided that having a little more bubbly was a good idea and got to chatting with the owners of the retro little cart. They were so excited to have visitors to Ghent, that they wrote down all kinds of fabulous places to go out that night. 

So after a nap and cleaning up, it was on for an evening in Ghent. By time I was totally convinced that Ghent was far superior to Bruges, but an unexpectedly eventful Sunday night sealed the deal. We had good food and good drinks, all at bargain prices compared to Oslo. We ended the evening at a little hole in the wall jazz club where we were treating to excellent music, and of course some of the best belgian beer I'd had yet. 

A fuzzy night at Hot Club de Gand

Ghent beautifully lit at night

 The next day before heading on the Brussels we put on our running shoes and took a jog around town, ending at the Ghent Castle. It is a small little fortress right in the middle of town, but does have a great little museum on the many ways you can torture someone. 

Torture Museum at the castle
Then, on to Brussels. Neither of us had any specific things to see in Brussels, so I don't have much to highlight other than saying there was food and drink. Brussels is very much a modern city, with some history, so we didn't worry about doing the touristy thing. We rested up for our last night as a traveling duo before my friend headed back to Oslo. 

Mussels, fries, and beer in Brussels

Our final night in Belgium was also my birthday, the whole point of this trip. Sadly, there are no pictures suitable for posting, but needless to say it was an excellent night. I had the good fortune of having a couple of Norwegian friends from Oslo in town for a meeting, so they joined us for a night of rockabilly swing dancing at some country bar somewhere in Brussels. Who knew?

The next morning we packed up, me to continue on to Germany and Luxembourg and my friend back home. Stayed tuned for part two.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A Long Ride (or Many)

Skål! To getting to the top of Grefsenkollen, one of Oslo's favorite cycling challenges. 

Since I last wrote about becoming a bike lady, I have fully embraced this new-to-me sport as mine. In June I was preparing to participate in my first (and so far only) bike race, a distance of 132 km (about 83 miles). My goal was to finish under 6 hours, but I really had no idea what when happen when I got out there on the road.

Well, I blew my goal out of the water and absolutely shocked myself by finishing in 4 hours 45 mins. The key to going much faster than my training pace was actually being part of a group of cyclists the whole race, a hodgepodge collection of single riders that all kept the same pace and helped each other along. During the Tour de France these groups are known as the peloton, and now I understand the benefit of spending time in the middle of the group before taking your turn at the front.

Proof. I did it!

I didn't even realize at first that this was what was happening. I started out the race at a comfortable but fast pace, passing a number of riders on the slow long hill out of Gjøvik. After cresting the top and heading downhill and through some flats, I finally looked back and realized that I had picked up about 6 or 7 riders. I had created a make-shift peloton and could now drop back and enjoy a rest. This rotation continued for another 50-60 km before it was down to just 3 of us (the others had dropped off along the way). I decided that I had no chance if I lost these two guys, so I stuck with them, only stopping for a shot of coffee and rhubarb soup when they did. It worked, they forced me to keep going, let me draft off of them, and helped me to finish much quicker than I might have otherwise.

Me and my trusty bike riding partner/guru (and our bikes) enjoy a post-ride meal - Kebab from Carmel Grill

Fast forward a couple of months and nearly 1,000 kilometers of road riding around Oslo. I have gotten to know my bike,  conquered the hills around Oslo, and been on a 100km women's only group ride through Rapha (a cycling clothing company). I have ridden in the rain and in the sun, enjoying the joys of both.  I have spent way too much on cycling clothing and watched the Tour de France, including the women's La Course. I am officially obsessed.

A group of ladies and their bikes enjoy a mid-ride snack. 

All weather is biking weather - showing off my stripe with Oslo's Bjørvika neighborhood in the background. 
Rain, rainbows, and perfect roads. Out for a Friday evening ride.

This weekend I went out for a long ride by myself and discovered amazing views and wonderful roads, even though getting there meant a long uphill climb, fighting some traffic and taking my road racing bike onto some off-road gravel paths (option 2 was battling heavy highway traffic with no shoulder and blind corners - no thanks). Even when I was tired and my muscles were burning, I was smiling. So I think I will keep doing this crazy sport and I have a feeling that I have many more kilometers (and bikes) in my future adventures around the world.

The Strava version of 95km around a huge chunk of the western forests of Oslo. 

Solihøgden, the top of a long hill about 40 km outside of Oslo (see map above where there is a mini photo of this same shot).