Last days in Norway

Our last days in Norway were a whirlwind of activity and sentimental emotion. Here are a few highlights from the last weeks. I volunteered at Greenpeace for the last time (towards the end of the year, I got to keep the volunteer community informed of activities by putting together a monthly newsletter). I didn’t get a picture of the people I volunteered with but here is a pic of the volunteer office that I helped decorate:

Ada and Maddie got to participate in a field day the last full week of school which they both enjoyed. Here are some pics from Ada’s field day: 

And Maddie’s field day (Maddie is seen here with her best friend Berrett who moved to Norway from Virginia Beach this fall):

Ada then participated in a preschool graduation ceremony and party (which I helped organize with the other class representative setting up decorations and spending a day buying presents for 36 children and 9 teachers and teaching assistants.) The ceremony was super cute, but for some reason, Ada refused to participate normally (possibly because she hates getting her picture taken or because she was simply in a bad mood). For example, Ada sat there glaring at me while all her classmates sang a song about flowers and bees.

When her friends were showing off their yoga moves, Ada simply sat on the ground and when it was time for her to walk to get her graduation certificate and rose, and she did not stand up and walk to her teacher; instead, she remained on her bottom and scooted to her teacher. It was pretty hilarious.

She did fully participate in the ice cream party on the playground after the graduation ceremony. 

Because international students move so frequently, every year the school has a “leavers assembly” where students watched a slide show about the year (which made me cry for some reason). Here is a link to the slide show:

Students then stood up when their name was called to indicate they weren’t coming back. Here is when Maddie stood up:

John, who has really enjoyed working with the University of Oslo this year, was grateful when his colleagues put together a small goodbye party for him at the University: 

Below are pics from the last time we walked to school and dropped off the kids at the playground:

The afternoon of the last day of school, Maddie’s friend Saya and her mom, a very kind woman from Japan who I’ve befriended, invited us over for a playdate followed with an impromptu invitation to dinner- sushi, miso soup, and japanese pancakes. Here are a few pics of the afternoon/evening:

The day after the last day of school, we immediately left for Sweden as described in this post. We then headed back home to finish up packing. We decided to “Project Zero” our leave-taking by selling, donating to organizations or giving away to friends every reusable thing we couldn’t take home with us. I was so grateful that we were able to donate four large grocery bags of opened and unopened food to Fattighuset, an organization that helps refugees in Oslo, our unsold skis and skates to BUA so others can borrow them for free in the future, and many toys to our local loppemarked.  Miraculously, we were able to fit everything we wanted back to the US in 12 suitcases and 4 carry-on items (including all our ski helmets and a used mini-scooter we picked up for $5 that Ada fell in love with this year!)

Aside from packing we did have enough time our last weekend in Norway to return to Sandvika, the beach where John took the girls last July on their first fun outing in Norway.

On our last day, we visited Eckerberg park where Evard Munch painted the scream,

and celebrated our anniversary while watching the sunset over Oslo for the last time.

We really have had an unforgettable year in Norway.

Lillehammer

During the kids’ last long weekend break from school, we decided to take one last trip in Norway to Lillehammer which is just a 2.5-hour train ride north of Oslo. Lillehammer hosts this famous 54km cross country skiing race called the Birkebeiner which commemorates the heroics displayed by men who escorted the 1-year-old King Hakon Hakonson to safety in 1200. (There is an American version which takes place in Wisconsin and is the biggest cross country ski race in the US.) Evidently, the racers have to carry a 7.7 lb backpack to simulate the weight of the king. Here is a statue commemorating the Birkebeiners in Lillehammer:

Our first day in Lillehammer, we took the children to a Norwegian themed amusement park called “Hunderfossen Fairytale Park.” The park felt like a much lower key Disney theme park based on Norwegian folk tales. There was a huge troll in the center of the park,

fairy tale themed rides, a science center that taught you about hydroelectricity (95% of the electricity in Norway is made from hydro) as you might guess when you pass rivers like this near Lillehammer:

The park also has Norwegian fairy tales rides and shows, carousels, swimming pools, and cars (Maddie and Ada’s favorite).

The girls had a blast and unlike most theme parks I’ve been to in the states, there was absolutely no line for any of the rides. 

The next day we spent visiting Maihaugen, a very neat open-air museum which showcased both rural and urban life in Norway through history through the reconstruction of Norwegian homes and buildings. Maihaugen had a small pond where children could borrow bamboo fishing rods with real hooks. Beside the rods was a bucket of dirt where you could dig for worms to for fish bait. The girls dug for worms but despite Ada’s plea, Maddie decided to save it from the fish hook which was probably a good idea because John and I wouldn’t know what to do with a fish if we caught it. Fortunately, another family used the poles right after us and caught a few fish almost immediately.

A lot of Norwegian homes have green rooms which seems to be a practice in building construction that is hundreds of years ago. Below is a picture of an old mill cabin with a green roof and a demonstration of how they used to make them using wood, birch bark, and soil. The green roofs are quite pretty (many of them had flowers on them when we visited) and as I was reminded in my LEED AP training insulate the home well, help reduce stormwater runoff, the heat island effect and are lower maintenance than other roofs.

Our last morning we spent touring the home of Sigrid Undset who won the Nobel Prize in literature for her book trio called “Kristin Lavrandsdatter” about the life a Norwegian woman in the 14th century. Here is Maddie beside her Nobel Prize medal and Ada beside a picture of Sigrid:

After getting a nice individualized tour of her home (which not surprisingly also had a green roof) and learning more about her,

I decided to read all three books (which I borrowed from the Delaware electronic library.) They were very well written (the newest translation is supposedly much better than the first one) and were historically accurate so you learn about life in Norway in the medieval ages. According to our guide, Sigrid’s father was an archeologist and she worked closely with the person who founded Maihaugen to learn more about life in the 14th century. Evidently, her novel is (still) historically accurate. The trio of books Kristin Lavrandsdatter which starts when she is a young girl and ends when she dies reminded me of Anna Karenina or Ellena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels. I highly recommend the trio.

Top 10 differences between life in Europe vs the US

This year our family has gotten used to the European way of life which has been pretty similar to life in the US apart from a few differences. Here is my top 10 list of the small and large differences between life in Europe and the US.

1. No dryers and tiny washers- Our apartment as well as every airbnb we’ve stayed in this year has been devoid of a dryer. So, we’ve been hang drying all our clothes this year. Because of a smaller size washer (and a relatively small drying rack), we end up doing our laundry twice a week instead of once a week and we have to plan about 2 days in advance if we want clean clothes because it can take that long for our clothes to line dry. Line drying our clothes has probably lengthened the life of our clothes, as well as saved us a lot of energy (if we switched to line drying our clothes in the US, according to this article, we’d save 3.3% of our total residential carbon emissions.) However, despite the obvious environmental benefits, I have to admit, I am looking forward to being able to wash and dry my clothes in one day when we get back to the states. On the left is our drying rack in Norway and on the right, someone line drying clothes in Venice.

2. Supermarkets- The average grocery store in Europe seems to be half to one third of the size of a regular US grocery store and the items in that store are similarly half to a third of the size of US items (and there are fewer choices for each item). For example, it seems most people buy milk by the pint, and eggs by the half dozen. If you want a bag of tortilla chips, it will be about one third of the size of a bag of tortilla chips in the US. Even the paper towels are smaller. Because portion sizes are smaller (and because we live above on grocery store and within a 5 minute walk of 4 other grocery stores), John and I have taken to grocery shopping about once a day. So, this year we have wasted a lot less food than we usually do because we don’t buy food we don’t need and the food doesn’t go bad before we can eat it. Also, you always bag your own groceries in Europe and they always ask if you want a plastic bag before providing it because you usually have to pay a small fee for them. I love this because I always find it awkward in the US when you have to preemptively tell someone that you brought your own bag before they waste one on us. Below John with the tiny bag of chips that is the practically the only option at our local grocery store:

3. EU Regulations- Because the EU has stricter regulations than those in the states. I generally feel much safer here. I know my food has fewer chemicals in them, my medicine is better regulated, my children are in safer car seats and I have no fear of an active shooter. (I just looked it up- in the US there are 120 civilian owned guns for every 100 people but in most of Europe, there are only 30 civilian owned guns for every 100 people- a 75% reduction). I am also jealous of the European Union’s ability to protect the environment. For example, major single use plastics, like plastic cutlery, straws, and plates will be banned in Europe by 2021. I wonder when the US will be able to do that? 

4. The Metric System- As a scientist and engineer, I have always been envious of the metric system (kilometers, celsius, grams, etc.) because conversions are so easy within it. However, having grown up in the US, my intuitive sense of measurement is still firmly in the Imperial system (miles, Fahrenheit, pounds, etc.) which makes me sad. Whenever anybody talks about the weather in Norway (which is often), I find myself doing mental gymnastics, converting Celsius to Fahrenheit, and back again. The same goes for units of weight and volume. When I find a European recipe, I often have to convert from grams or deciliters to cups and ounces (since we do not have a small kitchen scale like most Europeans). Fortunately, because of track and cross country, I do have a firmer sense of a kilometer. If only the other metric units would be so intuitive! (As an aside, everyone in Europe uses military time which also makes more sense than using AM/PM for everything but because I’m not used to it, I find myself subtracting 12 from all afternoon/evening times.) Below is the weather forecast according to yr.no, the most accurate weather organization in Norway. Is 14C warm or cold? Why do I still have to convert!

5. Public Transit- Living in and visiting cities with good useable public transit systems has been a blessing. Living without a car and relying only on public transit has been so easy in Norway and almost all the cities we’ve seen in Europe, it will honestly will be the thing I will miss most about Europe. I have loved the trains, metro systems, street cars and buses in Europe and living in walkable cities has been good for our health too as I mentioned in this post. Below Ada plays with her best friend Kiana on the train on the way back from their ballet recital:

6. Free/Reduced University and Free/Reduced Healthcare- Unlike the United States, Europeans don’t come out of college with huge student loans. That is because in most countries, going to University is mostly free in your home country! That is pretty incredible and if you think about it, makes so much sense. Also, healthcare is single payer and people are never bankrupted or have to stick to a certain job to ensure they are covered. See our post on the healthcare system in Norway here.

7. Worker Rights- Close to 80% of workers in Norway are represented by a Union. Because of these strong unions, Norwegians get 8 weeks of paid vacation a year, a livable wage, and work only 37 hours a week. This is not uncommon throughout Europe and I think is one of the reasons why Norwegians are so happy. Norwegians have more time to develop hobbies, exercise, travel and spend time with their families. This is the thing John, who is used to a 60 hour work week in the US, will miss most about living in Europe. (One of the interesting results of this history is that in Norway, to protect workers rights, almost everything, including almost all grocery stores over 100 square meters are closed on Sunday in Norway which is something we still haven’t gotten used to.) Below are John and his colleague at the University of Oslo. Both were contacted by the union at the University to see if they wanted to join.

8. The Kitchen- Ovens, Ice and Voltage- Ice is not common in Europe- It is not often served with water at a restaurant and an ice maker is virtually unheard of as part of your home freezer. Ovens are standardized in Europe to include slots on the side where you can slide in a sheet pan or even a sheet cake pan. Also, most appliances in Europe work on 230V instead of the US’s 120V.  230V is actually great because it means our vacuum is more powerful and water comes to a boil faster than in the US. 

9. Language. It seems like most people in Europe speak at least two languages if not more. One of Maddie’s friends from preschool already is fluent in 3 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, and English) and is learning Mandarin from her Nanny. Switzerland has four recognized national languages- German, French, Italian and Romansh. Maddie’s best friend at school who is also from the United States noticed early in the school year that she was one of the few people in her class who spoke only one language. 

10. Privacy in the Bathroom or WC. The public bathrooms (mostly known as WC in Europe) are not like the ones in the US. Instead of stalls loosely connected with small gaps in between most of the connection including one large gap at the bottom, bathroom stalls in Europe are built like doors in a home. They have no gaps and offer complete privacy. Also, a red notice shows when you lock a stall so there is no need to check to see if you see feet underneath to try to open it. That red notice makes so much sense! (Also, there are lots of dual flush toilets and far fewer sensors that automatically flush which I like because it saves water and doesn’t scare my children when it flushes while they are still on the toilet!)

Of course, these are just a few of the differences between the US and Europe and there are many similarities. There are also a ton of differences between countries in Europe and even more differences if you compare the US to non western industrialized educated democracies. If you have time, feel free to post in the comments any other differences (or even similarities) you noticed when you compare life in the US with life in Europe!

LEED and Budapest

In the fall, as I mentioned in this post, I began spending a day every week taking a course to understand the US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s (LEED) certification for the Operation and Maintenance of Buildings so I could take the test to become a LEED AP O&M Certified professional. My hope was to learn more about sustainable operations so I could do a better job as St. Andrew’s Director of Sustainability. 

In the course of studying for the test, I realized that my certification as LEED Green Associate which I obtained while working at Southface (and is a requirement to take be LEED AP certified) was out of date. Because you can take the LEED Green Associate Test and LEED AP test at the same time, I found I had to spend time studying for both.

Because LEED is primarily used in the United States (though there are lots of LEED-certified buildings in Europe including the US embassy in Norway) the closest/least expensive place for me to take the test to become LEED certified was in Budapest, Hungary. So in late May, we left for Budapest as a family during one of the last long weekends the girls had in school.

We arrived in Budapest on a Tuesday at lunch time and my test (4 hours of 200 multiple choice questions) was on Wednesday morning. So, we had time in the afternoon to see a model train exhibit which was really well done called the “Miniversum.” John and I particularly liked learning about life in Budapest under communism at the museum.

The next day, I headed to the main university in Budapest, a 20-minute walk from our Airbnb to take my test. Several weeks before the test, I found myself going through study materials and taking practice tests again and again sometimes during and most of the time in between time spent with our many visitors in May. I was certainly nervous that after spending all this time studying and all the money to travel to Budapest and take the test that I wouldn’t pass! Fortunately, my hard work paid off and I passed. Below is my passing score right next to my very large stack of study materials!

While I was taking the test, John took the girls to a science museum in Budapest (the seventh we’ve seen this year)

and we celebrated by going to a sushi restaurant for lunch (Maddie and Ada’s choice), exploring a bit of Buda,

and then eating at a vegetarian restaurant for dinner (my choice). Below Ada is chowing down on some vegan “goulash” soup (a traditional soup in Budapest normally made out of beef.)

The next day was rainy so we decided to check out the Turkish baths. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy day after my big test.

My favorite day by far was our last day when we explored the children’s railway in the Buda hills (named because children help operate it),

then walking through the hills and stopping at a playground along the way,

climbing a tower to see a view of the city,

and then taking the ski lift back down to the bottom.

We had a wonderful trip. The selfie Ada took while in Budapest says it all:

Fuglemyrhytta

On May 5th, our first weekend back from Italy, we decided to take a short trip to the newest Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) hut in Oslo. The cabin, called “Fuglemyrhytta” or bird marsh cabin is about a 1.8-mile hike from the nearest train station right in the city (and only a 40-minute train ride from our house).

The cabin was at the top of a mountain in Oslo and Ada led the way during the entire hike in which was good because John and I were carrying sleeping bags, food and clothes in backpacks we borrowed from BUA, this amazing equipment non profit in Norway that loans sporting and outdoor equipment to anyone for a week at a time.

Below are a few photos of Ada on our hike. As you can see, we encountered snow on the ground on our way up!

Here is a picture of John in front of BUA with a purple backpack we borrowed. (We also found out we could donate equipment to BUA which is what we did with the sporting equipment we bought that we couldn’t sell.)

Once we got to the top, we ate a picnic lunch in a lean-to next to the cabin with a gorgeous view of the Oslo fjord.

We then decided to hike an extra half mile to Vetakollen, a mountain peak with a great view of the Oslo fjord.

Maddie found a stick with a hole where the knot was:

We returned to cook dinner in the splendidly equipped kitchen and chat with the other people staying at the cabin (a Norwegian mother and daughter.) We didn’t get any photos of the inside of the cabin, but if you’re curious, follow this link—you can see all of Oslo from the gorgeous picture window. Here is a picture of the outside:

That night the pleasant spring weather we had experienced earlier that day (a high of 50F) became much colder. When we woke up the next morning it was 30F and snowing! Weather changes on a dime in Norway especially in the spring and this was no exception. When we decided to hike down the rest of the mountain, Ada asked me multiple times why I had made them hike up the “cold” mountain as she fought over the favored pair of gloves with her sister. Ada ended up getting the gloves as you can see here:

As we headed downhill though she jumped from rock to rock claiming she was doing kung fu. Maddie, who was in the midst of reading Harry Potter with her dad, started dreaming of butterbeer, wondering if it would warm her up and asking if we could make it once we got home. Fortunately for her, two of the ingredients (cream soda and butterscotch syrup) which cannot be found in Norway were to be brought by her grandmother in a weeks time.

Italy Part 4- Pisa, Cinque Terre and Venice

Going to the beach in Italy was the part of our vacation plan Maddie and Ada were most looking forward to. After visiting Florence and Rome, John and I were on the same page. We were very excited to slow down our sightseeing and spend some time on the beach. On the way from Florence to Monterosso though (one of the five towns in Cinque Terre), our train happened to go through the Pisa. So, we were able to take a small side trip to see the leaning tower.

Later that day, we arrived in Cinque Terre, and the beach was exactly what we needed. We were lucky because the weather on our first and second day at Monterosso was perfect beach weather. Because the water was still quite cold, John and I chose not to get in the ocean, but Maddie and Ada, accustomed to the freezing temps in Norway, had a blast playing in the water,

They also loved getting gelato nearby.

When the weather turned rainy the next day, we wandered around old Monterroso which was just beautiful.

and we went to a local vineyard for a wine tasting:

After Cinque Terre, we headed for our last town in Italy- Venice! Venice was of course, just beautiful.

We loved visiting the Doge’s Palace which houses one of the largest oil paintings in the world (the one on the wall, directly behind us).

and watching the gondolas (though we all chose not to ride on ourselves).

Venice did feel like one of the most touristed cities we visited. I was saddened when I found out that Venice has only 50,000 residents and in the busy tourist season experience 150,000 tourists a day. On our last day in Venice, after traveling for more than 2 weeks, our longest vacation as a family, we were all ready to return “home” to Norway. Below Maddie and Ada watch Venice recede into the distance as we head in a water taxi to the airport.

And here’s Ada, in her Venetian Mask, sleeping on the bus ride home, exhausted after a wonderful trip. IMG 5458

Our Last Visitors

In May, John and I were happy to host lots of family and friends at our apartment in Norway. Soon after we returned from Italy, John’s mother came for a week. We all loved having her visit with us and were so appreciative she made the journey, especially since it was her first time out of the US!

The girls enjoyed showing her their school, and having her tag along to ballet class, piano, and swim lessons. She even came just in time to see Ada’s ballet recital! Ada, who hates getting her picture taken and being at the center of attention, at first refused to dance in the recital but then changed her mind and said she would dance a little which is what she did! (Ada is in the middle and hardly dancing at the beginning:)

And below is a picture of Ada with her friends looking at the tulip her friend gave her after the performance:

John also enjoyed taking his mother to explore Oslo while Maddie and Ada were at school. She especially enjoyed seeing the folk museum and taking a tour of the Oslo Fjord.

A few days after John’s mother left, a friend of mine from college, Ana, came to visit and we enjoyed exploring Oslo together and catching up. We visited the Munch museum, Vigeland and Eckerberg sculpture parks, and went island hopping together.  Below are selfies of us island hopping using public transit in the Oslo Fjord:

and a few pictures from Eckerberg Park (the center photo is of “Fideicommissum”, self-portrait of the artist Ann-Sofi Siden, squatting and peeing in the woods, which was mentioned in the NYT):

We also had to deal with an unfortunate event. A week before Ana had arrived, we were notified by Ada’s preschool that one of her classmates had pinworms which is evidently quite common in Norway. Sure enough a few days into Ana’s visit, we realized Ada had them as well. Ana, who grew up in Ecuador amongst lots of parasitic worms, helped me decontaminate the house which wasn’t easy with a small European washer and no dryer. We all took our pinworm medication which is sold over the counter and was recommended by the school nurse. Thank goodness for good friends!

A day after Ana left, we had our final guests of the year, our family from Denmark came which was great fun for us and the girls. We all went to Vigeland Park, then to a medieval festival in Oslo where Ada and I fought with swords and where we saw men and women fight with swords in full armor!

The next day the girls had to go to a birthday party, so the rest of us went on a hike up Kolsas which was just beautiful. Below are a few pics of us from the weekend

Although we didn’t host them, we were also so happy to have the chance to visit with my friend Molly’s parents over dinner in mid-June before they headed out on a tour of Norway and Finland.