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). 

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.

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

Friday, June 20, 2014

Becoming a Bike Lady

The new bike, in her element. 

I have found a new obsession. I fought a used racing bike off of Norway's version of craigslist ( and am now completely hooked.


Within three weeks of taking my first spin on the fuji (a brutal 52km that I am still mad at my coworker about), I had accomplished my first 100km ride. And I've decided that this is the sport for me. I love the long rides, seeing the countryside, pushing my limits, climbing the hills. Who knew that I was bike lady?

The top of a hill, a view earned. 

And because nothing is worth doing if not done all the way, I will be riding in my first long-distance cycling race in a week and a half. 134km from Gjøvik to Oslo, which is actually one of the shorter legs of the Trondheim to Oslo Styrkeprøven race.

The Reward. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Bunadmania: 200 years of Constitutional Fun

Enthusiastic Norwegians, a few in full suits, celebrating May 17 by paddling through Oslo's inner waterways. 
One month ago today Norway celebrated the 200 year anniversary of creating its very own constitution. This is an especially significant and unique holiday because it is not Norwegian independence day, that came nearly 100 years later, but rather the day when Norway took matters into its own hands and created its constitution after being handed over to Sweden from Denmark following the Napoleonic wars. Norwegians are extremely proud, rightly so, of their constitution and the democratic ideals it put into writing. And so, May 17 is not just a celebration of one day in history, but rather a celebration of what it means to be Norwegian.

I was lucky to have a few visitors from the USA here for a visit. These crazy folks planned their vacations for the sole purpose of seeing the spectacle that is May 17.  They were not disappointed. With the holiday falling on a Saturday, the festivities began on Friday night and kept going for the whole weekend. The main event was the children's parade on Saturday, preceded of course by a champagne breakfast at 9am (brunch is for the weak). With corks popped well before noon, the spirits around town are quite high around 1pm or 2pm. And of course these high spirits are enhanced by the fancy traditional dress, the bunad, that is donned by all. These spirits (and comfort level of the bunads) fade by about mid-afternoon, but the true pros get a mid-afternoon nap in, and then keep going for the rest of the evening. We tried this strategy and spent the evening watching the events downtown from a lively rooftop.

The following day we recovered by taking a walk in the woods and an evening spent in relaxing. The weekend went by too fast, and on Monday my friends were back to the USA. But with some of my favorite Americans here in Oslo mixing with some of my favorite Norwegians, it was a truly memorable way to celebrate a historical day for Norway.

Participating in Norwegian tradition - flag waving and sun worshiping. 

Soon to be graduating high school "russ" students. 

Norwegians in full bunads, enjoying the sunshine and a traditional ice cream. 

Monday, June 9, 2014

Random Socializing in Edinburgh

The plan for Memorial Day weekend came about a little haphazardly. After buying tickets to Istanbul in early April, I decided that I should make an effort to get out of Norway a little more this year and did a little searching for some cheap intra-Europe flights. I found some under $100 roundtrip tickets to Edinburgh, hit purchase and promptly filed the trip into the "plan later" category. Fast forward into mid-May and I finally got around to booking a hotel and thinking about what I might do in Scotland. I didn't manage to recruit a travel companion, but three days of low-key hanging out sounded nice.

The Friday before Memorial Day I hopped onto my first Ryan Air flight from Oslo Rygge (a much smaller airport south of the city) to Edinburgh. The experience was about what I expected of Ryan Air - cheap, no frills, and not exactly comfortable. But it did the trick and without incident I arrived in Scotland, caught a bus to my hotel, and settled in for a quiet night in. While checking the good old facebook, I noticed that one of my A-100 (Foreign Service cohort) friends was also in Edinburgh to run the half-marathon that was also taking place. After some message exchanges we found a time to meet up, and voila, people to hang out with!

We had a lovely (and oh so cheap in comparison to Norway) lunch and then joined a free walking tour. Catching up and seeing sights was great, and while I love traveling alone, it was really nice to be able to engage in a running commentary on the tour guide with som like-minded Americans. I was even invited in to a home-cooked meal with my friend's friend (a genuine Scot).

The next day I did some exploring of the castle and downtown while my friend and her colleagues did a cold, wet half-marathon out to the coast. I decided to do my own run through town, running up and down Arthur's Seat, racking up some kms along with some sore hamstrings. Later in the evening we all joined up for a very fancy set-course all-local meal before heading out for an evening of whiskey tasting and experiencing the Edinburgh nightlife.

Monday I returned to Oslo, grateful for a wonderful weekend away and for random encounters with colleagues from around the world.

Edinburgh Castle

The top of Arthur's Seat, the mountain on the edge of Edinburgh. I didn't end up with much of a view from the top at first, but a few minutes later the clouds parted and I got a great view of the city. 

A visit to the Scotland National Museum was rewarded with a close-up encounter with the remains of Dolly the cloned sheep. 

My last day in Edinburgh: The clouds and rain finally ceased and a rainbow emerged over Arthur's Seat. The white building with the spikes coming out of it is Scotland's Parliament building.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Istanbul (diplomats delight)

Old town and Blue Mosque

The Spring has flown by in a flurry of work and fun and visitors, so rather than try to recap everything that's gone on, I'll start by writing about one amazing weekend in Istanbul. This will be followed by a recap of Norway's 200th year celebration of their constitution and then a trip to Edinburgh. I'll try not to get distracted by the amazingly long days and accompanying activities.

But first, Turkey, or as it should be known, diplomats delight. It seems that's this wonderful city is particularly popular among the foreign service crowd. After a couple of years of hearing, "you MUST visit Istanbul, it's amazing," I was starting to feel like I was missing out on a key prerequisite to becoming a real diplomat having never been there. So when a $200 roundtrip, non-stop ticket on Turkish airlines coincided with a Norwegian holiday, it was only a matter of convincing a friend to join me and then the trip was booked. 

So a few weeks back we headed out for a long weekend filled with shopping, mosques, food, and fun. And now I understand why so many of my colleagues are drawn to this east-west crossroads. It has all the predictability and functionality of Europe with the lower prices, spicier food, and more vibrant colors of the Middle East or Asia. Combined, this really does make Istanbul a perfect destination for those seeking a change from the everyday of Europe without having to go too much outside the comfort zone. 

Inside of the Hagia Sophia, originally built in 537. 

More Hagia Sophia - it is truly one of the most stunning buildings I've ever been inside. 

Storm clouds float in as we enjoyed the views from the Asian side of the Bosphorus

Floating down the Golden Horn with a crescent moon above. 

Hagia Sophia lit up at night.

View of the old town from the hotel roof.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Winter is over, so I guess it's time to share what I did

It's April and I can't believe 2 months have passed since I last posted. As those who know me know, I've been busy and am somewhat terrible about being in touch and posting on blogs and emailing and calling, and on, and on. But before it gets too warm out and a busy spring schedule of visitors and traveling begins, I thought I would share a short recap of this winter. And I'll emphasize short, because despite the nearly three months of constant grey/dark (seriously 17 hours of sunlight between Christmas and mid-March), there wasn't much of a winter to speak of, and the flowers are now blooming and snow is a forgotten memory. 

But despite, the slightly disappointing snowfall, I did the Norwegian thing as much as I could. So I skied and went to cabins and basically had a blast out in the snow. It was a long-time coming, this return to cross-country skiing. A lifetime ago, as a lonely, bored, poor AmeriCorps volunteer in St. Paul, MN I made a decision to learn how to ski. It was impractical at the time, since as mentioned, I was poor. But the boredom and loneliness overpowered my finances and I bought some mediocre skies, signed up for lessons, and become a horizontal skier. 

Fast forward about 8-9 years, a nearly cross-country free decade, and I find myself in the mecca of skiing. So when the snow started falling just after Christmas (FINALLY), I put some new wax on those old skies, swallowed pride, and started marching around on skies like the legions of Norwegians around me. My modest skills came back, but with some good balance and general ability to keep moving, I managed after a few times out to look not so foreign on the trails. And to top off the winter experience, I made it out for a couple of cabin trips (hytta turer) with friends. Below, some pictures of the highlights. 

Hytta tur #1 - Sjusjøen

Waking up on the 1st morning of my 1st hytta tur. Me and the girls forged that path through 4-5 feet of snow the night before. 

Out on the trails at Sjusjøen, one of Norway's best areas for cross-country skiing. 

Climbing a hill in a dreamy landscape. 
Doing our best impression of what happened to us when we came back down the hill (steering on cross-country skiis is WAY different than on downhill skiis)

Hytta tur #2 - Haukeli, Telemark 

What our group awoke to, a close road and not a snowplow in site. No skiing for us that day. 

The small hydro dam next to the cabin. 

Since there was no skiing, we chose to lay in the middle of the road instead. 

A view on the way back to civilization.