In Bruges

Thursday 30 January 2014

Have you seen In Bruges with Colin Farrell?  It's a profanity laced, dark comedy that takes place in, you got it - Bruges.  While the film wasn't necessarily a favourite of mine, every time I think of that Belgian city, I want to say, "F***ing Bruges."
Back in November when we made our return trip to Brussels, both Joe and I were excited to get to Bruges.  When you hear people speak of this city, it's often in conjunction with the word 'fairytale.'  Bruges is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe and it's filled with cobblestone streets, quaint canals and historic buildings.

The journey from Brussels via train is just over an hour long and despite visiting well into Fall, it was so busy!  In fact, the train was so full Joe and I ended up standing with several others in front of the doors between two carriages for practically the entire journey.  It was not pleasant and our feet were tired before we even arrived in the city.  Thankfully, there were plenty of seats for the return trip that evening.

I was surprised to find Bruges so commercial.  As we made our way to Markt square, we battled crowds streaming in and out of the shops and I thought to myself, 'This is not the fairytale I had in mind.'
However, as we ventured out further from the crowds, we found the Bruges we were looking for - the quiet canals lined with homes, the tiny cobblestone streets, the towers rising above the city into the sky.  I felt like every corner we turned just kept getting better and better.
As nightfall arrived and we made our way back to the train station to return to Brussels, we both remarked that it might have been nice to stay one night in Bruges.  The city felt quiet and romantic in the dark and an early morning bike ride before the day-trippers arrived would be lovely.

PS There are so many great B&Bs and guesthouses in Bruges.  This one looks fantastic, the garden at this one is gorgeous and who wouldn't want to stay in this former castle?

Behind the Wheel Abroad

Monday 27 January 2014

Our Euro Car
I got my driver's license when I was 16 years old.  This is common where I come from - small town Saskatchewan, Canada.  In fact, driving is a major part of most North American's lives.  Our countries are expansive as are our cities and in many cases, public transportation is severely lacking.  Flights are expensive and train travel is practically non-existent.  We're used to driving thousands of kilometres for a trip, through rain, snow and sunshine.

I got my first car in my second year of University.  Prior to that, I always used one of my parents' vehicles (we were a 3 car family.)  Our town of 5000 had no public transportation and was home to two taxis.  Yes, literally 2 taxis.  Despite the post office being 2 blocks from our house, it was normal to drive.  The only places I walked to were school (2 blocks) and the rink (1 block.)  When I moved to Edmonton, a city of a million in Alberta, my time on foot increased mostly due to parking costs but driving was still a major part of my life.  In fact, I couldn't fathom not having a vehicle.  It meant freedom.

When we moved to Gabon, Joe was given a company vehicle which I wasn't allowed to drive.  Like my childhood home, public transit was nearly non-existent and the taxi system and walking was not particularly safe nor efficient so we bought a second vehicle for myself.  It meant everything.  That vehicle made my social life possible in a place where social life was paramount.  Changing my license was no big deal in Gabon - I gave my Canadian permit to an HR representative who showed it to someone in a public office who then attached a passport photo to a white piece of paper which would become my temporary permit.  (Technically, the 3 month temp should have allotted enough time to get my permanent Gabonese license but in actuality, I never received it after 2 years of living there.  We just continually paid the fee and renewed it.)

In Norway, Joe's company leases us a vehicle which I am allowed to drive.  When we arrived, I was nervous to get behind the wheel here.  There are hardly any traffic lights, the roundabouts are intimidating to this Canadian, and the teeny, tiny parking spaces are difficult to navigate.  Securing a home near the train line made it easy for me to avoid.  I walk the 8 minutes to the platform and can be in Sentrum in another 8 minutes - it's actually quicker than if I'd driven myself.  I walk to the grocery store almost daily and for the most part, I really enjoy it.

While I do have a car at my disposal, it requires me to drive Joe the 20 minutes to work at 7 am and pick him up that evening.  It's a hassle and it's usually not necessary.  In the first year of living here, I drove once.  On top of that, getting a license in Norway requires me to pass a driving exam - something no adult ever wants to do again.  As a Canadian (or American or Australian,) we have to surrender our home license within 6 months of moving here and complete the driver's exam within a year.  I procrastinated and missed my window.  Should I want to get a Norwegian driver's permit now, I'd have to complete the classroom sessions as well as the practical exam which would cost me near $2000.

Being from a culture that really values driving, I thought I would feel trapped without a vehicle at my disposal when in fact, I don't at all.  I enjoy walking.  I'm happy to lessen my carbon footprint in a small way and I like the fresh air and the light exercise.  There are times when the weather is absolutely miserable but thankfully, my schedule is pretty flexible and I don't have to leave the house if I don't want to.  The times where I have no choice but to brave the wind and the rain aren't fun but they're few and far between.

I do keep a valid Canadian driver's license allowing me to drive when I'm home and I can still rent cars when abroad although, Joe normally takes the wheel when we're traveling.  He's less nervous about navigating around foreign cities and countries.

Do you (or would you) drive overseas?

[By the way, I posted the answers to last posts' Norwegian name game in the comments.  If you're reading in email, you'll have to click over to the website and scroll down.]

The Norwegian Name Game

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Typical Norwegian Countryside

I have the most terrible time pronouncing and differentiating between male and female names in Norway.  Joe laughs at me when his phone rings and I call out the name and completely misuse my pronouns.  I would hear a name and be certain it was female only to find out it was male.  It turns out, I'm not the only one having trouble in the name department.

One of my friends here used to organize field trip activities with the women's group and often, she was in contact with different people through email.  As we were waiting in the car outside the War Museum in Stavanger one day, she abashedly admitted that she didn't know who we were looking for.  She had never encountered the name in the email before and therefore, had no idea if we should be seeking out a man or a woman.

Another friend of mine told me how her company had organized a team building trip outside of Norway in which they were asked to share rooms.  A list was posted in the office and she found herself having to ask for help because wouldn't it be awkward if she accidentally signed herself up to bunk with a man?

Apparently, this is a common enough issue for foreigners as the very first exercise in one of Joe's Norsk workbooks is distinguishing the common gender of a name.  While there are certainly variations that one sees for either male and female (hello, my name is Jay,) I'm curious as to how you'd do on a little quiz.  Let me know in the comments which names you'd peg as male and which names you assume are female.












I'll leave the answers in the comments later on so check back and see how you did.

Other interesting notes on the topic of Norwegian names:

+The concept of a middle name (which most people outside of your family don't know) is not used here.  If you see a first name and a second name, Inger Tone Bjelland, you would refer to that person as Inger Tone.

+There is a certain amount of government control when it comes to naming your baby.  Apparently this is to look out for the child's wellbeing so likelihood of finding a Rainbow Pony Starchild here is quite slim.  (Norway is not the only country that does this!)

On the Horizon

Monday 20 January 2014

Every time I make any sort of travel booking, the subsequent confirmation email is flagged and then moved to a Travel folder.  When the trip is finished, I'll un-flag those emails leaving them only in the Travel folder in case I want to check back for reference.  It makes for easy access to all future travel plans.  As 2013 was coming to an end, I clicked over to my Flagged folder to find it nearly empty.  We had a fantastic year of travel in 2013 and while our list of 'places to visit' is always growing, we hadn't put anything into action for 2014.

This year presents some obstacles in terms of travel planning.  Our contracts in any given country are always written 'up to 3 years.'  We were in Gabon for 2 years and when we left, it was because we were ready to go and pursue other opportunities.  We're coming up to 2 years in Stavanger this July and while we aren't anxious to be on the move quite yet, the company might have other plans.  This is one of the hazards of our chosen lifestyle - not necessarily having control over when and where we move.  In any case, our bags aren't packed yet but we also don't have a real guarantee as to how long we'll be here.  We're working off a 3 month schedule as we know Joe's company re-evaluates things quarterly which currently keeps us here pretty definitively until March.  This makes long-term travel planning a little difficult.  

While I like to think we're staying pretty relaxed about the whole situation, it is a bit of a bummer when it comes to bringing travel plans to fruition.  We really can't book anything too far in advance as we could potentially be living on another continent when the trip finally comes around.  But, I'm determined to make the most of the time we do have as it really brings a whole new meaning to 'not knowing what's around the corner.'

Our first trip to Mexico in 2005

Now, Mexico probably wouldn't have been on our travel list in 2014 being that we've already been twice and there are sun destinations much closer and much cheaper while living in Europe but Joe's one and only sister is getting married so we're crossing the Atlantic for the big event.  Joe's entire family will be there so it'll be great to catch up with them and my parents will be at their timeshare up the road so I'll also get to spend some time with them as well.

This was probably the easiest trip we've 'planned' in awhile being that the resort and time was already chosen for us and let's be honest, this trip is more about sun, sand, family & unlimited sugary, slushy beverages than it is about travel.
{Photo Courtesy of Liz Denfeld}

Amsterdam is one of those cities (similar to London) that we didn't go to great efforts to organize a trip to as it seemed like we'd eventually make it there someday.  We often touch down at Schiphol but we have never set foot in the actual city.  A few weeks ago, I was perusing flights and happened to stumble across a great deal for a weekend round trip and we jumped on it.  We're both quite excited to finally walk alongside those canals and check out this iconic European city.

{Photo Courtesy of Liz Denfeld}

I visited Italy for the first time when I was sixteen.  I was with a group of friends and while the trip was certainly a catalyst for future travels, my memories seem to centre around bizarre toilets, Italian men and their catcalls, the ability to consume alcohol legally, shopping at Mango and a plate of fried eggplant that commenced a decade long deterrence to the vegetable.  It is definitely time to revisit this country without my egocentric teenage goggles.

We're taking advantage of some of the public holidays this Spring and will spend 12 days in Italy which seems like a lifetime when we've become so used to jetting off for long weekends.  We'll be visiting Venice, Florence, the Amalfi Coast and Naples for the hopefully perfect combination of city sightseeing and relaxation.

This pretty much brings us to the end of our safe zone - actually, a little outside of the safe zone but we're banking on things taking time even if we do get moving orders.  As for the rest of the year, I've got a pretty cool trip penciled in for my birthday weekend in June and a lengthy list of other European destinations but all of that will have to wait just a little longer.

What do you have on the horizon for 2014?

Crossing the Bridge to Malmö, Sweden

Thursday 16 January 2014

There are destinations you've heard about all of your life - the ones that are at the top of your list when you start to plan international travel.  You have all sorts of expectations because you've heard so much about the city through friends, movies, books and blogs.  Sometimes those expectations are met, sometimes they're exceeded and sometimes, the destination ends up underwhelming you.  Then, there are the cities you never knew existed yet through a conglomeration of events, you find yourself there and pleasantly surprised.

The first I heard of Malmö, Sweden was when it was announced that the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championships would be held there and it wasn't until I started investigating for Joe's surprise trip that I learned it was quite literally, just across the bridge from Denmark.  We flew into Copenhagen airport and directly from there, boarded a train, which whisked us across the 8 kilometre long Øresund bridge to Sweden.  Malmö itself is the third largest city in Sweden after Stockholm and Gothenburg and is home to some 300,000 residents.

Our expectations for the city were practically nonexistent yet as we left the train station in the centre of the city, we both found ourselves pleasantly surprised.  While it's small, it's quite a pretty city.  It certainly has that Scandinavian feel we've come accustomed to but maintains a feeling of coziness.  The centre is full of shops and restaurants and the city was extremely easy to explore on foot.

The main purpose for our visit to Malmö was for the hockey game yet I booked our return flight from Copenhagen for 7 pm New Years Day to allow for time to explore.  I figured that if Malmö didn't have much to offer, we'd take the train over to Copenhagen for the day.  Being a bank holiday, almost everything, save for a few cafés and restaurants, were closed and the streets were quiet yet it was perfect for perusing on foot.  We wandered through parks (there were quite a few,) up and down streets from the old style centre to the new development area on the water and marvelled over the millions of remnants leftover from the fireworks everyone was setting off the night before.  (Side note: Letting unsupervised children light fireworks in the middle of a city seems like a very dangerous thing to do yet it was happening a lot!)

Malmö probably won't make it on many 'must-see' lists but it was certainly a great place to spend the first day of 2014.

Planning a Surprise & Some National Pride

Tuesday 14 January 2014

World Junior Hockey Championships are synonymous with the holidays in Canada.  The tournament features up and coming hockey players under the age of twenty and it starts on Boxing Day.  Families spending time at home together will crowd around television sets to watch the Canada games and often times, this is where we get our first glimpses of the future "greats" to the likes of Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby.  It's such a big deal in Canada that we host the tournament more than any other country.  In fact, up until recently, different Canadian cities have hosted every other year.

Last Christmas, we were at home with our families and Joe was extra excited to tune into the World Juniors after having missed it while abroad.  When it was announced that the following year the tournament would be held in Sweden, Joe suggested we go.  I answered with a nonchalant, "Maybe," and we dropped the subject.  Later in the year, particularly after my epic 30th birthday celebration, I started pondering what we could do for Joe's 30th birthday when the two merged into one glorious plan.

While in Canada last June, I started formulating my master plan.  My research told me that Canada would play USA on New Years Eve - at home, this would be the game that would rival all games, only trumped by a gold medal match.  Emails went out to his colleague to see if he could be away for two days and I started researching the destination, Malmo.  Over the next few months, game tickets were bought, hotel reserved, flights purchased and official jerseys brought over from Canada.  Purchases were hidden in my Visa statements but the real challenge was holding Joe off.  Not long after I began bringing the plan to fruition, Joe started laying on the heat hoping to go to Sweden.  I was putting out fires left, right and centre, emailing friends after he emailed them hoping to organize something, creating all sorts of little white lies along the way.  There were times where I was certain he'd buy tickets and I'd have to give up the secret but thankfully, we made it until Christmas morning when all was revealed.

He was stunned and ecstatic (or as ecstatic as my under-emotional husband can be.)  I was relieved and so happy to have pulled it all off and on the morning of December 31st, we boarded our flight to Copenhagen ready to cheer on Canada.
I expected to find a few Canadians in Malmo, Sweden, after all, there had to be others out there like us - expats living nearby and away from home for the holidays.  I did not expect to be surrounded by Canadians.  From the moment we stepped off the train, we saw people draped in Canada paraphernalia wandering the streets well away from the arena.  We sat beside Canadians in cafés and listened in on hockey talk and we boarded public transit alongside our countrymen.  There were so many people draped in red and white that we could have been in Calgary.

It only got better as we settled into our seats at the arena.  Despite the first game being Slovakia vs Czech Republic, the majority of the fans were Canadian and as we passed some time in the Fan Zone awaiting our game, we were hard pressed to find people other than Canadians.  In fact, the entire pre-game show was directed towards us.  And then of course, there was the big game.

We took over Malmo Isstadion and as our flag was raised marking our win at the end of the game to the tune of O Canada, a few tears might have sprung to my eyes.  This Canadian, who sometimes forgets what it's like to be surrounded by her people, couldn't have been prouder.
The months of planning and little white lies were beyond worth it!  We had an absolute blast - in fact, I enjoyed it so much that I apologized for having so much fun with his present!

Today, on this fourteenth day of January, I wish my husband a very Happy 30th Birthday!

Current Favourites

Sunday 12 January 2014

A Few of My Favourite Things

+ I use my little stovetop espresso maker daily for lattés.  I love the ritual and the sound of it bubbling and I love that the technology is simple yet efficient.  I would take this over a Nespresso machine any day.  
+This 100% cashmere sweater is so darn soft.  I wear it weekly, if not more as it's the perfect weight - it's warm without being too warm.
+Last year, I searched all winter for the perfect black coat to no avail.  When I came across this one on the All Saints website, I had to have it.  I ordered it online and had it shipped to our hotel in Brussels in order to avoid the high taxes and import fees in Norway.  The cut is really interesting and the Italian leather sleeves are ridiculously soft.
+ I bought these Hudson jeans at Selfridges last year while in London and I practically live in them.  I roll up the bottoms (because I'm short) and because they fit a little loose, they're more like boyfriends.  The denim is so, so soft and comfortable.
+ When I cut eight inches off my hair this Fall, I really wanted to try curling my hair.  My hair is naturally very straight and it really struggles to hold curl but this wand manages to do it.  It's quick and easy to use and I love that it looks pretty natural.
+ My Christmas present from Joe this year was an iPhone 5S.  I was dying for an upgrade from my 4 and I've been so happy with this new version.  
+ Lately, we've been capping off the night with a cup of Pukka Nighttime tea.  I'm not sure if it's the tea itself or the routine of ending the night quietly with a warm drink but I feel like I sleep better with it.  I also really like this Elderberry & Echinacea tea.
+ While the winter weather in Stavanger has been anything but dry, my skin has been loving this shower oil.  The scent is mild and pleasant and I haven't had to slather on lotion as much as normal.

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