Mar 31, 2008

I Have A Knot In My Tummy

....and it's growing bigger every day.

Tomorrow marks four weeks until we leave Norway and start our journey back to Canada, with a three week stopover in the UK.

The countdown has definitely begun.

Holy Moly, I am not ready for my gap year to end.

When we started this adventure, I knew there'd be ups and downs. I expected things to not always go as planned, and for there to be days when I'd wish we'd never set out to do this year abroad.

But y'all - there's not been enough downs! We've enjoyed this time much too much for me to want it to end.

And by enjoyed I don't just mean our trips to Copenhagen, Kiel, Cyprus, Prague, Berlin, Manchester or the Alps. Although they were wonderful, and served as great reminders of all the things Europe has to offer.

But as awesome as those trips were, they are not first and foremost in my mind, when I reflect on the past 8 months. Instead, it is clear to me that the most valuable lesson I will take with me from this trip is learning to appreciate the gift of time.

Time to just be. Either by myself, or with my boys. On a Cypriot beach or at the kitchen table.

Time to really look at the child, as he tells the same joke for the 10th time, and, instead of getting annoyed that he's not done eating yet so I can go do laundry, focus on the cheekiness that emanates from his eyes, watch the eyebrows bop up and down as he excitedly waits for his brother to collapse on the floor with laughter.

I belong to the school of living life in a mad scramble, always trying to squeeze as many things into the day as possible. Every moment is an opportunity to do. Whether it be host an extra dinner party or wash another load of laundry, no time should be left unused.

This transition to life in the slow lane has been quite the eye-opener to me, and I've come to the conclusion that I like it! I don't have a lot of patience to begin with, so anything that makes me more patient is really a benefit, especially for the boys. And slowing things down a notch or two does make me more patient.

As an extra bonus, Mike and I have survived 8 months together. And by together I mean every.single.day. And not only have we survived, we've thrived, rediscovering each other's quirks (well, his quirks, anyway - I am perfect of course. Except for the patience thing), going for walks when the boys are at school, watching movies.

Heck, we even grocery shop together now, and [voice gushing with pride] Mike has become a Champion Grocery Bagger! I'm sure he'd beat any Loblaws cashier blindfolded with an arm tied behind his back.

Of course one of the real highlights of this trip has been spending so much time with our family, both Mike's in the UK (whom we'll see more of shortly), and mine here in Scandinavia. All those trips to the cottage have rarely been unaccompanied, and the few weekends spent in the lowlands have usually included visiting cousins, parents or siblings.

So it's with very mixed feelings that we now start packing up our belongings to take with us back to North America.

But of course, it is not all bad. We are all excited to catch up with our friends, many of whom have done an exceptional job of keeping in touch with us while we've been away.

We are also looking forward to living in our own house again (despite B boy's claim that he doesn't remember it), and finally getting the much anticipated kitchen and floor reno completed. The boys can't wait to swim in the pool again, although I don't know if they realize they'll still have to wait a few weeks after our return for that to happen!

Personally, I am also looking forward to once again living in a country where you can actually go out to eat meals without bankrupting yourself. Daily cooking for the last 8 months has been a hard thing to get used to, Beck and Katie's awesome recipe blogs notwithstanding, and I'm ready for a bit of a break. Not to mention food slightly more exotic than Mexican. Dim sum, anyone?

I realize we've been living in a bit of a time-warp, with minimal external pressures or stresses, and while I fully expect us to slip back into the Autobahn of fast living, if we are able to maintain just a little bit of the zen-like calm of these past months, then we're already ahead of the game.

Many of you have expressed a wish to do a similar trip with your family. To those of you with such dreams, I can only in the strongest words possible encourage you to DO IT!

If you can swing the expenses (and I will not kid you - it is a very expensive investment in your quality of life) and are willing to risk the potential career hit, then I can almost guarantee that you will not regret it. It really is mind-altering to watch the rat race from the sidelines for a few months.

So much so, that I'm already planning our next break a few years down the line. How does six months to a year on the beaches of Hawaii sound to you?

Mar 30, 2008

Dear Mother Nature,

I guess it's that time again. You know, time to wave bye-bye to winter and hello to spring!

It's been a long, white winter, and we're ready for a bit of warmth and sunshine. But this year, I would be ever so appreciative if you'd please arrange the transition from this:




...to this:



...without a whole lot of that:



Because after a weekend cooped up inside due to a torrential downpour of the wet stuff, boys develop a rather nasty case of cabin fever.

Thank you in advance for your swift attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

One Frazzled Parent

Mar 29, 2008

Bestest of Brothers

Christopher is having a sleepover tonight. In Benjamin's room. They are allowed to sleep over in each other's rooms on weekends, when we're not quite as strict about their bedtime.

They have actually had sleepovers with each other for years now. When Benjamin went through his 'I-don't-want-to-sleep-alone' period two years ago, he spent the better part of a year sleeping on a mattress on the floor in Christopher's room. Not once did Christopher complain about his younger brother camping out in his space.

When we first had children, I wasn't one of those brave mothers who planned to have children close in age so they could grow up together. Not that I didn't want that - I just didn't really consider it. My own siblings are three and six years younger than me, respectively, and I always felt very much like the 'eldest' of us three. My brother and sister had more to do with each other socially, but I was older and had another group of friends. Thus, I never entertained the idea of having a sibling as a best friend.

Despite the three-and-a-half years between my boys, they have become very close, and the year in Norway has strengthened that bond tremendously. Benjamin worships his brother, and although Christopher can be frustratingly overbearing with his baby bro at times, he is generally happy to have Benjamin as company. They are very goofy when left to their own devices, but is there a lovelier sound than your children laughing and playing together?

Though the boys are as different as night and day, I catch myself imagining them as best friends even as adults, setting up house in the same town. In fact, in my vision, they live down the street from each other. And here's the kicker - in my dream, my house is on that street, too! Right in between theirs.

A mother can hope, right?

Mar 27, 2008

Why Do You Always Have A Headache?

...he asked.

Surprisingly, it isn't because of the way he teaches fractions (though that does make me want to smack his head against something very hard).

No, my headache is caused by spending days on end, trying to translate gibberish such as:

The software aids in the assessment of human brain scans enabling automated analysis through quantification of mean pixel values located within standard regions of interest facilitating comparison with existing scans derived from FDG-PET and SPECT studies.

Ugh!

[Aside to Mr. Technical Writer: Did you really think those fancy words would hide the fact that you don't understand how the machine works?]

Breathe in...breathe out...

After a few weekends of outdoor fun, this will be a working one. The boys will no doubt be thrilled to be left alone with their electronic loves, while Mike and I try to make headway in the piles of work screaming for attention.

If the weather gods are amenable (read: stop the snow already!), we may find time for a brisk walk, but other than that, I will be a slave to my computer.

I trust everyone else has much more exciting weekend plans, and look forward to reading all about them.

Happy Weekend!

Advanced Curriculum

Wednesday, 4 pm, somewhere in Norway

After a few tense and teary moments (tense = me, teary = the boy), we finally figured out exactly what needed to be studied for today's math test.

Fractions!

The assigned study sheet was procured through yet another trek back to school, whereafter we discussed the basics of denominators and adding and subtracting. The practice questions - courtesy of the study sheet - were in the vein of:

1/4 + 2/4 = ?

The boy was doing fine, but I was getting frazzled, trying to get him to study and finish my own work, when Mike offered to step in as homework monitor.

And promptly discarded the study sheet in favour of his own practice questions:

1/2 + 2/5 – 4/7 +1/7 = ?

Forget about learning to walk before you run, because, you know, his boy is soooo beyond that.

And never mind the boy looking more bewildered and confused than ever...

Mar 26, 2008

Not So Wordless In the Mountains

Since when did 4 adults + 3 children = 6 cell phones?

Mar 25, 2008

An Easter To Remember

Yes, it was COOOOLD.... Fortunately, our cottage is equipped with both heated floors and a highly efficient wood burning stove. Once we'd crawled out of bed and put on a fire, we were toasty warm in no time.

And truthfully, the cold was a blessing in disguise, because it meant a stop to the raging snowstorm that had kept us cooped up inside for most of the previous day, while the cottage slowly disappeared in the masses of snow coming down from the heavens:



Of course, a little snow didn't stop the kids from having a blast:







But the adults got noticeably more active once the sun peaked out and heated things. Fabulously long skiing trips ensued, with and without children:



We also managed some outdoor lunches, barbecuing hotdogs and sandwiches, and even a bit of suntanning. That's viking blood for ya!



The kids, meanwhile, continued their frolicking with slides down the mountain side:





And the cottage roof:



However, Easter in Scandinavia is really all about food and aquavit (however did you know, Rima?), and even far away from civilization in the mountains we enjoyed excellent meals:



Thus, despite vigorous skiing, I am certain not an ounce of weight was shed. Which may have been a problem had spring been around the corner, but with the forecast calling for snow, snow, and more snow, I'm not worrying just yet.

Though I am considering putting in a call to Al Gore. He may need to revise his inconvenient truth a little bit, as the Norwegian weather gods clearly aren't playing on his team...

(I usually have to crane my neck and look waaaaay up to read this sign).

Mar 24, 2008

Waning Winter?

Saturday morning at the cottage:



(US translation: -11.2°F outdoors and 53.6°F indoors).

Mar 18, 2008

Happy Easter Everyone!

I'll be back to regale (bore?) you with one final snowfilled cottage trip when we return on Sunday.

Until then, may your Easter be filled with chocolate.

Mar 17, 2008

Is Singularity Overrated?

Norway is extremely homogenous, with fewer than 5% of Norwegian citizens having a non-Germanic ethnic background. For us, coming from 10+ years in Canada, of which the last 6 were spent in the Toronto area - home of multiculturalism - it's been interesting to once again experience such homogeneity up close.

I knew, coming in, that this would be a transition, but it still amuses me just how similar people are here.

By similar...

...I don't just mean physically - although the vast majority of our community is white and fair. Benjamin's class has two students who are of a visibly different ethnicity (they are both from India), but Christopher's class does not have a single child whom I would suspect originally hailed from another country.

...or how we all dress our kids the same - although on any given day, one of my children will bring home a friend wearing the exact same sweater, shoes, gloves or bag. Apparently everyone in Norway shops for their boys at H&M.

...or how we all drive the same (silver) car, even though I on more than one occasion have gotten mad at the car key for refusing to open someone else's Golf.

What really makes me laugh is how we all do the same thing for the holidays. Such as the Easter holidays, where every man, woman and child head to the mountains for one last ski fest before spring can be welcomed with open arms.

The entire country shuts down. Try to schedule a work meeting with a Norwegian colleague during Easter. It's not going to happen. A broken down furnace? You're cold out of luck.

Nothing gets done in Norway during Easter, because there's no one around to do it. Walk into downtown Oslo, and it's like being in a ghost town.

There's no point in fighting it.

So go on, join the traffic on the single-lane highways heading up into the mountains for some sunny skiing in shorts. That's where the rest of Norway will be. And tomorrow afternoon, that's where we're planning to go, too.

Because in Norway, apparently, we're like everyone else.

Mar 16, 2008

Sunny Sunday

It's a beautiful day in Norway!



We spent a few hours at a new playground park with my favourite boys, enjoying the sunshine and the taste of spring.



A good thing, too, because the weather forecast calls for snow for the rest of the week.

I'm choosing not to believe it until I see it.

Mar 15, 2008

Ich Bin Ein Berliner

As you clever internets figured out, we hopped on a flight to Berlin. For those of you who guessed Prague - that was our destination of choice back in October, when we spent a 3-day-weekend in that beautiful city.

Back to Berlin.

Sadly, we had bad weather, so you'll have to use your imagination when viewing the pictures below. Grey and rainy skies do not make for good photography. In addition, the bus and U-bahn drivers were on strike, making it slightly more of an effort to get around. Good for the old leg muscles, though walking in stormy weather wasn't the funnest thing ever. Still, without whiny boys, we were pretty much game for anything.



We flew into Schoenefeld airport, in former East-Berlin, and hopped on the train into town. On Mike's suggestion, I had booked a hotel near the Kurfurstendamm, the premier shopping street of former West-Berlin.

The very first thing that caught my eye as we stepped out of Zoo Station was the ruins of the Kaiser Wilhelm church:




Clearly this was once a building of monumental dimensions, but following a British RAF air strike in 1943, all that was left was the burned out remains of the belfry. At first, I was amazed that the city had kept these ruins, because it seemed to be such a harsh reminder of the war, but I soon realized that this was only one of numerous such mementos of the city's violent past.

We started our tour of the city by catching the train - the only public transportation still running - to the brand new Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the largest Central Station in Europe.



It is a sight to behold, all wrapped in wavy glass and steel, spanning several concourses and with the requisite shopping and free wi/fi making it a highlight of modern Berlin.



The Central Station is situated straight across for the German Reichstag building, which I posted a yummy chocolate version of yesterday. Although the external walls of the building date back to the 1800s, the building was completely gutted and renovated after German unification, and the dome was added as a nod to the cupola of the original building.



Entrance to the dome is free, provided you have the patience to line up in the rain and undergo an airport-like security screening. It offers a 360 degree view of Berlin, and directly below it, through a glass floor, the German parliament may be observed when in session. Sadly, the rain and wind were at their worst when we made it to the top of the dome, so we could only imagine the spectacular views you'd have on a sunny day. Still, the construction of the dome and the circular pathway to its top alone made it a worthwhile visit.





The Reichstag is just a stone's throw from the famed Brandenburger Tor. Brandenburger Tor was one of only a couple of structures on Pariser Platz to survive the relentless bombing leading up to the Nazi defeat in 1945. Dating back to the 1700s, this is one of the true jewels of the city. Even on a rainy and miserable day, the building took you back to another time, when citizens were only allowed to pass through the two outermost gates, while the Emperor entered through the middle arched entry and drove up Unter den Linden boulevard to the Palace:



Brandenburger Tor was of course also the site of President Reagan's famous - and incredibly well-timed - 1987 speech: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The most striking thing about modern day Berlin is the constant juxtaposition of venerable heritage buildings with new, modern, glass-and-steel construction. We saw several examples of this along the way, including this Frank Gehry signature inside a DZ Bank building connected to Brandenburger Tor:



What is it? I have no idea, and apparently neither does anyone else. Its sheer construction, though, is mind boggling, leaving us as puzzled and amused as when we caught sight of this entertaining addition to the German Historical Museum:



Much of new Berlin is like this - airy and fun. The Potsdamer Platz shopping mecca is a feat of engineering marvel, with the Sony roof astounding spectators as it lights up the night with the colours of the rainbow. For us, however, it proved a great place to find shelter from the biting rain and wind, as well as an opportunity to pick up an extra sweater for our trek onwards:



But as I alluded to earlier, don't be fooled by the lightness of new construction - you don't have to dig deep to find layers of Berlin's painful past. Memorials are everywhere - such as parts of the Berlin wall, still preserved by the entrance to the above-mentioned Potsdamer Platz:



Standing in front of the Sony and Daimler Chrysler Centres, it was difficult to imagine a time just 20 years ago, when neighbours could not meet and families could not visit. And yet, throughout Berlin, along the former site of the wall are memorial markings that do not allow us to forget:



For me the most heart-wrenching experience was the Holocaust memorial we visited a block south of the Brandenburger Tor:



It consists of 2711 slabs of concrete of various heights. It is stark, serious and shockingly effective.



We also visisted the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum on the site of the headquarters of the SS and Gestapo during World War II. Having grown up in Europe, I studied the war extensively in school, but actually being on the site where so many of the atrocities took place brought it home in a much more real and personal way.

The museum displays are housed in the ruined cellars of the Gestapo headquarters, where many political prisoners were tortured and executed. Large placards with photos of victims being deported to their deaths still stun today. I don't think any visitor to the museum can help but feel horrified by the sheer evil that occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, particularly in central Europe.

Our lightening fast visit to Berlin was obviously quite the study in contrasts. I was not prepared to be so openly and brutally confronted with Europe's bloody past, but at the same time, I was also surprised by how far Berlin has come in its unification efforts. If it hadn't been for the wall markers along the streets, and the memorials, it would be impossible to tell former East Berlin from West Berlin, at least in the city centre.

It is absolutely to Berlin's credit that, while the city today is a world metropolis with great shopping, restaurants and architecture, it does not attempt to hide the atrocities of years gone by. Rather, these legacies have been incorporated into the present day, and help form a mosaic of human history that is absolutely unique to Berlin.

Moreover, Berliners are friendly, welcoming and helpful, my pathetic German notwithstanding, and the hotels are absolutely world class.

I only hope I have a chance to visit again (in better weather!) to enjoy a stroll along the beautiful Unter den Linden boulevard and perhaps go for a run around the Tiergarten park, or on the Charlottenburg Castle grounds.


Mar 14, 2008

Still Tired...

...but I'm not anticipating getting a lot of sympathy, since it is self-inflicted.

Living far away from most of our family in Canada, we rarely have a chance to go anywhere sans les enfants. Which is why, when my parents graciously offered to babysit, we wasted no time!

Never mind that we'd just returned from a week in France. Or that tackling Mt. Laundry would be a near impossible task to manage in 24 hours.

We gladly jumped back into the rat race called 'airport-hopping-in-Europe'.

Any guesses as to where we headed?

A few hints:

- Its location is within 2 hours from Oslo by air.
- Its history is arguably among the most devastating and divisive in the twentieth century.
- Fortunately, over the past 20 years or so, it has enjoyed an amazing rejuvenation.

The parliament building looks like this in chocolate:



And here's an inside view of the actual parliament dome - just one of the city's architectural triumphs from the past couple of decades:



So come on, don't be shy...give me your BEST guess!

Mar 9, 2008

France + Lost + Blogger = Severe Headache

Warning: If you are not in the mood for a rambling post that's all over the place, please come back and visit me another time, when I'll most likely be operating on more than 3 hours of sleep. Thank you.

There I was, trying to multitask by uploading pictures of our skiing holiday while catching up on the latest episode of Lost...only to be thwarted by Blogger's blatant refusal to accept my favourite holiday shots.

Sigh.

Blame Blogger if you like, but this was the weakest episode of Lost yet this year. Too many things just didn't add up - like why Penny's father would want to 'exploit' the island? Or why Dan and Charlotte wouldn't just tell the Losties that they were going to neutralize the gas, rather than knocking Kate unconscious and almost killing Juliette? And honestly, how come everyone's suddenly letting Locke call all the shots, including releasing Ben from capture?

Since both Lost and Blogger have let me down in my state of severe grogginess (arriving back home at 4 am will do that to you), I take comfort in knowing that as soon as my head hits the pillow tonight, I will be dreaming of this:



Don't I look like I know what I'm doing? With Mont Blanc in the background, to boot.

Despite my predictions to the contrary, we had amazing weather throughout our holiday. Although it was frequently overcast in the mornings, by the afternoon, the sun would peek out and warm up cold faces to the point that we are all sporting sunburns on noses and cheeks.

Upon our arrival last Saturday, however, I really did wonder if we'd be hiking instead of skiing. There was no snow anywhere around the airport or along the highway as we drove towards the resort. It was only as we turned up the mountain, the white stuff revealed itself. The effects of the very mild European winter this year were evident, as only the mountain tops were covered in snow:



Our boys had the best holiday! Christopher was already a competent skier, but B boy made enormous strides this week, and officially made moi the slowest skier in the family. I knew that day was coming, but I thought I had a year or so to get used to the idea. Sadly, no. Benjamin now bombs down the runs like nobody's business, leaving me in the wake of his snow spray.



Like his dad and brother before him, he doesn't read signs very well:



Though we were on the slopes for 6-7 hours a day, we didn't just ski. We did a bit of this:



And a bit of that:



A couple of evenings, the ski school that the boys attended put on events, including a lantern ski for the kids. Behold B boy with his 'lantern':



So, another great adventure under our belts in this year of grand exploration. The boys were sad to have to say goodbye to their auntie, uncle and grandparents, but we are looking forward to seeing them in the UK at the end of next month.