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). 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sørlandet and Arendalsuka

Summer is almost gone! I can't quite absorb that one, it has really gone by too fast. I just got back from Arendal and Grimstad on the southern coast of Norway, where I spent the last week at a political networking event called Arendalsuka. It was five days of mingling, debates, talks, and of course after hours receptions and informal get-to-know-each other events (aka parties).

Arendalsuka brings the entire government plus think tanks, political parties, NGOs and others together in a nice little vacation town on the southern coast for a concentration of political discussion before Oslo comes back to work after the summer holiday. It was a long tiring week, but a great chance to learn and stretch my Norwegian language muscles.


Many of the political debates during Arendalsuka took place in the city's Town Hall and Culture Center. This debate was about food security and climate change. 


The city of Arendal on the south coast of Norway was taken over by political debates and tents of different parties, organizations and causes.  It was hard to turn a corner without running into a debate or Q&A about the various political topics of the day, from climate change to local road building. 


Working at Arendalsuka was not a typical week at the office, though still work none the less. I attended dozens of panel debates and discussions (all in Norwegian) and used the time in between to meet new people and reconnect with people in a more informal setting. One evening this meant a smaller dinner outside of town at a summer resort. The on and off rain rewarded us with an amazing rainbow over the sea. 


With no hotel rooms in tiny Arendal available, I ended up staying the week with a good friend from college, who as luck would have it comes from just outside of Arendal. After a long week of long days, the weekend meant I could finally spend time with good friends. His dad took us out for a boat ride through the islands along the coast, providing a much better view of the city than from the inside of a meeting hall. 


The southern coast of Norway outside of Arendal and Grimstad is dotted with red and white houses in traditional style. The water was a balmy 20 degrees celsius (68 degrees fahrenheit), so after the boat ride and lunch, a few of us took a refreshing dip in the sea. 

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Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Day I met Jimmy Carter: Independence Day 2014

Waiting for Independence Day to begin (credit: US Embassy Oslo Public Affairs)

As a first or second our foreign service officer (known as ELO for entry level officer), you end up doing a lot of things that aren't necessarily in your "job description," to the extent that we have job descriptions.  Among the things that I have been able to work on that don't necessarily fall into the portfolio of an environment and science officer are drafting the annual trafficking in persons report (this year's was release on June 20) and coordinating the Embassy's annual Independence Day celebration.

The garden at the US Ambassador's Residence filling up (credit: US Embassy Oslo Public Affairs)

Planning the Independence Day party is a privilege bestowed upon one of the "fresher" officers in the Embassy each year, rotating between the different sections so as to spread the experience around.  As one of the newer arrivals but with still enough time in country to know a few things, I was the lucky one this year, so it was up to me to be the nominal figurehead for a party of 1600+ people.  In truth, the Embassy has this party every year, so all of the permanent staff are well practiced in making this happen, so my job was just to check-in to make sure we were on track and provide a point where all of the different pieces meet.  After months of planning and many detailed discussions on decorations, invitations, food orders, and bands, on June 19 we celebrated the American Independence Day at US Embassy Oslo. Yes, I realize that the traditional day that this takes place is of course the 4th of July, but with school and Parliament going on summer vacation on June 20, it's prudent to move our event up a bit so as to actually have guests.

The Marine Guards present the Colors (credit: US Embassy Oslo Public Affairs)

After all of the stress and planning, I was very happy when the party day arrived and I could enjoy a glass of wine with some of my good friends and colleagues. It was a great reminder how far I've come in this last year, with so many friendly faces this year. We had a mix of sunshine and rain, but that didn't keep people from enjoying the traditional burgers, hot dogs, french fries, and ice cream.


President Carter gives a signed copy of his most recent book to our Charge d'Affaires (source: ME! I was RIGHT THERE!)

Oh yes, and we had the most amazing special guest! Former President Jimmy Carter was in Oslo for some meetings and agreed to stop in to say hello. As one of the behind the scenes people at the party, I had the amazing good fortune of shaking his hand and getting a picture with him!!  There are not enough exclamation points that can express how excited I was. The thousand plus guests that stayed to hear him speak were similarly starstruck, listening in awe as 90-year old former President Carter delivered a passionate speech about the different challenges we are facing around the world, highlighting the work he is leading through the Carter Center. Speaking without notes for 15 minutes was impressive enough, but when he took some questions from the stunned crowd, I nearly fell over in admiration.  I know that there will be many days like this to come in this career, but this will surely be one I will remember.

President Carter, a great surprise for our guests (credit: US Embassy Oslo Public Affairs). 


After a long day of working and mingling, my colleague/friend and I chatted with Jimmy Carter.  

NOTE: More pictures can be found on the US Embassy Oslo Facebook Page