Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gdansk, Poland

Last weekend two of my friends and I traveled to Gdansk, Poland for a three night getaway from the slow-paced life we have in Norway.  It was absolutely an adventure, and very different from the adventure that we found in Brussels.  Our first night in we had nothing but praises to sing for Gdansk.  We ate pierogi at a little underground pub for $4.  We went to a high end coffee shop and had drinks for a few dollars (my hot chocolate was almost like pudding!) and while our hostel room had a ridiculous sports theme, the female receptionist was very nice and very helpful.  (The male receptionist who worked nights was also very nice but not so helpful.)  So we went to sleep, feeling pretty good about the adventure we were going to be having.

The next day we wandered around taking pictures of all the cool buildings that we had seen the night before and then proceeded into one of the basilica's to attend mass (it was Sunday).  We were absolutely freezing.  I doubt that this place ever gets above 40 degrees in the summertime (which might be nice then if it's super hot out) but in the winter it was absolutely frigid.  Fortunately they put heated pads on the pews so your behind stays nice and warm!  Mass itself was definitely an interesting experience, though.  No one in the congregation talked (except for responding to the priest) and no one sang.  The singing of the hymns was done by someone else and even during the part when people usually shake hands and say "peace be with you" they just silently looked around and gave a curt nod to anyone they made eye contact with.

Another interesting experience that we had was when we were looking for a place to eat dinner, we were walking along the walking streets and looking at various menus posted outside of restaurants trying to find one that we wanted to eat at.  We came across a Turkish restaurant that didn't have a menu outside so we hesitantly walked up to the windows to see if anyone was inside.  (There was one couple.)  Suddenly, the owner comes out and says "Yes, please, come in, we are open!"  So we asked to see a menu and he said of course and directed us towards the waitress.  She asked if it was the three of us and we asked again to see a menu and she replied "Of course!  But please, sit down first."  So we followed her to a table and gave each other a look of "well, I guess we're eating here tonight..."  Had we taken the time to read our pocket guide before heading out for dinner, this is what we would've read about this restaurant:
"Over-eager waiters swoop like vultures on solo diners, though the enthusiasm of these frontline troops is clearly wasted on such a venture. Previously described as ‘desperate and despondent’, what was formerly the Kreta restaurant has re-emerged as the equally glum Sakarya. Find lonely chefs stalking between plastic pillars and the Greek detritus left by the previous occupants, only stirred by the accidental intrusion of curious tourists."
Which is exactly what it was like.  My friend Lisa unwillingly ordered a Turkish "minced meat pizza" because the owner asked if she liked pizza and then said she would have that.  Megan had a pasta that she did rather like, and I had lamb skewers which were pretty good.  My drink, however, was terrible.  Looking at the beverage list I saw one drink that said "yoghurt drink" and I was intrigued.  I love Indian lassi so I foolishly thought "how different could this be?"  Even despite the waitress telling me that it's what people drink to settle their stomach when they eat spicy food, I figured I'd give it a try.  So out comes this glass of what looks like frothy milk with herbs sprinkled on top.  I try a sip and... nearly lost the contents of my stomach.  If you ask either Lisa or Megan what my face looked like when I drank it, they would probably bust a gut laughing just thinking about it.  The owner then came to ask if I liked it and said that it was like kefir which frustrated me because the menu said nothing about kefir.  The menu said yoghurt.  Kefir is milk that has been fermented so that it won't spoil at warm temperatures.  Kefir tastes like cottage cheese without the cheese part.  It was like drinking spoiled milk.  I somehow managed to down about three more tiny sips before I absolutely gave up.  I can't blame that on the restaurant, though.  It was my own fault for ordering it.

Anyway, the next day the three of us got on a tram (for about $1 each) and traveled into the neighboring city of Sopot.  Sopot and Gdansk are 2/3 of a tri-city area that also includes Gdynia, but we didn't have time to travel into Gdynia.  Sopot was very, very different from Gdansk.  In the summertime it is well known for being a spa resort city.  There were new and modern buildings lining the walking street with shops of all kinds, all leading you towards the beach of the Baltic Sea and Europe's longest wooden pier.  We were made to take pictures with a man dressed (poorly) as Santa Claus, we bought some amber jewelry at a couple of the many amber stands that lined the entrance to the pier, and we had McDonald's for lunch.  (Don't scoff, when you've been away from home for two and a half months, familiarity can be a godsend.  And this actually tasted like McDonald's from home whereas the McDonald's we went to in Oslo was crap, in my opinion.)  We then ate gelato for about $1.50 for two little scoops inside a waffle bowl, and all in all had a wonderful time walking around Sopot.  The sea was beautiful and the pier offered a great opportunity for taking photos, and walking on the beach we found a bunch of beautiful shells and rocks.  We were hoping to find some amber that is apparently so abundant there, but I'm pretty sure we didn't find any.  Regardless, we had a great day in Sopot.

It was amazing to me to see such a stark difference between the two neighboring cities, but it presented a unique opportunity to witness the medieval, post-war, and modern aspects of Poland all in (basically) one place.  And since Poland doesn't use the euro, that's why things are still so cheap there for Americans.  It was a refreshing break to be able to afford going out to eat and eat well for that matter.  The language barrier was a little difficult (we found it actually hindered our efforts if we asked people in Polish if they could speak English) and with something like 10 different coins ranging from 1 cent to 10 zloty we sometimes had difficulty managing our money, but overall it was a unique and wonderful experience, and I would recommend Gdansk to anyone who feels confident enough to try it out.  It can feel like a sketchy place at night, but we were safe the whole time.  The uneasy feeling stems from the fact that there are many buildings still in ruins after WWII and it's definitely a city that is still trying to pick itself up after the war.  But the people are very nice and despite the lack of English on the part of most people there, you can do pretty well with pointing and basic hand gestures.  I had a great time and hope to get back there sometime in the future.

Over Halfway There

            As of today I am 3/5 done with my study abroad experience.  In some ways it feels like my trip is almost over and in other ways it feels like I still have a lot ahead of me.  And in a way, both are true.  Two months doesn’t feel like nearly enough time to do and see everything that I would like to here, but my schedule for the next two months is definitely full.  Soon I’ll be writing papers for each of my classes, which will total about 40 pages, and preparing for final exams which are spread throughout the month of May.  In mid-April I’ll be embarking on an 8 day trip through France and Italy for Easter Break (same concept as Spring Break) and sometime in May I’ll be hopping on a train to go see the majestic fjords in Stavanger.  This weekend I am taking an overnight trip with my friluftsliv class to a popular ski resort where we will get one last chance to ski and learn about the outdoors while being in the outdoors.  Even with all of this, though, I wonder if I’m really taking advantage of my opportunities enough. 
            I have to remind myself often that, yes, my time here is being very well spent.  Even days when I seemingly do nothing are days when I learn a little more about myself and what it’s like to truly live on my own.  Back home, even living in an apartment on campus, I have people who help keep me honest and look out for me when I need them to.  Here, I live with five other people who I rarely see.  That’s not a bad thing, though, because I’ve really started to learn how to be completely independent because of it, and being independent in a country where you barely speak the language is no mean feat!  I can cook proper meals for myself without using recipes, I’m becoming much more aware of my cleaning habits (having a linoleum floor makes you hyper-aware of any dirt on the floor), and I’m  becoming more and more interested in getting outdoors and being active. 
            There’s just something about Norway that really fosters that need for independence and growth.  Between the law that gives people the right to walk, ski, hike, camp, etc… anywhere they want to, and living in a small valley town with not a lot for entertainment unless you’re willing to spend quite a bit of money, I’ve really started to learn the value of “making your own fun.”  It’s the simple things in life that matter the most, and that really is the most important lesson that I’ve learned here so far.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Belgium! Of waffles and hostels

Last week, two of my friends and I embarked on a journey to Brussels, Belgium. Since classes here aren’t scheduled the same way that classes are back home, we had a prime opportunity to take a quick jaunt into Belgium and experience something outside of our little valley town in Norway, and let me tell you, it was a wonderful adventure. It was exactly the sort of thing that I had hoped to experience during my semester. I went with two friends, Megan and Lisa, and it was very nice having good company for our several hours of traveling each way...

Being college students, we naturally wanted to plan our trip around spending as little money as possible. We had heard of this discount airline that flies all over Europe and decided to check it out. They generally only fly out of smaller, slightly out of town airports, but hey, that's what trains and buses are for, right? So for a total of $25 the three of us were able to fly round trip to Brussels.

After 17 hours of traveling/waiting in airports we finally arrived at our hostel in Brussels (despite wandering around for about 45 minutes looking for the place) just in time to crash for the night. We immediately went to bed, woke up the next morning, and spent the entire day looking around the beautiful city of Brussels. We tried some local fare (you have not truly had a waffle until you’ve eaten a Belgian waffle from a street vendor) and practically drooled over how cheap everything was compared to Norway. We also stopped in a grocery store and bought some snacks that almost impossible to find in Norway (like hummus, for example). That afternoon we went back to our hostel to eat our snacks and met an American student named Christine who is currently taking the semester off and backpacking through Europe.

That night we went with Christine to dinner and she took us to a local pub called Delirium which holds a Guinness World Record for having over 2000 kinds of beer for sale. Being a non-drinker this was not my top choice of evening activities, but I ended up having a very good time nonetheless. We met some Belgians, some other students studying abroad in Geneva, and an Englishman. They were all very nice and very fun to talk to.

After that we decided it was necessary that we finally find a place that sold frites (Belgian fries) as we had be unable to find any earlier that day. We found a shop that seemed to be open all night and were very excited to try Belgium’s “national dish.” Frites are cooked to order and served fresh in a large paper cone. For a few cents more you can have your choice of sauce smothered all over them. I chose curry ketchup and it was absolutely delicious. They may seem like they’re just fries with sauce on them, but the texture is so much better than any other fries that I’ve eaten.

Gastronomically, Belgium was an excellent choice for our two night adventure. All of the food that we had was amazing. My friends and I are currently planning a trip to Gdansk, Poland for March 19-22, for our Easter Break in April, my friend Lisa and I will be traveling through France and Italy, then in May during the long breaks we have between finals, we’re hoping to take a train to the western coast and see the fjords. I would love to travel north into the Arctic Circle at some point to see the northern lights, as well, but a few other students spent 4 days up north a few weeks ago and didn’t see anything. Either way, the opportunities to travel are amazing and I’m looking forward to more adventures!

Excursion to Lifjell

I’ll be honest; there are some days when living in Bø can be pretty boring. It’s a small valley town so there isn’t a lot to do if you’re not willing to spend money. (I do regret not purchasing a pass to the workout center. It’s expensive but I think now that it would’ve been worth it.) There are some times when I will go a couple days in a row and do nothing but stay in my room. The days we actually have class are days that most of us look forward to more than the weekend because it gives us something to do. (So my suggestion, make sure you have a hobby before you come!) But, I really can’t complain too much because it really is breathtakingly beautiful here. Just walking through town makes you feel a little better. A few of us went out for coffee/hot chocolate the other day when it was sunny and we just sat outside for a couple of hours chatting. Those times are very nice (but again, cost quite a bit of money). However, every once in a while a day will come along that makes up for any lazy days I might’ve had in the past week. Today was one of those days.

Let me preface this by plugging a class that I highly recommend for anyone coming here. It’s called Individuals, Environs, and Society. (I know, what on earth does that mean?) It’s basically a class about outdoor life and how to take advantage of your surroundings. In other words, we ski. Now, I have never really skied before coming here. I went maybe a couple times as a kid but it’s been so long that I really don’t count that. So I was a total novice coming into this class. Our teacher, Tone (pronounced sort of like “tuna”), is absolutely wonderful. She is so patient and understanding and encouraging of all the students. A couple of weeks ago we went skiing around the “lit track” (meaning that it has lights around it so that you can ski until 10 in the evening) and she waited so patiently as I made my way up this large hill VERY slowly. She gave me pointers and encouragement as I shuffled my way up the hill sideways. That day was absolutely wonderful. The scenery was gorgeous, and it was really just a fun time. I tell you that, so that when I say that today was extraordinary, you can have a sense of what I mean.

Our class piled onto a bus at about 9 this morning and made our way up the mountain to this place called Lifjell. It is a ski area up in the mountains that have both downhill slopes and cross-country/back-country trails. When we got there, the three Nordic Life students in our class went off to build a little camp for us while we got some ski practice in. We went along the easiest ski track for a while, going up and down the hills (I did a spectacular face plant at one point when I couldn’t stop), and enjoying the absolutely magnificent scenery around us. Then our guest instructor told us that we had to try some back-country skiing and get off the track to make our own track. We each took turns going in the front of the group, and that was the hardest thing I have done. The snow was several feet deep and with each step our skis would sink a couple of feet into the fresh powder and our poles would sink until they were almost buried. I fell down a few times, but we all had a good laugh as we finally made our way back onto the prepared track. After that we skied along the track looking for the group that had gone off at the beginning. We turned onto one of the harder tracks (fortunately we didn’t have to go far) and they were there waiting for us. They had dug a place for us to sit and eat lunch that was about 4 feet deep and 15-20 feet across, with benches carved into the snow around the walls. They also built a fire and explained to us why they were lighting it the way that they did, and told us stories about their recent excursions and the things that they had learned about building snow caves and testing the snow for possible avalanches. We all enjoyed taking a break and eating lunch, and learned how to make pinne brød (bread on a stick) by wrapping dough around the end of a stick and roasting it like a marshmallow.

After resting for a while we had to leave to go down and meet the bus to take us back to the school. As we were skiing along the track we all decided it would be a good idea to attempt going down the downhill slope as it was the fastest way back to the bus. This was not a bunny slope, though. It wasn’t a particularly difficult slope, but for someone who has only been out skiing a few times before today, I feel no shame in admitting that I fell three times going down the hill. And I loved every minute of it. There really is something to be said about the Norwegians and their love of the outdoors. Even if you’re not particularly skilled at skiing or not very fit, as in my case, you just can’t help but feel happy and refreshed after spending a day outdoors and skiing through the beautiful Norwegian mountains. It does help that we are a larger group with people of all skill levels, so no one feels left behind, but days like today I wouldn’t trade for anything. Days like today are what make Norway worth it. And the best part is that skiing is FREE. You might have to pay for parking in some areas, but you can go skiing on the groomed tracks for free. That, to me, is a beautiful concept.