The trip south: Oslo

In the summer of 2023, Micha and I spent some time exploring Norway and visiting friends. This post describes the second part of our trip to the south, in which we visited the capital city of Oslo before flying to Munich to visit some friends. You can read about the first part of our trip here.

We journeyed by bus from Fredrikstad back to Oslo. The ride took about two hours and was mostly uneventful, save for a rather creative three-point turn by the bus driver to pick up a few stranded passengers from a different bus. We arrived at the Oslo bus terminal in the early afternoon, ate some sandwiches, and stashed our bags in a locker so we could do some shopping and sightseeing while waiting to check in to the Airbnb. After living in Trondheim for two years, Oslo felt like a huge, bustling city in comparison.

A view down Karl Johans gate towards the royal palace (Det kongelige slott). The back of the parliament building (Stortinget) is on the left.

The highlight of the night was checking out the arcade bar Tilt, which had a wall-sized game of Pac-Man and a really fun rhythmic shooter game called Music GunGun — here’s a video of a single person easily handling the level that gave us a lot of problems together. We played a few different games, enjoyed a drink or two, and walked back to the Airbnb in the late evening sun.

We set the high score for the day at the World’s Largest Pac-Man at Tilt.

Vigeland Park

The entrance to Vigeland Park.

The weather was beautiful and warm the following day, so we headed out in the morning for Vigeland Park, a famous park filled with statues of naked people named after the artist who sculpted them all, Gustav Vigeland. The entrance to the park is a bridge lined with statues of people in various random poses, meant to depict common emotions or activities that everyone can relate to. The statues seemed kind of funny to me at first, since I’m so used to proud, dignified poses rather than the snapshots Vigeland chose to depict. They depict lots of ordinary, everyday things, like stretching, chasing down and beating a thief, and surviving parenthood.

The bridge leads to an open courtyard, with a large fountain held up by statues of naked people, surrounded by beautiful gardens framed by statues of naked people, with a massive tower of naked people on a pedestal behind it all. It was beautiful, weird, quirky, interesting, confusing, and above all I had the sense that Vigeland had perhaps a little too much time on his hands.

The fountain at Vigeland Park, seen from the base of the pedestal upon which the “monolith” sits.
The main attraction of the park, the monolith.

The monolith was difficult for me to photograph, since it’s 50 feet tall, the sun was beating down on it, and there were (regular, clothed) people everywhere. It was impressive, and kind of eerie. Apparently Gustav Vigeland said of it, “The column is my religion,” and I’m honestly not sure what to make of that.

The National Museum of Norway

Sunny weather in Norway rarely lasts long. The following day the skies opened up, so we went to Nasjonalmuseet (The National Museum) in the morning. The first floor is dedicated to various artifacts from different times and cultures and felt sort of like a cross between an art museum and a history museum. One of my favorite exhibits was right at the beginning and showcased the various dresses that Queen Sofia and Queen Maud wore, and how the styles changed over time.

At the top of the staircase separating the two floors is a cafeteria, which served as a natural point to take a break and eat some food. I happened to be wearing the Seattle Kraken hoodie that my dad gave me. I’m not exactly a Kraken fan, but Dad thought it would be funny if I was wearing a hoodie that said “Kraken” on it in Norway, and it happens to be really comfortable and I like the blue colors. I didn’t really get the joke until a Norwegian woman stopped me in the cafeteria and told me that Kraken was a Norwegian word, and that she had a relative who lived in Seattle. She was super excited to have met an American who had been to Seattle and instantly relayed our conversation to her husband in Norwegian, who nodded confusedly and went back to sipping his coffee.

The second floor of the museum was dedicated to paintings, and in particular the work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. I really liked his self-portrait and the way his body disappears into the shadows.

A self-portrait by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.

One of Munch’s most famous works, Skrik (or Scream in English), is also in this museum and drew a small crowd. I found a couple of Monet paintings as well. All in all it was a cool museum and a fun way to spend a day, but our day wasn’t over yet. We had lined up a “ghost tour” of the nearby fortress in the evening

Ghost Tour of Akershus Fortress

I’d never done a ghost tour before, but Micha loves haunted things, so we knew we had to try it while we were in town. We waited at a street corner for our tour guide to arrive and collect the members of our tour. When everyone was ready, he took us for a stroll through a few neighborhoods and down to Akershus fortress, telling stories along the way about hidden passages under banks and haunted restaurants.

A view from the outside of Akershus Fortress during the tour. Local time 8:15 pm.

Our guide walked us through the old fortress, telling various stories about cursed horses and haunted corners. One story that stuck with me was a legend about a dog that had been sealed into the fortress walls as some kind of superstition to protect the fortress. Instead, the guards were haunted by howling and barking noises, and to this day dogs will occasionally stop and stare at the wall as if they heard something.

Sunset atop the Opera House

Our view of the Oslo Opera House as we returned from the ghost tour.

When the tour ended, we sauntered slowly back to the train station, not wanting our last day in Oslo to come to an end. Across the fjord we noticed the Oslo Opera House, a beautiful building with big concrete ramps along its sides that allow people to climb up to a viewing area at the top. We found a spot among the scattered tourists and Norwegians enjoying the last rays of sun from a beautiful day and watched the sun tuck behind the hills.

A view of the sunset from atop the opera house. Local time 10:14 PM.

After watching the sunset, we caught the train to Gardermoen airport, where we stayed at the airport hotel for a brief rest before an early morning flight to Munich for an entirely different part of our adventure.



The trip south: Fredrikstad

In the summer of 2023, Micha and I took a couple weeks of vacation to explore Norway. We spent a week in southern Norway, returned to Trondheim to meet some old friends, and then spent a week driving around Tromsø and the Vesterålen islands in the north.

For the trip south, we took a train to Oslo, where we caught a bus to Fredrikstad. Fredrikstad is a town of about 85,000, known for an old fortified city along the river now called Gamlebyen (literally, The Old City). Aside from that, the town doesn’t offer much for tourists, so I got strange looks when I said I wanted to go to Fredrikstad. It would be a bit like someone planning a trip to the northeastern United States so they could go see Lowell – Lowell is a fine city, but usually tourists headed that way would go to Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C.

A boardwalk along the river Glomma that divides Fredrikstad.

When we got there, and walked around the town, we were both struck by how empty the city felt. That could have been due to the time of year we visited. Most Norwegians go on holiday in July, leaving the less-touristy areas feeling a bit like ghost towns. Trondheim similarly felt a bit abandoned in the summer, unless a cruise ship happened to be visiting. Furthermore, we arrived on a Sunday, and though the sun was still out it was rather late in the evening.

A lonely, forgotten electric scooter lies discarded in the walkway between two buildings in Fredrikstad. Local time 9:46 PM.

After a long day of traveling, we got a bite to eat and returned to our Airbnb for the night. Tomorrow would be a big day.

Hunting down my family history

So, why did I drag Micha to a ghost town in the middle of the summer? Fredrikstad is also the city where my great-grandmother, Ragna Alvilde Syverstad, grew up. From Norway’s Digitalarkivet, I found census records from 1910 that listed her address. She lived with her adoptive family, the Haug family, at Cicignongate 26 in Fredrikstad, for at least ten years, and likely until she left for the United States. She is listed as leaving Norway on a ship bound for New York on June 21, 1929, for a “visit” that included her marriage to Einar Thidemann on August 24, 1929 in Cambridge, MA. According to my aunt Karen’s research, she had to return to Norway after the wedding before establishing residency in the US in March of 1930.

So, knowing her address, we walked to Cicignongate, not knowing what to expect. The streets were empty and quiet, and the sun and blue sky broke through the clouds that so often cover Norway.

Just after Cicignongate 24 stood a massive apartment complex, taking up the entire block. The construction was far too new to have been the building where Ragna lived in the 1910s. Just across from it, however, stood the Fredrikstad Cathedral, a huge red-brick cathedral that is definitely old enough to have been there when Ragna was.

I was also able to find information about the grave of Erik Haug, Ragna’s adoptive father. He is buried in the Western Fredrikstad cemetery with his wife Oline, his son Olaf, and someone named Elinor, who I think is Olaf’s wife. After a short walk through a more industrial area, we found the cemetery and the Haug grave, nestled in a corner between a bush and a walking path.

The Haug family grave, where members of Ragna’s adoptive family are buried.

I stood there quietly for a minute, not sure what to do. I had done quite a bit of research, most of it in a foreign language, and I had navigated a foreign country and an unfamiliar city to reach this point. I don’t think I expected to actually find the grave. I thanked Erik, and the Haug family, for what they had done for Ragna and for my family, and we left.

Visiting the fortified city

An old metal map of the fortified city of Fredrikstad hangs at the fort’s entrance.

The next day, we took the ferry across the river to the fortified city – something we know Ragna loved to do as a child as well, thanks to letters and newspaper clippings collected by Karen. Like the apartment building, however, these ferries seemed a bit newer than what Ragna would have taken a hundred years ago. Several electric “byferger,” or city ferries, zig-zag along the river, stopping periodically at docks that look like bus stops. The ferries are all-electric and free to ride, and make commuting back and forth across the river fun and easy.

Gamlebyen is like a small town within Fredrikstad, surrounded by fortress walls of dirt and stone that come to sharp points, where cannons could be stationed. The roads are cobblestone, and most of the buildings are now museums and shops. Ragna often wrote about coming to this fort on the weekends to have lunch with her father. With the weather still perfect, we took the opportunity to walk around, explore the old cobblestone streets, and get food at Mormor’s Cafe (Grandma’s Cafe).

A statue of King Frederik II, founder of Fredrikstad, stands in the center of the fortified city.

We then returned to Oslo and explored the city for a few days before stretching our definition of “southern Norway” and flying to Munich to catch up with some friends who had just moved there. Stay tuned for more stories of our travels!

This post dedicated to Sandra Howley.


BERGEN?? Part Two!

“Take the flute to the third stop and turn right,” said our Airbnb host via text message when we got back from the fjord cruise. We figured something had been mistranslated, and decided to simply walk up the hill rather than try to figure out what “the flute” was. We later learned that “Fløibanen,” sometimes called “Fløyen,” is the name of the funicular that would have saved us about 45 minutes of hill climbing. I had actually taken a picture of the track earlier in the day, not knowing what it was.

A view up the hill from downtown Bergen, with the top of Fløibanen visible between the trees.

The following morning we walked down the hill into the city center, this time finding some of the shortcuts, alleyways, slides, and staircases that made the walk easier. The houses seemed to be jammed into the hillside wherever they would fit, with narrow roads and alleyways winding back and forth wherever a somewhat reasonable path existed.

One of the winding, narrow roads that leads up the hill from the city center.
Helpful signs pointed the way for lost tourists.

One of the more famous tourist destinations in Bergen is Bryggen, a row of converted warehouse buildings that now houses shops and restaurants. Between the warehouses leads a network of connected wooden alleyways leading to more shops and galleries. We picked up a few gifts for friends and browsed some of the galleries on a relatively quiet morning.

Bryggen i Bergen!
We came back on a sunnier Sunday morning and got some pictures of the nearly empty alleyways between the buildings in Bryggen.

There seemed to be a lot of artists living in Bergen. Our Airbnb host even had a couple paintings he had done hanging in the rental apartment. There were galleries all over the city, and lots of interesting street art too. Two of my favorites are below.

We also visited Fjåk, a coffee and chocolate shop with delicious dark chocolate bars, and had some amazing cookies. We also saw the National Aquarium, which was a bit depressing on the outside partly due to the concrete structure and the gloomy weather, but much better on the inside. At the end of the day we stopped by Gimmikk, an arcade and pinball bar with some hilarious decorations, where we played a few games before heading back up the hill for the night and preparing ourselves for an day-long hike the following day.

Read Part One to learn about our fjord cruise!



Micha and I took a long weekend trip to the city of Bergen in western Norway back in May. We had an amazing time exploring the city, taking a cruise through the fjords, and hiking the hills surrounding the town.

Our view of Bergen as we walked down from our Airbnb every morning.

We landed in Bergen early in the morning on May 18th, the day after Norway’s constitution day, and the town seemed appropriately sleepy and hung over. As we walked around, the town slowly seemed to come to life around us, as people began to go about their days.

In the afternoon, we took a fjord cruise that left from the harbor downtown and headed north through a narrow fjord to the town of Mo. We stayed on the deck, in awe of the scenery, hardly aware of the chilly wind.

The approximate route of our out-and-back fjord cruise, marked in red.

I was especially struck by how calm the water was. The fjord is narrow enough to feel like a river, but it’s not flowing anywhere. Waves from the ocean are blocked by the hills all around. The result is a nearly perfectly reflective surface, disturbed only by the wake of the boat and the splashing of waterfalls coming off the cliff faces.

The water was so still that it almost perfectly mirrored the hills and cliffs.

It’s hard to describe how large the cliffs were, how small I felt, and how remote our surroundings became as we slid further into the fjord. The air grew colder as snow-capped peaks appeared in the distance. The boat had to go slowly and make a couple impressive maneuvers to slip between the edges of the fjord without hitting anything.

Wilderness as far as I could see.

After about an hour and a half we reached the end of the fjord and a town called Mo nestled in the valley. The captain did a nifty three-point turn with the boat, including coming within inches of a cliff face with a waterfall running down it!

The town of Mo.
The railing you see in the bottom of the picture is the edge of our boat. The people in front were surely getting wet!

After Mo, the ship turned around and continued back the way it came. At that point, we were happy to go inside and warm up a bit! After the ship returned to the harbor, we made our way up the hill to check into our Airbnb and planned out our next two days: wandering Bergen’s neighborhoods, and taking a hike along the hilltops surrounding the city.

Read Part Two to learn about our day in the city!


A year without brown sugar

For most of our time in Norway, Micha and I have been unable to find brown sugar. Our Norwegian friends assured us it existed, and the quality of the pastries and cookies available stands as evidence that Norwegians know, understand, and use brown sugar regularly. But, to our knowledge, it was not sold in grocery stores.

Have you ever made chocolate chip cookies without brown sugar? They come out dry and crumbly, they spread too thin, and they lack the soft chewiness that I think comes from the molasses in the brown sugar. We had been making and eating cookies like that for a year and a half, unable to find brown sugar. I did not know how critical of an ingredient brown sugar was until I was forced to live without it… or so I thought.

Two things were working against us. First, the sugar bags in the grocery stores here are opaque, so we can’t see from a distance which bags contain brown sugar. Most bags have a picture of something you can make using that particular kind of sugar, but in the case of brown sugar it’s a normal-looking cake with some kind of brown topping.

The second thing is that the brown sugar bags here use a different word for sugar than every other kind of sugar bag. Instead of calling it by the easy cognate “sukker”, brown sugar is called “brun farin” for some reason that probably makes perfect sense to Norwegians but doesn’t make any sense to us Americans.

Brown sugar bags sold in Norway show a picture of a cake which probably uses a lot of different kinds of sugar.

But look at the picture. Would you have been able to identify this as brown sugar? Once I picked it up, felt the familiar texture, I knew it was the right stuff, but it took me a year just to think, “maybe I should pick this one up.”


A run on flour?

Norwegians love baking. I remember telling one Norwegian that I had bought a pre-made cookie mix, and she scolded me, saying true Norwegians would be embarrassed to be caught with such contraband. Norwegians take pride in baking their own cookies from scratch, and every supermarket is stocked with more kinds of flour than I ever knew existed!

In fact, Norwegians love baking so much that the grocery stores have started putting up signs like this one when flour goes on sale. It reads, “Dear customers, we would like to have enough wheat flour for everyone. Max 8 kg per customer. For amounts over the maximum, the normal price will apply.” The only time I remember seeing a sign like this in the US was during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020.

Dear customers, we would like to have enough wheat flour for everyone. Max 8 kg per customer. For amounts over the maximum, the normal price will apply.

Getting a Norwegian driving license

I got my Norwegian driver’s license recently. I can now legally drive anywhere in the European Economic Area! I am even licensed to drive a moped, for some reason.

I began the process last summer with a trip to Statens vegvesen, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. My previous driver’s license was technically only valid for the first three months of my residency in Norway. In order to be able to drive, I needed to hand in my previous driver’s license with some paperwork and wait for the kind folks at Statens vegvesen to verify it with the proper American authorities. The woman behind the counter seemed bored out of her mind as she explained it to me. Her eyes bore straight through me, through my skull out to the back wall and the window out onto the parking lot as she recited a terse English explanation of what was going to happen next. I smiled and said “Takk for at du snakker engelsk med meg,” which I think means, “Thank you for speaking English with me.” She laughed, but it was cold, mocking almost.

I assumed the verification process would take about seventy billion years given the glacial pace of the Massachusetts RMVs but I got a message from the Norwegian government about a week later saying I could begin the next step: scheduling a driving test. First, I needed to contact an auto school and schedule the test through them. After strategically delaying for a few months (also known as procrastinating) I finally contacted the auto school down the street from me. They were able to schedule a test and two driving lessons for me at a total cost of around 5,000 Norwegian kroner. The lessons were good, but anxiety-inducing: I felt like a sixteen-year-old again, and there’s something terrifying to me about the possibility of learning that I’ve somehow been driving incorrectly for fifteen years.

There are a few differences between driving in Norway and driving in the US. First, the roads in Norway are noticeably narrower, so I tend to adjust the steering wheel constantly because I’m somehow too close to the edge on both sides. The driving instructors called this “hakkede”, like the cans of finely diced tomatoes in the grocery stores labelled “hakkede tomater“. I suppose they meant “choppy”.

The second big difference between the US and Norway is that rotaries (the proper name for roundabouts or traffic circles) are significantly more popular in Norway, and as a result there are relatively few traffic lights and no stop signs. Most large intersections are rotaries. I was comfortable driving with them, though they’re usually a bit narrower and tighter than in Massachusetts.

The third, and perhaps most important difference, is what I had been calling the right-hand rule after one too many physics classes. In Norway, traffic coming from the right has the right of way, unless a specific set of signs declares otherwise. This rule is not too different from four-way stops in the US, except it applies without stop signs as well. It is your responsibility as a driver to slow down when you see a road on your right and ensure that you yield to any traffic coming towards you from it. An interesting and somewhat terrifying corollary to this is that if you’re driving up to an intersection and you’re turning right, you are supposed to assume that traffic coming from the left will stop for you. Luckily, this situation never came up on my test.

After a couple lessons, I took the test itself. It was a beautiful sunny day in March and the roads were clear and dry. A nice Norwegian man named Lars sat shotgun with an iPad, taking notes as I drove. We drove down the worst dirt road I’ve ever seen, with potholes big enough to catch the whole wheel, and at one point I even got the car momentarily stuck in a ditch while trying to let someone else through. We took the highway south to Byneset. I forgot the speed limit and guessed 80 km/hr, which was probably too slow, but I mercifully got stuck behind a truck doing about 77. We got off the highway and did a loop around a beautiful farmland valley, including an interesting exchange where Lars gave me extremely specific instructions to stop following the main road, then asked me to turn around and go back to it, probably to see if I could actually find a place to safely turn the car around and try again. At the end he told me I had done “just enough” to pass – I was generally safe, but could have gone faster at times, and there was one turn in particular where I drifted into the left lane a little bit.

The open road awaits!

At the end of the test I went back into the same Statens vegvesen office I had been to months before. Lars had told me which button to press to get my ticket – something in Norwegian that I was too nervous to remember. Eventually I figured it out anyway, got a ticket with a number, and was called up to the same desk I had come to earlier, with the same woman. I was surprised that I recognized her. I doubt she recognized me.

I told her in Norwegian that I had just finished my oppkjøring before the driving instructor met me at the desk. The woman told me, in very slow Norwegian, that she was printing me out a temporary driver’s license, and the real one would come in one or two weeks in the mail. In the meantime, I was to carry this temporary one along with my passport. The driving instructor began to translate for me, but I finished his sentences for him, and the woman behind the counter seemed to find this amusing. She smiled, a bit more warmly this time. And I realized I had come a long way since last September.



For the most part, we can get all the ingredients we need to keep making the same dishes we used to make in the US, but sometimes they have slightly different names. For example, baking soda is called “natron,” probably derived from “natrium”, another name for the element sodium. My coworkers from the UK often end up buying corn flour (corn meal) instead of corn starch.

Sometimes the ingredients we need just don’t seem to exist here. We haven’t found graham crackers anywhere, and the marshmallows here are typically vanilla flavored and prone to burning, so making s’mores is difficult. We can find panko bread crumbs at Asian grocery stores, but we can’t find what I would call “regular” bread crumbs.

I asked a group of coworkers about bread crumbs specifically, and my boss said they did not exist in Norway. Another coworker suggested I put bread through my coffee grinder. “I more or less do that,” I said. “We buy those long Wasa cracker things and put them in a food processor.” I held up my hands to show the size of the cracker, about the size of a dollar bill.

My boss stared at me with a mixture of shock and disgust. I had seen this look before. It’s the same look New Englanders are trained to give whenever anyone says Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t very good, or Tom Brady is a system quarterback. I had somehow managed to insult the very bedrock of Norwegian culture. But what had I done? I lowered my hands sheepishly. Maybe I had inadvertently made a rude gesture? Am I not supposed to crush crackers? The table was silent for a moment.

“Those are NOT crackers!” exclaimed my boss. “Those are knekkebrød. Completely different.”

“They are definitely crackers,” replied a Canadian coworker. “Why aren’t the Ritz crackers in the same aisle? That always annoyed me.”

“They are different things!” insisted our boss. “You use them differently, they taste different, they are not the same at all! Next group trip we are going to the store and I am teaching you all you need to know about Norwegian food.”


Red Umbrella Alert

Trondheim is under a red umbrella alert, which means we are getting a lot of rain over the next couple days. Apparently this doesn’t happen very often. This storm is pummeling most of the Norwegian coastline with rain, wind, and waves, and the Norwegian weather service has named it “Gyda”. That’s how you know it’s bad – it has its own name. But so far, the storm hasn’t been too bad. A lot of wind, a lot of rain, but nothing worse than I’ve seen in Massachusetts.

I’m sure you can imagine my confusion descending into downright panic when the air raid sirens sounded for about five minutes straight on my lunch break. What’s the Norwegian word for “evacuate?” Is some dude in camo going to show up and start yelling at me?

Now, this is my first time living through a storm this bad in a foreign country. I have no idea where to find information, and whatever I do find is in a foreign language. Google Translate helps, but its occasional failures don’t inspire confidence. It frequently translates “Les mer”, which means “read more” and is found on practically every website, as “The sea.” A quick search on the Internet told me to check NRK – the Norwegian public radio system. But, like any true millennial I don’t have a radio, so I checked the NRK app on my phone, which was full of complaints about the price of electricity. So I started sending messages on Teams to my coworkers, trying to triangulate the location of the sirens. My coworker up the hill in Ranheim didn’t hear it. The one on the other side of the city, by the hospital, could. What was going on?

Turns out the Norwegian Civil Defense Force is obligated to test the warning alarm twice a year, and they just so happened to pick the day the storm arrived to do so.



The Norwegian language, like English, uses the “s” ending as a possessive, but without the apostrophe. For example “the dog’s food” becomes “hundens mat.”

Norwegian, like German, combines lots of words together into compound words. For example, the Norwegian word for sandwich is “smørbrød”, a combination of the word for butter (smør) and the word for bread (brød).

These two key facts result in most Norwegians probably reading this Spotify advertisement as “workout’s best songs” and not “training shits”. But it gets me every time.