Sunday, August 31, 2014

Far from home

"We are far from home
But we're so happy
Far from home
All alone
But we're so happy"
- "From Finner" by Of Monsters and Men

I wish I could make you feel the way I feel right now. It's like I'm a piece of fabric that had been stored away for a long while in a musty attic with moth balls, and suddenly I've been brought out, spread open, dusted off, and hung in the sunshine. I feel fresh, aired out, new. The lyrics I wrote above are so incredibly true. Since landing in Stavanger, I have been embraced by my new colleagues, enthralled by the landscape, and refreshed by the wind, the sun, and the sea.

My church in Stavanger
I went to church this morning! I'm a Protestant Christian - a Lutheran - so it wasn't hard to find a church in Stavanger. In fact, there's a Lutheran church literally a block from my house. The congregation is vibrant, and there are a lot of young families. There was a group of kids that sang in the service today, and there were even two baptisms! I think I'll fit in well.

After church, I walked around downtown, and it was the first time I had ventured any significant distance without planning a route and taking a map. Downtown is relatively easy to navigate because it's organized on two peninsulas. Basically, if you walk far enough in any one direction, you'll hit water and know it's time to turn back. There were a lot of instances when I wandered long enough that I ended up at the same place where I began. Given my experience getting to IRIS, which is just outside of town, I was thankful to find the city center so navigable!

View out to the fjord from my "secret spot"
On the recommendation of a friend, I decided to explore to the east of downtown, toward the inner coast of the fjord. About a 30 minute walk due east of my house is the most gorgeous, unobstructed fjord view I've found yet. You can even walk out onto the rocks at the edge of the water. I usually choose a spot in every city I live in where I will go to decompress and pray, and I think this will be my place in Stavanger.

It's been 5 days since I landed, and I think I can declare myself officially settled in. Tomorrow morning, I will head to IRIS and start on some real work. Bring on the science!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Come Alive

"We've heard the cry
And we come alive
And we fight for love
And we live to die
Because a life that holds no meaning
Is like a day without the light
So we come alive tonight"
- "Come Alive" by BarlowGirl

I was just about ready to turn in early tonight when there was a knock on my door. I opened it to find a housemate I hadn't met yet (not surprising; there are people all over this house I haven't met) inviting me out for drinks. We joined a couple others at the bar where our landlady works (another little tidbit I didn't know) and settled down with our drinks.

I have to tell you about the conversation because it is exactly the kind of conversation that makes me light up like a switchboard. It was the type of conversation where every facet of my brain was engaged and I began to lose track of time. There's something so incredibly valuable about being invested like that; in the moment.

Sitting to my right was N. She grew up outside of  Oslo, but her parents are from Ghana. N was the one who oriented me to the house when I first arrived, and she works as a nurse. I want to ask her more questions about growing up in Norway as soon as I have the chance.

Sitting to my left was P, from Mumbai. He's a quiet guy but very smart, and he's studying engineering. He told me about how mathematics are pushed on kids in Indian schools, to the point that art is neglected. He said software engineers are highly valued, and hacking is a real problem. I never knew any of this.

To N's right was J, a Danish-American with a loud voice and a loud personality. J likes to pick on P, but P is a good sport about it and jokes back. Whenever there's a lull in the conversation, you can count on J to bring up the next topic. He was unashamedly sporting a Seattle Mariners cap, a University of Washington T-shirt, and a Seattle Seahawks lanyard on his keys. He kept pestering our landlady for free beer, but she never gave in.

Between J and P was I, from Helsinki. We got talking about international politics and how Finland must balance alliances with countries to their east and west. Many Finnish products are exported to Russia, making their economies co-dependent, but Russia's recent military activity in the Ukraine has changed many Finnish people's opinion of their closest neighbor.

This, my friends, is why I travel. Learning about other people's lives, their histories, their problems, their solutions, their perspectives - this is what makes me come alive. It was an awesome night.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The institute at the end of the universe: Part 2

After I finally made it to IRIS for the first time (man, was that just yesterday?), I learned that most employees bike to work. It's much less expensive than driving, more convenient than the bus, and it's good exercise. After running some errands in town today, I decided to bike out to IRIS. It was quite the adventure.

The presence of bike lanes on most streets is one of my favorite things about Europe, and let me tell you, Stavanger took it to the next level. There are bike paths literally everywhere, and at many intersections, the bike path dips below the street so cyclists can keep riding without having to wait for traffic. One of the streets I rode on today, Møllegata, must be only for bikes, because there were regularly-spaced concrete barriers to restrict the width of the street and make it more difficult for cars to pass. Rock on, Stavanger!

Seen from the along-fjord bike path
Even though there were cars all around me in the city center, I felt completely safe. I think Norwegians are very courteous drivers. If you sit at any intersection and watch for a few minutes, you'll see drivers yielding to each other, navigating around each other, braking for pedestrians, and basically remaining excessively aware of traffic so that everyone gets their chance to pass through. I remember one instance where a car stalled out, and the driver had to stop in the middle of an intersection to re-start. Other cars just slowed down and gracefully went around. Nobody ever has to slam on their brakes and honk angrily; somehow, traffic just flows.

View out to the fjord from the bike path.
Once I got out of the city center, I actually had a bit of a hard time sticking to the right path because their are bike paths leading everywhere - much more than I expected. I had a choice between the inland route and the fjord route, so I went along the water. Turns out this is the long way to go, and what should have been a 30-minute ride took me almost 2 hours because I was constantly stopping to check the map and take pictures. The fjord is gorgeous!

The last segment of the bike commute to IRIS. 
The very last segment of my bike commute to IRIS is along what amounts to a highway. As it turns out, there is a pedestrian path being built, but I doubt it will be finished by the time I have to leave here. I decided just to go for it and bike along the road because hey, everyone else survives. I was just fine the whole time, and as evidenced to the left here, I even felt safe enough to stop and take a picture. Yes, that is a farm on the left, and there are usually cows in the field. I'm learning that farms in Norway are placed wherever you can fit one. At times it feels random, but hey, it works!

Here's to a beautiful commute!

Around the Hearth

Last night, I was invited to dinner at the home of my Norwegian host, Andy, and his wife, Astri, who also works at IRIS. It was grateful to be invited into their home, and they were extremely hospitable.

It occurred to me that one aspect of culture is the norms of home life, and you really experience a culture by entering someone's home. In recent years, I've spent most of my time in apartments, and something feels distinctly different to me whenever I'm in a house. Apartments are the dwellings of transient young people; we're constantly moving, we're barely ever home, and we don't get particularly attached to our places of residence. Someone who lives in a house, on the other hand, is probably planning to stay there for a while. They probably have a family, and they have taken the time to establish a sustainable, long-term home.

I remember visiting a friend's parent's house in Germany and remarking to myself how different the house felt from the house I grew up in. This particular house was quite cluttered with stuff, to the point that the hallways were made narrower by the things being stored along the walls, and the garden was heavily landscaped. It struck me as very intense living - lots of stuff in a small space. Andy and Astri's neighborhood could also be described as "intense living" because the plots of land are quite small and heavily landscaped, and the houses are close together. No garden gnomes, though. Thank goodness there were no garden gnomes.

I'm learning that the concept of having a lawn is uniquely American. No European dreams of gazing out their giant windows at a solid acre of nothing but grass. They tend to use their yards as gardens, planting vegetables and flowers that they will later harvest and eat. To be honest, last night I was caught off-guard when some flowers from the garden trellis showed up in the salad, but I think there's a certain value in growing your own food. You know exactly where it came from, and you have a relationship with the land.

One last observation I'll make: I think Europeans are much more protective of their land than Americans, maybe because there is so little of it to go around. Every Norwegian house has either a fence or a hedge around the perimeter of the yard. In contrast, I remember when I was growing up in the U.S., our neighbor's dog would regularly run through our backyard, and it didn't bother anyone. That'd never happen over here because each yard is guarded by a wooden wall.

Despite the outward appearance of possessiveness, even isolation, caused by the ubiquitous fences, I have to say the Norwegians I've encountered so far are open, generous people. As we were walking to the beach, Andy knocked on someone's door to tell him the headlights of his car had been left on, and the guy responded with gratitude, not annoyance at being disturbed. Andy and Astri even offered me their spare bike, which I'll now use to get to IRIS and back.

Last night was definitely a highlight of my time in Stavanger so far. I walked away feeling warm, accepted, welcomed, part of a group. It's hard to believe I've been here 3 days, because Stavanger is already beginning to feel like home.

The institute at the end of the universe

“Reality is frequently inaccurate” – Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

My first full day in Stavanger was spent finding IRIS, the institute where I’ll be working for the next six months. Yes, that means it took me a full day to find it.

I set out from my apartment in the morning, intending to walk to a part of town called Ullandhaug, where both the University of Stavanger and IRIS are located. It was a beautiful trek through the city and surrounding area, but when I arrived at IRIS, significantly proud of my own navigation skills, I discovered that I should actually have gone to the other IRIS location, at Mekjarvik.

“What other location?” I asked. I had always assumed there was only one.

IRIS's Mekjarvik location
Thus ensued the lengthy process of figuring out Stavanger’s bus system. It would take too long to walk back to downtown, not to mention the 15 km out to Mekjarvik.

Bus pass and route map in hand, I hopped onto bus #8. It seemed like a convenient option, running every 15 minutes and dropping me a mere 2 km from the institute. “Peanuts,” I thought, “I can walk 2 km!” Well, as it turns out, the 2 km stretch between the last stop for bus #8 and IRIS is along what amounts to a highway, and there are no pedestrian paths in sight. Back to downtown.

I got on bus #28, which takes me straight to Mekjarvik. It’s not the most convenient option because it only runs every hour and a half, but hey, it’s better than walking along the side of the highway. I finally made it to the institute at about 5 pm. The door was open, but I didn’t see anyone inside. Not wanting to venture into an area I wasn’t supposed to be in, I turned back and just figured I would come back in the morning.

The view from my office at IRIS. Ignore the trash heap.
Just like everything else, this experience turned out for the best, because at the height of my frustration, I met an exceptionally kind and helpful woman named Ingeborg, and I think she may turn out to be a good friend. When I successfully made it to IRIS the following morning, I was immediately welcomed into my own office, introduced to smiling colleagues, and told that a few scientists had stayed late the previous night to look for me. I must have just missed them when I arrived at 5.

I actually like IRIS a lot now that I’m here. The Mekjarvik location is at the end of a peninsula, so my office has a nice view out to the fjord. I finally made it, and I’m grateful to be here.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

I think I'm going to like it here

Landing in Stavanger was an experience I’ll never forget. We spent the last half hour flying over unbelievably rugged terrain at the very southern tip of Norway. I was astounded that even among the rippling mountains, jagged cliffs, and numerous fjords, there were houses – and not just a few! My utmost respect goes to those Norwegians inhabiting an area I would be hesitant to drive an ATV through.

We soon reached an area of flatter farm land, I could see a city emerging in the distance. I’m not sure if it was for show or practical reasons, but the pilot banked a dramatic 360° turn that gave me a breath-taking view of my new home. I love living in places with interesting landscapes, and Stavanger is definitely one of 

The facade of my house in Stavanger.
I went straight from the airport to my apartment, and quickly discovered that my house is even cooler than I ever expected. I’m renting a single bedroom in a 150-year-old house that I share with 16 other people. For such a densely populated dwelling, the house is surprisingly clean and quiet. We have a strict cleaning schedule and more than enough bathroom and kitchen space to accommodate everyone. Most of my housemates are from various parts of Scandinavia, and I’m definitely going to have to work on some of their names!

I have yet to explore all of downtown Stavanger, but for today, I’m smiling at the small details of European life that make me happy: lack of screens on the windows, lack of top sheets on the beds, the ubiquity of cobblestone streets, and the availability of sliced gouda cheese in the grocery store. Oh! My local grocery store also has a self-service bread-slicing machine!

Life in Stavanger is good so far. I think I’m going to like it here. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Pieces of my heart

“You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be elsewhere. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place.” – Christine Thiel

Flying halfway around the world is never easy, no matter how you do it. By the time I landed in Frankfurt, Germany, after a direct flight from San Francisco, I was pretty darn exhausted. I found my gate for the connecting flight to Stavanger, and only then did it hit me that I was in Germany. I lived in Bremerhaven, Germany, for about a year total in 2011 and 2012, and it’s one of few places in the world that I miss on a constant basis. I definitely left a piece of my heart in Bremerhaven.

Sunset over the Weser River, Bremerhaven, 2011
The flight from Frankfurt to Stavanger was in some ways exactly what I needed because it bound my past and present experiences in Europe seamlessly together. We flew directly over Bremen, Bremerhaven, Cuxhaven, and other towns I had become familiar with during my stint in Germany. The pilot announced each one as we passed, and to be honest, I was close to tears. Flying over a place that I miss, to a new place that I will probably soon miss as well, was incredibly poetic. It made me realize just how blessed I am.

To me, home is the place where you feel most like yourself. I feel at home whenever I am among people that I care about or I am in a place that I know well. On the plane, I couldn’t help but wonder what pieces of myself I would leave in Stavanger. I wonder if 6 months or 2 years from now I’ll break down in tears when I hear someone speaking Norwegian in an airport. I wonder what fond memories I will take away, what friends I will hold onto.

I look forward to making Stavanger my home.

Go confidently

“Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” – Henry David Thoreau

I think it’s about time I told you the story of how I got to Norway and explained the whole reason why I’m here. It started sometime in the fall of 2013, when the American National Science Foundation put out a call for applications for so-called GROW (Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide) travel grants. Since I happened to be eligible for the grant, my advisor suggested I give it a shot.

Plexiglass settlement plates attached to a PVC frame. I hope
to outplant about 40 of these puppies. Trust me, building them
and shipping them to Svalbard were not small feats!
Applicants had to pick from one of several partner countries and propose a research project to undertake with a collaborator in the partner country. I chose Norway because I was already in contact with a collaborator there, and I thought an experiment in Norwegian waters might compliment the work I had already begun with him.

To be perfectly honest, at the time I submitted the application, I wasn’t confident in it. I thought my project was poorly planned, and it seemed to me that I had just invented a reason to go to Norway. Now that I’m further into it, I realize my project here will perfectly complement several other studies I’m doing and may in fact become an important part of my thesis. It's amazing to me how this experience has turned out so far, considering it began with a mere "Why don't you give it a shot?" I suppose, as Thoreau advises, that I should go confidently into each new experience.

What is this project, you ask? Well, for the sake of avoiding scientific jargon, I’ll tell you that I want to figure out why things live where they do (that is the basic goal of ecology). Specifically, I want to find out why sessile (non-moving) benthic (living on the bottom) invertebrates (animals without backbones) live on the hard substrata (rocks, etc.) in fjords and what abiotic (non-living) factors might influence their distributions. Some abiotic factors include temperature, salinity of the water, the presence of glaciers, and sedimentation.

I took this photo while leaving Longyearbyen aboard a
research vessel in 2011.
To answer this scientific question, I’m outplanting pieces of plexiglass for animals to settle on, and I’m
collecting half of them after 4 months and the rest after a year. The settlement plates will be outplanted in a few different fjords and at different locations in each fjord so I can see how the communities are different within and between fjords.

The best part of the experiment (in my opinion) is that my field sites – where my settlement plates will be outplanted – are all in the Svalbard archipelago. Don’t know where Svalbard is? It’s north of continental Norway at about 78-80° N, and it’s a magical place. I passed through Longyearbyen, the main settlement, in 2011 and 2012, so I’m very excited to go back.

I’m so incredibly blessed to be living the life I always imagined. 

Life of Leaving Home

“I am awake and alive,
There is something calling me
More than a moment in time
It’s a dream I’m following
On my own
On my own
More than a moment in time
It’s the life of leaving home”
-          “Life of Leaving Home” by Yellowcard

In June of 2008, I left North America for the first time. I traveled with a group of students from my high school, and we visited Paris, Switzerland, and southern Germany. My mom thought that maybe when I came back, I would be satisfied. She thought I would step off the plane and say “Wow, that was great! I saw a new part of the world, so now I’m ready to stay home for a while.”

The pink sunrise reflecting off a mountain out-
side Engelberg, Switzerland. At one point, I asked
my German teacher, who was chaperoning the trip,
to tell my mother I had died so that I could run
away and spend the rest of my life in the Alps.
Not so, my friends, not so. In fact, my post-travel reaction was the exact opposite. I stepped off the plane and told my mom “Wow, that was great! Now I want to see the rest of the world!”

The slogan for our travel company during that first trip, ACIS, was “Travel changes lives.” I saw that
sentence everywhere – on flyers, on posters, always in bright green letters. I had no idea how true that statement would prove to be for me. You see, I remember in particular one morning atop Mt. Titlis in Switzerland. My two friends and I met another group of three girls around our age, and they asked us to guess where they were from. We were completely off – we guessed England; they were from South Africa. We returned the challenge, and the girls had no idea. “Michigan,” we told them, “In America.” The one girl waved her hand futilely and proclaimed “Oh, I’m no good at geography. I just know America is somewhere up there.”

This sounds like a simple anecdote, but that moment, I realized something profound: the majority of people in the world have a sense of reality completely different from mine. They have their own unique set of experiences, and I can learn a lot from listening to their stories. 

My 2008 self, bright-eyed and in love with the world.
I think that’s why I’m so hooked on travel. When I arrive in a new country, my objective is to see the world from the perspective of those living there. I absolutely love seeing the world through new eyes in this way, learning to put myself in someone else’s position. Whenever I encounter a new culture, I try to immerse myself in it and learn from the inside.

I am extremely fortunate to have chosen a career path that allows me to travel as in integral part of my work. I am a deep-sea marine biologist, so I’m constantly going to conferences, on research expeditions, and communicating with colleagues in remote corners of the world. In my honest opinion, I have the perfect life, and I’m glad to share it with you now.

It started in 2008, and I doubt it will ever end. This is my life of leaving home.