Føste skoledag!

When we decided we were going to live abroad for our sabbatical, one of the hardest decisions we faced was where to send our children to school. Should we send Maddie and Ada to traditional Norwegian schools? The Norwegian education system is regarded as one of the best in the world, schooling is free and it would just be fun to say I’m dropping my 3-year-old off at “barnhagen.” At the same time, even though it’s “easy” for kids to pick up a foreign language, it still takes time, and the thought of our introverted 7-year-old trying to get by in a Norwegian classroom gave us some pause. Then when were having dinner with our friends, Terence and Hilary, who faced a similar decision on their sabbatical in Israel, Hilary sang the praises of international schools—how well they handle traditions, and how much finding the right school put all the pieces of their sabbatical into place. This turned out to be the best piece of advice we’ve received in thinking about living abroad for a year. We enrolled our girls in the Oslo International School, found an apartment within easy walking distance of the school, and so far, everything has worked out pretty amazingly.

Today was the real payoff—the first day of school. Last week, we met with the heads of the elementary and preschool, and I was impressed by how they had carefully read Maddie’s file, and already knew her well. They also did a great job of talking to Maddie, not us, about what her new school would be like. Her principal talked to her about how she would likely have some classmates that didn’t speak English at all, and how that wouldn’t be a problem, because they’d learn it at school, and from playing with her on the playground. This gave me a moment of appreciation for what it means to run an international school. Sure, I teach at a school where 20% of our students are international, but I’ve never for a moment had to think about what I would to teach a student who didn’t speak English, since all of the students who attend my school are fluent English speakers.

My brief experience with international schools tells me that they need to be prepared to deal with the unexpected at every moment. When we spoke to the director of the preschool last week, she told us how Ada’s class would likely be quite small, since they have have lower than expected enrollment this year, but when we showed up today, Ada’s class was filled to capacity at 18, just like the classroom next door—it seems a bunch of last minute enrollments have come on board in the last week.

We’ve now gone through all the preparations for Norwegian school—we managed to find used versions of the special rain suits that consist of a jacket and rain pants with suspenders that look like they could stand up to a cruise under a waterfall. We’ve got indoor shoes that will stay at school, and we’ve been working with Ada on putting all of this stuff on and taking it off.

I’ve also tried my hand at packing Norwegian lunch. Last year, most of the lunches I would pack for Maddie would go uneaten, and it was the source of constant frustration and back and forth conversation, often starting with her asking for a Lunchable (you can imagine how that request was received at our house).

This year, with an individual apple going for nearly $1, I was keen to work with Maddie to find a solution to the great lunch impasse. I never would have guessed the magic bullet would be Leverposti. Here’s a photo of it:

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It comes in a can similar to a can of tuna, and here are the ingredients.

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I don’t need Google translate to figure out svinlever; this is liver pate, a bright pink paste that Norwegian kids (hence the kid on the can) spread over bread and crackers and find delicious. Amazingly, Maddie does too, and so we now have a solid foundation for lunch. Ada has become a big fan of brown cheese, or brunost, which could be a subject of another post.

Ok, enough babbling. I know what everyone really wants are all those cute first day photos. So here’s what I’ve got.

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When we get to school, we wait in the outdoor playground (just as the girls will in the winter, unless it is below -10°C), and look for a sign listing all of the kids in Maddie’s class. It’s quite a scene, and the teacher is making her way around to meet all of the students, and there is nervousness all around. Pretty quickly, 9 am rolls around and Ms. Willums brought the class in, showed them their cubbies, and invited the parents to join us for the first few minutes. I was deeply impressed by her ability to get the kids started on making a drawing of themselves, and pretty quickly, it was clear we weren’t needed, and so we made our way to Ada’s first day.

The first day of preschool was more of a parent information session where we learned more about the wonders of fleece onesies and the right type of snowsuit to buy, and Ada explored the classroom and playground in back.

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She was deeply disappointed that after about 90 minutes, she had to come back home while Maddie got to stay and work. Over the course of this week, the preschool will work the kids up to full days.

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We went home, gave Ada what is likely to be her last afternoon nap in a long time, and pretty soon it was time to pick Maddie up.

Here was the moment of truth—how would she respond? Would she like her new school, or hate it? If she hated it, it would be all my fault for taking her away from the school she loved back in Delaware. Luckily, she loved it. Since I’m “Dad”, sometimes known as “go away Dad” it’s hard to get a full report, but here are a few of the things I overheard her saying to Diana and Ada.

  • She got her iPad—hooray! She has to carry it to school fully charged each day in a bright blue bag
  • She made TWO new friends during recess.
  • Her teacher is very nice—she like beekeeping (very eco-kiddy) and books.
  • Lunch was good. Leverposti is a hit.

Walking home, I snapped this photo of her telling Ada all about her day, and how she doesn’t get an iPad since she’s only in preschool, but maybe she should put one on her wishlist.

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It was a good day.

Norway in a Nutshell—amazing nature/amazing transportation

Perhaps the most touristy thing in Norway is Norway in a Nutshell, a train->train->ferry->bus->train tour that can be done in a single day and takes you through some of the most beautiful parts of Norway—gorgeous mountains, stunning fjords, and some amazing train rides.

The first thing that impressed me is how Fjord Tours and all of the various transportation/tour operators has managed to put together a simple website that lets you plan an customize your trip to your heart’s content. It’s easy to book in an extra day on your trip, see the options for different departures, all the time knowing that the site is keeping up with your schedule so you don’t have to worry about whether you have enough time to make a connection.

Once you’ve planned your trip, you can pick up your tickets at the NSB office at the Oslo Sentralstation, which is a beautiful train station that I didn’t get to explore as much as I wanted back on the day when Ada threw up in the bus. Following the guidance of Rick Steves, we opted for the early morning train ride toward Bergen that left at 8:30 in the morning.

The train ride from Oslo to Bergen is said to be one of the most beautiful in the world, and they are surely right, but I want to start by giving a shoutout about the wonders of Norwegian trains, and it all starts with the family car.

Most long distance NSB trains have a family car, a car with a built in padded playroom for kids complete with a TV playing Norwegian cartoons. Here are some photos of Maddie and Ada exploring it:

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The family car was the perfect antidote to kids getting bored with a 4.5-hour train ride, even as we passed some of the most incredible scenery in the world. To me, this is just one more of the many little things I see around Norway that tells me this is a place that cares about the well being of children and makes it so wonderful for families to live here.

The Olso to Bergen railway takes you up into the mountains of Norway, where beautiful rolling farmland gives way, gorgeous mountains, waterfalls, and just incredibly beautiful scenery—and tunnels. So many tunnels. Here are a few photos I shot from the window seat:

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The Norway in a Nutshell route we chose leaves this train in Myrdal, a tiny town high in elevation, that is most famous for being the terminus of the Flam Railway, one of the most famous railroads in the world, and the next step in our tour. It was cold and rainy up here, so Ada and Maddie weren’t exactly thrilled to be standing outside waiting on the train, but we tried to make the best of it.

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The Flam Railway, or Flamsbana is world famous because it is a 20 km railway line that descends 863 meters into the valley of Flam and along more stunning scenery—nearly endless waterfalls and beautiful valley views. As a kid who loved model trains, this hour-long train ride was something special.

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When we got to Flåm, we spent some time at the free railway museum, and were amazed at the engineering feats it took to build this railway in the early 1900s.

The town of Flåm itself is tiny, and after trying on some viking hats and getting ingredients for dinner at the only grocery store, we headed to our AirBnB which was just outside of town on a working farm, with a trampoline (Maddie and Ada’s favorite).

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Here’s a photo from the porch of our AirBnB:

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Our house was next to a beautiful waterfall, and so we decided to do some exploring and started a climb up to an overlook. Here’s a view from halfway up:

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And then some tired children convinced us to stop and head back down.

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The next morning we boarded a nearly empty Fjord ship for a cruise through the Aurlandsfjord and the Nærøyfjord. Ordinarily, the boat would have been full, but since we opted to stay the night in Flåm, we missed all the foot traffic. At this point, we’ve seen so many beautiful waterfalls that it’s a bit hard not to be blasé about it, but somehow, the Fjord still managed to impress.

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After a couple of hours, the boat docked in Gudvangen, and we boarded a bus took us on a 45-minute tour of the Fjordlands, including a drive down the Stalheimskleiva Road, the steepest road in Northern Europe, with an 18% grade and 13 hairpin turns. At this point, I was feeling slightly car sick (I didn’t throw up on the bus, thankfully) and didn’t manage to get any photos.

When we arrived in Voss, we caught the Bergen to Oslo train and got to see all the scenery we might have missed on our journey on the first train ride.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip that was super easy to navigate thanks to the wonderful coordination of the Norwegian transportation system, and a great last gasp of summer.

An appreciation of amazing mother in law and all the people who love and care for her

Way back on June 26, when we were visiting Atlanta before heading for Norway, my mother in law went into the hospital with some pain in her abdomen thinking she might be having signs of a heart attack. We all thought she would be out in a day or so, and so when we visited her two days later just before we left to head off on sabbatical, we were sure she’d be out of the hospital within the week. Now, 47 days later, Mary Ellen has been on an odyssey battling pancreatitis and it’s many related complications, extended stays in the ICU, batteries of tests, treatments, and procedures and so much more.

You might think that an experience like that would drain a person’s spirit and leave them with little reason to smile. But not Mary Ellen—her unsinkable spirits and her determination to overcome every obstacle are amazing, and even on days when she couldn’t speak at all, her smile filled the room.

On the 41st day of her hospitalization, Mary Ellen got to go outside for the first time because of her wonderful occupational therapist, Danielle. We arranged for her to get a visit from two of her granddaughters when she exited the hospital doors. You can see the smile I’m talking about—there isn’t much medicine in the world better than a sunny day and two granddaughters.

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Presently, Mary Ellen is out of the ICU, making great progress in breathing on her own, and getting ready to move to Long Term Acute Care facility that will continue to work with her on breathing and other rehab to get back to normal.

Secondly, I am deeply impressed by the incredible care Mary Ellen has received throughout all of this. Certainly, Northside Hospital and all of their doctors and nurses are incredible, but the most impressive thing has been to see the way in which all of the family has cared for Mary Ellen throughout this journey. Diana’s Dad has spent literally every day with Mary Ellen since she entered the hospital. Diana’s sister, a Nurse Practitioner, has also spent every day at the hospital and has been a de facto member of her medical team, updating a daily group chat to many family members keeping all of us informed of her progress. Diana’s Uncle, a professor of Medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina, spent a week in July at her bedside, while Diana’s two aunts spend every afternoon with Mary Ellen. The get well cards Mary Ellen has received could easily be measured in pounds, and when she started receiving visitors last week, her signup was quickly filled. I can’t imagine a person who has more people thinking, praying and caring for her than Mary Ellen, and when you spend any amount of time with her, even in the most challenging times, the dreariest days, or the gloomiest hospital room, Mary Ellen buoys everyone around her with her smile and positive spirit that cannot be diminished.

And today is Mary Ellen’s 48th anniversary. I’m sure this is the last place she and Jeff really want to spend such an occasion, but I hope Mary Ellen’s incredible progress over the past weeks is enough to make it a memorable one. Happy Anniversary Mary Ellen and Jeff, and we look forward to seeing you in Norway!

A tale of two museums

During our week in Paris, we had the chance to check out two science-related museums, the Musée Curie, and the Cité des Sciences et de Industrie.

I decided to write up this visit in the form of a letter to the curators of the Cité des Sciences et de Industrie that I will be mailing soon. Read on, and you will understand why.

Dear Curators,

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting your museum with my wife and two daughters. My eldest Daughter, Maddie (age 7), has developed a passion for all things science, and physics in particular, so our first stop was the exhibit on the Great Story of Our Universe. As a high school physics teacher, I was eager to explore this exhibit with my daughter.

At first, I was struck by just how beautiful the exhibit was—your designers did a marvelous job of creating a inviting space that wonderfully used lighting and texture to evoke a flow through the origin of our universe, with great hands-on experiments that allowed you to touch and view meteorite samples, or see a live infrared photo of oneself to understand how we are able to classify stars based on the light they emit.

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Maddie looking at some meteorite samples.

I was particularly impressed by so many of the simple but engaging experiments—a parallax experiment that explained how we measure the distance to stars, by demoing how to make a measurement of a “star” on the wall across the room. My favorite demo of all was the side by side model solar system and galaxy, and the text that invited the patient to see how these two models behave very differently. Maddie and I watched it for at least 5 minutes, and she made so many observations about the differences she saw. What a wonderful introduction to Dark Matter.

After getting through the first floor of the exhibit, I was pleasantly surprised to see it went to a second floor that explains the strange physical laws that “enable us to describe and understand the evolution of the Universe.” Here again, I was impressed with all the interactive exhibits and even more impressed with your efforts to explain not just some of the oldest physical laws like gravity and electromagnetism, but also to fully cover discoveries in quantum mechanics (we loved Schrodinger’s Cat in a Box), and even some very recent discoveries in cosmology.

As I walked around this exhibit, I began to notice something strange—every column in the exhibit featured the name and biography of a famous physicist or mathematician, and every single one of them was a male. I’m also pretty sure that they were all white European men—Newton, Galileo, Descartes, Schrödinger, Lorentz, and on and on—more than 20 names in total. I looked hard, and I didn’t see a single woman or person of color in the entire collection.

In another part of the exhibit on the second floor, there was an exhibit presenting nine quotes about the nature of the universe from scientists and philosophers throughout history, and every one of them came from a white man, as best as I can recall.

It’s easy to come away from this exhibit thinking that our entire understanding of the universe, and the field of physics, is the result of the work of a bunch of dead white dudes with gray hair and more often than not, a mustache, leaving out so many important stories of women who have contributed to this understanding and what the field of physics looks like today.

There are so many incredible women scientists who have made deep and profound contributions to this story, that I find it hard to understand how they could all be left out of this exhibit. Adding a description of Vera Rubin and her groundbreaking work on galactic rotation curves would have have been an informative and powerful addition to the first-floor exhibit about the rotation speeds of galaxies and our solar system. Marie Lavoisier, Marie Curie, Joycelin Bell, Henrietta Leavitt—each of these women made major contributions to experiments and discoveries that were already mentioned or alluded to in your second-floor exhibit, and they have inspiring and important stories that are worth sharing with visitors to the exhibit.

With the exhibit’s vast amount of space and focus on highlighting recent discoveries in physics, I can imagine a wonderful addition that highlights very recent discoveries in physics—like the discovery of gravitational waves, showing photos of the hundred-person plus team that made this discovery. A wall featuring photos and descriptions of scientists today could very well inspire many of your youngest visitors to see themselves as scientists and imagine how they might contribute to understanding the universe when they grow up.

This exhibit also raises the opportunity to talk about why the field of physics has been historically dominated by men—specifically pointing out the ways in which women have been excluded from educational opportunities and research organizations since practically the beginning of science. At the same time, you could point out the hidden and unrecognized ways in which women have made vast contributions to the field of physics—from serving as the “human computers” to painstakingly type the dissertations of their husbands. Perhaps this conversation looking at the nature of who does physics could be a web resource, similar the great ones I saw on the ground floor in Cite des Enfants, where the signage encourages parents to visit a website for more ideas about how to engage children in the experiences they had in the museum.

I know that museums are incredibly powerful places—they are some of the most important places for inspiring young people and opening their minds to possible careers and ideas they would not have otherwise considered. This was made most clear to me in the case of my own daughter, who developed a love for Marie Curie after reading a short story describing her life in “Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.” After reading that story, Maddie decided she wanted to be a scientist just like Marie Curie and wanted to know all she could about the Nobel Prize. When Maddie read in the story that Marie Curie lived in Paris, she asked us if we could visit her house, and through that, we discovered the wonderful Museé Curie, a tiny three-room museum dedicated to the life of Marie and Pierre Curie. Maddie pushed this museum to the top of our Paris agenda, and watching my daughter in this space was magical. Maddie was thrilled to see Marie Curie’s office just as it existed, but she spent the most amount of time scrolling through images of Dr. Curie and her family on a large video screen, occasionally fixating on a picture of Marie Curie on her wedding day. Maddie has been super fascinated with weddings recently too, and when we talked about it leaving the museum, she told me how awesome it was that her hero, Marie Curie, was also able to get married. To me, this visit scored the trifecta of science museums—it helped my daughter to not only understand an important discovery in science, it helped her to relate to the story of the human that made that discovery—emphasizing her humanity and helping my daughter to see that she too can be a scientist.

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Maddie in Marie Curie’s office.

I wish we had more time to explore your museum. I’m sure I missed many exhibits that did celebrate the work done by women in science, and help students of all backgrounds seem themselves as scientists. I appreciate your consideration of these suggestions and look forward to visiting the museum again in the not too distant future.

Sincerely,

John Burk

Physics Teacher and Dad of wonderfully curious 7-year-old girl who wants to be a physicist

Back in the states for a while

After getting back to Norway on Wednesday, we were back on the Flybussen to the Oslo airport less than 24 hours later to catch a flight back to Atlanta, and we arrived late last night.

We’re back because Diana’s mom’s health took a turn for the worse a few days ago, though she has improved somewhat since then. We are all still hopeful for a full recovery, but it’s going to be a long process. For the next couple of weeks at least, Diana will be visiting her mom in the hospital while I take care of Maddie and Ada and get used to driving again.

A couple of things I’ve observed since being back in Atlanta for a Day:

  • The Mobile Passport App is the greatest app you’ve probably never heard of. When we got back to Atlanta at 8:30 at night we were exhausted, and the normal passport line queued outside the passport control area and back into the hallway. On Diana’s last trip back to Atlanta, she had to wait an hour in this line and then learned about the Mobile Passport app. We installed the app in the Oslo airport, scanned our passports, took our photos, and when we got to Passport control, we bypassed that horrible line and were able to walk right up to as Passport Control officer—amazing!
  • Giving up driving and moving to a country where food is twice as expensive in the states has been great for my health. I’ve lost almost 10 pounds, and I found my usual run in the park near my inlaws’ house much easier than I did a month before thanks to walking everywhere.
  • After eating bread from French and Norwegian bakeries for the past month, all other bread is a disappointment. Le sigh.

Please do keep Mary Ellen in your thoughts and prayers.

We’ll always have Paris

It’s been a wonderful 7 days in Paris. Thanks to Diana’s college friend, Mary Lewis, we’ve gotten to experience the city through the eyes of a local.

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Here are some of the things we loved about Paris, small and large:

    • Croissants.

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    • Visiting the Musée Curie. Maddie has been obsessed with Marie Curie for the past couple of years—she loves reading her story from Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and asks me about how she won the Nobel Prize all the time. The museum is a wonderful little gem—they’ve left Dr. Curie’s lab and office just as they were when she worked there.

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Marie Curie’s office

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Maddie writing her name in the guest book at the museum.
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    • Incredible playgrounds and parks everywhere you turn, each of them with wonderful water spigots for refilling water bottles on warm days.

This is the beautiful Beuttes-Chamount Park, which had this wonderful water feature that ran all the way down a steep hillside to a large pond.

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    • Having every piece of playground equipment marked with a maximum and minimum age. Maddie and Ada seemed to pay no attention, but I’m glad Paris pays this much attention to detail.

There’s even a playground in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
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    • Of course we went to the Louvre, and of course, it was gigantic and overwhelming. It was super hot, and Maddie and Ada weren’t all that excited to explore on this day. You can see our official portrait, with Ada refusing to be photographed in the back.

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  • Numbering the floors of a building starting with 0 (and if you’re the science museum, labeling the basement with negative 1).
  • The subway—it’s hot and much dirtier than the pristine public transportation system (honestly, most operating rooms are probably dirtier than the Oslo T-Bane), but it goes everywhere, and the trains run on tires, which is just amazing.
  • Simple lunches—sure, it takes separate trips to the Boulangerie, Fromagerie and the fruit stand, but the result is incredible—a picnic with the best bread, cheese and fruit you’ve ever tasted.
  • Getting to know a neighborhood: we spent most of our time around Square Saint-Medard near the Latin Quarter in the 5th Arrondissement. This is advice I took from Tyler Cowan, and it was right on the money.IMG 0637

    In this square, we found all sorts of fun, including:

      • Dancing in the square on Sunday, when a few local musicians turn out after church to play French classics.

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    • Eating lunch in the playground in the shade of Saint Medard Church, that dates its origins back to the 7th century.
    • Enjoying delicious ice cream and macaroons from a beautiful patisserie across the street from the playground.
    • Exploring the wonderful shops along Rue Mouffetard, and finding a favorite Boulangerie and Fromagerie, that we went back to again and again.
  • Exploding all those stereotypes I’d heard about French people being rude. Every person we met was kind, welcoming and doted heavily on our two Maddie and Ada. It made really wish I’d kept up with my high school French so I could do a better job communicating with people we met.

In the end, Paris felt like a wonderfully livable, enormous city steeped in a deep history composed of layers upon layers. We’ll have to come back sometime.

The horrors of 10 days with no wifi

I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything on the blog in the past few days. Since we moved into the new apartment, we don’t have wifi, and so it’s been a struggle to post stuff to the blog using just my phone. Heck, it’s been a struggle just getting by, when my kids have become addicted to the Wow in the World Podcast and Goodnight Rebel Girls Podcast, and “need” them in order to be able to go to sleep. I’ve listened to the one episode of each that happened to episode on how migratory birds cross the ocean so many times now that I think I’m ready to migrate.

But today, my landlord brought the cable modem by, and after a quick trip to purchase an outlet splitter at the hardware store across the street, we have wifi. We have podcasts. We have Netflix. Google translate works reliably. All seems right in the world again.

I’m also very happy to report the great news that Diana’s mom is doing much better, and will likely move out of the ICU in the next few days. As I write this, Diana is also on a flight back to Oslo—hooray! We’ve then got a couple of days to pack bags and then we are off for a week in Paris, where Maddie is desperate to see Marie Curie’s house.

In the meantime, here are some photos of our adventures over the past week.

The playground at the center of our town is a tremendous hit.

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A couple of days ago, we got library cards.
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An incredible playground at Frognerparken
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Sometimes all this travel is exhausting
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