Tuesday, December 24, 2013

God Jul, Merry Christmas, and Happy Flag Day #2

Waiting for Christmas morning.

I've been back home in Spokane for about a week now, catching up on sleep, hanging with the family, and doing some crazy shopping.  I don't remember things being so cheap, but it's amazing what 10 months in Norway will do to your price sensitivity.  We got a little bit of snow this past weekend, so even after a good melt yesterday, there is enough on the ground to call it a semi-white Christmas.

A could have been white Christmas

After the Christmas cheer here at home with the family I'll head over to the west side of the mountains for some proper celebrating with my friends. A few days at a cabin in the mountains and then New Years Eve in Seattle should make up for a year away from some of my favorite people in the world.

And in the midst of the holiday cheer, I received my next assignment. While I am mostly in denial that I am ever leaving Norway, it is probably good to have in mind what comes next. I'll preface the announcement by saying that it may sound crazy, but it was actually number four on my list of 30 places. The location close to the West Coast of the U.S., a big enough city to keep me entertained, and a culinary scene to drool over. So without further ado, I bring you:

Tijuana, Mexico. 

Yes, there is a fair amount of drug violence and general dirtiness that comes with being a border town, but over the past few years Tijuana and Baja California have started to gain a reputation for hipness and good food. Proof? Anthony Bourdain paid a visit (see youtube episode below) and the New York Post highlighted "The New Tijuana Cool." So I'm going to live my next year plus in Norway like I'm never leaving, but when I do have to depart, I think I'll be prepared to take on Baja. 


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Christmas from U.S. Embassy Oslo

I am way behind on the blog here, apologies, but now that I'm on vacation for a few weeks I will be able to play catch-up and post some pics and stories from the past couple of months.

In the meantime, here is a Christmas greeting from my colleagues and I at U.S. Embassy Oslo. Thanks to the work of some of the most fantastic local employees in the world, we were able to make fools out of ourselves in the name of America. Below is a cheat sheet to the Christmas words we were attempting to pronounce.

God Jul! (Merry Christmas)

From our Embassy Oslo YouTube Site: 
We challenged our American diplomats to pronounce Norwegian sayings that relate to Christmas. We think the result was pretty funny :) Please feel free to share! Happy Holidays!

Here is an unofficial translation of the words for our non-Norwegian viewers:

Kålrabistappe - Mashed rutabaga, typically enjoyed with the Christmas meal.
Dompap - Bullfinch, a type of bird.
Dorullnisse - "Toilet roll santa" - A homemade "santa decoration" made with a toilet roll.
Marsepangris - "Marzipan pig", a common Norwegian holiday candy.
Risengrynsgrøt - Rice porridge, enjoyed by many Norwegians during the holidays.
Svineribbe - Pork breast, eaten by many on Christmas night.
Størknet ribbefett - Coagulated fat from pork (we just included this because it's weird)
Fjøsnisse - A santa who lives in the barn (part of popular Christmas tales)
Sprøstekt svor - Pork rind, an important part of the Norwegian Christmas meal.
Medisterkake - A type of sausage included in most Christmas dinners.
Steketermometer - Cooking thermometer
Pepperkakemann - Gingerbreadman
Vasselina Bilopphøggers - A band that did a popular show about Christmas.
God Jul - Merry Christmas 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Cultural Experiences

Sometimes I forget that I'm a diplomat. Not that I forget to show up to work, or that I suddenly start screaming anti-America slogans in the middle of the street.  What I mean is that I forget that I am a very lucky, privileged person that gets to experience this country and the world in a very special way. But the last few weeks have been filled with reminders that in addition to being a humdrum bureaucrat, my job is more than just writing reports and taking notes at meetings.

I had one of those days this week. Bouncing straight from a meeting on trade issues that I had to cover at the last minute (with almost no prep), to an Arctic policy roundtable, and then to a presentation to 20 high-school seniors on the U.S. political system, I felt like I was living the stereotypical foreign service officer day. Returning to my desk to do the write-up from the trade meeting and get it into DC before close of business, I was exhausted but also happy, because I knew that I had chosen the right career.

Outside of the office, I've been lucky to score some amazing invites to some great events. First on that list was the Season 2 Premier of the Norwegian/Netflix show Lilyhammer. This was my first red carpet event, and in true Norwegian style, it was a low-key affair where the cast was mingling with the other guests over wine. We got to see the first two episodes of the show, which is now in it's third week here in Norway and will be coming out on Netflix sometime in December for American audiences.

Completely unrelated to my ability to get cool invites through work, I've also enjoyed plenty of dinner and game nights with friends. I can't be thankful enough for the amazing people that I have in my life, both friends from college that I have reconnected with and new friends that have made these past 9 months (!) so wonderful and full.  I love that Norwegians fully embrace a low-key evening at home with friends over a simple home-made dinner followed by coffee and a rousing game of Ticket to Ride. I was warned more than once that Norwegians can be a tough group to break into, but I've yet to see the evidence of that.

Lilyhammer Season 2 Premier Party

Lobster dinner with friends (followed by an oh-so-nerdy game of Dominion)

A Polish Embassy hosted Accordion Concert 


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

winter is coming

A trip to the north and now I'm part of the Barent's Liberation Army

Hello friends and family, and apologies once again for going offline for so long. Partly it was due to self-preservation in light of the 16 day government shut-down and the need to keep from publishing personal thoughts online about the unfortunate situation that I might regret. Well, the ugliness is behind us now (for the next couple of months at least) and I can continue on with musings about life in Norway.

And while I was taking a break from the whole blogging thing, the sunshine seems to have left Oslo, until at least March I'm told. The days are shortening by about 10 minutes a day and the blue skies have been replaced by low, sad clouds with a constant Seattle-like drizzle. I guess after the last five months of very lovely weather, I've earned what's coming. So I have picked up some firewood, stocked up on candles, and brought out the knitting and wool blankets. Norway winter, I'm ready!

Also, since I wrote last, I got the chance to another visit to Norway's northern wilds. This time I was able to visit the interior of Norway's Arctic, the sparsely populated home to Norway's indigenous Sami. Cutting from the Russian border, across Finland, and through the heart of the reindeer herding highlands. It was fascinating and a very unique experience.

Kirkenes (the last time I saw this view it was midnight sun times)

Entering Finland

Sami Parliament in Karasjok. The Sami are Norway's indigenous group and have their own Parliament which collaborates with the National Parliament. 

Inside the Sami Parliament - the building is absolutely beautiful. 

The Finnmark Vida (Plateau). 

Juhls Jewelry shop in the Kautokeino - a random piece of architectural amazingness in the middle of nowhere. 


Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Here comes fall...and a shutdown

Ruby enjoys a cozy evening in front of the fire
Wow, how time flies. My fun few weeks of visitors flew by, and now it's fall. Woohoo! Fall! The weather has been staying beautiful while at the same time the days are shortening by 10 minutes a day. Norway elected a new government while my own government seems unable to do its very basic job of staying in business. I'll refrain from ranting further about this, but for now we are still going to work using multiyear funds, but no idea how long that will last. I can only send my thoughts out to my friends and former colleagues who got the dreaded "non-essential" memo today.

But politics in DC can't keep me from enjoying the amazing outdoors here in Norway. While the fall colors aren't quite as dramatic as the east coast of the United States, they are beautiful none the less. The cooler weather has finally given me the excuse to use my fireplace and I'm looking forward to cozy evenings inside reading, knitting, and catching up on all these TV shows I keep hearing about (Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones I'm coming for you).

Old dam at Bjornholt in Nordmarka. Mid-point on a 20 km hike. 

A beautiful trail, but man that was a long walk up.
Fall colors, evergreens, and way off in the distance Oslo Fjord

View of downtown Oslo from Ekeberg park

Enjoying the new sculpture park at Ekeberg

Celebrating Norwegian elections with the winning party

"watch for falling leaves"  = I love fall

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Last Month: Visitors from Afar

What a terrible job I am doing of keeping this thing updated. I can only blame the continuing fabulous weather, friends stopping by to say hello, and traveling. Which is all to mean that I'm having way too much fun to be distracted by my computer.

So after arriving back from the wilds of Svalbard, I had only a week and a half before hopping on a plane to Iceland. Waiting for me there in the middle of the Atlantic were my two of my favorite people in the world. We had a wonderful, whirlwind weekend of Reykjavik fun, complete with running a 10k in the mist of the North Atlantic, visiting the local public pool to soak with the locals, celebrating culture night around town, and finally stopping by the famous Blue Lagoon on our way to the airport. Despite the Blue Lagoon being very tourist-oriented, it is absolutely a must experience for Iceland - the whole experience was absolutely perfect!

Inside the Reykjavik Concert House

Journey to the Sun Sculpture 

Reykjavik Cathedral

Panorama of Blue Lagoon

Amazing Landscape around Blue Lagoon

After Iceland, we came back to Oslo for a week of vacationing, both for me and my friends. We did the Norway in a Nutshell, a day in Bergen (they stayed one more) and then back to Oslo to celebrate together a mini college reunion/pirate-themed birthday party.

It was sad seeing them go, but I didn't have too much time to be down, because just a couple days later a couple more of my favorite people arrived from Washington, DC. While my vacation was over, it was still wonderful to come home to dinners cooked by my friends, catch up on life, and of course participate in a secret marriage proposal plot (she said yes :-)).

A Pirate Birthday Party
Now, halfway through September the pace at work is going up, up, and up and the weather is slowly but surely going into fall/winter mode. This really has been the most amazing summer, so while it's sad to see it go, I know that I couldn't have asked for a better introduction to Norwegian summers and am looking forward to the season that truly defines this wonderful place.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Week I Almost Quite My Job to Live in the Arctic

In another life I could have been an Arctic scientist. Probably a geologist or glaciologist. But since I didn't know those things existed and instead stuck to the social sciences, I guess being a diplomat that gets to visit the Arctic is the next best thing. I just spent 5 days traveling around some of the most northern and most pristine places in the world and can't wait to get back. Something about the remoteness, the air, and the crazy people who spend their lives up there just made sense to me.

I was lucky enough to accompany a group traveling from Washington D.C., so we were privileged to get high-level briefings and VIP tours along with the amazing scenery. We started off in Bodø to learn about Norway's military work in the North and then were treated to boat tour through Salstraumen, the strongest tidal current in Europe, and along the beautiful coast.

Scenery around Salstraumen

The tidal current going into the Fjord. 

View of the coast outside of Bodø

From Bodø we traveled to Tromsø, known as the capital of the Arctic. Tromsø is a great town with lots of activity around the Arctic, included a large university and the Fram Center, home to the Arctic Council Secretariat and the Norwegian Polar Institute. After all these years working on Arctic issues, it was a small thrill to see the offices where much of the work I've read about takes place.  The mayor of Tromsø joined us for a lovely dinner and everyone on the delegation started considering a move to the high north.

View of Tromsø from the hotel

The official greeter at the Fram Center

But the main show was really Svalbard, and so from Tromsø it was on to Longyearbyen, a town of around 2000 people, and the largest settlement on Svalbard. We spent just a few hours on the ground meeting the Sysselman (Governor) and doing some very quick shopping as a few pieces of luggage didn't make the hop from the mainland. Then, on a very small plane to Ny Ålesund, the most northern permanent settlement in the world. It was a true honor to be invited to Ny Ålesund, since it is very difficult for anyone apart from the researchers living and working there to visit. The international director of the Norwegian Polar Institute was our guide and the leader of the company that runs the facilities was our host. We learned about the important climate research taking place there, and saw first hand the changes taking place from boat ride along a rapidly retreating glacier.

Because of the gulf stream, the waters around Svalbard are usually ice free, sometimes even in the winter, but the climate is Arctic none the less. An hour long boat ride in the icy fjord was enough to chill us all and make us thankful for the huge survival suits and many layers of wool. The next day we walked around the village and heard from many of the researchers about the interesting science they were conducting on everything from sediments on glaciers to arctic bird reproduction. This is where I started questioning my chosen career and wishing that I could be out running around the tundra taking snow samples instead of sitting at desk writing reports, but I guess that's easy to say when it's a balmy 40 degrees with 24 hours of light. A candlelight dinner in a house once visited by polar explorer Roald Amundsen only added to the adventurous atmosphere.

Svalbard: Way the heck up there
Our transport from Longyearbyen and Ny Ålesund

Front seat view
View of Svalbard from above

Downtown Ny Ålesund

The beach

Getting up close and personal with a calving glacier

Just because we were at the end of the world, didn't mean we couldn't dine with class at the Amundsen Villa

Back in Longyearbyen for our last day, we visited the University Center and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Yet again, this was a privilege that few get to experience, as the director of the Vault flew up from Germany to escort us inside. Out of all the reasons someone might have heard of Svalbard, the seed vault, or doomsday vault, is usually up there. Going inside was fascinating, and learning about the system of seed banks and genetic cataloging around the world gave us all a sense of how important the facility is as a final back-up to the world's food. For instance, there were seeds from several countries currently in the midst of war in the case that the infrastructure within those countries fails to keep their national seed banks running. So cool.

Our final dinner was at one of the nicest restaurants in Norway, Huset, home to an astounding wine cellar and gourmet cuisine. It was a perfect end to a dream trip, and I really am trying to plot how to make it back up there again.

The vault sits above Longyearbyen and goes into the permafrost of the mountain

The final back-up plan for 700,000 food varieties

It's about -18 degrees celsius inside. 

Goodbye Longyearbyen, I'm back soon. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Summer around Oslo

It's August now. I can't believe July, and what I've been told is the bulk of the Norwegian summer, is now over. But man, what a month it has been. When I arrived in Norway I was warned that last summer consisted of no more 3 days of sunshine and days of 50 degrees. So I was really prepared for the worst. Instead, I was treated (and continue to be treated) to the very best. Four straight weeks of 75-80 degrees and sunny, very little rain and plenty of time spent on the beach, on a boat, or in the water. I actually can't remember the last time I've had such a summery summer. And there is still a few more weeks of promising weather to go. 

So it's hard not to gloat a little and share some of my pics of the last few weeks. But before that, to give you a taste of Oslo, here is a fun video put together by Norwegian artist Kristian Larsen.

And now, my pictures of summer in Oslo, in no particular order: 

Sunning on a sailboat

What happens to the anchor when it gets stuck on something mysterious on the bottom

Playing chicken with a cruise-ferry

Paradisbukta on Bygdoy

A massive pile of seafood enjoyed with friends down on the waterfront (this is halfway through)

Sadly my window candle did not enjoy the heat wave as much as I did

A quiet harbor on one of the islands. 

After work picniking at Huk Beach

Vespa adventures up to the top of the hill 

Oh, to make this last forever...

Coming up, an overnight at a hytta (cabin) and a work/fun trip to the wildest, most Arctic place on the planet!