Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas back home

Last week was a flurry of holiday activity. I left Oslo on the day that many thought would be the end of the world and I managed to make that day last 9 hours longer thanks to the miracle of westward travel. After 22 hours of transiting, and despite some typical plane delays, the world did not end and I made it home. And as someone who spent 2 years living in a Maya village I was of course not worried that the world would end and had become a little tired of explaining that the Maya calendar is in fact round, so there is no end, and if anyone was curious about it they should bother to ask the real, live, Maya people that are living in Central America today.

Okay, with that apocalypse rant over with, back to the Christmas Season. Being home, as always, was busy and wonderful. I love spending time with my family, even if being surrounded by a house full of kids around the clock is a little bit more draining than usual. This year our celebrations were fairly low-key, but almost all the same traditions lived on despite my mom being laid up with a cast on her foot (not that really stopped her). The highlight was definitely getting to spend time with my 3 lovely nieces and my 2-year old nephew. The girls, all 9 years old now, built a great snow fort in the front lawn and made some fabulous norwegian krumkake. My nephew mostly just ran circles around everyone while showing off his impressive vocabulary (the best was when he told me, "just a minute, auntie!" when I asked for a hug).

Now I'm in Seattle catching up on some homework at a typical little coffee shop and waiting for the new year celebrations to begin.

Snow fort building

yummy krumkake!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Day 6: Politics and (attempts at Norwegian) Prose

Tuesday was all about politics. We were very fortunate to be able to visit the Norwegian Parliament, Stortinget (which literal means the big thing) for a personal tour of the building and a meeting with the second in command (nesteleder) for the largest opposition party, Høyre. The level of access we have had to really important people here, and their enthusiasm and patience with our language learning has been surprising and wonderful.

[Our days are all completely in Norwegian, whether the discussion is about party politics or the Nobel Peace Prize. My compression has grown immensely in just these few short days.]

After the Storting, we went to the Oslo Rådhuset (city hall) for another tour and a discussion with one of the members of the city council. While standing in one of the hallways the Mayor (ordfører) walked by and stopped to talk with us. He told us about when President Obama took over his office when he came to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. The Radhuset is the site of the yearly Peace Prize ceremonies, so has had it's share of really important people passing through.

View from Stortinget up Karl Johan's Gate to the Slottet (palace)

The floor of parliament in action (not much going on, but having watched our congress before, this was no surprise)

The outside of the Rådhuset

Murals in the main hall

The main hall of the Rådhuset ready for a Christmas dinner later

One of the many Nationalist murals throughout the Rådhuset. This one depicts a scene from a Norwegian fairy tale
(I think being a queen riding on the back of a bear with two princes vying for your attention doesn't sound horrible).

Day 7: Making News

A Panorama of Oslo Fjord from Akershus

Our last full day in Oslo was a busy one. We started out with a tour of NRK, the state-backed media outfit in Norway that is akin to BBC, with several TV stations and radio networks. Something like 2/3 of all Norwegians turn into the nightly Dagsrevyen (Daily Review). We were met and toured around the station by one of the producers of the daily news and weekly debate program. We were let right into the control center, where the directors, producers, and news hosts were busy making periodic updates from an ongoing hearing at the Parliament (where we were the day before). Turns out one of the more important parliament advisers was being accused by the opposition of corruption (favoring his friends when appointing different positions in the government).

We watched them cutting between live feeds from the Storting and in-studio analysis being done by their major evening news host, Norway's version of Brian Williams. After he did his on-TV work, he came over and chatted with our group for a bit, and invited us into the back of the little studio while he did the next update. If you have ever seen the HBO program News Night, this is exactly what it looked like, but all in another language. I was having so much fun understanding the producer's directions to the remote anchor and the in-studio host. They let me put on headphones and sit at the control desk while they made live TV on Norway's biggest and most watched station. I had a blast!

After NRK we met down in "gammel Christiania" which is one of the older sections of Oslo. It is made up a small quarter of buildings next to the military fort, Akershus Festning. The buildings at Akershus were all from around 1200 and 1300, with plenty of history from WW II during Nazi occupation as well. After the tour (and nearly breaking our necks on the inch of ice of that had coated most of the city), we made our way to our final happy hour. As a thanks to everyone who had hosted us and helped us during our week, we organized a sammenkomst (gathering) at an amazing beer celler in an up and coming neighborhood. The beer was amazing and not absurdly expensive (which comes to about $12 a pint in Oslo prices). I was sad to close out a whirlwind week, but with only 2 months left before I make the move, I have plenty to be excited about.

Downtown Oslo at dusk (3:30pm) with the Holmenkollen Ski jump up on the hill

A Ferry coming into the Harbor - reminded me of Seattle 

The view of Aker Brygge and to the far left, the new Astrup Fearnley Museum I visited a few nights earlier

The tower of the Akershus Chapel

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Day 5: ohmygosh I can't even remember what I did yesterday

Yesterday was a long day. We went to the Norwegian version of the Federal Reserve, had an amazing lunch, and then I walked a bazillion miles around the city trying to find Christmas presents in the even close to remotely reasonable price range. HAHAHA. I'm sorry, a hooded sweatshirt sold in a stand on the street should not cost $90. Or for that matter two mainstream beers in an Irish Pub should not cost $32.  So yeah, gift hunting and drinking not going so well. I'm coming to terms with the fact that I'm either going to have to suck up the sticker shock or not shop or drink for two years. But I got some more fun pics.

Peace Flame near Astrup Fearnly

Oslo's newest Museum - the Astrup Fearnly

Christmas on Karl Johans Gate

Monday, December 17, 2012

Day 4: Tønsberg

Yesterday was fieldtrip day. And the weather couldn't have been worse. But this being Norway and our hosts being Norwegian, the tour went on. We made our way to Tønsberg, Norway's oldest Viking town, with the promise of a city tour and and a Christmas dinner awaiting us. Despite this being one of the most efficient countries I've ever been visited, we learned that even Oslo isn't immune from track work and signal problems (an epidemic in the DC metro).  After getting to the train station, we were told that trains weren't going to Tønsberg from Oslo, so we had to fight our way onto crowded buses that would take us halfway, and from there we would switch to a train.

All went just fine and before long we were being met in the rain and slush by our teacher and her sister in law. They drove us into the city center where our walking tour started. The tour was fun and interesting to me, but I fear my colleagues with poorer shoes didn't fair so well after an hour walking around in icy, slushy, shin-deep water. We warmed up with hot chocolate and beer before going to our teacher's in-laws for an amazing dinner. We were treating to traditional food, drink, and some very kind and well thought-out speeches prepared on our behalf. Their daughters even prepared some games for us to test our knowledge of Norway (I felt like I was a contestant on Alt for Norge). The hospitality we received was over the top amazing, and I am starting to feel very very welcome in this very very chilly little country.

Wet view from train

"Wishlist to Santa: will be sent Dec 23)

Old town of Tønsberg

Some very lost Penguins

Looking down the Sea Front

A replica viking ship

A couple of adorable Norwegian girls ready to entertain us Americans

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Day 3: Mixed Feelings

It's weird being in another country when tragedy strikes your homeland. But it's also a good chance to see the events through the eyes of another culture. Given Norway's own very personal experience with a tragic act of murder against children just last July, I have of course been having lots of conversations about Friday's events and receiving much sympathy from the Norwegians I've met. Their news coverage has been especially interesting, with no mention of the killer's name and no pictures. This is something they as a country decided on after the media attention towards the perpetrator of last summer's attacks here in Oslo. So I don't know his name and I couldn't tell you what he looks like. But I have been reading stories of sadness and heroism at the school.


Other than absorbing the news, yesterday was a low-key day out with my host-family. We drove over to Bygdøy, an island just across from the city center. They keep their sailboat there in the winter so I got to check out the harbor views before going on a little hike on the island. Afterwards we went up to Holmenkolmen, the big ski jump that is on a hill overlooking the city. Snow was falling and the kids were out at the sledding hill. We enjoyed hot cocoa and pastries in a quaint little lodge before heading back home. Later a couple friends of their's came over for dinner and a lovely evening of food, conversation, and wine was enjoyed. Again, all of this in Norwegian, which has definitely stretched me but is building my speaking confidence quicker than I expected.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Day 2: hadde det travelt (busy day)

Technically it's now Day 3, but here is a bit from yesterday. We started early with a visit to the largest IT firm in Norway, then on to my first visit to the US Embassy in Oslo for a little bit of formal training. I realized later that it was in fact my first visit to any US Embassy anywhere in the world. Very fitting. After that we walked over to the house of a friend of our teacher's to learn about Norwegian holiday traditions, which consisted mostly of drinking mulled wine (gløgg) and eating Lucia rolls (boler). After many glasses of gløgg, we changed into fancier clothes and walked back to the Embassy for their Julebord (Christmas celebration). We ate traditional food such as pinnekjøtt (dried, salted lamb ribs) and a kohlrabi mash that was not my thing at all. But the wine (a white from WA state of course) and aquavit were flowing. I think the celebrations continued long after I left, but I needed sleep and to make it back to my host families house all by myself.

8:30am in Oslo, the sun is an hour or still away from being up

Traditional Clothing - Bunad (if you need a way to drop $1500)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Den Første Dagen: Munch Kafe

I have arrived in Oslo, safe and sound. The flights were uneventful and surprisingly comfortable, with a full row in economy plus to myself on the Newark to Oslo non-stop. After the successful purchase of a Norwegian SIM card for my iphone and getting into the city, the rest of the day was spent relaxing at the Munch Museum. The owner of the very nice cafe there is a friend of our teacher's, so we received the royal treatment and enjoyed a nice tour around the exhibits. Yesterday was the 149th birthday of Edvard Munch, so we missed the big party, but the museum itself is cozy.

Now I'm relaxing at my host family's apartment just a little outside of the city, enjoying the spectacular views of the city lights along the Oslo Fjord. Tomorrow is a full day, with a company visit, formal class, pepperkakker baking, and a tradition Julebord ("Christmas Table") at the Embassy in the evening. Oh, and everything is in Norwegian.

Kafe og Kaffe


Skrik (The Scream)!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12 days of Holiday Blogging

Today is 12.12.12, which is pretty cool for folks who like patterns. Which I do. It's also the day I get on an airplane for Oslo, Norway for a week of language immersion. It's also 12 days before Christmas Eve! In recognition of all these nifty number-related things, I'm going to do a short post or a photo every day until Christmas. The 12 days of holiday blogging. Some of what I post will likely be på norsk (in Norwegian) since that will be focus in the coming week, but translations will be provided.

So to kick off the Christmas spirit, here are a few pictures from a visit to the National Botanic Gardens.

Troll under the bridge

Train set
Model Library of Congress
The Capital

Friday, December 7, 2012

gift-giving and card-sending for slackers

File this post in the random {unpaid} promotion of stuff that makes my life easier.

I admit it, I'm a terrible Christmas shopper. In almost all other aspects of my life I'm on top of things, but gift shopping is usually left until the last minute when the malls are empty of quality and free shipping is a distant memory. I love giving gifts, but I think I take it too personally, and end up never finding that "perfect" present that absolutely captures the relationship between myself and the gift recipient. But thanks to the wonders of the internet, my gift-giving impairment is getting a lot help these days.

For the ladies in my life I want to give gifts that provide luxury without being over the top, and I think I finally found the right thing. Thanks to my obsessive blog reading, I learned about a now very popular sample subscription service and joined up about a year and a half ago. Each month I get a little box of fun in the mail with all sorts of things I would never buy myself: shiny lip gloss, fancy lotions, bold perfumes, etc. etc. It's also the perfect thing for a foreign service nomad, since nothing is more fun when you are far from home than getting a package in the mail (even if it is from yourself). I loved it so very very much that I bought my sister a membership for her birthday and am now trying to figure out who else "needs" a membership.

And despite my lack of gifting skills, I've always loved sending postcards. Of course, most people think of sending postcards when they are relaxing over a latte in far-flung foreign cafes, but I think postcards should be everyday fun, and thanks to a fun iphone app, they can be. Postagram takes all your fancy insta'ed, hipster'ed iphotos and lets you send a real, live postcard to anyone whose address is in your phone (or that you have memorized).  There's also a version for cards, so holiday cards may be a making a comeback and recently launched an app that lets you send whole gift packages of stuff to your friends.

Sadly, the postcards and other iphone sent cards and gifts lack the authenticity of the foreign stamp and postmark from Chamonix, Moscow, or Siem Reap that make travel gloating oh so fun.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

level of proficiency

Today was my 2nd interim progress evaluation for my Norwegian class. Technically we are supposed to be evaluated closer to the end of December, but since we'll be in Oslo starting Wednesday (!), we had our evals this week.

Before going into how I faired, a little clarity on what it means to learn a language through the State Department Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Each Foreign Service position is designated by whether it requires the host country language or not, and if so, at what level the officer needs to be at in order to do the job. For Norwegian and for almost all European languages, this is a 3 in speaking and a 3 in reading, or 3/3 in FSI slang. Now, you can argue the utility of learning a language for a country in which 99.9% of the population speaks near-perfect English, but I think not being able to understand the news or be able to function at a basic level in your hosts' language would be terrible. (Så er jeg glad og heldig å kunne lære norsk.)

Below is a handy chart that State Dept uses to classify what a 3/3 means.

Proficiency CodeSpeaking DefinitionsReading Definitions
0 - No Practical ProficiencyNo practical speaking proficiency.No practical reading proficiency.
1 - Elementary ProficiencyAble to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirementsAble to read some personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations, numbers and isolated words and phrases
2 - Limited Working ProficiencyAble to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirementsAble to read simple prose, in a form equivalent to typescript or printing, on subjects within a familiar context
3 - Minimum Professional ProficiencyAble to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topicsAble to read standard newspaper items addressed to the general reader, routine correspondence, reports, and technical materials in the individual's special field.
4 - Full Professional ProficiencyAble to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels pertinent to professional needs.Able to read all styles and forms of the language pertinent to professional needs.
5 - Native or Bilingual ProficiencyEquivalent to that of an educated native speaker.Equivalent to that of an educated native.

So after just 3 months of training I am happy to report that I am roughly in the 2-2+ range for speaking and 2+ for reading. All those routine social demands that need satisfying? I've got it handled. Simple prose need reading? Not a problem. The excellent news is that I'm right where I need to be in order to reach the 3/3 by the end of February, and a week in Oslo should really help with my fluency.

Also, to put the difficulty of gaining fluency in any language in perspective, I've been told the 5/5 is rarely achievable even for native speakers. I heard somewhere that less than 10% of English speakers (included us fancy pants diplomats) could get a 5/5. So there's that. My goal after 2 years in Norway would be a 3+/4, which would up my odds of a future post in Scandinavia. Yes, before my first tour I'm already plotting my return :-).

Other exciting progress this week included receiving my travel orders and finalizing my airline reservations, including a reserved spot for Ruby to travel with me on the plane. I can't believe how quick time is going by, and as excited as I am about Oslo, I'm already starting to get that sad feeling in my stomach at the thought of leaving my life that I love so much here.  

Harpers Ferry

Sunset, a church, and a moon. 

In the spirit of crossing things off my DC-area to-do list, a few weeks ago I finally made it over to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It is a quaint little town that has been mostly preserved as a museum through the National Park Service and offers a peek into civil war life. It's also a spectacularly beautiful place to visit on a crisp fall day. Sorry for sharing late, but the pictures speak for themselves!