Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Oslo, Norway


With our rather jank flight arrived pretty late. 3 Californians in Norway for the first time, in the dead of winter. It seemed like a truly great idea as we stepped out of the airport terminal seeing forests of evergreens holding up canopies of snow. After boarding the last bus leaving the airport toward Oslo we arrived in the center of the city, again with not too much of a clue as to where our hostel was. Eventually we found it. Ironically at this point I saw that the currency exchange rate was pretty much the same as the Hong Kong Dollar which made the calculations identical to those I did months ago. Yet, the digits I was calculating were much much higher than those in Hong Kong. We had always talked about the prices in Scandinavian countries in general, but it was crazy actually seeing them first hand. People would be willing to pay massive amounts of money for things that wouldn’t even garner much interest back home. The big mac price at the current exchange rate was more than $7 USD. Insane. Because of the intense vat tax or because of import duties or whatever, I’m not really sure, but the end result was something to scratch my head at.

The next morning we took off toward the city, this time on foot. As snow fell all around us, the Norwegians went about their daily routines. Walking kids in strollers through the polar park, running on the slick/icy pavement with special chain bottom running shoes, and locals taking shelter in the coffee shops, life completely normal as the storm deposited the thick layer of white fluff on the city. The city itself looked interesting, with buildings somewhere between a modern style and what almost looked like a Dutch style. Graffiti and broken bottles strewn about the streets spoke of a different nighttime and daytime story.

We grabbed an “Oslo Pass” for 24 hours, which gave us unlimited access to a huge number of museums and to the transportation to get there. We first checked out the Polar Fram exhibition across the bay. From what I gathered, it’s pretty common for Norweigan museums to put a boat inside on display. Which was quite cool, actually touring the first polar expedition boat, especially drawing comparisons between this much later and more advanced boat compared to the Dutch East Indies boat we had toured weeks earlier in Amsterdam.

From there we went to the Nobel museum, by accident. The yellow building stood out and welcomed us, and at no extra charge we obliged. Seeing the most recent winners’ stories as well as the past contributions to the world was impactful. Especially seeing the variety of ways in which these great people gave back to humanity. Quotations lined the walls, and the exhibit was extremely well made, with the commissioned photography of the recipients showing them their struggle against the odds.
A short walk past a large FDR statue led us to the fortress grounds. From here there were a multitude of museums representing different time periods, rulers and events. First we went into the resistance museum – showcasing the Norwegian struggle against Nazi occupation. Again, a really well designed exhibition told the story of a people that resisted the Germans and acted out with the help of the Swedes ( who weren't occupied) and with the British back across the sea. Again seeing the WWII history in Europe is much different than in America. It’s just so real, not talking about rationing or even drafts, but the whole country being taken over and under military rule of an oppressive regime. This is something that didn't just affect some, it affected all.

Down a path that looked like something out of the Chronicles of Narnia we arrived at the old fotress and castle – Akershus. Here, with battlements , fortified walls, and a perfect viewpoint across the harbor was the original defense of the city. A solder marches back and forth above the entrance to the complex, protecting the tombs of those who fell before him in the name of the flag. Above him flies the colors he valiantly protects. Interestingly enough though, he does not march with a weapon, as I’ve noticed in pretty much any other ceremonial military position. Even the guards at Buckingham Palace had weapons (gnarly assault rifles with combat knife bayonets). Inside the castle are well refurbished rooms and art pieces from the period. The castle itself is pretty ancient, and has seen the city develop and redevelop over the years. Containing many long halls for gatherings, it seems like it could host thousands of guests at high dinners at once. And speaking of, as we left they were preparing a dinner place setting, so the castle still functions according to its old roots.
After that, we went to watch the sun set at a beautiful cathedral downtown. Funnily enough, this church was built much later than the buildings around it that now house a ritzy shopping district and poppin’ restaurant scene. The neon lights displaying the latest international brand names illuminate the steeple and graveyard that surround the church.

The next day consisted of a trek to the Hollenkollen the giant ski jump from the Olympics, and the location of the ski museum. Getting there was really easy, but the journey was interesting. The metro system in the city just straight up goes up into the mountains. So what is a subway car is also almost like a tram, dropping skiers off at stations that are little more than paths going up the train cars. On our way up the mountain Norwegians piled in with skis in hand ready to just do the normal Sunday morning ski trip. Funnily enough though, most had cross country skis as opposed to the downhill ones I’m used to seeing back in the states. In one instance, the train stopped at a station where there were people sledding. They proceeded to get onto the train (honor system, no one ever shows a ticket anywhere) go up the mountain one stop then get off and sled down again. It was the weirdest thing, just using the subway as a ski lift basically. Once we go to the museum we went up in the elevator to the top of the ski jump which gave some pretty incredible views of the area. Apparently, (as the people on the train claimed) it gets warm in the summer and people come to the ski jump to get a view of the city and the green forests that surround the area.

After our ski adventure we headed back down the mountain to the National Gallery. This place had some amazing artwork but most famously had The Scream and Madonna painted by Edvard Munch. After our quick tour of the gallery we headed back to the bus stop, and ultimately to the airport to return to the Netherlands. In 2 days we definitely saw a good amount and really had an interesting Scandinavian winter experience.

Intro Week and First Week of Classes: Jan 18- 29

To become acquainted with the university we went through a week of "family" activities with our brothers, sisters and parents. From there we competed, explored the city and spent every night on campus dancing the exhaustion away.

I also had my first week of classes, which was definitely interesting. It completely feels like high school in so many ways, but much more intellectual. The class sizes are tiny, with most of my classes with less than 25 students and constant contact with the professor(s). (s) here is important because most classes have multiple lecturers and complicated syllabi stating which guest lecturers are coming on which days, etc. I'm taking some politics and some science courses here. The politics courses focus on European examples, and one of the courses specifically on cities in Western Europe.

(pic above) they're pulling a car out of the canal. Jank.

 View of the lovely Dutch military/intelligence center outside my dorm.

 St. Martin's Cathedral, Utrecht

Universiteit Utrecht, University Hall

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Arrival/DCL. January 3 - January 18

So.. I'm in Utrecht now. A nice medium sized city outside of Amsterdam and situated nicely in the center of Holland. Like a little Amsterdam, it has canals, bright storefronts, and bike lanes, parking, and dedicated stoplights. It's pretty, cute, and orderly. Similar characteristics to the university college where I started my classes. But before everything and before I got settled I had some adventures on arrival and some immediate shocks as I touched down in what is a distinctly and distinctly not European country.

After some delays, I arrived at Schipol airport: Amsterdam, North Holland, The Netherlands. A Kingdom immediately displaying the orange color of the royal house to entering visitors. Billboards displayed advertisements that only bilingual people could read, with exclamations in English and Dutch fine print. The conversations that surrounded me similarly easily switched between English and Dutch with twangs of French or German as well. After arriving in Utrecht by train, I started the registration process and moved into my room. To my University of California sensitivities this was a palatial space, complete with a duvet and full size kitchen. But after going out for drinks with the professors and students it immediately became clear that this program is well organized. The activity list was solid, and the two weeks of intensive Dutch culture and language, would turn out to be exactly that. After those two weeks I could order food, do some shopping and apologize in Dutch - all useful skills. The history and culture were also incredibly helpful to understand current Dutch affairs, politics, and relations to the EU and the United States. During those weeks, swung two trips to Amsterdam, a trip up the Dom tower (a huge church tower that dom[haha]inates the Utrecht skyline Pic 1), and numerous bike trips around Utrecht. Here are the snaps from the first 2 weeks!

 Canals in Utrecht, with waterside dining - much more suited to the Summer and Spring, but still pretty cool. Had some pannenkoeken - huge "pancakes" with ham and cheese.

The Royal Palace which was a pretty wicked building to see. The monarchy is just really present, yet not political at all. This seemingly contradictory form of government separates the lawmakers from the representatives of the country.

 Again another picture from a government seat. This time at the Binnenhof, the Dutch parliament. The whole security thing is way different from the states. Literally we were able to walk around inside here, and although eventually to get into the actual buildings we were searched airport style, it really is so much different from American politics.

The throne, used during Prince's Day where the King delivers the yearly "state of the union" type speech.
 Outside the Binnenhof, The Hague, South Holland, Netherlands.

Sea dominance of the Dutch in both painting and real life. The history of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) is pretty intense and caused/represented the Dutch Golden Age.

 The Amsterdam

 Breathtaking canals.

Inside of the Dom tower pictured above.

View Westward from the Dom

The winding canals through the city.