A trip to Bergen

Back in the beginning of October, we took a long weekend and traveled to Bergen, Norway.

Bergen is known for being rainy, and it didn’t disappoint. It was our first real chance to put our rain gear to test.

IMG 2253

Maddie and Ada had a great time jumping in the biggest puddles they could find.

and with rain, you always get rainbows (even two at a time!)

IMG_2626

We took the Fløibanen funicular up to the top of Mount Fløyen, where it was rainy and a bit cold, but Maddie and Ada managed still had fun at the playgrounds we discovered at the top.
IMG 2265

IMG 2272

IMG 2277

Evidently parts of “Frozen” were inspired by the city of Bergen, Norway. The moss covered rocks and trolls at the top of the Mount Fløyen were reminiscent of the film.

IMG 2281

Here’s a picture of the Skomakerdiket, a beautiful lake that the top of Mt. Fløyen that made the perfect lunch spot, until it started to rain heavily again.
IMG 2283

The classic tourist photo of Bryggen, the historic shops and restaurants at the wharf.
IMG 2290

The Bergen Aquarium made for a great visit on a rainy morning. I find I really like museums that are small enough to fully explore in half a day.

We also had some great adventures at the science museum.

We spend an afternoon wandering around the Bergen Art Museum.

One really interesting exhibit we saw was this installation where kids could write their wishes on a star and place them on the wall. This one caught my eye. (“ikke” means not in Norwegian.)
IMG 2311

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:

IMG 1043

IMG 1041

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:

IMG 0985

IMG 0989

IMG 1050

IMG 1055

IMG 1067

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.

IMG 1086

IMG 1080

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.

IMG 1090

IMG 1103

IMG 1111

IMG 1117

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).

IMG 1125

IMG 1124

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

IMG 1130

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:

IMG 1149

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

IMG 1150

IMG 1158

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.

IMG 1209

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.

Back to Norway and good riddance to driving

After 3 weeks in Atlanta, Diana’s mom is doing much better thanks to lots of rest, the incredible care of her medical team, family and a couple of granddaughters that snuck in for a few visits to hospital. She’s got a long road ahead of her, but her progress has been amazing, and I’m hopeful we’ll see her in Norway this spring.

Yesterday, we started our long trek back to Oslo, which is an alternating series of trips on plans and buses, and got back this afternoon. This was the first time in 4 visits to the Oslo airport that we were able to leave with all our luggage—no lost suitcases or forgotten strollers. And we were able to bring a few more “necessities” back with us this time, like measuring cups and spoons, a vegetable peeler, and an Apple TV.

It again was such a treat to have the Flybussen bus roll up to the last bus stop and know we are just a few flights of stairs away from our apartment—this will never get old, and I’ve just got to find a way to make sure the next place I live (or retire) is right next to a public transportation nexus.

Now that it’s mid-August, our town feels way more alive than it did back in mid July when I would sometimes find myself alone in the grocery store on an afternoon around 4pm. I guess it must be true that Norwegians that the month of July off on vacation.

While I was in Atlanta, I managed to put close to 1000 miles on my sister in-law’s mini-van shuttling kids to a great lego and coding camp I found, and really found myself completely sucked back the horrors of living in a car-opolis. Whether it was having to check three different apps to figure out the fastest way to camp, being both thankful and sad that my kids could be so easily sucked into the backseat DVD player as we drove 30 minutes to camp, searching for parking every time I went somewhere, dealing with a rock that shattered the window and required a $500 repair, there’s just very little I find fun anymore about driving, even if my sister in law has the coolest minivan around (Thanks Julie!). I just find myself being stressed and noticing how the entire city and and beyond must designed around a vehicle first way of life in order to support a car-centric lifestyle.

My travel time in Norway is so different—it’s clear that our town and just about everywhere we go is designed around people. There’s a giant tunnel that routes traffic under our town, making the main street through our town quieter than some of the residential streets in my in-laws neighborhood back in Atlanta. I’ve never seen a traffic jam in Norway, and the automatically collected tolls nearly every highway around Oslo and pay parking must have a lot to do with that—let people who use cars pay for the externalities they cause, and make fast, efficient and affordable public transportation available. It’s hard to overstate how much of an effect this has on the feeling of a place.

The next week is a busy one for us, and really the last of the summer. Maddie and Ada have school orientation on Monday, and we have some great friends (yea Gilheanys!) visiting Oslo for a few days this week, and this weekend, we’ll do the Norway in a Nutshell tour that seems to be a must do on every visitor’s itinerary.

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.

IMG 0766
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.

IMG 0644
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

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.

IMG 0665
Here are some of the things we loved about Paris, small and large:

    • Croissants.

IMG 0565

    • 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.

IMG 0648

Marie Curie’s office

IMG 0644

Maddie writing her name in the guest book at the museum.
IMG 0650

    • 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.

IMG 0688

IMG 0696

    • 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.
IMG 0673

    • 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.

IMG 0629

  • 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.

    IMG 0715

    • 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.

A day at the beach

On Saturday, we took the bus to the beach in Sandvika. I later learned that this beach was just opened, and it is gorgeous. The water was cold, and I forgot a towel, but that didn’t stop Maddie and Ada who changed into their swimsuits on the beach and jumped right in.

I think I’m starting to see why this is such a family friendly place.

Here are some cool trash cans we found on the walk to the beach.
IMG 0394 2

The beach! Ada starts by just putting her toes in the water.
IMG 0405 2

But it isn’t long until we are swimming.
IMG 0439 2

And splashing!
IMG 0419 2

In the distance below, you can see a diving structure at the beach where kids would just walk jump and jump into the water—the taller platform seemed like it was about 10m. The other thing that was just awesome was a perimeter of freshly laid sod around the beach. It’s awesome to put your stuff down on the grass, and then walk onto the beach, play around, and walk back to the grass to get all the sand off your feet when you are ready to go.

IMG 0403 2

There was also this awesome play structure we had to check out.

IMG 0407 2

There are mermaids in Norway…of course when she saw this, Maddie asked if we could get her a mermaid tail.

IMG 0449 2

We made it!

IMG 0136

IMG 0135

Wow! We made it. Navigating the airport with 3 carry on suitcases, a duffle bag, 4 backpacks, a stroller and two kids who don’t really want to schlep suitcases through the airport isn’t something I really want to repeat, but everything went far more smoothly than I could have possibly imagined. Really the biggest inconveniences were just how hard it is to squeeze down an airplane isle when you are carrying a duffle bag and pushing a suitcase loaded with a backpack. Here are a few photos of the fun we had on the flights.

IMG 0145

The photo above was taken at 1AM just before the airplane finally turned the lights off. Our kids got pretty silly up so late at night and we all fell promptly to sleep at 1:15AM when the lights finally turned off.

IMG 0148

The one causality of our trip was forgetting the $8 umbrella stroller we brought along. I just overlooked it in grabbing all of our stuff from the baggage carousel. Since the airport is over an hour away from where we are staying and train tickets are much more expensive than $8, I think we’ll be donating that stroller to the airport. I’ve got to give huge props to Flyo.no, the transport company that we prearranged to meet us. It was awesome to see my name on a sign as I exit the airport and then have a driver easily load up all of our luggage into a huge Mercedes van for a comfortable ride to our AirBnB in Bekkestua.

Our AirBnB in Bekkestua is wonderful—our fabulous host, Eric met us along with his 3 year old daughter, Julie. Maddie and Ada quickly discovered that Julie has an older 6 year old sister (how perfect!) and it seems like jumping on the trampoline is a universal way to make friends. Maddie is already referring to her “friend who speaks Norwegian and shares candy with her.”

IMG 0150  1

After that, we took a short walk to the center of the city, purchased some delicious strawberries from a farm stand—the strawberries are small and delicious here, and apparently, a big thing in Norway. We spent more time at a playground I knew the kids would like when I visited back in March, though everything was covered in snow back then.

IMG 0151

We then had our first foray in a grocery store to purchase pasta for dinner. The Norwegian grocery store is true to everything I’d heard—starting with expensive. Our simple pasta dinner, 2 bagles and cream cheese ran 154 kroner, or about $20, which is steal compared to what dinner would have cost at a restaurant.

IMG 0153

The other thing we are having to get used to here in Norway is that the sun doesn’t set until very late (10:40pm, yesterday) and it rises at 4:01 in the morning. Though it didn’t really truly get dark last night. This, on top of the timezone change, meant Maddie and Ada really have no clue what time it was, and thought 10pm was a great time for a dance party just as their parents were ready to drop dead from a lack of sleep.

Today, Diana and I celebrate our 12 year anniversary by exploring Oslo with the kids and maybe doing some stroller shopping on Finn.no, the craigslist of Norway.