Tuesday, December 16, 2014

All the little things

It's getting close to Christmas break, and that means I'm trying to finish up a number of tasks before I leave town. Since submitting my Svalbard manuscript, I've helped Andrew get some things organized for the expedition in February. We had to schedule plane tickets, order hardware and chemicals, and look into legal liability issues. So many logistics!

I'm really not sure how, but I also managed to write the first draft of another manuscript. Yes, a different one from the Svalbard image analysis. This manuscript is actually going to be a cornerstone of my thesis, because it concerns dropstone communities in the Fram Strait. I used the dropstone communities to test several different hypotheses based on the classical literature for terrestrial island fauna. I wanted to know if the same forces structuring bird communities on islands also applied to dropstone islands in the deep sea. As it turns out, some theories fit, and some didn't. My analysis was actually able to show some important new principles for how isolated communities are structured.

I'll tell you more once my co-authors have all had a chance to revise the manuscript. I'm hoping to submit it to a very good journal. It feels crazy to me that in the last four months I've been in Norway, I have analyzed and written up two whole datasets, outplanted an experiment in Svalbard, visited colleagues in Germany, and helped Andrew prepare for a cruise. This is by far the most productive I've ever been.

Still, several little tasks remain on my to-do list. It still hasn't really hit me that I'm leaving in two days to visit family. With any luck, I'll stay focused, chug through my list, and then have a relaxing break. Just two more days!

Sunday, December 14, 2014

St. Lucia

I'm not sure if you know this, but I actually have Scandinavian heritage. My mom's side of the family is Swedish by ancestry,and when I was little, my mom liked to keep some Swedish traditions alive. She had a little candle holder with angels that spun around, being propelled by the convection current from the heat of the candles. She also made St. Lucia buns, a traditional Swedish baked good. I grew up knowing that on December 13, the oldest daughter in the family was supposed to get up before dawn, bake St. Lucia buns, dress in a white robe and a red sash, carry a crown of holly on her head, and serve the buns to her family. I always begrudged my sister's position as the oldest daughter and utterly failed to understand why she wasn't interested in the tradition. I mean, what teenager would not want to wake up before dawn and bake for her family? I wanted to! At one point, I even bought a fake wreath at a Christmas market and practiced walking around the house with it on my head.

St. Lucia buns!
When I came home from work on Thursday, I walked into a terrific-smelling kitchen and found some of my housemates baking St. Lucia buns! The dough is pretty basic, but you're supposed to form it into curled-up coils and then stick raisins on top. The buns are very good! I immediately started rambling to my housemates about how my mom used to make them when I was a kid and how I always wanted to be the oldest daughter because then I could do the crown thing and how awesome it was to discover that a tradition that I had always learned about was actually true! They actually celebrate St. Lucia Day in Scandinavia!

I was ecstatic, and I think I might have actually scared my housemates a little bit. They insisted to me that St. Lucia Day was a Swedish tradition, not a Norwegian one. I personally think the fact that Norwegians celebrate St. Lucia just reflects the Norwegian habit of stealing all the best holidays from other countries - I'm serious; they have Halloween, Oktoberfest, everything! They're unscrupulous over here.

One of my housemates, a grade school teacher, said her class had a St. Lucia celebration, and all the kids got to wear white robes and crowns of tinsel and walk around the school. There was a similar children's procession at my church. I couldn't stop myself from smiling as a row of young girls and boys walked past my pew, living out the tradition that I so desperately wanted to when I was that age. You know, my housemates ask me all the time if various aspects of American culture are really like they see in the movies - if high schoolers can drive, if we put Christmas lights on our houses. They're always surprised when I say yes. I feel like I've just made the exact same discovery, only in reverse. Yes, all the things I always heard about St. Lucia Day are actually true. The tradition is real. My life is complete.

How to become Norwegian

1. Move your body! Norwegians are very active people, and they're in ridiculously good shape. They're constantly hiking, walking, biking, swimming, surfing, and skiing. If you want to become Norwegian, get moving!

2. Gasp a little. When you're listening to someone speak, it's normal to say "yes" or "hmm" to show that you're actively engaged in what they're saying - that's true in all cultures. In Norway, though, active listening does not involve nodding or agreeing with the speaker. Norwegians show they're listening by taking sharp breaths, almost like they're gasping in shock. It freaked me out at first, but then I realized it was just their way of saying "Yes, I hear you." If you want to be Norwegian, gasp a little!

3. Dress like a Norwegian. A typical outfit consists of tight-fitting pants or leggings (remember, you're in ridiculously good shape), thick wool socks pulled up over said pants or leggings, some sort of fashionable but practical boot, a blouse or sweater (best if it's a traditional patterned sweater), and a scarf. Now, Norwegian scarves are not accessories to a specific outfit; they're meant to keep you warm outdoors. Take a sheet of fabric, probably wool or fleece, and wrap it loosely around your face and neck. It's best if the scarf covers at least half your face. If you feel look like a groundhog and feel like a turtle, you're doing it right.

Norwegian specialty: smoked salmon and scrambled eggs
4. Eat like an anti-vegan. Norwegians love piling animal products on top of bread - it's never a sandwich, just an open-face piece of bread. Try mackarel in tomato sauce or shrimp with mayonnaise. Cheese with jam. Boiled eggs with caviar. Butter and brown cheese. Scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. The more species you can get on top of one piece of bread, the better.

5. Get some refleks. It's dark for much of the year here, so Norwegians come prepared. They wear reflective bands on their wrists and ankles; some even have brightly-colored reflective vests. It's actually mandated to keep a reflective vest in your car in case the car breaks down and you have to go call for help. Refleks saves lives!

6. Come prepared for the weather. Norway has everything - wind, sun, rain, snow. The sky can completely change in the course of five minutes, and you encounter different weather patterns by just traveling up-fjord or uphill. Bring an umbrella, good boots, and chocolate. Yes, chocolate. It's called Kvikk Lunsj, and for all of the other precautions that Norwegians take, they have really no idea how to pack healthy snacks. If you go hiking with a Norwegian, I can almost guarantee you'll end up eating chocolate for lunch.

Typical Norwegian houses in downtown Stavanger
7. Move into a Norwegian house. The Norwegians build their houses out of wood, and they all have the same general appearance. They have that storybook house shape - you know, with simple, straight sides and a peaked roof. Norwegian houses are painted white or another bright color, and quite often, there's a Norwegian flag flying out front. It's never the full, rectangular flag, but rather a triangular strip of red fabric with a blue stripe down the middle. When you enter a Norwegian home, you have to take your shoes off; no exceptions.

8. Leave work at 4. Norwegians generally work 8-4, instead of 9-5 like in some other countries. When they leave work, they go to other activities - sports, clubs, picking up their kids. Norwegians use their long evenings to have full personal lives.

9. Go to your cabin. It's Friday at 4, and you've just left work. Actually, it's probably Friday at 2. Of course you've been dreaming about the mountains all week, and you can't wait to get out of the city. You pack your car and drive for a few hours to the end of a dirt road in the middle of the woods, then you hike for another hour or two until you reach your cabin. A cabin can be anything from a lean-to to a mansion, just as long as it's your get-away. Mismatched dishes, outhouses, and heat from a wood-burning stove? Paradise.

The Stavanger Bunad
10. Wear your bunad. Bunad is the traditional folk dress of Norway, and most children get their first bunad for their confirmation at the age of 14. The type of bunad varies by region, and sometimes, the bunad are different from towns as little as a kilometer apart. There's a lot of cultural variation in Norway, and it's very important to the Norwegians to preserve every little bit of this cultural diversity. Bunad is the top-tier outfit - the fanciest thing that you can possibly wear - reserved for confirmations, weddings, baptisms, and Norway's national holiday on the 17th of May. The outfits are made from high-quality materials, and the embroidery is often done with silver thread. Take good care of it; treat it properly. Put on your bunad, because you are Norwegian and you're darn proud of it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

As the world turns

"I am going to go to Norway...If I spend 6 months of evenings alone, I will be happy. Heck, if I have 6 months of evenings - the kind where I get to come home - that's all I will need." 
- I wrote this in my diary 24 August 2014

You can probably tell from the text above that I'm not used to having much free time. It's actually quite problematic at times. I get myself involved in various projects; I teach violin lessons and ballet classes after work. I run myself ragged for the activities that I love. The concept of a quiet evening at home is almost foreign to me. Well, at least it was until I came to Norway.

Much as I would love to, my time here is just too short to get involved with my usual hobbies. I didn't even bring my violin with me. Granted, I've filled my time here in other, wonderful ways - attending concerts, biking to work, spending time with my housemates - but still, my evenings are a lot more open than they've ever been. I absolutely love the fact that I can work as late as I want to. I'm quite often the last one to leave IRIS, but when I finally drag myself homeward, I feel like I have really accomplished something. I leave when I want to, not when I have to, and this flexibility has increased my productivity by several orders of magnitude.

When I do go home in the evenings, I have time to think. I have time to enjoy the place where I am in my life. I have time to relish all that is happening around me, to feel the world turn. 

Tonight, I hear the rushing wind and pounding rain of the storm outside. I think about my housemates in their rooms above and beside me, some chatting, some sleeping, some lost in their own thoughts. I picture myself on the map, poised at the edge of the Atlantic, on a skinny peninsula at 59 degrees north. I see the weather pattern coming from the west, gathering moisture and momentum as it crosses the North Sea. 

Then my mind flies across the water, and I see my German colleagues working away in a place that became my second home. I see the kitchens and living rooms where I spent so many marvelous evenings. I think about Stefanie, my dear friend, enduring the perils of her own Ph.D. in the Netherlands, and how at the end of this whole saga we might be the only people in each other's friend circles who actually understand what it was like. 

I see my family scattered across the Midwest of the United States. I think about my parents discovering a new home of their own and finding a community worth waiting for. I think about my brother, who lately has been maturing so quickly it leaves me dumbfounded. I see my sister, and my friends that might as well be my sisters, each in their homes with their husbands and their families and their friends.

I pass over Oregon, the place that I know so well but have yet to understand. I see my past self before departure for Norway and my future self after my return - and let me tell you, they are two different people.

My mind flies to Samoa, to New Zealand - places that I only passed through but which gave me such great memories. I think about Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, and an entire section of the world that I have never seen. I wonder what future adventures might hide there, waiting for me. I start scheming ways to get myself to Zanzibar and salivate at the thought of an expedition in South African waters. I think about the people I will meet, the wonderful things I will learn from them, and the reality checks I will have because I'm sure science in the developing world is anything but easy.

I hover over the equator and zoom out, viewing the earth from space. I think about how small I am in the grand scheme of 7 billion human lives. I see the storm system over the North Sea, spraying rain on most of northern Europe. I see my settlement plates, currently underwater in Svalbard fjords, happily collecting larvae, oblivious of all other things happening in the world around them. I see myself, writing by the light of a lamp in a small bedroom on a skinny peninsula at 59 degrees north. I have a job - a calling - that I am passionate about. I have people on 2 continents who care about me deeply. I have free evenings, time to think, time to dream. I have a place in the world, however small, and tonight, I can feel the world turning.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Let it go

"Let it go, let it go
Turn away and slam the door."
- The movie Frozen

Well, friends, the day has come. The time is here. As the Germans say, "es ist soweit."

Today, I submitted my Svalbard image analysis for publication.


Will it be accepted? I don't know. Will it be rejected? I don't know. Will it come back with a request for "major revision," which is science-speak for "nice job, but really, I think you should ditch everything and start over"? I don't know!

When I first started writing papers as an undergrad, I expected to take a victory lap after each one. You know, I thought I would submit a manuscript, high-five my adviser, and take the afternoon off. In reality, it never quite works that way. Getting a manuscript published is not so much a celebration of science as it is a heavy weight-lifting challenge. Every analysis seems easy enough at first, but as you add layers of detail, dozens of references, and revisions from multiple different authors, the manuscript starts to feel like a heavy weight. As I lift it higher, it gets heavier, until eventually, when I think it's almost complete, I start getting shot at by reviewers, taking hits from all sides. I finally find a place for the manuscript on a high, remote shelf, and as I slide it into place, I breathe a sigh of relief. Phew - one down.

Ok, granted, the publication process is not always this dramatic, but it definitely takes a thick skin. I have no idea how the reviewers will respond to this particular manuscript. Maybe they'll love it; who knows! I'm happy for now to have submitted my manuscript. The rest is up to the scientific community.

I'm letting go. I'm letting go. I'll turn away and slam the door. Letting go.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


Man, I have gone to some of the most incredible concerts in Norway. Ingrid Olava, Khaled, Stavanger Symphony, and tonight, Asgeir. One of my housemates suggested we go to the concert because she was interested in discovering new music. Translation: none of us were actually familiar with Asgeir's songs prior to the concert, but let me tell you, we made a fantastic discovery.

Asgeir's music is described as melodic folk, but I'll explain it to you this way: if Mumford and Sons and Lord Huron got married and had an insanely talented Icelandic child, that child would make music like Asgeir. Was it folk-like? Yes, but it was so much more. It was energetic, slightly off-kilter rhythms that drove you forward, plus deep, resounding bass used sparingly and tastefully, all wrapped up in vocal harmonies that lifted your soul and made you feel like your life was actually going somewhere. It was calming; it was inspiring; it was mysterious. All performed in an exotic language by stocky, bearded men.

I'm definitely adding Asgeir to my list of music to download. You know, I wondered if I would feel out of sorts by not having my violin in Norway. Since I started learning violin at the age of 8, I've never not played music in one form or another. It's surprising to me how little I miss my instrument, but I think that's because I'm involved in music in other ways. I'm listening. I'm discovering. I'm planting seeds that I will hopefully be able to harvest later. Norway has given me some incredible opportunities so far to discover new music, and I'm thankful for each one.

If you're interested, here's the link to Asgeir's most famous song, King and Cross:

I also suggest you check out his first album, in Icelandic:

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Waffle Wednesday

Every Wednesday at IRIS, we have a scientific talk during lunch hour. Sometimes members of the working group present their research; sometimes we invite a student from another university to share their work. The environment is pretty informal, as the audience is eating lunch while the speaker presents. It's a good chance for us all to know what our colleagues are up to. Also, there are waffles.

I should explain about the waffles, because my American friends will not understand what I mean. In Europe, waffles are not a breakfast food to be smothered in butter and syrup at Sunday brunch; they are dessert. The waffle batter is quite sweet, and they're served warm with sour cream and jam on top. Some Norwegians top their waffles with brown cheese, which is a sweet dairy product made from whey. It has the consistency of normal cheese, but the lactose is carmelized to make it sweet. It's also perfectly acceptable to eat a waffle with your hands.

I always look forward to Waffle Wednesday because I enjoy hearing about others' research, and the waffles are pretty good too. During lunch hour yesterday, I was the featured speaker, and I had the chance to present my research to my IRIS colleagues.

I shared with them the results of the image analysis I recently completed. I've told you about my image analysis multiple times on this blog - it's the one I've been writing up; the manuscript that's currently in the Draft 2 stage of its life cycle. I was able to adapt all of the figures and most of the content of my manuscript into Powerpoint for my presentation, but there are some key differences between writing a paper and giving a talk. A paper is a permanent record. It never changes, so if your reader didn't understand something, they can go back and re-read it or look up other papers on the topic. In a talk, you only have the present moment to explain something, and if you move on before your audience is ready, they'll be lost for the rest of the presentation. As I put together my presentation, I found myself streamlining the content of my analysis but explaining each concept in a little greater depth. The flow of ideas is also critical during a talk. Unlike a paper, which has clearly-defined sections, a presentation is a bit more free-form, so I can pull in outside tangents as long as they flow logically with the other material.

After a scientific talk, there's usually a question-and-answer period. Sometimes, the dialogue that ensues can be more informative than the talk itself. I was really hoping to get at least a few questions yesterday, because questions indicate that the audience was engaged and thinking along with you during the presentation. The act of asking a question tells the speaker "I think your research is important." You can maybe imagine, then, how elated I was to get three good questions. I was even approached by two colleagues later that afternoon; one asked for a list of the papers I had referenced, and the other wanted to talk about the methods I had used.

It was so very validating to have not only a successful presentation but to be approached by colleagues asking for more information. It showed me that my work is in fact important. Yesterday was a great Waffle Wednesday.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

God Jul

"God Jul" means "Merry Christmas" in Norwegian. Now that it's December, I see the phrase almost everywhere - in shop windows, on decorations. You know, in Europe, they're much better at naming their seasons properly. December is not called "Christmas season" but rather "Advent," which is its proper name. "Christmas season" historically speaking begins on December 25th.

Christmas lights on a restaurant in downtown Stavanger.
I love Europe during Advent. Unlike the States, where most people hang Christmas lights on their homes, lights in Europe are public works. Christmas lights are hung in the city center, often above the street or on businesses. As far as I've seen so far, the Christmas lights in Norway are a bit more extravagant than in Germany. One of the streets in Stavanger has a canopy of colored lights above it, and there's actually one restaurant on the water that lights up like a carnival (see photo at right).

The lunch room at IRIS has been decorated with poinsettas, and one of my housemates put up lights in our living room. Basically, it's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Over the weekend, I made significant progress on my shopping. Some housemates and I strolled through downtown to shop and look at the lights. We even stopped in at two free choral concerts in the city center. The Norwegians have a few Christmas songs that I've never heard before. Of course there are the standards, but then there's some song about a mouse family. I should try to learn it!

Life in Norway is good. Happy Advent!

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Fried gray matter

- the movie Fried Green Tomatoes

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States, but it's just another normal day in Norway. I actually spent the entire day working on Draft 2 of my manuscript, and by the time I finally got the updated version sent off, I was fried. Toasted. Brain-dead.

I personally think Draft 2 is much better than its predecessor, and that is entirely to the credit of my co-authors. I got very constructive comments from them, and even though I had to completely re-do the discussion section of my manuscript, it was worth it. The study took a pretty darn big step forward, and I have high hopes that it will get accepted to a good journal.

There's still one, maybe more rounds of editing to be done before I can submit the manuscript for publication. For now, I just need to step away because I have been staring at my computer screen far too long for my own good. It's time to bike home, to be grateful for my life and my incredible job and my family back in the States. Happy Thanksgiving!

The apprentice

Science is one of very few fields in which a true apprenticeship program survives. If you don't believe me, think about it: graduate students undertake both practical and theoretical training under the direct mentorship of a master. We earn a little money but are not allowed true independence until we graduate. Sometimes, we even work alone late at night and end up making broomsticks dance. We are apprentices in every sense of the word.

Recently, Andrew has been having me help him prepare for a research cruise. I had never worked with the specialized equipment we'll be using at sea, so he's teaching me how to care for it and use it - better now than later on the ship.

An onlooker wouldn't think I'm actually doing much - just carrying heavy black cases between IRIS buildings or listening quietly while Andrew explains something. In reality, I'm absorbing everything. I'm learning how to use the equipment in a specific sense but also learning how to prepare and pack for a research cruise in a general sense. I've already been to sea multiple times, but the preparations Andrew is undertaking now are on a larger scale than I've ever been responsible for. I've only ever had to send a few boxes of gear ahead to a ship; this time, Andrew's sending a whole shipping container.

It's nice to work on some very practical problems, like testing batteries and packing cases. I've spent so much time recently on my data analysis that doing something else for an hour or two is a welcome change. Actually, the contrast between practical field work and theoretical data analysis is probably my favorite thing about science. I regularly have to shift gears and use all parts of my brain.

I'm thankful to have Andrew as an adviser and a mentor because I'm learning a lot from him. In fact, I've had multiple fantastic scientific mentors who have shaped me and taught me in various ways. I'm happy to be an apprentice for now, but I look forward to someday becoming a master.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


Norway is an incredibly expensive country to live in, so Norwegians usually do their major shopping trips in other countries. Those who live in Oslo hop the border to Sweden, but border-hopping is a bit more of a challenge when you live on Norway's western coast. A few of my housemates puddle-jumped instead to Copenhagen for a weekend shopping/sightseeing trip, and I decided to tag along.
My new epic winter boots.

Copenhagen is well-known for its vintage clothing stores, and we hit up more than just a few. I think "antique shop" may actually be a more appropriate term, since the stores we entered had everything from lamps to coats to dishes for sale. They were all set up pretty much the same way, with housewares in the front and racks of outdated fashions in the back. The items for sale were all of good quality but just old enough to give the stores a distinct scent.

I had been on the look-out for a good pair of winter boots, and I found the perfect pair in a second-hand shop in Copenhagen. They're tall and warm and covered in fur. The weather in Stavanger is actually not cold enough that I'll need to wear my new boots there, but I will definitely need them when I go back to Svalbard in January for my research.

After almost a full day of shopping on Saturday, we took some time on Sunday to see the city. We visited the famous Little Mermaid statue, the citadel, a few churches, and the Danish National Museum. Visiting the National Museum made me want to learn more about Scandinavian history, in particular the Viking Era. I find myself recently getting very interested in human prehistory, especially settlement patterns, ever since reading Guns, Germs, and Steel. I want to know how groups of people arrived and settled in different parts of the world. The more I travel, the more I realize that each society is the result of layers of history, and in order to truly understand a culture, you must learn how it developed.

I certainly didn't get enough time in Copenhagen to understand it fully, but I got to see some of the highlights. It was interesting to watch my Norwegian companions try to communicate, since Norwegian speakers can understand Danish but Danish speakers don't necessarily understand Norwegian. They would do fine for a few minutes but then have to switch to English. To me, Denmark felt a bit like a cross between Norway and the Netherlands, since the culture is distinctly Scandinavian but the landscape is excruciatingly flat. I'm happy to say I got to see the city of Copenhagen and experience the Norwegian custom of foreign shopping trips. It was a good weekend.

Us in downtown Copenhagen. Ironically, the only white girl
in this group is the only non-Norwegian.

Monday, November 24, 2014


Do you remember the first draft of a manuscript that I finished just before leaving for Germany? Well, I got some comments back from my co-authors and have started working on Draft 2.

The comments I received were incredibly constructive and will help improve the paper. I'm not sure if this paper is better than ones I've written before or if I'm just getting a thicker skin, but my co-authors this time weren't nearly as critical as I expected. I've realized over the past few years that I need to see paper drafts as predecessors to the end product, rather than seeing later drafts as just altered, sometimes mutilated versions of previous drafts. That's a subtle but important reversal in thinking: I have to see the final version of the paper as the true, ultimate version rather than treating the first draft this way. I have to treat all preceding drafts as mere stepping stones. It's so easy to get bogged down by criticism, even if it's constructive, so I find that if I view my manuscript as a work in progress, the whole process is a lot smoother.

Receiving criticism is a regular part of the scientific process. Actually, I doubt most people realize how much editing goes into each scientific publication. Before an article goes to press, it has to be approved by all co-authors, usually 3-4 reviewers, and an editor. My article is still in the early stages, so it will pass through many more hands before finally being published.

Right now, I find myself getting restless and a little impatient. I have to re-do part of the analysis, improve the figures, and re-work the text of the manuscript. My impatience stems from the fact that all this work takes time, and even though I can conceptualize the improved version in my head, it's still going to take a while to get there. The restlessness comes from a desire for greatness: I want more than anything to write a quality paper, to contribute something important and new to man's understanding of the ocean. Some days I doubt I'll ever make a substantial contribution; other days, I'm more sure of myself.

I still can't say what this paper will ultimately contribute to the field of science or if it will even be cited. That all remains to be determined as I re-work and mold the analysis, making it more like its final version. I don't know how it will end up, but for now, I chug away at Draft 2.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Well, friends, after time-traveling back to 2014, I am once again in the land of smoked salmon and patterned sweaters. I find myself surprisingly relieved to be back. You know, I realized I'm learning to recognize Norwegians in a crowd. Just as Americans wear North Face and Germans wear Jack Wolfskin, anybody found with a Helly Hansen jacket in public is probably Norwegian.

My Lutefisk dinner
I got caught up on my work at IRIS yesterday and then headed out for a special dinner with my housemates in the evening. Jonathan, the same guy who had the idea to eat sheep head (Smalahove) in Voss, suggested we go out for Lutefisk. Now, Lutefisk is of course another traditional Norwegian dish, but it's not nearly as disconcerting as Smalahove. It's just plain old cod. The fish is soaked in cold water and a basic solution called lye for about two weeks. The caustic solution causes the fish fillet to lose much of its protein content and take on a gel-like consistency. After being cooked, the fish is served with bacon, mashed peas, and potatoes.

To me, the cod didn't have any flavor at all. It just took on the flavor of everything around it, much like tofu in a stir fry. I suppose some people may have a hard time with the texture, but to me it just seemed a little firmer and less flaky than normal fish. I would absolutely eat Lutefisk again.

Besides getting to try another typical Norwegian dish, dinner was great because I got to hang out with my housemates. We're an incredibly diverse group, but we manage to live with each other and get along quite well. Being part of the house community has actually been one of my favorite things about life in Stavanger. It was a great night.
Kirkebakken love

Monday, November 17, 2014

Freunde: Part 5

Corinna and I
Before leaving Germany, I took the train to Kiel and visited my friend, Corinna. She and I met a year ago in Oregon, when Corinna visited my institute there. She spent a month with us learning how to raise deep-sea larvae in captivity.

Corinna is incredibly thoughtful, and she often sends me packages of my favorite German chocolate. (In case any of you are wondering, Ritter Sport Nougat is the best chocolate in the entire world.) I send Corinna American peanut butter back, because she's the only German I know - and possibly the only German alive - who is addicted to peanut butter.

It was really great to see Corinna again. She showed me her institute, her deep-sea culture room, her favorite restaurant. We spent a good amount of time just walking around Kiel and talking about life. She's a really neat person, and I was glad I got to spend some time with her.

Well, friends, in the words of Forrest Gump, "That's all I have to say about that." It was a fantastic week in Germany. I'll catch up with you when I get back to Stavanger.

Freunde: Part 4

On Saturday, I had lunch with a fantastic woman that I affectionately call my "adopted German grandmother." Petra and I met through my church in Bremerhaven because we played music together for one of the Christmas church services. I remember when I first met her at the rehearsal, she was very formal and referred to me as "Sie," the formal word for "you." By the end of an hour, though, she had decided we could "dutz" each other and re-introduced herself by her first name. Since then we've always used the familiar "du," and sometimes she'll even call me "Enkel," the German word for "grandchild."

Petra and I
When I lived in Bremerhaven, Petra would invite me to dinner, and we'd spend the evening drinking tea and talking about our adventures. We watched Avatar together and snacked on candied ginger. We spent New Year's Eve 2011 watching fireworks over the Weser River from her 14th-floor apartment.

Petra astounds me because she is incredibly active for her age. She is a professional opera singer - a soprano - and still performs regularly even though she's been retired for quite a while. Earlier this year, she actually gave a farewell concert but then decided to go back to singing while on a cruise in the Baltic Sea. She told me how she and other tourists from the ship were listening to a street performer in Helsinki when she involuntarily started to sing along. The piece was a well-known Schubert work that Petra could probably perform in her sleep, and in that moment she realized that she was not ready to be finished singing yet. She returned to Bremerhaven after the cruise and is now preparing for a performance in one of Bremerhaven's churches next week.

What astounds me most about Petra besides her high activity level is that she undertakes everything alone. She never married or had any children, and she is among the most confident, self-assured people I know. It is no big deal to her to book a vacation and go on a fantastic adventure all by herself. Nevertheless, she has a huge heart. When we met this week, she proudly showed me a newspaper article about how she had sold 4,700 Euros worth of her father's oil paintings and donated the money to a children's hospice. Petra is so active and generous and just incredibly comfortable being herself. Seriously, I want to be Petra when I grow up.

Freunde: Part 3

Vanessa, Catharina, and I
On Thursday, I met up with Vanessa and Catharina. The two of them were regular students in my Jazz-Modern and West African dance classes in Bremerhaven. They've both kept up with me on Facebook and comment regularly on what I post there. It was neat to see what they've done since - graduated, moved, gotten married - and share with them my adventures.

Miriam and I
I also hung out with Miriam on Thursday and Friday. Miriam and I got to know each other at the AWI because she had a year-long internship the same year I worked there. She's now doing her Bachelor studies at the University of Bremen but has stayed in contact with the AWI. Miriam is a very enthusiastic person, and I love her animated expressions. We walked around downtown Bremen and had a nice dinner; then the next day, she showed me her campus at the University of Bremen. It was really great to see her again.

The Wunschkirche Group! Not everyone was able to make it,
but I was really happy to see these fantastic women again!
On Friday, I got to see a group of friends from my church in Bremerhaven. I was part of a group that planned special church services geared toward a younger audience. Not everyone from the group was able to make it, but I really appreciated the chance to see those that could come to our little coffee hour. One of the women even brought her new son! They all agreed that it was nice to have an excuse to meet and just talk because normally they only see each other to work. I wish all the best to this little group. Seeing them again warmed my heart.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Freunde: Part 2

On Tuesday and Wednesday, I got to hang out with my friend, Theresa, and her boyfriend, Juan. Theresa was even nice enough to let me stay at her place this week. She and I actually met on a bus, which is very unusual for northern Germany. People here usually don't strike up conversations with strangers, but Theresa is not your stereotypical north German. She's very open and loves to travel. In fact, she probably undestood better than anyone what it was like for me to live in Germany because when we met, she had just returned from two years as an au pair in the United States.

Raclette feast with Theresa and Juan.
Theresa and I spent a lot of evenings together when I lived in Bremerhaven. I would stop by her house after dance class, and we'd have dinner and watch Gilmore Girls. We kept in touch after I left, and she actually met up with me in Stockholm last summer while I was on vacation with my aunt.

Juan is from Colombia and belongs with me in the Gallery of People Theresa Met on a Bus. Actually, for them, it might have been a train. I positively adore international love stories. Juan is a cool guy, and I was glad to see Theresa so happy.

The picture at right is from Tuesday night. We had Raclette for dinner, which a Swiss style of grilling. You basically fill a shallow metal bowl with ingredients - meats, vegetables, cheese, sauce - and then place it next to hot electrical coils and wait for everything to cook together. It was so much fun to hang out with Theresa again and get to know Juan. They're a great pair.


"Kirstin, you know more people in Bremerhaven than someone who has lived here for 10 years."
- Christiane Johanssen, translation mine

"Freunde" is German for "Friends." I've met up with several friends this week in various combinations, and I'd like to tell you about each of them. This is actually my favorite part of being a traveling scientist: I get to meet interesting people all over the world.

Natalia, Alexandra, and me
On Monday night, I had dinner with Natalia and Alexandra. They're both studying at the Hochschule Bremerhaven, and we met because the Hochschule paired me and Natalia together through a mentorship program for international students. I was her "Schützling" (literal translation: "Thing to be protected"). Natalia and Alexandra are both Russians of German heritage who were born in Kazhakstan. Cool, right? Their families returned to their ancestral land (Germany) when both girls were quite young, so they grew up here and speak fluent German.

My favorite thing about these two is that whenever we get together to talk, we end up covering very deep topics. I remember one night specifically in Alexandra's apartment in 2012 when we made perogies and ended up discussing the role of religion in society. Somehow, the three of us can dive into traditionally touchy topics without anyone getting offended, and that's a rare thing. When we met Monday, the conversation started out with chatter about our lives, our studies, and our stupid professors, then took a left turn into European-Russian relations and ended with Nicholas Sparks novels. I love spending time with these girls, and it was really neat to catch up with them again.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Custom-made suit

As I stepped out of the train station, I switched into autopilot. I made my way through the thin crowd, crossed the street, and turned right. Of coure I knew exactly where I was. How many times had I walked this exact route? How many times that year did I return to Bremerhaven after an adventure, a weekend away, and walk this exact same route?

I passed my gym, the university, my bank, the Kennedy Bridge. If you had approached me on the street and told me I was a 24-year-old Ph.D. student, I would have laughed in your face. For that moment, I was 21. I was a recent college graduate with a Fulbright grant to my name and the world laid out before me.

It's actually surprising me how easily I've slid back into Bremerhaven. Everything is right where I left it. It feels almost like my life here is a custom-made suit hanging in my closet, and all I had to do was show up and put it back on.

I stopped by the AWI briefly on Monday before meeting friends for dinner, and then came back the next morning to work. My German colleagues are a fantastic group - they have very diverse personalities but all get along quite well. There's a very positive dynamic here, and in fact, it often feels like one big family.

After saying hello to a few people in the morning, I attended the coffee break, which is not technically mandatory but might as well be sacred. You come to the coffee break. I can't tell you how happy it made me to participate in the conversation, because it was just like always. S still tells hilarious stories at lightning speed. A is still a ray of sunshine. K still makes the coffee too strong, and everyone agrees there needs to be a warning sticker on the coffee machine whenever he makes a pot.

Selfie outside the AWI. There's some great science going on
inside that building.
I spent a good amount of time in the afternoon talking about my data with two colleagues, Thomas and Melanie. We actually covered a good bit of ground. I'm working on an analysis of dropstone communities in the Fram Strait; a cornerstone of my dissertation that I got the idea for while working at the AWI in 2011-2012. It amazes me sometimes how long it can take for a scientific study to progress from idea to dataset to paper, but the time in between is always worth it.

It was great to step back into my AWI world. I'm proud to be associated with this famous institute and to work with such a wonderful group of scientists.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


I love trains. You don’t have to disrobe at a security checkpoint; you can take as much luggage as you can carry; you get to see beautiful landscapes, and you can spread out onto the seat next to you because there’s usually nobody there. Ok, if you understand German, I recommend you check out the Wise Guys song “Deutsche Bahn” for a bit of perspective, but I still insist it’s the best way to travel. I would go everywhere by train if I could.

I started this morning by saying goodbye to Stefanie at the train station in Utrecht. That girl is a gem. The ride to Bremerhaven is about 5 hours, and I had to change trains twice. To be honest, it made me happy when we crossed the border and the announcements were made in German instead of Dutch. I can understand a good fraction of Dutch words, but there’s nothing like getting every single syllable in a language you understand. It’s like somebody flipped a switch and made everything suddenly fit in my brain.

You see, traveling to Germany is not an adventure. It’s not an adrenaline rush; it’s not even a challenge. It’s a homecoming. 

Some of you may have heard me explain this before, but I believe there are two highs in life. I’m not talking about drugs; I’m talking about completely natural feelings, brought on by the awesomeness of life itself. The cold high is adventure. It’s walking up early, crisp mountain air, scaling an impossible cliff, discovering something new. It’s mental flossing. The cold high cleans you out and makes you feel fresh.

On the other hand, the warm high fills you up. It’s holidays with family; it’s seeing a dear old friend. It’s hot chocolate, a warm fire, a place you belong.

When I first arrived in Germany in July 2011, I was on a cold high for months. Everything I touched was something new. Gradually, that faded away, and now, as I’m returning to this place that has become a part of my story – a part of me – it’s nothing but a pure warm high. This feeling is liquid, and it’s washing over my shoulders like a refreshing hot shower.

You’ll forgive me, won’t you, if I just stare out the window for a while? I’m sorry if you think it odd, but I just need to drink in this feeling for a little bit.

I’ll catch up with you when I get to Bremerhaven. Friends, I’m almost home.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

House of Orange

My favorite color is orange, and it has been for years. My suitcases are orange; my backpack is orange; and most of my clothes feature the glorious color in one form or another. For this reason alone, I must give bonus points to the Dutch for selecting orange as their national color. I used to think the Dutch chose orange only to set themselves apart from every other country with a red, white, and blue flag, but Stefanie explained that the Dutch royal family is also called the "Order of the House of Orange." Dude, trust me, if I ever by some miracle happen to rule my own country, I will plagiarize the Dutch and refer to my family as the House of Orange. How awesome will that be?

The most-photographed view in Utrecht.
Today, Stefanie and I started out with a walk through downtown Utrecht. She showed me her favorite cafe; she took me down an extremely narrow street ("typical Dutch"); she showed me the most-photographed view in Utrecht. Utrecht is a pretty international city, and there are all sorts of ethic restaurants downtown - Turkish, Arabian, Surinamese. I'm inclined to say the Netherlands in general embrace international influence, certainly more so than some European countries.

If you check out the photo to the left, the fancy spire in the middle is Utrecht Dom Tower. The tower originally belonged to the Utrecht Domkerk (=Cathedral), but a tornado in 1674 destroyed half of the church. The tower and the far end of the church survived, but the middle section, the church's nave, was destroyed. It seems significantly odd that only the middle of the church would be destroyed, but this section was also unfinished. It lacked external supports to hold up the walls (think Notre Dame), so the walls folded in on one another. Today, the cathedral tower stands by itself and is Utrecht's most famous attraction.

Vermeer's The Milkmaid, photographed by me in the
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2014
After our walk through the city, Stefanie and I decided to visit the Dutch Rijksmuseum (National Museum) in Amsterdam. Utrecht is only a 30-minute train ride from Amsterdam, so going into the city is quite easy. The Rijksmuseum is full of art from all eras, beginning with the Middle Ages on the ground floor and ending with 20th century artists on the top floor. Of course the museum specializes in Dutch artists, so master works like Rembrandt's Night Watch are displayed prominently. I've told you already how much I adore 20th century art, but I've got to admit: the 20th century wasn't the best era for Dutch artists. Of the artists featured on the top floor, only Mondrian is historically noteworthy, and no other works spoke to me at all. The golden era for the Dutch is split between the 1600s, when Rembrandt and Vermeer were active, and Van Gogh's lifetime in the late 1800s. It was very cool to see original Rembrandt works, mostly because the man painted big. Night Watch, for example, takes up an entire wall. Vermeer used much smaller canvases.

It's been a fantastic weekend with Stefanie. I'm glad I had the chance to spend time with a good friend and see a bit of her Dutch world. Tomorrow, I'll take the train to Bremerhaven and visit the city I learned to love. Stay tuned.

As if no time had passed at all

I'll start this post out with a lovely little fact of geography: Norway is a lot closer to Germany than the U.S. is! I've shared with you before that I lived in Germany for about a year in 2011-2012, so while I'm in Europe, I decided to hop over and visit. I got clearance from Andrew to be gone for a whole week, and I'll spend that time meeting with colleagues and visiting friends.

I actually started by flying to Amsterdam for the weekend to see a dear friend. Stefanie and I first met on the icebreaker Polarstern in 2011, during my first research cruise ever. We spent a lot of time together in Bremerhaven after the cruise because we met every Sunday afternoon to cook together.

Stefanie brought me a bouquet of orange
flowers at the airport!
Shortly after I left Bremerhaven, Stefanie did too, and she's now doing her Ph.D. at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands. When I landed in Amsterdam, she met me at the airport with a bouquet of orange flowers and a Dutch flag. Every time I see Stefanie, it feels like no time has passed at all, even though our meetings are separated by as much as a year. Actually, the last time I saw her was exactly a year ago, when she visited me in Oregon.

I really enjoyed seeing Stefanie's new city. Her apartment is on the second floor of a tall, narrow building, and to get to it, you have to climb what is possibly the narrowest, steepest staircase ever built. She described the staircase as "typical Dutch."

In the spirit of a true Dutch experience, Stefanie took me on a bike tour of Utrecht yesterday. If you're not aware, the Netherlands are the bike capital of the world. This country is exceptionally flat and significantly urbanized, and these two factors combined mean that the most efficient way to get around is in many cases by bike. The Dutch are crazy about their bikes, too. In fact, they probably spend more money on their bikes than they do on their cars. I've never seen such fancy bike seats, cargo bags, and bike locks - oh, the bike locks! - anywhere else in the world. And the kid carriers! It's not unusual for a Dutch parent to have one child seat on the front of their bike, one on the middle bar below the handlebars, and one kid on the back. Parents drop their kids off at school this way. Sometimes, they'll have large brown cargo wagons on the front of the bike, which can be used to transport everything from kids to couches. When the Dutch move apartments, they do so by bike. It's flat-out ridiculous.

Kasteel de Haar
Well anyway, Stefanie and I got bikes and headed out to Kasteel de Haar (De Haar Castle), about 14 km outside of the city. Stefanie called de Haar "the Neuschawanstein of Holland." The current castle building is actually a re-make of a castle that used to stand in the same place, and it's used today as a meeting place for the Dutch rich and famous. The castle grounds are beautiful, so we spent a good amount of time just walking around and admiring the castle. We even found a hedge maze and had a lot of fun getting ourselves lost.

It was really great to spend time with Stefanie and experience Dutch life. More from Utrecht tomorrow!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Draft 1

It's finished. It's finally finished. I can't believe I made it.

The image analysis that I've been working on with Andrew - the one that he gave me the data for when first met 2 years ago - it's done. It's all there. Draft 1.

Now, draft 1 is obviously nowhere close to the final product. This manuscript is still going to have to be edited by my co-authors. Then it's going to endure peer review once we submit it to a journal. Maybe it will be torn apart and rejected; maybe it will be accepted. It will continue to be shaped, molded, and revised, but still, draft 1 is a big step.

I feel like the air around me just got a little lighter, but that might just be because I'm sitting up straight. I've spent the better part of the last two weeks staring intensely at my computer screen in various postures. Man, I need to do some yoga.

Draft 1 is done. Thank. Goodness.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


The last thing I did in Oslo was attend a concert with Ingeborg as part of the Oslo World Music Festival. Actually, this concert was the whole reason for going to Oslo in the first place. The artist was one of Ingeborg's favorites, Khaled, whom she described as "the Bruce Springsteen of the Arabic world." Khaled is from Algeria, and I'm pretty sure the entire Algerian population of Oslo showed up to this concert. Some even brought Algerian flags and soccer jerseys to wave in the air.

The concert hall had a wide, open floor packed with people, plus two balconies. I thought it was a decently large venue, though I'm sure it's nothing compared to where Khaled is used to performing. He's been singing since his twenties and is now 54. He stood in the middle of the stage, surrounded by a band of 5 or 6, and moved around way more than I expected for his age.

Khaled's music is the kind that makes you want to move. I found myself unconsciously swaying my hips as I listened, and as the concert went on, more and more people around me began to dance. Those of you who know me are aware of how much I love to dance, but you also know I don't like to attract much attention. You can imagine my surprise when someone I didn't know grabbed me by the hand and pulled me into a group of Algerians. It was one of those dance circles - you know, where everyone stands around in a circle, takes turns soloing, and leaves enough space in the middle for that one guy who can do back flips.

It definitely caught me off-guard to be thrust into a bubble of empty space with 100 eyes on me. I managed to pull off a decent half minute of footwork before retreating.  

All in all, it was quite a cultural experience. It seems I've had quite of few of those in Norway - nights when I had a hard time figuring out what country I was in. Norwegians have somehow struck this beautiful balance whereby they maintain and uphold their own unique culture, all the while embracing and enjoying elements of other cultures too. What a crazy, amazing world we live in.

In case you're interested, Khaled's two most famous songs are "Aicha" and "C'est la vie." I guarantee if you YouTube either title along with his name, the songs will come right up. Enjoy!

Ingeborg and I before the concert.

Walk the line

"There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line." - Oscar Levant

A model of the Kon-Tiki raft. Photographed by me at the
Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo, 2014.
Next door to the Fram Museum is the Kon-Tiki Museum, which commemorates a famous expedition across the Pacific Ocean. Thor Heyerdahl was working as a zoologist in Polynesia when he met a Polynesian chief and learned the legend of Kon-Tiki. According to the legend, the chief's ancestor, named Kon-Tiki, had arrived in the South Pacific on a raft from the east - from South America. Prevailing theory at the time (and also since) was that the ancestors of modern Polynesians came from southeast Asia. Thus, Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that it was possible to cross the ocean from South America to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft such as the legendary Kon-Tiki would have used.
If you read my previous post, you'll see I was deeply impressed by modern explorers such as Nansen and Amundsen at the Fram Museum. I wanted desperately to place Thor Heyerdahl in the same category and call him "a fantastic human being." While there are definitely some important lessons to be taken away from the Kon-Tiki expedition, but I ended up deciding Heyerdahl was something of a madman. 

If I was about to take off in a balsa wood raft across the ocean with no back-up plan, I would first take the time to learn everything that I could about ancient raft construction, modern sailing techniques, the environment I was entering, etc. I would stuff my head with knowledge. Not so with Heyerdahl. None of the six men aboard had any sailing experience. In fact, their first 24 hours at sea were almost a complete disaster, and two of the men came within inches of death in the middle of the expedition. 

By all practical accounts, the Kon-Tiki expedition should not have succeeded. In fact, it was labeled as a suicide mission. The team eventually reached French Polynesia, though their raft was in terrible condition and they collided with a coral reef upon arrival. 

Nevertheless, the expedition actually does illuminate the cultural anthropology of Polynesia. DNA
Carved stone figures from Polynesia. Photographed by me at
the Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo, 2014.
evidence in recent years has shown some limited influence of South American genes in Polynesia, and stone statues carved in Polynesia bear a striking resemblance to figures produced in South America. At one point in his travels, Heyerdahl was shown into a cave full of such figures on Easter Island. The figures are on display in the museum today. To some extent, I admire Heyerdahl's bravery and his belief in himself despite universal criticism. He also held international collaboration to be a very important element of his work. Prior to the expedition, he approached the Peruvian government for funding and was even granted an audience with the Peruvian President. In later expeditions (as if one wasn't enough!) he sought collaborators from Egypt and Chad.

I've confessed to you before my desire to explore and work in developing countries. That Heyerdahl was already able in 1947 to travel as a Norwegian to Peru, find support for a hair-brained adventure from a government he didn't belong to, cross the ocean, arrive on an island, and then be granted a private tour of that island's cultural treasure caves - this is astounding to me! Perhaps I should take it as encouragement for my own future endeavors, but at the moment, I'm more inclined to interpret Heyerdahl's life with caution. He did, after all, abandon his wife and bankrupt himself by investing in his and others' projects.

I think that in international collaborative efforts, there is a delicate balance to be found. People from different countries can and certainly do work well together. However, at the forefront of any project must always be respect for local authorities and preservation of local culture. It strikes me that Heyerdahl treated the world a bit like his own personal playground, which is the exact opposite of how I prefer to approach life.

It was very interesting to see the Kon-Tiki Museum and to learn more about the man behind the expedition.

Photographed by me at the Kon-Tiki Museum, Oslo, 2014.

Giants with shoulders

"I've learned that people will forget what you said; people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." - Maya Angelou

While in Oslo for the weekend with Ingeborg, I made a point of visiting some museums. I've already told you about the Munch Museum. The following day, I headed to the Fram and Kon-Tiki Museums, both located at what is called Bygdøynes, a peninsula west of the city center.

Me aboard the Fram. Photographed by me at the Fram
Museum, Oslo, 2014.
The Fram is a polar research vessel which was used in three famous expeditions: first, it was captained by Fridtjof Nansen and allowed to freeze up in sea-ice with the hopes of finding the North Pole; second, it was used to explore around Greenland; and third, it transported Amundsen and his crew to Antarctica for their legendary race to the South Pole. I find it astounding that this ship is still intact.

I didn't realize before I got there, but the Fram Museum was built around the ship. Historical photos showed the ship being hauled out of the fjord, placed in its current location, and then the rafters of the museum being built around it. Museum visitors can even board the ship indoors.

Tools and boots used aboard the Fram. Photographed by me
at the Fram Museum, Oslo, 2014.

Exploring the ship was an incredible experience. It's wooden, and the hull is much rounder than other ships. It was constructed specifically to survive being frozen in sea ice, so it's meant to be pushed up and away from the sea surface rather than just sitting there and trying to withstand the pressure. The ship was surprisingly small, and the chambers were quite cramped. I've been on a decent number of ships in recent years, and I can tell you that even in larger spaces and over shorter time scales, cabin fever is not uncommon. I can only imagine what the men aboard went through, seeing the same walls every day for years, completely isolated from civilization, unsure whether they'd live to see home.

Sverdrup's name over his cabin door. Photographed by me
at the Fram Museum, Oslo, 2014.

As I surveyed the ship, I couldn't help but think about those who had been there before me. Each door had the names of the former inhabitants written above the door frame. The three biggest names, of course, are Nansen, Amundsen, and Sverdrup. Nansen and Amundsen were expedition leaders, and Sverdrup was an oceanographer that even has a unit of measurement named after him. I knew very little about these famous explorers before visiting the museum, and I have to admit, now that I know about their lives, I'm even more impressed.

Nansen was primarily a scientist but also a humanitarian. After the first Fram expedition, he was appointed as an ambassador and later as High Commissioner for Refugees for the League of Nations. He devised the so-called "Nansen passport," a form of identification that allows refugees to cross borders quickly and legally, and in 1922, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Nansen's life demonstrated to me something very important: the legacy that a person leaves behind is not just that one great thing they accomplished; rather, it is the sum of their activities while on earth. It is possible to accomplish multiple great things during one lifetime. Furthermore, those who are remembered most are not just great scientists or hardy adventurers but also fantastic human beings. I'm officially adding Fridtjof Nansen to my list of favorite people.

Exhibit about Amundsen's life among the Inuit.
Photographed by me at the Fram Museum, Oslo, 2014.
Roald Amundsen also accomplished multiple great things in his lifetime, but what I'll remember most is how he treated other people. There was an entire display about how he and his men lived among the Inuit of northern Canada during their exploration of the Northwest Passage. They learned the Inuit language, accepted gifts of furs, and learned how to hunt. Several quotes were posted in the museum from Inuit chiefs who remembered Amundsen's generosity, kindness, and willingnes to learn.

I realized a long time ago how important it is to respect the local people in any location. In fact, I would argue that it is the duty of any traveler to learn, to integrate, to handle locals with respect, and to adopt the local culture. It was so reassuring to learn that Amundsen had this same attitude and that he is still remembered for it among the Inuit today.

How immensely important it is to be not just a giant of history but also a decent human being. I walked away from the Fram Museum deeply impressed by Nansen and Amundsen. It is their shoulders on which I would like to stand.

Monday, November 3, 2014

True innovation

"The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance."
- Aristotle

We stepped from the bright lobby into the dimly-lit auditorium. Why are there couches on the stage? I thought to myself. I was surrounded by a group of Norwegian women, all of whom seemed to know what they were doing more than I did, so I followed them down to the stage. Beside me, a dreadlocked, bearded 20-something in a vintage sweater settled emphatically into the cushions. Alright, then, I thought, couch concert it is. 

As it turns out, there were also yoga mats available for those who wished to lay on the floor. The audience surrounded the performers on all sides, and the performing duo faced each other as they played. It was quite a unique combination of instruments - violin and saxophone, plus a brass bowl hit with a mallet, a finger harp from Ethiopia, and plenty of singing.

You're probably imagining something abstract, grotesque, and tribal right about now, but that's not how it was at all. There was actually more silence in the music than sound. They started with just simple, soft noises. Harmonics on the violin. Blowing air through the saxophone. Gradually, the violinst began to place his fingers more firmly on the strings, and the saxophonist lightly tapped her keys. They passed a phrase back and forth, grew quiet, then picked up another, each developing it uniquely, comtemplatively, softly.

It must have been a good twenty minutes before they stopped. Nobody applauded, so I assumed the piece must have been the first movement of a multi-movement work. The saxophonist started tapping the brass bowl beside her with a soft mallet, causing it to ring in the intimate, audience-bounded space. The violinist tapped his bow on the strings, adding a bit of percussion. The sounds continued to blend together as the violinist started pulling his bow across the string. Gradually, softly, I began to hear what could only be a human voice. Interwoven seamlessly into the matrix of notes, the saxophonist began to sing.

She continued for a good long while, first in Norwegian, then in something I didn't recognize, perhaps Hindi. The violinist accompanied her with regularly-paced, slurred notes. He let his bow float up and down across the strings, first toward the bridge, then toward the nut.

By this point, I had completely lost track of time, of how many pieces there had been, of where I was or who I was with. I was entranced. The music was exceptionally innovative, both in content and in style. The musicians used their instruments in a number of non-traditional ways and seamlessly blended together a variety of sounds.

As I listened, I couldn't help but imagine for myself a second life as a professional musician. I wanted to sit in theory class next to these two, take out my own violin and join in, be surrounded by musicians with both imagination and bravery.

I started longing to be equally innovative in other areas of my life, my music, my science. The problem is that true innovation is very hard to achieve, because it involves imagining that which has never existed and then bringing it into existence. It's much easier to just see what already exists and re-do it over and over again. Actually, something I've realized is that many times, the greatest achievements are not made by quantum leaps into the unknown but rather by combining just the right pre-existing elements in a new way. I'm certain that if I was more acquainted with the musical collections and the personal experiences of the two performers, I would be able to identify the elements which they had borrowed from various sources and combined in new ways.

The concert was definitely a source of inspiration for me, musically as well as personally. I'm very glad I got to witness such innovative music.


"The true artist only ever depicts himself."
- the movie Stealing Beauty

Ingeborg and I went to see the Munch Museum in Oslo. If you're not familiar with Edvard Munch's name, I'm sure you've seen his most famous work, The Scream, or one of countless allusions to the painting. The central figure, with his mouth agape and hands on the side of his face, has become unbelievably ingrained in popular culture.  

I remember learning in Modern Art class in college that the intense agony Munch expressed through The Scream was influenced by the long hours of darkness during a Scandinavian winter. We were told that darkness leads to Seasonal Affective Disorder, cultural pessimism, and dark, tortured, art. While I have no trouble accepting this view, I wondered if any Scandinavian artist was ever inspired by the long hours of light in the summer. There's just as much light in Scandinavia as anywhere else in the world; it's just unevenly distributed throughout the year. Theoretically, there should be just as much manic, ecstatic art emerging from northern latitude societies as there are agony-ridden, depressing works. I thought there should be more extreme fluctuation of emotion - a greater variance, not a different mean. 

When you visit the Munch Museum, The Scream is located in one of the very first rooms you enter. This surprised me because I expected to have to wait for it, search for it - much like seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Ingeborg and I even shared a laugh when she looked straight at The Scream and didn't realize it was the real thing. I guess we were both surprised. 

After the first few rooms, with displays centering on the themes of life, death, rebirth, and agony, I had decided that Munch was a tortured soul. I started wondering if he was afflicted with a terminal disease that caused him to contemplate the ephemeral nature of his existence. I started to form the theory in my head that Scandinavian artists did not create joyful works because even if their mood was lighter in the summers, they probably spent all their time outdoors enjoying the sun, not indoors painting.

Gradually, the thematic nature of the displays lightened. In fact, a significant number of Munch's works have themes of love and light. You'll see two of my favorites below. The Sun was especially neat to see in person because like Van Gogh, Munch left some thick globs of paint on his canvas, which gave the work a very active, 3-D texture. I love how the colors make it feel like the sun is coming out of the canvas at you.

In the end, I concluded that the textbooks are correct, that much of Munch's art is influenced by darkness during the Scandinavian winters. However, art historians too quickly forget that some of his artworks are inspired by light and joy in the Scandinavian summers. There's a wider variance, not a different mean.

The Embrace, photographed by me at the Munch
Museum, Oslo, 2014 

The Sun, photographed by me at the Munch Museum,
Oslo, 2014

Seen around town

The Norwegian Royal Palace in Oslo
The sight-seeing part of my weekend began with a walk from Ingeborg's mom's apartment to the royal palace. We stopped in at various shops to look around, then headed to Slottsparken (Palace Park). When we approached the royal palace, Ingeborg had to point it out to me because I otherwise wouldn't have recognized it as a house of royalty. It was quite an unassuming building - plain, even - and it occurred to me that I've seen museums more conspicuous and lavishly decorated. Ingeborg explained that since Norway was ruled by Denmark for so many years and afterwards unified with Sweden, the royal family of Norway is not nearly as rich as some other monarchies. Today, they live so much like normal people, she said, that she didn't see a real point in maintaining the monarchy. I have to admit that I agree.

Henrik Ibsen's signature outside the Ibsen Museum in Oslo
Later in the day, we passed the Ibsen Museum, located in the former residence of the famous playwright. I could easily have walked straight past this building as well, and I might have if someone hadn't stopped us to ask Ingeborg for directions. As she was talking with the passer-by, I noticed there was writing in the sidewalk, lines from Ibsen's plays, and even his signature. Looking up, I finally noticed the facade of the inconspicuous Ibsen Museum, complete with a historical placard marking it as his former apartment. It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for famous and influential figures to live as normal people - I guess I always expect their residences to fit their post-mortem reputations. Not so, my friends, not so. 

Finally, Ingeborg and I found the Nobel Institute, where the committee deciding recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize meets. A separate museum is located closer to the city center, but I wanted to see where the decisions are actually made. The Peace Prize is announced and awarded in Oslo, whereas academic Nobel Prizes are awarded in Stockholm, Sweden. A bust of Alfred Nobel was of course situated directly in front of the building, reminding all who pass by of the tradition being carried on inside. I've found myself in recent years having stronger and stronger opinions on Nobel Prize recipients, and I'm not sure if this is a sign of age, maturity, education, or obsession. Perhaps I should have left the committe a note with my two cents' worth - just kidding.

My overall impression of Oslo is that it is a very unassuming, decentralized city with highlights scattered throughout.  

Bust of Alfred Nobel outside the Nobel Institute in Oslo.


One of the things that traveling abroad has changed about me is that I am now very comfortable being a guest. It started when I lived in Germany, because I was constantly being invited to friends' homes. In fact, part of my strategy to see the country was making friends with people who had grown up in interesting places and then hoping they would invite me to their hometown. The plan worked splendidly.

I think the key to being a good guest is openness. I've gradually become comfortable in a variety of arrangements, whether I'm sleeping on the floor or a queen bed in the guest room. There's a delicate balance to be found whereby I accept my hosts' offers without being greedy, participate in a conversation without being either domineering or too shy, and remain comfortably myself while taking part in the lives of those around me. It would be inaccurate to say I always find this balance, but I'm definitely much closer than I was in 2011.

This weekend, my friend, Ingeborg, invited me to travel to Oslo with her. She wanted to see a concert and visit her mom, who lives there. I was grateful to Ingeborg for inviting me along and to her mom for hosting me. I think you learn a lot about a person when you see them in their native context, among their family or in their hometown. It was cool for me to see some of the personality traits and interests that Ingeborg shares with her mom, and family photos scattered throughout the apartment were both insightful and adorable.

I got to know Ingeborg's cousin a little. He works in marketing but is also very into music. In fact, he's one of the few people I have ever met who appreciate music for what it is, rather than sorting artists into those they like and those they don't like. He treats all kinds of music as inherently valuable but just applicable to different situations. His Spotify features genres as diverse as Gregorian chant, electronica, and metal. He actually gave me a comprehensive introduction to the genre of Norwegian Black Metal, which I had never encountered before. I'm not so sure I'd ever like to encounter it again, to be honest, since the sacreligious lyrics draw on imagery from paganism and the occult. Still, it's good for me to be aware that such a thing exists.

It ended up being an incredibly musical weekend, as I'll describe in later posts. I saw two concerts, three museums, and experienced Norway's capital. Stay tuned.