Tuesday, January 29, 2008

And here it is almost February already...

And while I've put up a lot of posts this month, none of them have really been about this month. So I guess that now that I have just sent out my newsletter I might as well update everything. I'm one of those, when it rains it pours sort of people. When I'm in the mood to sit down and write you just never know what all I'll do.
I'm about to enter the month of the big decision. I'm still really uncertain about what I should do next year. I've enjoyed my time here this year, but I know that a lot of things will be different in the year to come. I want to make a decision based on all the facts, as well as on the guidance of God and others. It seems that every year I'm facing yet another round of starting fresh. Whether I stay here or go "home," things will be different than they have been before. (sigh)
I had a pretty good and entertaining weekend this week. I was able to spend quite a bit of time with students at pub night, as well as hanging out with one of my students after a concert on Saturday night. Moments like that remind me that there is a purpose to my being here. But I haven't gotten to the point where I feel like I'm really going out and making friends here in Cheb. I mean, I love my students, but we never really do much outside of class, and I don't really know how to change that. I'm just not the sort of person who is good at making such things happen.
Anyhow, I would appreciate all the prayers I can get as I'm heading toward this huge decision about what to do next year.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Time to finish it up

While I could probably continue to drag this out for a few more weeks, I've decided it's time to finish it up so I can get on with the other things that have been going on in days of late. So here is the final installment in the trip to Scandinavia:
Sunday was a pretty mellow day. Ester and I went to church in the morning and then made our way to the National Museum of Art. It was free, which was very cool, but naturally they don't let you take pictures inside.
I was so amazed to see so many amazing works of art. I saw original Van Gogh's and Monet's and Manet's and Picasso's. It was incredible. On the ground floor the main display was of a Norwegian painter whose name I can't think of at the moment. Anyhow, he did a lot of drawings for fairy tales, and I really enjoyed some of his swampy monsters. Very cool. Upstairs they had a nice display of the works of Munch as well. It was pretty amazing to see "The Scream." There are apparently two versions that are equally famous and amazing. The one we saw here wasn't the one that was stolen. But even that one has now been returned and can be seen at the Munch museum. We didn't have time to go there though.
After the museum we walked down along the pier and enjoyed the amazing view:

We also went to the Nobel Peace Museum, which was pretty cool to see. The rest of the day we mostly just relaxed, which was nice. In the evening Merethe and Tone came over and picked me up and we went back to Merethe's place. It was soooo nice to see them. I hadn't seen Merethe since she left Mother's Choice back in the summer of 2002! It was so surreal to suddenly be sitting in her living room in Norway. Just amazing. We had a nice little snack and looked at pictures and talked about the old days all evening.
Monday was New Year's Eve. We had the morning free, and most businesses and museums were closed, so Ester and I decided to go for a walk. The weather was far more cooperative this time than in Tonsberg, and we had an incredible - albeit icy and scary as I'll get out! - walk in the woods over Oslo. The trails are usually used by skiers in the winter, but we decided to risk it on foot. We both lost our footing only once, which truly was rather miraculous. And the views were quite spectacular.

There were actually people out ice skating, but I was having enough trouble staying upright on the trails that I didn't really want to risk it. We made it back just in time for me to make myself ready to meet up with Ellen, who I also lived with briefly in Hong Kong. She was there the last few months before I left in 2005. We met and walked around the city for a while and caught up on life. She's doing really well, and had great fun showing off her amazing little girl, Mia. After making sure that most places were closed, we finally found a cafe' where we could sit and visit for an hour or so. Sadly I wasn't taking as many pictures as I should have, and didn't end up with any good ones of Ellen, but this one is pretty good of Mia.

After a couple hours hanging out Ellen took me back to Ester's so I could take a shower and help get things ready for our New Year's Eve party. Merethe and Tone came over a bit later and we had a great evening hanging out together and eating WAY too much food. After all the meat, it was fun to have a mostly vegetarian meal.

Dinner and dessert were both incredible and I was soooo full! We had a nice time just sitting around and visiting. Merethe had to leave early, but I managed to get a good picture with her before she left.

Merethe took a taxi with us and left us as a church. We went to the Midnight Mass, so I ended up having both the early morning and the late night service experience on this trip. The service actually started t 11 and finished just before 12. We went out and found someone with a lighter so we could light our sparklers and usher in the New Year. Wow! 2008! It's just craziness!

We walked home amidst the "rocket's red glare," and did our best to avoid the flames falling from above. We managed to make it home safely where, naturally, there was more food to be eaten :) We sat around and talked until about 4AM. In all, I'd say it was a very successful New Years.
Tuesday was my last full day in Norway. Naturally we slept rather late. Ester had bought some American pancake mix, which obviously I was meant to be the expert at using. I did manage to make fairly decent pancakes, which we ate with some maple syrup. Tone had to get to work, so she left around noon. I had time to take a shower and start packing before Merethe came around 1:30 to pick me up. We had a great afternoon walking through the streets, spending hours in a cafe, then going back to her house to just talk and talk and talk. When you haven't seen a person for years it's easy to wonder how things will be when you suddenly see each other again. She had only just turned 20, and was not yet married the last time I saw her. I was just in my first year in HK, and was quite a bit younger myself. There are so many things that have passed in that time. And yet, as we sat and talked we discovered that, if anything we are just better able to relate to one another now. It was truly amazing and I am so thankful that we were able to have this chance to reconnect.
I had one last sleep (and naturally some more food!) at Ester's, and then it was off to the train station. I made it back to Cheb with no real problems, and life is now back to life. I feel so blessed to have been able to take this trip, and really hope it won't be so long before I see these dear friends of mine again.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

A trip to Tonsberg

It's really hard to make that word look right. Especially since the "o" isn't a normal "o" in Norwegian. Anyhow, it'll have to do. The "berg" could also be a "burg" but I'm not really sure. Tonsberg is the town that Ester's family comes from, so we went for the day to go to her family's Christmas party.
Before the party we wandered around town for a while. Unfortunately there was some rain, which was less than pleasant. However, there were also whales...and in great abundance...
Okay, I honestly don't even want to talk about just how many gummy whales I ate while we wandered around. Let's just leave it at a lot! Some of them were good, but the one I took the picture of actually ended up tasting like soap, and after chewing on it for a couple of minutes it met it's demise in the rubbish bin instead of being consumed.
We saw a place Ester used to live, checked out an old church where I learned that in most Norwegian churches, or at least the state ones, they have a boat suspended from the roof that points toward the front as a reminder of their water-bound past, and their goal of heading toward Christ. We meandered down near the pier and through some of the old classical house portion of town.
Seeing as how at least a quarter of me is of Norwegian origin, we took some time to pay homage to the great Norwegians of the past...the vikings. So I had my photo taken next to a replica (I mean obviously an original) Viking boat, and then we drove out into the country with her Dad to see an ancient Viking burial mound. It seems they would bury the great warriors with their boats, leaving a pretty impressive memorial for generations to come.

From there we went to her parents house where I got to meet Ester's mom as well. It's always nice to get to meet the families of people you know. I've been hearing about Ester's family for nearly 9 years now, and at long last I had a chance to meet quite a few of them. We headed over to the party next, where I was surrounded by Ester's relations, and introduced to them all by her uncle as being from Orrregon. (All the "r"'s indicate how he decided to roll it.) We had a lot of food, and I got to take part in the circling around the Christmas tree when they sing Christmas songs. I even knew a few of them.
There were a lot of little kids there, and they put on a little performance complete with a nativity scene. Then they were given bags of goodies by a Santa-like character. I just had to get a picture of Ester's two nieces in their traditional little outfits.

Johanna and Andrea. Aren't they cuties? Reminded me a bit of all my little blond nieces.
We left the party a bit early so we could go and visit Ingveig. While I never actually worked with Ingveig at Mother's Choice, she had been there between my first summer and my first year, and was living there teaching English during my first year. It was nice to see her again, and also to meet her adorable little girl Jenny. We visited for a while and then had a small meal together before we had to catch the bus back to Oslo.

Overall it was a very nice day, and we were quite tired by the end of it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Now to Norway

After a rather harrowing drive on icy roads beginning before 4AM, Malin and I made it to the tiny airport in Lulea, only to discover that she would only have half an hour with me before her parking time would expire. Tragic in an airport where security is still kind enough to let anyone come up and wait at the gate until departure time. We got in as much conversation as we possibly could in those last fleeting moments, and then the clock separated us once again, and great distances were soon to follow. I passed through the security gate, and wanted only to be at my next destination. There were, however, two flights that had to take place before that would happen.
My first flight was fine. I even managed to read a bit, and - wonder of all wonders - they actually fed me! It's become such a rarity these days, and after all the money I spent to get on the plane I wasn't about to waste a bit of the muesli and yogurt, the roll with meat and cheese. (happy eating sighs) After an hour long layover in Stockholm I was more than ready to be let sleep overtake me. Having slept less than three hours the night before, I was exhausted. I curled up in my seat, ready to drift off, only to find myself seated next to one of the most obnoxious passengers of all times! The guy would seriously NOT shut up! The WHOLE flight he droned on and on to the girl sitting next to him. And I'm pretty sure they didn't even know each other! The last half hour, at least, he was describing the wonders of his i-pod! As though most people don't have similar devices at this point in time. Granted, all of this took place in some Scandinavian language, but it was enough to drive me mad, as well as eliciting countless annoyed and half asleep sighs from me.
At long last we did arrive, and at least I was no longer plagued by the continuous chatter. I maneuvered the airport with surprising ease, and was soon on the train to Oslo where I quickly sent a text to Ester to let her know I was on my way. I got no response, but did my best to just zone out to the scenery of Norway in the dim morning light. When I still hadn't heard from her upon my arrival at Oslo S station, I decided to text her again...Still no response. I was a little worried, but decided to give her half an hour and then try again. After maybe 20 minutes (and no small amount of prayer) my phone informed me of an incoming text. The number wasn't identified, but it was definitely from Ester. She told me she was just going to do some shopping and told me to let her know when I arrived. Funny. Sorta thought I'd already done that. I quickly wrote back and told her I was there. A moment later my phone beeped again. This time it said it was from Ester, only the person was apologizing, saying that I had the wrong number. Hmmm...turns out she'd given me the wrong number. Oops. Ah well. All's well that ends well, and she arrived within ten minutes.
Things went much smoother after that. After a short shopping trip we went back to her flat for some lunch. She makes some pretty amazing focaccia bread. After eating we decided to take in some of the sights of Oslo. We went first to the Botanical Gardens, which are quite close to her flat. Opening the door to the gardens was a bit like walking out of the air conditioned airport and into the murky heat of Hong Kong.
We spent some time there, and then went around to see more sights. Sadly the pictures of the statues in the park are all quite dark, but there is this park full of sculptures depicting the life cycle. I don't know exactly how many of the sculptures there were, but it was pretty amazingly impressive. From there we continued through the city. We went through shopping districts, past cafe's, and by historical landmarks. Most impressive was our little walk by the Palace. It was more reminiscent of the White House than my general idea of a castle, but it was still pretty cool.
I must admit it kind of looks like it's snowing here, but I'm pretty sure it was just rain. My dreams of the winterwonderland of Scandinavia were a little bit crushed by the cold but rainy reality that I came into contact with. At least there was snow in the Arctic Circle!
We headed back to the house and had a bite to eat. I was happy to have a chance to just sit for a bit, and by 12 I could scarcely keep my eyes open and was happy to crash off to sleep in Ester's guest room.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

And now for part 3...and all the ice and snow you can handle...

I'm not really sure if there is much point to putting this all into segments if people aren't actually checking it. I mean, there will still end up being just as much reading in the end this way. But I am trying to work with short attention spans. So here is the third part of my trip to Sweden.
The day after Christmas we had some pretty terrible weather. There was a snow storm that dropped several inches of snow and made visibility and road conditions rather obnoxious. We'd had plans to make a long drive, but instead opted for something closer. So...we went to Finland! It was funny to drive across the border and watch the words getting longer and filled with morree and mooorrreee llleetteerrsss. In Finnish they like to add a lot of extras for some reason. We were only there for about an hour, but it was enough time to get a picture.

While we were there Malin's dad bought me some special Finnish "treats." He said they usually eat them when they go out fishing on the boat. He is really into boats. I must admit that I pretty much just wanted the flavor to go away, and passed around Ice Breakers once it was out of my mouth. I took the package home and have since shared them with all of my students so they can have the experience as well.
After Finland we came back to Haparanda Sweden and went to a massive Ikea. True to Swedish tradition, we stopped for "fika" in the middle of our shopping trip, right there at the Ikea cafeteria.
The day ended with moose roast cooked by Malin's grandma, and some amazing berries with ice cream and meringues.
On the 27th the weather was looking a little better so we got up dark and early (around 6 AM) to make the long drive up into the Arctic Circle to the Ice Hotel which is near the town of Kiruna. I was really excited to go because I had seen a documentary on how the Ice Hotel is made just a couple of weeks before. It really is a very fascinating and beautiful place. Hard to imagine that they put in all that work, just to let it melt away a few months later!

I would have taken a lot more pictures, but my camera decided it didn't like being in the very cold climate of the Ice Hotel. Fortunately Malin and her dad both had cameras as well, so hopefully I'll get a few more pictures at some point. For now you'll just have to content yourself with these two photos. The first is of the main entrance from a distance and the second is of me next to the doors which are covered in reindeer skins and have antlers for doors.
It was a fun day. After the Ice Hotel we went to a church that had some really amazing art work that was carved in wood and painted by some prince. I only have hard copies from the church unfortunately. We went out for dinner and then headed back for another four hour drive home. Naturally, both on the drive there and the return trip, we stopped by snowbanks along the side of the road for "fika"!
This was my last full day in Sweden. Malin and I hung out while I packed when we got home. We didn't want to go to bed, because in a sense, as soon as we went to bed it meant our time together was over. However, having to get up at 3AM in order for me to make my 6:30 flight meant we did need to get a little sleep. The roads were REALLY icy when she took me to the airport in Lulea, but we made it safely there and soon I was on my way to the next portion of my trip in Norway...

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Part dva (trying to teach you all a little Czech...

It was rather odd to be in a place with yet another language to try to manage. It seems that everywhere I go I have to figure out how to maneuver with different languages and ways of doing things. In the airport I suddenly realized that saying "prosim" would no longer serve as "Please, excuse me, thank you, etc." Instead it would only draw me confused stares. But I have no learned a new way to say "goodbye." In Swedish they say "hej do." Or something to that effect. I like trying to say goodbye different ways all the time. Anyhow, this has not so much to do with my trip, so I'll move on.
Christmas Eve morning we hung out at Malin's mom's house for a while, before heading up to her Dad's place, even farther north. I was introduced to the Christmas Eve tradition of watching Donald Duck at 3 in the afternoon. It seems to be the thing to do on Christmas Eve afternoon. They show a bunch of clips from different Disney movies and several short Donald Christmas clips. For a while during this Christmas frippery, I got to hold a 5 day old baby named Siri. She is Malin's cousin, and her mom, Greta, was an overseas volunteer at Mother's Choice my first summer in '99. It was nice to see Greta again, as well as meeting her three adorable children: Elis, Sixten, and Siri. It was also pretty much amazing to hold a small baby again. It has been soooo long!
At about 4 we had our Christmas dinner. Here I sampled a number of Swedish delicacies. On my plate you will see clockwise, green salad, raw salmon, a potato, Mimosa salad, moose meatballs, sausage, ribs, ham, and a prune. Malin made sure I also tried some fish casserole, another variety of raw fish, and some sort of meatloaf.

Sadly I didn't get a picture of our dessert. It was another kind of rice dessert, with bits of almonds in it. In each batch they also add one whole almond. The person who finds the whole almond is supposed to be married with in the year. What do you know, Malin made sure that the whole almond ended up on my plate. Funny how that happened :)
Next we moved to the living room for present time. I was overly blessed by all the gifts I received from Malin and her family. Her grandma even knitted mittens for me! Since both my grandmothers were Swedish, it felt really special to have mittens knitted by a Swedish grandmother. Of course, her Grandma is the same age as my Dad, but what does that matter? It was a really nice Christmas.
Malin was determined that I would experience all that Northern Sweden had to offer. First I had to experience the early morning Christmas service. The service started at 6 AM, but we had to be there by 5:15 to get good seats. Consequently we headed out to Kalix around 5AM. The church, which Malin pointed out was built before Columbus sailed to America, was a bit hard to keep my eyes open through, but we especially enjoyed the singing. After the service we came back to the house, ate a small meal and then went back to sleep! Later on Christmas day we went for an adventure on "kicks."

We went out with her Dad to a little cottage in the woods where we had "fika." Malin informed me that "fika" is the first word and tradition most exchange students learn when they come to Sweden. We would probably call it a coffee break, but it is very important to them. So in the cottage we sat down and had some of this absolutely AMAZING bread that her Dad made. Then we wandered around with the guy who owned the cottage and checked out all the work the busy little beavers have been doing in the neighborhood. In one place they had caused the water to rise so much that it had flooded a huge patch of ground, killing all the vegetation and creating a horrifying stench!
In the evening it was time to go to a party. After a brief phone call from home where I got to talk to my parents and David and Ryder, we headed out for a night on the town. Every year most young people come back to the villages they grew up in, and this is their chance to hang out. It was nice to get to dress up and meet some of Malin's friends.
And that's about it for now. More to come...

Monday, January 7, 2008

The Beginning...

As I sifted through my large quantity of pictures, I tried to figure out the best way to share my trip with you all. There are so many things to say, so many pictures to share, and I've been informed that people don't really like to read a lengthy post. Tragic really, but I'll do my best to be brief and concise for those of the ADHD generation :) In truth, I can be a bit that way myself. The thought of a holiday in which one does nothing but sit placidly on a beach is not overly exciting to me. I like to move, to do, to LIVE it up a bit. But enough blathering on about nothing.
My trip began on the 21st. I headed out of my flat in Skalka at about 7:15AM, wanting to be certain not to miss my 8:15 train. It doesn't usually take me that long to walk to the station, but I was pulling along a suitcase this time, and I didn't want to risk any confusion. I spent pretty much the entire day traveling. From train to metro to bus to plane, and ended up in Stockholm, Sweden at about 9PM. My next flight was not scheduled until around 2 the next afternoon, so I spent the night in the airport, sleeping on a less than comfortable couch and doing my best to keep a hand on all of my luggage.
I arrived in Umea around 3:30 in the afternoon, and was overjoyed to be reunited with Malin, and I finally got to meet her boyfriend Anders. (Never fear, I won't burden you with every little step of my journey...) After doing some last minute Christmas shopping, we headed back to her apartment so I could shower and she could make my first Swedish meal: Reindeer! I must confess it felt a bit odd to be eating Reindeer on December 22nd, but it was actually quite tasty.

After dinner I was treated to a dessert of cloud berry sauce over ice cream. Cloud berries look a lot like raspberries only they're yellow and have a much stronger flavor.

The next day Malin and I headed up to see her Mom and I also got to meet a couple of her sisters. Her littlest sister, Amalie, even gave me a present :) She is only 7, and can't really speak any English, but she was still a lot of fun.

We stayed the night there, and I was up "early" to get a picture of the sunrise. Okay, so it was about 9:30 or so when the sun was coming up. It was a bit like being in Alaska again.

It was fun to be back in a place where they have houses that look like what I'm used to in the US. Most houses in the north of Sweden are painted red or yellow.
I'll end here with a picture of our Christmas Eve breakfast which is very traditional in Sweden. It's kind of like a rice pudding, and you sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar.
I hope you've enjoyed this first part of my trip, and I'll be sure to post more before long.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

It's coming soon...

I had a positively frabjous time on my holiday to Sweden and Norway. I have more pictures than you can possibly imagine, and as many stories to go along with them all. It'll have to wait, as right now I really ought to be getting around to lesson planning since I have class in a mere 3 hours and no idea what I'm going to do. It'd be nice to just sit around and talk about vacation for 90 minutes with each class, but that is probably a wee bit of overkill...I also have two classes to plan for tomorrow as well. Isn't there some unwritten code that says you must ALWAYS have at least two full weeks holiday for Christmas? Sounds nice, but it's back to the daily grind for me a few days short.
Happy New Year to you all (2008, can you believe it?) and I promise there is more come come sometime in the near future when I can manage to get all my photos downloaded and my thoughts in some sort of order.