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Category: USAC

May Their Souls Rest in Perfect Peace

May Their Souls Rest in Perfect Peace

Last weekend, I left Accra for the first time in a while to go to Cape Coast, a mid-size city some 150 kilometers west of the capital. Cape Coast is known to many Africans and oburonis alike for its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but aside from that I found it to be a bright, lively town of merchants and fisherfolk happy to see visitors.

On the rocky shore of the ocean is situated a massive castle, covered in white lime to reflect the hot sun, but weathered from years of salty spray. Hawkers, painters, vendors and their booths line the street leading up to the compound’s entrance. Akwaaba resounds from their mouths at the sight of foreigners. A tour of the property was 40 Ghana cedis for a non-Ghanaian student like myself. The price for a Ghana resident was significantly lower – around 15 cedis for an adult pass. Three of my friends and I joined a tour that had just gotten started. The group was 90% white people. It was the most white people I’ve seen here in one place outside of UG’s campus.

Our tour guide was a young man named Frances who studies at the University of Cape Coast, one of Ghana’s most highly ranked universities. We joined him and the group in the castle courtyard facing the ocean, the parapet lined with rusted black cannons and piles of mortar shells. I squinted as the sun bounced off the whitewashed walls and as mist from the waves blew into my eyes.

Courtyard of Cape Coast Castle. 

Frances spoke with an exacted rhythm and tone that told me he’s done this dozens, maybe hundreds of times before. I followed him practically on his heels as he led us through the courtyard and toward a dungeon entrance. He invited us to put our heads into a 3×3 hole in the wall with a crumbled staircase that led to a dark tunnel. It smelled like must and salt and faintly of ghosts.

If you, dear reader, know nothing of the slave castles that are littered across the “Slave Coast” of Africa, I beg that you soon learn.

Established by the British, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the French, these castles served many purposes for the growing imperial economies of the fifteenth through nineteenth centuries. They housed the European merchant leaders and, later, colonial administrators who supervised imports and exports from major towns along the Gulf of Guinea – Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire; Lome in Togo; Lagos in Nigeria; Takoradi, Accra, and Cape Coast in the Gold Coast. In exchange for the promise of European trade, the land to build these structures was sold by the African leaders whose people had lived there for generations. They were designed as commercial hubs, defensible forts, and corrals for the human livestock around which trade boomed.

Scale model of Cape Coast Castle.

This legacy was in the air that I breathed as I stepped under an arch leading to the female slave dungeons. Like before, I was met with the smell of old dirt, wet rock, and thousands of ghosts spread out across two small chambers. Our wise guide explained how young adult women were kept in these rooms for weeks or months at a time, in total darkness with no air, surrounded by hundreds of their sisters.

Across the castle were the male dungeons, made up of three chambers, deeper underground. Frances bent over and placed his hand against the wall about a foot off the ground where there was a deep stain in the rock. Here, he said, was how deep in shit and vomit hundreds of men had to stand and sleep and eat.

On the south side of the chamber were about a hundred small sculptures of men’s faces carved into stone. Many of them were grimacing, or had their mouths open in shock, or simply looked broken – literally and metaphorically. Frances suddenly asked us to look at the faces. Did they look familiar? Whose faces did we see?

A sculpture similar to those found in the male dungeons.

“You might see my face,” he said, as he looked up from the sculptures directly into my eyes.

Whose ghosts were down there? Was it his family? Was it the father of any of the Black Americans I knew back home? People I graduated high school with? These ghosts came from Ghana, sure, but also from Nigeria, and from Benin, and Burkina Faso – maybe even further inland from Mali, or Sudan, or the Congo.

I blinked tears away as I broke eye contact with Frances and with the hundreds of men who stared at me from the dark floor of the chamber.

Upstairs, we faced a huge wooden door painted black with a plaque above reading “Door of No Return.” It was this door which led to the water, where small boats would shuttle captives out to the ships anchored offshore. Countless bodies passed through this door, never to step foot on their mother soil again. Of the twenty million who were led through this door and doors like it across the Slave Coast, only fifteen million survived to see the New World where they would be enslaved (N.B. below).

Five million ghosts, not counting those who died on the march from the inland to the coast, those who died in these dungeons, or those who died on plantations in the Americas. Five million dead not counting their descendants who didn’t survive convict leasing in the coal mines, or the Jim Crow South, or the prison-industrial system of today.

I felt all these souls as I left the castle. My skin, white as the walls that were beaten by the waves, crawled.

View of the coast and the Gulf of Guinea from the Door of No Return.

Examining my position as an American who has inadvertently benefited from the stolen labor of these bodies, I am humbled, humiliated, and somber. I am privileged enough to know where my ancestors came from. I know the names given to them at birth by their people. My ancestors were not doomed to a fate such as this – snatched from their homes, forced to walk hundreds of kilometers to be shipped thousands more kilometers across the sea, and given names foreign to their tongues. Of all the benefits I reap from the color of my skin, this is perhaps the most heart-wrenching. To my Black American sisters and brothers back home, I weep with you at the number of souls lost to the slave trade.

But more importantly, I will fight with you to get back what was stolen, to hold accountable those who devalue your lives and your labor to this day. Africans and oburonis alike – we, the living – vow to uphold this.

The exterior of the Door of No Return, relabeled the Door of Return for those of the African Diaspora who return through the archway.

N.B. There is much disagreement on the exact number of people captured from Africa and brought to the Americas, due to inadequate primary materials from the slave traders. Twenty million captives is generally the lowest estimate. Most agree, however, that of the millions who embarked on the Middle Passage, anywhere from 10-20% of them died on the journey. For more information on the particular controversies surrounding the historiography of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, see Walter Rodney, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (Panaf Publishing: Abuja) 2009 ed., especially pp. 108-120.

For further reading on the African Diaspora, especially from a Ghanaian-“American” perspective, I highly recommend Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel Homegoing (Knopf: New York, 2016).

Additionally, the literature of Ta Nehesi-Coates and James Baldwin provide insights on the contemporary experiences of Black men in America as they have been shaped by America’s legacy of institutionalized racism.

Flyin Solo – Copenhagen

Flyin Solo – Copenhagen

My one and only truly solo trip I took this semester was to Denmark. I realized I had been to every Scandinavian capital except Copenhagen, plus I had wanted to travel alone at some point, so it felt fitting for my last trip of the semester to be there. Here is my experience down in words….

Day 1

Despite being enthusiastic for my final trip, especially since I was traveling alone, I got rather sentimental at the airport. I started thinking about how much time I’ve spent in this airport these past 6 months and how that airport and Denver’s are my favorite airports. I laughed when I reminisced about my first trip I took there to Krákow. My friends and I were so newly aquatinted with the country and traveling. We got lost, over packed, you name it. Now I feel like a pro or something because I’ve done so much traveling this semester. Except my expert bubble popped when I still managed to try to board the wrong flight. That was the second time that happened but in my defense the flight I tried to board was also to Copenhagen but only 20 minutes earlier than my actual flight—an easy mistake really. When I finally boarded the correct flight, I was in the front row, feeling like a boss. I looked out the window and thought how beautiful Norway is in the summer now that everything is green. “My Frosted City” to which I named because it always looked like it was frosted with snow now more closely resembled “My Green City”.

When I landed, I was happily surprised at how easy it was to figure out where the metro was to get to my hostel. The airport looks eerily similar to the Oslo one, and the public transit systems could be sisters. Although, the amount of people and how they act is very different. The train was packed full of people by the time I got off, and the city as a whole was bumping for a Wednesday afternoon. Juxtaposed to that, Oslo seems quite desolate, although I like that the city is smaller and not crowed. Copenhagen with the crowds and the fact that I was alone for the first time made me feel extremely anxious and I couldn’t shake it.

After I checked in, I immediately left to go grab food. I was so hungry that I bought the first sandwich that sounded good at this cool market outside my hostel. I saw in the distance what looked like a park so I figured I would go there to eat it. I was happy to find that it was a lake with a nice walking path around the perimeter. It seemed like the only place in the city that wasn’t packed and I was beyond grateful to take this opportunity to calm down and acquaint myself with my environment.

The park right near my hostel where I spent my first day at, as well as ate at least one meal a day at the entire time I was in the city. Very lovely.

I guess it just felt strange to be alone suddenly. The past week I literally spent every single moment with my friends (or studying) because seeing that we were leaving soon, we were trying to pack in as much time together as we could. Thus, transitioning from that to complete solitude in an unfamiliar city really threw me off. Not to say that I wasn’t happy to be in Copenhagen, or that I can’t spend time alone in general, but it was just a surprisingly hard transition that I wasn’t prepared for mentally.

With no plans of what to do (again logistics are not a strength of mine), I just kept walking anywhere that looked appealing. Turned out that I happened to arrive on a day when this massive EDM festival was going on. It’s the biggest street party in all of Denmark, called Distortion. It used to be all over the country but the smaller areas got sick of it and moved in all into Copenhagen. The party was going on the entire week and would move each day to a new section. Streets were closed to cars and instead filled with what seemed like every 20-something-year-old Danish person intoxicatingly vibe’n to the beat of the music. Every 10 meters there was another stage and at some points the crowd was so packed it was hard to move. When one stages’ music would fade, another would come into focus. It was THE place to be for everyone my age it seemed! Given that I was alone, I mostly just walked through and took it all in, wishing that the guys were here with me because together we’d have a blast.

As I was getting tired of being surrounded by drunk people with loud house music all around me, I set off to escape the festival and continue seeing the city. It was an interesting first day, and I was keen to see what the next day had in store.

Distortion, the largest street party in all of Denmark, was absolutely crazy. At one point, I come across this man just carrying around a plastic leg!

Day 2

I woke up around 9:30 and to my surprise all the people in my room were already out. I got ready and set out for a quick breakfast at the market near my hostel. I wanted to make the 11am free walking tour in the city so I didn’t have all that much time. The cafe I went to took forever, so I had to scarf down my food before speed walking to the meeting spot at Town Hall.

When I arrived, there were a ton of people–probably the biggest walking tour I’ve ever seen. Before it began I heard two guys next to me had an American accent so I asked them where they were from. Their names were David and Tommy, two college students from New York who go to school in Buffalo. I found that intriguing because that’s where my mom was from. As the tour went on, we hung out the entire time and got to know each other as we walked from each destination. I learned a lot on the tour as I always do (the free walking tours in every city are amazing, I highly encourage doing them on the first day of any trip to gain your bearings in the city, both geographically and historically). For example, the crown prince and his family took in an exchange student this semester! How cool right? I should have applied on exchange here!

The famous Navn street in all its glory.

When the tour ended, the guys and I went together to Christiania, the free town in Copenhagen to explore and more importantly get food. Inside was really fascinating. It had a totally different atmosphere juxtaposed to the rest of the city. While inside, we ran into a group of Finnish men that Tommy had met the night before. They took us to this beach there which we would have never known existed if it weren’t for them. We stayed there for hours and eventually the New York guys got up and asked if I wanted to leave with them. Since I knew them a little better, I went with. We walked back to the city center and got another hot dog to eat–the hot dogs there are amazing, be sure to order them with everything on them. Unfortunately, I was so hungry I didn’t even think to take a picture. So sad… After we ate is when we split our ways and I went back to my hostel to nap for a little.

The entrance to Christiania, the free town. On the flip side it reads, “You are now entering the EU”.
The beach in Christiania where the people I met and I spent a good few hours at.

When I awoke from my nap, a Swedish guy had moved into my room. We talked for a little before I headed out to continue exploring for the night. I ended the night by watching the sunset over the river. When I came back, the Swedish guy and I talked the rest of the night together. He’s 23 and quit school three separate times. He seemed frustrated with himself that he did such a thing. I found him to be quite intelligent, for when he found out I studied math, we talked about our favorite proofs for quite a while. It was a perfect, chill second day in Copenhagen.

 

The beautiful sunset I witnessed along the water.

Day 3

I didn’t need to leave for my flight until 4:30pm in the afternoon, so I set a plan to see the rest of the city that I wanted to hit. I quickly ate breakfast at the hostel with a Brazilian woman whom I met that morning.

Now, my first stop was the botanical gardens followed by the Kings Gardens. It was so beautiful and peaceful inside. I always love seeing the botanical gardens in any city I travel to. Kongens Have, or the Kings Garden was bigger than I was expecting. There were large fields of finely cut grass that people were sun bathing and playing games on. I could totally see myself throwing around a ball, or lying down there for days

The botanical gardens in the city. Very sublime.

Next on my agenda was Kastellet, i.e., the star shaped fortress. I heard from a friend who studied abroad here that it was unlike any fortress any Americans have ever seen, yet I was still astonished. It was basically a gorgeous park with a moat running through the middle. There was even a windmill on the hill at the very center. I sat on a bench in there, just relaxing, watching the occasional runner or biker swing by me. I ended up walking the entire path that surrounded the fortress, both on the lower path, as well as the path on the hill. If you’re a runner, I think this would be a fine spot to take a jog if ever in town.

The statue of the Little Mermaid is just on the perimeter of Kastellet. I’ve heard not to really go there because it wasn’t worth it but I decided that I wanted to see what has been deemed the 2nd most underwhelming tourist attraction in the world. What I found more impressive when I saw it, was the amount of tourists gawking at such a mediocre statue. I stayed for a half a minute before moving on.

One part of the fortress. It was so beautiful it was hard to believe it actually was a fortress.
The windmill that was located on the hill inside the fortress.
Included because I think this statue is cooler than the Little Mermaid…

On my way to the Church of our Savior, I found this interesting Octagon. There was a small door and inside was so unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It’s an art installation called “Cosmic Space” by an artist from the Faroe Islands. Definitely try to find it if you can. No one really notices it, so I was the only one in there for quite a while. I don’t want to include any photos because it is one of those “be surprised” types of places. Not a huge tourist attraction, but when you happen across it, you’ll be glad you saw it.

Finally I arrived at the church. I first went inside where the organs were playing some rather dark music very loudly. Yet, the inside was remarkable. Probably one of my favorite churches I’ve ever been in. Following a quick stop in there, I headed up to the tower. I’ve heard it was the best view of the city, but I had no idea just what that meant—beyond worth the 35 kroner I spent to get there. First you had to walk up a set of narrow wooden stairs inside the church. A funny, elderly British couple near me were playfully bickering about how difficult it was. Then you come out onto a platform where you can see the whole city. I thought this was the end until I turned the corner and saw a set of oxidized copper stairs spiraling upwards on the outside of the tower. I climbed these, with my legs shaking from my fear of heights, until I reached the very top. Glad I made it before I left, is all I can say.

Overall, it turned into a beautiful trip. I finished it off by eating an early dinner and reading my book by this beautiful lake before heading off to the airport. TY København.

The the best view of the Church, but you can see the twisting stairs at the very top.
A small view of the stairs I climbed on the outside of the church. So high!!

Well this is my last blog I’m going to write. I don’t think I’m mentally prepared enough to write a final, “goodbye” blog so I’ll leave it at this… S/O to all my friends, all my roommates, all my adventures, and especially to all of Norway. You’ll be missed…

Spring Break: Part 3 – Rusland

Spring Break: Part 3 – Rusland

Day 6: Thursday (Entering and Customs)

It literally took us a full 24 hours to get into Russia. (Cami, who was extremely upset at that fact, said she “will never forget” it). As everyone was trying to leave the boat, it got so jam packed that no one could move, so Vince and I just sat on the ground to wait out the crowd. When we finally left the boat, it was snowing and freezing outside—exactly what you would imagine Russia to be like. To get to boarder control, we had to take our first steps on Russian soil over to a nearby building. Just as Vince is telling me that we can’t take pictures at the borders, I snap a picture of him, the boat, and the blizzard around us. He laughed at me but later was really grateful because he ended up loving the photo I took.

 

Vince and the boat – our first steps on Russian soil.

We realized that our ESN group must have met somewhere on the boat and we missed it because we were the first one to get to customs. At first, it was as scary as I was imagining. Vince went first, then me and Nick went in tandem. I just stayed extremely quiet and did what they told me to do. Cami, who was still upset with how long it took to enter the country, noted that she felt like we have to beg to get into Russia, or at least that’s how it felt to her.

Particularly because we went first, we had to wait forever for the rest of the ESN group to finally enter Russia. We just found seats in the building and ate the rest of our food.  We were glad we got there first so we could relax. Just as we were saying how easy it was to get into Russia, we learned about how the only two people of color were stopped by border control and have been in questioning for the past hour…. sickening, I tell you. The male was taken first and was interrogated for 15 minutes. Then the girl was told to follow, the guards not even looking at her passport before telling her to step aside. So, in short, border control was easy, but only if you are white… After an hour and a half, our ESN leader decided we had to board the bus for our city tour without them.

The first thing the tour guide said was, “Believe it or not, you are in Russia.”

We saw and learned a lot while on that tour bus. Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, the church that used to be the main church for the entire city, is probably one of the most impressive buildings I’ve seen in my life. Russia, with 342 bridges, is nicknamed “The Venice of the North”. Interestingly, 1/10 (approximately half a million people) live in communal apartments in Saint Petersburg. They are basically like a dorm or hostel style living arrangement to keep costs down because most of the people are extremely poor.

Usually I don’t like organized tours, especially those on busses in which you are unable to walk around through the city. However, for several reasons I was grateful to start our stay in Russia with a city tour. One, I was exhausted. Two, the weather was snowy and cold. And three, the tour guide just knew so much about the city! I found it fascinating to learn about it in way I never would have if I had traveled individually.

Despite what I just said, it was too difficult to not fall asleep for a little on the warm, rumbling bus, so soon I drifted off with my head resting against Cami’s shoulder.

Eventually, we arrived at our hostel that we would be living at for the next few days. Luckily, my little crew was called first for our room assignment as well. We had the very top floor and a nice big room all together. Due to our enormous hunger, we immediately went food shopping to try to find items for a communal dinner and for food the next day. It was the hardest shop of my life because I was just so tired and hungry that I was paralyzed and was unable to make an decisions. Cami opted for going solo for dinner so the guys and I bought pasta with meats and vegetables. Cooking took ages (figures) but it was kind of fun all cutting and cooking together. The hostel’s cooking supplies was subpar (no pepper!), so that contributed to the extended wait time. Around 10pm, we had finally finished and I proceeded to eat till I was in pain. Climbing the 5 flights of stairs right after meant that I had to immediately lie down for a little to digest all I had consumed.

Later that night, Cami and Nick decided they didn’t want to go out for whatever reason, so it was just Sam, Vince, and I who set out for a night in Russia. We happened to met a guy named Victor in our hostel who is from Russia. He took us under his wing and showed us the ropes with the public transit, using random cars as taxis, not allowing to take pictures in the tunnels to the trains, etc. Speaking of, I LOVE the metro system in Saint Petersburg!! It is just so cool! Victor said that the deepest is about 100 meters, and to get down there you ride the longest escalator ever!

Victor got a little funny as the night went on. He kept telling us stories of how he’s seen many people get shot before, and all the fights he witnesses on the streets.. Really made me (and the guys) weary of the country. Then before we left him, he said that the men in Russia are crazy and how I, specifically, shouldn’t date them. It was an interesting night to say the least.

The metro escalators that go 100 meters down into the ground!

Day 7: Friday

 On Friday, we ate breaky (what Australians and Kiwi’s call breakfast) extremely fast because we felt unnecessarily rushed to head to the Hermitage Museum. It was a long walk over there, and after 10 minutes or so, Vince joked that we had already walked twice the length of Helsinki.

When we arrived at the museum, we had to do coat check which was the biggest hassle ever. No person behind the various counters were taking our jackets for whatever reason, and the ladies would just yell at us in Russian. So frustrating, but eventually we found a nice woman who took our coats.

The first thing our tour guide did was warn us that “back pockets are the public pocket”, because pick pocketing in Russia is far too common. The museum, and particularly the church, has unreal amounts of gold leaf everywhere. The place was really beautiful but far too large. You’d have to spend days there to really see it all.

 

Outside the Hermitage museum.
An area inside the Hermitage.

Our group was starving and tired so when the tour ended we searched for a place to eat. The first open and relatively inexpensive place was an Irish restaurant, but luckily we were all able to get Russian cuisine because they provided it along with Irish dishes. I got salmon cutlet which was so delicious – my meal probably was the best out of everyone’s and it was the cheapest somehow. The guy when we paid even gave me and the girls a discount (not the guys for some reason, strange I know).

After that, we set out for coffee, and the only place we found that was crazy expensive was McDonalds! But hey, it was about a buck for a big Americano, so worth it. We were still amazed at how expensive everything seemed to be—we thought it was be beyond cheap in Saint Petersburg.

Later, we went to the top of Saint Isaac’s church, which only cost 150 rubbles or about $3. It was so cool to see the city, despite the chilly wind blasting us. I stood there, alone, just amazed at the city and myself. In other words, I found the city to be so vast that it felt crazy. Then that got me thinking about how I couldn’t believe I was there getting to experience it. So far, all my travels have been to places I never thought I’d see, especially including Russia. I was just grateful to myself for pushing my comfort zone and experiencing parts of Europe that most Americans usually don’t get to travel to/ have no desire to travel to.

The view from the top of Saint Isaac’s Church.

When we left the church, Cami and Bianca wanted to go shopping (something I never have the desire to do), and some of the other guys just wanted to go back to the hostel to nap. I was frustrated because we only had so much time there, so I wanted to keep exploring with or without them (except that I was rather timid of traveling alone in Russia). Luckily Vince opted to stay with me, so once we helped the others find the metro, we split off to go explore.

Again, I really loved spending time with Vince, this time included. As we walked around Saint Petersburg, we discussed how we see ourselves within our generations (I consider myself a millennial, while he believes he belongs to generation X), our parents, taking a gap year, you name it. Eventually we came upon the Grønland of Russia—a really cool outdoor and indoor market with lots of clothing located outside and free food and meats inside. (Grønland is the cheap market in Oslo where we all go food shopping even though it takes over a half hour to get there.)

The entrance to the market Vince and I found.

After leaving the market, we ventured back outside just to walk. While we were on top of Saint Isaacs church, we saw this beautiful blue church in the distance and Vince and I wanted to go see it but figured it was too far a distance to walk to. Well, low and behold, we somehow found it on our walk! It was bigger than I even realized and very beautiful. A statue made of cannons was outside which was interesting. I wish I knew Russian to read what it said. We checked the door to see if we could go in and it turned out that a service was going on. It was Russian orthodox, I’m pretty sure. The inside was spectacular and about a hundred people were standing in the middle facing a few men performing the service. In the back was a small choir singing peaceful church tunes. Every 15-30 seconds everyone was make the sign of the cross and then bow, some just partially and others all the way to touching their toes. It was so unique and fascinating to watch. Vince had never even been in a service before, no matter the denomination. Now we can both say we’ve attended a Russian orthodox one!

 

The ‘blue church’ with the unique statue in front.

We realized when we took the metro back that we were at the station that just had the terrorist attack about a week earlier. There were still a lot of flowers outside and a ton of scary policemen with unfriendly dogs standing around the main entrance hall. Felt weird to have just been in Stockholm at the place where their terrorist attack happened and then also in Russia where a separate one had just occurred. I can’t really put to words how it felt, but I guess rather surreal is the best way I can explain it.

When we finally got back to the hostel, Vince and I made dinner together and shared our meal with three other people (Dutch, Swiss, and French). They were working on trying to finish the biggest pot of pasta I’ve ever seen for 3 people. Luckily for us, they couldn’t and asked Vince and I to help them eat the food. Ironically, the guy from the Netherlands told us through laughter that he witnessed our friend Sam blow drying his hair in the bathroom for the longest time ever. Except, he didn’t know it was Sam, so as he was telling the story, I realized it must have been Sam because, well, his hair is probably his most prized possession. We all laughed for a while at Sam’s expense.

Speaking of Sam’s hair, he ended up doing all the boys hair that night before we went out. Needless to say, they looked quite snazzy. Our plan was to go to a bar crawl that Sam heard was going on earlier that day. We told everyone else about it, so when it came time to meeting in the hostel lobby, fifteen people from our group was there but no official bar crawl was happening. Sam must have heard wrong. However, since we were all there, people decided lets do our own. I naturally went to my phone and started looking up pubs near us, which somehow indicated to the group that I was now the leader of this shindig. I certainly wasn’t comfortable with it but I tried to do my best anyways because everyone was set on me running this event. They started calling it “Shayna’s famous pub crawl”, while Cami joked that we should have charged them for attendance. It actuality, I got everyone lost a little but it still turned out fun. I was the only American, so people kept joking how they happened to put the American in charge. My friend group ended up just sticking together and talking the whole night, which was just the best. I couldn’t believe how dispite there being so many other people with us, we enjoyed each other’s company so much that we stuck together. I really loved it. It was a very good day that ended in lots of friendship and laughter.

 

Nick (left) and Vince (right). Clearly loving their hair by Sammy K, and each other’s company.

Day 8

We woke up at 8:15am (kill me) with the intent to try to figure out how to get to Catherine’s Palace on our own for the day. According to google maps, it was a two hour trip by public transportation, which meant there was a lot of room for error that could result in us getting utterly lost.

Despite that fear, we departed by 9:45am first by taking the metro and then luckily finding the perfect bus to take us directly to the Palace that is outside the city. It was all much easier than we ever thought it would be. The public bus system (transit system in general) is really interesting and surprisingly easy to use. The busses, to be more specific, are all very archaic and small but come super often. You pay only 40 rubles and all in cash or coins. The driver will even deliver you your change as he drives. I noticed people going up and just asking the driver to stop random places even. Plus, people on the sidewalk could wave down the driver and he would stop. Maybe I’m weird because I am oddly fascinated by cities various public transit systems, but I think anyone could appreciate the unique Russian busses that we took.

This is the inside of the public bus we took to Catherine’s Palace. I was sitting at the very back, so you can see how small it was.

It only took an hour to get there (silly Google maps!) and immediately we were so glad we didn’t let the fear of getting lost stop us from coming. The palace looks absolutely unreal, and before entering we sat outside listening to a guy play the flute while we ate our lunch.

The crew eating lunch outside Catherine’s Palace.

The palace was so lavish, with gold everywhere and all the ceilings painted intricately. This is hard to describe, but it was cool how the paintings on the outside were an extension of the building and then it opened up to scenes depicted in the heavens. Vince and I stuck together for a while because we lost the rest of the crew but soon we all found one another and toured through the place.

Outside the Palace is just as amazing, in a way. It felt like Christmas of sorts walking through the gardens while it was snowing. Only after a minor snow ball fight did we then proceed with the rest of our day. While on the long bus ride back, I started thinking about what it’ll be like to go home. Even just the thought made me anxious and really sad. I was so happy here with everyone and everything, I didn’t want to leave and I especially didn’t want to stop seeing my friends there everyday. I was already getting upset about how near the end is. But that is so characteristically me; I always get upset when anything ends and things have to change. I tried to remind myself everything would be ok and just to live in the moment, which to be honest, is beyond difficult.

Here you can vaguely see what I tried to describe – the outside of the painting in an extension of the building opening up to the heavens.
The crew walking through the gardens.

Back in Saint Petersburg, Cami wanted tea so we stopped at a place called Oh!MyTea, a small joint with one other person in it. The guys became attached to their phones (free wifi and all) while Cami and I talked with the girl working for 15 minutes. She spoke fairly good English and she was so awesome! She said that Saint Petersburg is an exception to the rest of Russia because it’s so European. She comes from a small town 5 hours away by train but soon she is leaving to a different town on the border of Russia, China and Europe. She told us how she studied philosophy and Italian culture in college. We asked how she learned English and she brought up how she watches the show, Game of Thrones. Me and Vince just started watching it with the rest of the guys this semester (we were on season 5 at the time we were in Russia) so I yelled to the guys how she watches it too, and immediately they joined the conversation and we geeked about the show together. She almost spoiled something about John Snow for Vince and I but luckily Sam stopped her. It was a cute addition to our day, I really do think many of the people in the city are quite kind and lovely to chat with.

One of the most astonishing places we went to was the Church of the Savior on Blood, otherwise known as the Church of Spilled Blood. It was entirely decorated in mosaic—so hard to believe! I stood there in awe of the building for ages.

The outside of the Church of Spilled Blood.
The inside of the Church – everything is mosaic.

The rest of the day was spent eating dinner and going out. The following day which was Easter meant everything was closed in the city for the most part. We traveled a lot on another boat to Tallinn the next day which is beautiful (I wanted to move there for the summer, I loved it so much).

Please note, the rest of day 9 and 10 I didn’t take notes on (I usually do and that’s how I am able to remember the small details of my travels for these blogs). Hence, I am just going to skip to my last reflections while I was heading back to Oslo and just note that there is a significant gap in my recollection of events during this time period.

Day 10: The end of Spring Break

 While sitting on the train from Stockholm back to Oslo, I began to feel this hint of melancholy nostalgia for not only my spring break trip coming to an end, but for my entire semester thus far. Everything seemed to be moving so much faster than I anticipated and I felt as though I couldn’t catch my breath. Don’t be mistaken, in many ways that is a good reaction because it is indicative of an amazing experience, with incredible friends and memories. But at the same time, to be honest, I was terrified of it finally ending. The end always seemed so far away, just like how my spring break–which I planned with most of the people on this trip way back in Poland–always seemed far in the distance. But yet there I was, closing in on my last hour on the train back to Oslo–the place I now call home. I understand that before I know it, I will be on a plane back home, just an hour away from touching down in Denver.

It’s funny, Cami showed us last night a video of Zach and I back in Poland in January. We were sitting at the dinner table of the sushi place we went to on our first night. Our waiter was showing us on a map where the cool bars and clubs were. Nick, Cami, and Sam talked and laughed about how young Zach and I look. I concur, I actually looked like a different person even though that was just a few months ago. Cami said we all have changed so much since then, which I guess I hadn’t realized as of yet. Nonetheless, she is right. We have all changed so much in such a short period of time, and soon we would be forced to leave one another and nothing will be the same.

These last 10 days were phenomenal. I truly loved our group. Although we are all quite different, we meshed together almost seamlessly which allowed us to spend so much alone time with one another with zero clashes. Hell, one night all five of us slept in a room the size of a handicap bathroom stall–talk about being close with people!

It is worth noting as well that it was also a unique experience for me to be the only American while traveling on this trip. I learned so much from other cultures, specifically those in which my friends derive from, and I recognize I have so much more to learn.

Although I just discussed how particularly sad I seem to be, I also just want to highlight that I always get sad at anything ending. I’m an “easily pleased” person as my friends describe me, and thus, I am constantly sad when various amazing events in my life come to a close, this trip specifically. I guess I want to close this blog post with a moment of gratefulness for the various events that occurred during my travels.

I am grateful for Nick, who handled being alone with me like a champ. I am grateful for bread, peanut butter and salami, which got me through so many meals those 10 days. I am grateful for the alone time I received in Djur garden. I am grateful for the curry I shared with Vince and Nick because sharing is certainly not my forte. I am grateful for exploring the rest of Stockholm alone with Vince, only to happily run into the entire crew on the way to the boat. I am grateful for shared meals on the floor of various cabin rooms while aboard ferries. I am grateful for duty free vodka and fun nights of dancing, laughing, and bonding. I am grateful for the hours dedicated to playing the card game presidents/scum, as people call the game either name (we combined the names and denoted it as P.S. from now on). I am grateful for Russia not giving us any troubles and only good memories. I am grateful that our group always stuck together and had such an amazing time talking and got to know each other better and better. I am grateful for Russia’s metro system, and how easy the buses are to take. I am grateful for Vince exploring Saint Petersburg with me and happening across the blue church we were both so keen on finding. I am grateful for both the snow and sunshine that we received while traveling. I am grateful for the beautiful day we received in Estonia. I am grateful for being able to return to Stockholm’s national library before we came back to Oslo. I am just grateful.

Peace Spring Break, and thanks for everything ✌️ Peace Spring Break, and thanks for everything.

The crew in Tallinn, Estonia.
Love these people.
Spring Break Part 2

Spring Break Part 2

Spring Break Part 2: Overnight Boats and Finland

 Our next leg of the ESN (Eramus Student Network) Spring Break trip was to board a boat that would take us overnight to Helsinki, Finland followed by another night arriving in Saint Petersburg, Russia. This is Part Two of my adventures.

Day 4: Tuesday 

Our entire group boarded this massive boat that was to take us to Finland. It wasn’t as elegant of a cruise as the one I took to Riga the week before, but this time we were all in the same cabin (minus Vince, poor Vince…), which was both a blessing and a curse. It was only slightly negative because the room was incredible minuscule. Despite that, it was fun to have all of us there in the same cabin to eat, talk, laugh, and sleep together.

We all sat on the floor to eat dinner together and then Nice, Vince, and I went up a few floors to go read while Sam and Cami took a nap. The guys and I just sat in the café on board reading for an hour or so before we all met up to go exploring and purchase items from the duty free shop.

The view on the top deck of the boat as we were leaving Sweden – very beautiful.
Captured is Cami in our cabin for the night. You can see just how small it was, with bunk beds tucked away adjacent to one another.
We ate our meals together on the floor with food we had bought as various super-markets. Pictured is Vince eating an avocado like an apple.

Later that evening, we had such a fun time hanging out in the cabin. Sam invited some girls he had met to hang out in our room, which made it a tight fit. When the claustrophobia and heat became too much we moved on to the rest of the boat. I danced a lot with Cami and mostly Vince in the dance room before we ended up in this one area of the cruise that had this bald guy singing and playing the guitar for people to enjoy. Not many people were there, and those that were certainly were not playing attention to the entertainment. My friends and I were the opposite. We quite often sung along with him for hours and I had so much fun just being as peace with my friends, listening and singing to acoustics. The man definitely loved us and was gracious that we enjoyed his music.

Nick fell asleep (more like completely passed out) before any of us. So, naturally, we had to mess with him by placing as much as we could on his face before he might awake. It was so funny, all of us huddled around him in our tiny cabin doing that. Overall, it was beyond fun that night on the boat—much more than my previous boat experience to Riga where we lost everyone and I felt sick. Here, our group stuck together the whole night, talked, danced, and mostly laughed. It was just great.

Hopefully Nicky won’t be upset with me sharing this, but you can see just how much stuff we were able to place on his face while he was fast asleep… Quite the heavy sleeper that Kiwi is…

Day 5: Wednesday in Finland

When we woke up, we all ate breakfast in our cabin with the food we had purchased and then proceeded to get ready for our day in Helsinki. The first thing we did when we got off the boat was walk to the hostel to drop off our stuff because we would be on a different boat to Russia. (This boat company has a monopoly on the Russian market, only this one company offers trips to and from the country).

We went on a walking tour of the city which I found to be small and quaint. I enjoyed it, but I doubt I would ever have the desire to return. After a while, we were so hungry that we had to find somewhere to eat. We came across this unique indoor market where we all ate the most amazing seafood soup with unlimited bread. Vince and I, who were at a small table of our own, basically ate an entire load of bread between the two of us.

The main church in Helsinki.
Beautiful city, Helsinki is.
Inside the market we found in the city to get lunch. You can see the happiness in Sam’s face.
The market (and so many others in the Nordic countries) is full of fresh food, especially fish. I have become so spoiled with the high quality fish available here.
The beautifully scrumptious sea-food soup we bought, with a slice of bread off to the side.

After eating, we continued to explore and more importantly went food shopping again for the next long night on the boat to Russia. Because the country is so difficult to get into, we waited forever to board the Russia cruise. But, before we knew it, we were on board and in our cabin (we all got placed in the same room again, minus Vince—again). The guys and I played a game Nick introduced to us (we now call it “Back-to-back”) before Cami came and joined us. In short, the game is just a quirky, yet fun way to get to know good friends even better.

After that, we all just talked and, well, bonded. I really fell in love with this group over the trip, we were an amazing crew. I had the feeling before departing that it was going to be awesome with who was going, but honestly, I had no idea just how true that was. We agreed that we are all very different people and therefore probably wouldn’t have ever become friends if we had simply gone to the same university. Yet, because of the special exchange we chose to do, we nonetheless became friends and it just somehow works. Shows how you never know who you can get along with and grow to love. Everyone, even if you can’t see it in the moment, has something unique to offer to the world and specifically to you. I guess, in a way, I found it beautiful that this group of 5 people, 2 of which aren’t even native english speakers (and I the only American), could get along so well with each other. In the moment I didn’t realize that was part of what made me love the trip so much, but in retrospect, it certainly was a large, contributing factor to my enjoyment of Spring break.

I went to bed that night excited, for in the morning we would be in Russia… But that is for my Part Three of my Spring Break Blogs.

Takk for i dag, Lola blog!

Taken while exploring Helsinki. From left to right: Sam, Vince, Cami, Nick.
Spring Break: Part 1

Spring Break: Part 1

Spring Break April 8-18, 2017: Part 1

Precursor: I understand that most other students who were blogging through Loyola have since finished their semesters and therefore their blogging. My semester is not done (I finish far later than so many of my peers), and honestly I’ve grown to love writing these blogs. It is rather therapeutic to recount my adventures into print, and thus I am just going to continue doing so for my own sake until my semester is over…

 

“When we observe a woman who seems hostile and fiercely independent some of the time but passive, dependent and feminine on other occasions, our reducing valve usually makes us choose between the two syndromes… But perhaps nature is bigger than our concepts and it is possible for the lady to be a hostile, fiercely independent, passive, dependent, feminine, aggressive, warm, castrating person all-in-one. Of course which of these she is at any particular moment would not be random or capricious—it would depend on who she is with, when, how, and much, much more. But each of these aspects of herself may be a quite genuine and real aspect of her total being.” – Walter Mischel

 

The Friday night before departing, my Irish roommate Shannon decided to throw a going away party since both Cami and I would be gone over break, and well because she loves parties. I was sick and had woken up at 5:30am that morning because I had my Norwegian final that day which determined my entire grade—happy to say I have since passed! Needless to say, I was less than excited to host another party but I figured I’m young and it’s break so it’ll be a-okay.

The party didn’t end until quite late, and thus I didn’t fall asleep until a little past 4am whilst my alarm remained firmly at 8:30am because I had a mountain of laundry to get done before my 1:30pm departure for my 10 day long spring break trip. Way back in Poland, a few of us signed up to do an ESN (Erasmus Student Network) trip to Saint Petersburg. It starts in Stockholm followed by a cruise to Helsinki, Finland for a day. Then we proceeded to take another ferry to Russia for four days ending in a ferry to Tallinn, Estonia for one day and back to Stockholm to take the train back home. Our group was as follows: Nick (New Zealand), Sam (Australia), Vince (Netherlands), and Cami (Argentina).

I wanted to see Stockholm more since I’d be there so I planned accordingly to arrive there 3 days early with Nick. Hence my trip would be 10 long days of nonstop traveling. Since it is as such, I decided to break my blog post up in parts that way I could write everything my heart desires without feeling like it is too much all in one post. So here is my post for Stockholm, the first leg of my Spring break adventure. I hope you enjoy!

Day 1:

I met up with Nick at his apartment after rushing to pack everything in about 15 minutes because, of course, I spent my time cooking instead of preparing for such a long trip. We easily made our way to the train station, and sat outside in the sun waiting to board. For some odd reason, 2nd class was the same price as coach when I purchased my ticket. I forgot I bought the better option so I was happily surprised to find a large, comfy seat awaiting me on the train.

The terrorist attack had just occurred on that Thursday and all the trains were canceled on Friday for that reason. The train we were on was the first train to run since that happened, so it was extremely full of passengers who had originally planned to travel out the day before. I just wanted to sleep in the beginning so when a nice elderly woman sat next to me, I remained quiet and slept for the next two hours. When I awoke, I began to read. I looked outside the window of the train, thinking how I couldn’t believe I was there, traveling and living abroad. I’m so lucky, I thought.

I really needed to use the restroom so I had to ask the woman to get up. We didn’t realize that we both knew English for a while so it was awkward moving about. It wasn’t until I came back that she asked if I knew English and I said yes, also that “Jeg også snakker lit norsk” (I also speak a little Norwegian). Turns out she is Norwegian but married a Swedish man and lived in Sweden much of her life. She got her Ph.D. in German and was a professor at the University of Stockholm. We talked about languages and she at one point apologized for lecturing me. I told her not to be sorry, that I was genuinely interested in the matter. She spent the entire train ride reading the largest German newspaper I’ve ever seen. (Keep in mind the train ride is 5 hours, so that was 5 hours of reading a newspaper!). She was extremely kind and I could tell she’s lived an interesting life.

Soon we stopped talking and both went back to reading. After a while I stopped to eat my dinner. I had packed an assortment of food to be sure I wouldn’t get hungry and I wouldn’t have to buy anything; something I always do when I travel. This time I had brought lomper (Norwegian potato tortillas of sort), a banana, an apple, a cucumber, a carrot, an entire yellow bell pepper, and two hard boiled eggs (I know that’s a lot). After I gorged myself and after I cleaned up, the lady spoke up and asked if I had enjoyed my meal with a smile on her face. I laughed, understanding that I am probably the first person she’s ever seen do that on the train.

When the train arrived in Stockholm, Nick and I met up to walk to our hostel. I thought I’d be able to find it without a map, since it was the same hostel I stayed at a week previously. Sadly, I got us rather lost and since, out of the two of us, I am the better one at talking to strangers, I had to ask two nice girls who directed us back in the right direction. We ended the night with a beer and a walk through town before heading to bed. The atmosphere in Stockholm was rather somber, given the attack had just occurred.

One of the memorials for the terrorist attack that occurred in Stockholm just before I came there.

Day 2:

Luckily Nick and I both woke up naturally around 8:30am, because we had forgot to discuss the night before when we wanted to be up and ready. We both showered then went downstairs to eat the food we brought for breakfast. Lomper and peanut butter never tasted better.

We wanted to do the entire trip as cheaply as possible, which meant food shopping instead of eating out. After a quick stop at the market, we went back to the hostel to empty our backpacks so that we could bring all our food with us for the day ahead. We explored a lot of the city that day, including Old Town, the castle, the water, etc. What was really exciting was we came across the famous, annual march to the stadium that the Swedish people do every year on the day of the first football game. There is about 10,000 people that walk the hour and half journey over city roads and onto an interstate overpass. People are drinking, loud music is being played, and chants are being screamed every few seconds. I was having so much fun that I got Nick to walk the entire length with me! Again, I felt lucky that we somehow came to Stockholm when this was happening.

This is at one point during the march to the stadium while we were still in the streets of the city. The amount of Swedish people going wild for soccer was outstanding.

When I came back to the hostel after finishing my dinner and reading by the water, Nick was just lying in bed. I laid down and slept for a half hour and then awoke with the plan to go down to the bar, get a beer, and read my book. Nick didn’t want to leave and said he “might” join later which in Nick language means he won’t come. This almost stopped me from going because I felt weird about sitting by myself drinking. But thankfully I didn’t let him hold me back and I got the courage to go sit at the bar by myself. There was a beer pong competition going on but I had already missed the beginning so I couldn’t join. At first I felt weird sitting at the bar drinking alone but then me and this girl next to me smiled at me just before she asked if I was traveling alone. Her name was Hanna, a masters student traveling alone from Germany. I told her I had an antisocial friend so I was mostly on my own too (sorry Nick!). We talked for a while before Émilie, a French Canadian interning in Spain, also joined the conversation. Throughout the night and over a couple of beers we chatted and got to know one another. It was cool to see the conversation turn from general items to deep and controversial topics by the end. I really loved Émilie—our views coincided on many occasions. I left for bed that night with two new friends with whom I would have never met if I didn’t push myself outside my comfort zone.

Day 3:

My goal on this day was to go to Djur (Deer) Garden. Both my Swedish soul sister I met on my trip the week before and the elderly woman on the train told me it was a beautiful place, so I was keen to experience it. When we got there, Nick couldn’t just sit and chill (he always like to keep moving), and I am more the type of person who enjoys to sit in silence at one stop for an extended period of time. After a little I suggested that perhaps we go our separate ways, in which he promptly agreed. It was the best thing we could have done.

I first came upon this cool maze that was rather meditative, before truly entering Deer Garden. The Garden is a massive preserve in which the King used to go hunting for deer in back in the day. I still can’t believe this vast nature lies within the city. While I didn’t see any deer (until the end), I also didn’t see any other people. Plus, I got to share my lunch in a beautifully peaceful spot with a little friend who joined me. Just on Sunday the weather was warm and beautiful; I didn’t even need a jacket. That day however, it was colder, cloudy and rainy. But I was happy about that. I love that kind of weather still and it only means that there aren’t hordes of people wandering around, hence why I didn’t see anyone the whole few hours I spent in the forest. It was just me, the birds, and the wind. I needed this.

Sounds weird, but it brought me back my sense of independence. All of Stockholm did actually. Without hesitating I was able to ask strangers where to go at times, I navigated everywhere, I went off on my own to read and eat dinner at a park by the water, sat at the bar alone until I met two kind strangers whom I chatted with all night, and spent the entire 3rd day on my own. I guess what this trip so far had done is remind me who I am, in a way. I wrote previously about how I felt lost in my identity, trapped in feeling dependent on others and unable to adventure out on my own. Well there I was, doing just that. A goal I wanted to make for myself for my remaining 3 months was to do this when I am back in Oslo. Nothing should stop me from exploring on my own, and I am happy to report that nothing has since.

Now, I did see a small heard of deer on my way back out of the Djur Garden. There were about 8 young deer, two of which were bucks. It made me wonder what it must have been like in the 16th and 17th century to be in here hunting deer for leisure.

One of the trails in Djur Garden.

 

 

After I left the garden, I continued to explore a little longer, even though my body was exhausted from walking so far—about 30km by days end. I ended up finding the National Library which is super unique! I always love finding the libraries where I go.

I went back to the hostel, napped, got coffee, and while drinking my cup, my friend Vince (Netherlands) finally showed up to join Nick and I. We treated ourselves to a dinner out at this nice Indian restaurant, in which we decided to share three different curries. Then we spent the night walking through Old Town again for Vince hadn’t seen it. I was excited for the next day when our spring break trip truly began.

Day 4: Tuesday in Stockholm

 In the morning, I ate my breakfast while the guys played ping pong. Our friend Sam came by bus early in the morning so now it was the four of us. My roommate Cami would come shortly and then we would have the entire crew.

For our final day in Stockholm, I got them to agree to go to Skiddardvik lookout point which was about an hour-long walk away. Vince and I had all our stuff with us because we planned to explore right up until we had to get on the boat. Nick and Sam bought a locker at the hostel so they planned on meeting up with Cami when she came in on her train and then getting their stuff before going to the boat.

The lookout point was beautiful but it was really cold and windy that high up. It would be such a great spot when it’s sunny and warm with a nice cold beer and good company. After that we went walking through Söder, which is the hipster part of town. We stopped at a coffee shop and spent a while there just chatting and relaxing. Figures, though, it was probably the only shop without a bathroom and I foresaw that as a major issue down the road.

The guys then had to leave to head back, so Vince and I were left alone to keep exploring. It was nice to be able to talk with Vince, he is definitely one of my favorite people I’ve met in Oslo. We have many similarities, although we disagree a lot, and he has a highly unique insight on the world that I enjoy to see through his eyes. We walked along the water and through some gardens chatting about our social lives in both my sorority and mostly what he calls a fraternity but is different than what Americans consider a frat. It is some strange Dutch concept of a fraternity, but falls under its own category.

As we continued our walk, we both had to pee so bad that it was becoming desperate. Finally, we just went in another coffee shop and got a second cup of coffee just to be able to use the restroom—such a good decision. The coffee shop was French themed and Vince told me about for much of his life him and his family travel there each year. It was cool to listen to. Following that, we found a supermarket to buy food for lunch and the following days on the boat. We were so hungry that we also purchased 3 donuts to share before we stopped to eat lunch.

After scarfing down the donuts, we continued walking in the direction of where the boat to Helsinki would be departing. We were walking through a really nice part of town that felt very different compared to the rest of the city. We then found a nice courtyard to eat lunch with these cute elephant statues. Before we knew it, on our walk we somehow ran into the rest of the crew, so united we continued to the boat. Basically, we checked in, boarded, and the rest is saved for part 2! To be continued….

Journey through the Baltics

Journey through the Baltics

Stockholm, Riga, and Vilnius: March 29-April 2, 2017

I can’t really tell you why, but when I came to Oslo, my goal was to travel as much of Eastern Europe as I could. I became especially fascinated with the Baltic Countries (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) mostly because I had never really even heard of them. I decided no matter what, I was going there before I leave for the states in June.

Towards the beginning of the semester, my friend Graham feverishly planned all his trips for the semester in the cheapest way possible, including a trip to the Baltic countries. In our group chat, he invited anyone to join. I loved that I didn’t have to plan anything to go there (logistics has always been my downfall), so I took the opportunity he presented! When it came down to the final date there were eight of us total: Graham, Trond, Sam, Andy, Brad, Kersti, Remy, and I. The trip was extremely fast paced and exhausting. We took a train to Stockholm, then a cruise to Riga, then a bus to Vilnius, followed by a flight home. Everything was done as cheaply as possible, so many of our travels were at odd hours in the morning. This is my blog post to recount our adventures…

Stockholm, Sweden:

Our lovable friend Sam (Adelaide, Australia) of course forgot his jacket when we all met up to depart for our train—he is always the one to screw up our timely departures. He had to run all the way back to his apartment as we started walking down the hill at Sogn to catch the metro. After that set-back, and with Sam caught up, we got to Oslo Central Station to board our train. My lucky number (which appears everywhere in my life) is 14, so it was fitting that our train to Stockholm happened to be on track 14; it was destined to be a good trip!

I get terrible motion sickness, and therefore can never sit backwards on any moving vehicle. Unfortunately, my seat for the next five hours was exactly that, and I had to just suck it up. The five hours flew by in my opinion (my friends thought otherwise). I read a good amount of my book and then took a break to eat dinner. Andy came over as soon as I started eating and sat with me for a while. I think he was bored and was looking for someone to talk to. Eventually we all moved seats to sit near each other which was fun, but that quickly ended when heaps of new passengers entered our car at one of the stops.

I moved back to my seat since all my stuff was there and that’s when this friendly, hippie girl sat in the seat next to me. She had on a tie dye shirt, old 90s styled jeans, blond hair that was half up in a messy yet cool way, and a nose ring like mine. Immediately she was so talkative and we got busy chatting. We ran through our lives, what we study, how we like school and where we live. She is from Stockholm but studies in a town 2 hours away. She chose to go there to live with her then boyfriend but then they broke up and she admits that she wishes she hadn’t based her decision on where to attend college based on a guy. Nonetheless, she’s grown to love it. She really loves the life of the big city though, with all the people moving about and so much to do. She’s quite a lively person herself so it makes sense to me that she enjoys that environment.

At one point, we are laughing as she tells me how she pretends to be Norwegian when she is drunk and that some people have believed her. She begged me to try to pretend to be Spanish at some point since I know some Spanish. I told her the next time I’m out, I’ll give it a shot! The kind person she is, she friended me on Facebook to give me all these recommendations of stuff to do in Stockholm. I was so grateful for that since I traveled there with my friend Nick the very next week! Unfortunately, she stayed with me only for about a half hour because she was meeting her sister to go skiing. What a cool chick, I thought—I was glad I met her. As she hugged me goodbye I couldn’t help but continue to be so surprised at how warm and friendly she was. My friends in Oslo know her as my “soul mate” because she is everything I hope to embody when I met new people.

After many hours, we arrived at our hostel, and I was the last person to check in. Ironically, the guy couldn’t find me in the system. After a few minutes, I started to panic. All my friends had already checked in, and now I’d be the only one stuck outside in the cold with no place to stay! Luckily the guy soon realized I was somehow already checked in and that’s why he couldn’t find my reservation. For some reason the other two girls got in a different room so it was the 5 guys and I placed in the tiniest room I have ever stayed in while at a hostel. We dropped our stuff off and then went out to a local bar for a beer since it was already quite late.

Graham (left) and Sam (right) in our hostel room in Stockholm. Clearly they were excited.

When we came back to the hostel to go to bed, we all got in the tiny elevator in the building. Yet, when Andy (our big football player friend) entered, the alarm went off. When he stepped off, the alarm halted, and when he entered again the alarm came back with a vengeance. As we are all laughing, the doors closed and Andy had to take the stairs. Don’t feel bad though, Andy still beat us to the room. Once there, we got ready for bed. As I am trying to fall asleep, the guys are blasting Ugly God—an artist they have become obsessed with since studying here in Oslo. Thinking about how we all had to meet in the lobby at 9am, I tried to tune them out and drift off to sleep…

The next day we explored as much as we could in Stockholm before we had to make it to our cruise. We went to the castle and saw the guards change as soon as we got there (perfect timing, I know!). Following that, we walked through old town, ate a kebab, then headed over to this cool outlook on the other side of the city. We just sat up there for quite a while, soaking up the sun, as it was a really beautiful day. Stockholm – Check!

 

The group on the lookout that we found in Stockholm. We sat on the ground for a long time, just soaking up the rays and the sights.

Riga, Latvia:

I had never been on a cruise before, in fact none of the people in my group had, so it was unbelievably exciting when we first saw how big the boat was. Then when we entered they had live music and dancers to greet us. We were like kids in a candy shop, we were so excited. I even got my own cabin!! Remy however ended up staying with me because she had an old Russian woman in her room and wanted to skirt out of that real fast. We all met for beers at the pub and then broke off for dinner. Kersti, Remy and I ate peanut butter sandwiches in my room that we had bought before we left in Stockholm. It was cool to bond and talk with them, since I don’t really have any girlfriends in Oslo except for my roommates. The rest of the night got rather crazy, as we explored the boat and all the things it had to do. We practically all got split up, and luckily when I went to bed, I accidently left the door open which was good for Remy since she needed to get in to sleep.

A picture of my cabin on the cruise! The couch opened up to another bed, where Remy crashed for the night.

Once off the boat, we started walking to our hostel. The city didn’t seem great except for this prominent bridge until we hit old town near our hostel. Our hostel was so nice, with a cool hangout area and bar for the guests. I roomed with 4 of the guys and in our room we met this guy (whose name I forget) who was 24 and living in Germany, even though he’s American. He invited himself to lunch with us, and stayed with us for much of the day. I thought it was interesting how open he was to do such a thing, not that I minded.

After we settled, we set out for lunch including that guy. Our hostel made reservations for us at this really interesting Latvian restaurant that was all underground. I sat in a throne like seat of the restaurant. The food was just amazing, I ordered an extremely traditional Latvian meal which consisted of Grey peas inside a hollowed-out loaf of amazing bread, with a fresh salad on the side—the salad even had pickles! It was so dense and filling which was perfect after the long night on the boat with no real food. Honestly, looking back, that meal was probably my favorite meal I have had all semester in any of my travels. I could almost cry tears of endearment just thinking about it…

Not the highest quality photo, but this is my favorite meal of the semester that I got in Riga. Very traditional Latvian food and very filling.

Afterwards we set out to explore more of the city which proved tough with 9 people. Trond, Graham, and Andy disappeared soon after we departed and then Sam and the guy that tagged along wanted to just sit in a café. We were only there for a day and a night, so I didn’t want to just sit in some café, I wanted to see as much as I could! Luckily the girls felt the same way, so together we split off to continue exploring. This was a great part of the trip because I was able to get to know the girls better and we explored so much of Riga. We found this really cool park with an overlook hill to climb and even a jam-packed lock bridge. We then made our way to the famous market which was so cool! It was this massive building and each section was specialized in a different food group. The first was meat—heaps and heaps of meat. There were types of meat I couldn’t even recognize! The second was all veggies and the last was fish (it smelled awful so we spent very little time in that one). There was even a spice section with so many different types of spices! I wish I lived there just so I could food shop there every week, I loved it so much!

At this point we were exhausted and just wanted to find a cafe to get a pastry, since we were in the land of cheap everything. We found a cute one down the road from our hostel and we got delicious cake things before making our way back to the hostel to meet up with the rest of the crew and to nap.

 

The meat market in Riga! You can imagine how large it was, and there were several other buildings of this size specialized for produce, and also for fish.
The large amount of spices sold at the markets! This was just one stand of many!
The beautiful cakes that Remy, Kersti and I got at a cafe after exploring. Together these cost $3 USD.

I took a quick nap and then awoke to everyone starting to drink at the hostel bar downstairs. Me and the other girls set out to get something quick to eat and we settled on kebabs (yay second day in a row!). The kebab I got was probably the best one I’ve had since Krakow so I was quite pleased. When we came back, we played cards with some other people we met at the hostel. We taught them spoons and bullshit; ya know, the typical American card games we all grew up playing.

Everyone was participating in the pub crawl that night and the hostel gave us four shots spread out over an hour and then we set of for 3 bars and 1 club. The first bar was called the “Ausie backpacking bar” and it was set over several floors with a funky style featuring a 70s van at the bar—very unique. I was not really feeling the bar crawl, despite the fact that there were about 30 people from my hostel on it. I tried to enjoy myself though, since we were only there one night. The next bar was this cool coffee shop looking thing with just a big dance floor. It was fun to dance with the people from our hostel there. This Canadian guy who was the most outgoing, carefree, type of person I’ve ever met, even made me take a picture of him. We never even finished the bar crawl, and opted to instead just wonder the city a little before calling it a night. What we actually did though was sit outside a fast food burger place for like 45 minutes in the cold (why we didn’t go inside is beyond me) before I headed back with Trond to go to bed. It was a good day in Riga but we had to be up so early the next day to head to Vilnius so there wasn’t much time to rest!

That glorious kebab… tbt to the good times…
At the Ausie Backpackers pub, the bar was located inside a renovated 70s van! Very unique.
Pictured is the spunky Canadian I met. He just came up to me, posed like so, and said, “Take a picture!”

 

Vilnius, Lithuania

Despite all odds, our group managed to get up early and embark on our way to the bus station. I got a lot of pastries, a sandwich, and some more fruit for the four-hour long journey to Vilnius (I don’t like being hungry). While on the bus, I couldn’t stop thinking how unbelievable it was that we were traveling to yet another country already. No one was next to me so I tried to sleep as much as I could and then opted for watching a movie with Jonny Depp called Public Enemy Number One, which I never even finished.

The scenery along the way was interesting in my opinion, yet Sam begged to differ. At first it was raining and there was just trees everywhere (in fact so much of the country and even the city is heavily forested). We soon came across some quaint houses and before we knew it, we had arrived.

The walk from the bus was “sketchy” as the boys put it. I wouldn’t necessarily declare it such. It just wasn’t in the nicest area but shorty we entered the outskirts of old town where everything started to look as we imagined. We came across this beautiful church and we somehow entered the church right when they were practicing their music. It was beautiful inside and the two women singing had a beautiful voice. I felt lucky (number 14!) that we managed to go there while they were practicing.

Inside the beautiful church we came across in Vilnius where we heard the choir practicing.

The city got nicer and nicer the closer we got to our hostel. However, our hostel was in this street under construction. We had to walk through mud through this strange door to get in, only to find out later we could have walked around through an alley and avoided the mud completely. The hostel was cool but we couldn’t get our rooms until 3pm and at the time it was only 12. Thus, we headed out for lunch and exploring.

The entrance to the hostel. We had to walk through the mud to get there, and we all felt it was a strange location.

We had the largest group meal ever at this extremely hip bar. The owner had this strange beard and pictures of him were everywhere around the place. At the end of our meal, we even took a picture with him because he asked us to and he had the other two girls take hold of his beard for the photo! As for the food, we all got like 3-4 dishes—clearly we were starving after having not eaten practically anything all day. I am still amazed at the amount we could eat. The guys got some strange stuff too, such as pig ears. I tried it and it oddly tasted like rubber, aka not my thing…

The group at lunch. From left to right it is Trond, me, Sam, Graham, Remy, and Brad (Kersti took the photo). You can see just how many dishes we all ordered.

After lunch, we set out to just explore and ended up coming across the republic, Uzupio Respublika, holding their Independence Day celebration. There were people all dressed up, laughing and singing. As we crossed ‘the border’, we even got our passports stamped. This usually doesn’t happen but because it was their holiday, they were doing it for tourists. Once in, there was all this funky art, quirky shops, and even decorative boats in the water. It was really cool and we felt lucky to be there on this day. Plus, we had just visited four countries in four days! Well, sort of. If you google the Republic, you’ll learn it is slightly a joke, even to its own people. But hey, we found it cool.

 

The official entrance to the Uzupio Republic. We actually got our passports stamps just before on the bridge over.

Following that, we wanted to get to the Three Crosses Monument which was located on top of the hill in the city. To get there, we walked through this beautiful park and had to climb what I deem to be the Mantinu Springs Incline of Vilnius. In other words, it was this long wooden stair case up the hill There were a lot of trails on the hill that I took the opportunity to explore and then we just sat on the grass for over an hour talking and relaxing in the sun. It was so hot we didn’t even need our jackets. I laid down and even fell asleep for a little—it felt good to relax after so much traveling. On the way back to the hostel we stopped at the big river too which was so nice and moving extremely fast. Graham proceeded to dunk his head in the water—honestly that dude is a riot.

The famous Three Crosses Monument located on the largest hill in Vilnius.
A picture of the group where we sat on the hill, looking out onto the city of Vilnius.

Finally it was time to get our rooms. Only me and graham were in the same room in the main building while the others had their own room in a separate building. We entered our room to find these two Irish guys hung over as hell still sleeping at 4:30pm. They had the strongest accents I’ve ever heard and their humor made talking to them a fun pass time for me. We napped for a little and then all gathered to go get some ice cream in old town.

The first ice cream place was closed for some reason and we were so upset until we found several places further down the road. We opted for this incredible one that had a long line, but it was very worth it. After that, we sat in the main square watching the people walk, skate, and scooter around. The sun was shining and it was beautiful just to chill there on the marble seat for a few hours with everyone. At one point a man in the window of the main building started playing the trumpet, which is my favorite instrument. The square, overall, was awesome. I could have spent days just chilling right there.

In fact, we loved it there so much that we decided to go grab a quick dinner and bring it back there to eat. Everyone got a Lithuanian fast food meal while Kersti and I found a cafe to get a sandwich and I also got a slice of yummy cheese cake—I was treating myself since soon we’d be back in expensive Norway where I can’t even afford to look at a cheesecake. While there I got locked on the bathroom though, which is probably one of the scariest things that has happened to me in forever. I tried for a good few minutes to get out, before messaging Kersti, “SOS STUCK IN BATHROOM”. She came to the door and I could hear her laughing. The laughter stopped though as she soon realized the door wasn’t opening. After another 30 seconds it opened and I flew out. Phew!

We took our food back and just chilled again at this square. The bells ran on the hour and lasted for a while. We weren’t even talking much. I think we were all tired and just very at peace with relaxing there in silence. The next day when I boarded the plane back to Oslo, I happened to be sitting in row 14… Started and ended the very same way. Everything happens for a reason, man. It was a good trip.

The beautiful square where my group spent so much time relaxing, eating, laughing, and mostly people watching.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Norwegians Do Exist

Norwegians Do Exist

With a month and one day left, I have finally met some Norwegians. It’s only taken me five months, but I can affirmatively declare that friendly ones do exist.

….I am exaggerating of course, but there is a degree of truth to that statement. Norwegians are a very closed group of people. It is hard to become good friends with them, let alone even talk to them. If you see a Norwegian on the street, do not make eye contact. If there is an open seat on the metro or bus but there is already someone seating in the seat adjacent to it, do not sit in that chair—stand if you must. Do not ask strangers how they are, or even what time it is. The only exception to all of this is, of course, when they are drinking. Norwegians become unbelievably friendly and welcoming, but only after that second beer. Still, if you run into them the next day soberly, they will pretend they don’t even know who you are… (I am not being mean, ask any Norwegian and they will make jokes about how closed they are too).

So ya, I would honestly say that has been the hardest cultural shock that I have endured here in Oslo, especially because Americans are notoriously open and welcoming to everyone, even strangers. Plus, talking to strangers is quite possibly my favorite pass time so the Norwegian culture is extra obtuse to me.

However, a few weekends ago was an interesting change. First, on a Friday, I had curry night and watched game of thrones with the guys as usual, but then afterwards I went out with my friend Will and his Norwegian friends that he knows from university back at home. They were so fun and at the time, it was the most Norwegians I had ever spent time with since I’ve been here!

You see, most (if not all) of my friends here are international students. The University of Oslo has some 2,000 of us and they do a good job integrating us together as one community. While that is amazing, and I love everyone I have met, I truly did want to meet more Norwegians during my exchange. For that reason, I signed up rather abruptly to work at RF, the Math and Natural Sciences Faculty pub and café.

Yep, you read that right. The math faculty actually has their own bar in their building on campus. Surprisingly, all five faculties at the university have their own bars that are open during weekdays as a café, and on the weekends as a bar. They are run by the students of the faculty and are basically the cheapest places you can go for mediocre coffee and a variety of beer.

I just learned the other day that the Math pub (called RF-Kjelleren) was founded before there was even a math faculty—the math degree originally was housed under the philosophy department back in the day. It is a quirky place, quite fitting for math and science students. Their mascot is a bear called Major, and all throughout the pub there are drawings, even mosaics, of friendly bears. They even have a famous teddy bear that they bring out at all parties and events whose name is Minor. This cutie has a Facebook account where you can befriend him—check it out. The café/pub also has game nights, quiz nights, massive parties, intern parties, movie days—basically everything you could imagine. There are always people in there studying, chatting and drinking coffee (or beer). Reminds me of a fraternity almost, but actually not at all… I don’t know, it is more unique haha. Hard to put into words…

Anyways, at orientation in the first week of my semester, some Norwegians said that the best way to become friends with them is to join their clubs and sports—specifically these pubs. I thought it sounded great, but for some reason every time I walked through the doors of RF in the basement of the math building, I would get too intimidated to ask to join. Luckily, within the first few weeks my two German friends from my buddy group, Juli and Laura, forced me to go there and stayed by my side as I asked if they still needed interns. They call volunteers ‘interns’, which I first thought was some weird Norwegian-English translation mix up, but turns out the Norwegian word interne literally translates to ‘insider’—kinda cool that they call all of the volunteers “insiders”. I happened to talk to the head of the café, so when he asked if I wanted to work as a barista, I just said “sure!”, without much contemplation. I signed up for the weekly Monday shift from 2-4pm. As soon as I started, I quickly learned that my shift really goes from 2-5pm because as it is the closing shift, we have to clean up which takes time. This is especially true when no one is motivated to move quickly and efficiently.

The entrance to the math pub “RF_Kjelleren” in the basement of a building called Vilhelm Bjerknes Hus located at the University of Oslo Blindern Campus.

Skipping forward, I did really enjoy my time working as a barista at RF. I missed having a regular job—something that I have had since I was sixteen years old, so it felt comfortable to have some sort of responsibility again. Additionally, the RF café is famous for their “baffles”. These are the wonderful Norwegian waffles that the students of RF adapted to call baffles because back when they first started, they added beer to the batter. You’d be glad to know that today’s recipe is remarkably lacking in beer, yet full of other yummy flavors, specifically heaps of cardamon. Furthermore, one baffle is only 10 kroner—approximately 1 USD—hence they are extremely popular. I got really good at making (and eating) these waffles every shift I had. Even the managers of each shift are called “Baffle-masters”.

Behind the counter at RF. You can see the variety of beer they sell on the weekends, a mosaic of a bear (of course), as well as the baffle station.
Figures at my last shift we accidentally screwed up several baffles. But don’t worry, there is so much batter that a few slip-ups are harmless.
The finished products. The most common toppings provided for all Norwegian waffles, including baffles, are jam, brown cheese, sugar, whipped cream, and a type of sour cream.

Also, it was fun to start to see regulars in the café every Monday, and I got invited to several Facebook groups dedicated to rock climbers and hikers by this particularly friendly Norwegian who would spend a lot of time talking with me some days.

Surprisingly, I never made a latte myself until my very last shift. There were a few reasons why… First, I was terrified to fail. I had learned several times how to do it, yet I remained terrified that I would mess up someone’s drink! However, the main reason I made a latte for the first time at my last shift was because of my decision to attend the ‘thank you’ dinner on Sunday evening for all the café workers. It was there where, being the only non-Norwegian, that I had to push myself father outside my comfort zone than ever to talk to all these people I had never seen before.

The dinner started at 6pm and as usual, I showed up about 15 minutes late. I don’t have access to the building when it is locked on the weekend, so I didn’t know how to get in except post on the Facebook event how I was locked out and needed someone to come get me. Right after posting that is when this guy walks up. Turns out he was there for the dinner and I was relieved to not be alone.

After a few minutes we were let in and walked to the basement where the pub is located. The room was chalk full of people speaking loudly in Norwegian. I followed the guy I had just met to meet his friends. To my surprise, when they found out I was American and jeg snakker lit norsk (I speak a little Norwegian), they started to all speak in English for me and continued throughout the rest of the night.

A night that I originally thought would end in me leaving around 7:30-8:00pm, accumulated into a late-night evening in which I arrived home well past 1:30am. It was just so fun! Norwegian tacos were on the menu for the dinner, which is basically just a delicious burrito with meat, veggies, guacamole, and cheese. I made conversation with all those around me during the meal, as they realized I was the silly girl who posted on the event page. When we had all finished eating, everyone grabbed a pint of beer from behind the bar and just kept talking. I was enjoying myself so much that I did the same. We laughed, talked, played games, even had a limbo competition (No big deal, but I won). Me and my new friends were the last ones to leave, and I walked home with this blue-haired, spunky girl named Aurora chatting about everything under the sun.

Throughout the night, however, they found out that I had never made a latte, which they thought was absurd. This one guy named Anders, who was to be the “baffle-master” during my last shift the next day, promised me that he would force me to make one. Turns out you also get a free drink during your shift (which I never knew) so that way I could make one just for myself and be assured that I wouldn’t screw up someone else’s drink.

The very next day, when I showed up for my last shift ever, I got to making baffles as usual. We were running low, and they are the most popular item we sell besides regular coffee. Then Anders came over to me after a few minutes and simply said, “It’s time”. He first made one to show me again how it is done. Looked easy enough, I thought. Then it was my turn. Just a precursor, I have no clue what the correct terminology is for anything coffee related, so be prepared for me to call certain aspects of the process “things”. Anyhow, to start, I turned on the grinder just for a few seconds to get the right amount of expresso that I needed. I filled up the handle-thingy with the coffee and inserted it into the machine and pressed go. Following that, I got the milk out, poured just the right amount into a metal cup and then placed the foamy spout thing just below the surface. I turned it on and waited till it was hot enough. By that time the expresso was done. I took a clean glass, poured the expresso straight in, and then gently started pouring the milk and foam into the cup. Of course, I messed up a little and there was too much milk on the top, and certainly no fancy design was made in the process, but nonetheless, it was delicious. Ta-da! My very first latte! By the end of my shift, I had made several others for customers, including a mocha (I know, how fancy!).

 

My (not so) beautiful first latte!
Anders one-up’ed me when he made his latte following mine. He can actually make a bear design in the milk! Quite fitting for the theme of RF, am I right?

It was remarkably sad when my last shift ended. But luckily it was a Monday, and at RF that means all the interns gather at night after closing to drink and hang out together. I always knew they all did it every Monday, but I had been too scared to show up to anything RF hosted because I didn’t know anyone and certainly didn’t want to go by myself—this was why even attending the dinner on Sunday was such a big deal, although I probably got over my fear only because free food was involved. Anyways, all the Norwegians I had met on Sunday’s dinner told me that I have to come hang out on Monday evening. I enjoyed spending time with them, and so, after my shift ended, I worked out, showered, and then took my dinner to-go in order to hang out at the pub.

When I showed up around 7:00pm, there were only about eight Norwegians sitting in several groups and they all kind of stared at me when I walked through the door. I didn’t know what to do, as I didn’t recognize any of them. I opted for sitting at a table by myself. I took out my computer so I would have something to do and I started to eat. I messaged my roommates in our group chat how I had freaking pushed myself to come here but now I was all alone and how I didn’t know what to do. I was especially asking them how long do they think I should stay there before I could leave without it being awkward. I wanted to leave immediately, but I couldn’t exactly come there, sit for five minutes, and then walk out. I had to wait out the uncomfortable awkwardness… Plus, my roommates all responded with “Stay strong, Shayna!” So there I sat.

As I am sitting there, this one guy kept staring at me. I was thinking maybe he thought I wasn’t actually an intern and that I didn’t belong there. I was tempted to scream over to him, “I’m an intern! I’m an intern!” I didn’t of course, and instead I tried to just focus on pretending to do work on my computer. However, after about five minutes, that guy just stood up and walked slightly closer to me, all awhile just blatantly staring at me. You could say I was more than taken aback, and more so freaked out. Norwegians never stare, this was so out of the ordinary…

As I was trying to pretend I didn’t notice him, the guy just kept staring. After a minute (the longest minute of my life), I turned and just said “What?” Then I thought maybe he was looking at all the stickers I have on my computer. I stupidly have some political crap on there so I have gotten used to strangers coming up to me to discuss certain topics. So thinking that was it, I then asked the guy “Sorry is it something about my computer stickers? Is that what you are looking at?” He simply responded, “No. I am just staring.”

With that, he came and joined me at my table. Conversation flowed so smoothly and I forgot how awkward I had felt walking in. His name was Olav–basically the most Norwegian name that exists. It even turned out that he thought I was weird for not sitting with them originally and for the rest of the night kept making fun of me for having sat by myself. Soon after we got to talking, my new Norwegian friends that I had met on Sunday showed up and joined us at my table. It ended up being such a good night, and since then I have gone every Monday night to hang out with them.

I guess what this has taught me, is that showing up places by yourself and truly pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is the way you met amazing people that you otherwise wouldn’t have. If I hadn’t pushed through how uncomfortable I was to sign up to volunteer as a barista, I would have never made a baffle. If I hadn’t forced myself to attend the thank you dinner alone because I wanted the free food, I would never have made my first latte. If I hadn’t stayed strong at that table sitting alone, I would never have made the fun experiences I have had with some incredibly funny, non-politically correct Norwegians. The whole experience has made me feel more independent than ever, which is an extremely empowering feeling. I hope I can continue pushing myself in this manner for the rest of my life, because I never know who I might meet. My advice to anyone would be to do the same.

Any who, thanks again lola blog for letting me account my life through writing. As always, until next time…

(p.s., I am extremely behind on blogging about my travels, so stay tuned for when I find the time and motivation to sit down and document!)

Oslo’s Charlie’s Angels

Oslo’s Charlie’s Angels

Simply put, I love my roommates. Like, wow—I really love them. There are six of us total, and we had one Norwegian roommate who was a ghost before she moved out and another amazing Norwegian moved in. For clarities sake, the following are my roommates’ names and home countries:

Cami (Argentina)

Juli (Germany)

Frida (Norway)

Shannon (Ireland)

Frances (Canada)

 

Our last Sunday family dinner all together. Pictured is Cami, Frida, me, Julie, and Shannon (Frances was the one who took the photo).
Shannon, me, Cami, and Frances outside one of my favorite places to go on Sunday’s; a jazz bar called Blå.

Obviously, I am the only American which has been an eye-opening experience for me to live with people so vastly different than me, while simultaneously learning just how well we can mesh together as one unit despite those differences. I firmly believe, through my own experience, that one of the best advantages to directly enrolling for an exchange semester is getting to live with people who are not American.

Furthermore, there is so much my roommates have done for me and vice versa, I wouldn’t even begin to describe how grateful I am for them in one blog post, or even one full length conversation. However, I am writing this today (with Shannon and Frances sitting beside me watching the sun set over the buildings of Sogn) because things are about to change after so many months. Frances is about to leave on Wednesday back for Canada; a least a month earlier than the average international student. (I still have two whole months left—the same amount of time I spent in Iceland last summer to put things in perspective).

Thus, I am dedicating this blog to my last few days with Shannon and Frances and our friendship that grew one silly night when Shannon drunkenly offered to make us food, starting a friendship I could have never imagined would flourish in the way that it did.

One of the first pictures we took together in our apartment.

It all began towards the beginning of the semester. Cami definitely was the roommate I was closest with at the start. We traveled to Kraków together and had the same mutual friends. When she left for 10 days to go traveling, it was slightly tough for me. She was my only girlfriend in Oslo at the time because the rest of my friends are all guys; guys that I love, but it was nice to not always be the only girl and to have someone to have meaningful, engaged conversations with when I came home.

Then one night Shannon had a lot of her friends over to make and enjoy sangria. Me and Frances were soberly enjoying talking to them as they got louder and funnier the more they drank. It began almost as a bonding moment for Frances and I, just before Shannon came over. She put her arms around us, and I can literally picture her face and voice as she said in her roaring Irish accent, “I am going to make you guys food sometime!” Those words were all we needed. Over dinner just a few days later our real friendship began.

Because I can’t even put to words everything that has happened in the period between the start and end, I am going to fast forward to few days before Frances left. So bear with me, it will most likely be a little long because there is so much to say. But here’s to my last few days with such an amazing person, and to the life long memories that took place.

Friday, April 21st

All throughout the semester, we had always thrown parties at our apartment so we decided to dedicate Friday night’s gathering to Frances and her departure from Norge on April 26th. It was a really fun night, spent with good friends and mostly with each other.

Frances, very much in character, came home from a friend’s place and went to bed without even telling anyone that she had arrived. Luckily, she felt bad doing that at a party dedicated to her and she eventually came out to enjoy a fun evening. We even had a record timing for getting everyone to leave which was nice because it is always Shannon and I who stay up until everyone is gone. Shannon had to eat, and I started washing the mound of glasses while she enjoyed her meal at 3:30 in the morning—it was deemed a successful night that celebrated Frances’ exchange semester.

Frances, Shannon, and me that Friday evening in our yellow hallway.

Saturday, April 22nd

That morning, we somehow were all up and ready around the same time for once—usually it takes several hours to finally gather in the kitchen for tea and chatting. Frances, the early-bird that she is, had already gone out and bought Shannon and I a lovely pastry with a note reading, “This breakfast is sweet, but not as sweet as you”. We sat there drinking tea, enjoying both the treat and each other’s company. Frances decided that because my lucky number is 14 and Shannon’s is 6, that in 10 years (the number in the middle of the two) we must all come back to Norway together. We loved the notion and all set reminders on our phones for April 22, 2027.

Shannon and I enjoying the treat Frances bought us – she definitely shows her love by giving and sharing food to those she cares about.

Soon after we decided that, about 6 other people came and we all had brunch in our kitchen. It took a while to cook and prepare everything, but it was the most proper brunch I’ve ever prepared with a group of people outside my family.

Everyone didn’t leave until around 4pm in the afternoon from brunch and then the three of us went for a walk to Sognsvann, the lake that is about a 15-minute walk from our apartment complex. It was a beautifully sunny day, with crisp air that required a warm sweater but not anything heavier. The lake was gorgeous–it was the first time I had finally seen the water completely unfrozen. While sitting on a rock next to the simmering waters, an idea came to us from out of nowhere.

“Let’s get a tattoo together.”

It was no one person’s idea, but it was certainly more of their idea than mine; I was just enthusiastically encouraging the notion. In the period of about an hour, we had an appointment booked for Monday and everything was set to go. By some miracle, we all easily agreed on the same tattoo—something I never thought would happen or would want to happen.

After that, we proceeded to spend the rest of the night sitting together, journaling and talking, remembering the amazing times we have had together and our first impressions of each other at the beginning. It’s funny, Frances told me that she didn’t think we’d get along at first because I talked about the environment too much (lols).

Our view of Sognsvann – keep in mind this is just a 15 minute walk away from my apartment (Oslo is just fantastic!).
Frances and Shannon sitting at our kitchen table. We had completely destroyed the kitchen that day, which was highly out of character because typically we are quite clean.

Sunday, April 23rd

Now it is Sunday, the day before we got our permanent “good-bad decision” as it was soon to be denoted. We woke up super early and took part in Oslo’s “Be a tourist in your own city day” which meant all the museums were free to the public. We went to 7 different museums all over the city over the course of the day. It was such a fun, tiring day, and if you ever want to check out an extremely strange artist, hit up Robert Gober and you won’t be disappointed. Also, if you are ever in Oslo, you gotta check out the Fram museum. It is so unique and you get to explore a massive ship that is modeled after one that traveled to the North Pole for scientific expeditions.

That night we had family dinner. It was the first time all 6 of us had dinner together. Frances, Shannon, and I cooked and the other girls cleaned up afterwards. It kept feeling more and more surreal that Frances was soon to leave us….

This is the boat you can explore inside the Fram museum. It was all about the scientific explorations done in the North Pole and how the ship got stuck in Ice, extending the trip longer than expected.
We also got into the Ice bar for free! We didn’t stay long, but it was fairly cool just to get to see a bar completely made of ice and various sculptures.

Monday April 24th

Finally, Monday came. I awoke to Olso’s first snow storm in a while. Of course, after having warm weather for so long, the one day the three of us planned to spend the day outside hiking and exploring it had to be snowing. It wasn’t even regular snow though. It was the stereotypical spring snow—ya know, the extremely wet kind that soaks you just as much as if it had been raining.

I had my math class until 12 and the plan was to go meet the girls at the National Theater stop in the sentrum around 12:10. I went to class, kind of in denial that in just a few hours I would not only have something permanent on my body, but a matching tattoo at that. I don’t think I fully comprehended what I was about to do…

It figures I showed up late to meet the other two because, well, I had to get coffee before I departed the Blindern campus. They told me when I finally arrived that they wouldn’t have been surprised if I had backed out without saying anything (which I would not have done, FYI!).

We set off walking to find the tattoo parlor. Get this, it is called “Old Bastards Tattoo Oslo”—very fitting for a couple of 21-year old women, am I right? Not surprisingly we couldn’t find the place and Frances entered a near-by shop to ask for help. The place was a religious pilgrimage office, run by a cute elderly woman who was kind enough to help us find where to look. Shannon told the woman that only Frances wanted a tattoo (don’t ask me why), and the woman replied with “You’re crazy”! We couldn’t stop laughing as we left the store to keep looking for the shop.

Once outside again, I noticed the place was just around the corner and we all laughed once again at how stupid we were to have not noticed it sooner. Upon entering, the tattoo shop was just one big open room that was decorated tastefully—the opposite of uninviting. There was only one man working named Thomas. He had already printed out our designs on separate pieces of paper and I was taken aback with how fast Shannon sat down and began to have something so permanent placed on her arm.

Frances was to go second, and I last because this was my first tattoo ever and I was timid. Nervously, I started eating the celery and carrots I had packed as a snack. Thomas laughed at me because they had told him this would be my first tattoo and here I was, shaking and eating vegetables just before him. I still hadn’t decided on a placement and it was beginning to dawn on me what I was about to do. Moment before I got mine done, I decided on a spot only to have Thomas tell me that it was one of the most painful places to get a tattoo. That scared me at first, but then I remained calm knowing I am good at handling pain because of all the times I have accidently gotten injured.

As I sat in the chair, I suddenly got nervous because all at once this decision became real. All I can say is it wasn’t bad at all, even tickled at times. We paid and left, and I remained in shock, unable to grasp what just happened.

While walking back, I can’t even tell you what we talked about because I don’t think I could comprehend anything in the moment. But I do remember Frances saying how we were Charlies Angels because there are not only three of us, but also two white girls and one Asian. So, that’s us; Charlies Angels with matching tats. (Although it is important to note both Shannon and I have not seen the movie, so we don’t quite understand the reference).

We spent the rest of the day together in our lovely kitchen drinking tea, watching a movie (Wild Child because Frances hadn’t seen it), chatting about our futures to the tune of The Lumineers, and watching the snow fall from our porch. It was a melancholy day, and we could all feel it, but it was still beautifully peaceful.

Frances still amazes me sometimes at how well she understands certain aspects of me and she demonstrated that once again during our conversations about where we saw ourselves ending up. I said how I thought I could end up in a small town of only a few thousand people, where I could farm, ride my bike everywhere, and hike in any direction. She pointed out she couldn’t see me living in a small town for too long because I am a person who is constantly growing and feeding off the environment and people around me. Eventually I would need something “more”, whatever that meant for me. Damn girlie, way to hit the nail on the head before I even could.

We also spent a lot of time together in silence—something that Frances has pointed out not only on that day but previously to me as well. To be silent with someone (or two people, in this case) and not feel uncomfortable, but rather the opposite, is something rarely found in interactions. It is special that we can naturally be silent together, as Frances noted before Shannon made a joke how us talking broke the silence.

Our plan is to not tell anyone about our tattoo decision unless they notice it for themselves. In fact, I am really only writing this blog for myself to remember these events someday way in the future, not necessarily to declare to the world what we did.

As we sat in the kitchen all day, of course our roommates noticed. When we told Cami, she said “Oh wow, that’s cool”, just before skirting off to catch the bus. When we told Juli, she said “I love it! But you shouldn’t get in trouble with each other because now you’re bonded”. Shannon joked maybe we shouldn’t have gotten something so permanent… lol. When Frida noticed, she made the connection to our “art session” that she saw on Saturday and started laughing. Now it made sense to her why we had drawn so many mountains over and over on our notebooks…

To be one-hundred percent honest, we are freaking crazy—I recognize that. But somehow it fits our personalities with each other in a unique way. Most people would never have done what we did for fear of others judging them, or in case the friendship fell through sometime in the future. I believe us three, however, are extremely strong minded individuals who must not care what others think—and this is symbolic of that. I think all of us wanted to do something a little crazy, and so we just did it, without much forethought or contemplation.

The fact that we have matching tattoos does not signify that our friendship is the best one we have or will ever have in our entire lives. Instead, it hints at our special semester spent together here—both here in this apartment (Sogn Building 46, floor 3—forever in my memory), and here in beautiful Norway as exchange students.

Shannon is the most carefree about tattoos and this kind of stuff, so she seemed very calm the entire time and was just excited to do it for her own reasons. Frances, on the other hand, could be thought of as rather up-tight when you first meet her. However, I think that description falls through once you get to know her. I have noticed that she has become more relaxed this semester, perhaps the most relaxed she has ever been. Thus, to me it makes sense that she did something so “crazy” without any regret.

For me, just as the hot dogs were symbolic of me not knowing who I am anymore, this tattoo is a more permanent representation of that same feeling. I would never in a million years have thought I would ever do something like this—it isn’t (maybe now I should say, wasn’t) me. Nevertheless, unlike how upset I was at the beginning of the semester when I felt like I had lost myself, I am now rather at peace with the fact that I have no idea who I am in many ways. It is kind of beautiful, actually. As Frances pointed out, I am constantly changing and growing, and I love that about myself. It is rather exciting to not even know what I am about to do, or how I might surprise myself next.

As Frances said, even if the tattoo means nothing to us in the future, it did mean something in the moment, and that’s what counts. We finished off the day with journaling together in silence, and a short venture into the snow where I tried to get both of them to catch snowflakes in their mouths (I failed because Frances wouldn’t do it). But in regards to journaling, it was only Frances and I who were journaling and well, Shannon…. Well, she was on Facebook when she should have been working on her take home exam! Very typical of her, in the funniest way.

All in all, it was an extremely average, yet special day that I hope I will never forget. If I start to, I guess I will not only read this, but just glance down at my arm for a quick reminder.

Love these individuals…

Tuesday, April 25th

Frances, given that see was leaving, had a lot to do on Tuesday and thus was not around for much of the day. I had my math class and then just did some errands because my friend Hope was coming in from Ireland to visit me for the next few days.

Despite being so busy, we did have dinner again together. Shannon’s famous pasta was the dish and we all ate a ridiculous amount of it. It was hard for me to watch how quiet Frances was during dinner. I could tell she was somber but trying to hide it…

The last supper featuring my friend Hope who was visiting.

It is extremely difficult making such good friends when you are abroad and then just leaving, never knowing if you will ever see them again. It happened to me when I went to Iceland, and I know its going to be even worse this time around when I leave Norway because I’ve been here three times longer.

For Frances, she tried really hard at times to keep a distance to make leaving easier. For example, she would always try to stop herself from calling Oslo her home, because in her words, “It isn’t home” and she just can’t think like that. But I could tell, despite her best efforts, it had become home to her just as it has become my home as well. Goodbyes are never easy, but that doesn’t mean you should try to diminish your experience with those around you in the moment to make it simpler to leave….

My friend Hope and I joined Frances and Shannon for a quick trip into the sentrum to get falafel (even though we had just ate heaps of pasta). Only Shannon and Frances got more food, but I wanted to go to just be with them still and that way Hope would get to see some of the city on her first day in Oslo.

When we returned home from Gaza Kjøken (the 50 kroner falafel place), Hope and I left immediately to my friends place because it was one of the guys 21st birthdays. I felt weird leaving Frances knowing the next day would be her last…

We purposely took Hope to see the famous tiger statue in the sentrum and she took the typical tourist photo of Frances, Shannon and I in front of it for us.

Wednesday April 26th

This was the final day. I couldn’t stay home to see Frances off because Hope was only here for a few days and I had to show her my favorite parts of Oslo. Also because of her, I couldn’t really get too emotional when saying goodbye to Frances. Around midday, she walked Hope and I to our door as we were leaving and we exchanged two hugs and a quick goodbye. It didn’t feel real saying bye. It just felt normal, almost as though she was just traveling for a bit and then coming back. Hope and I left for an adventurous day, and my last words to her were “See ya later”…

I can’t stress enough the strange dichotomy that April 26th was for me. Having Hope with me was amazing, no doubt, and I had one of the top 5 best days of my semester that Wednesday (Ekebergparken is my favorite place in all of Oslo now). However, such an amazing day was juxtaposed to my roommate and friend leaving the country. I was grateful Hope was visiting me, but it didn’t allow me to process what had occurred. I had just said goodbye to someone I honestly might not see again (although that better not the case).

Overall, after this long and extensive blog post that was rather personal, my main message is just about how difficult saying goodbye is when you are on exchange. You can’t really understand the feeling until you experience it yourself, I think. Even though I still have about two months, being forced to say goodbye to those around me is akin to parting with my life here in Oslo up until now. Although I am still here, my experience has now evolved with Frances gone and will continue to evolve and feel different with each friend who leaves. It’s tough and honestly, I haven’t fully processed the events of this past week. But at the end of the day, I would never have done it differently. I am glad I got close to those around me here, even if that makes the end that much harder.

Here’s to my lovely friend and roommate, Frances. May she have safe travels back to Canada and a strong final year in university.

Until next time, lola blog…

Oslo ~ Os(love)
My Dense, Pastel City

My Dense, Pastel City

Prague, Czech Republic – March 11-12, 2017

I have become accustomed to calling Oslo, “My Frosted City” for reasons I will explain at a different time. Hence, while traveling in Praha, I couldn’t help but develop a name for that city as well. The city is remarkably dense, and the staggering architecture is generally painted lovely pastel shades of pink, blue, yellow, etc. Thus, it seemed fitting to call Praha “My Dense, Pastel City”.

I was blessed enough to have a friend studying in Prague who let me crash with him for free. Ben was originally going to try to come to Oslo along with me through USAC but instead he chose the USAC program in Prague. Throughout my time in Praha, I found it interesting to juxtapose his experience with a different USAC program to my experience here in Oslo.

Here in Oslo, USAC is the definition of hands off. I don’t consider myself a USAC student, but rather a student at Universitet i Oslo for several reasons. I am mostly friends with the numerous other international students, the Americans I am friends with are numbered, especially those I know through USAC. Furthermore, my 5 roommates are all non-American, and it is quite common for me to be the only native English speaker in the room at most times. I even had to request for my classes to be taught in English, for example, because everyone in my math class at least was Norwegian, apart from me and two German friends of mine from my buddy group. Although USAC doesn’t do anything with us, the University of Oslo truly does an impeccable job orienting the 2,000 some international exchange students. Thus, I am extremely well adjusted and couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out.

Ben’s experience is quite the opposite. He is always with the 80 USAC participants in his program. He lives with them, only takes classes with them, parties with them, and travels with them. USAC even treats them to various excursions quite frequently. I am not saying my experience is better than his, or vice versa. I was just intrigued at the vast difference between our two exchanges. For me personally, it validated that I chose the right program for me (I utterly love Oslo and Norge as a whole).

Moving past that, I loved the trip. Ben was a great tour guide and I was able to see basically the entire city while I was there. In order to save money, we did not purchase transit tickets, and instead walked everywhere. We averaged about 15 miles a day, which I loved because I love exceedingly long walks.

At one point Ben took me to one overlook and told me that the very far tower on the horizon was where we had walked from. I was blown away and took a picture with my finger pointing to it to remember! It is so easy to travel far distances when you’re having fun exploring!

Ben not only picked me up at the airport but also dropped me off, even though it is easily an hour’s trip from his apartment. The public transit can just be very confusing and the language is extraordinarily difficult, so he wanted to make sure I wouldn’t get lost.

While on the train back to his apartment, we tried to start catching up for we hadn’t seen each other since the fall semester back at Loyola. Unfortunately the trains in Praha are unbelievably loud that we practically had to scream to hear one another.

Everything in Prague is just so old—Ben’s apartment building included. Even the key to his room is ancient looking. It is all so different to me. I was blown away at how lovely a street he lives on, and especially how huge his apartment and subsequent room is. I live in a small apartment in Oslo with 5 other people, where my room is maybe the size of his bathroom!

The key to Ben’s apartment – ancient, I know!
The beautiful street Ben lives on.

Everywhere I went, I was blown away at the buildings, what with their age and history. America just doesn’t have stuff like that, we are too young. We walked around Old Town Square, which was filled with history and people, followed by the famous Charles Bridge. I loved being on there, taking in the beautiful cityscape and the enormous statues. Ben made sure to show me his favorite statue at the very end of the bridge, before taking me to what he called ‘a special surprise’. I asked where he was taking me and he just asked if I liked the Beatles. I answered “Of course!”, but still he didn’t reveal where we were going until we had reached our destination.

The Lennon Wall is precisely everything that I love—rebellion plus art plus creativity. We stood there for ages, picking out new bits and pieces the more we looked at it.

The entrance to Charles Bridge.
The view while on the Bridge. Keep in mind this was taken on a Friday. When we walked past it again on Saturday, the place was so packed you wouldn’t even be able to walk without touching someone next to you! Blessed we went on Friday!
The view of part of Praha from Charles Bridge.
Ben’s favorite statue on the Bridge.
The famous Lennon Wall.

As we kept walking and exploring, we would come across the funniest statues and the nicest walking paths. I got the sense that Prague has a unique sense of character compared to other cities. I also learned from my Czech friends back in Oslo that the reason the city wasn’t destroyed during the war like many other places was because Hitler had fallen in love with it and wanted to preserve it. I can see why someone would fall in love with the city, it is quite impeccable.

Yes, you see that correct. That is a statue/fountain of men peeing. Fun fact, it also moved! So quirky, Praha…
These statues of these giant babies are all throughout the city. Honestly, they freaked me out a tad…
Pictured is Ben on one of the various paths we wondered on.

The second day Ben also took me to some fascinating parts of the city. We found this strange park that jutted out on a tall wall, with winding stairs to get down to the ground. Then we walked through another park, which the only way I can describe it is magical. The sense I got while wandering through there truly was fairytale like—I don’t know any other words to use for it.

The park that jutted out on top of the wall. It had strange statues of wooden legs, and nice benches to sit on when the weather is nice.
That is the wall in which the park is located, as well as the spiral stair case we used to get down. All so old!
The “magical” park I described previously.

Following that we entered the old grave yard of the city, Vyšehrad Cemetery. There’s something about walking through graveyards that I enjoy—not so much in a morbid way or anything but for reasons I can’t exactly put into words. I guess I just like to think about all the lives that had been lived with each gravestone. Moreover, every country (every city, even) has their own twist on how they built and manage their cemeteries. This one was filled was greenery and trees everywhere. It was delicate and inviting in a strange way.

One section of the Vyšehrad Cemetery. You can see all the plants and trees everywhere – quite beautiful.

Lastly, we crossed a different, but also beautiful bridge to hike up to the Metronome. There were stairs leading up to it and once up their there were lots of people laughing with their friends, drinking beers in the sun. In addition there was a skate park where we watched various people try to improve their best tricks. It was a nice spot, and I told Ben he has to come back he with his friends at sunset with a few beers before his semester is over (he finishes school a lot earlier than I do).

The bridge with the Metronome in the distance on the hill.

The food was also so cheap, which was a nice break from Norway, where I haven’t eaten out once because the prices here are exorbitant. I really loved this particular café we went to called Standard Cafe. The art on the walls was a collection of photographs, probably about 8 frames in total. Each picture had a pair of two photographs highlighting a single person among a crowd. The people were all looking up at something with looks of amazement and awe. The lead people sometimes had phones in their hands to capture whatever they were looking at, while others simple stood there in the picture with their jaws hanging down. Their facial expressions were radical and quite humorous. Seriously, this installation was just so dope! It makes you wonder what the heck all these people were looking at, and it made me want to meet the artist…

Of course both nights I was in the city, I just had to stop for a late night kebab—among the best meals on this planet, the kebab <3 You can also see a bandaid on my thumb; I had cut it on a donut box and was bleeding profusely at one point.
Some cheesecake and coffee that I got at the Chocolate Café.

As for the night life, Prague is so diverse. On the first night, we bar hopped a lot (5 to be precise). The goal was just to get a sense of the diversity within all the various bars and clubs. Almost any scene you could possible want, you can find in Prague.

The cutest and sweetest dog ever that was at one of the bars. I just sat with it the entire time, utterly in love!

I especially enjoyed my second night out because I was able to meet and converse with some of the coolest strangers. First, we went to a bar that was literally in an old, World War II bunker, which was fascinating, followed by this club which is where I met those groovy people. There were 2 different bachelor parties going on at the club, so the place was primarily filled with men. The first group was huge and all the guys had on the same matching shirt. The groom was wearing a veil and they were hilarious to watch dance. The second bachelor party was one that I conversed with for quite a while. They were all from Ireland, and the groom was wearing a long, red wig and a dress. They were the funniest people; I kid you not. One of my roommates, Shannon, is Irish and so I bonded with them over talking about where she is from and such. I’ve learned over the semester that people from Dublin (where these men were from) have a sort of rivalry with people from Cork (where Shannon is from). It is a running joke that they hate one another. I got a video for her of all of them saying her name, and making jokes about Cork and Dublin. Then they proceeded to teach me how to do some Irish dance. It was just fun to meet such friendly, welcoming people.

Following that, I came across a group of eight guys speaking English and turns out two of them were studying in Prague with Ben, but the others were students studying in Barcelona and Italy. A few of them were Jewish (one had the same last name as me) so it was extremely awesome to connect with other Jews after so many months. I am not kidding, I am pretty sure I am the only Jew in all of Norway. That is not necessary a big drawback, but I certainly miss being able to connect with people that share the same values and background as me.

Overall, I am so glad I had the opportunity to come stay with Ben in Praha. The city is gorgeous and while I left reeking of cigarettes (EVERYONE smokes there), it was a successfully fun weekend that I would do again in a heartbeat. S/O to Ben, once again, thanks for letting me crash with you for the weekend!

My Venture into the Arctic Circle

My Venture into the Arctic Circle

Tromsø, Norge: Feburary 9-12th, 2017

I am getting more and more convinced that I belong in the arctic, especially after my visit to Tromsø, a city located in the far North of Norway. My friends and I wanted the opportunity to see the Northern Lights, and like most students who wish to see them, we planned a trip to this Arctic city. Originally it was going to be me and 10 other guys, but then my German friend Carla asked if she could join the week of our departure, and so it was 12 of us in total venturing North (so many people!).

My friend Trond (also from Colorado, surprisingly) and I booked our flights together so we had seats adjacent to one another. He had the window seat, but as we were flying into Tromsø, I was able look past him to see just how untouched the landscape was for miles. There were pure, snow covered mountains as far as the eye could see. My excitement for the trip kept rising the longer I stared out the window.

The view from the window of the plane as we were descending into Tromsø.

When we arrived in the airport, it took a little while to get the keys to the two cars we had rented for the trip but then we set out for our accommodations. I was included in the original car rental group: Graham (Vermont, USA), Trond (Colorado, USA), Brad (Florida, USA), and Will (North Dakota, USA). We decided weeks before that we wanted to rent a car to be able to ski and hike the dope mountains outside the city. The other guys on the trip decided last minute to rent a car and unfortunately Sam (our quirky, lovable Australian) was accidentally left out and thus had to ride in the boot of one of the cars. Additionally, Carla (the German girl I mentioned previously) was an extra person we didn’t anticipate. So to get everyone to fit, including all the ski equipment, two people had to sit in the trunk everywhere we went. Definitely not the safest, and absolutely not my choice, but it worked out…

Joey, our Airbnb extraordinaire, booked the most incredible house for us to stay in. It was very historical, dated in the 18th century, and it was MASSIVE. Literally, a mansion. Plus, it was located towards the top of a hill in the city, so the view we had was spectacular. I slept on one of the couches in the main living room with Graham the entire time we were there, and I loved waking up to the spectacular views outside the window. I am still blown away that we managed to get our safety deposit back, because, as you can imagine, 12 people can really wreak havoc when set wild in a large house for three days—especially when 10 of them are guys. Let’s just say I have never seen a group of people pull off such a thorough cleaning job in such a short period of time before the owner returned—it was the feat of a lifetime!

The backside of our glorious Airbnb (Thanks again, Joey!)
The view from inside the living room in which I slept each night. I took this picture upon awaking one morning.

We had decided before we left for the trip that we would do one communal dinner together each day. Hence, when we first arrived, we set out the game plan of who would oversee what meals and then we went food shopping just down the road. When we came back, we explored the house and surrounding area before we got our belongings organized for the long night we had before us.

This is just down the road from our house, taken on our way to the grocery store.

Our plan to witness the Northern Lights on our first night was to drive an hour or two outside the city and find a random mountain to hike up. Once there, we would make a fire, cook some hot dogs for dinner, and basically camp out for most of the night to watch the Aura Borealis.

We drove West of Tromsø for about an hour, with Trond, Graham and I analyzing the mountains as we drove to see which ones would be good to trek up for the night. We finally came across one that seemed perfect—seemingly manageable for those in the trip who were not avid hikers. Even the mountain we choose proved surprisingly difficult, but I am getting ahead of myself now…

With all our gear—food, fire wood, drinks, and warm clothes—we began hiking somewhat diagonally up the side of the mountain. It was a full moon which was perfect, as it allowed us to see where we were going. After a while, we found a good spot to make fire and start roasting our hot dogs, or pølser, as we say in Norwegian. It was fun to once again be drinking, eating, and chatting around a fire in the middle of nowhere, just like I do back in the states. This was something I do a lot back in Colorado when I go camping so it felt warm and familiar to me. While our pølser were cooking, Brad was the first one to just barely notice the Northern Lights in the distance. The excitement around the fire grew exponentially, and I couldn’t wait to see them with my own eyes.

The outline of myself huddled at the fire to stay warm while the full moon shined above us. You can see the rest of the mountain we climbed in the background.

After we finished our meal, we put out the fire and set out to hike further up the mountain. This is where the climbing got rather difficult. It was freezing, with thick layers of snow surrounding an increasingly rocky mountainside. The group began to get divided between those who moved faster and those who were struggling to get up the mountain. Additionally, Will took a huge L when he accidentally dropped his phone down some hole in the mountainside, never to be seen again. I felt so awful for him as our frantic searching for the phone proved fruitless. To his credit, he had such a good attitude about it all, especially when later in the trip he also broke his skis (but again, I am getting ahead of myself!). Let’s just say, Tromsø truly was a savage while we were there, despite all its glory and beauty.

Graham took one for the team and dived into the hole where Will believed his phone fell. Andy was holding his legs so he wouldn’t fall in.

With Will double fisting two cigarettes, we eventually kept moving up the mountain in hopes of getting an ever better view of the Northern Lights. As soon as we had started moving, something magical happened. The Aura Borealis appeared in the sky, one-hundred times stronger than previously. We all instinctively started screaming, and I am not kidding you, the louder we screamed the stronger the lights became! They were a glorious shade of green, all dancing across the sky. I couldn’t believe it, and sadly no picture will ever do it justice, but it helps for the memories… It by far was one of the happiest, magical times in my life as stood there screams with people who have become some of my good friends while watching the Lights grow bigger and stronger.

The first glimpses of the Northern Lights. The pictures made it look like day time, even though it was dark.
Taken at the time when we were all screaming and the Lights kept getting better and better – so amazing!

Some of us tried to summit the mountain but conditions got way too dangerous the higher we got. I was content with where we had reached and just how well we could see the lights.

Going down the mountain will forever be one of my most favorite experiences of my life. The mountain, like I mentioned, was quite steep and there were feet of snow everywhere so making our way down by merely walking we would soon realize was less than advisable. Before we knew it (and I still don’t remember who started it, probably Graham) we were flinging our bodies down the hill, sliding either on our feet, on our stomachs, but mostly on our butts. What took hours to climb, took maybe 30 minutes to descend!

As we are making our way down, laughing and pushing each other as we soaked our clothes through to our skin, we overheard Joey scream. Yep, savage Tromsø did it again—Joey announced he had lost his phone. We all stopped and many of us, including myself, had to climb back up the mountain to help look. Joey literally sprinted up the mountain in search for his iPhone, because sadly he had already experienced great loss with apple products when he accidentally left his Macbook on the plane when first traveling to Oslo. Lucky for Joey, he found his phone with all but 2% battery remaining! I still remember him standing with his arms above his head, grasping his phone as he yelled he found it. We celebrated immensely as we returned to flying down the snowy mountainside, butts in the cold snow.

The crew at the bottom of the hill! Despite the freezing temperatures, we were overheated by coming down the mountain and thus some of the guys crazily took off their shirts. I do apologize!

The next morning, Graham and I were awoken very early—me by the early sunlight breaking through the sunroom, and Graham because he is the biggest morning person I have ever met. He peeled the rest of the guys out of their beds upstairs to make sure we got moving at least somewhat early to go skiing and hiking at a near by mountain. I stuffed my face and backpack with food before we set off on our next adventure.

The day was just gorgeous. It was still freezing (artic circle and all…), but it was cloudless and sunny. Five of the guys had skies and I was planning on hiking from the beginning and anyone could join me if they wanted to. At first, the rest of the group said of course, but as we began to hike, Sam (ausie), Zach (Michigan), Joey (Michigan), and Pedro (Argentina) immediately pulled off to the side to start taking pictures of themselves. That was their choice, but I was not about to spend the day taking photos when I could be hiking. I told them I was just going to leave them and as I was walking away, Andy (Minnesotan) and Carla (German) joined me to hike. I was glad to have their company just in case something went wrong like getting lost or injured.

The mountain and trails were unlike anything I had ever seen. Unique ice crystals decorated the landscape due to how cold it was. We found a trail that was about 4 miles long so we made it our mission to try to get to the end and back before the time we agreed to meet up at the cars with the rest of our group.

The amazing ice crystals that lined all the trees and bushes.
Even the way the rivers are frozen are vastly different than back at home.
Part of the trail towards the middle of the valley.

As we were hiking, Andy thought he heard some of the guys up ahead. I tried to listen, but before I could hear anything he just sprinted off in the distance. Turns out he was right, we had somehow managed to meet up with the skiing crew! We talked for a little and then all decided to climb up this steep mountainside to get to the top. This was were our trail was heading but the snow and ice was so bad you couldn’t even see the trail anymore so once we summited, that was as far as we went.

Climbing up that mountain though was extremely difficult. It was pure ice in most places and the wind was far stronger than even the strongest winds in Chicago. Finally, we all reached the top. The views (and the wind) were unreal. We ate our lunch huddled around each other and took just a few celebratory photos because it was quite an accomplishment that we made it. That hike is definitely in my top 5 favorite hikes in my life.

The crew when we first reached the top.
One of the dopest photos of my life – you can see the crazy landscape we were hiking around. (Living on the edge!)
Pictured is me and Vince (Netherlands) doing the famous butt sliding technique to get down the hill.
I was lucky that Brad gave me his pole to help me get down the mountain. (Thank you Vince for the cool, candid picture!)

As it was starting to get dark, we decided to head back once we got down from the summit. Cross country skiing downhill is really tough so although some of us were hiking, we mostly stayed with the skiers because (Graham and Trond excluded) the guys kept falling—especially Brad. This is when Will lost it and ran into a snow bank, breaking both his skis. Tromsø really hated that kid, and I felt so sorry for him, for they weren’t even his skiis. A Norwegian family he calls his ‘host family’ here had let him borrow them. But just as he did with his phone, he had a great attitude and eventually we made it back to the cars. The other guys rolled in shortly after and then we set off to return home.

That night we took the gondola up a mountain to overlook the city. The tickets were cheap and it was definitely worth it to see the city lit up at night.

Glorious Tromsø at the top of a mountain. You can see the edges of the gondola in the picture.

Later, we stayed in the house and had a great time together, all awhile listening to Graham 2000’s music playlist. Everyone was dead the next morning but of course Graham woke up at the crack of dawn, thus waking me up. A few more followed suit and we decided to do our part in cleaning the house before just getting in a car and going on a road trip. We knew the rest of the group would not be able to get themselves ready in time so we opted for just ditching them—sounds mean but it was such a good decision. I still feel bad for them that they missed such a wonderful day.

It was Graham, Andy, Sam, and me in the car. Last minute Brad was able to through on a jacket and join us as well. We drove for hours, through a rain and snow mixture of weather, while surrounded by mountains and the Arctic ocean. This was also probably one of my favorite parts of the trip. For one, I just really love road trips in general. Something about the meditative aspect of it to me puts me in a peaceful state of mind, especially if I am driving through gorgeous landscapes, like I was in Tromsø. Another reason is I adore listening to music in the car. It is simply sublime to lose yourself in either thought or conversation while your ears are surrounded by the gentle melodies of some of your favorite songs.

We would make a few stops here and there to stretch our legs or get a better view of some outstanding outlooks. At one point, the wind was so strong that Graham’s door almost broke and flew off—talk about strong winds!

The view while driving. You can see the rain and clouds covering the mountain in the distance.
Pictured is Sam, Andy, and me stretching our legs on the side of the road.

The best part was when we decided to pull off on the side of the road, cross it, and walk onto this piece of land that jutted out into the ocean. The waters were a blue-green that I had never seen before and the icy, rainy winds were out of this world. We were screaming and running around like children on the playground. I was unbelievably happy and freezing at the same time. Graham even ended up walking into the water quite far while the rest of us just tried to not get blown away on the land. A crazy boy, that one is. The rest of us continued to play around and as soon as Graham came back out of the water, he sprinted back to the car because he was so cold. The rest of us followed suit, reaching the car cold, soaked, and beyond satisfied. I will never forget that tiny road trip to nowhere that we took.

You can see the amazingly unique colors of the Arctic waters.
Look how far Graham traveled into the freezing cold water. He’s that small outline in the distance! Crazy dude, I’m telling ya!!
Pictured is me about to get blown away by the impeccably strong, icy winds!

When we returned home, we came across the rest of the crew sitting in the living room. I felt kinda bad for them that they missed out on such a wonderful day, but hey it wasn’t our fault that we didn’t want to sit around and do nothing on our last day while everyone slept.

Like I mentioned earlier, cleaning up that house was a disaster. Additionally, we had one more communal meal to cook which made the kitchen a mess again. In the middle of our rapid cleaning and cooking, the owner walks in—astonished at how well we destroyed her home in just a few days. She kept saying, “I just don’t understand how this happened.” Joey (our savior) calmed her down and promised everything would be spotless in an hour. She said it better be just before taking off again. In that hour, we performed a miracle—no joke. In the end, we not only got our deposit back, but the woman left Joey and wonderful review on Airbnb.

Tromsø may have been the most beautiful and savage city I have ever been to–quite the dichotomy. I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity to go there and that I was lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, especially on our first night (many other international students who traveled there were not so lucky).

Thanks for everything my lovely Arctic city, and thank you for reading about my adventures.

Until next time bloggy blog 🙂

P.s. Our one and only Bradley Lazar makes incredible videos, and this is the one he made for our trip that is only about a minute but shows the beauty of the city! It also features him falling while skiing if you’re into that!