Lost and Found in Scandinavia: Week 2

Staggering down the crowded city street, my head shifts left, right, up, behind, and forward until all of those directions seem the same. It all seems the same. The stretched out streets, jagged buildings, cafe here, park there, and clarity nowhere. Reaching one street, I check the map and realize I’ve been going the wrong direction for several blocks. Turning around, I question whether I read the map right. But of course it is in a language that looks like gibberish. I’m too proud to ask for help and be the damsel in distress. This isn’t distress, I’m just lost. It’s ok. My pride is worth wandering a couple extra miles, maybe.

How I eventually reached my destination is a mystery, though finding it was usually a smack in the face sensation. “Oh. Duh. There it is.”

I would have been fine if that was the end of my foolish wandering. But even once I reached the place I was staying, new problems abounded. The laundry machines had cryptic symbols, the kitchen policies were unspoken, and when I attempted to go grocery shopping I couldn’t even figure out where the door to enter was (eventually I realized it was a doorway with a different name over the top which is why I thought it was a separate store).

The beginning of my second week was spent repeating this wandering scene across Stockholm. Similar challenges were present on my first international venture in India, but I didn’t expect them to occur in Scandinavia. Somehow I believed that a similar culture to the United States and cleaner streets would make traveling a breeze. Needless to say, I was wrong.

The harsh reality of international travel is that no matter where you are, confusion and self-conscious fumbling are practically inevitable. Although there are people who seem to be naturally at ease in the whimsical setting of trial-and-error travel, I am not one of those people. Frankly, I think those people are secretly clueless too, they are just better at maintaining a confident air of undisturbed enjoyment.

Despite the awe-inspiring Instagram pictures and glamorous destinations, many of us prefer not to mention these moments of helpless wandering. It is understandable, because when you return from a grand trip overseas and are asked how it was, you don’t really want to say the truth: “Well I probably offended a number of locals, fumbled around foolishly, and altogether made an idiot of myself. But the sites were beautiful!”

That is the honest description of how my second week in Scandinavia went. Yet the redeeming part of such honesty is being able to say by the end of the week I was not fumbling around quite as much.


My second week in Scandinavia was my first in Sweden, and I began in Stockholm ready to take a break from the academic mindset by being a tourist for a few days. The paper map of the city became my best friend as I wandered through the city and acclimated to the tourist condition. A tourist is often confused, often lost, often in need of help, but thus always appreciative of the smallest joys.

Traveling alone is new to me, causing feelings similar to those on the first day of school or even two weeks in when you still question where your next class is and who to sit with at lunch. I often wondered as I walked if this would be different for an extroverted person, or someone who is good at talking to total strangers for extended periods of time. But I think that oversimplifies the situation, skill is relative to desire, and my desire to socialize with strangers is still low. Why, I’m not sure, but I chose not to feel bad about it and allow myself the time alone.

In the Nordic Museum I discovered everything from the history of furniture styles in Sweden, classical doll houses, folk arts and crafts, as well as a special exhibition on the Sami people (the indigenous group in Scandinavia that I am doing research on). The combination of historic and modern cultural artifacts seemed to represent a similar trend in the Nordic people’s mentality: tradition is respected, but never in the way of progressive change.

At the Vasa Museum, I gazed in awe at the massive ship that a king built with more loft than logic. It took two years to build up its grandeur and less than two hours to sink after its departure. It symbolizes the ambition of 17th century kings, as well as the way they were blinded by that ambition. I couldn’t help but wonder what a museum 300 years from now would display from our current period of ambitious mistakes.

The Vasa Ship

The Vasa Ship

The next day I perused the Royal Palace, primarily wondering what the real rooms they live in look like (and if they have IKEA furniture too). I later find out there is a whole separate palace on another island, so that doubles the questions. I then become convinced that the entire allure of people’s interest in royalty is the mystery that surrounds them.

The palace I visited is situated in Old Town Stockholm, a picturesque island off the mainland that also contains several other museums, storybook scenery, the Parliament building, and most importantly, the Parliament Library. I am going to devote a later post to all the libraries I’ve visited in Stockholm, but I just want to say this one was my favorite. Here is a sneak peak:

Parliament Library Sweden

Midweek I took the short train ride north to Uppsala where I would be visiting the university for a full week. Uppsala is actually the fourth largest municipality in Sweden, but to any American it is a typical university town with a small central area of beautiful old buildings and countryside close by. According to the Uppsala Kommun the population is just over 200,000.

Despite the manageable size of the city, my feelings of insecurity surged back as I walked through the expansive university campus. Uppsala University, founded in 1477, is the oldest university in Scandinavia and, status-wise, it is essentially the Harvard of Sweden.

My first appointment was an invitation to join a breakfast meeting at the Centre I’d be working with. Although I mistakenly showed up half an hour early, my feelings of foolishness eventually faded as I met everyone and was surprised to find that I was already better at answering those pesky questions about what I was doing there and why I don’t have my PhD yet. By the end of the meeting I was given a key to an office space I could use and settled in almost convinced myself I belonged. Keys can bestow that kind of self-delusional power.

Me and my official key card!

Me and my official key card!

Still, for the first time since arriving I felt ok about where I was at. Very little had changed since the beginning of the week: I remained just as inexperienced, confused and often in need of help–but I felt like I had fully adjusted to my academic research and occaisional tourist foreigner status. Juxtaposed with that harsh reality of international travel is the rewarding moment when you finally find a sense of comfort, whether that be with the place or with yourself.

After two days of work I spent the weekend seeing the few tourist sites in Uppsala, including the tallest cathedral in Sweden and a visit to the anatomical theatre that looked like a mini version of the circular courtroom in the Ministry of Magic. So again, Sweden maintained a certain mystical quality amidst the modern furniture and H&M stores. Cobblestone streets mingled with generous bike lanes and electric busses in a serenely Scandinavian way.

But as I have been learning, things and people in Sweden aren’t always as perfect as they (or their hair) look. More on that next week :)

(**This post covers the week from September 14-21. Again I apologize for posting this so late, some recent moments of unexpected travel confusion postponed my good intentions. Check back next week for that story!)


Solo in Scandinavia: Week 1

The coast and the country mingled together beneath the descending airplane. Water rippled and rested alongside fields and farms. The cows and sheep roamed in the emerald grass dotted with large white bundles that looked like giant marshmallows. I would later learn that these are actually hay that has been tightly packed and sealed enough that they can remain outside, but they are jokingly referred to as “helicopter eggs.”

Land here is not divided in the perfect squares or circles that you might see from above in the central United States. Instead it waves and curves with the undulating landscape, simply existing in a state of unprocessed pasture. Every crossroad is a roundabout, extending the ebb and flow of land and sea, people within the place and the place within people.

View overlooking the Stavanger area

View overlooking the Stavanger area

Two hours after landing in Stavanger, Norway I had walked along an alcove of beachfront, exhaled in the shade of a historic church, and took a “short walk” to climb a mountain. At the top I could see the small bits of civilization nestled between each hillside, lake, and fjord. It is a small town by American standards, but by Norwegian standards it is the Goldilocks version of “just right.”

The next day I got to explore downtown Stavanger’s quaint collection of shops and the International Oil Museum. Stavanger is considered the oil capital of Norway because 38 percent of Norwegian oil service companies are located in the region, and many international companies also have their headquarters there (ww.greaterstavanger.com). From an American perspective, where oil companies are often viewed cautiously as a big business destroying the environment, it was quickly apparent that a more positive aura surrounds the oil companies in Norway. Not only are they a significant contributor for the country’s financial wealth and employment opportunities, but in true Scandinavian modernity there is a hopeful perspective for the possibility of gathering a natural resource in a sustainable manner. The oil museum showcased this view point and was candid about the complexity of the situation in an enlightening way.

models inside the oil museum

models inside the oil museum

In a quick turnaround, I left the following day to travel north to Kautokeino for a three-day conference on topics related to Nordic indigenous literature. Kautokeino is technically in the Sápmi, or Finnmark, region and is considered the capital for the Sámi indigenous people. To get there, I had to fly from Stavanger to Oslo to Alta and then take a two hour bus ride. The landscape reminded me of Alaska’s inland areas as fall was already in full-swing and the trees grew smaller in the tundra’s expanse.

On the first day of the conference, that expanse grew beyond the landscape and into the realm of knowledge. I was struck by my level of inexperience in the field and overwhelmed by being the only one without a doctorate and who couldn’t speak Swedish. Intelligence, just like everything else, becomes relative in the face of others who seem superior.

This moment happens to all of us when we are in a new context though. It stems from illusions of self-sufficiency and confidence that is puffed up by fear or insecurity. Otherness is what humbles us enough to remind us of our need for that otherness.

I was incredibly blessed by two things: friends from home who responded to my panicked text messages with encouragement and affirmation, as well as some of the younger people at the conference who also encouraged me after I admitted my insecurities.

My feelings of inexperience changed to hope thanks to another unexpected source: a silver gallery we visited in Kautokeino. The building was not only impressive in its architecture and the jewelry showcased inside, but also because of its story. A couple started the business over fifty years ago despite having no experience. Their interest in the native Sami people drew them to the location, and the evident need in the area for a jeweler to repair old treasures started them on a path that would become a lifetime’s work. The building and business expanded each decade, growing larger and more successful with experience and time. In the same way, I knew that my inexperience was just because I am at the beginning of my own life’s work. It may change each decade and expand to include things I can’t imagine now, but in the end something beautiful can come from hard work.

After the first week, I felt that the same thing was true both long-term and short-term. This trip is a short-term piece of my life, but as I collected the experience that comes with time I felt more confident upon leaving than I had just a few days before. I’m sure that this will continue to prove itself as I go through the rest of the trip as well.

Since the conference group was small, and we all had to take the one bus to get on the one flight out to Oslo that day, we got to say our goodbyes in the airport. By the end the pressure of academic performance was behind all of us; what remained was the memory of a few short days in an unforgettable landscape and lessons about how simple the seemingly complicated can be.

overlooking Kautokeino

overlooking Kautokeino


Although technically I’m almost done with my second week here in Scandinavia, I wanted to give you all a update on the first week, and then on Sunday (hopefully) I will write a separate post about week two (which is right now). Tack!

Have you ever felt inexperienced or unprepared for something?

How has traveling, or just new experiences in general, helped you grow?

Dwelling in the Planned and Unplanned

In the last two weeks I traveled my way through 7 states, 5 beds, 4 time zones, 4 cars, and 1 airplane. Oddly enough, my travels are only beginning.

New Mexico trickled out a goodbye rain, Arizona was smoldering, San Diego’s temperate rays remained constant, Chicago was heavy with damp air, Michigan emptied the dampness into a summer storm, and now Ohio’s warmth escalates until an approaching precipitation.

The nomad life is invigorating for some people, the thrill of adventure beckons them into wandering from place to place, with as little luggage as possible, and savoring every moment of unplanned happenstance. I wish I was one of those people. Although I love traveling and seeing different parts of the world, I have typically been a creature of consistency. I prefer a morning routine to a morning flight, a steady work schedule to a steady travel schedule, and the same bed every night to a new one every week.

However for many of my friends, we spent the last four years of college consistently moving at least twice a year. Home for the summer, back to school in the fall, back for winter break, back in the spring, until the cycle begins again. Each year was a new dorm room, or a new apartment, with new roommates and new classes. Some of us even threw in a study abroad or a summer job away from home. So my illusion of consistency was temporal at best.

The best consolation I found during these times was the idea of the Israelites wandering in the desert. Psalm 90 is labeled as “A prayer of Moses, man of God.” It begins by saying –
     “Lord you have been our dwelling place
     throughout all the generations,
     before the mountains were born
     or you brought forth the earth and the world,
     from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

From here Moses goes on asking God to give them rest from their years of wandering in the desert. For those of us who are familiar with this story, we know that Moses was the one who led the Israelites out of Egypt — but sadly he never got to see them make it all the way to the promised land.

I can only imagine how hard this must have been for him. The Bible describes him as a “man of God,” and he certainly was one of the greatest leaders for the Israelites, yet he had to spend years traveling without any sort of home and without any clear end in sight. So it makes sense that he begins this prayer by calling on God as his dwelling place, because the only consistent part of their travels through the desert was that God always went with them in a cloud of smoke–when the cloud lifted from the tent the Israelites set out to move again, and wherever the cloud settled is where they camped.

What does it mean to dwell in God though?

In Deuteronomy 8, Moses reminds his people about the purpose of their wandering by saying to them:
“Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Here we can see that Moses recognized the importance of following God, because it is out of God’s great love that he leads us through the desert places to humble us and remind us to rely on him. For Moses and the Israelites, dwelling in God meant relying on Him completely–trusting that He had their best interest at heart and that He would provide the food they needed to make it on the journey.

Whether you are without a job, continuing school, preparing to move, or have been settled for many years and still feel restless at heart–dwelling in God enables you to have a consistency that is inaccessible in our world of rapid change. We are all nomads in one way or another. It is evident in those moments of itchiness, the prickle of daydreams, fidgeting hands and the unease deep within that leaves us questioning even the simplest things.

The challenging part of dwelling with God, at least for me, is accepting that the journey might look different than what I plan or expect. Moses probably didn’t expect that those years of wandering in the desert would include manna from heaven, or water coming out of a rock, or an abundance of quail driven in from the sea. He certainly questioned God plenty of times – asking why they had to suffer in certain ways, or why he had to bear many heavy burdens.

Change is inevitable no matter where you are at. The Israelites may have wandered for 40 years in the desert, but they were never in same place physically or spiritually. They grew along the way, made mistakes, and eventually they did make it to the promised land.

The good news is that we can find certainty and a sense of home in God.

Isaiah 42 says:
     “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known,
     along unfamiliar paths I will guide them;
     I will turn the darkness into light before them
     and make the rough places smooth.
     These are the things I will do;
     I will not forsake them.”

Dwelling with God doesn’t mean knowing the plan. Even if we learn to treat God as our home, our center of security, we have to know that He is still the one in control. I know that I have encountered a lot of frustrating uncertainty along my journeys, and I am not ashamed to admit that I have questioned God at every odd turn or roadblock along the way. But being at home with God means embracing the fact that things aren’t going to look exactly like we expect or plan for.

The best we can do is rely on Him, dwelling in the certainty of trusting that he will provide for us, that he will outlast even the tallest mountains, and that he will guide us on unfamiliar paths, making the rough places smooth, from everlasting to everlasting without ever forsaking us.
Sunset in Ohio (State #7 of the last two weeks)

Sunset in Ohio (State #7 of the last two weeks)

On Sunday I leave for a month long trip to Norway and Sweden. The simple explanation of what I’m doing there is that I received the Humanities Grant from the Swedish Council of America and I will be attending a conference before visiting two universities in Sweden. The complicated part is that it involves six different plane flights, at least five bus rides, some train travel, reservations for places to stay in four different cities, and some time staying with family friends who live in Norway. I am hoping to post updates about all these adventures on the blog here, but I can’t make any promises with a schedule that packed.

I also previously mentioned on the blog my grand plans to do a series of posts on all the books I’ve been reading this year, but because of my travel plans I’ve decided to postpone it for when I return. In the meantime I am attempting to dwell in God’s consistency rather than my own, knowing that he will provide along the way.

Are there times when you’ve felt lost or nomadic?

How did you deal with it?

New Mexico Recap: The City of Albuquerque

Two main highways create a cross section of Albuquerque’s four quadrants. It oddly mirrors New Mexico’s state flag–a red circle with four groups of four rays that represent the four cardinal directions, four seasons, stages of the day, and stages of life itself.

However, the 25, North and South, and the 40, East and West, divide the city’s flattened expanse in unequal sections. Some people suggest that Central Avenue (part of Route 66), which is a southern parallel to the 40, and the Rio Grande, which is the western parallel to the 25, are the true dividing lines. Consensus and clarity are not among the city’s strengths though, nor is equal distribution.

Albuquerque is not known for attracting large businesses or job industries, yet strip malls are prevalent and extensive across the city. More than anything, the restaurant and food industry seems to be largely successful. The city boasts 12 breweries, four wineries, and a vast array of restaurants boasting classic New Mexican red or green chile sauces. One of my favorite Albuquerque chains is the Satellite Coffee and Flying Star Cafe group, which offer great locally sourced food and a more unique alternative to the Starbucks chain.
Satellite Coffee on Central Ave.

Satellite Coffee on Central Ave.

Eccentric attractions are a trademark of Albuquerque in general. The Southwest has an affinity for liberally minded people, those who reflect the desert’s ability to adapt to an arid landscape of poor resources and create a strangely innovative way of living. In a place where you can find hundreds of varieties of cacti and too many types of cockroaches to count, you also find a range of people that might be typical American suburbanites, hippie professors, avid cyclists, or disadvantaged minorities common in any large city.

Thus the city has everything from a thriving hot air balloon community and the international hot air balloon museum, to a historic Old Town, to Native American museums and cultural centers, to the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History. They also embrace their local sports teams, the minor league baseball Isotopes and the University of New Mexico Lobos, as much as any big-city team.

Hidden behind all these unique attractions, there is an unfortunate dark side. A hint to these problems is a peculiar pattern I’ve noticed on the highways: almost every time I drive on one I see a car abandoned on the shoulder. What does it say about a city when there are constantly cars breaking down, and not just that, but that their owners often abandon them? Perhaps the tow truck industry is lacking, or maybe something else creates such a conundrum.

The ills popularized by the hit show Breaking Bad–poor educational resources, meth labs, and heavy crime–are all too real. Although the city has brought in considerable tourism thanks to the show (my favorite spin off I’ve seen is the dog grooming company “Barking Bad”) it hasn’t been able to solve any of those problems.

Albuquerque’s mixture of people, places, and problems is certainly unique.  In some areas it is just as hip as a California beach town, with Saturday farmers markets and organic eateries, but in other areas it suffers from the social  consequences of urban inequality, with a large homeless population and gang violence. It is a city mashed between mountains and desert, colliding between a world of harsh realities and high-altitude dreams. But just as high compression and temperatures can eventually spurn out diamonds, the mash-ups in Albuquerque can certainly yield surprising results.
Sunday Farmers Market at the old Albuquerque Railyards - a unique gem of local color and small businesses

Sunday Farmers Market at the old Albuquerque Railyards – a unique gem of local color and small businesses

Check back tomorrow for more on the specific landscape and outdoor opportunities in and around the city.

Have you ever visited Albuquerque? What impression did you have?

Albuquerque: 10 Things I’ve Learned So Far

Hi everyone! The last month has been a wild ride of graduating from college, driving home from Chicago to San Diego, spending a week in Yosemite, a week redoing an entire room in my parent’s house, a week spent at Disney World (more on that in my next post), and then moving to Albuquerque, New Mexico to live with my brother and sister-in-law. I still forget what time zone I’m in, but after three weeks I’m starting to feel a little more settled.

Welcome to New Mexico

Albuquerque, and New Mexico in general, is full of quirks. At least that’s the best way I’ve found to describe it so far. Here are a couple of the things I’ve learned about this mysterious place in the last few weeks:

  1. The official state nickname is “The Land of Enchantment” but it is more often known as the land of “would you like green or red chile on that?” You can also choose both, which they call “Christmas” style. Seriously, they put chiles on everything here.
  2. On that note, there is a difference between the Mexican food you get in Southern California and “New Mexican” food. Mostly it means you are safe ordering enchiladas, but a taco will look like it came from Taco Bell. They make up for it with sopapillas and honey at the end of every meal though.
  3. Hot air ballooning is not just a fun tourist outing, in Albuquerque it has long been a serious business. The International Hot Air Balloon Museum boasts treasures such as the gondola used to make the first flight across the Atlantic Ocean, a Japanese bomb that actually used unmanned hot air balloons during WWII to float incendiary bombs across the Pacific (which were surprisingly successful but the government kept it a secret to prevent panic about mainland attacks), and one of the first parachutes was invented by, what’s that?– a woman! Apparently this woman had more guts than most men of her day and invented the parachute to use for stunt jumps out of hot air balloons. You go girl.
  4. The police will fight back. I was enjoying a pleasant ride up the Sandia Tramway (the longest tramway in the world by the way) when I overheard a man talking about how the police killed an old homeless man they found camping out in the mountains because he was apparently “dangerous.” Sad story, but true. The upside is that I just moved here from Chicago, so the crime and police activity here still seems mild. That’s right I’m tough, or at least I pretend to be.
  5. Instead of air conditioning, many places use something called a “swamp cooler.” It can only be used in places with less than 30% humidity because of the magical way it uses water to cool the air (don’t ask me how, my engineer brother explained it and that is all I got out of it). One way or another, you have to flip three light switches to turn it on and it makes me feel like some kind of pilot flipping switches and making the world a better, cooler place.
  6. They are vigilant about checking your i.d. if you want a drink – so vigilant that my vertical California license might not pass in most places, at least according to the nice bartender who almost wouldn’t sell me a beer. According to Mr. Bartender, Albuquerque has such a significant problem with alcoholism that he even has to ask 80-yr old grandmas for their i.d. before selling them alcohol.
  7. Roadrunners are not mythical creatures that can survive coyote pursuits or anvil attacks, they are real life birds and yes, they run across the road.
  8. The Acoma Indians, located west of Albuquerque, are matriarchal and pass the family name through the mother’s line. We took a tour of their pueblo, and although it was sadly touristy the guide was authentic in his portrayal of the tribe’s daily life. They also make really good fry bread, which is different from Alaskan fry bread (at least that I’ve tried). Still delicious though.

    The cultural center at the Acoma Pueblo had dancers performing traditional tribal dances.

    The cultural center at the Acoma Pueblo had dancers performing traditional tribal dances.

  9. Albuquerque is also a great place for biking, with extensive trails along the canal and bike lanes across the city. However, there are these awful prickers called “goat’s heads” that seem perfectly designed to poke holes in bicycle tires, almost guaranteeing a flat tire on or after any bike ride in the area. The other anomaly to the great biking town reputation is when you see a white bicycle statue (aka “Ghost Bikes”) on the side of the road, which indicates a place where a cyclist was killed.
  10. New Mexico likes to be unique with what the rest of the country considers standard acronyms. For example, instead of getting a DUI for driving under the influence, New Mexico law designates such acts as DWI, or driving while intoxicated. Also, you would never have to deal with a long line at a DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), instead you can wait in a long line at the New Mexico MVD (Motor Vehicle Division). Why these changes? Well why not?! “Why not” should also be part of New Mexico’s state motto, it does fit well with the current motto: Crescit Eundo (“It Grows as it Goes”). Supposedly this motto is supposed to represent prosperity and progress, but its nonsensical wording does make you feel like you are falling down the rabbit hole, and the city of Albuquerque has plenty of characters to support that feeling.

Along with all of these I’m also learning a lot about the challenges of post-grad life and how to structure my life outside of a school calendar. It is mostly weird, sometimes panicky and stressful, but also calming when I realize I can still breathe, in and out, in and out. So I will continue to float with the flow, enjoying days of rest in this weird, weird land.

What have your experiences been in moving to a new place?

What are some of the weird things you’ve learned about where you live?