Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Judging a book by its lover

As many of you have probably noticed, I read...a lot. It's one of the few things that I never stop doing, at almost any time. I read almost every night (including when I come home drunk or jetlagged, exhausted or emotional) and I come back to it time and time again without fail.

In fact that only times I take breaks from reading are when I literally don't have time (and I make time all the time...I give up sleep to make time) or when I've read myself dry and need a break. This doesn't happen very often - maybe once a year, for a month. Maybe.

Anyway, over the time I have lived in Helsinki, I've been asked in a few different ways about what I read and what I'm currently reading, what I would recommend to people and how I choose my books. So this post is going to be about what I read over 2012. Or more specifically, what I've read since moving to Helsinki.

The stats: I've read 25 books since moving to Helsinki (until the end of 2012). I did take a month break somewhere in the middle of that, because I just needed to do something else for awhile (I can't recall what I ended up doing instead, it's possible this is when I started traveling heavily again or picked up my running routine). Here is a list of what I read (in no particular order):
  1. The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
  2. A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin
  3. A Crimson Warning by Tasha Alexander
  4. Dangerous to Know by Tasha Alexander
  5. Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
  6. The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall
  7. The Gathering by Anne Enright
  8. The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
  9. Grave Goods by Ariana Franklin
  10. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
  11. The Taker by Alma Katsu
  12. Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
  13. Lighthousekeeping by Jeanette Winterson
  14. The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
  15. The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman
  16. Resurrection by Tucker Malarkey
  17. The Resurrectionist by James Bradley
  18. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
  19. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
  20. The Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare
  21. A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch
  22. The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani
  23. A Certain Slant of Light by Laura Whitcomb
  24. The Seduction of Water by Carol Goodman
  25. Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Yes, some of these are ridiculous beach reads while others are decent literary reads. Variety is the spice of life, right?

If you were to ask me what the worst pick of the litter was, I'd definitely have to go with "The Secrets of the Sea." Sorry Nicholas Shakespeare, but that was seriously one of the most painful books I've dragged myself through in a long time. I thought several times about just letting it go and not finishing it, but I'm not a quitter, so, well, it was finished. Agonizingly. And it now on the shelf to be traded, whenever it is I return to it.

Though I have named "The Enchantress of Florence" as my pick of 2012, I will say that each of these books was special in some way or another. They were the right book for the right time, otherwise I wouldn't have finished them (including the terrible aforementioned one). Like lovers they were, courting me at just the right moments. Finishing them is always a melancholy event.

And so you have some insight into what I read. My goals for reading in 2013? To be a bit more hearty in my reading.

Yes I know some of you rolled your eyes just then, since it's clear I have no problems reading through enough bulk. 

But that's just the thing - they were all the right books for the right moments but I'd like to continually challenge myself. Not everything needs to be a pleasant beach read at the right moment.

So I'm picking up more things that I've always meant to read - "The Alchemist," Joyce Carol Oates, Malcolm Gladwell, etc. Things with a little more...weight.

We'll see how this changes things up. There are still many more books on my shelf for the times when I need fluff, so I'm not too worried.

Happy reading in 2013, readers. ^_~

Yet another hiatus...

Apologies, dear readers, that so soon after coming back for the new year, I will once again proclaim a hiatus.

But this one is for a pretty legit reason and I think you'll agree.

tSH is going to Thailand!

Yes that's right, yet another exotic locale. Arguably even more exotic than previous locations.

And you will hear all about it when I come back (well, within a two month time period after I come back, given how much back log I tend to have). But in any case, you will hear about it and it will be chronicled appropriately and to the best of my abilities/memory.

So, please excuse my absence while I am away, but I will return posting again starting February 4th (that's a Monday, the day I come back to work).

If you happen to follow me in other places (you know where those are since you know who I am in real life), I will be likely posting a picture a day to let you know where I am. So, you can get your daily dosage of my travel life from there until I return.

Until then dear readers, au revoir!


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

WT - Platinum status!

So back in the entry "World Traveler" I detailed out how I was getting extra pages for my passport so I could accommodate for the amount of time I had left in my passport plus the amount of traveling I had planned/expected given that time. This, therefore made me a World Traveler (WT).

I take back that definition in order to revise it. In the span of the last few weeks, I have become something I never thought I would...I have elite traveler. That higher echelon of snobby traveler that gets to do things like cut lines, get better food, have comfier seats. Get free booze.

That's right people, I've been promoted to platinum status. Plah-ih-num!

It's ridiculous to think how much money I've likely thrown into the system in order to get this honor, luckily much of that money was not my own (i.e. company money), but still. I've made that major milestone. I've made the 100,000 mile mark. I now get things like free upgrades to business class and free trips to the lounges where there is free booze and food. And I can bring guests. O_O

WT, yes I am.

Anyway, my first week as an official WT started when I was in Berlin. I got the email saying I'd been upgraded to platinum status and smiled but thought nothing more. When I went to the airport to fly back to Helsinki, boy was I in for an awesome surprise.

Going to the checkout counter to get my boarding pass I was informed that I could use the lounge. "Oh?" "Yes definitely ma'am." "Well, hot damn." (I didn't say this last part, but I was definitely thinking it).

Being not super familiar with Berlin's airport however, I was soon lost (oddly the lounge is not something they advertise on the signage) and was standing around looking like a dope when a very nice man came up behind me and asked if I was looking for the lounge. I said I was and he said he was going there as well, so I should follow him.

We got into a conversation about what we did for work (he supplies pressurized pump systems to various companies and governments the world over, including being the biggest supplier to the US government and the Saudi Arabian government) and continued to shmooze and talk about various things until I had to leave to board my plane.

During our conversation I had some time to stare around the place. I was surrounded by rich executive types, business men of varying ages, and the occasional family. To no one's surprise I was the only young person (closest person to my age was probably in their early to mid 30's) in the room and to no shock at all I was the only woman I could see. Baller.

But enough about the demographics of the place, let's talk about the perks! Open bar with a wide selection of hard alcohols were at your disposal, so you could mix your own drinks as you desired. There were about 12 different wines that you could select from and pour yourself a glass. Snacks, fruit, and other foods were also available. Extremely comfortable easy chairs and couches were scattered around and there were outlets and free wi-fi aplenty. The business traveler's dream.

Oh yes, I could get used to this.

It occurred to me halfway through my conversation with the pressure pump guy that I was likely rubbing shoulders with executives from larger companies from all over the place (as well as some normal plain joes like myself who just travel a lot). The thought was a bit thrilling...not gonna lie.

This was my first peek into being a WT on platinum benefits. The best was still yet to come.

On a trip back to the States a few days later, I was surprised with the most flattering benefit of all: the free upgrade to business class.

I've only been in business class one other time in my life. As a small child my dad was also a platinum traveler. Having worked for a company similar to my own, he traveled a lot for business and went to many places to do various business things. We got postcards from him detailing out the wonderful sights there were to see and he always brought back rocks (or later, small pieces of jewelry) for us. Anyhoo, on one of our family trips, my sister and I were mysteriously upgraded to business class. Little did I know that my dad had upgraded us using his points - as a completely ignorant child I foolishly assumed that the airlines had granted us this pleasure simply out of luck/the kindness of their hearts. My sister and I were thrilled. We had the grandest time ever sitting in the plush seats and playing with all of the accouterments of business class. I'm sure we annoyed the crap out of the people sitting around us, but we had the best time ever.

Anyway, that was my one other experience in business class. And this was just as a good, though just as mystifying. Not only was I upgraded to business class, I was requested to sit in the admiral's lounge before we started boarding. I remarked that we only had 10 minutes before we were to start boarding, in which the woman at the desk said, "yes, but you could go downstairs, have a coffee, then come back up again." To which I replied okay, made my way down, used the very nice facilities, then came back up to claim my business class spot.

First impressions: this seat is a lazy boy that someone has planted on a plane. But it does more, so much much more. Like it's motorized to lay in any position you desire, like one of those weird hospital beds. But instead of feeling like an invalid who needs special help, you feel privileged:

The only thing it doesn't do is heat and massage you. It's okay, I forgive them. They have to keep something for first class, after all. ;)

One thing that everyone comments on, so I feel the need to point out, is that it allows you to completely stretch out your legs straight, and therefore, lay completely flat. Yes that's right, you can be completely horizontal in these chairs. Assuming of course, there is no baggage blocking your footrest's way. But why would you have any baggage blocking your footrest when you have your own overhead compartment?

Huh, yeah.

Another thing that business class affords you is much fancier food. They actually feed and ply you with drink ALL THE TIME. No wonder people in business class are noticeably fatter than those in coach. They literally give you more food and food more frequently. Plus the quality of food is much better. And they let you choose your food. From a printed menu. Yes, that's right. You choose your courses of food. Courses. Of food. Courses.

You want which appetizer? With which course? With which wine? Did you want orange juice, fizzy water, still water, or orange juice before we take off? Would you like the warm nuts before your appetizer of choice? Btw, if you're still hungry after the dinner and breakfast that they serve (or any time inbetween any of their multiple services or drink offers) there is food that you can help yourself to at the front of the business class section that is free to take. There is a constant selection of fresh fruit, gourmet cheeses, snack mixes, etc for you to take from.

Jeebus crust. Fat fat fat.

And the last amazing overindulgent straw? The entertainment experience.

When I first sat down I looked around my armchair for the built-in entertainment. When I couldn't find it I thought to myself, "my god, do they really make you watch the in-flight movie with the rest of the plane?" Yeah, I know, first world problems (#firstworldproblems). But after they served the first round of champagne/orange juice/water with or without bubbles, they rolled out a different set of carts. Carts with tablets. And headphones.

That's right. They passed out individual Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablets with Bose noise-canceling headsets. For each individual passenger. They even had individual charger ports and sets for each tablet.

Uh, yeah. And each tablet had a vast selection of movies, tv shows, music, etc. It was, in fact, ridiculous.

So I indulged. I completely indulged. I happily watched several movies in a row while eating all of my courses. I even chose the ice cream sundae (with fresh berries) over the gourmet cheese plate for dessert, I was so far removed from my norm. The middle-aged French gentleman next to me still chose the cheese plate, but soon after he fell asleep watching the movie Bachelorette, snoring rather loudly (not that I could hear it, since I was wearing the awesome headset).

Business class really doesn't disappoint. It really doesn't. It does make me wonder what first class is like though, if business class is already like this. Is everything dipped in gold and diamonds? Are there ass warmers that constantly massage you so you have no circulatory problems? I've seen the compartment dividers so you can ignore your neighbors. Is there a gym so you can exercise while you're in the air? An alternate reality room so you can imagine you're somewhere else? Free illegal drugs? A casino where you can party and gamble while you fly? What else could they possibly do to make your stay on a plane more luxurious?

I can only imagine. If I keep at my current rate of travel though (flying every 5 days or so), then I'll soon find out. I wonder what you reach after platinum. Lutetium traveler? I could live with that.

I look forward to the day when I can get lutetium traveler benefits. Boy what a world traveler I would be then. O_O

Until then, I'll happily appreciate my platinum traveler status.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The European view on Finns

Something I totally forgot to mention about our time in Norway: the Norwegian view on Finns.

This became a huge topic of conversation, especially amongst our couchsurfing hosts. The reasons are obvious: why were a bunch of girls from all over the world (the States, Hong Kong, and Germany) living in Finland, of all places? Well, work. Yes, by why Finland?

You see, the world perception of the Finnish is rather...well, hilariously negative. I don't mean this in a mean way, I mean this in a spectacularly humorous way. They think the Finns are silent drunks who do nothing but sauna and drink. Generally speaking they're not wrong.

On this particular topic of conversation our last hosts, Silje and Inka, particularly Silje, brought up a cartoon that I'd been introduced to before. This is a fabulous representation of how the rest of the world feels about Finns...and other cultures. I feel it's fairly accurate. Not to mention extremely funny. Here are two that best describe how they think of Finns (click on the image to make it bigger):

You can tell the countries by the flags on their shirts and the iconic things they're holding (Germany holds a sausage, Norway holds a fish). But it's pretty hilarious. Of course Finland would be the silent one holding a bottle and a knife.

I also feel this one is fairly representative:

In case you are wondering, "vihta" refers to the bush that he is beating them with, which is a traditional bunch of twigs that they bring into the sauna. It's considered an honor and a friendly thing to be beaten by someone. Only friends beat other friends.

This and other hilarity can be found at:

Anyway, just thought I would share. :)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Couchsurfing experience #3: Silje and Inka

I've mentioned them before but for documentation's sake I'll outline them more fully here so you'll get a full view of what my couchsurfing experience was like.

Silje is a tall Norwegian woman who is as you'd think of a stereotypical Norwegian woman - tall, with long dirty blonde hair, very talkative and warm, and loves to eat (vegetarian, apparently). She does sweet things for her husband, like make handmade advent calendars for him for the Christmas season (each day counting down to Christmas has a little present for him which is something like candy or a small gift) and likes to tell embarrassing stories about how she wanted to date him for forever but he kept refusing her (they've been dating since they were 17...they're now like 22-23 and have been married for a year or two). She's a nurse in real life and complains that she doesn't get paid enough, though in in reality she gets paid more than 50,000euros, which is way more than the average Finn. Comparatively the average Nord gets paid much more as well, but well, it's all a matter of perspective I suppose.

Inka on the other hand is a slight small guy with a shy but intelligent temperament. You can tell that he's thinking a lot though he may not say much. He reads science fiction and fantasy and is currently finishing university studying chemistry, which he loves to read while listening to classical music (which was always on whenever we came back to the house). He is apparently very religious and though their house did have a lot of religious paraphernalia around he never once mentioned it. The only thing that indicated he was religious was his refusal to delve deeper into a meditation game/exercise we played later that night. Well, to each their own. It's clear he loves his wife a lot but he keeps his feelings in check around company. Conversations with him were deep, witty, and extremely enjoyable.

Their house was cozy and made comfortable by the decorations Silje put up. Like most Norwegians she put up an intricately carved lit star in their window in celebration of Christmas. It's almost always lit because of the low-light conditions of the time of year and it was a feat trying to figure out how to turn it off so we could all go to sleep that night.

For couchsurfing arrangements there was a spare room across the entry hallway (with a single bed in it, German K slept there since it was a bit colder, though the bed was longer), while Hong Kong P and I shared a couch that was very similar to the one we had all shared in the The Turkish Couples' apartment the night before. With us two being very short the bed was more than big enough.

Food issues aside these hosts were extremely welcoming. We had our disagreements about what was interesting to see in their town (I would have loved to have seen their town's famous church, for example, and knowing now that Inka was extremely religious he probably would have loved to show it to me) and Hong Kong P would have loved to have explored their cafe culture, as she's very much into strong coffees...all of us wanted to get a better feel of the town overall, but in the end it was fine. Instead we met an entire troupe of their friends, who came over for a game night. And we were exposed to the types of games that young Norwegian people play. 

Their games are more mental than any games I've played with others around the world. Since there were several nondrinkers in the group (Inka and German K among them), the games tended towards things like "could people guess what the objective of the game was?". 

For example, someone was asked to leave the room, not having the game explained to them. The rest of us, left in the room, were supposed to clap in accordance to how close they were to finishing a task we had decided this person should do. It's like a proverbial game of hot and cold, but without talking. The closer they got to finishing the task, the louder we would clap. The thing is, the person who is doing the task has no idea they're playing this game, and has never had the rules explained to them before.

These are the types of games they play with each other. It was fascinating. And mentally very complex in comparison to the games I'd seen before.

Anyway, this is what we gained instead of seeing more sights around the town. At the end of it, I think it was a more than worthy trade. I can see sights all I want, but personal experiences...well, they're worth more than I can say.

So, although I may be grumbles about not seeing the church of ice (that's what it was described to me as...though officially it's called something else), I learned about meditation, this game involving clapping, another gaming involving miming, and another that had to do with writing creativity. It was fabulous.

Just goes to show, you never know what you'll experience.

Thanks couchsurfing. You've shown me a world I never expected to find.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Tromso eats

We actually didn't have time to really eat out in Tromso, since our hosts were so interested in having us save money. Though this is an extreme kindness, since they were vegetarian this started to get a little hard for Hong Kong P. Especially since food was being shared amongst everyone and it seems Norwegians eat less than we do. Needless to say we didn't have enough food with us and the next day, meat was definitely purchased at the museum. In either case, here's a small summary of the eats that went down in Tromso:

Pre-dinner snack: the brown cheese of Norway.

This is actually something German K had been wanting to try since Oslo. Apparently she had read about it somewhere and had been dying to try it.

The conclusions? Absolutely delicious, and very unlike any other cheese I had ever tried. This one was made of goat's milk, but the way our hosts described it to us, it's made from the leftovers of the normal cheese process. I'm not sure what this really makes it, but the end result is a creamy semi-soft cheese that has a texture a lot like Crackerbarrel cheddar. But higher quality.

The taste was kind of like nutritional yeast - little bit sweet, sort of spicy, with a little bit of a bite. You're supposed to eat this type of cheese on sweet bready things, like waffles or pancakes with jam. I thought it would be amazing with salty things like mayo or remoulade, which kind of disgusted our hosts, but whatever, to each their own. I did try it both ways later that night when they brought their midnight snack stash out (much to Hong Kong P and my delight, because we were starving), and they're all delicious combinations.

I've found out since this experience that you can actually get this in the States, though it took some digging - it's found at Whole Foods and other specialty stores. Whoo! I've never seen it in Finland, though I can't say I've searched that hard either. Definitely something to be gotten.

Dinner: vegetarian Norwegian style.

I have no pictures of this because that would have been weird and maybe slightly rude, but what they made us was a medley of roasted vegetables and plain white rice.

...and that was it.

This was split between us (three girls), the hosts (a couple) and their friends (two guys and a girl who came a bit later).

...there was a single baking tray of veggies and a small pot of white rice.

Not wanting to be rude none of us took seconds and each of us had a small plate. Like the size of a dessert plate.

I love hosts who are interested in cooking for us because it's completely sweet and wonderful. If I had known this (the lack of food) was going to be the case I would have picked up something more than two types of beer to contribute to dinner when we were at the grocery store (btw the beer was super appreciated and none of the other friends maybe contributions aren't considered normal):

These beers (or so we were informed) boast that they are from the most northern brewery in Norway. Clearly these were the ones we were going to buy, and buy we did. It's a local brewery. Very nice. The one on the top (in the red can) is their special Christmas brew. Very tasty and easy to drink.

The next day, at the Polaria museum, Hong Kong P and I descended upon the cafeteria with a hunger not otherwise shown to the other eateries we'd visited thusfar. She ordered a salmon sandwich and a tea (not the most in the world but things are expensive), and I ordered this slightly freaky but curious seafood sandwich:

Little clams, krab, and crayfish. Cold, with butter, in a baguette. I was wondering to myself how long it would take before I freaked out (cold seafood is a wonder at a raw bar, but otherwise it can be kind of creepy if there's no cream sauce...butter was not what I was expecting)...but it was surprisingly fresh. Considering this was at a museum it was pretty great. Very high quality, and not very expensive - the equivalent of less than 10euros. Not bad considering a hot dog (which are oddly popular in the country) cost anywhere from 4-6euros.

And to top it all off I had a fruit smoothie. I just needed something fulfilling that I could carry around and nourish myself with.

The smoothie was awesome. Nothing special in it of itself, but it was exactly what I needed (except that it was cold instead of warm...because I was cold all the was -8C or so not like anywhere you went made you warm).

After this we hurried to catch our plane back to Oslo. It was at the Oslo airport that Hong Kong P and I finally broke down and got a real meal. We had enough time between our flight back to Helsinki to really dig in and get something nice. Plus all of us had our leftover kronors to spend. And spend we did. Luckily there was a pretty real restaurant there to eat from, and they were serving a Christmas meat special. Yes, MEATS.

I've never been so happy to eat meat in my life (that's not true, there've been other times...but this was definitely one of those times where I could feel malnourishment given the cold conditions starting to affect my being). Anyway, the Christmas plate:

Red sauerkraut (or at least something that was extremely similar to what I've had before), potatoes with gravy, white sausage, pork belly, some sort of meat loaf, and stewed pork.


It was like the man call for food. And it was glorious. I don't think any of us talked for half an hour as we all ate (German K got a salad).

Admittedly my stomach kind of hurt after it, but it was sort of the good kind of hurt. The "I truly needed something filling" kind of hurt. Ah, the feeling of full. I had forgotten what it felt like after so little food over the past 36 hours.

And thus ended the food portion of our Norway trip. I didn't get to try seal or whale (which were my food goals for the trip, but we didn't stop into any restaurants that were serving it, otherwise I would have dove right in), but that's alright, I'll have other opportunities, especially if I do indeed get to Iceland to see the aurora sometime next year. Hong Kong P has tried whale before and she says it's like really bloody beef. I look forward to it.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

tSH goes to Norway: Tromso

Up early, once again. To the airport for a flight back to Oslo, wait around, then to Tromso, a gut-wrenching 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of the Arctic Circle. Yes, I have now been to one of "those places."

And it was awesome.

We landed at noon in Tromso and the sun was already almost setting. That's no joke. It looked like it was 6pm already. In fact it's the time of year where the sun actually never comes above the horizon - all of the light is just reflected off of the clouds, etc - you can't get direct sunlight. You literally never see the sun. It's a bit...confusing, to say the least. But beautiful at the same time. It wasn't as creepy as one would expect, because the Norwegians are so friendly. And rich. And they make their environments snug and cozy.

We were supposed to meet our couchsurfing hosts, Silje and Inka at the airport, but as we waited there 15 minutes, then 30 minutes, then 45 minutes (they had given us no return phone number to reach them at), we decided to just take a bus into town. It was at this point they messaged us that Inka (the husband) would meet us in route on the bus.

We didn't understand how this would be possible, but I guess he knew which bus we would be coming on and apparently more or less what we looked like, so when a cute little man (who was surprisingly young, we're talking 22, maybe 23) stepped onto the bus and told Hong Kong P with no uncertainty that this was her stop, we were taken by surprise. She, not knowing that this was the arrangement, definitely said "how do you know this is my stop?" and he, not knowing she didn't know about the arrangement, just said that he knew, not clearing up the situation. 

Anyway, they ended up chatting so long that we missed our real stop (as we were supposed to just get off when he got on, rather than continue to ride) and had to walk back a ways to get to their house. Hilarious way to meet your host.

We stayed chatting in their warm and cozy house for a few hours before deciding we should really hit the town before we got too lazy and didn't see the town at all. We checked out the Polar Museum (not to be confused with Polaria, the town's other major museum we saw the next day) which explained the town's history of sealing, whaling, polar bear hunting, and all of the other arctic exploration things you could imagine:

Scrimshaw! There was a disappointingly small amount of my craft in this museum (which I found shocking)...but I did find some prime samples, so I took what I could get...

It was kinnnnnda ridiculous. And awesome. I've never gotten to touch so many pelts in my life. It's altogether likely and possible that we weren't supposed to touch anything, but there didn't seem to be any signs prohibiting the act (or at least none that I could read/decipher), so all of us touched everything that wasn't behind a glass case, which was a surprising amount of things. Needless to say, I've now touched almost all species of arctic animals. I'm kind of proud of that. My verdict? They're all surprisingly soft. I can totally understand now why most of them were almost hunted or clubbed into extinction.

Btw? Walrus skin? Totally feels like leather pebbles. Weirdest stuff in the world. It's also like 2-3 inches thick. No wonder polar bears have such a touch time taking them down, even with their massive wolverine claws. That's definitely a fight I would never win.

We went back to the house after this small trip into town, after stopping at the grocery store to pick up some beer to contribute to the dinner they were making us (I'll blog about that in a separate entry).

We stayed up all night, waiting for the Northern Lights to show themselves (this is one of the main reasons we went to Tromso, as it's on my bucket list and Hong Kong P has now been chasing them for over 4 years)...but despite the fact that solar activity is at an all-time high and they'd appeared several times that week, we were unfortunately there on the worst day. It was too warm (only -3C or so that night) and the clouds broke only pretty late - around midnight. Because of these things we didn't see anything and Hong Kong P and I are still on our life's quest to see the lights. We were informed by our new friends the night after we left was the most spectacular Northern Lights display they had seen that season (it had dropped to a chilly -8C and the night was completely clear...SOB!). Clearly we will need to get up to the Arctic Circle again in 2013, as the solar activity for this coming year is supposed to be phenomenal, and the best times are in early spring. :) Someone (likely me) will be likely planning a trip to Iceland, or some other remote location to watch the skies. Luckily it's fairly easy to get there from London.

Anyway, after our disappointing night we were allowed to sleep in a bit more than we ever had that weekend. It didn't really feel like that much of a luxury, since our flight was midafternoon and we still had things to see in town, but it was still more.

We kicked our asses and got to Polaria, the other large museum in town that our hosts insisted we see before we left (we were actually really interested in seeing other things in town but our hosts were quite insistent).

Polaria was actually a really cool place - you got to see all of the arctic sealife of Norway live and in tanks for your viewing pleasure as well as movies about the Northern Lights and Svalbard, a gorgeous and remote archipelago that only scientists and nature lovers visit.

Here are some of my pictures (apologies about the ones of the seals; they are fast moving creatures and I only use my cell phone camera now):

Soon after we were racing back to the house to pick up our stuff and take our double flights back to Oslo, then Helsinki. We landed around 2:30am local time. Then back to work for all of us, me flying out to Berlin that afternoon (so a 12 hour turnaround), Hong Kong P taking the bullet for all of us and flying out just a few hours later to San Francisco (she had an 8am flight).

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Couchsurfing experience #2: The Turkish Couple

At the end of our figs figs figs we headed to the tram and made our way to our second couchsurfing hosts' house. Since German K had made the arrangements for all we actually didn't know much about this host and we hadn't been in communication with them most of the day, unlike Daniel.

Now I hate to admit this, since usually I'm decent at these things, but I don't remember their names. So, instead I will pretend that I am protecting their privacy and call them The Turkish Couple.

The Turkish Couple moved to Bergen because the husband is studying information visualization, getting his PhD and teaching on the subject. This is actually a subsection of something I studied while in university, and it is fascinatingly complex. There is such a need for people like him that I was excited to delve deeper into the subject. Unfortunately my traveling mates were generally not (well, Hong Kong P found it fascinating, but German K didn't and neither did the wife, who probably hears about it all-day every-day), so I gracefully allowed the subject to be changed when I felt I had perhaps lingered too long on it.

When we arrived they set out the normal assortment of Scandinavian welcome foods - seasonal gingerbread (which I've taken a huge liking for), Panda candy (which is hilariously a Finnish brand..and these ones were filled with liqueur), and offered to make us drinks of whatever kind we wanted. Being the only one who couldn't drink caffeine I asked for whatever decaf tea they had that would be easiest for them to make.

Instead I got something absolutely wonderful. They put a few slices of fresh ginger and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary into a glass of hot water and let it sit for several minutes, asking me to stir in as much honey as I desired.

The result? Fabulous and refreshing. There is never a drink that tasted so much like the Christmas spirit to be found at any local Michael's craft store. I love the smell of fresh potpourri in the morning, and I do mean this in a perfectly genuine way. It's glorious. I'm definitely stealing this and bringing it with me. This idea needs to be spread the world over. It's simple and beautiful.

The rest had Turkish tea and the husband drank something I couldn't identify.

As we talked and it got later, I decided it was probably time for me to get ready while everyone was talking as there was only one bathroom, and now five people who needed to use it. And I really needed to shower. I smelled like a fireplace for some reason (despite the fact that I had showered that morning and most of the day had been spent on a train).

The wife immediately offered me a towel and said I could use all of the shampoo, conditioner, and body wash I wanted. She also gave me a loofah to use. Really sweet. I thanked her profusely and then had the best shower ever.

Unfortunately what I didn't realize was that their water system ran on a hot water tank per apartment, unlike in Finland (where you have a huge community one, and hot water is constantly in the pipes to keep pipes from freezing and to keep hot water for radiators). So Hong Kong P had to wait a little bit before the water regenerated enough to take her shower, but whatever.

I was also promptly asked if I'd like a hair dryer and set up in their bedroom to use it while they all continued talking. It was wonderful; way better than a hotel.

When we were all ready for bed, this was when the humor came about. It was obvious from the layout of their apartment that we girls would be sleeping on their couch, which turned into a sofa bed. What we didn't know was the shape and size of this sofa bed, once folded out, since we were sitting on it like a sofa the whole time.

As it unfolded, all of us began to see how this was going to be...interesting.

You see, as a sofa it was an L-shaped sectional, so when it was folded out, it became a very long rectangle.

Unfortunately that also meant that it was very narrow. Too narrow to, for example, sleep three.

So we were going to have to lay it across its widest length.

The problem? The bed dimensions were approximately 10 feet by say....4.5 feet (with the backrest included).

I think you can see where I'm going with this.

Even Hong Kong P, at maybe 5 feet (on a good day) wasn't going to be able to lay on the bed without her feet hanging over the edge.

But that's what needed to happen, since we definitely weren't going to spoon together just to save our feet from being over the edge. Apparently they'd had three South American guys do exactly what we were going to do so we knew it could be done with little danger.

And actually it was pretty comfortable. All of us eventually turned to this side or that and had enough room inbetween to curl up legs to have our feet not completely sticking out the end. I don't know how successful German K was at this, since she's the tallest (around 5 feet 10 inches) but we all slept really well.

And the next morning we got up, pretty well-rested, and caught our flight to Tromso.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Eating in Bergen

Despite what one might think, we actually didn't eat that much in Bergen. We arrived mid-afternoon and most of us slept about half the train-ride there (despite the gorgeous just can't win the battle of sleep deprivation, no matter how much coffee you drink...or in my case, don't drink). Hong Kong P went to the food car on the train, but other than her none of us really went. It just wasn't a day for eating. Didn't help that all of us were kind of stuck because of lack of sleep and veggies (not to be vulgar). Throwing off the schedules of people who live by schedules and work isn't the greatest thing in the world.

So we decided to take a break from walking (especially now that our entertainment, the shops, were closing) and duck into a restaurant. We wanted something small since we would soon be eating dinner again, so we stopped into a cafe. Easy cafes are surprisingly hard to find in Bergen, or at least the kind that serve anything other than sweet pastries (which none of us were interested in eating...somehow chilly temperatures and room temperature sweets just don't mix that well).

The place we decided to go with was nice enough, but kind of nondescript. I don't remember what it was called but I did remember to order the reindeer soup (called a Norwegian specialty for some reason):

Hot, warming to the soup, and very peppery. Didn't expect Rudolph stew to be so peppery. But it was tasty. Little bits of mushroom and hearty to boot, despite not having much in it.

I also ordered (since this country really doesn't have, another hot chocolate.

It was incredibly rich and not that sweet. The cream on top was dreamy, but this was about the time I decided I'd had enough chocolate. I could feel my body and mind starting to lose interest and the threshold was definitely getting closed in upon. It was time to stop. I don't think I finished the whole thing in fear I'd somehow put myself in a comatose state. I didn't want to push it. I don't think I've had chocolate since then.

Dinner was not particularly more exciting, I'm afraid to admit. We went to three different restaurants before finding one that had acceptable food on the menu (none of us were very hungry since we'd only eaten a few hours before) and seats available for us. Apparently the season of Christmas parties had begun and we were out on a Friday night at prime time. Drunken teenagers (I'm not kidding) were out in force and their chaperones were treating them to nice dinners. Their dinners looked great; it was unfortunate that all of our appetites were failing us. Not to mention our stomachs.

So we all ordered the same thing. Salad. Salad with figs. Apparently figs are supposed to be great for your stomach when you're having such problems. We had hilarious conversations over dinner about how everyone would be giving birth later that night (you can guess the euphemism).

Figs figs figs. Figs with lettuce and candied walnuts and oddly small pieces of bread with brie melted on them. The actual salad wasn't that good, surprisingly enough, despite the quality of all of its ingredients. I'm not a huge fan of fresh figs in general (I think they taste planty and weird and if I'm sleep deprived they will eventually creep me out), but these also happened to not be particularly ripe and matched with a very underwhelming vinaigrette. Unfortunately the most uninteresting food we had in Norway. But apparently a necessary one, given all the bellyaching.

And thus ended the majority of our culinary experience in Bergen. One of these days I'll go back and further explore. But there are so many other places to see and experience first. :)

Friday, January 11, 2013

tSH goes to Norway: Bergen

We finally arrived in Bergen around 3:30pm. A bit delayed because part of the way there a section of our track was covered by debris, so a service engine had to go out and investigate for us, leaving us stalled at one of the few and infrequent stops we made along the way. Turned out to be nothing, but it did delay us by an extra 40 minutes.

The sun was basically set by then so we decided to just walk around and take in the city. We didn't do any prereading on this city so we didn't have any particular destinations, plus everything seemed to be closing by 5pm so even if we did have a destination or two in mind we would have only had time to see one.

Bergen isn't the biggest city in the world so we walked around the old section pretty quickly. It reminded us a lot of Porvoo, hilariously enough. Very similar look and feel, which was rather wonderful.

Mostly we went into the little shops until they were closed and then we did what we do best - went eating.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The train to Bergen

So, the asscrack of dawn. Everyone's favorite time of day. Especially when the sun doesn't actually dawn until 9am. And sets at 3pm. And this is the most southern part of the country! It was only going to get more dark from here on out.

Despite not being able to print our tickets ahead of time and Daniel somehow figuring a way to lose both his car keys and phone (yet still finding the time to make us all chive eggs and and an awesome assortment of breakfast foods...he texted to say he found his phone later in the fridge), we still found a way to make it to our train from Oslo to Bergen on time. I was super proud of our group; despite not getting much sleep (we talked and wined until the wee hours of the night), no one got angry, no one had a mental breakdown or anxiety attack, and no one said a peep. Everyone worked at maximum efficiency and we got to our train with 10 minutes to spare. Enough time to properly thank Daniel for the amazing couchsurfing experience and peacefully, slowly, find our seats.

Admittedly as soon as the train took off German K and Hong Kong P immediately fell asleep (we had done enough research to know the first 2 hours of the 7 hour scenic train ride were the most unscenic, so it was safe to nap then), and there were talks later about how German K was really feeling on the inside though she did an excellent job of hiding it, but we did it. We made it.

And the train ride really was as gorgeous as they said it would be.

Unfortunately pictures were sinfully hard to take. Think: high speed train, window glare, inside lighting, unclean outside windows, and just the inability to capture something so beautiful with an insufficient camera.

I did still try to take pictures, nonetheless, so here is a partial of my bounty, for your enjoyment. Apologies for the less than spectacular quality; the most beautiful things in life really do need to be experienced in person.

Admittedly I also fell asleep during this train ride and some of the most beautiful things, I just didn't take pictures of. The others had better cameras than me and got better photos, but we still have yet to trade pictures from the trip.

This is something I would definitely recommend.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The foods of Oslo

So, as many of you are wondering, what did we eat while in Oslo?

Actually a decent amount, considering what we ended up eating in the other cities, but we had no way of knowing this until after the fact.

For lunch we stopped at the first cafe we thought looked good (remember: -12C outside and sharp pains in fingers and toes) after getting off of the tram, and this happened to be one called Pascal, in the old part of the city center.

Wonder restaurant really. We were seated right next to their real wood-burning fireplace (heavenly) and I think we ended up staying there for over three hours. It wasn't the food that kept us there, it was definitely the fire...though the food was good too.

As I've explained before, everything in Norway is extremely expensive. I'd heard that a McDonalds value meal could cost upwards of $25 USD. This is actually completely untrue, and a value meal costs more like $12-15, but still, it's more expensive than it should be. From what I understand they have indeed enacted the "fat tax" that many European countries have enforced which causes fatty or otherwise unhealthy foods to cost more in accordance to their unhealthiness. It's actually a really good way to get people to eat healthier. I'm all for it, anyway. It does make fatty delicious food expensive, but well, something something the price you pay (in all meanings of that phrase).

So, Pascal.

Originally we were just going to stop in and get something warm to drink and a little snack. Since dinner was going to be relatively around the corner (just a few hours away), we didn't want to stuff ourselves, but at the same time in this kind of cold you just can't make it without having more than one meal a day (well, people like me, anyway, who only eat one meal a day normally...normal people eat more like 4 meals a day instead of 3).

Anyway, we took a look at the menu and yes, things were definitely expensive. We're talking the equivalent of the 20euro range for lunch entrees kind of range. This place was nice, but it wasn't that kind of nice.

So I ordered the soup. Creamy seafood soup of some kind with veggies.

It was incredible. Though it was opaque, the broth was still incredibly light and flavorful. Savory with an intense seafood flavor, like crayfish shells had been boiled in it. I don't know what kind of dairy they added to make it white, but whatever it was, it didn't contain that much fat. You could see the oils came from the fish and other seafood in the soup itself, but it wasn't milk fat solids.

This is clearly a secret that I will need to learn.

The soup was wonderful. It was filled with chunks of salmon and little shrimp, a crayfish here and there, and a few chunks of white fish. On the veggie side it seemed to have carrots, some sort of cabbage (a bit thinner than normal green cabbage but not so fine as napa cabbage), and a crap ton of parsley. Wonderful.

It warmed me right up. And I finished the whole bowl (no surprise).

I also ordered a hot chocolate (no one in Norway seems to have a love for chai lattes), and once again, it was a bowl as big as my face:

This was really sweet though; like milk chocolate Nesquik. Tasty and like childhood. Wonderful and simple. I didn't finish the whole thing, fearing my threshold for chocolate will one of these days be breached in the most unpleasant of ways, but it was wonderful while I sipped it in front of their fireplace.

It was a wonderful way to be first acquainted with Norway's cuisine. So tasty and heartwarming. I wondered at this point what the rest of their food would be like.

Little did I know that later that day we would have a feast cooked for us by our couchsurfing host, Daniel. He had been preparing this meal for days. It wasn't just for us, mind you, he had friends coming over the night after we left and decided to kill several birds with one stone. Well, that's a stone I'm totally willing to partake of.

He made us the traditional Christmas lamb, Pinnekjøtt. It's marinated, smoked (or cured) then steamed. We only got to see the part of the process where he steamed it. It smelled glorious:

Unfortunately I have no pictures of the finished meal, because I thought it was rude and there was a lot of red wine flowing by the time dinner finally arrived (three hours later), but know that it was amazing and unlike anything I've ever tasted. The meat literally fell off the bone. OMG.

He had also made rutabaga and carrot mash (amazing and sweet) served with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes (raw) alongside lingonberry jam. Apparently this is the traditional way you serve this particular dish. It was spectacular. All of us ate to our contentment (German K ate salmon he had also made, since she doesn't eat meat) and we talked late into the night.

Oh Oslo, you were so delicious!

Couchsurfing experience #1: Daniel

Daniel is what you would call a successful man. He's a graphic artist, living in Oslo. He owns his apartment outright and this is not the first one he's owned. He also owns the graphics consulting company where he works and at the age of 31, has done pretty well for himself. He started couchsurfing when he went to Peru and a few other places earlier in the year, and since then has had about 30 couchsurfers stay at his place.

When we first arrived in town and German K got in touch with him we thought we would be meeting him in the afternoon. Alas, work got in the way and he said to just get in touch with him when we were done with our activities for the day. This worked out for us because we ended up wanting to see more stuff than we had originally thought, and had plenty to do in the meantime.

We were finished with the Munch Museum and were sitting in the cafe (Hong Kong P about to take a 20 minute power nap) when we received the text from him that he was ready and could pick us up from wherever we were. We were also informed that we were going to have dinner made for us, a traditional Norwegian holiday dish made from lamb -  Pinnekjøtt. We had to admit that he was awkwardly nice, but maybe this was just part of the Norwegian charm, so we went along with it.

He picked us up outside a few minutes later, in his car (another Norwegian luxury).

And drove us back to the cutest apartment. Damn you sweet Norwegian money!

It was like one of those computer-generated Ikea rooms - everything was white, beautiful, and perfectly in its place. It's like he owned nothing that didn't have a perfect place to sit. I don't know how people do it. He was even growing a moss wall (of the super dry, spongey variety, luckily that didn't freak me out) in his living room. WTH!?

Needless to say, his apartment was too cute for words. Apartment Therapy would have thrown up it was so awesome. I had no idea real people actually lived that way. It's not possible, I thought.

Anyway, he had a guest room for one of us, a couch for another, and a fold out bed for the third. This man was prepared to put up three people alright.

He also had a map on his wall so each of us could designate (with little country flags) where we were originally from (note: NOT where we were currently living). We never did get around to it, and it seemed not all of his couchsurfers did, but a few of them did, and there were little flags all over the map. Pretty interesting idea.

He also had a guest book. Where you could sign and leave your message.

Appropriately German K had thought ahead (having corresponded with all of our hosts ahead of time, and having written them very nice emails) and had bought each of them gifts plus postcards for us to fill out and leave with our thanks. Ah, German K, always planning ahead.

For Daniel she bought a little sketch book and pencil, since he's a graphic artist, and we left a festive reindeer postcard (I think these were the same for all hosts). Pretty awesome.

And that, was our first couchsurfing experience. Dinner to be described in the Foods of Oslo entry, next.

Monday, January 7, 2013

tSH goes to Norway: Oslo Part 2

After we had defrosted ourselves properly (and in front of a roaring fireplace no less), we decided it was time we head out into the city again. There were only a few more hours of daylight left and we felt we needed to take advantage. This was not supposed to be a completely relaxing vacation after all, and we knew what this kind of weather was really like. Plus we were smart enough to plan things that didn't require us to be outdoors all the time, so...well, that was that.

First stop after lunch? Well, since we did still have some residual warmth, we did the one outdoor thing we had left to do: check out the opera house. It was supposed to be a spectacular building, and worth checking out. Plus it was particularly dangerous at this time of year, and what draws people more than a little danger?

It was gorgeous, as were all the views from it. We caught it right as the sun was going down, bathing it in golden light. There is nothing like arctic sun, and this wasn't even close to the arctic circle yet (we'll get to that later on).

Next we fulfilled my only requirement for any city: we checked out Oslo Cathedral.

Not particularly spectacular, as the Nords are not really religious, similar to the Finns. But it was somewhere warm to stay for awhile and Hong Kong P and German K were fading fast. Unlike me, who had the extreme advantage of jetlag on my side (for once in anyone's life...since I was able to go to bed at 8pm the night before and sleep straight thru until 4am, when we had to get up to catch our 7am flight), the others unfortunately either went to bed around midnight or had to work until 1am.

Needless to say, napping was called for, and what better and more sacrilegious place to nap than in a cathedral?

Naturally I walked around and actually looked at the cathedral as the other two took padded seats in the pews and pretended to pray/meditate. After Hong Kong P spied a woman leaning against the pew in front of her with her head down against closed fists she whispered the words "genius" to me and mimicked the same position, moving only when gravity was moving against her and she was at risk of falling over. Hilarious.

We stayed there until the bells were about to ring for evening mass (who has evening mass on a Thursday?) and then quickly rushed out after the priest there very nicely told us we were welcome to join in another part of the church, though services were going to be held in Norwegian. That's one thing about Norwegians: their English is fantastic, and they love speaking it. Oh, and everyone speaks it, not just the younger generation.

Anyway, we quickly filed out.

Where to go now you ask? The Munch Museum.

There is a pretty good museum dedicated to his (Edvard Munch's) work in the eastern part of the city, and that's where we headed, at Hong Kong P's request. Sounded good to us; the sun was down and it was a warm place to go, so, away we went.

The museum was pretty impressive. There were several rooms, all with different dedicated themes, centering around different periods in his life when he was inspired or affected by different happenings. For example, in the 1930s he suffered a hemorrhage in his eye, which he envisioned as a massive bird covering his vision, attacking his artistic abilities. He centered around this particular theme obsessively, creating many painting and drawings to represent it.

He also did many other types of obsessive-themed paintings, centering around things like murder (he had an entire series depicting murders, murderers, corpses, and crime scenes) and weeping nude women (one in particular which he wanted to be made into a statue and set on his gravestone). Sometimes he would do ten or more paintings, all of the same theme or even the same exact subject, with slight variations. Fascinating.

It's funny that over time he's become most known for "The Scream," since after viewing a larger portion of his works, it seems the most inconsequential. It is one of the ones he made the most variations of, so perhaps it should be known for this reason, and this reason alone, but in comparison to other subjects, other themes, other pales.

Anyway, my bottomline is that the museum is well worth a visit if you have the time. Great literary bits for each room explaining Munch at each point in his life and a great display of his works (though the gift shop completely disappoints by offering very few of these works in any sort of reproduction or otherwise gift-worthy form). Totally worth my 95 kronor (oddly expensive).

After this and some very awkward texts (not prompted by German K), we were picked up by our first couchsurfing host, Daniel.

But I'll get to that in the next post.

And we're back for the new year!

Hope everyone had a wonderful holiday and a good beginning to the new year. I've been cheering myself with the last shreds of California sun before I get on my plane in a few hours to return to snowy Finland.

2012 was a strange year, no doubt. A time for learning and discovery. I have a feeling that 2013 will be for the lessons. There are so many more things to learn.

In the meantime, I will continue blogging as I've been given much feedback that it is enjoyable still for you, my readers, and so I will go on.

Please enjoy the continued saga from my adventures in Norway, as I ramp up for the new year and weave in my new insights and ridiculosities.

Cheers to all; let's make this year a great one.

Sincerely yours,