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.


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?).


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.


Family, Christmas and History in Denmark

My mom’s first cousin, Margaret Hunter, had the good fortune of marrying Bjarne, a Dane. They have been living in Denmark for almost 30 years and graciously hosted us for Christmas this year. We all had a fabulous time visiting with family and learning about the Christmas traditions and the incredibly rich history of Denmark. After being away from family for more than 6 months, Margaret and her family made us feel like their apartment in Copenhagen and house on Møn was our home too. After picking us up from the airport, Margaret took us to a local playground with built-in trampolines:

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The next day, as Christmas present from my sister, we took the train to see the Nutcracker in Tivoli Gardens, the second oldest theme park in the world (created in 1843). To me, the park was a little like going to Longwood Gardens in Delaware or the Botanical Gardens in Atlanta during the Christmas season with a few older amusement park rides like those found on Rehoboth Beach. Here is a pic of Ada and John waiting for the model train around the Christmas tree:

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And another pic of them riding the Elf train:

The highlight of our trip came the next morning on December 24th when we drove a hour and a half to their house on Møn, where Bjarne grew up.  While Bjarne, his brother, and my cousins, Peter and Peyton helped prepare a delicious Danish Christmas dinner, Margaret took us on a short walk to the beach where Maddie and Ada made stone soup (using a bucket, sand, rocks, kale from the garden, flowers and leaves):

Before dinner Maddie and Ada had an incredibly giggly time playing with Peter and Peyton who they quickly nicknamed Peter Pan and Pey Pan. Here is Ada on top of Peter:

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and Peyton reading to the girls:

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Around 5pm, we sat down for a delicious Danish Christmas dinner (roasted duck, roasted pork, browned potatoes (with butter and sugar), regular peeled potatoes, gravy, prune and apple stuffing, pickled red cabbage) with a few sides added by Margaret which are common in the US like waldorf salad, and baked sweet potatoes with pecans.

After dinner, we then played a really fun Danish Christmas game called “pakkeleg.” Margaret and her sister-in-law purchased and wrapped about 15 small presents and put them on the table. Margaret passed out two cups with a dice each in them. If you rolled a six, you could pick a present from the table or steal a present from another person. The dice passed from person to person pretty fast until all the packages were taken. At this point, Maddie was despondent because she hadn’t rolled a single six. Margaret then timed the game for approximately ten more minutes when we had to roll and pass the dice really quickly. If you got a six in that round, you had to steal a present from someone else at the table. That is when Maddie started getting lucky and by the end Maddie and Ada were both ecstatic because they ended up with 3 presents each (and John and I had only one because they were all stolen!) Here is a picture of Maddie playing with one of the presents Peter got from the game:

After pakkeleg, we sat down to eat dessert: ris à l’amande which is like the Christmas dessert common in Norway but instead of warm rice pudding with sugar and butter, this rice pudding was served cold and had chopped peeled almonds, whipped cream, and vanilla. It is topped by a cherry sauce and is delicious. Hidden in the ris à l’amande was one peeled whole almond. Whoever got the whole almond in their dessert got a present. If you were the lucky winner, you were also supposed to hide the almond in your mouth so that everyone would eat all the ris à l’amande hoping to get the almond. I was the lucky person who got the almond on my first serving! (but also was not very successful at hiding the almond in my mouth as there was a noticeable bulge that John and Peyton quickly pointed out.)

After dessert, we cleared and moved the table so we could move the Christmas tree into the center of the room. Bjarne lit the candles on the tree and then we all danced around the Christmas tree singing Danish and English christmas songs which Margaret kindly printed out for us. (One of the Danish songs was the one we learned in Norway about the barn elf eating the julegrot which we wrote about here.)

The highlight of the night for Maddie and Ada came after dinner. In Denmark, everyone opens presents on Christmas Eve and Maddie and Ada got to see their presents delivered by Santa! 

The next day was a relaxing day on Møn recovering from all the Christmas festivities, playing with cousins and new presents, and eating the abundance of leftovers from the Christmas dinner. We did get to fit in a trip to a Viking burial ground with Margaret. You had to actually crawl through the entrance and once you get in, you can see bones with other artifacts from the Vikings all of which is protected by plexiglass from visitors. The Vikings period started in 800 and went to 1050 which means this burial ground was probably around 1,000 years old.

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On the 27th, as we started to leave Møn to head for Copenhagen, we stopped quickly to see some incredible chalk drawings from the 1300s in the church where Bjarne and his family were baptized and where they plan to be buried. The chalk drawings were covered in plaster in the 18th and 19th century and restored in the 20th century for visitors like us. As you can see, they are beautiful:

Here is a sign listing who has led the church since 1584!

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On the way back from Møn, we got to see quite a few wind farms. Denmark has the highest percentage of power produced from Wind in the world (43% in 2017!) They are quite beautiful. I got this picture of a wind farm in front of a solar array heading back to Copenhagen which is just a beautiful illustration of what future awaits our children if we want to stop climate change:

In Copenhagen, Margaret dropped us off so we could go on a boat tour of Copenhagen. The picture on the left is of Maddie and Ada in front of the palace where the royal family lives. The Monarch in the Denmark is one of the oldest in the world. The current, Queen, Queen Margrethe II can trace the lineage of the royal family back 1,000 years to the Vikings!

Most of our pictures by the way have to be taken surreptitiously because usually when Maddie and Ada notice we’re taking photos, they will either hide or make funny faces like the one below:

The next day Maddie and Ada were ecstatic because Margaret rented us a Christiana bike so we could explore Copenhagen on bike. Copenhagen, by the way, is one of the most bikeable cities I’ve seen. Not only is Copenhagen incredibly flat but there are also protected bike lanes separate from traffic lanes for cars and sidewalks for pedestrians. So, Margaret feels completely comfortable biking 40 minutes to and from work every day and we all felt completely safe on our bike ride through downtown Copenhagen. Below is a pic of me testing out our bike:

Because Maddie and Ada insisted, Peyton biked them instead of me or John and we headed to Peter’s apartment in Copenhagen where we had lunch. Peyton and Margaret then led us on a 2 hour bike ride of Copenhagen where we saw many sites including the castle where the royal family lives:

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Besides the royal palace, we also stopped for photos at the statue of “The Little Mermaid” installed in 1913 because the author of the story, Hans Christian Andersen lived and died in Copenhagen in the 19th century.

The next day was my birthday. John made a delicious olive and rosemary frittata, smoked salmon on toast, and grapefruit for breakfast. We biked to the Rosenberg castle which was built by King Christian IV in the early 17th century. Maddie and Ada’s favorite part of the castle was the basement where you got to see the crown jewels that the Queen of Denmark still wears today:

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John then took me to Souls, a vegan restaurant where he gave me the best birthday surprise- Michelle Obama’s new book and tickets to see her speak in April in Oslo! (while Peyton and Margaret set up a horse obstacle course for Maddie and Ada in their hallway.)

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Margaret then treated us to a wonderful dinner with their friends who are currently pastors at the international church in Denmark and used to be pastors at the the international church in Oslo.

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The next day we visited the Experimentarium in Copenhagen which was listed by TIME Magazine as one of the top 100 greatest places in the world in 2018. This science museum met our expectations and more with a ton of great interactive exhibits including one on bubbles, several on the shipping industry in Denmark, and of course lots of playing with balls.

On our last day before our flight back to Oslo, we squeezed in a trip to the National Museum in Denmark where we learned more about Vikings and life in Denmark. One of my favorite parts of the museum was the “boring button” which children could press in an exhibit meant for adults when they were feeling bored. The boring button in the Viking exhibit taught Ada and I about how the Vikings thought that the sun and moon were carried across the sky on a horse drawn carriage. Maddie and John pressed another boring button where museum staff, dressed in period clothes, told Maddie about what life used to be like in Denmark. In an exhibit on old toys in Denmark, the boring button near the dollhouses played audio of a Danish kid playing with a dollhouse.

Besides the boring buttons, Maddie and Ada also enjoyed the part of the museum exclusively for kids where Ada got to see what an old schoolhouse was like in Denmark and Maddie got to play in a replica of a Viking ship:

Overall, we had an incredible time in Denmark and are so grateful for our incredible family for hosting us and sharing with us places where we could learn about the rich history and traditions in Denmark.

Christmas in Norway

Our family has really been enjoying the Christmas Season while learning a lot about how Norwegians celebrate Christmas. Ada, fortunately, gets to experience a lot of what makes Christmas special in Norway through her school. Let’s start on December 1st- Evidently, Advent calendars are very big here and some parents go to the trouble of buying 24 paper bags and then filling each with a toy for every day leading up to Christmas. The other class representative and I made an advent calendar for Ada’s class (each kid was chosen to receive a bag of goodies during the month of December) which you can see below. Of course, many parents don’t do this for the children and buy a traditional chocolate advent calendar instead (which is what we did- who needs more toys!).

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On December 6th, Ada and her fellow classmates got to climb 1.3 miles up a mountain to Sæten Gård, the farm/DNT cabin we visited earlier this fall. At Sæten Gård, she learned about elves from an old Norwegian woman dressed up in traditional Norwegian clothes who pretended to be the “skognissemor” directly translated as the forest mother elf.

They sang a traditional Norwegian Christmas song about a barn elf who is eating his “julegrot” or traditional sweet rice pudding that Norwegians eat for dessert on Christmas. In the song, the elf has to fend off the rats who want to eat his julegrot. You can see a clip of other people singing this song later in this post.  Ada then got to eat julegrot (which she absolutely loves) with warm black currant juice (another Norwegian winter time treat) inside a barn.

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Ada also played games, saw the animals on the farm and then her class headed 1.3 miles back down the mountain. (By the way, she and the other 34 children in the preschool at OIS did this hike when it was 40 degrees F and rainy so they wore wool long underwear, a one-piece fleece, and a rain suit!) When they got back she said she had the best time though her teacher told me she had to pee twice while hiking which is not easy to deal with when you are wearing so many layers!

Through Ada’s school, we also got to learn about Santa Lucia. Santa Lucia is the Saint of Light who gave food to the poor and hungry. Her sainthood is celebrated in Sweden, Norway and some parts of Finland during the darkest time of the year. Usually, the oldest girl will dress up as Santa Lucia (in a white dress with a red bow and a crown of candles), and younger girls will follow her in a processional while they sing a song about Santa Lucia. There is also a Santa Lucia sweet bread called “luciakatter” which I got to help Ada bake at school a few days before the celebration so they could eat it after their performance. Here is a picture of Ada shaping the luciakatter and a finished piece ready to be baked:

Here is a hilarious video of Ada in the Santa Lucia processional (John took this video and Ada usually hates getting her picture taken):

and a bonus video of Ada performing in her winter concert at school:

Our family has been using our weekends to visit some pretty incredible Christmas markets in town. (Christmas markets or julemarkeds are quite common- they usually are outdoors, involve fires to warm you up, Christmas food, hot drinks, and Christmas handicrafts for sale.) The first we visited was in downtown Oslo called JuliVinterland. Here is a pic of Ada and Maddie warming up by the fire:

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We also went to the Christmas market at the folk museum in Oslo. This was my favorite market because we all got to see the “nisse” or Christmas elves and Santa perform the song about the barn elf defending his rice pudding from rats that Ada learned on her hike to Sætern Gård:

and we saw another Santa Lucia processional:

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and heard the traditional Santa Lucia song again from professionals:

One of the kids’ activities at the Folk Museum was whittling a stick into Santa which Ada loved and almost made me have a heart attack:

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The girls also got to make a simple version of the traditional Norwegian heart basket as an ornament for our Christmas tree. These heart baskets traditionally hold sweets which used to be the only gift the children received for Christmas. I didn’t get a picture of them making it but here is a description of how to make the more complicated version.

Last weekend, we had John’s friend, Danny, over for dinner. Danny connected John to the University of Oslo (which is one of the reasons we decided to spend this sabbatical in Norway). Because we were curious about what Norwegians eat on Christmas, John decided to make a traditional Norwegian Christmas dinner. He made Pinnekjott (salted and dried lamb ribs that you have to soak in water for 30 hours and then steam for 3 hours), rotmos (mashed rutabaga, carrot, and potato), potatoes, and snap beans. As mentioned before, Norwegian’s usually have rice pudding as dessert. On Christmas eve, they hide an almond in the rice pudding and whoever gets the almond gets to eat a marzipan pig. (They then leave the julegrot out for the barn elf so he doesn’t make mischief during the new year.) However, since Maddie and John do not like rice pudding, we had ice cream with pepperkakke (gingerbread) instead. Everything, as you can guess, was delicious.

Pepperkakke, (scandinavian’s gingerbread cookie), by the way, are ubiquitous and inexpensive in Norway this time of year. Most grocery stores also sell pepperkakke deig (gingerbread dough) so you can make gingerbread cookies at home. At one of the Julemarkeds, Ada and Maddie got to decorate gingerbread cookies and we also made some at home (with the premade dough) with cookie cutters loaned to us from a friend.

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We did not celebrate  Christmas Eve or day in Norway (or in Atlanta which we will miss!) but we did celebrate in Denmark with my cousin Margaret Hunter, her husband Bjarne, and their children Peter and Peyton. We’ll post more on that later. In the meantime, Merry Christmas!

Nobel Peace Prize Festivities in Norway

One of the reasons Norway is famous is because a Norwegian committee awards the Nobel Peace Prize every year in December. Because John is incredible, our family got to attend a free Nobel Peace Prize concert as a family a week ago on a Sunday night (December 9th), the day before the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded officially in Oslo. Then John and I got to attend a free Nobel Peace Prize forum on climate change on Tuesday, December 11th. The forum featured a keynote speech by Al Gore (!!) and a panel discussion with several climate experts including Katherine Hayhoe (another climate idol of mine!) who is the Director of Climate Science Center at Texas Tech (and a climate communicator who has connected with many evangelical/conservative communities to get them on board with acting on climate change in the US).

Both were fantastic though I have to say the forum which took place at noon while the kids were at school was my favorite. But let’s start with the concert. In past years, the Nobel Peace Prize committee has hosted a huge concert with famous artists. This year however, because of budget concerns, they hosted a much smaller concert outside Oslo City hall at 6pm and invited anyone interested to come for free (provided they signed up for a ticket in advance.) So, thanks to John we signed up. Whenever Ada goes to any performance, she likes to get as close as she can to the stage so she can see and dance. So, we ended up following her to the gate right next to a person filming the concert for the NRK, Norway’s version of NPR. When the woman filming noticed Ada right behind her before the concert started, she told us she would ask security if we could go through the gates to the VIP area so Ada could see even better. Security said yes (without even talking to us) and we got to watch the concert within 200 feet of the booth where the Nobel Peace Prize winners, Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were seated. Here is a pic of the winners next to the concert stage:

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That blue booth with spotlights on the right is where they were seated:

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Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad were awarded the peace prize for their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict. So, interspersed between songs, we got to watch a few short clips explaining more about their work (which made for a sobering experience especially when I had to explain to Maddie why they got the prize!) Here’s a pic of Ada on John’s shoulders still trying to get the best view of one of those clips:

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And here is Ada dancing:

A few days later, John and I go to hear Al Gore speak about climate change during a keynote, see the panel of climate experts, and then watch Al Gore give an interview for NRK.  Here is a picture of Al Gore giving his interview:

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Other panelists included Katherine Hayhoe, the Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, Dr. Thina Margrethe Saltvedt, the Head of the Sustainable Finance Division of Nordea Bank in Norway, and Professor Ricarda Winkelmann of Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Al Gore spoke first explaining the basics of climate change. I took copious notes since climate change is one of my passions (and apologies for the length of this post!)

Right now we are releasing 110 million metric tons heat trapping gases (mostly CO2) every day into our relatively thin atmosphere (Carl Sagan compared the atmosphere’s thickness as a varnish on a desktop globe when you compare the height of our atmosphere to the size of the earth.) Here is a picture of me in front of one metric ton the Nobel Peace Prize committee placed in front of the building where the talk took place.

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Gore explained that the greenhouse gases we have released so far trap as much heat as would be released by 500,000 Hiroshima sized atomic bombs exploding every day. A lot of this heat has been warming up our oceans causing stronger hurricanes and typhoons and has been disrupting the water cycle, causing rain bombs instead of typical rain showers and extreme droughts leading to more wildfires (and increasing California’s wildfire season by 105 days). Of course, all of this is already disrupting agriculture. Right now because of all this heat, a few places in the world like the Middle East and North Africa are already starting to experience heat indices that are close to exceeding the boundaries where humans can live (i.e., be outside for more than 2 hours without dying.)

Al Gore then explained that these weather conditions have caused us to experience more refugees today than immediately after World War II. For example, the crisis in Syria began because Syrians experienced the worst drought in 900 years (caused by climate change) where 80% of their goats died and 60% of their farms failed. Honduras was ranked as the country most vulnerable to climate change because of changes in the water cycle. Because of an extreme drought there caused by climate change, that caravan of migrants is coming to the US because they haven’t had a harvest in more than a year and have to find a way to feed their children.

Gore stated that after three years of stabilized greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, this year saw a 2.7% increase in emissions. This is in part because right now the governments of the world continue to subsidize fossil fuels 38 times more than renewables worldwide. We also continue to cut down forests at a rate of a football field a second contributing to climate change and unfortunately the new President of Brazil views the Amazon as an agricultural resource to be cut down instead of an important way to reduce climate change.

Fortunately, Gore explained that solutions are available and hope is around the corner. In the US today, the two fastest growing jobs are solar installers and wind service technicians. Although the US plans to withdraw from the Paris Treaty in 2020, we have regional leaders like California which plans to be carbon neutral by 2045 and Indiana whose largest utility recently determined that the way to provide the cheapest electricity to their customers was to build wind and solar and shut down their coal power plants.

Al Gore ended his talk by stating that the politics can change quickly (like with gay marriage) and he believes political will is a renewable resource. I certainly hope he’s right especially since my favorite organization, Citizen’s Climate Lobby, is supporting an incredible BIPARTISAN bill recently introduced in the House of Representatives that would put a price on carbon and return ALL the revenue from that price to individuals so we not only stop climate change but people can afford the increase in their gas and utility bills. PLEASE learn more and support this bill by clicking here.

https://citizensclimatelobby.org/energy-innovation-and-carbon-dividend-act/

(I’m also so excited that so many Republicans in the United States are interested in supporting renewables and fighting climate change and that one of the cosponsors of the bill is Delaware’s own Senator Chris Coons and Arizona’s Republican Senator Jeff Flake!)

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Also, here is a great short clip explaining what the bill will do:

After Al Gore spoke, we watched a new documentary by Neil Halloran about climate change called Degrees of Uncertainty. This documentary did an amazing job of explaining how climate scientists can make conclusions about the past climate and predictions about future climate, even though every measurement we make has some uncertainty. It’s not yet available for the public but you can see the trailer here:

We then listened to several panelists talk including my favorite, Katherine Hayhoe who unlike Al Gore appeals more to conservatives. Katherine Hayhoe listed several myths about climate change. Here is a pic of Katherine Hayhone on the left in the pink jacket:

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The first myth is that climate change is distant in both time and space. Today the majority of Americans believe in climate change but they believe that climate change is something that won’t affect them personally. Unfortunately, I whole-heartedly agree with this statement. One of my cousins lives in Florida and had to flee Hurricane Irma, another lives in California and his vineyard was almost scorched by the wildfires there. In Delaware, we were almost hit by Hurricane Sandy and in the spring and early summer, I am paranoid my kids are going to get lyme disease because climate change is causing tick populations to explode.

Myth number two is that people think that only environmentalist’s care about climate change. Katherine connects with Christians by explaining how the first people to suffer from climate change are the poor and women and children which is hardly fair since the wealthy are those that are responsible for this problem. It also turns out that one of the most cost effective ways to address climate change is to invest in women and children since educated girls tend to have less children. This solution is something Al Gore didn’t mention in his talk and I think can get ignored by many in the climate community (which tends to be science/tech focused.)

The most dangerous myth Katherine stated is that climate change won’t affect us personally but actions to address climate change will threaten our way of life by making us return to the stone ages. I was surprised by this statement because honestly every solution to climate change I’ve heard of makes our lives better. Not using fossil fuels create more jobs (there are more jobs in solar and wind per unit of energy produced than any fossil fuel.) Our air and water will be cleaner, we will have more forests, and eat healthier food, we will walk more and drive less and thus have closer knit communities. If we address climate change as proposed in the bill mentioned above, the average family won’t even lose money (e.g., unlike in France, the increase in the price of gas for example, will be returned to them in the form of a monthly dividend check.) The list of benefits to addressing climate change really goes on and on (especially if you address it in a revenue neutral way like the bill described above).

After Katherine Hayhoe spoke, Director-General Jose Graziano da Silva of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN talked about the link between food and climate change. He described how climate change is starting to reduce the gains we’ve made on hunger that have been occurring since the 90’s. In 1990, 1 billion people were malnourished but that number went down to less than 800 million in 2014. Unfortunately, in large part because of climate change, that number has climbed to 821 million in 2018. De Silva then mentioned how any food insecurity is inextricably linked to war and conflict (e.g., Syria). This is perhaps one reason the Noble Peace Prize committee chose to host a keynote on climate change!

Finally, Da Silva mentioned how climate change is is causing our food to be less nutritious but one way to adapt to climate change is to diversify what we eat (beyond corn soy and wheat which is an astounding 80% of what we eat worldwide) which made me hopeful that if we tackle this problem effectively, we will be healthier for it.

There were a few other panelists but I believe this blog post has become more of an essay than a short blog. So, I’ll stop there and ask those of you reading this in the states to call or write your representative and ask them to support this bill!

https://citizensclimatelobby.org/energy-innovation-and-carbon-dividend-act/

Walking in Norway

One of the things our family is loving about Oslo and Bekkestua (the suburb of Oslo where we live) is that it is incredibly walkable. It is so walkable in fact that we have yet to even rent a car. Instead of driving to school, Maddie and Ada walk to school which is roughly a half mile one way (which means we walk at least 2 miles every weekday to pick them up and drop them off and they walk 1 mile.) John takes the train to the University of Oslo which gives takes him thirty minutes  on the train and then another ¼ mile walk to and from the Physics building. We live within a half mile of four different grocery stores which makes it pretty easy to go grocery shopping once a day to pick up ingredients for dinner that night (which make us walk more but also reduces food waste since we only buy what we know we will eat that day.) On weekends, we’ve taken the bus or train and then walked to festivals, hiking trails, museums, and more. Because of all of this walking our kids are in better shape, we are in better shape, and we are all healthier and happier. 

Norwegians when they visit the United States think it’s a little crazy that Americans drive everywhere. A friend’s Norwegian husband even took pictures of a drive-through ATM in the US in amusement because in Norway, there are no drive-thrus. People get out of their cars to walk to a bank or a shop. Another American was telling me today that she lives about ¾ of a mile from the international school and feels like she has to have a good reason to use the car to take her kids to school whereas in the states, that would be the norm. Of course, I believe most of this culture of regular activity has nothing to do with the internal make-up of Norwegians vs Americans. I think it is mostly because Oslo was designed to be a walkable and transit friendly city. Therefore, most people can and do walk and use transit (just like people do in the few walkable cities in the US like DC, New York, Boston and San Francisco).

One thing I have noticed about walking in Norway is that walking is very safe.  When you cross a road at a crosswalk, pedestrians really do have the right of way. In the US at a crosswalk, you wait until a kind driver stops to let you pass, then you cross the road while thanking them profusely for obeying the law. In Norway, if a driver sees a pedestrian even close to a crosswalk, they automatically stop and the pedestrian just crosses the road without thanking the driver. Drivers in Norway are so reliable that it is tempting not to even look to see if they will stop for you to cross because they always do!  Right now, because the sunrises at 9AM and sets at 3PM (!), the country has a huge campaign to get people to wear reflective clothing so drivers can be sure they can see and stop for pedestrians when it is dark.

Not only do Norwegian’s walk more during the weekdays to run errands and get to work or school but they walk on weekends as well. It turns out because a lot of stores close on Sundays, most Norwegian families have a tradition of going on a Sunday walk together. A few weeks ago, we decided to join the tradition by going on a 3-mile round trip hike to a restaurant in the middle of the Oslo Marka Forest by a lake called Tryvannstua. During our walk Maddie and Ada insisted on making fishing poles out of sticks and long grass:

 

You can see the restaurant peeking out from the woods on the left-hand side and John carrying Ada on his back on the very right hand side:

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Ada did walk most of they way but towards the end on the way to the restaurant, we did end up carrying her because John and I were impatient to eat lunch:

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Here’s a pic of Maddie in front of Tryvannstua cafe. We had hot chocolate, cinnamon buns (kanelbrød), Norwegian waffles (vaffles) and a prawn sandwich when we arrived. 

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It was truly a beautiful walk and makes me want to join that Norwegian tradition more often. 

Of course living in a city designed to be walkable not only makes our family healthier, it helps us have a much lower impact on the environment (30% of our emissions come from transportation in the US and walking has almost no carbon footprint when compared to driving). Designing a walkable city also makes our society more egalitarian. Why? A walkable city not only benefits those individuals who have the money and spare time to exercise on their own but it also benefits those who might not have the money or time to go to the gym. According to a 2017 study published in Nature which used activity data from the smartphones of 700,000 people around the world, walkable cities help reduce what is called a “physical activity inequality” between men, women and children in a society and the overall obesity of a society. It turns out that the number of steps a woman takes in the day is affected more greatly than a man by the design of the city of where she lives. I’m guessing this is because women are the ones with the least time to go to the gym, and have to run the most errands. It also turns out number of obese people in a country is not correlated to the average physical fitness of the people in the country but instead to the average physical fitness of woman (I’m guessing because when woman live in a walkable city and are physically active so is the entire family.) Therefore, not surprisingly, changing our built environment to be more walkable is not only good for the planet but is crucial to making our society as a whole healthier, happier, and more just. This of course is only part of the reason Norway was ranked as the happiest country on Earth in 2017 by the World Happiness Report produced by the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network.