Thursday, January 29, 2009

A Taste of northern Norway

What travel recollections are complete without a
recounting of all the interesting foods I tried? Here, Cortina and I are eating hot waffles with a slice of goat cheese in the middle- surprisingly good! We bought them on the street from two young boys who were doing some kind of fundraiser.

On my first night in Tromsø we had a traditional rice porridge, sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. It was delicious though I had not expected to eat it for supper. But I'm never one to argue with having something sweet for any meal! The leftover porridge was saved and made into rice cream the next day- whipped cream just folded into the porridge and served as dessert with berry syrup or carmel sauce drizzled over it. Wow!

Our next traditional meal was cured lamb, which has to soak in water for eight hours before being cooked. It was served with boiled potatoes and mashed kohlrabi. The meat was rich and salty and it was good to have the blander flavors alongside. Unfortunately, that evening I was coming down with a nasty but short-lived stomach flu so I didn't have the best appetite. Cortina loved the meal. Ben, who's the Norwegian one, doesn't like it and ate something else for dinner!

The night before I left, they went to no small trouble to make reindeer stew, with mashed potatoes and lignonberries. Mmmm- it was really good! My job was to occupy the kids while they cooked so I didn't pay close attention but I think the stew was made with goat cheese, sour cream and mushrooms in it. Delicious flavors!

Of course, there is a lot of fish and seafood to be had there and they eat caviar as a normal spread, not a special delicacy. Liver pate is also a popular spread for the fresh bread that is part of many breakfasts and lunches. The grocery stores carry many familiar items- fresh fruits and veggies, milk, cereal, packaged and frozen meals, etc.

Don't you just love food?

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Visitng Friends in Tromsø, Norway

Through the magic of Facebook, last fall I found a friend from high school who I hadn't seen in ten years. She and her husband, who is Norwegian, are living with their two sons in northern Norway! (You can read more about their lives at their blog- Life in the Arctic Circle). While that doesn't exactly make us neighbors, we're a lot closer to each other than to most of our friends and family. So, I flew to Tromsø last Thursday to visit.

Click here to see a map showing Scandinavia (see Tromsø way up there?):

The city sits on an island, blanketed in snow and surrounded by mountains and sea. It is harsh but beautiful. There is so much sky! In January, darkness still rules at most hours. But it sharpens your awareness of all types of light- the vast scattering of stars across a clear sky, the warm glow of lamps in the windows of almost every home, the twinkling of lights far across the fjord. And it certainly makes everyone appreciate the sunshine. The day before I arrived was the first day that the sun had risen above the horizon since November. It a day marked with celebration- special doughnuts, parties at day care centers, paper suns in windows of schools. During those short hours of light, it always looked like twilight to me. The sun still isn't high enough in the sky to shine down; it just creates long shadows and the most breathtaking colors in the sky and clouds.

While I was there I tried to drink in, soak in, take in everything around me. I feel like I'm so filled with new memories and experiences that it will take time to sort everything out. It was such a wonderful trip and I feel so blessed to reconnect with old friends and get to know them again. It was especially fun to meet their 3-year-old and 15-month-old sons and spend time playing and laughing with them. My days with their busy family were a good contrast to my quiet life in Sörup. But it is good to be home where I can reflect and cherish my trip to the Arctic Circle.

More to come...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Garbage Day 101

Apparently, Germans lead the world in recycling and they have a very complex system for dealing with waste. Several years ago, a law was passed requiring companies to take back the packaging in which they sell their products (aha-how would you like that, toy makers?). Needless to say, companies have become innovative in minimizing the packaging. So all packaging that has the "Green Dot" symbol goes into a special yellow garbage bag. This includes, milk cartons, yogurt containers, aluminum cans, plastic packaging wrap, etc. The Gelbe Saecke are picked up every two weeks.

Then there is paper recycling, which definitely falls into the beginner category. If it's paper and it's clean (no greasy pizza boxes) it goes into the big green bin and gets collected once a month.

Glass recycling falls into two categories: refundable and non-refundable. Luckily, having lived in Michigan, we got a primer on this. Beer bottles, water bottles, soda bottles, juice bottles all have a deposit that is charged when you buy them. In each supermarket there is a machine that allows you to return the bottles and get your deposit back. Other glass items like pickle jars, wine bottles and jelly jars must be separated into clear or colored glass. Then you take them to your neighborhood glass recycling bins (but not during Quiet Hours)!

Food scraps, coffee filters, tea bags and garden waste either go into your own compost bin (our choice) or go into an Organic Waste bin that is picked up every month.

Hazardous waste like fluorescent light bulbs, paint cans and electronic items have special pick-up times and locations. You must deliver those items to the collection site when the time comes. Used batteries go into a special container (that I still have not been able to locate) somewhere in a local grocery store. For some reason we seem to be going through a lot of batteries so I have a jar half filled- better do some more reconnaissance.

Finally, you have what is left- Q-tips, used tissues and other "icky" stuff. This goes into a gray bin that is about the size of one large kitchen trash bag, which gets picked up once a month. By the time everything is sorted out we usually don't fill this bin each month. There's no choice but to follow the recycling system, though. You just couldn't fit everything into the "trash" bin.

Oh, and one other thing that reduces waste is at the grocery store. You have to buy grocery bags if you need them. Of course, no one wants to pay for them so everyone carries a basket or cloth bags with them. It makes so much sense!

This might seem a little extreme but it is actually not that bad once you get used to it. Our kitchen has a nice pull-out recycling center with color-coded bins to help. I like to know that I'm doing my part to be a good German resident and to reduce waste on our planet.
ADDENDUM (28 January 2009): Norway has a very similar system and the more I read, the more it looks like this is pretty widespread in Europe. I guess there's so many people on the continent that they have to be smart about their waste. There is no "middle of nowhere" to dump tons and tons of trash!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Going it alone

Just before the holidays, we parted ways with our German tutor. We had begun to dread our twice-weekly sessions and didn't like the feelings of stress and anxiety that surrounded them. With the first six months behind us, we needed a break. It just didn't seem to be working out.

After a visit back home and the refreshed outlook of the new year, we can truly say that we are learning German. It will take a long time to become fluent in this language (and I'm not sure we'll stay long enough for that) but we are making progress.

At the moment we have decided not to pursue more formal lessons. We have the Rosetta Stone software and are working our way through that. It teaches with example- see a photo of a dog, see the word "der hund" and hear someone speak the word. Then, you say "der hund." If you don't get it right, try again. It is very repetitive, which is effective. And we like doing it so that's a big part of it!

Over the weekend, we bought two children's books. One is about life on a farm and the other is about trains and train stations. We will have some new vocabulary words to learn but I think we can actually read these books! I can't tell you how exciting it feels to realize I am beginning to learn to read in a new language!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Chim Chim Cher-ee!

I love when I get a surprise for my eyes- the times when I am aware enough of my surroundings to take joy in the little things!

On a recent walk I thought I might have stepped into an imaginary, Mary Poppins-esque world! A sunny afternoon walk and who did I see? Bert! Well, at least it was a chimney sweep in full traditional garb. When I had a chimney sweep come to my house in Kalamazoo, he showed up in jeans and a sweatshirt with a Shop-Vac. But this German guy was the real article.

I did a search to find a suitable photo and laughed when I found this on the blog of an English-speaker living in Hamburg! The guy I saw was young but otherwise this was him, right down to the brass buttons! You just never know what you're going to see! Keep your eyes open!

Friday, January 9, 2009

Size matters- at the post office

Yesterday I strolled to the post office to send a sympathy card to a family friend. Upon arrival, there were two women free to help me and they immediately started talking quickly to one another and measuring the card. They set the card on template, then got out a ruler and finally got out a plastic slot template. All of the methods were in agreement- my card was 5 millimeters too wide and was going to cost the equivalent of $8.00 to send! Oh brother! They suggested I take it home and trim it just a bit so I could save some money. I could understand everything they said but I just couldn't say much in return. So, home I came with my unsent card and a pamphlet giving all the acceptable measurements for letters to the United States. I trimmed one edge of the card, then realized that if I trimmed the other edge I would cut off the words I had written. And I chose the card quite specifically and don't have an extra so I couldn't very well rewrite it. Of course, it has to be a sympathy card- a serious occasion when you'd rather not have to send a mangled greeting with a long note inserted to explain the sorry mess of things.

So on my Christmas list for next year are a collection of greeting cards measuring less than 23.5 cm x 12.5 cm!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Home for the Holidays!

We spent two action-packed and wonderful weeks back in the Midwest visiting friends and family! There was a wide array of winter weather conditions for our trip, but miraculously we had no significant problems traveling by air or road the whole time.

In Kalamazoo we reconnected with many pals from our former workplaces and spent time with our dear group of friends who we still miss having dinner with every Sunday night. The few days went way too fast of course but we loved being there.

Notable weather event: SNOW!

Next stop was a visit with Aaron's family. We celebrated Christmas and exchanged gifts with his parents, sister and brother-in-law, three nieces and nephews, uncle and 87-year-old grandma! A special time with lots of laughter and too much food! We got our fix of Chicago-style deep dish pizza and great Mexican food in addition to all the homemade specialties from my in-laws who are both great cooks! We played games with the kids, went ice skating and even spent four hours in a poker tournament with Aaron's grandma and uncle!

I even squeezed in a visit with my best friend from middle school and high school days. It was great to see her and spend a little time getting acquainted with her boyfriend, since he proposed to her just a few days later and they will be married this year!

Notable weather event: BRRRR! Subzero temperatures!

On Christmas morning, we drove to my parents' house. My sister and nephews arrived a few hours later and our final celebration started! We attempted a taffy pull but ended up with hard candy that slowly squished into one big hard blob. Maybe next year! One nephew is learning to play the electric guitar so the opening bars of "Smoke on the Water" were the accompanying theme to the holidays. The other nephew is a video game nut so he and Uncle Aaron spent many hours playing. There was lots more delicious food, more game playing, more fun!

Notable weather event: Thunderstorm and flooding!

Now Aaron is back to work and we are in recovery mode. We came home pooped from all the celebrating and the jet lag seems to be hitting us worse coming this way. But we would not trade one second of our time with you! Thanks to all who made our visit so memorable and fun! We are truly blessed to have so many loving friends and family members!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Aaron's New Year's Resolution

At dinner with Jackie’s family on New Year’s Eve, we discussed our 2009 goals and New Year resolutions. When the conversation came to me, I said that I was going to ride my bike to work every day of 2009. Precisely at that moment the weather patterns shifted, the jet stream reversed and the polar winds took a turn towards Sörup, Germany.

The company that I work for has only about eighty employees. Even so, on any given day I find twelve to fifteen bicycles at the rack by the side door. Eighteen is the record! This doesn’t include the three or four mopeds and scooters that are regularly parked there. One day last fall, I drove in to work because it was a little rainy. Wow, did I get flack from my fellow riders! Even my boss had something to say about my fortitude (or lack thereof)!

When I worked at Pfizer in Kalamazoo I had the goal of bicycle commuting at least fifty times per year, an average of about one day per week. I met this goal for the last few years I worked there. Often there would only be two or three bikes at the rack where I parked, even though there were about 2500 employees at the site. Just a few dedicated riders, but they kept me motivated.

Biking to work every day of ’09 seemed like a reasonable goal after experiencing a mild Northern Germany December. There had been only a few days below freezing and no snow accumulation. Last night as I lamented going back to work after three weeks of holiday, I looked out the window to see that it had started to snow- really snow! I heard kids laughing and playing, and our neighbor shovelling the drive. I remembered what my friend Jan had said when I went to work by car last fall- There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. I have a warm jacket, a hat, gloves and a hand knitted scarf. I even have some new waterproof pants that easily slide over my work pants. No excuses!

On my ride in this morning I saw parents pulling their kids to school in sleds. The train stopped at the station and people walked a few blocks to work in the snow. I even saw other bicycle tracks along my route. I made it to work safely and parked my bike at the rack- all alone. The snow storm was the talk of the office. A bit later, I heard Jan arrive at his desk. I looked over with a knowing grin as he took off his heavy coat and waterproof pants. I guess there will always be at least two bikes at the bike rack!