On the walk to barnehage this morning, I met a fellow mom in drop-off mode. Like many of my neighbors, she wears her headscarf under her parka; her daughters toddle beside her in matching pink snowsuits. I've seen this mom many times before and, because I'm me, I always smile and say God morgen. This usually elicits the standard, solemn Norwegian nod. Today, though, she surprised me by responding.

We spoke in Norwegian for a minute or two about our kids and the school. Then I had to stop and apologize because I couldn't come up with a word. She smiled and told me, in English, that her Norwegian isn't perfect either. She learned English and Norwegian at the same time after moving here ten years ago as a refugee from Somalia. When she heard I'm from California, she said she has always wanted to visit the states.

"My best friend lives in Indiana now," she said. 

"Indiana is nice, too," I told her. "But not as nice as California."

We laughed. As we pulled up to the barnehage, she became serious.

"I want to visit her, but now... I don't when I'll see her again."

Somalia is on the President's list of banned Muslim-majority nations. 

I know as well as anyone that the plural of anecdote is not data. My conversation with a sweet lady from Somalia (who is, in some ways, better integrated to our host country than I am) doesn't prove that there aren't anti-American terrorists in her country. But President Trump's ban doesn't appear to be based on data or anecdote. 

The list of seven nations is conspicuously partial, excluding countries where Trump has business interests. It also doesn't include any of the countries that have actually been home to terrorists who have attacked the United States. As it stands, this ban is a careless, heartless move that serves to placate the President's most fearful constituents, and, possibly, to anger and distract the energies of his most ardent opponents.

Activists protest at the airports. The ACLU attempts to defend people whose rights are at risk. My Farsi- and Arabic-speaking friends volunteer as translators. My traveling husband decides exactly how much information he believes is pertinent to provide at passport control. (What will we say one day when asked about our religion at the American border?) Fighting ticks up in Ukraine. The EU takes a defensive stance against the American President. The world rages.

But here in Oslo today, I exchanged names and sincerity with a woman who was a stranger. We talked about helping one another with language. Because we're alike: immigrants, moms, kind people. This is one example of what writer and philosopher Rebecca Solnit describes as the "politics of prefiguration":

"[T]he idea that if you embody what you aspire to, you have already succeeded. That is to say, if your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative, then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed. Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs, even if it's a temporary and local place, this paradise of participating, this vale where souls get made." -- Rebecca Solnit, "Getting the Hell Out of Paradise"

I know so many fellow liberals are feeling exhausted these days. Particularly white, straight, middle class liberals who aren't used to feeling required to play constant defense, for ourselves and for others. We're out of practice after eight years of nodding along to the progressive agenda of a President who had our respect. If any part of that describes you, I encourage you not to become fatigued. Live your activism; make it your home. Smile at strangers and be open-hearted. These little things will renew us, remind us why we're fighting.

If I've taken one positive thing from my conservative, religious upbringing it's the knowledge that a living witness is the most dynamic kind. Move through the world the way you want the world to be, and when you're reinvigorated or spurred to jump back in, pick up those signs and call those senators. It's your soul. Take care of it. It's your world. Change it.
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Stuff changes so fast in Oslo. Many might think Norway remains old or stodgy or slow. Wrong. These days there's a revolution-a-minute when it comes to new enterprise. The level of education is high here. Norwegians are also overwhelmingly technologically literate and quick to embrace new tech as it comes. A couple of years ago, I wrote a short post on online grocery shopping in Oslo, highlighting a company we used exclusively at the time called Dagligvarerexpressen (Dex). It was one of only a couple options available at the time. Since then, several other delivery companies have popped up, so I thought it was time for an update here!

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First of all, grocery delivery in Oslo has boomed, and there's a new, very successful kid in town. Kolonial.no showed up seemingly overnight and has taken the industry by storm. Already, it's absorbing up its competitors. I think this is partly because, unlike Dex and the rest, Kolonial.no's website is incredibly user-friendly, though not available in English.

We've used Kolonial.no, and they provide very good service. In partnership with Rema 1000, their selection continues to grow, which is nice, as we are attached to certain brands. Delivery fees in town begin at only 39 nok. (You can also pick up your order at one of thirty pick-points in the city for free.) When the delivery person arrived with my last order, she said she'd decided not to bring the greenbeans I ordered because they looked pretty bad. "Our produce is usually better," she said. Rather than tossing it in anyway and letting the customer sort it out, she was proactive about bringing only the best. The refund was automatic.

Coincidentally, I had the opportunity to interview Kolonial.no's cofounder, Karl Munthes-Haas, in September for Startup Guide Oslo. His story is fascinating, and you can read my full interview with him (along with several other exciting entrepreneurs) in the book. Here's one thing that stuck with me. When I asked what motivates him to come to work each day, building Kolonial.no into the number one grocery delivery company in Oslo, he said:

"I like that the value of the company is not just in the profit the company brings in, but also the benefit it provides to its consumers, above what they pay for. That's what motivates me. Let's say we do ten thousand deliveries in a week; that's at least ten thousand hours saved for the people who buy from us. Once the ball starts rolling, you get swallowed up in the responsibilities--employees to think about, orders that need to be filled, growth that needs to be done--but I think the underlying motivation is still creating value, which is good."


Karl's work ethic and vision for the company are inspiring and definitely in keeping with Scandinavian ideals about business and equality. It makes me feel good to support them.

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The casserole dish in my hand felt suddenly heavy. In front of me were three long tables full of food: fried rice, potato cakes, shrimp rolls, toasted baguettes, quiches and hummus with vegetables. All homemade. All basically healthy and hearty. And here I was with a casserole dish of chocolate chip cookies.

It was FN Dag (UN Day for us English speakers), and the Hazelnut's barnehage had a celebration, complete with singing and food. The kids in her avdeling (class) wore pink face paint splashed across their cheeks and had their names on pink sashes across their cold weather parkdresses. We were supposed to bring food that represented our home country.

I dug into my "America stash" and finished off my last bag of Nestlé chocolate chips for the occasion. Because that's how much I love my daughter.

But once I was actually at the school, elbow to elbow with other parents arriving to drop off their food contributions, I felt a wave of self-consciousness break over me.

Did I really show up with the only dessert? Is that weird for an event like this? Were we asked not to bring desserts? Did I miss that in the translation of the notice from the barnehage? Were people opposed to giving sugar to the kids? Was this a Norwegian thing I just didn't understand yet? Would people see the little American flag next to my cookie casserole and roll their eyes? I might has well have brought a big sack of McDonald's burgers...

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For the last two months, I have been swimming in the Oslo startup scene. It's an exciting place to be. Norway is poised to make the most of its status as one of the fastest growing hubs for innovation in Europe. There's wealth, education, competency and infrastructure aplenty here. Since 2011, a vibrant network of coworking spaces, incubators, accelerators and angel investors has developed in this fertile environment. And here's the book on all of it: Startup Guide Oslo.

I was honored when Startup Everywhere approached me about writing the sixth in their growing library of entrepreneurial handbooks. Startup Guide Oslo offers a comprehensive overview of the city for its current and would-be entrepreneurs. Everyone in the guide was selected via a nomination and voting process.  In August and September, I raced all over the city interviewing the major players. 

I had the chance to visit ten very different coworking spaces in town: 657 Oslo, Avd. Frysja, Bitraf, Fellesverkstedet, Gründergarasjen, The Factory, MESH, Oslo International Hub, Sentralen and SoCentral. You'll find insights (including practical stats like square meters, number of desks/offices, pricing) and beautiful interior photos in the book. 

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Having done all the plausibly necessary prep, Jonathan and I set out for our first backpacking/camping trip with our 15-month-old daughter on a sunny Saturday in July.

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Our destination was a little lake called Skjennungen, approximately 5km from Frognerseteren (depending on the trail you choose), at the end of the 1 Tbane line. We've camped there sans baby twice before. It's close to Skjennungstua, an unmanned hytte on top of a hill, which gave me some comfort in the event of a freak thunderstorm or baby-related emergency. There are also trashcans near the hytte, which meant we could unload some waste weight before the longer hike home on Sunday. Our route took us out by way of Ullevålseter, a manned hytte, where we planned to stop for a coffee break. Total distance over two days was only about 12 km (7.5 miles). Click to enlarge the map below.

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We left after naptime on Saturday. The metro ride took about 40 minutes, and we disembarked at Frognerseteren at 3:45pm. The ability to start summer activities late in the day like this is one of the many things we love about Norway. Sunset in Oslo that Saturday wasn't until after 10pm.

  • In Jonathan's pack (32 pounds): tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, warm clothes for the kid, extra socks for all, books for all, food for one breakfast, one lunch, and one dinner, a backpacking cook stove and pot, plastic cups and sporks, water pump and filter, camera, and extra backpacking-related stuff (small lantern, waterproof matches, knife, etc.).
  • In my pack (40 pounds): a 15-month-old Cheeks McGee, water for all, first aid kit, trail snacks, diapers and wipes and waste bags, the kid's favorite stuffed animal.

Over the next two hours, we tramped along dry, well-marked trails, taking time to point out different types of trees, birds, and flowers to the enraptured baby girl. She got to see butterflies in motion, which garnered major giggles. She ate blueberries. She tried to get a good look at an itty bitty frog that her mama couldn't quite catch from within a patch of grass. She picked up stones and traced her fingers through the dirt in the trail. She tried to sing along to various hiking songs. Happy Trails, Row Your Boat, etc. But mostly she sat quietly with a fresh breeze in her hair as her parents talked about interesting things. McGee was a backpack champ. After a couple of breaks, she even voluntarily returned to the pack and attempted to saddle up herself. We will be buying our own Deuter Kid Comfort 3 soon!

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Arriving at Skjennungen just after 5:30pm, we decided to eat dinner before setting up camp. (One thing about having a baby--even an easy-going one--with you... there's less flexibility when it comes to the timing of meals.) A couple of campsites closest to the trail were already taken up by tents, but one less accessible site, on the opposite side of the lake was open. After boiling water on the stove, I sat at a picnic table and fed the kid, while Jonathan hurried to stake our claim.

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We're the Camps. We camp. It's something we've done together since the beginning. Jonathan and I have pitched two-person tents in Yosemite and Grand Teton and Joshua Tree, as well as myriad other campgrounds in the eastern Sierra. When we moved to Norway, we brought all our camping gear along for the ride, including both our 3-season and 4-season North Face tents. In the last five years, we've camped out on Kvalvika Beach in Lofoten and in the shadow of Galdhøpiggen, Norway's tallest mountain, but mostly we've stuck close to home, trekking not so very far into Oslomarka, the wilderness area surrounding the capital city. Having the marka so accessible is one of the reasons we love living in Oslo. 

Two years ago this month, we traveled to Bodø in Nordland to chase the midnight sun. We rented a little fishing cabin to allow us to travel light. What we didn't know then was that the girl basking in the glow of midnattsola--slathered in bug repellant, signing the guest book tucked into a tall cairn at the lookout, and grinning victoriously at her husband--was a couple weeks pregnant. That was the last "camping" adventure we had before our daughter was born in April of 2015.

Last summer, camping couldn't have seemed more impossible.

Our little Cheeks McGee was a born screamer, and her mama's best coping mechanism was a controlled eating and sleeping schedule. The babe was six months old before we attempted putting her to bed anywhere except her own crib. That trip to Berlin proved she could be a champion overnight sleeper no matter where we went, but it was already October, and the window for camping in Norway had closed. 

When my semester ended in May, I was craving some time in the woods. I hauled our camping bins up from the cellar and inspected the contents. If we wanted to pull off any camping trips this summer, there was much to be done and much to be acquired: a tent to accommodate three people; sleeping bag for the babe; a backpack-style carrier; a new first aid kit. 

On top of that, it's been five years since we owned a car, so any camping trip here requires backpacking, as well. This was no problem in the old days. We tramped many, many miles with 20-25 lb packs. Now one of us would also be shouldering a growing toddler, along with her proper-care-and-feeding miscellany.

But I was determined we wouldn't miss another summer. It was time to go camping in Oslo with a baby!

Preparation

  • We started working out in the evenings after the baby was in bed, focusing on strength-training for our glutes, quads, hams, and calves, as well as core exercises.
  • We researched tents and ended up buying an MSR Mutha Hubba NX 3-person, purchased at Oslo Sportslager downtown. Adqequate brand selection; knowledgable staff. An employee allowed us to set up the tent we wanted in the store before we made our final decision. 
  • We tried on multiple backpack baby-carriers, ultimately borrowing a Deuter Kid Comfort 3 from a friend. In the weeks leading up to our camping adventure, we tried out the pack around our neighborhood and on a shorter hike. This worthwhile endeavor taught us lots of important things. Especially that my hips were impressively designed to bear children, both in the sense of birth and lugging the kid around later on. When the time came, I would carry the babe; my husband, devoid of hips, would carry almost everything else.
  • We followed the weather forecast, watching for a dry week and weekend. Best weather website for Nowegian weather: yr.no.
  • We made food plans and packing lists.
  • We purchased bug repellant; natural stuff for the babe and her dad and DEET-heavy stuff for her sweet-blooded mama. Also bug-bite reliever. Also a bug-net for the backpack carrier, a last-minute panic-purchase that didn't get used once. All this I found at Chillout Travel in Grünerløkka. Fun little shop with lots of expensive gear, but also a campy cafe and a cozy basement spot to hole-up and plan an adventure.
  • We pored over Den Norske Turistforening (DNT: Norwegian Trekking Association) website and maps, choosing our destination and route. Criteria included proximity to transportation and personal familiarity. 
  • We repeated to each other over and over that our bar for success on this outing would be low. Everyone comes out alive = We did it! No pressure.

The stars aligned two weeks ago. After several hot, dry days, there was sunshine in the forecast. All three of us were fit and healthy. Jonathan was in town. I was still on summer break. McGee hadn't yet begun barnehage. It was time.

Look for future posts this week on the hike itself, along with details about our destination (Skjennungen), and additional commentary on the gear we used. Spoiler alert: It was awesome! Thanks for reading. It's good to be back.

See also: Camping again: Baby on board - Part II (Destination & Gear)

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BRYGG_2015.pngIn the fall, I had the honor of receiving an invitation to write an artist's profile for Brygg Magasin's debut all-English issue. Brygg is a big, beautiful magazine covering Scandinavian culture, with an emphasis on coffee. (Brygg is Norwegian for brew.) I opted to interview Kenneth Karlstad, a young, award-winning Norwegian filmmaker. We met at a cafė downtown and talked for a couple of hours, and I drank my first coffee. Ever. Because I wanted to stay true to Brygg's mission... and because I'm a 32-year-old mom of an infant, so, though she is a "good sleeper," I still desperately need caffeine. 

Kenneth was a great interview subject. Easy to talk to. Candid. Funny. And we were both pleased with how the piece came out.

An excerpt:

For this creative native son of Sarpsbog, the injustice of these regional stereotypes weighs heavily. He sits forward on the couch now, shoulders squared to me, hands clasped in front of him, a position of strength and confidence and resolve. Life begs for examination, even--perhaps especially--in the most dismissed places.

"I just want to tell stories about Sarpsborg that are serious, because it's a part of Norway that's not taken seriously."

The subject matter of Gutten er Sulten is potentially painful for many people, including those whose lives actually inspired the script. I can tell by the set of Karlstad's jaw that there are corners of his life, his family, his work, he would like to remain secretive about, but steering clear of what is personal would go against his principles as an artist.

"You just have to stand in it and try not to worry about how your art makes other people feel."

Of course, this rhetoric is tested rigorously when an artist's chosen medium is film. Putting your memories and commentary up on a screen, people see it as a mirror. The only way to move forward is without personal judgment.

Folks in Oslo can find Brygg for sale in coffee shops and other retailers around town (as well as a couple of places in Stockholm and Copenhagen). Unfortunately (or happily!), the first English issue is sold out online. But as of today, my full article, "Seeking Sensations," is available to read on Brygg's website. I hope to write again for them in the future, and I look forward to seeing Kenneth's long-form project, "Gutten er Sulten," later this year. Happy reading!

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Pictured: Kenneth Karlstad
Photographer: Christian Lycke
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It happened. A miracle. Someone (other than me) woke up one day and realized that Oslo was sorely lacking in the Mexican Food department. Yes, there's Taco Republica near the river, one of my favorite Oslo restaurants, but the cost of two tiny (albeit delicious) tacos there will make you want to cry into your extremely expensive Corona. Absolutely worth the price on a special occasion, because the ingredients are incredibly fresh, and the corn tortillas will melt in your mouth. But for an everyday Mexican craving? Not realistic.

Enter El Camino.

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Patterned after America's super-successful Chipotle chain, El Camino offers a streamlined, build-it-yourself menu: burrito, bowl, or tacos. Ingredients are fresh. Tortillas are made on-site. It's a fast, flavorful experience, and the cost is absolutely reasonable by Oslo standards.

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Furniture: What to Bring & What to Leave Behind

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Remember that big city flats tend to be small. Unquestionably, we brought too much furniture. Because Jonathan's company relocated us, we took that opportunity to ship almost everything. While this may have been smart from a cost perspective at the time (buying new furniture in Norway, especially, is a steep proposition), we have since wondered about that choice.

Examples: We brought our massive TV from the U.S., which required that we also buy a large, expensive power supply. We've never even plugged in our game system. A pair of extra desks is now wedged into our basement storage. Lighting solutions for our apartment required different lamps, so the ones we brought are also tucked away. When we realized Jonathan's big, manly reclining chair didn't fit in our new flat, we sold it.

Of all the people Jonathan's company has relocated, we are (I believe) the only ones who transitioned with a container full of stuff. Everyone else sold what they had at home and bought new stuff when they arrived, or moved into furnished flats. 

If we had it to do over again, I think we would have taken advantage of the relocation shipping container option, but would have pared down our personal inventory to the most important things: our bed set, our sofa, a couple of kitchen appliances (more on that later), etc.

What to Buy Before the Move

If you've been considering any big purchases (camping equipment, computer equipment, etc.), price check them in your destination country. If they're far more expensive, it may be worth springing for that stuff at home before everything moves over. For example, our best pre-relocation purchase was a high quality mattress.

One thing we wish we would have purchased before moving: downhill skis and boots for Jonathan. He's a strong skier; this is a skiing culture; the price of ski rental packages here is excruciatingly high! It's tough to maintain some of these more expensive hobbies over here. Do what you can to set yourselves up before you arrive.

Right now, the Norwegian krone is very weak against the dollar, for example. It was incredibly strong against the dollar when we were relocating back in 2011. So, this tip is really food for thought, rather than a timeless rule.

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This popular post was feeling a bit like old news. I've written an update with multiple food delivery options here: Kolonial: Online Grocery Shopping in Oslo II (January 2016).

The only time I miss having a car is when I know it's time to shop for kitty litter. I've had more than my share of fun snafus when dragging those heavy boxes home from various shops around the city. Particularly on icy days like the ones we're enjoying in Oslo this January. Good news! We've found a solution: DEX.

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Dagligvarexpressen (DEX) is an online grocery shopping service. This is something I know my American friends have been enjoying for a while (and DEX was established in 2008, so it's possible I'm just the last one to the virtual supermarket line here in Norway, too). It's a lifesaver.

Now, we only use DEX for kitty litter and cat food right now. The heavy stuff. The stuff we would have liked to be buying in bulk for years! Thinking diapers and some other baby stuff could be added to that list soon, too.

Here's how it works:

Go to dex.no...

  • Fill your handlevogn with the goods you need (and they've got it all, including fresh produce)
  • Select a day and window of time for the delivery to be scheduled
  • Delivery charge is only 99 nok!
  • Give them your address and place your order
  • If you schedule your delivery before 2pm, they'll even deliver the same day! I've done that. Hugely satisfying.

It should be noted that items for sale on the website are more expensive than you'll find in stores. One reason why I haven't gone completely lazy with the shopping. Yet. Instead, we order a dozen boxes of wet cat food and a half dozen boxes of cat litter, and we call it good. Because the delivery comes all the way up our stairs to the door of our fifth floor apartment. And that, my friends, is priceless.

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A real winter storm finally arrived on Norway's west coast this weekend. Snow piled up in Oslo. I love our city, and I can never decide when the streets look prettiest: blanketed in white, or full of yellow-leafed trees, or under the violet-skies of perpetual twilight, or filled with lilacs. At every turn of a season, I think I have the answer. Then I change my mind again.

Since sledding and cross-country skiing (the way I do it is dangerous even on the flat-n-straights) are out of the question for me this year, it would be easy to let the snow keep us inside. Thankfully, a double date for brunch with friends on Saturday morning got our weekend off on the right, snow-booted foot. The four of us spent a couple of hours laughing and gabbing and sampling the tasty, eclectic menu at our local creperie, Les Crêpes D'Elen. Located just off the 12 line in Frogner, I highly recommend this little place. Delicious food and a fun, French atmosphere, as well as a friendly staff.

After brunch, Jonathan and I wandered all over the city. We were on a quest: a rug for The Hazelnut's room. We've been nesting, and finding a rug that is pretty, soft, on-theme, and affordable in Norway has been close to impossible. It was still a good excuse to walk the snowy city streets.

Without anything to show for our wintery outing on Saturday, you'd think I wouldn't be pointing to this weekend with such pride. But we still had all of Sunday to be productive, and I'm pleased to say... we were!

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Last night, we watched Valley Uprising, the latest in the Reel Rock Tour movie series, all about Yosemite Valley's climbing revolution. It made me want to get back on the wall again. Like, immediately. Like, if Jonathan said, "Let's move back to California and live close to Yosemite this time," I would have begun packing before he finished the sentence. That's not likely to happen, though, at least not for now. The movie was cool, full of wicked climbing footage and resonant musings on the evolution of the sport. If you're a climber, you should definitely check it out.

But this is not a post about climbing. Rather, I was reminded last night that one of the downsides of being a climber is what it does to your hands. For years, not only did I have to keep my nails cut down to the quick, but the chalk dried out my skin and my fingers were constantly scraped up, sometimes bloody. I didn't know what I was missing, really, because years of playing and coaching volleyball and basketball had also necessitated strong, quick, low maintenance hands. But since moving to Norway, I've had the luxury of growing my nails out on occasion (and one pleasant side effect of pregnancy happens to be healthier nails), which has made me think about nail polish for the first time in my life.

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OPI has quickly become my favorite brand. It's awfully expensive here in Oslo (like everything else), so I don't get it often, but last weekend I acquired a new color from the Duty Free on the DFDS mini-cruise we took to Copenhagen. Why? Because their new Nordic Collection was so sparkly.

With colors like Going My Way or Norway? and Thank Glogg It's Friday and Do You Have This Color in Stock-holm? how could I resist?

I nabbed OPI With A Nice Finn-ish, a shiny gold. Sadly, because I haven't become the kind of grown-up who is dainty with her hands, I'm sure it will be chipped up like crazy before Christmas, but I don't mind. I'll just do it all over again in a couple of weeks. Because my last final paper will be due next Wednesday and then I'll be on winter break. Time to celebrate!

*A fun write-up on all the colors in the Nordic Collection can be found on The Polish Aholic Blog.

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October is my favorite month, and this year, it's going to be an especially good one.

I'm finally in the swing of things as a new masters student in the English Literature program at the University of Oslo. Getting used to the class schedule took a few weeks. The assigned readings are a little overwhelming sometimes, but I'm interested in almost all of them. The school has a lovely campus, and the leaves in the trees and on the crawling vines have begun to change. The gold, red, and orange fluttering in the chilly autumn breeze makes me think of bouquets of sharpened pencils. It's a good season for learning.

My writing life remains active. I just taught my first creative writing workshop here in Oslo alongside my friend and fellow author, Zoë Harris. Eight students signed up to take our Writing A to Z: Creative Writing Basics class. They were diverse in their interests and backgrounds, and all of them displayed a core curiosity and creative spirit. We had fun sharing our insights about writing with the group--running writing exercises and teaching--and I hope we get a chance to do it again soon.

Tonight, several writer friends of mine will gather in my living room to put our pens to paper together. We've been meeting for three years now. Thanks to them, my life is even more full of words.

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At six o'clock in the morning the streets of Oslo are almost empty. An overcast sky shades every corner, every park, every closed cafe patio gray. The light breeze is welcome after several consistently hot weeks. Leaves are still tightly bound to the branches of the full, green, summer trees. It's just me out there. Me and the city I call home.

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I've never seen Oslo like this before. Oh, I've seen her empty. On Easter weekend. Or after catching the 1 a.m. train home from the airport, rolling our suitcases up the hill from National Theater. But never like this. Behind every closed door and Stengt sign comes the buzz of potential energy.

I am running. Downhill first. From Inkognitogata to Henrik Ibsens gate, through the heavy construction at Solli plass. Asphalt peeled back to reveal old tracks and new track. Rust at the joints. Workers in neon vests sip coffee. All this downhill is a gift to me. It's tough enough to motivate myself out of bed in the morning. To lace up my old sneakers (new shoes will be my reward for successfully completing the Oslo Half Marathon in September). My footsteps are quick and even.

Down Dokkveien to Aker Brygge. No cars on the road. I pass the Nobel Peace Center, cross Rådhusplassen. I am alone with the statues, the fountains. Fishy smells waft up from under the piers on the fjord. The bells in the brick towers don't chime. It's only been a mile. It's only been ten minutes. My breathing is more labored than it should be, but I'm used to that by now. It's the first mile and a half that's hardest for me. A breaking in. Breaking through the wall and finding a healthier part of my spirit.

I skirt the perimeter of Akershus Fortress. No cruise ship parked where I expect it, so the fjord view is open to me. Islands. Sailboats. Ferries. Rounding the corner, I see the Opera House. It is an iceberg. Pristine. Not a single person on the terraced roof. And faster than I expect, I am running along Operagata. Three men exit a beige sedan carrying musical instruments in bulky, black cases. Cyclists whip past me wearing black spandex, neon vests, helmets. They are on their way to work.

I am suddenly anxious. This is where my path will deviate from what I've run before. As a reluctant runner, I find blazing new trails joyless, even stressful. But this is a necessary part of my training. I'm piecing together the half marathon course one segment at a time. Nordenga Bridge rises ahead of me. I run up. It's another deal I make with myself. Never walk uphill unless I must, but if I run up, I get to breathe at the top. Not sure who enforces these rules. My subconscious?

I take the stairs at the far side of the bridge. Carefully. My knees wobble. Platous gate, then Tøyengata. This is what I"ve been preparing for. The new segment circles Oslo's Botanical Gardens, and that's a climb. For me. Seventy-odd feet in less than a mile. On race day, it'll be about Mile 10. I predicted it would crush my soul.

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This spring, I was invited by Editor Michael Sandelson to write a series of pieces for The Foreigner, a website for Norwegian news in English. I accepted at once! After all, writing about life in Norway is already what I do for fun. Why not spread my reach a little?

So far I've authored three pieces for The Foreigner:

Alone on the 17th of May (May 2014)

Norway's Constitution Day arrived suddenly my first year, as international holidays do to those who aren't used to celebrating them. That was three years ago. Looking back now, I realize there'd been plenty of signs in the weeks leading up to it. Planter boxes suddenly overflowing with freshly planted tulips, their yellow heads the size of coffee mugs; and, of course, an onslaught of teenagers in cherry-red pants. But I'll get back to that. Continue Reading...

Digging-in (May 2014)

Each spring, the tenants in our Oslo apartment building come together for an afternoon of voluntary, community work. This is a dugnad, a Norwegian tradition in which a bunch of people join forces to spruce up their shared, public spaces. Like a barn-raising, but on a smaller, less sweaty, less Amish scale. We'd been living in Norway only a month when our first dugnad notice showed up in our mailbox. At first we didn't know what to think of the typed, unsigned page requesting our presence on a Thursday afternoon in late April. Google Translate helped. Unfortunately, allusion to a small fine, owed if we chose to skip out on the dugnad, tainted the notification. We marked the date on our calendar and began to dread it. Continue Reading...

The Ski-in (April 2014)

Native Norwegians make cross-country skiing look like a glide-stepping walk in the park. As expats in Norway have heard a thousand times, this is because Norwegian babies are born with skis on. An atrocious thought, sure, but if you visit any cross-country trail in the Oslomarka on a sunny day, you'll see how plausible it is. Children as young as three zoom right by you: without poles; without fear. Only kids who are too young to walk get away with being too young to ski. I hopped on the cross-country skiing bandwagon with both feet, our first winter in Norway, and promptly slipped and fell into the snow. Continue Reading...

The Foreigner is a subscription-based website, but you can access a few articles each month without paying the fee, so please stop by and read these and let me know what you think. Hopefully you'll find something there that makes you want to stick around and/or check back more regularly. 

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Before moving to Norway, I did several things to prepare. I purchased books about the country and culture, fully utilizing Amazon's if-you-bought-this-you-might-also-like algorithms. I Googled around and came up with a list of expat bloggers living in Norway, dutifully combing their archives for insights into Norwegian life. There was never any way I would find it all, would be truly prepared. But no one was going to accuse me of not trying!

There is one resource I didn't come across at the time and now wish I had. Norway: A Handbook for New Residents (198 NOK) is a book by M. Michael Brady. He collected as much information as he could find about every conceivable topic important to someone living in Norway, and compiled it in a single book. First printed in 2005, I own the updated 2012 edition, and I cannot overstate how convenient and useful it is! 

I do want to point out right away that Mr. Brady supplied me with a copy of this book for the purposes of my writing a review. This does not affect my personal take-away. All opinions expressed about Norway: A Handbook for New Residents are mine and absolutely sincere.

The Handbook is not warm or fuzzy. As the back cover states: "This is a book of facts taken from printed and online Norwegian resources and from country comparisons published by international agencies."

At almost 500-pages long, that's a lot of facts! But Brady has thoughtfully organized the tome, allowing three separate ways to track down the information you need quickly. First, the book is divided into an alphabetical list of chapters by overarching topics (e.g., Arriving and settling, Clothing and footwear, Foreigners, immigrants, minorities and integration, etc.). Then, individual subtopics are listed alphabetically within their relevant chapters. And finally, Brady has supplied two separate indexes by keyword, one in English and one in Norwegian.

When I say the Handbook is comprehensive, I mean it includes everything useful I can think of. From Second-hand shops to Halal meat, from instructions for Pant to an explanation of Julebord.

Chapter 23 is a timeline of Norway's history, from the first traces of human habitation (ca 9000 BC) to 2012, the year Norway passed a Constitutional amendment separating church and state. Chapter 6 (Church, religion and beliefs) breaks down the religious history of Norway's population, but also provides lists of Christian denominations in English and Norwegian, as well as phone numbers and links to churches, synagogues, and mosques within the country. Information on women's shelters for victims of domestic abuse can be found in Chapter 10 (Crime, wrongs, and countermeasures). Meanwhile, Chapter 25 (Housekeeping) diagrams the different widths of available light bulbs and explains municipal fees due for refuse collection and recycling. 

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On Tuesday night, the Oslo Writers' League launched its second annual anthology at Oslo's Litteraturhuset. I'm proud to announce that the event--which included a panel discussion, readings, and an art auction--raised almost 10,000 NOK for Utdanningshjelpen; this will provide more than three full years of education to scholarship recipients. All in all, a fun, successful evening!

Tammy Dobson Photography came away with some excellent photos...

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Crammed as many OWLs on stage as possible. We're a colorful bunch! 

You can pick up a copy of All the Ways Home on Amazon in the U.S., or the U.K., as well as The Book Depository. All profits go to Utdanningshjelpen. Don't forget to leave a comment and let me know how much you enjoyed the book!

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Spring in Oslo tends to come fast, if late. Three weeks ago, as we left for our trip to California, I snapped a quick photo of our front walk. It was a few days before Easter, technically a full month since the first day of spring. Our hedges were almost absolutely bare. The limbs of our apple blossom trees remained naked and cold. 

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It had been a rough winter and, given that I hadn't been "home" to California in more than 18 months, I was thrilled to run down that path to the airport. Toward family and friends and sunshine and a pattern of mild, vague, evenly-pleasant seasons I've missed so much. 

Yesterday, we came home. The one without quotation marks. And the scene had changed. A flurry of apple blossoms. A wave of brilliant green.

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The forecast for the coming week is bleak and unstable. Cloudy and rainy. Fluctuating temperatures. I'm unsurprised. But yesterday was glorious. Yesterday it was spring. In Oslo, it comes late, but fast. Don't blink; you might miss it.

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It's not uncommon for expats to, over time, develop an even deeper, more keenly felt affinity for their own hometowns. Absence often has that affect on the heart, or so I've heard. Then again, I've always loved Livermore, California. Not loving Livermore was never the problem. We left for other reasons, but I'll leave that for other posts. Today I'm singing the praises of my town.

Jonathan and I returned "home" for a visit over Easter, and allowed ourselves to be embraced by the comfy sameness of it all.

First Street -- Where all the action, such as it is, happens.

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Donut Wheel -- Best donuts in the state.

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Valley Furniture -- Can't ever remember a time when there wasn't a Blowout Sale sign in the front windows.

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Easter is weird*. 

We Christians celebrate Easter as the day Jesus Christ raised himself from the dead, tossed off his shroud, rolled back his own tombstone and walked out into the world after three days of, well, death.

He spent the next forty days catching up with his followers, inviting them to touch his still-apparent wounds, and promising eternal life. Promises which came with a little more oomph now because he'd bounced back impressively from that brutal crucifixion.

To atheists, this celebration is ignorant and wrong. To Jews and Muslims, it's not wrong, just misplaced. And to agnostics... well, any excuse for a big lunch and bargain bags of Jelly Beans, am I right?

Which brings us to the other Easter. The one we do for the kids in America. Comedian Jim Gaffigan sums this up in 30 seconds. Obvious choices for a holiday rooted in resurrection: hardboiled eggs dyed bright colors and then hidden around a garden. Easter baskets filled with plastic grass. Chocolate kisses wrapped in pastel-colored foil, Jelly Beans, and Cadbury eggs. And all of it delivered overnight by Santa's bizarre, big-eared counterpart, the Easter Bunny.

But if you'd believe it, Easter in Norway is even weirder!

In the first place, Norway, a famously secular (or, at least, religiously skeptical) nation celebrates the heck out of Påske (Easter). Families fill their homes with the color yellow: yellow candles, yellow table cloths, wooden eggs painted yellow and suspended from doorframes with yellow ribbons. Then begins a season of holidays, the first being a five day weekend, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Monday. This Påskeferie (Easter holiday) finds every true Norwegian out of town, usually up in the mountains at a family cabin for some last-of-the-season skiing. Oslo and the other big cities empty and shut down. It's possible that some of these people begin their Easter Sunday reading the resurrection story from their KJV Bibles. Some probably gather in country churches to participate in Lutheran liturgies. He is Risen indeed. But mostly they're skiing, eating Kvikk Lunsj bars and oranges, and reading crime novels.

That's right. Crime novels. Påskekrim (Easter Crime) is possibly the weirdest part of Easter season in Norway. Every bookstore puts up huge displays of thrillers and crime stories. Special crime series are produced for TV and radio. And, the weird-beyond-weird part, is the peculiar change made to the dairy section of your local grocer in the interests of Påskekrim.

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I'm thirty-one. It's not one of those big ticket ages that everyone looks forward to. Thirteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty-one, twenty-five... I enjoyed them all. Thirty should have been a big year for celebrations, but as those who are close to me might recall, turning thirty knocked the wind out of me. I wasn't ready to be in my thirties. Not really. I felt like a huge faker. In the same way that it took me a year or two to realize that getting married didn't automatically qualify one for adulthood (that it should be the other way around, if anything), I needed roughly 11 months to adjust to the idea that thirty-year-old me wasn't different from twenty-nine-year-old me, and didn't need to be. Age is just a number. And birthdays are just an excuse to throw a party.

So, this year, we did. Thirty-one-year-old me and thirty-seven-year-old Zoë, my writing buddy and movie soul mate. We had a kostyme fest (costume party) with a Hollywood theme. After all, if there's any activity which disproves the myth of an age/maturity congruence, it's playing dress-up. My costume (and my honey's costume) were inspired by one of my favorite movies of all time.

How to Steal a Million (1966) Nailed it.

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Spring is coming. Allegedly. Right now, it feels like the worst winter I ever experienced in California: cold rain whipping against the windows, clouds so thick and so gray for so long you start to forget the sky was ever blue. In the interest of my own sanity, I thought I'd look for some proof of past springs here in the wild north.

Almost three years ago, Jonathan and I took a weekend trip to the historic old town of Fredrikstad, about an hour south of Oslo by train. As you can see, it was a bright, sunny day. (Proof!) A tourist's Scandinavian delight.

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The Gamlebyen (Old Town) is the center of a fortress and has been impressively preserved. Rather than taking a small ferry across the river from the train station (couldn't find the docks!), we braved traffic and walked across the long, modern bridge. Soon enough, we were passing through the 16th century stone main gate and onto the cobbled streets of old Fredrikstad.

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When I moved to Oslo three years ago, I hoped to plug into a ready-made writing group. I thought it would be the best way to meet people and nurture my writing career. My first weekend in town, I met a woman (a fellow American) who, when I mentioned that I was pursuing my master's in creative writing, responded enthusiastically. "I've always wanted to start a writing group here! Let's do it together!" It's good to happen upon these types of people... little bits of flint to our steel. It hadn't occurred to me that I might have to start a group of my own. As a first time expat, I was already overwhelmed by the impossibilities of giving up my career to focus on writing full time, living in a world capital, making all new friends, learning a new language, etc. And there was self-doubt:

Who am I to stand at the helm of a writing group?
What right do I have to pass myself off as the owner of some kind of wisdom?

But Oslo had no active writing group at the time (at least for English-speakers). On the strength of a promise of friendship, I agreed to attempt to launch a writing group with Anna. I would supply some writing knowledge and a space in which to meet; she would put the word out and bring in the bodies.

The night of our first meeting, a Monday in late September, was dark and wet and cold. Anna had tapped the shoulders of four different women, and all of them responded with interest. I sat in my clean apartment, a book held open before my face, unseeing. I was waiting for my doorbell to ring. My mouth was dry. My palms were damp. Strangers were coming, and we only had one thing in common: a desire to write. How could this possibly succeed?

Three years later, our little group has a name (The Rookery) and nine members (six who are more regularly involved, and three who have had children since our beginning and, therefore, find it tough to keep up with our bi-weekly schedule). We are extremely close, trust one another implicitly, support one another unceasingly, and look forward to our meetings every other Monday. What would I do without these women? My dearest friends. My Oslo family. I die a little inside when I remember how close I came to shrugging it off and waiting for someone else to take the initiative to begin such a group. No, it had to be me, it had to be Anna. It had to be Gisèle and Gaëlle and Sara and Kristina and Patience and Greta and Laura.

So, in case you, beloved reader, are at this same crossroads, weighing the possibilities, allow me to pass along some of that wisdom I didn't before believe I had within me. 
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I came this close to letting a full month go by without a post here. I came this close to allowing my blog to become stagnant, to appear abandoned. Whew! Here I am again, just in time.

All kinds of excuses over here. Good ones, too. We were on vacation in Spain (which I'll blog soon, I promise), and then my best friend took a break from her first-time-expat-life in Malmö to visit us here in Oslo for a week, too. This was a treat for me! Cindy has been here once before, but this trip was a lot less touristy. She got to see a typical few days of life in Norway. It went something like this:

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Okay, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. (The little stick-dudes are awfully cute though, right?)

A typical day in Norwegian life actually includes things like parkas, snow on the rooftops, ice in the streets, brodder og pigger (and sometimes choosing not to wear this marvelous invention, which inevitably leads to falling on one's tush in the aforementioned icy streets). Also, stuffing your scarf into the sleeve of your parka when you stow it for the night, and mournfully rubbing your bruised flesh as you crawl into bed, pulling your individual down comforter up to your chin.

In case you hadn't guessed: I fell on the ice while my pal was in town. Embarrassing and painful. And I'll let it go when I have full range of motion in my right shoulder and thumb again. *whine*

But my typical days in Oslo also include work (writing and website/social media consulting), laundry, making dirty dishes clean again... temporarily, sweeping, grocery shopping, cooking. You know, domestic glamor. 

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Even before learning the language, an expat must contend with the proper nouns of life in a new country. City names. Street names. Metro stop names.

Pronunciation, particularly in places which use grander alphabets than we're used to, can be a problem. Skøyenåsen, anyone? Nuances in accent and emphasis can also cause a problem. In California, I used to love watching non-Californians attempt names like Mission Viejo or Joaquin Murieta or even San Jose. (Which exit takes you to downtown San Joh-zy?) My own parents admit that, when they relocated to California from Illinois in the early '80s, they mispronounced Tuolumne Meadows for a while... Too-oh-LOOM-nay.

The inability to pronounce place names can be disorienting, but because it's a question of survival--you must know how to navigate your way to work, food, community, airport, and entertainment--as an expat, you do it. We did. Thanks to brunt force memorization, words like Stortinget, Jernbanetorget, and Frognerseteren entered our vernacular. Quickly, we knew where these places were and how to get there via the clean, efficient Oslo Metro. Nailed it.

Only later in our immersion did we realize that we were actually visiting Big Thing, Railway Market, and Frogner Farm. That's why I love this hilarious direct-translation map of the metro.

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The next time you're in Oslo, make sure you visit some of my favorite places (on this list), including Spankfield, Son of Toe, Stretch, Hellfire, Stump, Breastfeed Farm, Funny Hillside, and Scary Laugh.


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When Jonathan and I decided to move to Norway almost three years ago, we knew only a few things for certain: 

  • We'd be able to travel more.
  • We'd need warmer clothes.
  • And we'd likely never receive any visitors.

This last, we understood, because, unlike France or Italy or Switzerland, Norway just isn't one of those legendary, popular European destinations. Few non-Europeans can name any Scandinavian city other than the three big capitals. Even fewer could locate the capitals on a map without help. Plus, unlike Denmark, which shares a border with Germany, Sweden and Norway are just plain UP THERE. Oslo and Stockholm share roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska and St. Petersburg, Russia. So, we resigned ourselves to our loneliness, determined to make new friends and buy plane tickets back to California as often as necessary to remain recognizable to our old crowd.

And then the unthinkable happened. People came.

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Being a first time expat is a lot about being swept up in various excitements. Everything is new. Everything is beautiful. But culture shock is not only real, it's an important part of the expat experience and transition. Everything is a little scary, too. Everything is different. There's also the added complication of language, even when you begin to understand words and phrases in, say, Norwegian, that moment of necessary translation back to English costs you time and clarity. Actions as simple as grocery shopping or booking a dental appointment are suddenly more complex, and thus more time consuming. And then you have social norms which differ between countries. You think you're doing something normal (smiling at strangers on the street, for instance), and really you might as well be walking around wearing a sandwich-board that says 'I'm an American! Regard me with disdain!' Or you put on socks with a hole in them because they'll be hidden in your boots all day, so who cares, but then you enter a Scandinavian house and must remove your shoes at the entrance. Hello, Big Toe! It's happened.

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Culture shock is real. It's important to recognize this curve up front, because culture shock is also not something you overcome in a week or a month or six months. Some would even argue that, for an expat, a perpetual outsider, culture shock never ends. The tremors simply become less shattering after a while. So the above wave continues endlessly, but appears shallower and shallower at every interval.

When you first arrive in your new home city, you'll be cruising on the same happy endorphins that make vacation so fun and memorable. Adrenaline will push you out the door and into the cold air in search of adventure. You'll take lots of photos, chronicle your neighborhood and the local harbor and the way your cats are adjusting (they sleep a lot, FYI). The honeymoon continues even as you contend with life's practicalities. Receiving your new residence permit will make you gleeful. Completing a grocery shopping trip and cooking a meal will make you want to take a bow. And along the way, you'll start believing that you're already adjusting to this new place. It will feel easy. Look at how well I navigate this tram line, you'll think. See how expertly I order coffee at the corner cafe. Nailed it! 

Then one afternoon you'll be standing at a bus stop on your way to hunt down and buy a yellow onion for dinner, and a middle-aged woman in a fur-trimmed coat will approach you and begin speaking rapidly in Norwegian. She'll speak to you so directly and so quickly that you don't have time to do your standard Sorry-I-don't-yet-speak-your-language head duck and smile. Though you recognize her expression as friendly, her torrent of words will bounce off your high, surprised forehead and scatter across the pavement near the bus stop, around the feet of the other people waiting there, all of whom are, thankfully, ignoring you and the speed-talker completely. That's the Scandinavian way.

But the fur-trimmed woman will keep on going, and the longer she talks without taking a breath, the more you feel as though you're about to drown in the deluge. It occurs to you that, maybe, you'll recognize a word or two somewhere in the mix, just a scrap, and if you could grab onto it, you might be able to deduce the context and respond to her in English. 

Then, as suddenly as she began, she is finished. Silence swells between you as her eyebrows raise inquisitively. You will gulp, preparing to explain that you've understood none of this, but before you can utter a sound, something registers on her face. Her perfectly lipsticked mouth settles into a grim line of acceptance and disappointment. She knows.

Standing before this woman, you are childlike. Illiterate. Dumb. You've wasted her time. She will snort her disapproval, loud enough to make the other people at the stop look up, and stride to the other end of the platform, as far away from you and your helpless, hopeless foreignness as she can get.

The bus will arrive then, larger and noisier than you remember past buses being. Doors will fold open. Passengers will disembark. New passengers will step into the body of the wheezing, red beast. Doors will unfold shut. The bus will rumble away. And you'll still be standing at the bus stop. Red-faced, confused and small.

You'll hurry home, worried that if you slow down for even a second, someone will reach out and tap your soldier and ask you for something else in that baffling language. When you're safely inside your apartment, you'll press your back to the closed door and shut your eyes, grateful for this space that is entirely your own. Grateful for the English language and its universality. After a moment, you'll compose yourself and walk deeper into your apartment, shedding your coat and shoes. You'll empty your pockets onto the bookcase in your front hall: keys, wallet, phone, and a reusable shopping bag, which will fail to trigger your memory. Only later, after watching several back to back episodes of Friends and checking Facebook to Like photos of your cousin's four-year-old daughter playing in a fountain in your old hometown, will you remember the yellow onion.

It takes a calling out like this one to draw the honeymoon to a close. A reminder that the new city and country aren't entirely allies in your cause of adventure. They have an adversarial side. 

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On the perfect Oslo day, the air is warm. The sun, up since 3:30am, swings slowly overhead. Trees sway gently in manicured rows. The air is sweet with the scent of freshly clipped lawns and flowers blooming in window-boxes. Today was just such a day. After writing at a nearby cafe for a couple of hours, my mind spinning with poetry, I decided to wander the streets of my beautiful neighborhood and catalogue its character... by way of Instagram!

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Left: Reflections on a pink dress.

There are several excellent vintage clothing boutiques in Oslo. Of course, I'm not rating them as "excellent" based on my experience as a buyer. I couldn't possibly afford this stuff! But I do peruse when I can. Just to run my fingers over nude Chanel pumps. I yearn to be petite enough to fit into the sizes lining the racks along the wall, lace slip dresses and wool pea coats. 

Right: Finally! The Norwegian strawberries are here!

Norwegians are crazy about their strawberries. It's one of the first things we learned when we moved her two years ago. All year round they brag about those strawberries. The best in the world. True? Well, aside from being tiny (compared to the monster, steroid-enhanced strawberries Californians are used to), Norwegian strawberries are absolutely wonderful. Bursts of sweet, tangy, red juice. Worth a try if you're ever here in the summertime.

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Moving to Europe, I expected some downsizing. The average private vehicle size, for instance, is far more compact here than in the U.S. When we see big trucks on the road, they are a novelty. We take notice and assume a wealthy American decided he couldn't transfer to the Norwegian branch of his oil company without his trusty Dodge. Cars here are just smaller. Ditto city apartments, meal portions, playgrounds, and storage spaces of all kinds. 

This last is best demonstrated by the average size of refrigerators in apartments across Oslo.

On the left, you can see our kitchen the week I moved in, back in April 2011. The poor, little guy had been retrieved from the bowels of our building's basement by our landlord. Who knows how long he'd been decommissioned before that. To say we've crammed him full of food is something of an understatement. As a car-free couple, the grocery haul must be restricted to what we can fit into a backpack and reusable bags. Even then, if both of us went to the market, we were able to bring back enough food to make that tiny fridge bulge at its aging seams. There isn't enough room to hold all (or even most!) of the beer cans Jonathan's friends bring over on game nights, either.

Plastic drawers were cracked. The door bleated in protest each time we swung it open. The freezer wouldn't close all the way without effort. The temperature inside the fridge swung wildly from just cold enough to keep the milk good to so cold I couldn't pour soda past the iceberg that had formed within the bottle.

And then last week, as we sat in the living room minding our own business, Jonathan and I heard an enormous crack! One of the glass shelves had split right down the middle. And there was almost nothing on this shelf, so we knew it wasn't our fault. Little Fridgy had simply given up.

I would have felt sentimental about the whole thing had our landlord not acted so quickly to replace it. I worried about having enough time to say goodbye... and then the new hunk showed up. Gleaming. A foot taller, inches deeper. With baskets that could accommodate frozen pizzas. With shelves in the door that could hold soda bottles... get this... standing up!

I stripped Little Fridgy of his magnets and sent him on his way. Because magnets, in my world, are the way I show love to my kitchen appliance. And it was time to magnetize the new guy. Tenderly. One bit of memory at a time.

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I'm just old enough to remember the enthusiastic robot's voice AOL employed to announce, You've got mail!

The computer always took so long to power up. At thirteen, I could hardly contain myself. Hand on the mouse, waiting. I could see the little gray mailbox before anything else: an icon which a world on the cusp of the Internet Age understood as a receptacle for letters and packages. It was something familiar and tangible to cling to as we tried to wrap our heads around the advent of electronic mail. No need to comprehend the sequence of ones and zeroes. Just mail on a screen. The how didn't matter.

And just as we'd always loved seeing the mailman in his blue shorts and eagle-patched shirtsleeves stop at our house to leave real letters, we were suddenly excited to see the little red flag on the digital mailbox tick up. To see the door pop upon to reveal a stack of little white e-letters inside.

You've got mail. Oh, those words were a thrill. 

Now, email is rote. A burden, an addiction. It has worn down our pioneer patience to a nub of ADHD. My email tab is open all day, everyday. (It's open now. Checked it. Nothing new.)

But the beautiful irony of two decades of instant gratification is that, for me, it's only enhanced how much I enjoy receiving real mail. Snail mail. The stamped kind. From all over the world. 

That's why I signed up for the Postcrossing project. Send postcards to strangers; receive postcards from strangers. I've sent and received about 57 over the last three years. I recommend it to everyone! Learn about culture and geography and the exquisite similarities of human nature. Collect stamps. Get inspired to travel to new destinations. All and easily with Postcrossing.

You never know when one will arrive, either. A treat. A treasure.

But yesterday, I got something better. 

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Four and a half days. That was all. And some of that time must be spent sleeping. Sleeping instead of laughing, embracing, catching-up. Three times Audrey counted it. Four and a half days. And tomorrow her guests would arrive.

I'm being dramatic, and I'm cheating a little, too. There's nothing terrible about having one's best friends in Oslo for four and a half days, except that it's less than five and a half or six and a half days. I'm stealing O. Henry's drama to make you understand, dear reader, how much I worried that four and a half days wouldn't be enough. One hundred and eight hours. Selfishly, I wanted a full week, but four and a half days would have to do.

There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl.

Or suck it up.

I did the latter. And then planned, planned, planned all the stuff we would do, the places we would go, and the people we would see during those 108 hours. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Life may well be made up of "sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating," but smiles certainly held their own while Cindy and Brad were in Oslo with us.

At left, you'll see what we wound up doing for the majority of that time. Besiding. Morning, noon, night (or what passes for night during summer in Norway), we were beside one another. At meals. Playing games. Exploring the city. I could reach out and touch my friend's elbow, feel her wrap her arm around my waist. Nothing went according to anybody's real plan. Brad and Cin were nursing colds. Jonathan ordered fish on his pizza. The tourist info office moved since last summer, so I had my guests break the law by riding public transportation before we actually bought the passes to do it! But all of it was done besiding. Which made it perfect.

Don't overplan your next visit to Oslo with friends. I've got a recipe for one Basically Epic Week in Oslo:

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"I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance." 

-- Beryl Markham (West with the Night)

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Rodeo Weekend 2007: Audrey kicked back at Panama Red (then Panama Bay) in downtown Livermore, CA, USA

I've been dreaming of greasy In-n-Out wrappers and 100-degree summer days and rounding small town corners to encounter the smiling faces of old friends. I wake to the smell of manure and sawdust. Garth Brooks croons to me in the perpetual twilight of each Norwegian summer night. I am haunted... because I missed Livermore's rodeo for the third year in a row. It leaves me aching. Between the rodeo, the Alameda County Fair, and my church's Fourth of July picnic, June and July are just about the toughest months for me to be a world away. The remnants of those wholesome traditions, so very, keenly American, cling to me.

The expatriate lifestyle is one to which I still count myself as new. Not only do I remember the questions which run through the anxious mind of someone making the decision to leave home, to make a new home somewhere else... I still have those questions. Doubts are only natural. Sometimes, Jonathan and I will talk about our future in terms of a life spent here in Norway. Years upon years. This isn't something I would have guessed before we came. I might even have denied it vehemently for the sake of my parents and friends. But it comes up. Then fades away again. Unresolved. Left to simmer.

In this way, I fear I am committing one of the cardinal sins of the fully-embraced expat life; I am leaving the old place slowly.

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Photo: Jonathan and I had our best California buds in town with us this week, so they got to attend the launch party on Friday. A huge treat for me! See more photos from the party at the end of this post.

North of the Sun, South of the Moon: New Voices from Norway is the first anthology published by the Oslo International Writers' Group, and now you can own it in paperback! The following is the introduction to the book, which I was honored to co-author with OIWG's founder, Zoë Harris

At sixty-six degrees north, there is an invisible line drawn around the globe. The line passes through only eight countries: Iceland, Greenland, Canada, the United States (Alaska), Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Norway. This is the Arctic Circle, a perforation between the Land of the Midnight Sun and everything below it, places where the sun will always set, at least for a breath. Such is the mysticism of the Far North. Polar bears lumber across the icescapes of Svalbard under endless daylight from April to August. More populated areas above the Arctic Circle also enjoy these "white nights", where a girl with a book can read the fine print from dusk to dawn without ever flipping a light switch. 

It is an exotic concept. But, as always, there's a dark side.

The Land of the Midnight Sun cannot escape the inevitable Noon Moon. Twenty-four hours of daylight in the summertime; twenty-four hours of darkness in the wintertime. To cope, residents of Norway put up black-out curtains just to fall asleep in July. In January, light box therapy helps some fend of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). We know two seasons: summer and winter; celebration and survival. These are things to which only people who have lived in-country year-round can attest, an invisible line which binds us together.

When the Oslo International Writers' Group (OIWG) formed in early 2012, the initial aim was camaraderie: to create a network of writers who could share and critique work, discuss writing as only writers can, and support one another in what can often be a rather lonely pursuit. Soon it became evident that the talent and ambition of this set of writers warranted a project, some kind of collective effort to showcase our work to the outside world.

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Before we moved, I made sure to read several expat blogs written by people residing in Oslo. Talking to people (or reading the writing of people) with boots on the ground is the best way to gain understanding of the day-to-day stuff in a faraway city. Since moving to Norway, I've been contacted several times by strangers with questions about our decision to expatriate, about our life here, and about Norwegian culture. I like getting those emails and messages, and I do my best to answer their questions succinctly and honestly. In case you, dear reader, have similar questions, I thought I'd post one such email exchange.

I received this one after my photo appeared on the NPR politics page just before the 2012 presidential election. Please be patient with the grammar and spelling issues. I thought it would be disingenuous of me to "clean" it up. The sincerity and curiosity are what matter.

Hello, my name is Chris [removed].  I currently live in South Carolina.  I was viewing inauguration postcards on NPR and came across yours.  I was very amazed at what you said, and it drew some interest in regards to you living in Norway.

The reason I am emailing you is because I was curious about the quality of life there compared to here in the US.  I have been trying hard to make changes in my life as far as living and in my daughter's life such as eating more organic foods, depending less on "medicine" and using herbal products, and breaking away from the "TV" hypnosis.  I am very concerned about the education in this state because every year it gets worse, and no one is held accountable.  If the schools make the required scores on the tests, then they are doing good, but when you ask some of the kids how to figure out what 2 x2 is and why is it 4, you get weird stares or "I don't know" responses.  After reading about how you said about the quality of education, it really got me interested.

Basically, I would like to know how to get information to research the possibilities to move to Norway or other countries that are like Norway.  Living here in the US lately is disheartening; many don't fight for change, they just go along with what mainstream media pumps into their minds.  I just want the best for my daughter, and not worry that she, too, will have to break her back and burn herself out just to live a peaceful life.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I appreciate any guidance or information you can provide.

After taking a few days to consider Chris's complex and comprehensive questions, I responded. 

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Oslo waxed lilac overnight. Fat and elegantly bunched, they waited until we were asleep to arrive, to place themselves in the trees and bloom. Where one week ago there were only the wet, black branches and sharply-new green leaves of a tardy spring, suddenly blossoms appeared. Purple and white. Immaculate thousands of tiny petals. Each dense panicle of lilacs is a fractal; the blooms are four-lobed, radiating from a tubular base, arranged in pairs. Around them wave the simple, glaucous leaves of the lilac tree, outshined by the spring bounty. 

It is evening, warmer than most expect it can be so far north. We walk below Uranienborg kirke, a proud, brick tower, built on a hill to catch the last of the light. Bells sound the ten o'clock hour. I raise my hand and lift a healthy panicle with my palm, then grasp it lightly and lower it to my nose and inhale. I recognize the sweet, yearning fragrance of syringa vulgaris, the common lilac, which floats along the avenues of Oslo each May. 

Too late! There was no spring, really. Too fast! We blinked and the blooms had bogged the tree branches down so they swept the gutters. Don't love us too much! Norway's rainstorms will pound the pavements and rooftops, will pound the life out of these clusters of airy, papery flowers. Purple and white and mauve. In the aftermath, shriveled petals will litter the sidewalks, will dry, will die. There is no stopping this cycle. It will come to every leaf on every tree on this road. It will come for me, too. But with luck, I'll last longer than the lilacs. 

I release the bundle of blooms, and the supple branch bounces back to its place above me. We walk on.

Related Posts:

Autumn in Oslo - Uranienborg kirke (Photos)

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I'm a spoiled child. Not only did my husband work from home this afternoon so he could take care of me after my traumatizing morning dentist appointment, but I got to spend a couple hours curled up with my best snuggle buddy.

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Feeling sorry for me? You should be.

After all, I'm thirty years old, and until this year, I'd never had a cavity. Thanks to my Dad (Mr. Flossing-Every-Day-is-For-Sissies-So-Let's-Do-It-Twice-A-Day-And-In-The-Living-Room-So-As-To-Set-An-Example-For-The-Kids), I've practiced superior dental hygiene my entire life. And I put in that kind of effort specifically to avoid the trauma of the dentist's drill.

Now, my bid for dental perfection hasn't been easy.

When my baby teeth grew in, everything seemed all right at first, but then they wouldn't leave. While other kids got regular visits from the Tooth Fairy, my baby molars were digging in for the long haul. I had to get them removed manually by my dentist. Needles and Novocain; the whole nine yards. Problem solved, right? Hah! My adult teeth couldn't wait for the dentist to perform the extractions before they began squeezing in. No room? That didn't stop my teeth. They popped through the gums in all the wrong places, at weird angles, too. Snaggletoothed doesn't begin to describe me and my mouth back then. When I smiled, people cringed. Full-grown people with excellent manners. One grin from this gal and they headed for the hills. 

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Holland House and The Oslo International Writers' Group are proud to present the group's first anthology, North of the Sun, South of the Moon: New Voices from Norway

My nonfiction essay, Orientation, will appear alongside the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry of seven of my talented fellow OIWG members:

Zoe Harris

Chelsea Ranger

Brian Talgo

Mauricio Ruiz

Evelinn Enoksen

Bree Switzer

Anna Maria Moore

The e-book will be available 17 May 2013, coinciding with Norway's Constitution Day festivities, and the paperback edition will be available in June. Best of all, book sale profits will go to Utdanningshjelpen, a Norwegian volunteer organisation which offers educational scholarships to children and young people in Kenya, Ghana, Mosambique, Ethiopia and Palestine.

Publication is an exciting time for every writer! The launch party for North of the Sun, South of the Moon is going to be a fabulous event, hosted by everyone's favorite American restaurant in Oslo, Café Fedora.

Date: 7th June 2013 at 7:00pm

Place: Café Fedora, Frognerveien 22, Oslo

Price: 200 NOK per person

Food and drinks are included in the ticket price, and you will also hear the authors give readings, have the opportunity to buy the book and/or donate directly to Utdanningshjelpen, as well as be in the running to win a signed copy of the book. 

Tickets are limited, so if you're in town and want to support these fine, local writers, please buy yours today! Café Fedora's owners, Anthony and Nicole Juvera, in a typical bout of warmth and generosity, have made it possible for all tickets sold for the launch event to support the charity, too. In case I haven't made it clear before, you want to know these two people. They make Norway a better place.

The Oslo International Writers' Group is open to writers of all stripes in the Oslo area. We meet once a month. Find us on Facebook if you're interested in joining. We welcome your voice and point of view!

I'm on Amazon! Click here to buy and download the digital version of our wonderful anthology.

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Each spring, the tenants in our apartment building in Oslo come together for an afternoon of unpaid, voluntary, organized community work.

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This is a dugnad, a Norwegian tradition in which a bunch of people, in this case neighbors, join forces to spruce up their public, shared spaces. In my opinion, this is a beautiful concept, like a barn-raising, but on a much smaller, less sweaty, less Amish scale.

As it was our third time at this rodeo, Jonathan and I knew the important stuff: where the box of gloves and cleaning supplies is kept, that we should bring our own ladder and paper towels, etc. Stuff we hadn't a clue about the first year. Some people trimmed trees and hedges, some scraped the weeds from between the stones on our walkway. Jonathan and I raked leaves (and cigarette butts) on the front lawns, then completed the task we look forward to each year: cleaning the front door.

We have this beautiful door on our building. Lots of burnished wood and glass. Together, Jonathan and I scrubbed and squeegied the thing until it shined. One of our neighbors called it "Jonathan's Masterpiece." I didn't mind. It was Jonathan who risked his life on the rickety ladder to reach the high spots!

My favorite thing about dugnad is that it gives us the chance to meet our neighbors. Classically, Norwegians aren't the most overtly friendly people, especially within apartment buildings. The joke is that you could pass your neighbor on the steps in your building for 20 years without getting so much as a hello, but if you ran into the same guy on the ski trails outside of town, he'd hail you down and chat you silly. That's only partially our experience in Oslo. A couple of our neighbors know us by name; everyone makes a point to say hello. But the spirit of the dugnad sparks teamwork and breeds organic conversation. Plus, there's always someone new to meet, and that's a pleasure.

The main reason so many dugnads happen this time of year is in preparation for Syttende Mai (17 May), the big national day celebration. We all want our buildings to sparkle as we celebrate Norway's independence. At the same time, I like to think we're celebrating that a country like Norway, one which puts such a premium on teamwork and equanimity, thrives in the world today.

More on Dugnad from other Oslo bloggers:

It's a Dugnad! via Northern Natterings

The Dugnad: A Big Community Clean Up via A New Life in Norway

Dugnad via My Feelings For Snow

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Warning: This video is probably not work safe. It's crude and rude and unbelievably hilarious.

Last week, I blogged about the Russian language and how it threw me during our recent trip to St. Petersburg. I did have a positive revelation, though. Suddenly, Norwegian looked comfortingly familiar to this happy expat. And that made me want to share this very amusing video. It's a couple of years old now, but please enjoy. It's occasionally vulgar, so be prepared, but know it will also be educational. Now you'll understand how to pronounce the Norwegian alphabet's three extra vowels. In fact, you may never be able to forget the pronunciation because it will henceforth be burned into your brain.

You're welcome!

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Cabin fever. It sets in after one too many days or weeks or months indoors. Oslo is a beautiful, fun city, full of things to do and see. But this year, the snow is taking its sweet time in retreat, which means a few of the spring things I look forward to must wait a bit longer. For instance, walking around the beaches at Bygdøy, a large peninsula to the west of Oslo. Bygdøy holds many of the city's most popular attractions, including the Folk Museum, the Viking Ship Museum, the Fram Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum, the Holocaust Center, and the Norwegian Maritime Museum.

You can get to Bygdøy by bus, ferry, or bike. Trails and roads criss-cross the peninsula, making it easy to explore by foot. In the spring, the lilacs begin to bloom and the birches waver greenly in the crisp, cold breeze. Exploring the coast means tramping across beaches of the tiniest seashells and coming upon harbors full of bobbing boats on sky-soft sea.

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"You are American? Yesterday, Martin Sheen was here."

The waiter placed our drinks on the table and looked up to gauge our reaction to the name drop. Despite the non sequitur, neither of us flinched.

"Martin Sheen. You know... the American actor. West Wing."

I'm not really one for name dropping. (Hard to believe, right, since I blogged meeting my favorite author, Pam Houston, for the very first time at AWP in Boston!) But it wasn't fair to make the nice man squirm like that.

So I said, "Sure. Martin Sheen. I loved him in Gettysburg." And Jonathan said something slightly snarky like, "Not quite as exciting as Charlie Sheen." Which made me laugh, but the waiter was on a mission.

"Martin Sheen. The nicest man! Handshakes for the whole staff."

Addendum: "Actor/activist Martin Sheen and I flew to Oslo, Norway to speak at the civic forum before the conference, sponsored by The International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons... before an excited crowd of 900 people in downtown Oslo." via Huffington Post

This happened on our second visit to the legendary Engebret Cafe, located just to the east of Akershus Fortress. It is Oslo's oldest restaurant, opened in 1857, and, as proved by Mr. Sheen, it attracts luminaries from around the world. Without reservations, I worried we were being optimistic about showing up on the cafe's doorstep, even late on a Tuesday evening. But while the restaurant was full, the bar was empty.

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It took me ten minutes to jog from the Russian Embassy in Oslo down Drammensveien to the nearest Joker market and withdraw the cash. I'd expected the cost of two Russian Tourist Visas to run about 630 NOK ($110), based on what I'd read several times on the consulate website. Standing before the cashier at the embassy, my heart had stopped when she did the math and said the total: 1980 NOK ($345).

"I don't have that much with me," I'd said. My cheeks began to flame.

She shook her head and held the calculator up for me to see. As though I didn't trust her math. Which I didn't. After making sure that they weren't charging me for express processing, and that it was merely my non-EU citizenship that cost so much, I asked:

"Do you accept card?"

It was clear she didn't understand me. I repeated myself in broken Norwegian. She responded by reaching up to tap her long, purple fingernail on the window of bullet-proof glass between us, just behind a sign which read, in three languages: We do not accept bank cards. Cash only. Exact change.

Well, I thought, this is it. I knew something was going to go horribly wrong, and it's happening

All morning I'd dreaded this appointment. Something about walking into the Russian Embassy just seemed wrong, shady, or dangerous. I blame Hollywood. The Russians have been our go-to on-screen villains for ages. Our nuclear opponents. Hard-liners with their fingers on too many big red buttons. I know this isn't true today. I grew up in the years after President Reagan said, "Tear down this wall!"

Yet, there are shades of darkness that remain in the real world. One need only look at Russia's recent crackdown on the civil rights of gays and lesbians, or their censure of freedom of speech and expression in the Pussy Riot incident, or their ban on American adoptions of Russian children. These are things I don't agree with, and they're only the ones existing above the surface. What will I find when I venture behind the metaphorical culture wall that remains?

Standing on Russian soil at the embassy, I felt vulnerable. To what? Human trafficking? Communism? The rampant road rage that makes dashboard cameras so popular among Russian drivers? I shook off the dread. There had to be a solution to this problem.

I showed the embassy cashier the bills I had with me, less than half the amount needed, and shrugged.

She leaned down to speak into the microphone on her side of the glass. A speaker about the size of a Kleenex box was mounted on the wall at face-height and made her instructions sound like she was rattling back a take-out order at the In-n-Out drive thru.

"You go out," she said, her Russian accent tugging at the corners of every word. "Out, along street. Get money from minibank."

"I can come back here?" I asked, beginning to gather my things. I'd waited in line for over an hour already and didn't want to take another number.

"Yes. You go out, come back here." Then she raised her wrist to show me the face of her watch and tapped it vigorously. There wasn't much time left. The office would close at 12:30.

I waited for her to slide my paperwork and passports back to me.

"We keep," she said.

I shook my head the way you do when you get out of the pool to clear your ear canals of water.

"We keep. You go. Come back."

"No," I said. "I don't want to leave my passports."

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Oslo always tops the list of most expensive cities in the world. So, visitors probably expect to pay a little more for a cup of coffee here.

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The above info graphic from Bloomberg News illustrates the cost of, specifically, a 16 ounce cup of Starbucks coffee in cities all over the world. It's supposed to demonstrate Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), explained in detail in the Wall Street Journal's piece: On Currencies, What's Fair is Hard to Say.

Before that $9.83 price tag makes you do a spit take, let me point out a couple of the graph's weak points:

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The sunniest, warmest day yet this year turned snow to slush, pushed the ice flows around in the fjord, and made me yearn for a sweet treat. Take one bottle of Coca-Cola from the Folkmuseet cafe plus one snowball, and what do you get?

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A free snow cone

Positive temperatures for highs all this week. Here's hoping spring has truly arrived! (It seems a little too good to be true...)

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When Jonathan took the day off work on Friday, neither of us knew what we were going to do with that extra free time together. Unfortunately, we're not practiced enough with the cross-country skiing gear to pull off a last-minute run anywhere. So, it was up to me to choose something. I poked around Visit Oslo first because I would rather live like a tourist in my own city than be cool, in-the-know, and bored at home. 

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Turned out, the game plan for the day was easily settled once I came across a couple of bowling alleys in town. One we've passed many times because it's at Solli plass, just down the street from us. Solli Bowling.

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Asker is an affluent suburb of Oslo. It's where Crown Prince Haakon and his family have their home. The city is known for its many beaches and wooded trails, as well as shopping options and beautiful churches. We went to check out the Galleri Trafo.

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The gallery opened in 2006 and, according to the VisitAsker website, "has rapidly become an important location for Norwegian and International contemporary art." Housed in an old brick factory building adjacent to the Asker train station, the gallery includes three separate viewing areas on the first floor and one additional exhibit hall on the third.

As we stomped the snow off our boots at the entrance, I asked the lady at the desk for two tickets. She looked puzzled. Turns out the gallery is open for free to the public! Exhibitions change periodically, but the gallery's website seems to be fairly up-to-date.

In Kunsthallen (The Art Hall), we examined a series of contemporary landscapes by Norwegian artist Espen Røise. I stood in front of the focal piece for a long time, taking in the color and movement, the choice of shape. As the artist notes on the website, "Everything I do in my studio has its beginnings in the time I spend in nature, the landscape that touches me." 

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Unfortunately, I couldn't remain soothed by these large, abstract paintings. From behind the wall at the far end of the room came a blood-curdling scream! Someone gasping for breath, panting, crying. Jonathan and I looked at each other, eyebrows raised, and walked toward the sounds. 

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It was a day of Romance with a capital R:

  • Roses (Not a dozen. Apparently Norwegian blomster shops sell them in bunches of ten or fifteen!)
  • Root beer floats (with real A&W root beer, which made this expat very happy!)
  • Reservations at Pizza da Mimmo
  • Roman Holiday

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This about sums it up. And if you need some help deciphering my gift to Jonathan (paper airplane? really?), don't forget to check out my Paperman Valentine.

Remember... this faux holiday is Ridiculous. Participate in Romance year-Round. It's more fun that way!

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If the days aren't icy, they're just plain cold. If the snow isn't falling, it's turning to to black slush in the streets. Either way, it's slippery. And the bleak days may not actually outnumber the gloriously sunny ones, but the short daylight hours make it feel like we're being shortchanged on sunshine. So, what to do?

I've got a few tips for surving a winter in Scandinavia:

#1 Get yourself a red umbrella!

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Of all my tips, this one is the least serious, but the most fun. Last winter my umbrella was gray and busted. It took me a little while to figure out that, as I walked the streets of Oslo, my view from under the umbrella was impacting my world outlook. I traded up. No surprise, things look rosier with a bright, cheery, cherry red frame. Get a cute, colorful umbrella for those rainy, sleety days.

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Believe it or not, I'm not the only expat in Norway who likes to blog about how cool and challenging this relocated life is. In fact, Norway has a very healthy, active population of expat bloggers. Before Jonathan and I decided to move overseas, I followed a handful of them religiously, not knowing then that I would one day join their ranks, providing daily, personal insight about life halfway around the world. 

Only part my blog is dedicated to Norway and all its quirks. But there are several excellent all-Norway-all-the-time expat blogs that you should check out, too!

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Not even mid-winter here in Norway, but we've already got guests lined up for summer. When Jonathan and I moved over in April of 2011, we weren't sure anyone would come see us in Oslo. After all, that's a long way to go, for Californians especially. It's expensive. And Norway, surprisingly enough, isn't high on the priority lists of most travelers. But last summer, we mananged to lure a couple of couples up into the Nordics. What a blast! We visited museums, ate delicious pastries, took lots of pictures, and generally goofed around. Memories! Best of all, we got to play a lot of Kubb, a tradition I hope to extend through Summer 2013 as more friends venture north to hang with us.

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Left: Amy and me in full-on Kubb-box-model mode. We make it look like the best game ever. Who wouldn't want to play with us?  Right: Amy and me in full-on gonna-kick-the-boys'-butts-at-Kubb mode. We make it look like the toughest game ever. Who wouldn't be afraid to play with us?

What is Kubb?

Our first summer in Oslo, we noticed groups of people engaged in some kind of stick-throwing game. On the palace grounds. At Frognerparken. On the banks of the fjord or beside small lakes in the Oslomarka. Throwing sticks at sticks. And while some might roll their eyes at such a juvenile-looking pasttime, Jonathan and I were gripped by curiosity.

The game turned out to be Kubb, a Swedish lawn game where the object is to knock over wooden blocks (kubbs) by throwing wooden sticks (klubbs) at them.

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Braving temperatures of -15 C (5 F) today took some serious motivation. Oslo's Mathallen opened to much fanfare in October last year, boasting more than 33 gourmet food vendors. I've heard only excellent things about it since then. When a Facebook friend posted a picture of several small pies she'd purchased from a stall called Hello Good Pie, I knew I'd be making the trip. Pies and puns? Sorta my thing.

We bundled up against the cold and hopped on the #13 Trikk, stopping at Schous plass in Oslo's Grünerløkka neighborhood, walked three and a half blocks west, and followed the big signs to Mathallen.

Dozens of fresh, fragrant, foodie smells met us at the door. The hall is quite large. Spherical chandeliers hang from the vaulted, black ceiling. Visiting in the middle of the day on a Saturday may not have been the wisest decision. It was packed! So crowded, we found it tough to navigate between the stalls to figure out what our options were. Thankfully, I'd scrolled through the list of vendors on Mathallen's excellent website, so I knew what I was looking for.

Pies! Hello Good Pie offers varieties both sweet and savory, four or five inches in diameter. We ordered an eple crumble med rørosrømme (apple crumble with fresh sour cream) and a sjokolade og peanøtt (chocolate and peanut) to go!

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Dear Mr. President,

I voted for you.

Home. My husband and I moved to Norway from the United States for adventure, opportunity and the chance to try something new. We stay because, given our new perspective, it is difficult for us to believe that moving "home" would be in our best interest. Norway is consistently listed as one of the "happiest" and "best" places to live in the world. This is due to the country's high standard of living, access to higher education, national wealth, cleanliness, and independence. Children are healthier, better educated, and safer. We pay high taxes, but in return we receive tremendous benefits. Watching the vitriol of the last election from afar, I was ashamed. All that fighting, all those hard lines, all those promises, all that MONEY... and in return, what? I can't say Norway is a better country than the United States, but nor can I say that the U.S. is the best country in the world. And wouldn't you want to live and raise your family in the best country in the world? Please do what you can to make me want to come home.

Signed,

Audrey Camp from Oslo, Norway

Four years ago, I was as idealistic as any other 25-year-old. Well, that doesn't mean much. Kids today become so jaded so quickly. Maybe I'll say it this way... Four years ago I was as idealistic as young Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, just before he ascended to the Presidency. The man wanted to bridge gaps, soothe the rancor of Washington, and accomplish lots of important stuff. In 2008, I liked his message, but I didn't vote for him. I believed he was too young and inexperienced to make headway in our white-haired White House, let alone the big, bad world of international relations. He won without my vote. And almost immediately, I was thrilled about that. Even in the face of a GOP machine intent on making him, young Barack Obama, a Democrat, fail in four years, whether or not that hurt our country, the man himself strove to meet his own ideals. Four years later, he earned my vote with guts, humility, and the overall optimism and decency of his party's platform.

I'm no longer a shiny-cheeked idealist, but neither, I'd guess, is President Obama. Yet, he seems to remain optimistic.

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What should we do this weekend? The classic question. 

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The Oslo Music Festival -- June 2011

Living in a city like Oslo is great because there's always something to do. Unfortunately, as an expat, it can be tough to know what all (or any) of the options are. If you don't read the language... if you haven't found an active group to join. But there IS an answer to this question.

The Events List

This "non-profit, community service intended for individuals of the English speaking community in and around Oslo" takes the form of a weekly email that lists as many events--tours, concerts, art installations, festivals--as possible taking place in the coming week.

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Before his alarm sounds in the morning, I sometimes get up and push it back by a few minutes. He wakes then to my shuffling in the dark room. Even with the shades up, the bedroom remains dark; dawn come so late this time of year. I crawl back under the covers and wrap my arms around him. Waking is much easier on the system this way, quiet and tender. We talk in whispers about the oncoming day. How many meetings does he have? What will I write? Skin hot, breath stale, sleep crumbs deep in the corners of our eyes. The sheets on our bed are ill-fitting because we skimped on them at IKEA rather than hauling an extra set home from the U.S. in our luggage.  The cats mew outside the door, hungry and bored. Sleet slides down the gabled windows, only visible when a car's headlights reflect through it. Temperatures hover just above freezing. When the alarm goes off this time, he's already awake, rises and shuts it off. Ditto the fan. The hollow beside me in the bed goes cold quickly. While he showers, I go to the kitchen and brew his coffee in a to-go cup. Half a teaspoon of sugar and a dash of milk. While he dresses for the day, I help him gather the winter necessities: wool socks, cashmere scarf, gloves. I take his earmuffs and clasp them onto the plastic coffee cup so that they become warm, then transfer them over his ears. Because I don't own a bathrobe, I wear a thick sweater and a green blanket wrapped around my hips like a sarong. I ask if he likes my outfit. He says it's impressive how I make do, how I somehow survive. I hope he takes the hint and plans to get me a robe for Christmas. I worry that he will take it a step too far and order a Snuggie or a Slanket or something equally uncouth. Perhaps a One Piece, so I can truly be a Norwegian. He likes the way I do his scarf, halved, with the ends tucked back through the bend. As he pats across his chest and hips, feeling his pockets for keys, phone, badge, and pen, I make sure the scarf is high across the back of his neck. His hair is still damp from the shower. I worry he might freeze. But the true cold of winter, the blue dive into below-freezing temps, hasn't happened yet. A dip is scheduled at the end of the day. We keep the weather tab open on our computer all the times--an oracle to consult before we walk out the door. Before he leaves, I go to the front room and turn on the red paper star hanging in the circle window so that it glows. If he crosses the street and looks back, I want him to see how cozy our home is. Just a reminder. Our winter days run together this way, a dark ribbon of layered clothing and other survival routines. Weekends are for adventures, if we can coax ourselves out the door and into the chill. Evenings are quiet and spent in recovery. I cook. We eat. We talk. We laugh aloud at episodes of The Daily Show, Modern Family, The Office. Sometimes he asks me to read aloud to him, something I love to do. If he has a late evening conference call, I am in bed before him, reading and ignoring the cats as they scamper laps around the apartment. When he joins me, he plants kisses in my hair.

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Do you ever feel nostalgic about the present? On Friday, this not-as-of-yet nostalgia overwhelmed me. It was a clear day; the chilly wind smacked my cheeks red and wrang tears from my eyes. The tears weren't attached to anything, unstemmed, like the dry leaves that skittered on the sidewalks around me. But if I paused and thought, there were a million things I could give the tears over to. Distance from my family, the troubles of a friend, the fading of youth, buried griefs, the painful quickness of time.

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Audrey and Jonathan enjoying the fall colors at Akershus, 30 October 2011.

Such feelings are the terrain of the season. The trees and bushes which have, for so many months, flourished with health around us, now exhale brightly for the last time this year. The colors of fall spark something in me, memories and regrets. Last year, when Oslo was new to us, I walked Jonathan home from work, more than four miles, many times. (Sometimes I took the train with him in the mornings and walked or jogged home on my own.) But this year I've neglected the practice. For no reason. After only a year, I began taking it all for granted.

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From nearly every window in our flat, you can see a tall, copper steeple. Uranienborgkirke (Uranienborg Church) is one of my favorite fixtures in the city, and it's surrounded by a lovely park which goes dazzlingly yellow every autumn.

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I thought I'd have a LOT more time to run out and take photos of the gorgeous fall colors in Oslo. Last year, the weather was deceptively warm and dry. Snow didn't show up until after Christmas. Jonathan and I wandered around our new hometown wearing sweaters and gloves into November. Norway was suckering me in. This year, I've got a hunch, will be very different. Much more "the norm." But then yesterday, a snow flurry came blowing in out of a literally clear blue sky. As I don't want to feel that I missed fall entirely, I thought I'd put up some of the most beautiful pictures we took last year at this time (30 Oct 2011).

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Oslo's National Gallery may not be the Louvre, but I enjoy visiting it for many reasons. That's just one of them. The gallery is on Universitetsgata, just a couple of blocks from the palace grounds, and holds the country's largest public collection of paintings and sculptures.

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While the museum does diplay works by masters like Picasso, Cezanne, and Manet, there is a special emphasis on Norwegian artists like Edvard Munch. One version of Munch's most famous work, 'The Scream' is on display. Translated as 'Skrik' (pronounced shriek) in Norwegian, the painting was stolen from the museum in 1994 and recovered after several months. (The version of 'Scream' at the Munch Museum in Oslo was stolen in 2004, along with the artist's 'Madonna,' and both were recovered two years later.)

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Det Kongelige Slott -- Oslo's Royal Palace

Oslo, Norway. My home these days, and a great place to visit! Jonathan and I vacationed here about a year before we moved over, and were dazzled by everything the country had to offer in the summertime. Since then, I've lived through (and enjoyed!) a Norwegian winter, too. I'm even looking forward to my second. 

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Bærums Verk, Norrway around Chistmastime

When Cheapflights.ca approached me about writing a travel guide to Oslo, I jumped at the chance. My city has so much fun stuff to offer all year round. Visit the Cheapflights website to read my travel guide. It includes:

  • 5 Great Restaurants in Oslo
  • 5 Bars and Taverns in Oslo
  • 5 Fun Winter Activities in Oslo
  • 5 Must-See Monuments, Museums or Galleries in Oslo
  • 5 Day-Trips Outside of Oslo

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The Freia sign on Karl Johans gate in Downtown Oslo

Cheap Flights to Oslo from Canada

Cheapflights - United Airlines Destinations and Fares from Canada

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Holmenkollen Ski Jump -- Oslo, Norway

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Looking for something spooky this Halloween season? Windowshopping after dark in Oslo might just suffice.

Near the corner of Uranienborgveien and Parkveien, across the street from Nomaden, the travel bookstore, is a storefront marked Kunst Handel, Norwegian for art dealer. In the daytime, it would be easy to walk past without taking so much as a sidelong glance at the windows there. You might see the bright corners of gilded-gold picture frames or sculptures high on pedestals. In a blink you're past it. But if you stop to look again, if after night falls the lights inside catch your eye and hold it, you'll find yourself swept into a strange world. Try, if you dare, to imagine the feverish brain which conceived of this bizarre collection.

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King Gander was shot dead cleanly through the eye by a hunter at the lake who had no idea the geese were organized enough to have a king. The jewels in his crown dazzled the hunter through her scope. What a prize, thought she. What a trophy! The gunshot startled the flock and sent them scooting, panic-stricken across the top of the lake and then up into the sky. Behind them floated the body of their leader. The hunter's retreiver, Princess, splashed into the water, paddled out a few meters, and hauled the plump goose by the neck to the shore. The hunter knelt on the rocks and realized King Gander's crown was gone; it had probably tumbled from his head when the bullet tore through his eye and sunk into the dark lake water. No matter, thought the hunter, giving Princess's ears a scratch. When I stuff him, I will have his eye replaced, and I will replace his crown, as well. 

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In Oslo, no two buildings are alike. Walking through the neighborhoods, you'll see many a tourist craning his neck up to stare at the Neo-Classical, Victorian, and Edwardian architecture. (Many locals are used to the beauty and history on every corner, but not I!) Most recognizable are the ornate moldings wrapping around each floor, the light, happy colors, and the distinct style of each individual building. I have my favorites, of course, but then again, I'm always happening upon a new corner of the city, something else to love.

While housesitting for a friend today, I noticed how lovely the city looked through her windows. 

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If you have the opportunity to visit Oslo, make sure you leave time for a long walk. The city is safe, clean, and charming at every turn. Don't forget to look up! And if you live here already, don't forget to look out!

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If you're sitting around on a Saturday afternoon or a summer evening and wondering what's free to do in Oslo, I've got an idea for you. Totally random. Totally Norwegian.

Pay a visit to the Holmenkollen Troll!

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Take the Number 1 Metro line up to the Holmenkollen stop. From there it's a bit of a walk uphill, but the way is well-marked. Even if you've visited the ski jump before, you may not have swung out to visit the troll. He sits in a cluster of pines facing the jump, and only when you get up close do you find he has a little friend, too. 

"A troll am I. Big and tall. I sing in one of my songs. For I am big and tall. When you see me sitting at Gratishaugen, I measure almost 7 meters. Big and tall may sound dangerous, but that's not the case. I am a good troll. It is the famous Norwegian sculptor Nils Aas, who brought me here. I am made of concrete, and I guess I do look a lot like the trolls you'll find in the Norwegian folk tales collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe."

Wave goodbye to the troll and stroll down the road a bit to give your inner child another thrill at Himalaya Park.  Several fun obstacles and playground-style installments on the low ropes course are available for your use and pleasure. A rope wall, a hideout, a balance beam, a swinging bridge. It's full of pulleys and ropes, and it's free! (At least, it was the last couple times we wandered through it.)

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I suppose this is really meant for families with kids, but... I don't have a kid; I have a husband with an active inner child. (Which means I'm rarely bored in Oslo!) Enjoy! 

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Like bouldering, but on buildings. It's one of the many things we tried this summer, if briefly.

My best friend and Ya-Ya, Amy, visited us in Oslo with her husband, Jeff, at the beginning of June. We did a bunch of fun stuff together. I loved playing tour guide in my city!

One of the best things about Ames and Jeff is their spontaneity. We're spontaneous people, too, so the four of us have a very special brand of fun. On their last night, Jeff took us running out the door, down the stairs, into the street, and down a block to the local French school. There, we set about climbing the large retaining wall that runs the length of the playground. I'm so happy I grabbed the camera while everyone else was collecting their climbing shoes and chalk bags. 

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Eventually, Jonathan and Jeff pieced together a pretty nifty traverse from one end of the wall to the other. As they "worked," several people wandered by us in the street. One stopped to take an iPhone photo of the crazy Americans on the wall. Another asked where we were from and, as he walked away, called back over his shoulder, "Rest in peace, California!" (We're reasonably sure he meant "Take it easy," but it's the thought that counts.)

When Ames and Jeff boarded the train back to the airport the next day, I'll admit I cried a little. There are few people in this world who know me the way Amy does. She is a piece of home; and she'd brought that feeling all the way across a world to me. And while I may have been instrumental in showing them the nooks and crannies of Oslo, building memories they will carry with them the rest of their lives, they also gave a gift back to me: I will never see the schoolyard walls in my neighborhood the same way ever again. Walking the few blocks to the market or the post office or Solli plass will always be a little more special because that wall holds a secret route, one navigated by fingers and toes, and has held the chalk echoes of our movements alone.

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My place is currently cluttered with camping and climbing gear. Coiled ropes, tents, sleeping bags, camp stove. A full backpack's worth of dirty clothes takes up most of the floor in my bathroom. This is the aftermath of a five-day camping trip in the Jotenheim region of Norway, about 5 hours north of Oslo. We rolled back into town on Sunday evening, and I was too exhausted to do much about it right away. Funny how the mess doesn't clean itself up. Funnier how I always wish it would.

I spent the morning organizing things, but only seemed to displace the chaos. To give myself a break, I decided to walk downtown and grab lunch. Just a date with me. The girl who stopped counting her most recent mosquito bites at fifteen; the girl with the massive blister on the back of her heel after hiking across a glacier to the top of Galdhøpiggen, Norway's highest mountain. Not pretty or fun or flirty... but in desperate need of a slow walk in the sunshine, you know, to begin the healing.

It worked. Summer may have gotten off to a slow start in Oslo this year (so much rain!), but as we close out the last week of August, I have to say, we're getting some pretty perfect weather. Oslo is beautiful city anyway, but in the sunshine it takes my breath away. 

I ate lunch (Max Burger) on a bench near the statue of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Akershus Fortress. Aker Brygge, the main harbor, bustled below me. Cruise ships came and went. People stood in line for tickets. The number 12 tram clattered around the corner, packed with tourists. An accordionist collected coins in an upturned cap on the cobbled stone. I used all my napkins to wipe the burger's special sauce off my chin. Slowly, but very slowly, my city-girl-ness returned to me. 

Partly it was listening to the myriad languages spoken around me as I walked back toward National Theater to catch my tram home. Partly it was the way the sunlight warmed the crown of my head and spread down to my shoulders, forcing me to pull up my long sleeves and expose my pale wrists to the sky. Partly it was the bird calls and the ship horns. But mostly it was the music.

In the summertime, the changing of the palace guard in Oslo includes a march from Akershus, down Karl Johans gate, and all the way up the hill to the palace grounds. Three policemen on horseback lead the mini-parade; then comes the band. I love the way the red stripes on their pant legs catch the sunlight as they stride out from the cover of shadows.

A while later, the band took their places in the small pavilion near the National Theater and played a short concert. I reluctantly ran for my tram as they finished a brassy rendition of Hello, Dolly! So, bridge that gap, fellas. Find me an empty lap, fellas!

Home again, I surveyed the gear and laundry and dishes with rejuvenated eyes.

Somewhere a hurricane is thrashing the levees of a gun-shy city. Somewhere delegates loyal to Ron Paul are calling out the so-called tyranny of the Republican party. Somewhere my nephew is playing a game with the man who will likely become his stepfather. Somewhere a woman of God is losing her religion. Somewhere a book is burning. Somewhere a hiker with a broken leg waits trembling in the blue-white crevasse of a glacier. And here at home there is a Kindle with a half-read Ann Patchett novel to be finished, and a tall, icy can of apple cider to be drunk. And music is playing behind it all.

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California girls don't understand seasons. Even if we've long said inane things like, Oh, Autumn is my favorite time of year! Even if we've once or twice strapped a snowboard to our feet and slid down a mountain on the backside of our rented coveralls. Even if we know all the words to the current summer pop hit. California is a special place, a magical place, a place where temperatures just don't vary much. Especially in the south, but even in my own beloved East Bay. I spent the first 28 years of my life spoiled rotten by mild winters, early springs, hot, clear summers, and autumns that didn't require me to put a jacket on over my Halloween costumes.

So you can imagine what an adjustment it's been to move to Norway. Land of four seasons. Winter. Rainy spring. Raaaaaainy summer. And a dark, chilly autumn. I'm kidding. It's not that bad. And actually, I've enjoyed the seasons so far. Seasons are pretty. Who knew?

This is best demonstrated by looking at the changing seasons in Oslo's Frognerparken.
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The wasps float angrily up through our open windows and bang about between the glass and the curtain. They come all summer long, once or twice each day. I hear the buzz or I see the cat twitch and point. Our fly swatter is neon orange, and when I grab it like a machete, the cat high-tails it out of the room. He knows what comes next. 

I stalk the vicious insect, push the curtain flatter to the window so it has no escape. Then SMACK! 

The yellow-and-black curl of its dying body drops like fruit from a tree onto our white window sill, between framed photos: Jonathan and I watching fireworks at Disneyland, my girlfriends and I at the Christmas tree lighting in San Francisco, me wearing a cute hat in Strasbourg, France. I don't trust the bug even in its prone position, not so long as its head, abdomen, thorax, wings, and stinger remain intact. I scoop it up with the spatula-shaped end of the swatter and toss it out the window. 

This is an exercise unique to my life in Oslo. 
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On the Monday following the Olso bombing and Utøya massacre, more than 100,000 people converged in front of Rådhusplassen (city hall) to memorialize the victims and support their families. The crowd held long-stemmed roses which they raised to the sky in peaceful defiance again and again. It was, possibly, the most elegant, loving tribute I've ever seen. I took the video, below, with my iPhone, and there IS audio, but you won't hear a thing. It was as if everyone in the city was holding his breath.

 

When the speeches were finished, everyone walked away. We streamed back through the veins of the city, and along the way, we placed our roses. At the feet of statues. At the cornerstones of the parliament buildings (Stortinget), Oslo Cathedral, the Royal Palace. I added mine to a growing heap of flowers at the Eternal Peace Flame at Aker Brygge. Hundreds of thousands of roses blanketed the city.

It's not up to me, an Outsider, to say whether this defiantly peaceful response is a byproduct of the natural stoicism of Norwegian society. But these people are bred of generations who have thrived in the cold and the dark by drawing closer together. Their ancestors saw the rule of other nations, Sweden and Denmark, and outlasted Nazi occupation. This country has seen its share of adversity and woe. 

It is up to me, as a writer, to observe the response and share it. Especially because the echoes of this Rally of Roses were so gentle and lovely. The next day, I walked through town and captured the aftermath with my camera.
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I love falling into the company of pleasant strangers. And because I've got one of those wide-open, trustworthy faces, I've had many opportunities to do exactly that. Not only do I enjoy helping people, but some of the best conversations stem from situations like these.

Standing at the bus stop outside the Folkmuseet on Bygdøy this afternoon, I was approached by two elderly ladies. They carried cameras and backpacks. One of them seemed to be playing a folding map like an accordion. They asked whether they were standing on the correct side of the road to catch the number 30 bus back into town. I said they were.

"So, we'll go that way then," one said, gesturing off to her left.

"No, the bus will take you this way. Back into town."

"Oh Elaine, you're forgetting the sides of the road again!" Elaine's friend teased.

"It's true. We're from England," Elaine explained. "I forget about the roads."

Both women appeared to be in their sixties*. Elaine was shorter, with dark hair still ebbing gray; her blue eyes watered against the brightness as the sun pushed out from behind the clouds. Her friend was tall and wore glasses that darkened in the sunlight; her hair was nearly white. Both of them had soft, slackened cheeks and hands speckled with liver spots, but in many other ways, they were night and day. Elaine peered out the bus windows with big eyes, loving every minute of the city. Her friend said she preferred countryside. Elaine named waypoints on our bus ride, obviously in some command of her location. Her friend clucked her tongue and admitted, "I'm absolutely no use when it comes to directions."

After a short discussion, I offered to ride with them into town and direct them to the harbor. When I learned they had yet to see the palace, and were confused about how to get there, I disembarked with them at Slottsparken and led the way up the hill.

"The palace is just up this way."

"I see it. Lovely. Thank you!"

"Here on the left is my favorite statue on the grounds. Queen Maud."

"Princess Maud! She's one of ours, you know."

"Yes. Queen Victoria's granddaughter, I believe."

"That's right."

"You know if they wipe all of ours out, we get Norway's king as our own."

"Really?"

"Unfortunately, there's too many of ours to wipe out at this point."

"Elaine!"

"What? I'm a Republican."

"Did you say your name was Elaine?"

"Yes."

"And what's yours?"

"Olive."
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Yesterday was Norway's birthday, May 17th. 

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Throughout the country schoolchildren participate in colorful parades, celebrating 17 May 1814, when the Norwegian constitution was signed and Norway was finally declared to be a separate nation. In Oslo, the barnetoget (children's parade) begins down by the water and winds uphill to the Royal Palace. It is the largest parade in the country; about 100 schools participate, and the number of spectators can reach 100,000! At the palace, the royal family stand on the balcony to inspect each school and band as it goes by.

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King Karl Johan, King of Sweden and Norway at the time the constitution was signed, also inspects the schools as they pass. Norwegians are very patriotic, though not necessarily in the way I was brought up to think of patriotism in the U.S. Love of country simply laces every celebration. It's not strange to have a Norwegian flag displayed at a birthday or anniversary party, and Christmas decorations often include flag ornaments and ribbons. But on Constitution Day, flags run a red, white, and blue river all the way up Karl Johans gate.

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This means we get our own flags, too!
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Today is 17 May, Norway's Constitution Day, the biggest national celebration of the year. Tomorrow I'll post pictures of the parades, national costumes, the king and queen, and the spectacular weather we enjoyed all day. Tonight, all I have energy for is a simple post about a singular pleasure.

The sun was still high in the sky as we took an after dinner walk down to the fjord. We walked the bike path by the quiet harbor, leaving behind the pump and whine of ten thousand parties vibrating throughout the city center. The water was glass. The green of the spring-plump trees like alien flames against the sky. 

It was good to stretch our legs and find some time away from all the activity. Spectating on days like today is fun, of course. We ogle the colorful bunader, silver jewelry glittering at the waists, the wrists, the throats. We bob along to the bass beat as marching bands pass by playing songs we do not recognize. But under it all, there is a danger for foreigners like us. 

Days like today, we feel freshly outside. Untouched. Unnecessary to this long-standing tradition. This is not our history. And while tourists are able to run back to the familiar confines of their home countries and rejuvenate their own sense of identity and national pride, expats aren't so lucky. This is our home. Even when we have not the language nor the costume nor the roots of everyone else around us. 
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I love many of the statues in Oslo, but this is one of my favorites. Gunnar Fridtjof Thurmann Sønsteby is stationed at Solli plass, just down the street from our place. Nearby stands a larger-than-life, stooped-shouldered Winston Churchill. But Sønsteby is the one who catches the eye. 

It could be his posture, relaxed but alert; it could be his bicycle. Today it was the pile of roses and flags at his feet and tangled in his handlebars. 

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Sønsteby was the most famous member of the Norwegian underground during WWII. To this day he remains to be the most decorated person in Norway's history, receiving awards and honors and medals from both the Norwegian government and the American government for his efforts during the Nazi occupation. He was known (or unknown) as Agent 24 during the war, and received saboteur training in England. All around, a pretty brave, pretty cool guy.

Sønsteby passed away last week (10 May) at the age of 94. As a lover of history, it's a beautiful thing to see appreciation expressed for this man and his personal efforts and sacrifices so many decades after the fact, by way of flowers and flags.
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"I want to repeat one word for you: Leave. Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word... Don't worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed." -- Don Miller

So we left.

Maybe it was that all of our familiar furniture was already placed in these foreign rooms, or maybe it was that sunlight streamed in through all our garret windows and made the place glow. Whatever the case, our cats had no trouble adjusting to their new surroundings. We unzipped the carriers slowly so that Disney and Crypto could ease their way out into the new space. They still wore their harnesses. Green camo for Disney and pink floral for Crypto. They'd spent the last 24 hours enclosed in the carriers, most of that time on planes between San Francisco and New York, then New York and Oslo. We'd pulled them out a few terrorizing times: going through security at SFO and then again at EWR, for a brief rest period at an airport hotel in Newark, New Jersey, and then finally at OSL where a veterinarian was on hand to examine them and grant our precious cargo official entry into Norway.
 
That was the longest day of our lives. 

Two planes, a train, a taxi. Five giant suitcases, two cat carriers, and two whining cats. Four flights of stairs. 

But as we entered the new flat, at once aware of our solitude and our togetherness, all the stress of the melted away. 

Disney found the circle window in the living room quickly. He hopped up to the sill multiple times that first day to check out the new street so far below him. Birds played in the sky at his eye-level. He purred contentedly. Crypto sprawled on the floor in one of the rectangular patches of yellow sunlight on the wooden floor. She lay there like a swimmer floating in a pool of light.

Jonathan and I stepped out on our patio and walked to the corner of it. I pushed up on the banister and leaned forward, face full into the fresh April air, pointing myself southwest where I could see, half a kilometer away, the water of the Oslofjord. Jonathan stood behind me and placed one hand on each of mine, his chest pressed warmly to my shoulder blades. 

That was exactly one year ago. And since then...

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When you move from one place to another, the big changes are evident first. Snow in winter. A new, unintelligible language. Whether cars drive down the left or right-hand side of the street. These changes are big. Adjustments are necessary. You must learn the basics all over again: how to walk, how to speak, how to live. 

Only after you adjust to the landscape and the currency of your new home do you begin to sense the other, more subtle differences:

The average height of women in Norway is a full two inches taller than the average height of women in the U.S.

Police officers walking their beats do not carry guns.

The bills of the magpies in the tree just outside our window are black, not yellow. Would anyone notice that except me?

Birds filled the skies, trees, and fields of my California childhood. Long-billed curlews dipped their curved beaks into the turf of the high school football field at dawn. Mountain blue birds fluttered into our backyard like fragments of sky. The killdeer scurried across vacant lots crying about murder. Our parents taught us to identify them all.

Now, no matter where the path I'm walking leads, I notice the birds. 

Flocks. Gaggles. Charms. Suits. Murders. Exaltations. 

We'd lived here only three months when I stopped in a bookstore and asked where I could find a book on fugler. Birds. Armed with our new full-color guide to the birds of Norway, Jonathan and I have been setting out to find and identify them. To make sense of this subtle, feathered shift in the scope of our new home.

Because I haven't been able to find a good online source of info on the Birds of Norway (or the Birds of Oslo), I thought I'd make one myself. Photos are sourced from Wikipedia. If/when I take passable photos on my own, I'll note that, as well.

The following are all the birds we've identified here in Norway. English name, Latin name, Norwegian name.

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Black-headed Gull
Larus ridibundus
Hettemåke



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Blue Tit
Parus caeruleus
Blåmeis





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Canada Goose
Branta canadensis
Kanadagås






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Carrion Crow
Corvus corone
Kråke


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Common Goldeneye
Bucephala clangula
Kvinand

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Last night, Jonathan and I took our favorite short walk in Oslo: straight southeast from our flat in Frogner, through the grounds of det kongelig slott (the Royal Palace), down Karl Johans gate, to Jernbanetorget (Oslo Central Station). Temperatures reached the high 50s yesterday, but dropped off quickly once the sun lowered behind the buildings. We stuffed our icy, white hands deep in our pockets and moved at a quick clip to keep the blood moving in our toes.

The ponds behind the palace are still empty. We watched children, bundled up in chubby, one-piece suits, toddling across the pebbled surface to kick at the last, dirty piles of snow. After the first major snowfall, trucks had buzzed along our streets spilling gravel over the flat surfaces to provide traction for pedestrians. Last night we watched another large truck equipped with something like a mega-shop-vac as it howled along one of the paved paths near the palace and inhaled the gravel once again, leaving the dry path clean behind it.

Walking down the hill into the city center, I happened to glance at one of the large, winter-barren planters to my left. I stopped short. Flowers! The earliest, tightly coiled purple and yellow buds are nosing their way up through the dark soil beneath the still-bare trees.

So, Veldig Oslo - Volume 02 is spring color! Within the next few weeks, these brave buds will open toward the sky in bursts of yellow and purple glory.


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Veldig Oslo - Volume 02: Yellow daffodils and purple pansies on the Oslo Royal Palace grounds in April 2011

Crossing my fingers against any impending frost. Survival of the brightest. Bring on the spring!
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Spring is striving beyond winter's boundaries right now. After what turned out to be a fairly mild winter here in Oslo, we've had two weeks of "warm" weather in a row. Lots of sunshine. Lots of little birds filling dormant, leafless bushes with song. The snow has melted; only the rare patch of murky, aged ice remains in high, untrafficked places. Cafe tables and folding chairs have begun to reemerge outside Olso's sidewalk eateries. These are all signs of spring.

But we haven't seen the true indicator, the no-looking-back-now symbol of spring's arrival and dominion.The Oslo Bysykkel system is not yet active. And because the days are getting longer and the weather only warmer, this brings me to a new series of blog-thoughts... things I love (and currently miss) about spring, summer, and autumn in Oslo... Veldig Oslo (Very Oslo) - Volume 01:

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Veldig Oslo - Volume 01: Cruising along the fjord near Akershus in July 2011.

Oslo Bysykkel racks are located all over the city. By purchasing a rental card, you have access to all of the racks. You can then pick up a bike anywhere and drop it off anywhere. It's that simple. The three-speed bikes come equipped with a bell and a small basket. They're not fancy, but they get you from here to there, and in a pedestrian-friendly city like Oslo, it's a safe way to travel, too. 

This is one of the things I've missed most of all since the bikes' removal in late autumn. Jonathan and I used the system constantly for more than six straight months. We didn't leave the house without grabbing our bike cards! 

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Oslo Bysykkel rental bikes near Nowegian Maritime Museum on Bygdøy

The bike rental system is available to tourists in Oslo, as well:

Tourists wishing to use bicycles during their stay in Oslo should contact the Tourist Information Centre by the Central Station, the central station or Fridtjof Nansen Square 5, entrance gate Roald Amundsen, who will assist with the provision of tourist card. (This is a translated excerpt; for more information, visit the Oslo Bysykkel website.)

Per the website, bikes should reappear at rental racks in early April. Then, bring on the spring!
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Yesterday, I had lunch with a new friend and her four-year-old niece. The little girl spoke no English, with a couple of pleasant exceptions. "Okay." "Gimme five." "Yo dude." 

"Makes sense," I said, sipping my peppermint mocha. "She's spending so much time with a California girl."

"Believe it or not, that wasn't me. My Norwegian sister-in-law actually taught her that one."

While we adults talked, the little one played and played. A toy tube of fake lipstick kept her occupied for a few minutes. Eventually the separate plastic pieces skittered across the floor. Then she scribbled and sketched on a paper placemat. Then she crawled under the table and proceeded to "hide" from us for a while, shrieking with delighted terror when we "found" her. 

After a while, though, she'd had enough of our all-English conversation, our low-and-steady adult voices, and she popped up like a gopher, grabbing for the delicate white and black patterned infinity scarf around my friend's neck. 

The brain of any child is a mystery to me, but I enjoyed watching her take this scarf through its paces. From one moment to the next the scarf was a hat, a blanket, a hammock, the veil of a spøkelse (ghost). Her voice warbled through the fabric, a haunting howl. When the ghost-game was done (in a matter of less than two minutes), she demanded a dress from her aunt. My friend proceeded to wrap the scarf around the child's tiny waist, covering her red Helly Hansen snow bibs, and then tied and tucked the remaining end, pulling her hands away to reveal a makeshift dress. 

The little girl stared down at her new garment in wonder, twisting her head far around both sides to examine it, making sure it was a true dress, that no part of her was left exposed. Determining herself truly elegant, she drew back and hurled herself into her aunt's lap, wrapping her slender arms around my friend's neck. Grateful.
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snowpic01.jpgA predictable post, I suppose, considering that I'm a California girl at the commencement of her first winter in Norway. 

For California kids, certain Christmas songs and lore carry a different kind of mystique. Not only Irving Berlin's White Christmas, but also Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland, and Frosty the Snowman. We don't understand these things. That is, unless our parents dragged us to the house of a relative who was fortunate enough to live someplace where it snowed. While my Illinois cousins spent the afternoon of Christmas Day throwing snowballs and sledding, my brothers and I were out rollerskating on sunny sidewalks through our neighborhood. Without coats on. And while my cousins might have debated the point, I still say we were the ones who drew the short straw.

So, you can understand my excitement when, after the warmest November Norway has on record, big, fat flakes of white began falling damply and intermittently from the evening sky. 
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DSC03209.jpgOn September 22, Jonathan and I joined the rest of Oslo in celebrating the Autumnal Equinox. We followed the crowds down to the Akerselva River walk in Grünerløkka, and snapped photos all along the way. Night lowered itself over the city, flooding the winding river canal with shadows. Colorful light installations glowed at every other turn. We saw fairies, giant mushrooms, an enormous dragon kite leering from behind a building in vicious shades of pink and orange. We stuffed our hands deeper into our pockets and walked slowly with everyone else. There was muffled laughter and catcalling in Norwegian, all of it made somehow more sinister by the darkness and the otherworldly images around us.

Several different small choirs had gathered to sing traditional songs. Their breath puffed white as they sang. We stopped for waffles and jam at a stand near a bridge. The pastry was hot through the napkin and warmed our hands, though just for a moment. 

All of the color and fluid light, candle flames dancing in the windows, reminded me of why I love this season so much. It's the spirit of the people, children beginning anew at school in spite of the way the natural world is drawing itself to an end, young people dancing in pairs and trios, stretching their mouths carelessly around every lyric, and old people standing back, wrapped in the wisdom of their experience, considering the minor beauties of this time from a place most mindful and most appreciative. 

Recently in Norwegian class, Jonathan and I learned a new verb: å glede seg. It means to look forward to, or to anticipate. So what am I anticipating this season?

Baking pumpkin bread.

Mom passed along her scrumptious pumpkin bread recipe to me the moment I asked for it. It was the fall of 2005. I'd been married a full year and hadn't baked a thing in my new kitchen. She came over and walked me through the recipe, swiping the flour flat in the measuring cup, scooping the pumpkin goop from the can into the bowl, and showing me how I should err on the side of extra with the cinnamon. 

Since then I have baked it several times each autumn. Here in Oslo, though, a single can of pumpkin costs something around $12. Pumpkin bread will be a luxury for us here, but as the days retract into darkness and the cold wind forces us to close our windows tight, I look forward to pulling golden-brown loaves from the oven and letting the scent of cinnamon, cloves, and pumpkin fill the flat.

Piles of leaves.

Walking in the fall is more fun than it is any other time of the year. The sidewalks are covered in a deep, crunchy blanket of leaves, brightly colored and dry and light as air. Every step kicks up a few so that they tumble into new piles around me. If I move fast enough, they whirl a bit in my wake. I like to stand on our street when the wind begins to blow just to watch the yellow and red leaves in the trees release their hold on the branches and take their fluttering, circuitous journey downward and into my path.

Sweaters & scarves.

Here the wardrobe change has happened quicker than I'm used to. In California I would wear sweaters from November through the beginning of March. In Oslo, sweaters are necessary from the beginning of October all the way into April. The thick woolens feel soft against my skin. I layer a scarf around my neck, swirling and tying it so that it protects me from the cold fingers of the wind. I am wearing overcoats and rain coats. Soon I'll be pulling on a parka! But for now, I'm excited to be reunited with all my colorful sweaters.
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Our last perfect weather day was last Thursday. I took the bus to Lysaker to drop something at Jonathan's office and afterward I took a walk.

The water gulped against the wood and stone side of the pier below me. I was thirty feet up on a flat, grassy space between several buildings, glass and concrete exteriors housing posh condos with an extensive view of the fjord. Four men sat at the end of the pier, fishing poles aloft, tackle swinging and blinking in the sunlight. A small yacht was moored there, too, but all I could see were the long white masts and the smart red and blue flag.

There was quiet except for the scuttled chasings of two yellow-billed magpie. They swirled against each other, so close I could see the teal patches on their wings. They snickered and hopped back into the short hedges nearby. I watched them for a while and then bowed my head to read and scribble in the margins of my book. Everyone once in a while I took a sip of my lemon soda.

These days I favor my lemonades and sodas flavored with citron. It is a flavor I will forever associate with this time in my life - perfect days when the words had all the time in the world to conceive themselves in my mind and come to me.

More than one perfect day has been squandered since my arrival in Norway, of course. My cup runneth over with time and dreams coming true; my cup is so full that some time and dreams have been lost. I cannot mourn them now, though. There is too much to record. I am a journalist as much as I am a poet.

Last night our Norwegian instructor asked about our hobbies.

"Jeg skriver... poems," I said, because I've been writing poetry again, but I lacked the correct word for poems.

"Dikt," he said.

"Pardon me?"

"Dikt. Du skriver dikt," he said, chortling behind his answer. "Liker ikke du det? Hvorfor ikke?" You don't like it? Why not?

"Nei! Jeg liker ikke det! Fordi... Because that's a terribly ugly word for something as pretty as a poem!"

To soften the blow he added that the Norwegian word for poet is also poet, and the word for poetry is poesi. Now that's more like it.

So I record these bits of language that keep my life so interesting in this Nordic land. I record the weather, the street names, the tragedies, the carnivals. I have a responsibility to the page, and that truth, as esoteric as it is, keeps my pen moving, especially on the perfect days.

I paused in my scribbling last Thursday to watch as a motor boat cut a curve in the water and turned back on its own wake to thump its stern against the waves. My lemonade was pale yellow and only half full. The skinny, triangular Norwegian flag atop the yacht's mast nearby curled and unfurled at turns in the breeze. The sun warmed my back, and I wrote:

This is the stuff of my life, and as long as I can put it down in ink, my heart may be at peace.
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This is my first fall in Oslo. I have no idea what to expect. When I arrived here in mid-April I was treated to a beautiful spring, lots of daylight, lots of yellow flowers, signs in every window reading God Påske! (Happy Easter!). I was prepared for chilly wind and rain, but I was pleasantly surprised. Soon I was wearing shorts (ripped cutoffs like the rest of the local girls) and tying my hair back. I even found time to lay out on blankets in the sun, not that you could tell as my skin remained pale as the moon. 

Spring gave way to an exuberant summer. The heat shocked me! For several days at a time temperatures would hover in the high twenties (Celcius... so, in the mid to high eighties Fahrenheit). Our rooftop apartment was sweltering. No air conditioning. No screens for the windows. Seriously, Scandinavians don't do the whole window/door screen thing! As I sat at my desk with my laptop, my sweaty fingers slipping off the keys, I took comfort in knowing that, if the writing thing didn't work out for me, I could always fall back on my entrepreneurial instincts and make a killing in the screen biz.

Apparently Oslo experienced record rainfall this summer. We saw a few storms come through. It even hailed a couple times. I listened to it drum down on the metal roof of our flat and watched the bits of white ice roll down into the gutters. But to be frank, I'd kept my expectations very low when it came to weather in Norway.
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Karl Johans Gate runs straight downhill from the gates of Oslo's royal palace to the parliamentary buildings (Stortinget), and continues down to the city's main train station (Oslo Sentralstasjon). From the palace hill one can see the tops of buildings and trees, red flags, neon signs, streetlamps. But beyond all of that is the verdant rise of Ekeberg Park and the rest of Oslofjord's eastern bank. As Jonathan and I walked through the palace grounds and surveyed the city, it was that grassy, forested hill which caught my husband's eye.

"This is why Oslo is the perfect city for us," he said. "We can be right in the heart of town and still see the natural world."

He's right. This is what works for us. I like the buzz and color of city living, the knowledge that great restaurants and world class opera and authentic kababs and high fashion all exist within a few blocks of me. Jonathan must, at all times, be able to hear and heed the call of the wild. Oslo, in her generosity, provides us with both.

For example, last weekend we wanted to get out for a hike. The weather forecast included rain, but the frantic gleam in Jonathan's eye kept me from pleading my case to remain dry. Rather, we grabbed the Gore-Tex and hurried to the tram stop. We took our corner tram (19) to Majorstuen where we hopped on the Metro (T-Bane 1) to Frognerseteren. The half-hour train ride took us up into the hills at the northern end of the city.

Frognerseteren is the last stop on the line, and a number of hiking trails branch out from the train platform. These trails double as cross-country ski trails in the wintertime. We disembarked and headed downhill a short way to the Frognerseteren Restaurant. Housed in a hulking dark wood building constructed in 1892, it includes a cafeteria style section for people dropping in along with a fine dining area open for dinner. It's hard to miss the restaurant in all its ferocious grandeur. Traditional Viking carvings of leering dragon heads sprout from the eaves. We had occasion to enjoy a pint of beer (øl) soon after our arrival in Norway this April; it's well worth the short trip, both for the delicious baked goods and the vibrant panoramic view of Oslo far below.

But our motivations last weekend were much different. After some cursory research, Jonathan had selected a hiking trail from Frognerseteren down to the lake at Sognsvann. The 7 km (4.3 mi) hike would be mostly downhill. And, best of all, we'd be able to take the Metro from the station at Sognsvann back down into Oslo at the end of it.

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Our rooftop flat has a circle window. On clear evenings, it catches all the fire of the western sky as the sun makes its slow, summer descent. The light beams through the porthole like a spotlight and, over the course of an hour or so, tracks along our back wall. I lay on the couch and watched it make that journey one late afternoon, highlighting all of our favorite books along the way, catching the loving gleam in my brother and sister-in-laws' eyes in their wedding portrait. And then, in a blink, the sun dropped behind another row of buildings and the magic circle of light faded out.

This window is my favorite feature in our new place. Jonathan selected the apartment himself, months before I was able to fly over and join him in Oslo. The process included several trips around the city with a representative from a relocation company hired by his new employer. The rep helped him immensely! But in true Jonathan Camp style, this flat was one he found on finn.no (the most helpful Norwegian site, hands down, for finding apartments, jobs, etc.) on his own and asked the rep to look up for him. The pictures in the ad caught his eye for many reasons, and one was the circle window. When he walked in for the first time, he says he knew it was the one for us. If pressed, he'll even say aloud that, on the first walk through, he fell in love.

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It is early afternoon, pleasantly warm, and I am lying on my blanket in the grass at Frognerparken, the largest city park in Oslo. My pale legs and arms are bare to the sun. It warms me. I can feel it pouring brightly over the crown of my hair, especially hot at the part. I have spent the last hour flat on my stomach, turning the pages of my book, lost in the rhythmless warble of children on the nearby playground, the buzz of bicycle tires, the click of tourist cameras, and the chirping of birds. Having been in Oslo a full month I can now say fairly that this is one of my favorite spots in the city.

The park is vast and green, criss-crossed by walking paths. Playgrounds and public pools dot the perimeter. Tour buses park in the nearest lot, just outside the main gate, their occupants, eager to see the statues, have long since scattered across the lawns and up the steps.

Within Frognerparken is Vigeland Sculpture Park, including 80 acres of grassy space and more than 200 bronze and granite sculptures, all by Gustav Vigeland. The Norwegian sculptor donated these statues to the city and park in return for receiving a free studio space in Oslo. Upon entering the broad iron main gate at the southeast end of the park, visitors can walk straight down the main path across a 100 meter bridge lined with the statues, all nudes. They are gray and polished to a shine at every curve. The figures dance, embrace, wrestle, make love, and die, all along the bridge, all around a grand fountain, all leading to the main attraction: The Monolith Plateau. The monolith rises more than 14 meters into the air, appearing as a totem that includes 121 human figures entwined and clambering toward heaven.

Tourists cross the bridge with their cameras extended, gaping at the methodically spaced figures. The nudes are bulky, voluptuous, arching their backs and whipping their hair. They sit with their backs to one another or toss their children in the air or throw women over their shoulders and stalk back to their caves.

A man in a red ball cap waves his long-lensed camera at his two preteen children, exhorting them to mimic the comic drama of two grappling statues. The son obliges, giving his sister's hair a tug. She responds by putting him in a chokehold just before the camera flashes. Though the position isn't exactly accurate, they've captured the essence, Vigeland's playfully wry view of the Human Condition.

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Yesterday we arrived in Norway. All together. Two humans, two cats, six bags. Somehow we managed to lug everything from customs to the airport train station, from the Nationaltheatret station to the taxi stand, from the taxi up five flights of stairs. Twenty-four hours of constant motion culminated in the moment Jonathan turned the key in the lock of our new flat in Oslo, pulling the front door open with a theatrical sweep. 

It's beautiful. Cozy. Light. Charming. Perfect. I giggled and spun as I entered each room, trying to memorize every inch of every wall. Our belongings arrived in early March, and Jonathan has spent the last six weeks setting things up for me. The nest, as it were, has been built, and he did it all exactly right.

We reached our flat before 10:00 on Wednesday, so the whole day was ours for the spending. However, this coming weekend is Easter, and Norwegians take their Easter holiday very seriously. Maundy Thursday, the Christian commemoration of the Last Supper, and Good Friday, the Christian commemoration of Christ's crucifixion, are public holidays. The Monday following Easter Sunday is also a public holiday, making the weekend officially five days long! The day we arrived in Oslo was the last working day of the week and many shops were set to close early, and remain closed until next Tuesday. We needed to get out and grab some groceries.

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