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!