Oslo summer solstice: 19 hours of sunshine

Today the sun will shine for 18 hours, 50 minutes and 1 second.

Now I realize that in December, when the days are short and the imposing darkness begins to wear on me, I’ll regret having said this: the sun is wearing me out. My body needs the kind of peace that only a dark, starry night can provide.

At first I was looking forward to being in Oslo on June 21, the longest day of the year. The best remedy for a grim Norwegian winter is the buildup to the summer solstice. But I went on a whirlwind trip with the Foreign Press Association into the Arctic Circle where, for five days, I didn’t see a cloud in the sky. Just the intense, bright yellow sun. In northern Norway towns like Kirkenes, Honningsvåg and Vardø, the sun doesn’t set for 60 days. Even when the peak of the midnight sun has passed, twilight increases by just 40 minutes each day. There isn’t a proper dark night from April through August.

A tiny town called Vardø in Finnmark County, Norway, at 11pm.

A tiny town called Vardø in Finnmark County, Norway, at 11pm.

The first two days I was charmed by the whole thing. Sunshine all the time! Having to wake up about four hours earlier than I’d like didn’t feel so tough because the brightness and surprisingly warm weather lifted my spirits.

After a few days I started to feel tired. The sun was there when I got up at 6am for a press conference with the prime ministers of Russia and Norway, and at 2pm when we drove to the Norwegian-Russian border for a ceremony. When I clambered into bed at 11pm, I could see the sunshine bursting through the ineffective hotel curtains. My eyes opened for a moment around 3am and the blazing sun made me feel like I had fallen asleep watching television in the middle of the day. Even after eight hours of sleep I still felt like all I’d had was a power-nap.

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By the end of the week I was programmed to fall asleep when the lights were simply turned off. I nearly nodded off during a Power Point presentation by an oil company executive.

Fortunately for them, localers are used to 60 days of sunshine in the summer and 60 days of darkness in the winter. I spoke to a native of Finnmark County in the High North who said besides being a little more tired than usual in the summer, he didn’t find it too challenging. “We aren’t depressed drunks in the winter, nor are we hyperactive in the summer,” he said, debunking ubiquitous myths. “It’s really not a big deal.”

I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to North Cape (Nordkapp in Norwegian), a 1,007-foot-high cliff with a plateau that attracts tourists from around the world to see the midnight sun in the summer and northern lights in the winter.

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North Cape is the second northern-most point of Europe, a mere 2,102.3 kilometers from the North Pole. It has restaurants, a small chapel for weddings, a museum, a theater with a short video about the natural beauty of the High North, and a cheesy souvenir shop.

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It offers panoramic views of the point where the Norwegian Sea, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean, meets the Barents Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.

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The midnight sun can be seen from 14 May to the 31st of July. The sun reaches its lowest point from 12:14 – 12:24am during those days. Below is a photo taken exactly at midnight.

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How to make your bed in Norway

There are some frustrations of life abroad that are hard to categorize.

Some of you may remember my blog post from a few months back where I announced my decision to make Oslo my home. I finally unpacked all of my boxes, threw some pictures on the walls and even bought a few plants. My husband and I made what we hope is our last epic trip to Ikea to, at last, replace our cardboard box night stands with ones that have actual drawers. It’s nice to be able to put a book down without the risk of the lamp caving into the box.

And, after a year and a half of refusing to purchase towels and linens in Norway, instead lugging back extra suitcases from the US or demanding my mom to snail mail me pillow covers, I finally came to terms with the prices in Norway and headed to the shops to pick out a new duvet cover.

It took me two months and five trips to the store to get it right.

After a bit of browsing, I found a cover I liked. It was my third trip, the one I was hoping would result in the successful purchase of a purple floral cover for my bed. But it turned out that I had confused the Norwegian words for “bedsheet” and “duvet” and had been browsing sheets all along, so I had to start again in another section.

When I finally found the perfect new design that was, in fact, a duvet cover I realized that I couldn’t just pickup a queen-sized duvet cover because the sizes were marked differently. I was supposed to choose from mishmash of sizes expressed in what looked too much like algebra for my understanding: 140cm x 200cm, 140 x 220cm and 200cm x 220cm.

I went home empty-handed.

Somewhere between work, family, a social life and the ludicrous opening hours of shops in Norway, it took me another two weeks to measure my duvet at home and get back to the store. I went after an exhausting cardio class at the gym and somewhere along the way I had lost the piece of paper with the measurements. So there I was, standing at the store, back to square one. I turned to the saleswoman for help. After all, how hard can buying a duvet cover be?

Very, very hard, apparently. The saleswoman was kind and helpful but we just had different definitions of what a “normal” bed cover is. She was convinced that I needed the smallest size because the others were enormous and the smallest size listed is the normal one, the one that everyone gets. At this point I was so irritated that a menial task had become so complicated that I went with the woman’s suggestion.

It was way too small. Then it hit me – just a few days earlier I was hanging out with some friends from the American Women’s Club and they were making fun of the way Norwegians make their beds. Apparently the local standard for couples sharing a bed is to have two separate, smaller individual duvets. So the saleswoman did sell me a normal cover. It just wasn’t my “normal.”duvet covers

A few days later, I headed back to the store (for the fifth time) and exchanged the cover for the largest size, despite the saleswoman’s funny looks.

My story doesn’t end here.

First of all let me say that I know my way around the domestic sphere. I’ve changed duvet covers many times. In fact, in a strange way I relish the awkward act of shoving a duvet into a cover because I’ve found the perfect technique.

It took one Norwegian duvet cover to cut me back down to size.

The covers I’ve used in the past have the opening to put in the duvet on one side, with a few inches sewn shut, leaving plenty of space to get the duvet in and then neatly button up the opening. For some reason, the cover I bought here had a tiny, letterbox-sized opening just a few inches wide. I spent most of that Sunday afternoon struggling to squeeze the duvet into my new cover.

What does it say about Norwegian culture that couples have separate blankets and that those duvets are impossible to manage? Is this what drives the great work-to-life balance? They get home from work at 4pm everyday, have the typical early dinner at 5:30 and then from 6-9pm work on their duvet covers, then have a slice of brown cheese with bread at 9pm and snuggle next to their partners, under their very separate blankets.

When I proudly showed my husband the queen sized duvet I had just stuffed into the tiny open space in the cover, he said: “You got inside it, didn’t you?”

The best skinny mirror in town

I was forced to eat salad today.

I ordered mac & cheese from a popular American eatery in Oslo called Café Fedora, a plate of heavenly, cheesy goodness which the chef insists on ruining with a side of greens. The last time I had Café Fedora’s famous mac & cheese I had tried and tried to finish off the salad but failed, succumbing to the food coma induced by Anthony’s secret spice and four different cheeses in his special recipe.

But today, he shamed me into eating salad.

That’s just the kind of place Café Fedora is. Owners Anthony and Nicole don’t run a café but a neighborhood hangout, where you bump into friends, show off a new haircut and enjoy American comfort food: Texas chilli, cornbread, pecan pie, and oh, the mac & cheese.

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Café Fedora is like Cheers, the bar featured in the popular ‘90s TV show. Besides the great characters and storylines in Cheers, I especially enjoy the idea that the unassuming bar became a family for its workers and frequent customers. Down-on-his-luck Norm, with his bad marriage and boring job, could walk into that bar like he was at the top of the world because he was warmly welcomed with a chorus of “Norm!” when he arrived. His beer was ready for him before he sat down at his usual bar stool.

A few weeks back I was at Café Fedora for Sunday brunch and Anthony had started preparing a plate of mac & cheese before I had even looked at the menu. (For those familiar with Cheers, that makes me Norm, Anthony the feisty waitress named Carla, and Nicole the equivalent to the attractive bartender, Sam Malone).

Every expat needs a place like Cheers.

Living in a foreign country, I’m always looking for little ways to make Oslo feel like home. I spend so much time translating menus and items at the grocery store, talking to people with broken English or using my spotty Norwegian, that sometimes I just want a break from Fedora: pecan piebeing an outsider. That’s when I head to Café Fedora where, like the title song from Cheers, everybody knows my name.

They’ve also managed to fill a cultural void. At Thanksgiving they fill the role of mom for the American community in Oslo: They host a Thanksgiving brunch, even taking requests for what dishes you’d like to see on the buffet table. As busy as Anthony was on that November day, with nearly a hundred people to cook for and serve, he remembered that my husband loves cornbread and made sure we had enough at our table.

As if all of this isn’t enough, Café Fedora has a magic mirror in their bathroom. No matter how many red velvet cupcakes you have, a quick visit to the loo and you can see a skinny version of yourself looking right back at you.

A driving lesson in northern Italy

Sitting in a car is a novelty for my almost three-year-old son. We’ve neatly avoided the hassle of having one since we left London by living right smack in the center of Oslo, a city with well-organized public transport. So when we do rent a car my son gets incredibly excited, and so do my husband and I for that matter.

Driving has been out of our daily routine for so long now that I’ve forgotten about paying attention to road signs and traffic and thinking about where to park. Being from the heart of the Midwest in the US – where cars haven’t left any space for sidewalks – it’s strange that I find sitting in a car so foreign. A few days with a car during a vacation Italy taught me that I don’t even know how to properly prepare for a car trip anymore.

The three of us spent Easter in northern Italy where we rented a car for a few days. After we picked up our silver Fiat from Milan airport and strapped our kid into his big-boy car seat, we hit the road for an hour-long drive to Lake Como. Our maps were handy and toll money was counted out, but we hadn’t been driving for more than five minutes when the car started beeping.

“He’s opened the door!” my husband said from the driver’s seat. Our incredibly curious little boy was playing with the door handle and although it wasn’t completely open, a little nudge and we’d be some serious in danger.

We forgot to lock the doors.

Completely panic-stricken I clambered into the backseat while my husband pulled off into a nearby gas station. We figured merely locking the doors wasn’t enough and I ran out to ask the one of the workers how to activate the child lock in our rented car, but the man didn’t speak any English.

Here’s where things got even more confusing. My heart was already pounding with anxiety over the danger we had narrowly avoided and for some reason, hearing the man stutter as he tried to communicate with me, I switched from speaking English to Norwegian. I cradled my arms while I told the guy in patchy language that I have a child who opened the car door and I need to lock it. My vocabulary in Norwegian isn’t quite that extensive so I was just saying about four words really loudly to him. I might have thrown in the word “bambino” in there, although I can’t remember.

It’s strange what living in a foreign country can do to you. My American accent prevails but my habits are becoming more and more European, at least as far as transport is concerned. And now I find myself between languages, too.

Besides the slightly bumpy start, the rest of our vacation was fabulous. In six days we used nearly every mode of transport: plane, car, boat, train and tram. We even drove into Switzerland for a day where we explored the twists and turns of the alleys in the town of Gandria, built right by Lake Como. It was in Gandria that we got the best view of the Lake.Lake Como

After a relaxing few days driving around Lake Como we returned our car and went back to the comfort of public transport, this time in Milan. The city’s history tracing back to the Roman empire is evident at every turn, particularly at the grand Porta Sempione, which is among many Roman structures still in tact.

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Sticking to the tradition of many European cities, Milan offers tourists a brilliant contrast of modernity and history. Not long after shopping in a chic department store, we stumbled on what is probably the oldest building I’ve ever seen: Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, built in 379 AD.

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One evening, just before dinner, we were wandering around just outside our hotel and realized that we were standing in front of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a former convent in which Leonardo daVinci’s infamous mural, The Last Supper, was painted. The piece was moved after the building was bombed during World War II but the building displays a lot of the artists sketches and paintings.

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A community of ‘love refugees’

There are a lot of ‘love refugees’ in Norway.

When I meet other expat couples, particularly trailing spouses like myself, we usually ask eachother how we ended up in Norway. It always comes down to one thing: our partners. They are either Norwegian (who are great at falling in love overseas) or our partners aren’t natives but followed their careers here, bringing their families in tow.

There is an immediate camaraderie among expats. In leaving our comfort zones to see the world, we’ve all done something very brave.

Moving to Norway was a big decision for my husband and I. The opportunity popped up out of nowhere and it took a lot of research before we could make an informed decision to move to a place that we hadn’t even considered as a vacation spot.

Once you’ve landed overseas, the strength of your relationship is put to the test and you find that you have to rely on eachother in ways that other couples don’t.

Autumn of 2011 was a tumultuous time for us. With each step that brought us closer to a life in Norway – putting our London flat on the rental market or giving notice at work – we wondered if we were making the right choice. If one of us became overwhelmed about what was ahead, the other would toughen up for the leap of faith that was taking us to Oslo.

One could say that it was faith in Norway that brought us here. Before we moved, we had a five-day reconnaissance trip during which we had to learn everything we could about the local lifestyle before the decision was official. We realized that there was no way to know whether it was going to work out unless we gave it a try, so that’s what we did.

That leap of faith was one that my husband and I also took in eachother. Although we factored quality of life and cost of living into our decision to leave a comfortable home in Britain, a big part of that decision was whether we, as a couple, could make this expat adventure a success.

When you move abroad with your partner, both of you are stripped of your network of family and friends and the safety of familiar surroundings. Once you’ve landed overseas, the strength of your relationship is put to the test and you find that you have to rely on eachother in ways that other couples don’t. Since moving to Norway, my husband is all I’ve got. When I had sinusitis last fall, we couldn’t count on my mom to come by with a big pot of food to help us get through the week. And when my husband was working 80-hour weeks last spring, I couldn’t pass the time by dropping by my brothers’ place to hang out with my nephews and gossip with my sister-in-law. All of those people are 4,109 miles away.

So while I’m in Oslo, my husband fills all of those roles for me. He plays Super Mario Brothers with me when I miss my nephews, and I in turn indulge him by watching the Batman movies for the third time around because he can’t watch them with his brother.

But if we’re all of the sudden getting on eachother’s nerves (like all healthy couples should, every so often), there’s really no escape. If one of us tried to get some space, the other would be left in the lurch, so we don’t do this often.

Norway flag heartIt’s this precise aspect of expathood that people who are still in their comfort zones, surrounded by their usual support network, can’t understand. It’s the reason my husband and I don’t answer the phone when we’re watching a movie or exploring the rest of Europe, or when one of us is just having a bad day.

Only our fellow expats truly understand what it’s like to live in Norway, far from everything familiar (and warm). From this camaraderie a wonderful little community of has emerged. Newcomers seek the wisdom of those who came before them. Those of us who have lived here awhile are finally able to ‘pay it forward’ and help those that are fresh off the boat. And then there are expats who have been here for 10, 15 or even 20 years. These are our north stars.

I’ve been in Oslo 16 months and I feel that I’m at a turning point. Without realizing it I’ve become a part of a community and have even been able to offer guidance to a few new arrivals. The most important advice isn’t anything I tell them, it’s simply that I’m still here and enjoying every day of it.

It’s time to put my heart in my new home

Exhausted after two flights from the US to Norway, when I saw the bustling streets of my neighborhood for the first time in over a month, an unexpected feeling hit me: I was happy.

The small tinge of excitement to be back in Oslo nearly knocked me off my feet. My goodbyes in the US were still gut-wrenchingly raw. When I left my parents at the airport and crossed security I actually had to talk myself out of running back to them. Yet here I was, a few hours later, giddy to be back in Norway. Even though the streets were icy and unwelcoming, the brightness of the sun that afternoon seemed to know about the exciting spring I had ahead of me.

Maybe Oslo is home, after all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what “home” means. I instinctively refer to the US as my home, but that’s not true. Oslo, where my husband, son and I live and work and play, is my home. It’s where I’m happy and it’s where I can see the future – at least the next few years. Yet when I tell people I’m heading to the US, I say that I’m going back to the States.

America becoming home for my parents is proof that the US is truly a melting pot.

Part of the reason is that my husband and I eventually plan to settle in the US. It’s where I started and it’s where I want to end up, although I’m not ready to go back just yet. Oops! There’s that word again, back. And another interesting one, settle. That’s the crux of it for me – I haven’t really let myself settled in Oslo.

It’s hard to settle in a place that is so incredibly foreign. London quickly became home partly because we bought a flat, but also because before moving there the UK was already part of my family history. I grew up hearing about my parents’ trips to Oxford Street and Kew Gardens from when they lived in England in the ‘70s. Then there was the time I went to Buckingham Palace with my mom when I was in second grade, and several years later to the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street with my dad before I spent a semester studying at Cambridge University.

On the other hand, I barely knew where to find Oslo on a map before I moved here. None of the train station names or historical figures mean anything to me. Trying to make this place home has been a very different journey.

melting potI asked my mom, a serial expat, what the meaning of home was to her. She was born in India, lived in Pakistan for a few years, hopped over to England for awhile and then settled down in Ohio, where she’s been for nearly 40 years.

So where does my mom consider to be home? America. And it didn’t take long for her to feel at home there. Culturally she identifies the most with Pakistan, which is strange since she spent the least amount of time there. And although she thinks about her five years in England fondly she said it never felt like home because of the divide between the born-and-bred Britishers and immigrants at that time. But the US, she noted, is a country of immigrants. It becoming home for my parents is proof that the US is truly a melting pot. American food, culture, traditions and even language is all borrowed, so my parents’ migration to the Midwest wasn’t an intrusion but instead a welcome addition to the melting pot.

So where does that leave me? Maybe I just need to see where my journey to make Oslo home takes me.