Saturday, December 15, 2012


I reread this blog the other day for the first time in close to a year. I smiled and laughed, but I also suffered a heavy nostalgia that was probably closer to sadness than anything else. I wrote the blog as I experienced everything; I was inundated daily with newness and excitement and curiosity and those feelings fueled my writing. Norway had a hold on me and I felt that again when I went through all of my old posts; I missed it. But the sadness I felt today is only part of the story. And I thought I’d share what’s happened since my last post for those that are interested.

I haven’t been to Norway since I left in July of 2011. And the reasons why are best explained by starting from my departure from Trondheim. Tonje and I headed back to the United States for a few months at that time primarily for my sister’s wedding, but also to do a bit of sightseeing. I had only seen a small amount of her beautiful country, but she had seen even less of mine. After a few weeks of frivolity surrounding my sister’s nuptials, we packed my car and headed west. We passed through corn country, the great prairies of North Dakota, and the vermillion canyons of eastern Montana. We spent a week of isolation in my uncle’s cabin nestled in the valleys outside of Bozeman and trudged up to the Canadian border to visit old friends. We made a turn south and camped for another week in Yellowstone, Grand Teton and eventually the Grand Canyon. And we capped the trip off with a visit to another wonder of my country, Las Vegas.

Throughout our relationship, we have had too many tearful goodbyes. It’s hard to see someone off at the airport when you know you won’t see them for months; I lost track of how many times we did this. To soften the blow of our separation, we quickly made plans for our next rendezvous shortly after Tonje returned to Norway; this time, the destination was Madrid. We had met many times in cities foreign to both of us to spend a few days together, but something was different about this trip. We tried to laze away afternoons in parks with Cava, jamón ibérico, and cheese, but we could always hear the clock ticking in the back of our minds—a few days together is never enough, and the pain of leaving sneaks in before you even unpack. In part, we were sick of this, but mostly, we just knew that there was nothing left to question. And at some point between meals, somewhere in Madrid, we decided we wanted to marry.

I think the high from this realization carried me for a few months after I returned to the United States. And that was a good thing, because this next stretch apart would be our longest ever. Tonje was off to India for a project and I had to finish the last few months of school. Oh, and I still didn’t have a job. I hadn’t had much luck finding work in Norway; this was mostly because I hadn’t had enough time to achieve fluency in the language, but other factors were at play. And since Tonje would require seven more months to finish her degree, I turned my focus to the United States (with Tonje’s blessing). Before long, I was able to get a job with a company I had worked for in the past. I had maintained strong relationships with the staff and knew that the company’s growth was something that I wanted to be a part of. So I graduated in December, drove over 2,000 miles back home to Virginia and began work.

Shortly after I moved home, I finally got to see Tonje again when she came over for Christmas. This visit was particularly sweet because we hadn’t seen each other for over three months, but also because I hadn’t officially proposed yet. She had hardly passed through the international arrivals gate before I had the ring on her finger. It felt fitting since so much of our relationship had revolved around travel and airports. We spent Christmas together as a newly engaged couple on my grandparents’ farm and began to think about life in the United States.

Months passed in my new job and Tonje came over once more in April for a few weeks before finally moving over for good this past June. We moved into a small cottage in the wine country outside of Charlottesville and got a dog named Oatmeal. We tried to relax and we enjoyed life together, but we had a wedding to plan too. We both wanted a small wedding, but we quickly realized this was futile even when we tried to limit it to close friends only.

In late August, Norwegians, Danes and Swedes invaded my smallish hometown. Up until that point, I felt in some way like I had two separate lives, one in the United States and one in Norway. But for a few precious days, those worlds combined and people that I thought might never meet were sharing homes, stories and food. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to ever surpass the happiness I felt that week. But as amazing as it was, it was over before I could catch my breath. And my reunion with Norway and the people that I associate with it drifted away.

Tonje and I are now getting ready for another Christmas together. This juletid will bring something extra special though in the form of a new home, our first that we’ve purchased together. The house will certainly feel like a mixture of Norway and the United States. We are taking a lot of memories there and we look forward to creating many new ones. And after the busiest year of our lives, we also hope to relax.

And that quick summary completes the story up to now. When I wrote the blog, I had hopes that I would be returning to Norway to live in the near future. Obviously, that did not happen. But we will be back in 2013 for a visit, and I could not be more excited. And although we have a base here for now, we have promised each other that we will live in Norway again at some point. It may be five years from now, or it may be twenty, but we will be back.

Maybe this post has alleviated curiosity for some of you. But, just like the rest of the blog, this one was mostly for me. So much has happened since I last clicked “Publish” that I felt like I had to document some of it; in a sense so that I could show the impact that living in Norway has had on my personal life but also to show that sometimes the best laid plans change. And I think adding this post highlights that good things are worth the wait and physical distance is not the obstacle it once was. A lot can happen in a year and a half, and life can go from quiet to hectic without much warning. But I still go back to Norway in my mind when I need to relax; in these moments I usually go fishing, or occasionally I’ll watch the snow. But I’m always happy. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Senseless Tragedy

My thoughts go out to everyone in Norway during this unthinkable catastrophe. The strength and resiliency of the Norwegian people will help the nation pull through these tough times. Love to everyone there.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Until Next Time

And, like that, I’m heading home. On May 14th I flew from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Trondheim, Norway to spend over two months living with my girlfriend, soaking in Norwegian culture, looking for jobs and learning the language. I got so much more out of the trip than that. In this—my last post in Norway for a while—I want to summarize some of the most compelling things I’ve noticed about Norway. I want to talk about some of the things I really enjoyed. And maybe I’ll talk a bit about things that weren’t so great. The trip has changed me too, and I hope to touch on that as well. I’ve missed the United States more than I ever thought I would: I’m glad to be going back for many reasons. But Norway has a bit of me now too. And I know I won’t be able to stay away for long.

For easy reading—and easy writing—here are some highlights:

My Favorite Norwegian Food—This is hard. Close contenders include sodd, kjøttkake (meat cakes; and pronounced hilariously close to ‘shit cakes’) and some of the flatbreads that are made only here. But the more I eat it, the more I’m convinced that brunost—or, brown cheese—is my favorite Norwegian nosh. Put some strawberry jam on some flatbread, break out a cheese slicer and place some brunost on top and I’m in heaven. Brown cheese=win.

My Least Favorite Norwegian Food—At first I thought this would be difficult: Norwegians regularly eat raw fish that has been left in the open air for months, so that ought to be a competitor. But it’s not—I actually like that stuff. The worst food, by far, in Norway is salted black licorice. I might hang from the gallows tomorrow, but there’s no contest here. I’d rather give myself a pine-cone suppository than come within ten feet of salted black licorice again. I’m sorry to everyone whom I’ve offended.

My Favorite Norwegian Experience—Again, there are lots of contenders here: the Nidaros organ concert, lounging in Steinkjer, catching fish, golfing in Bymarka, etc…. And I could say that getting to live with Tonje for a few months was the best experience—it was, but that’s not what this post is about. The best experience for me was a trip to Tonje’s parent’s cabin at Inderøy. Taking in nature, living simply, fishing and rowing around in the fjord are all activities that define Norway. This appreciation and respect for nature, solitude and finding your personal peace are some of the main reasons I love this country. It’s the biggest advantage Norway has over other nations. And it’s something that Norway had before it found oil, and will still have when that stuffed pension fund runs dry. When I find myself inundated by the deluge of stimuli and work inherent to graduate school in the United States, I hope I’m still able to hear the creak of that old row boat as it drifts over the waves. There’s nothing on my mind, but I’m smiling. Maybe a fish will bite.

My Least Favorite Norwegian Experience—As I write this, I’m seriously concerned that I will pass out and collapse on my keyboard. An overwhelming aroma of paint, paint thinner and primer is turning my brain into dead coral. I feel like Artie Lang and Anthony Bourdain's lovechild. I could call the beautification process of Tonje’s apartment building my least favorite Norwegian experience, but I won’t. It has to be any attempt to get in or out of Oslo. Trains are shut down for the most part, roads are essentially closed and the systems designed to solve these two problems are laughable. I’m already getting palpitations just thinking about it, so I’ll leave it at that. I look forward to visiting Oslo again when a jetpack isn’t required to get around.

The Best Place I Visited—The pub, Den Gode Nabo, just down the road is a contender. It’s a beautiful, old pub that looks like the lower decks of an ancient boat and even has a floating barge on which you can hang out and have an ale. Antikvariatet, the café/pub next door, is better, but only just. It’s also a contender. But the greatest pub on Earth couldn’t hold a candle to Norway’s natural environment. And I haven’t even seen the good stuff—the scenes on the Atlantic coast of Norway. But among the several cities and areas I’ve visited—including Inderøy—I think that the most beautiful place I’ve been to is Mosvika, where Tonje’s grandmother lives. I’ll include its surroundings in that as well as the drive into the little town is breathtaking. Nestled in the foothills of high cliffs cut out by rivers lies this small coastal town. It’s sleepy, pretty and feels like a sea town. The gulls aren’t vicious here; the houses and people are simpler; and nature’s might is palpable. I miss it, and I was only there for a few hours.

The Weirdest Thing About Norway—I’ll back off of black licorice. And I’ll give the shoulder-bumping pedestrians a break too. The weirdest thing that I’ve noticed about Norway is a real sense of financial hypocrisy. Most Norwegians are more than happy to pay lofty taxes and buy expensive products because they believe that they are contributing to the greater good. And they are, probably. But despite this apparent selflessness, there’s a real sense of status and “coolness” here, one that you wouldn’t expect. Unlike in most countries, it’s very common to be asked how much something costs here. Salaries are openly discussed, and not-so-subtle bragging about wages isn't rare. A fair amount of Norwegians will only buy designer or high-end brands or luxury automobiles. I’ve talked to several Masters and PhD students about their career ambitions. When I asked them what they want to do upon graduation, what their passion was, they simply said that they were looking forward to good money. One doctor, completing his residency, said that he was really looking forward to sitting behind a desk, collecting a check and having other people do his work for him. Now, of course not all Norwegians are like this. And yes, Americans are much worse in general. But some of these individual’s sentiments are surprising considering the sense of financial community in which these Norwegians grew up. Lots of people here don’t feel like they’ve made it until they’ve got a degree and a fat paycheck. That’s not uncommon in the world. But it does seem strange here. I hope they find their passions.

The Best Drink—Since I enjoy a good drink from hour to hour—eh, I mean from time to time—I wanted to comment on the best Norwegian alcoholic drink I’ve sampled. Since wine cannot be successfully grown here, this contest comes down to beers, ciders and liquors. There’s no contest here: it’s akevit. I haven’t yet tried some of the famous moonshine that apparently is floating around under-the-radar in Norway, but I doubt it can beat akevit. There are some decent beers in Norway—even bottom-shelf ones aren’t awful—but akevit is truly unique and its tastes knocks the socks off of any of the Viking beers. Try the Linie variety if you have the chance.

What I Missed Most From Home—After my family and friends, there’s a close race for second place for what I missed most from my homeland while I was across the pond. The price of goods and services is way up there. The better infrastructure places high. My television, my Netflix account and having a cell phone are also contenders. But above all of these, by far, is my car. It’s not just my car really, it’s driving in particular. In the roughly 11 years that I’ve been driving—well over 500,000 kilometers—I’ve never gone this long without putting my hands on a steering wheel. It’s probably a combination of the ability to go wherever you want to whenever you want to; not having to rely on other people to get somewhere; and the sense of freedom you get when you’re driving. My brother’s picking Tonje and I up from the airport on Saturday. No matter how tired I am, I’m driving home.

So that’s it. I’ve pretty much run out of things to write about. And the packing needs to start. As I said earlier, I might still write posts for this blog, they’ll just have a different focus until I return to Norway. Writing here has served as a great capsule for my memories: it started off as something for others, but I think it ended up being more for me. It’s been space for me to experience catharsis and vent. And it’s been an exciting way for me to immediately share what have been truly amazing experiences for me in a country that I love. I’ve learned in the past that neither I nor my listeners have the patience for long stories after trips. And many of the stories in this blog would be lost to bad memory and sloth if I hadn’t written them down. I’m glad I did.

I’ve been away for almost a quarter of a year. That’s not much for some, but it’s the longest I’ve ever been away from home. Living here with Tonje was the best experience I’ve had so far in my life. Experiencing all that Norway has to offer was an added bonus. Although I now have a pretty good sense of what this country is about, I also have just barely scratched its surface in many ways. And I can’t wait to get back here and work on becoming a true Norwegian.

This trip was great because I found out that yes, Tonje and I live well together. I also got to experience a lot of what Norway has to offer. But spending lots of alone time in a foreign country while constantly making subconscious comparisons to your cultural reference points and your own personal preferences will also teach you a lot about yourself. The things that lie close to your heart are hard to say because words make those feelings seem small. Letting others read those thoughts makes what seemed monumental in your mind just words, something really ordinary. And although I hope that those of you who’ve read this have been entertained, and maybe intrigued sometimes, I also hope that you’ve seen what this place means to me: something beyond the words.

I may move here next year. I don’t know. We’ll see how the job search goes. But if it’s not next year, then I know it’ll happen sometime in the future. And whenever that is, Norway will still be here, unchanged, because that’s how it always is. I’ll pack my bags and take a last shot of akevit. I’ll walk to the bus station, bumping shoulders with passersby along the way, closing my eyes and thinking about my car. Somewhere, an inventory manager will be wondering why the sudden spike in Budweiser sales has slowed. And I’ll miss Norway before I’ve even left it.

Ha det bra, Norway.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dungeons and Dragons: My Trondheim Bucket List

Two months for what could essentially be described as a vacation is a long time. But, as the saying goes, “time flies when you’re having fun”. And before I’ve really had the chance to settle in, I’m leaving. With two weeks left to go for this trip in Norway, I made a list of the things I would really regret not having done. It was pretty long. So time—and money—helped dictate which activities would make the cut. My selections also came from a desire to experience things from a wide range of cultural reference points that make Norway a little bit of what it is. And I wanted to have fun as well. I did.

Last weekend I was in Steinkjer for the last time this summer. That made me sad. But my visit was fortunately timed with an extremely Norwegian spectacle that only happens once a year: the Viking festival in Egge. There was no way I was going to miss this event, one that captures so much of where Norway came from, and what it still is. I had wild expectations of people in stereotypical Viking garb, roasting animals and medieval weapons. Those expectations were pretty damn close.

The Viking festival has an egregious price tag, but it’s worth the cost of admission. Smoke from kettles and open wood-fire grills wafts through the fields, trees and around tjalds—Old Norse tents. Men and women tend various activity stations, food stands and shops while dressed in traditional Viking regalia. The event is mostly staffed with local volunteers eager to show off their heritage. They exude pride in their crafts and foods of antiquity. I’ve been to living history museums and the like in the United States, but never to an event that is trying to reproduce traditions with this much age: life was often a bit tougher in the Arctic Circle around the turn of the first millennium than it was in much of the tobacco country of the New World.

I ate up the relative absurdity of the festival, imbibing local Viking ales, guzzling stews containing items of unknown provenance and hurling throwing-axes at giant slabs of plywood. Fueled by testosterone provided from tankards of beer and hearty meats, I was actually decent at the barbaric stuff—I was complimented for my accuracy with the throwing-axes. Although Tonje only managed to sufficiently mangle and re-sod the ground in front of the plywood aiming target, she was actually quite good at chiseling designs into soap stone. I was quite good at severing slabs of soap stone in half. Like any good American tourist worth his salt, I now have a t-shirt commemorating my triumphs at Egge that day. For one day, I was a Viking.

The next bucket-list item for my remaining time in Norway was to experience a night on the town. I know it’s shocking that I haven’t really done this yet given the fact that I’ve been here for two months, but as most of you know, it’s a cost-prohibitive endeavor. Yeah, I’ve been out for some drinks, but nothing that compares to the hedonistic revelries of my “younger” days. So, with several friends, and plenty of disgusting beer in the fridge—the only stuff that even approaches affordability—Tonje and I hosted a “vorspiel”—a pre-party—to kick off an evening on-the-town. After three hours, I realized that, because of the cost of alcohol, many nights-on-the-town don’t involve being on-the-town. And when you do finally head out on-the-town you are about ready to plant your face on-the-ground. You get the gist: you drink a lot before you go out so that you don’t feel the need to cough up kroner at the bar when you get there. It’s fun to sit around and toss back drinks with friends; we call something similar in the United States a pre-game. It’s a way of life for the youth here, though.

After the vorspiel, we went for a beer at the coolest café/pub/library in Trondheim—Antikvariatet. Some of the famous Norwegian rains had moved in while we were there, and, instead of continuing the night, four of our party of seven decided to head back to Tonje’s. I wasn’t about to let my last chance—for now—slip by, and braced the monsoon with two others en route to what was described to me as “the ultimate Norwegian heavy-metal, underground, dungeon bar”. I’m in. The description was an apt one. The place was legendary: set a few meters below street-level, the milieu resembled a blood-smeared dungeon with equally “dark” patrons. The ambiance and relatively inexpensive cocktails were great, but the characters in there were truly exceptional: this was, without a doubt, a locals only joint. I was accosted by a couple of belligerently-drunk individuals with shaved heads and foot-long beards as I left—they had probably picked up my English. One of these chaps began following my friend and I home all the time talking about how he was a true Viking, and about the merits of his country and the shortcomings of mine. But the mood changed a bit after I spoke Norwegian to him, and told him I actually liked Norway. Suddenly breaking his pro-Norway screed, he stood there, drunken, stunned, and said, “Why????”. I told him that I thought the news of my approval of his country would have pleased him, but he was already deep into a rant about all the failings of the Norwegian government. Oh, the people you meet.

The steeple of Nidaros cathedral constantly reminds anyone in Trondheim of the city’s ancient roots. I have walked its grounds several times, and even been inside it on occasion. But I had never received a tour of the place, so Tonje and I put on our tourist hats and did some guided sight-seeing of Nidaros the other day. This bucket-list item seems to be in odd juxtaposition to drinking at bars, but I was just as eager to knock this one off the list. The history of the place is a long one: different religions, various re-buildings, etc…. But what remains today is a product of the violence, proselytization and other ills that helped make Nidaros what it is today. I’m fine with that. Nothing inspires me quite like being in an ancient and overwhelming structure, preferably one from the Gothic Era, but Roman is good too. Nidaros has influences from both. Parts of it date back 1000 years, while others are still being worked on. It’s a grandiose tribute to tenets that were once much more important in this country.

But the majesty of the cathedral wasn’t all that caught my eye: ah, those two organs. I’m a piano player. And although I can’t play the organ—it’s a different beast altogether—I’ve always been entranced by the power of a really big one, and the talent it takes to wield that power. As our tour of Nidaros was ending, I asked the guide if anyone ever plays the organs and found out that a well-known organist actually plays the famous German one every day at 1 p.m. I knew where I’d be the next day. So, at 12:55 p.m. the following day I was back in Nidaros listening to three of the best Bach organ pieces there are: what a treat. It’s hard to explain, but when the organist opened up the pipes for Toccata and Fugue in D Minor I got chills. That kind of musical spectacle gets me more than any concert of one of my favorite modern bands could. Go to Nidaros at 1 p.m. if you’re ever here.

I didn’t get to do everything in Trondheim that I wanted to this summer: lacking was a trip to Munkholmen island, a dinner in the rotating tower overlooking the city and several other things. But I saw a lot of great stuff, and I’ll be back again before long—perhaps to live here. I stood in a room built before the year 1000 AD. I also saw an X Men movie in a modern theater while making myself sick with black licorice candy. I ate moose and waged medieval battles at a Viking festival. And I grilled out with friends atop a high mountain overlooking the sea. These activities exemplified what Norway is: a mix of the ancient, the wild and the new. One night you’ll see someone in party clothes dancing in a club, and the next day they’ll be dressed in tradition bunads to celebrate Norway’s heritage. I appreciate this, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to experience such diverse parts of Norwegian culture. And although I’ll return to the United States this coming weekend the same person, I’ve got plenty of new experiences under my belt and have new perspectives on some things. And I’m also pretty good with a throwing axe.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The "Other" Norway

This past week Tonje went looking for polar bears—or to a conference for interns at her company, I’m not sure which—in Alta, the northernmost city in the world with more than 10,000 occupants. I had been wanting to meet with some companies about potential future employment, so I took the opportunity to venture to the “other” Norway: Oslo. My use of quotation marks is intentional, and underscores the first thing I noticed about Norway’s capital: it’s nothing like Norway. It resembles other big cities in Europe, or coastal ones in the United States like Boston, maybe. Immigrants and tourists are everywhere. And you definitely don’t need to speak Norwegian to get by unlike other parts of Norway where a conversational ability is helpful. It was a new experience for me, and a good one. I’m looking forward to spending more than 36 hours there in the future.

I’ll be honest; I really don’t know Oslo that well. I only spent one night there and my sightseeing was confined to the famous spots. But I still got a sense for the place, and certainly know it better than I did before. Oslo, for the most part, is everything that Norway isn’t: busy, diverse, metropolitan and European. Although parts of the city remind you of what country you’re in—the occasional use of Norwegian, the prices and the flags that are flown from on high—I immediately felt like I was somewhere else when I got there. This is mostly because my experiences in Norway at this point have been limited to the more rural and central parts of the country, but it is also because Oslo is…different.

Most Norwegians who don’t hail from the capital will tell you the same thing: you’re either from Norway, or you’re from Oslo. There even exists a slight exasperation when Norwegians from other parts are asked about their countrymen from the big city. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad place. Oslo has a much more diverse culture, something that most people would appreciate. And it has shopping, museums, entertainment and a vibe that frankly doesn’t exist in the rest of the country. Whether or not you’d like Oslo really depends on your tastes. Although I prefer the agrarian, simpler lifestyle of the rest of Norway, I find value in a lot that Oslo has to offer.

I took the train to Oslo from Trondheim so that I’d get a chance to see some countryside that I hadn’t seen before. A noble goal—I think—but, ultimately, a mistake. An hour into the seven-hour train ride—and five minutes into my attempt at sleeping—I was surrounded by a family of 15 or so with quite active children. The children’s feet were especially active as I found myself waking up every so often with shoes knocking against my knees (the seats were facing each other). This proceeded for hours: waking life mixed with gentle knee nudges mixed with sweating and ubiquitous sunlight from the lack of curtains. I got on the train at around 11 p.m. in Trondheim, and at 6:30 a.m. we were pulling into Lillestrom, a city about 40 minutes or so from Oslo. I had slept off and on and felt like my head was in a vise. Since there is currently heavy construction on railways and roadways in and around Oslo, my fellow passengers and I had to leave the train and board a bus for the rest of the journey into Oslo.

Finally in the city, I stumbled out of the central station and faced the famous Oslo Opera House. It was truly a remarkable building, but I was in no mood for sightseeing, or anything except sleeping really. I hastily looked at a bus map to get a general sense of where I needed to go to find my hotel: my second mistake. An hour later, after being tempted to sleep on park benches several times, I finally made it to my hotel and was luckily able to check-in at 8:30 a.m. I tried to sleep off the grogginess, but eventually conceded defeat after a few hours of tossing and turning and ventured out to experience Oslo.

I headed down to Karl Johans gate, the main cultural and entertainment area in Oslo. Lined with cafés, historical buildings, parks and lots of people, this is clearly one of the “it” spots in Oslo. I made a mental note to return there—which wouldn’t be hard since luckily my hotel was nearby—and walked down to the shoreline. Norway is known for its fishing and boating culture, and Oslo is no exception. The docks were pretty awesome, featuring several old sailing ships and some impressive yachts. This same area of the city is also home to the Nobel Peace Prize Building where I decided to have lunch. I have a bad history of ordering things off of foreign menus that turn out to be entirely too much food for one person: my naïveté struck again here. Figuring the “small” tapas plate would be suitable for one person since it was priced at the same point as many other lunch entrées, I ordered what I thought would be a good dish to sample the largest variety of local favorites. But the gargantuan plate required two people to carry it to my table. The other patrons probably were wondering where the other seven people in my party were. The plate was truly legendary: easily enough food for three people. But it wasn’t just exceptional for its size, the food was pretty stellar as well. Featuring a variety of deli meats, chickpea dishes, pates and vegetables in vinaigrette, I was more than satisfied after knocking back about half of it. Tapas plate: 1, John: 0.

Too tired to do much more exploring that day, I went and saw Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”—a pretty stellar movie, get it?—and then sat at a café watching local juggling acts and tourists stroll by for a while. People-watching may not seem like the most exciting endeavor to most travelers, but it worked for me then. And I find that it’s usually a pretty good way to get a sense for a place.

The next day, I met with the Norwegian Microfinance Initiative (NMI), a microfinance investment group focused on sustainable investing primarily in Asia and Africa. If I had things my way, I’d be working in microfinance upon graduation in December, and since NMI is Norway’s premier—and almost, only—microfinance outfit, I really wanted to meet with them. They are a top-notch group managed by smart people who do good things. I was impressed, and, if Norway is where I end up next year, wouldn’t mind being affiliated with such an organization.

After more airport fiascos similar to the ones in my first post, I flew back to Trondheim after spending just over a day and a half in Oslo. I made another mental note never to take the train to Oslo again when I touched down after only 30 minutes of flying. As short as it was, the trip to Oslo was eye-opening in many ways. It was my first experience in the only city that foreigners really associate with Norway. And it highlighted the dichotomy between the “rest of Norway” and Oslo that I had been hearing so much about. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind living there if it came down to it. And I think I’d even enjoy it quite a bit: it’s really a great city with a lot to offer. It has all of the great social and environmental initiatives that Norway is famous for, and it has plenty of big-city perks that you can’t find in the rest of Norway. But ultimately, it showed me how lucky I am to have experienced the rest of the country first, the real Norway. Anyone who has only been to Oslo is really missing a lot, and, frankly, is missing the point. Norway is about nature, simple living and promoting the collective good. It’s easy to see why those from outside the big city tend to hold it in relative lower regard. Sure, a trip to Oslo makes a nice weekend getaway for some, but bustling traffic and the shadows of tall buildings don’t jibe with Norwegian culture, and never will.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Random Musings and Golf in Norway

This trip to Norway ends in just under three weeks. Although I have mixed feelings about it, the trip home is inevitable. And that means that I need to start winding down the Norwegian focus of this blog for the time being—I’ll pick it up again if I move here next year. Since I’ll be traveling so much during the rest of this year, I’m thinking that I’ll keep it up as a travel blog of sorts so everyone can know what I’m doing, and hopefully hear something interesting or funny along the way. I guess that means I’ll need a different blog title too: we’ll see. But before that happens, I’ve got some unfinished business in Norway. And I’ve got more things to write about too: a trip to Oslo that starts June 28, a boat festival, some concluding remarks before I leave and whatever this blog entry is. I guess you could call it a collection of random things I’ve noticed that didn’t deserve entire blog posts. Some just deserve a sentence. All of them say a little bit more about Norway.

Gas costs a lot here—At the equivalent of roughly $8 a gallon, gas is incredibly expensive here. This is both expected and stunning at the same time. Sure, it’s Norway; everything is expensive. But Norway has more oil than most countries in the world. And its incredible wealth can almost be exclusively attributed to the oil up here. So while the Norwegian government already has plenty of money from finding the oil, lots of extra money from various taxes and steady income from heavy vehicle and property fees, Norwegians also cough up kroner at the pump to further prop up their collective wealth.

As close to the EU as it gets—Most Norwegians are proud to tell you that they’re not members of the EU, and probably won’t ever be. But most Norwegians also don’t know that Norway has adopted more EU directives than any other European nation except Malta. Although Norwegians have voted against joining the EU twice, the last referendum was split almost 50/50 among citizens wanting EU membership and those against. In addition to the adopted referendums, Norway also honors many agreements and treaties with EU nations, and is also a member of the Schengen area and the European Economic Area (EEA). Some have even called for a third referendum on the issue.

If you’re going to break the law, don’t do it while driving—Although most crimes in Norway are punished less-severely than in many other nations, the same cannot be said for traffic violations. While the maximum jail sentence for any crime—including murder—is 21 years, drinking and driving will land you in jail for 30 days. You’ll lose your license and have to pay a fine equivalent to 10 percent of your income, in addition to other fees and classes. Speeding violations get similar treatment: all of the penalties are the same except that jail time will be reduced or nonexistent. Norwegians are serious about their traffic laws, clearly.

The land of trampolines—It is impossible to take a walk or drive through a neighborhood in Norway and not see several trampolines. I would estimate that 2/3 of all homes have one. They are far more common than swimming pools in the United States—maybe about as common as grills—and are even featured in parades and other public events. This is kind of surprising considering Norway is so focused on safety, but they love their springy apparatuses. Bounce away, Norway.

They LOVE black licorice—I’ve touched on this slightly in my post on food, but this phenomenon can’t be understated. Norwegians die for this stuff, it’s featured prominently in convenience stores and grocery stores. There are as many black licorice items as chocolate ones or other candies at any store or movie theater. And Norwegians don’t just like it plain, they prefer it salted. In fact, the majority of black licorice treats here are salted. This item is the one thing that Tonje misses the most in the United States, and many Norwegians stash it in their luggage when they travel. Although I’m an adventurous eater and really like all Norwegian cuisine, I just don’t get the fascination about salted licorice. I guess it’s one of those things that you just need to grow up with. Norwegians don’t need to worry about me diminishing their supply of the black stuff.

Norwegians love to dub things “Norwegian”—This one is particularly humorous to me. When I first met Tonje, I remember her telling me that she was really excited about showing me Norwegian pizza and Norwegian tacos for the first time. I had visions of salmon pizzas and cod tacos covered in licorice and brown cheese. But I was, frankly, surprised to find that Norwegian pizza is just…pizza. And Norwegian tacos are the same things that you make in your home in the United States—not traditional Mexican tacos, but the stuff that comes in the Old El Paso boxes. I still have no idea why they refer to these two items as “Norwegian”, but I’ll let them enjoy their sense of proprietorship.

Dialects—There is no definitive number of dialects in Norway that I can find, but I'm guessing the number is somewhere around 20, if not more. The dialects generally differ based on where Norwegians grew up, and are almost always mutually intelligible. But for someone learning Norwegian, the dialects can often seem like different languages altogether. The standard Norwegian language is Bokmål—the one I’m learning, and the one spoken in Oslo, usually—but a newer version of Norwegian called Nynorsk is also officially spoken. Interestingly, although I’m learning Bokmål, Tonje speaks Trøndersk, a dialect common in the central regions of Norway. While I would say “ikke” for “not”, she would say “ittj”; for question words like “hva” and “hvorfor”, she would pronounce them with a hard “k” to start. These are just a few of the myriad differences found among the dialects. In some extreme cases, the dialects may be so different from one another that someone from Oslo might not be able to understand a Norwegian hailing from rural environs. And to further complicate matters, the indigenous Sami people of the North speak an entirely different language more similar to Finnish or Russian that virtually no Norwegians understand. Fun, fun.

Snus—This smokeless-tobacco product is almost as common as coffee in Norway. Sold in either loose or pouched form, snus is a form of chewing tobacco—for lack of a better term—that is made in an entirely different process from American tobacco products which supposedly strips it of most of tobacco’s traditional harmful effects. Whereas chewing tobacco products are generally reserved for baseball players, hunters and high schoolers in the United States, I have yet to meet someone in Norway who doesn’t at least occasionally slip some snus into their cheeks. This goes for girls too: they even have snus cans marketed towards them in prettier packages. The product is gradually being introduced in the US, and if—as those who study such things claim—it is indeed a much healthier alternative to smoking and other smokeless-tobacco products, then maybe it will be a welcome means to wean nicotine addicts off of the stuff that you need to burn.

My trip to the golf course—Golf isn’t very big in Norway for obvious reasons—read: the climate. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t courses here. Trondheim has at least two such facilities within its vicinity: one with nine holes and the other with the full eighteen. Most Norwegians need to possess a “greencard” in order to play golf in Norway. For about USD 200, you can take a class teaching theoretical and practical golf skills so that you are then “more” equipped to hit the links. After seeing many shirtless, cigarette-smoking, cut-off-jean-wearing individuals in the US digging up courses, I kind of like this concept. I wanted to play some golf while I was here, but I neither possess clubs nor a “greencard” so I had few hopes of actually getting on a course while I was here. Fortunately though—in a rare generous gesture towards tourists—Norway doesn’t require visitors to obtain a “greencard” to play—money, I guess.

So yesterday I walked up to Bymarka—which, as you’ll remember from my Tour de Norge post is very far away by foot—to at least hit some range balls. The course was beautifully situated atop a mountain overlooking Trondheim and the fjord. It was really picturesque. And despite the fact that everything in Norway is expensive, the prices at the golf course were actually fairly reasonable: about $50 for a round or so. I asked for two buckets of range balls and some rental clubs. The attendant asked my handicap—presumably so he wouldn’t give me the good clubs if I was a hack, which I kind of am—and, after I told him “about 15”, he brought me back a 6 iron. Just a 6 iron. “Hopefully these will work,” he said. “These?” I thought. I walked towards the range with a quizzical look on my face and just a 6 iron in my hand. After contemplating whether it was more embarrassing to just hit two buckets of range balls with a 6 iron, or to go back in the shop and ask him if this was indeed all that he meant to give me, I decided that the latter was probably more prudent. “6 irons are all I’ve got to rent out,” was the matter-of-fact response. Glad I checked.

I then proceeded to hit two entire buckets of range balls with just a 6 iron. It was lucky that he didn’t give me a driver since the fences guarding the edges of the range were only about 2 meters tall. I had a good time, and it was good to swing a club again. It was also nice to see that Norway takes just as much care of its golf courses as it does its nature: the place was splendid and they don’t let just anybody out on the course—me excluded. I’m looking forward to actually playing a round in Norway at some point to really get a feel for the course. When I do, I guarantee you my 6 iron will be sharp.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


When I make my return to the United States in mid-July I’ll have spent a total of about three months living in Norway—including the weeks I spent here this past December. Most of that time has been in Trondheim, Norway’s third most populated city—behind Oslo and Bergen, and just ahead of Stavanger. I’m not an expert on the place by any means, but I do know a good deal more about it than your average backpacker or cruise-ship voyager. And I really like it here. I thought I’d talk a little bit about the place that I call home when I’m in Norway.

A little history first, though. Trondheim was founded in 997 and served as the capital of Norway during the time of the Vikings for about 300 years. The town also served as the Catholic center of Norway for hundreds of years before Protestant proselytization in the 1500s. The stoic, ubiquitously looming structure that is the Nidaros Cathedral dominates the Trondheim skyline, and serves as a constant reminder of these religious roots. You can see Nidaros’ steeple from virtually anywhere in the town: it’s the tallest church in Norway. And since it is so close to Tonje’s apartment, it serves as a Polaris of sorts for me when I’m off in the city and trying to get back to Tonje’s place. More recently, Trondheim was occupied by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945. Although the Germans constructed new buildings and had a large influence on the place during the occupation, there is little today to remind Trondheimians of their former presence.

But the buildings—and traditional dress on May 17th—are all that remains of Trondheim’s historical roots: otherwise, it is a very modern European city for the most part. A couple streets—including the one I live on—are lined with old buildings harking back to Trondheim’s days as a shipping town. The Bakklandet area is well-known for its multicolored wooden structures and quaint shops: it’s idyllic and welcoming. The rest of Trondheim is comprised of modern staples like malls, hotels, cafés, bars and apartment complexes. Whether you’re looking to explore ancient history, religious sites, typical Norwegian culture or just catch a concert and a beer, you’ll find it in Trondheim.

Bisected by the Nidelva River, and abutting Trondheimsfjorden, Trondheim is also surrounded by nature. A short, 15-minute walk through the busy streets will lead you deep into the hearts of the woods or the mountains. If you’re looking to seek solace from the city life, you can wander along the numerous trails along the Nydelva and feel like you’re in the backcountry. Whereas carrying a fishing pole down the streets of New York City would lead to strange looks or worse, such images are actually quite common here.

The city is really young too. The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) breathes much of this youth into the city: its students comprise about one sixth of the population here. And since Trondheim is by far the most populated city not in the southern parts of the country, any young person in the northern half of Norway seeking an exciting weekend or a night out will venture into Trondheim. Although you will see the occasional senior citizen fresh off a cruise ship snapping pictures, the city feels like it has an average population age in the upper 20s.

Trondheim has typical Norwegian weather: frequent changes from rain to cloudiness to occasional sun. It’s cold in the winter, but relatively mild the rest of the year due to the influence of the Gulf Stream. During the most recent months—May and June—an average day is mostly cloudy with temperatures around 60 Fahrenheit, or 16 Celsius. Some days will push 80 and others will dip down into the low 50s. The weather is great for running, and most outdoor activities for that matter.

And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, almost everywhere you’d want to go is within reasonable walking distance. Within two minutes I can be at multiple grocery stores, the gym, several cafés and bars and the river. Five more minutes of walking and you’ll find yourself in the heart of downtown, at the train station or down at Solsiden—a collection of shops, bars and restaurants surrounding the docks of Trondheim. I take full advantage of this when I can.

Trondheim can be what you want it to be: it’s got a bit of everything. Those who hail from the city love it, and visitors often feel likewise. Every time I walk out of the Trondheim train station after returning from a weekend trip, I feel at home. I miss it when I’m gone and I find my thoughts drifting to it when I’m back in the US. And although the US will always be my home, it’s nice to have a place that I feel so comfortable in while I’m away. The “heim” at the end of Trondheim means “home”: a good name, and an apt one.