A Week in Greece

During Maddie and Ada’s week-long February break from school, we chose to rebook our vacation to Greece. This past summer, we had intended to visit as a family so I could volunteer with refugees for this amazing Norwegian organization called “Drapen i Havet.” Instead, I spent those two weeks in the hospital with my mother in Atlanta who is, fortunately, doing much better. Because Maddie and Ada’s winter break was only one week long, I couldn’t volunteer in February (they require volunteers to work a minimum of 10 days) but we were able to tour the country as a family. It turns out that unlike July, the weather in Greece in February (50-60F and mostly sunny) was perfect. We were also lucky that Maddie had just finished a month-long unit in school on Greek Myths which we supplemented at home by reading D’Aulaire’s entire “Book of Greek Myths” which, by the way, is an amazing way to introduce children to ancient Greek mythology.

To get Maddie and Ada excited about our trip, we watched a few travel videos about Athens, Delphi, and Hydra, the three main places we would visit. Their favorite video by far though was this street food tour of Athens which showed up on the YouTube “next” feed. Maddie and Ada loved learning about Greek food beforehand and were even more excited about tasting it when we arrived.

We spent our first and second day in Greece enjoying the amazingly cheap Greek food (when compared to Norway!) and visiting the absolutely incredible Acropolis Museum and fascinating Archaeology Museum. The Acropolis museum which was located close to our Airbnb is seen here from one of the pedestrian only streets in Athens.

Maddie and Ada enjoyed the children’s activities provided by the Acropolis museum. Ada loved finding all the different kinds of animals in the museum and Maddie enjoyed finding all the Greek gods.

Maddie loved seeing sculptures depicting all of the Greek myths we had been reading about. On the left is Maddie with a smaller version of the East Pediment statues made for the Parthenon of all 12 Greek gods witnessing the birth of Athena. On the right, Maddie is below one of the original statues on the East Pediment of Hestia, Artemis (aka Diana, my namesake) and Aphrodite.

I had recently finished a book called the “Parthenon Enigma” which explored the meaning behind this specific frieze which I was excited to see in person:

According to the book, the youngest person in the center image is the King Erechtheus’s youngest daughter getting ready to change into ceremonial robes so she can be sacrificed to save Athens from losing a major battle. The Greek gods are seen seated to the right and left of the family and are looking away because they do not enjoy watching mortals die. Before the ceremony, her sisters, standing on the left with the ceremonial robes balanced on their heads, had made a pact to die together. So after their sister is sacrificed, the two sisters jumped off the hill of the Acropolis together. They are glorified in the ancient play “The Erechtheion”  as the perfect Athenian women because they sacrificed themselves for their city. Their mother becomes the first priestess of the Acropolis near where her husband is buried (also called the Erechtheion) and her three daughters are buried in the Temple dedicated to Athena and named after the maidens (the Parthenon).

My favorite takeaway from the Acropolis Museum was the museum’s argument for the return of the missing Parthenon sculptures currently displayed in the British Museum. The British Museum bought them from Lord Elgin who stole them from Greece in the 1800s and has argued that they shouldn’t be returned to Greece for their safety. The Acropolis museum, a beautiful and incredibly safe museum is Greece’s reply.

The next day we visited the Archaeology museum and saw even more Greek Gods including a small replica of the statue of Athena that was originally in the Parthenon. (The original was 38 feet tall!)

Our third day in Greece, we wandered through the Monastiraki flea market,

ate lunch at a wonderful Souvlaki restaurant recommended by a friend,

and visited more Ancient Greek structures including the Acropolis. Below is the amazing Theater of Dionysus which seats 17,000. On our trip, we learned that the Greeks, which created the concept of drama and theater, also invented the amphitheater. Evidently ancient Greek amphitheaters like the one pictured had perfect acoustics which I think is incredible.

The Parthenon was of course spectacular. Below is a selfie of our family in front:

Maddie was so taken with the structure that she decided to sketch the Parthenon in her journal which she wrote in every day during our trip:

Ada has for a while now has refused to let us take her picture but after seeing the Parthenon decided that with the right pose, pictures were tolerable:

After visiting the main ancient sites and museums in Athens, we decided to take a day trip to Delphi. The Ancient Greeks believed Delphi, located a few hours north of Athens was the center of the world. There they built the Temple of Apollo where the Priestess’s of the Temple, also known as Pythia’s, gave prophecies to Greek leaders for over 500 years (evidently under the influence of methane which seeped into the Temple from a geological fault below). As you can see in the photos below, Delphi is a beautiful place to visit. Below is the Temple of Apollo and a few pictures near it:

After visiting the remains of the Temple, we saw many original sculptures in a nearby Museum. My favorite was the Sphinx which was placed to keep watch over the large treasure stored near the Temple.

Maddie and Ada’s favorite part of our trip was playing with a new Greek friend at one of the local restaurants in Delphi.

On the way back to Athens we stopped to get a picture of this mountain town where Athenians live when they go skiing at a nearby mountain in the winter. Stray cats, like the one posing below, were ubiquitous in Greece and were very much appreciated by our animal-loving daughters.

After Delphi, we left for Hydra, a beautiful Greek island a 2-hour boat ride from the city. Hydra, as I mentioned in this post, is car-free which was a welcome change from the busy car congested Athen streets. There the kids loved playing on the beach, eating ice cream, feeding the stray cats, and taking long walks through town and around the Island. Below is a picture of Ada with one of the many donkey’s on the island- the main form of transportation:

The harbor at Hydra:

Maddie and Ada playing on the beach on a day when the high was 55F. Coming from Norway, 55F felt very warm to us and so Maddie and Ada refused to wear coats and insisted on playing in the cold Mediterranean ocean. I think at least 3 Greek mothers asked me whether my children should wear more clothes during our vacation in Greece. A Greek man who went swimming in the ocean while Maddie and Ada were playing on the beach mentioned that Greek children wear a lot of layers in this kind of weather.

Here is a picture of Ada running down the car-free streets:

After two nights in Hydra, we reluctantly headed back to Athens for our long flight home. We decided to end our trip by eating dinner at a restaurant on top of Lycabettus Hill in Athens which gave us the opportunity to say goodbye to this incredible country.


I’m writing an app…Introducing Physics Coach

For those of you interested in some of the professional work I’ve been doing while on sabbatical, I just published a post describing Physics Coach, a web app I’m writing that is a sort of “workout tracker” for physics practice. This sabbatical has given me a lot of time to learn web programming—specifically React, Redux and some of the latest Javascript tricks, which has been a lot of fun thanks to regular pair programming sessions with some great former students of mine.

If you’re interested in reading more about the work I’ve been doing, feel free to head over to my teaching blog: Introducing Physics Coach—an app for tracking physics “workouts”.

Oslo – 2019 Green Capital of Europe

This year the European Commission made Oslo the European Green Capital of 2019 and I’m not surprised. Our life in Oslo is so much “greener” compared to any other place I’ve lived in the US because the city has policies which make living sustainably the easiest, least expensive choice. Let’s start with transportation. As I mentioned in this post on walking, Oslo has improved the quality of life for their citizens by designing a walkable, bikeable and transit friendly city.

They have done this in part by increasing tolls for gasoline powered cars going into the city (driving into the city one way with a non electric car costs an individual around about $10 in tolls!), removing parking spaces, and increasing the price for parking in the city. These policies discourage vehicle traffic into the city, subsidize and encourage the use of public transit, and encourage a switch to electric cars. Car trips into the city have declined by 20% in the last 4 years. Because of these tolls, significantly reduced taxes on the sale of all new electric cars, and the availability of lots of charging stations around the city, more than half of the cars sold in the city are electric or plug-in hybrids simply because it is the most inexpensive choice.

Because fewer people are driving into the city, the city has been able to remove 600 parking spots on the streets replacing them with bike lanes, plants, tiny parks and benches. The city bike share program is thriving (and there is plenty of public support for biking as shown by several public bike tool fix it places like the one below). This year Oslo is also planning to make much of their center of the city car free which is pretty incredible.

Not only are personal trips becoming greener but 35% of city buses in Oslo currently run off biogas (generated from they city wide compost, as mentioned in this post) and by 2025 60% of the buses will be electric. Because of all these changes Oslo has lower levels of air pollution and a better acoustic environment than other European cities.

Many European cities have made portions of their city centres car free because of the immediate impact on the quality of life of their citizens. I hope larger cities in the US will follow suit. We just got back from a trip to Greece where we stayed in Athens for 4 days and Hydra, a tiny island off the coast with a ban on cars for 2 days (instead of cars they use donkeys). John and I both breathed a sigh of relief when we got to Hydra and I think it was mostly because of the stress from all the cars in Athens. Unlike Athens, walking in Hydra (like walking in Oslo) with a 4 and 8 year old was a pleasant experience. In general, Hydra (like Oslo) was also generally much quieter and calmer than Athens (until now I hadn’t thought of one’s “acoustic” experience in a city as related to how green it is but now I understand why)

Not only is the transportation sector in Oslo becoming “greener” but so are the buildings. Starting next year, there will be a ban on using fossil fuel heating oil in all new buildings and all new public buildings will be required to produce more energy with renewable energy than they consume. In addition, the small number of households that currently heat their homes with fossil fuels are given free help from the city to transition to heating with electric. Because electricity in Norway is 98% renewable (mostly hydroelectric) and because of Oslo’s work on making their transportation less dependent on fossil fuels. Oslo plans to cut carbon emissions by 50% from 1990 levels by next year and 95% by 2030. This is exactly the scale and speed that our world needs from all cities to fight the climate crisis and moving at this scale has some pretty incredible benefits. I am also yet again reminded how much more effective policies are (as compared to individual behaviour) to fight climate change and make our world a better place in the process.

P.S. Check out this awesome comic by Joel Pett which I think summarizes why both Republicans and Democrats in the US (regardless of whether they believe in climate change) support policies like those in Oslo.

P.P.S Although Oslo plans to become practically carbon neutral by 2030, they aren’t counting carbon emissions from people purchasing food or products, people flying (Oslo is planning on adding another runway to their airport), or for the oil the Norwegian government is allowing to be drilled in their oceans (Norway is being sued by several nonprofits for allowing new oil drilling in the Arctic). So, if you compare them to lots of cities in less wealthy countries, their carbon emissions per capita are in the middle of the pack. So, it is obvious that even more policies are needed to reduce carbon emissions (carbon tax anyone?).


Tromsø: Chasing the Northern Lights

Back in early January, we took a trip to Tromsø, Norway, which is at 69° N latitude, a full 10° above Oslo. Here is our view on the way in.

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Tromsø is a beautiful city, especially when it’s dark. And in Tromsø it is dark almost all the time in January. This is a photo just outside our hotel at 1:30 in the afternoon. In January, you get a couple of hours of daylight around noon.

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There are lots of fun things to do in Tromsø, but Maddie and Ada had the most fun climbing on and sliding down the huge snow piles around the city.

Tromsø also has some great museums. We were especially impressed by the science museum, and as you might imagine, winter and climate change were major themes.

Here’s a great exhibit exploring the symmetry of snowflakes.

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And here’s Maddie and Ada trying an exhibit that simulated pushing a sled on the snow.

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Notice the socks—everyone has to leave their dirty snow covered shoes at the door, a common practice in Norway.

The main reason we chose to visit Tromsø was to see the Northern Lights. Even though Tromsø was close enough to the arctic circle and we were there during the darkest time of year, light pollution and variable cloud cover meant we had to leave Trømso to actual see the lights. So, we booked an expedition to see the Northern Lights with “Chasing Lights.” We set out at 6pm on a fancy touring bus with 50 other tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of this wonder. This turned out to be quite an adventure—it was too cloudy just south of Trømso to see the Northern lights, so the bus began a long journey toward the Finnish border, stopping along the to see if the cloud cover had reduced inland. Fortunately Ada was able to sleep for 2 hours on the drive there and Maddie was able to enjoy gazing at the constellations on a perfectly dark cloudless nighttime sky (though with no “northern lights” activity) on our first stop before we reached Finland.

Below is the route we took—we got to the Finland border just around midnight and arrived back at Tromsø around 3am. But what is time when it’s completely dark outside 22 hours a day?

Of course, we all had visions of the spectacular photos you see when you picture the Northern Lights. Alas, that isn’t quite what we saw. When we got off the bus at the border, we could see low clouds, and above the clouds, a faint smudge of a light gray/ possibly green? light above the clouds—truly unimpressive, and worth making you wonder why you got off the warm bus when it was -15°C outside. But the CCD in the camera is much more sensitive than your eye, so when the guides took our photos, you do see a green halo on the horizon—success! Of course, Ada, as usual, wasn’t interested in getting her picture taken and Maddie, who was asleep on the bus when we reached the Finnish border, had to be practically dragged out of the bus to see the phenomenon. After cookies and hot chocolate and a brief attempt at building a fire by our guides, we all got back on the bus for the long 3 hour bus ride back to Tromsø.

I was glad we convinced Maddie to get out of the bus because after our trip, Maddie added the photos above to her school iPad and proudly showed her classmates the picture of us with the Northern Lights. Even though we were less than impressed, Maddie and Ada couldn’t stop talking about the Northern Lights and drew some pretty great pictures of themselves with the Northern Lights the next day as we took a break at the local library in Trømso.

Another highlight of our trip was a morning spent visiting reindeer and learning about Sami culture, the native people of Norway. We got to feed the reindeer—they would just walk right up to you and eat from the bucket of reindeer food.

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Then we got to ride around the property on a real reindeer sled “Ho, Ho, Ho.”

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After all of this, we gathered in a warm Sami tent for a traditional lunch of reindeer stew, and an explanation about Sami culture from one of the local Sami reindeer herders.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Tromsø is the weather. We went expecting it to be a record-setting cold that we’d remember for the rest of our lives, but in reality, temperatures were mostly right around freezing, and we spent a good deal of one day in our hotel room because of the heavy rain outside. Tromsø (and coastal Norway in general) are known to have a warmer climate that many other parts of the arctic due to the gulf stream, but watching heavy rain outside your window in early January above the arctic circle still feels a bit strange.

Speaking of hotel rooms, if you ever stay in a hotel in Norway, the “Scandic” hotel chain has an amazing breakfast buffet included in the price of your hotel room- lots of Norwegian knekke brød, fresh fish, Norwegian vaffles, pancakes, eggs of all sorts, an assortment of cheeses, fresh fruit, and even fresh orange juice.

Maddie’s first concert and composition

Maddie has been taking piano lessons once a week after school, and she’s really starting to come into her own. Thanks to some sticker rewards from her teacher, and a used electric piano we found online, Maddie now practices every day, and really enjoys getting better at playing music. She’s got a wonderful repertoire that includes Jingle Bells, When the Saints Go Marching In, and Alouette, a song that she and Diana discovered is about plucking the feathers from a little bid.

Maddie has also taken up composition, and recently wrote her first song which she had Diana transcribe. She titled the composition “The Math Test”, because she explained that “it starts off easy and then it gets harder.”

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All of this hard work recently culminated in her first concert, which you can see below. You’ll also see some of Maddie’s adoring fans—her sister, Ada and her friend trying to get front row seats.

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New Year’s Eve in Oslo

Again, I’m about a month behind posting this, but New Year’s Eve is a big holiday in Norway, and one of the only days in which it is legal for people to own and use fireworks, and it seems that most Norwegians take advantage of that fact. Fireworks intermittently start shortly after sunset (around 4pm) and really take off (pun intended) in the hour before midnight. Here’s a video from our rooftop during the minutes just before midnight, and as you can see fireworks are everywhere.

The Outdoor Life

One of the stereotypes of Norwegians is that they love being outside no matter the weather. As I mentioned in this post, it all starts in Barnehage (children’s garden/daycare) when most children under the age of 6 spend practically all day outside while their parents are at work. All children bring all the necessary gear to school (rain suits, snowsuits, fleece, long underwear, balaclava’s, etc.) so they can be comfortable outside no matter the weather. Parents even have to supply the daycare with a pram so babies and toddlers can nap outside. All preschools in Norway also go on outdoor field trips (tur dags) at least once a week. While in Bergen, I’ve witnessed an entire class 16 toddlers have an outdoor picnic (with hot drinks supplied by their teachers) while it is literally hailing outside. Here are a few preschooler groups getting on public transit on their turdag day:

So, from an early age, children understand that there is no such thing as bad weather (only bad clothing) and they develop a deep connection to nature which lasts them a lifetime. Even though I tend to think of myself as rather outdoorsy, this approach to life is a cultural adjustment that our family is trying to make this winter (when the highs are in the low 20s during the day) and I know it is making us happier and healthier this winter. So far this winter, our entire family has gone sledding, ice skating, cross country skiing, and downhill skiing.

Sledding obviously is free and made affordable by cheap plastic bumboards that most kids bring to school every day. Many Norwegians also spring for heavier duty sleds that can steer and brake. Oslo is a hilly place and there are a plethora of sledding options throughout the city which are covered in snow 6 months out of the year. Here is a picture of Ada sledding down a hill on her bumboard:

There is even a sledding hill primarily for adults called Korketrekken which is free (if you bring your own sled) and involves a sledding hill that literally starts at the top of the Marka forest (an area that makes up two-thirds of the city) and ends close to downtown Oslo. It takes 10 minutes to go down the trek. John and I haven’t been down it yet but plan to do so soon. If you’re interested, here’s a great video about it:

We’ve also enjoyed ice skating. There are quite a few outdoor ice skating rinks in Oslo and one that is a 10 minute walk from our house. They all have public skating hours and are free if you bring your own skates (which you can pick up used for $10.) We’ve gone ice skating twice in January and Ada and Maddie love it (though John who is not yet comfortable on skates is not so sure:).

Our family has also taken up cross country skiing which is quite popular in Norway and free if you have your own equipment (which again is inexpensive if you buy it used). Maddie gets to take cross country skiing lessons once a week for five weeks every Monday morning during school this winter. Ada gets to practice going cross country skiing every Friday with her preschool just outside school when there is snow on the ground. Here is a photo of Ada’s class skiing at school today (Ada is in a purple winter suit on the left):

John and I also signed up to take some cross country skiing lessons on Thursdays in the Marka Forest with friends and we are both loving it. Here is a photo of me and John on our cross country skis:

Maddie and Ada are also taking downhill skiing lessons every Wednesday after school at Oslo Winter park which is in the Marka Forest and accessible via public transit (though they get there on a bus from school which is a half hour drive). During the lesson, I get to go skiing with other parents at the school which has been a lot of fun. Downhill skiing is probably the most expensive winter sport in Norway but even so a season pass plus equipment and lessons in Oslo is a lot less expensive than going on a week-long ski vacation in the US.

One of my favorite parenting books was loaned to me by a friend in Atlanta while Maddie was just a year old was Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv. In the book, Richard Louv discusses the scientific studies that show how exposure to nature is a requirement for a healthy childhood and for the physical and emotional health of both children and adults. On average, children in the US spend only four to seven minutes of unstructured playtime outside per day. Children (and adults) who spend time outside regularly statistically do better academically, are happier, and of course healthier. Louv links the rise of ADHD, obesity, and mental health disorders that are becoming more common in children and youth in the US with the decline in outdoor play. Unfortunately, some of this decline is probably because access to safe outdoor spaces is not available to many who live in lower-income urban neighborhoods in the US.

Norwegians, on the other hand, regardless of income status are virtually guaranteed safe access to the outdoors. Oslo is surrounded by the Marka Forest which makes up two-thirds of the area of the city and is a nationally protected area. That in itself is an amazing achievement (my hometown of Atlanta which prides itself on being a “city in a forest” only officially protects 5% of its forest)  On weekends even in the winter (which lasts 6 months in Norway), the Marka forest, easily accessible by public transit and free for the public, teems with activity while much of the center of Oslo is quiet. Norwegians simply love being outdoors. It’s no wonder that Norwegian’s regularly rank among the happiest people in the world.