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The return of the American

May 5, 2011
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Holy cow, I missed a whole month! I’m so sorry. Forgive me?

Gdańsk: Sunshine in the Darkness

March 30, 2011

About two weeks ago, I visited Gdańsk, Poland, a medieval city in the northern part of the country on the shorelines of the Baltic Sea. Visiting Poland was special for me: it is the land of my maternal grandmother’s family and ancestors. In some ways, I felt like the trip was a pilgrimage of sorts. At 90 years old, she never visited Europe, but I think that if she could go anywhere, she would go to Poland.

We arrived on a partly sunny day and were picked up by a 20-something employee from the hostel. He threw our bags in his hatchback, and flew through the outskirts of town to take us to our new home for the next three days: Hostel Happy Seven. When we stepped out of the car, drowsy from travel and hungry for lunch, we set foot on the cobblestone roads of Gdańsk that ran along a narrow canal.

The hostel was cozy and dark. Upon entry, we were required to remove our shoes. After taking a brief rest in our room, we set out for dinner to a unique basement café called ‘The Dragon’ (Polish translation not available). The café had a similar dark, ombré ambiance to it. The dimly lit basement served amazing pierogi for a great price; an unheard of concept in Norway. With full bellies, we walked the city streets to do a bit of nighttime sightseeing as we headed back to the hostel.

Gdańsk radiated a gothic, medieval vibe…a different, but alluring characteristic that I have never experienced in any other city. The architecture is colorful but dreary, stately but sorrowful, and masculine but feminine. The streets are filled with stray cats that howl and fight underneath cars and in the sidewalk, a sad sight for any feline lover. Black birds line the leafless branches of trees in hoards, cawing throughout the night. The city feels silent, almost lifeless when the sun goes down. It is almost as if you can hear the echoes and reverberations of war from the city’s violent past.

When daylight arrives, the sun peaks through the clouds, and Poland is awake once again. Streets are filled with school children, business men and women, and Eastern European tourists alike. Needless to say, English was not an option in this country…most of our communication was primitive, including hand gestures and pictorial signs.

Perhaps most memorable was our trip to the sea. After a frightening train ride with the locals and missing our stop, we finally arrived in Sopot: a small town on the shores of the Baltic. We immediately walked to the beach and strolled along a wooden pier that boasts the claim of being “Europe’s longest.” The sea was gray and dreary, but I have never seen livelier birds playing in the water. Swans, ducks, seagulls, and pigeons frolicked near the base of the pier: bobbing, flying, and splashing about. It was a magical sight that I will remember for the rest of my life. This was the first time that I saw amicable, happy birds in Gdańsk. There is something about the Baltic Sea that invigorates the senses and wakens the soul, yet it still emanates the same feelings of darkness and obscurity. It is something almost inexplicable, but worth experiencing first-hand.

Click here to view the photos from my trip.

Norsk Presentasjon

March 24, 2011

Hei alle sammen! I have returned from Poland with a lot of stories and new experiences, but before I post about my trip, I wanted to share a video with you. This is a presentation about myself that I gave to a group of immigrants who have emigrated to Norway. They are all learning Norwegian as well, but they know more since they have studied it for a year or more in some cases. Andy and Kia also presented in my group since we all shared a bit about the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I know that most of you will not understand it, but I had it recorded so that you could hear me speak Norwegian.

Half Way Done With Study Abroad: Photo Gallery Update

March 18, 2011

Hello, everyone! I apologize for not updating in a long time. Things have become considerably busier at Høgskolen i Telemark. While most of the students have spent the first two months doing very little homework, we now have many papers presentations, and exams just around the corner.

In addition to school work, the annual International Day was held at the college last week. Each country/state put together a display of photos, food, and souvenirs from their homeland.

I also had the opportunity to visit REC, a solar company that manufactures solar wafers, in Skien last Tuesday. Skien is the largest city in Telemark, so I included a few photos from my trip there.

Because I have been missing a lot of familiar foods, I have been trying my hand at cooking and baking. I have come up with some pretty delicious foods including bagels and homemade pizza…all made from scratch!

Today my class went to the Bø Immigration Center to talk with refugees who are being integrated into Norwegian society. Most did not speak English, so I had to use what little skills I have in Norwegian to communicate with the students there. It was a great experience, because I got to talk with Afghanis and Libyans who have been displaced from their home countries due to political unrest. They have a lot of amazing stories, and it was great to share our experiences of living in Norway.

After our trip to the immigration center, we went to the Sagaboll Folkehøgskole (Sagaboll Folk High School). Here is a quick definition of a folk high school (note that this is the direct translation. It is a school for “people,” but it is not a high school):

Folk high schools (DanishFolkehøjskole;Finnishkansanopisto and työväenopisto or kansalaisopisto;German:Volkshochschule and Heimvolkshochschule;NorwegianFolkehøgskole;SwedishFolkhögskola) are institutions for adult education that generally do not grant academic degrees, though certain courses might exist leading to that goal. They are most commonly found in Nordic countries and in Germany and Austria. The concept originally came from the Danish writer, poet, philosopher and pastor Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig (1783–1872). Grundtvig was inspired by the Marquis de Condorcet’sReport on the General Organization of Public Instruction which was written in 1792 during the French Revolution. The Revolution had a direct influence on popular education in France. (Wikipedia)

I really enjoyed visiting Sagaboll. I was skeptical when I first read about these schools…thinking that they were a waste of time, but after visiting the school and seeing how much fun the students were having, I changed my mind. I think that these schools are great for psychological health, and they seem to really promote togetherness, friendship, and other core values that are necessary life skills.

Student typically enter a folk high school between high school and college. It is a “gap year” that allows students to transition into adulthood without the pressure of exams and papers. Even better, tuition is free for Norwegian students. They only pay room and board.

I hope you enjoy the pictures, and I apologize for this brief, long overdue post. Although I had initially planned on writing some reflections about passing the “half way mark” of study abroad, time seems to have slipped away. Now I’m rushing to pack because I leave for Poland tomorrow!

Two Month Update

March 7, 2011

Tomorrow marks my ninth week here in Norway. That means that in exactly one week, half of my time here will be spent. This is a thought I have been tossing around in my head lately. I have met so many people, learned so many things, and visited three new countries in this short amount of time. I think that the second half of my study abroad experience will be over before I know it, and I will be on a plane back to the US. This thought brings me some discomfort for several reasons:

  • I am still in need of a place to live next year. My friend Katelyn and I (and my mom) are searching for apartments online. And they are going to take a trip to Madison so see them.
  • I am anxious about registering for both my online summer class and my classes for the fall. If I don’t get in the classes I need, I will have to go through a lot of scheduling conflicts so that I can complete my major in one more year.
  • I am trying to complete another certificate program at UW: Global Perspectives. I’ve been e-mailing professors and advisers trying to work out the details so I can be ready for class registration in a little over two weeks.
  • I wish I were in Madison right now so I could stand beside my classmates and coworkers and protest for worker’s rights. This is such an important time for Wisconsin, and I wish I could partake.

Thus, all of these things have been on my mind lately, and they’ve made it difficult to concentrate on the present. It’s hard to handle matters back in the US from abroad. Each morning when I wake up, I tell myself to take advantage of every day. My time here is short and precious, and I need to value every moment of it so that I do not regret wasting my time in Norway thinking about the future.

That being said, here is a quick roundup of what I’ve been doing these last couple of weeks.

My Telemark class went on a tour of a shop that makes the traditional Norwegian costume: bunads! Each region of Norway has a unique bunad, and these costumes became popularized during the early 20th century during Norway’s nationalism movement. The costumes themselves can date back to the early 18th century. Today. bunads are worn on the national day, May 17, as well as at weddings, baptisms, and other formal occasions. The picture to the left is of a typical Telemark bunad. Each region can also have a few different models, but these are the ones I liked best. I believe they are from western Telemark. Each bunad, along with the silver and gold embellishments, are handmade and cost about $10,000. That is not a misprint. $10,000.

My friluftsliv (outdoor life) course took a trip up into the high mountains on Friday. It was about a 15-20 minute drive from the school to the Lifjell mountains. The view was just fantastic! Although the weather was cloudy, it was quite warm, and we enjoyed a day of skiing. At lunchtime, we ate around a fire in a 6 foot deep hole that our classmates dug for us (complete with snow benches)! Our classmates who dug the hole are in a different program of study. They take nine day expeditions into the mountains where they ski and camp each night. Remember, it is still winter in Norway, so camping out for over a week is pretty intense!

My finished pinnebrød

We also got to cook pinnebrød around the fire. Pinnebrød literally means stick bread. It is dough wrapped around a stick and cooked over the fire. In Norway, it is commonly wrapped around a hot dog or other piece of meat and then roasted over the coals for a hearty lunch on the trail. It is a bit different from the American tradition of roasting marshmallows, but it was just as tasty.

Yesterday, Norway celebrated Fastelaven. It is the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, where young children make Fastelavnsris (twigs decorated with feathers). The twigs are pussy willow branches, and when you place them in water, they bloom and become a pretty, springtime decoration. Another tradition is to eat Fastelavnsbolle. Boller is a Norwegian sweet roll, and Fastelavnsbolle is the same sweet roll with vanilla custard and whipped cream in the center. It is also common to eat them with jam. Last night, the international students celebrated by eating fastelavnsbolle and making fastelavnsris. It was a good time, and now I have a pretty feather tree for my room. From what I understand, Fastelaven seems like the Norwegian version of Mardi Gras.

I have a busy week ahead as well. On Wednesday, my sustainability management course is visiting REC, a solar power company in Porsgrunn. Thursday is the Internasjonal Dag (International Day) where my classmates and I will be hosting a table for our home countries. Because the US is so large, each state is permitted to have its own table. I’m excited to finally share about my state with people since I’ve spent so much time learning about Norway.

Also, I will be traveling to Gdańsk, Poland from March 19-22. I’m very excited to go, especially because I never planned on visiting that country before. It should be a unique, exciting trip.

Norwegian Cheese

March 4, 2011
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Having lived in the Dairy State for the past thirteen years of my life, I know good cheese. “Ost,” the Norwegian word for “cheese,” is a specialty export here. This post will serve as a guide to the main types of ost in Norway.

In Bø, I have not been able to buy my favorite cheeses from back home. The grocery stores do not offer a wide selection, and there are no specialty shops here. That means there is no cheddar, provolone, American, pepper jack, colby, or swiss. I have found mozzarella, but the only cheddar I’ve seen was shredded and mixed with Norwegian cheeses in an expensive “pizza ost” pack. Thus, I had to try all of the Norwegian cheeses to find a new one that I could enjoy on my sandwiches.

Here you will find a list of the top three Norwegian cheeses with links to their relating Wikipedia articles:

1. Brunost (gjetost)

This is the Norwegian “brown cheese.” It is made from caramelized goat’s milk that gives it its signature sweet, mild flavor. This is a popular breakfast cheese, but I do not particularly enjoy it at any time of day. It doesn’t really taste like cheese, but I would not classify it as a sweet treat either. Brunost is just confusing, and my taste buds don’t know what to think or how to react.

2. Norvegia

This is the second cheese I tried in Norway. It is similar to gouda, but it has that “stinky cheese” odor that I usually try to avoid. Most people find this to be a mild flavored cheese that pairs well with sandwiches at any time of the day. However, I simply do not like it. It has a strange after-taste that I have trouble describing. In addition, it makes awful quesadillas and grilled cheese. This ost is much better served cold, in my opinion.

3. Jarlsberg.

Ah, Jarlsberg. This is my favorite Norwegian cheese. It is similar to swiss, but it has a nuttier, sweeter flavor. It is the perfect cheese for my matpakke (packed lunch) because the flavor seems to compliment my bread and meat well without the after-taste left in my mouth by Norvegia. This is the only cheese I’ve enjoyed snacking on, and it is probably the only one I will miss when I return to the US. For those who are interested, Jarlsberg is one of Norway’s most popular exports, so you may even be able to find it at your local grocer! I highly recommend the splurge if you can find it.

Vive La Belgique!

February 24, 2011

On Monday, I left for Belgium at 7 AM with my two friends Megan and Sharon. We took the train to Oslo, another train to Rygge, and finally a shuttle bus to the airport where we waited for the next seven hours to catch our flight on the sketchiest “low fares” airline in Europe: RyanAir (It cost about $8 per person to fly round trip to an airport 50 km outside of Brussels). It was snowing in Norway, so after a quick deicing of the plane, we were on our way to Belgium.

When we arrived at the airport, we bought tickets to take the shuttle bus to the city. We landed at 22:00 and arrived in Bruxelles at the Gare Midi (south metro station) around 23:30. The train station was completely empty, with just a few security guards sparsely placed in various corners. Our hostel directions instructed us to take the tram to Place Brouckère and walk to the hostel from there. I asked about three people how to get to the tram since all of the signs that led to the train platforms were ambiguous. There was not a clear distinction between the tram and the metro, so we ended up taking a random metro in the general direction that we needed to go. When we arrived at yet another train station, we wandered around downtown Bruxelles. We were lost in the middle of the night in one of Europe’s largest cities. There were very few people around, and we were carrying large, heavy backpacks. No one spoke much English, and the roads, maps, and street signs were almost impossible to read/follow. Although I was somewhat afraid of being mugged or harassed, there were three of us, and we pretended to walk purposefully.

FInally, after about 45 minutes to an hour of walking around with no clear direction, we found our hostel! For anyone who plans to visit Bruxelles, we stayed in the 2Go4 “Quality” Hostel. Our keycard was in a lockbox outside, and we successfully gained access to the building and our room. There weren’t enough beds in the dorm rooms, so we got upgraded to a private room with its own bathroom. This was a welcomed surprise since we were all exhausted and didn’t feel like tiptoeing around other sleeping travelers. We went straight to bed, woke up early, showered, and went to explore the city.

In the morning, we enjoyed a great breakfast at a place called Iit where I ate delicious pain au chocolat. This has always been my trademark French food since I made it for every French party and French Club event in high school. It is a croissant with chocolate baked inside. So yummy! After breakfast, we wandered down the street in search of Grand Place, well known as being Europe’s most beautiful square. Along the way, we found a street with some shops. I bought some clothes and accessories, and I didn’t have to feel extremely guilty about spending the money because Belgium is cheaper than Norway. It is peculiar because most people would assume Bruxelles is an expensive city. It is the capital of Europe, and home to the European Union and NATO. However, the prices of goods in Belgium are still much cheaper compared to those in Norway.

After shopping, we enjoyed our first Belgian waffle. There are two types of waffles, or gaufres, in Belgium. There are the Gaufres de Bruxelles and the Gaufres de Liege. Here is a description of each.

Brussels Style Waffles (Gaufres de Bruxelles)

Brussels waffles are prepared with a yeast-leavened batter, rendering them light, a bit thicker, and more crispy when compared to other waffle variations. They are rectangular in shape with smooth edges, and usually eaten with a fork. Lightly dusted with powdered sugar or topped with whipped cream and strawberries, they are typically served for dessert or a snack.

Brussels waffles actually paved the way for the development of the American style Belgian waffles. Introduced at New York’s 1964 World’s Fair by restaurateur, Maurice Vermersch, Brussels waffles were sold as “Bel-Gem Waffles”. Although the concept of waffles had been introduced to America back in the 1600’s by settlers from Holland, Belgian style waffles really caught on after the World’s Fair.

One of the big differences with the American style waffles involves the use of baking powder instead of yeast in the batter. American waffles also tend to be more thin and much more dense than Brussels style waffles.

Liege Style Waffles (Gaufres de Liege)

Liege waffles are the most common waffles found throughout Belgium, often available from street vendors and usually eaten by hand. Originally developed in the eastern Belgium city of Liege by the Prince-Bishop’s chef back in the 18th century, Liege waffles are believed to be an adaptation of brioche style dough. The Prince-Bishop’s chef was experimenting in the kitchen while cooking buns and ultimately developed this tasty treat.

In comparison to Brussels waffles, Liege waffles have uneven edges, are more dense, sweeter, and tend to be chewier. Instead of a typical waffle batter, it is more like a bread dough. The signature element in Liege style waffles is the caramelized pearl sugar, which comes from sugar beets. When baked, the sugar caramelizes on the outside of the waffle, making a sweet, crispy exterior.

Traditionally, these waffles are served plain, or topped with vanilla and/or cinnamon, but a number of bakeries serve the Liege style waffles with decadent toppings like strawberries, chocolate, bananas, and even whipped cream.

Description from here

We had two Liege waffles that day. They are so amazing, there aren’t even words to describe the deliciousness. The sugar that caramelizes on the outside gives it such an amazing taste and texture. They are decadent, affordable, and a true gastronomic delight.

We spent the rest of the day exploring Grand Place and the winding, cobblestone streets surrounding it. As we walked through the city, we passed by numerous chocolate shops, lace boutiques, and waffle vendors which created a sugary sweet, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aroma in the air. We strolled along the roads, greeted by waiters at the several street-side cafes, and we mingled with the other tourists at the Mannekin Pis Fontaine, an iconic, famous Bruxelles landmark.

We stopped at a grocery store to compare prices and complain about the high cost of living in Norway, but we also bought some pita bread and hummus, an unknown dish to most Norwegians (it’s not available in the grocery stores here). We rested a bit at the hostel where we met a new friend who was also from America. After having our first Belgian beer and a snack at the hostel, we went to grab some dinner at a cafe near Grand Place. After dinner, we headed to the Délirium Café, a pub that sets the Guinness World Record for most beers commercially available (2,004). I tried three different, unique brews from the extensive menu: chocolate beer, Kriek (fermented from cherries), and a grapefruit flavored beer called Pink Killer (it really was pink!). We chatted with some locals, some other Americans who were studying in Geneva, and a man from England. Our conversations were interesting and memorable to say the least.

Finally, we left the pub and went to sample Belgium’s national dish: frites. Frites are fries served in a paper cone with a sauce like ketchup or mayonnaise on top. Belgium is known for having amazing fries, and they were especially delicious at 1 AM. After our “midnight” snack, we went back to the hostel. That night, we had to sleep in the dorm room that we had initially booked. There were four beds and an ensuite shower, so there was a random guy who slept (and snored) in our room. He was asleep when we arrived, so we quietly followed suit.

The next morning, we packed up, checked out, and started walking to the train station to take our shuttle bus back to the airport. We spent a couple of hours in the train station where we enjoyed a lovely lunch at Suely’s Corner, a cute French-style sandwich shop. Afterwards, we had an amazing hot chocolate at a café, and then we boarded our bus for the airport.

The flight home was bumpy, to say the least. I felt rather airsick, but I was glad to finally land at Oslo Rygge. From there, we had about four hours of train travel back to Bø. When we had a transfer at Oslo Sentralstasjon, we ran into Laura, a fellow international student. We chatted and made quick time of the train ride back to Bø. When we arrived, we were greeted by several inches of fresh snow. Bruxelles was a nice break from the cold winter in Norway. There was no snow, and there were even some flowers and grass planted in the city. It made me anxious for spring! Nevertheless, it was good to be back in my own bed and “home” in Norway.

I was extremely excited to visit Bruxelles. I have taken French courses for eight years, and I’ve had a lifelong love affair with the language and francophone culture. The last French-speaking place I visited was Québec Canada, and I absolutely loved it. However, that was four years ago, and my language skills have improved immensely since then. I have always wanted to visit Belgium for their amazing food and unique hybrid culture (it is a bilingual French and Flemish [Dutch] country). Visiting Bruxelles awakened my love of the French language. I was excited and proud that I could speak and understand the language relatively well. It did, however, bring about some regret that I didn’t choose to study abroad in a French-speaking country. Oh well, c’est la vie. I will be visiting Paris and Nice in April. Although, this trip did help validate my many years studying and learning French. I realize now that I have continued with my French up to this point because I truly do love the language. Now I am back in Norway, and I have to substitue my “au revoir’s” with “ha det bra’s.”

Belgium lived up to all of its expectations, and I’m happy to say that my first experience staying in a hostel was quite pleasant. Aside from the poor directions we were given, the hostel was clean, quiet, and cozy.

I apologize for this long “diary style” entry. I wrote this detailed post mostly for my memory so that I can look back on this several years from now and remember my experiences in Europe.

In two days, I have spoken three languages. My mind is exhausted, but I am loving every minute of it.

Now enjoy some videos and photos of the trip:

Au revoir!