Monday, January 31, 2011

Get together

On Saturday we had a get together for some friends in Paris. Considering that many of the Indians studying with A. are suffering through cafeteria food and live in rooms without cooking facilities I decided to help them out and cook something Indian. But then there are also several Brazilians in similar situations and, well... I wanted to please them too. That's a hard task though as Brazilians eat bland food, which obviously does not go down well for Indians. And the Indians coming to the party were all vegetarians, which makes it hard to please them as well as meat-eating Brazilians. Another crucial difference is that Indians see rice as the main dish, while Brazilians have a hard time considering it more than a side. This explains why Brazilians also have such a hard time with Indian spicy curries, in that they tend to pile up on the curries and put some rice on the side, refusing to eat rice with curry and insisting on curry with rice!

So I made up a vegetarian Indo-Brazilian dinner. And what would that be? Having been in Spain recently and enjoying all the tapas and montaditos they had there served as good inspiration.
Montaditos in Spain.

Why not have some veg curries served on top of nice fresh baguette? I know... almost blasphemous for Indians, but it could be a step towards integration. So off we went to the grocery shop...

Doesn't A. look French? :P

Considering our "huge" kitchen comprised of a sink and a 2 burner electric stove right next to it, I must say I was very pleased with my accomplishments. Since we have only 2 small pots and 1 small pan, cooking anything for 10 people was impossible. The alternative was to do many smaller quantities. Gobi curry and Andhra style brinjal curry were the spiciest. Aloo gobi and an innovative zucchini curry were mild. And a tomato chutney topped it off without burning anyone's tong. At the end I decided to be nice to the Indians and make some rice.

Needless to say, the evening was a huge success. Food disappeared and wine flowed freely. Actually, a bit too freely (how could that not be when a good wine bottle costs €3??) and Sunday was spent recovering (and then flying back to Oslo). Not a bad weekend at all!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Comparing apples and oranges

After a few days with temperatures a little above freezing Oslo has turned into a slide: blocks and blocks lined with slippery ice. It is amazing how graceful Norwegians are when they slide. The just skid for a short distance and then fall right into step as if skating and walking are perfect complements. I, on the other hand, make a fool of myself by raising my arms, trying to keep my balance which throws me off some more, then raise one leg and then sometimes land not-so-gracefully on my bum...
Yesterday, while walking on the streets and concentrating hard on the path ahead to be able to plan where to put my foot a few seconds ahead of time I heard some noise... and woosh! Some ice came flying down from a roof ahead of me, almost hitting the couple that was walking in my direction. The girl screamed and jumped, while the guy also looked a little frazzled. A-ha! I knew these Norwegians had some bottled up emotions inside! But I can surely say Brazilians would hold up much better in a similar situation.

What situation am I talking about? Ice falling from the roof is certainly not happening in Brazil anytime soon... Well, the city I lived in for a while, Belém is called the city of mango trees. They line most downtown streets, from major avenues to residential streets. These fruit trees are very large and old (some say centuries old) and were planted for the dense shade that is so tremendously needed in the equatorial Amazon weather. Which would be perfect except the city planners forgot one small detail: the big, heavy fruit! So when it is mango season in Belém people avoid parking cars on the streets, otherwise you might get a big dent on the rooftop, or, as what happened with a friend, a broken windshield! And people on the sidewalk are also prime targets for the fruit that occasionally comes flying down... but, with grace, we halt for a second and then fall right into step again.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Registering a marriage

Did you know that even if you get married you might still be single??
Hum... A.'s not free, but he is among the best ;)

Let me explain: A. and I had our legal marriage in the US in May 2010. But we are still single in both India and Brazil. Neither of these countries recognizes our US marriage. Both of these countries have VERY bureaucratic processes to get married and also to recognize foreign marriages. That's why we got married in the US in the first place.

But now A. wants to apply for a Brazilian permanent visa (which would allow him to work there) and the easiest way is to apply as a spouse of a Brazilian national. So the first step is to register our marriage in Brazil, which can be done in any consulate abroad... if only it was this easy...

When applying for A.'s residence permit here the Norwegian police, registry and immigration office had no problems in directly accepting our US certificate as being authentic and valid proof that we are married. Hoping for a similar procedure I took the certificate plus a bunch of other documents to the Brazilian embassy in hopes of being able to register the marriage. They replied that they did not know what an American marriage certificate looked like and I needed to have the certificate notarized by the American embassy in Oslo.

So I off I went to schedule an appointment at the American embassy. No one answered the phone for a week, so I decided to show up at the embassy myself. To anyone versed in American embassies, this action did not carry many hopes for an immediate answer,  as expected no walk-ins allowed... But I did get another phone number, called and scheduled the appointment. At the embassy I was told that they do not notarize any documents and that I would have to send it to the US to notarize (why did they offer the service on their webpage is still a mistery). I still decide to give it a try at the Brazilian embassy saying that the US embassy does not notarize documents from the US but got a pleasant answer that the document then has to be notarized by the Brazilian consulate in Atlanta. How can Brazilians be pleasant while being soooooo annoying is still beyond me.

Then comes the chapter in which we try to figure out if we can get a Norwegian marriage certificate since this would be readily accepted by the Brazilian embassy in Oslo. Well, problem is that we are already married in Norway! Since they accepted our US marriage certificate we cannot get married again, end of story.

So now we are trying to figure out if we can legalize the US certificate at the Brazilian consulate in Atlanta by mail... Which seems possible, except that they want the original document to be notarized by a notary in the county where the document was issued and then "go to the county clerk’s office of the county where the document was notarized and request a certificate stating/proving the notary is, in fact, registered." (directly pasted from the consulate's website).
Ahhhhhhhhhrgh! How much bureaucracy can you have???

Summarizing I think the main issue is that in developed countries documents are rarely forged and therefore accepted at face value unless proven false. In the other hand in developing countries (or, at least, Brazil) documents always need to be proven to be authentic before being accepted. The "originality proof" creates a whole sector of the economy in these countries that depends on these bureaucratic rules to survive and therefore create an inertia for change and a big headache for people that live in complicated cross-cultural situations like us.

I've told A. it might be simpler to just keep on being single in our home countries :P

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Awkward night out

A friend of mine, A. and I went out in Oslo last night. First we had dinner and then decided to go out for drinks. Wanting to try something international we headed to an African bar. Good music, but it was a bit on the quiet side. We had a beer, danced a bit and then A. went for a smoke. Me and my friend realized that people around were staring at us more when A. left, but did not think much more of it. A. comes back with a Norwegian guy, he blabbers a bit about Brazil being all about Copacabana and girls in thong bikinis and about French girls being very liberal (my friend is French). After a while he excuses himself by saying: "Ok then, nice to meet you, have to take care of my prostitute." All 3 of us were a bit shocked at how candid he was about the situation (and A. about how liberal they are here). And we soon started to look around the bar and surely there were lot's of couples of old white guys that came in by themselves and were now being entertained by young African girls. The Norwegian confirmed that most women at the bar were prostitutes. He left and said to A.: "good luck with them!" (looking at me and my friend). Weird! We left shortly after.

We then headed to another bar, more upscale, younger crowd. We sat at the more silent part of the bar sipping some water while A. went to get some drinks. Soon a young blond (and seemingly very drunk) guy approaches us, sits right next to me and starts speaking Norwegian to us (which neither of us understands). He continues in Norwegian... Then asks my friend where she's from while sitting much closer to me now. She replies and he attempts some French (very slurry). He finally seems to understand that the way to go is English and asks "Prostitutes, yes?" and points at us. What?????? Sorry but we're both too overeducated for the profession...

Considering that neither of us was using revealing clothes and had no makeup on it begs the question: what makes 2 women out at a bar in Oslo seem like prostitutes? Are women never going out by themselves? Or did we not look enough like locals to indicate that we might have been there for other reasons than to have a drink?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Long distance relationship

Haven't posted much this week... mostly because it rushed by. A. was here from Thurs through Monday this week and arrived again last night, which is great!

And this bring me to the topic at hand... long distance living.
As I've mentioned before, A. and I lived together for almost 3 years before we got married, so we were quite used to the whole arrangement: I cook, he does the dishes, I do the laundry, he vacuums, etc etc. We meet at the end of the day, usually I'd get a ride home with him from work and we'd always leave the house together in the morning. As a grad student I did not have much of a schedule, but since A. was not allowed to take work home from the office (the could not even log into his work email from home) living with him made me much more organized mainly because I knew the very slim chances of getting work done at home in the evening. So evenings we usually went running together, then had dinner, and then just relaxed and chatted (and sometimes went out).

Living apart now is taking its toll. Skype is a blessing and a curse at the same time... while it makes the calls cheaper (free!) it is quite hard to focus on the computer screen or on the conversation without starting to surf on the web, check emails, etc. Especially when there are no topics to talk about. And this is so frustrating! A. and I have never had difficulties in coming up with good conversation, but when you are miles apart and linked through a computer connection, the personal connection is also badly affected. What should we talk about? Ok, how was your day? Fine, not much news, and yours? Fine too. Then A. usually presses for details and I start telling them but I soon realize he's off in another world. I slip in a question. His answer is the same as the last 5 minutes: "hum..." I say "yes or no?" Then he stares at the screen, startled for a second, tries a "yes??" but that does not save him. I ask what the question was and he admits he has no clue. At some point he makes up an excuse that he wants to go to bed early and that he has to hang up. I know he's not going to bed, but he cannot get himself to say that he just wants to hang up. But since I don't have anything else to add, I agree.

On the bright side we do get to see each other 3 weekends a month, so not too bad at all. Except that the one traveling that weekend has a 6-8 hour journey each way to go from their house to the other's. We do get to see cool cities and places that we randomly pick to meet at for weekends, but all this travel planning is usually allocated to me. And sometimes I just don't feel like looking for tickets weeks ahead of time and trying to coordinate flights for each of us. It is a considerable amount of work to meet (thanks for very cheap flights at least it is not expensive) and that's when I miss the effortless, implied, everyday: see you here at the end of the day!! of living together...

On the up, very high up, side is that the long distance has made weekends when we meet great! No fights, no disagreements, lot's of fun... and the list goes on. I think this also has to do with everyday perks like housecleaning not entering the picture and therefore avoiding any friction. Also because the time together is short each time apart we seem to erase the last annoyances and when we meet we each give each other a new fresh "quota". We have also realized that this honeymoon usually lasts 2-3 days and they we're in an awkward position in which A. gets annoyed that someone is telling him to do things he doesn't usually do and I get annoyed at having to tell him things that he used to do when we were living together.

Overall we both agree that the experience of living in Europe, despite being living apart has been very positive (how else could you have a mid Feb week long escape to Greece?) but we are definitely hoping to figure out a way to live together soon. So A. started looking for MBA internships in Oslo starting in May and I've started looking for jobs in Brazil starting in August (when A. would do the exchange program there). Fingers crossed!!


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Bread! (The best of Norway, part 1)

I think I might have sounded too negative about Norway the last days (weeks?) so decided to write about one of my favorite things here: bread!

Having grown up with my Mom making us home baked bread almost every day I admit bread is a big deal in my life. And as a true half-German, hamburger and hot-dog buns do not count as bread in my world. Bread is supposed to be dense and very crusty. At home my brothers and I used to fight for the edges of the loaf!

While living in the US my baking skills saved me from supermarket bread since bakeries were outside of my grad student budget. But, boy, is Norway better! Here you can buy freshly baked, crusty bread in every corner! And what's even better than Paris, with all its boulangeries is that you mostly find whole wheat and rye! The real stuff everywhere!

And in the supermarkets they have a bread slicer for you to slice your own bread before taking it home. I must admit it is a bit intimidating with it's grumbling sounds, shaking and size:
But after watching for a while (and I mean several times in different stores not to give myself away) I figured it out too!

Ah... life is good! ;)

PS- This is a topic A. and I will forever disagree with. For him bread is for people that are sick and cannot eat rice. And when he does like bread it is the pav bhaji type... burger!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who are we?

We usually can think of how to describe ourselves to others, but how would others describe ourselves? What are the key points that other people remember about us when they describe us?

Last week I was introduced to a few Norwegians and after a while (during dinner) they asked me to tell them more about me. Before I could answer, the only girl that knew me said:
"Tell them how many times you've been married!"
Norwegian eyes popped, as getting married is usually done late in life here (after you are 30, and sometimes after you have kids... as a friend put it: "The only problem of getting married after you have kids is that you cannot get as drunk on your wedding.") I decided to tag along...
"Wow..." and even bigger stares ensured. To try to explain, I said:
"To the same guy though."
"Really? Were there divorces in between?"
Me, sort of shocked at the option: "No! Just different ceremonies in different countries."
"Ah..." Sighs of relief ensured.

What bothered me though was that I never thought that my wedding(s) would be a defining feature of who I am. Sure, having 3 weddings is not for most people, and to an Indian even less so, but for me it was an event in life, not something so important as to be the 2nd thing people learn about me. But that's what happens when you don't control the output: people tend to focus on what they find curious and different to them. Or sometimes, when people want to bond, they focus on what is considered "normal". At the end the outcome is the same: you have a single story. And single stories never to the topic justice, there is always more left unsaid than included. As the author of the talk simply puts: we should try to be aware of how many single stories we convey without even noticing...

Monday, January 17, 2011

Clothing in the Winter

The other day I was home and too lazy to go out. My roommate asked me why and I replied I was too lazy to put on all the clothes to go out here in Winter. She did not understand my "laziness" and asked whether I had enough clothes. To which I replied that yes, I did, but I was just lazy to put them all on. She still did not quite get it...

Well, let me try to explain... I come from a warm country where you usually have to be concerned about whether you are wearing too much for the day's heat. We also don't have heating in Brazil, which means that if it is cold outside it is just as cold inside (meaning 5-10oC/40-50oF in the early Winter mornings where my mom lives). So you are always dressed up for the outside weather.

Here in Norway in the other hand, houses obviously have heating and you usually don't need more than pants and a t-shirt indoors. So when you want to go out here (where temperatures have continuously been below 0oC/ 32oF) you need to put on lot's of extra clothes, plus gloves, caps, scarves, boots and extra socks. And take them all off again when you come back in. So I'm definitely not complaining about the heating, but just that when I look outside at all this snow and ice and think about the put-on/take off it makes me a little lazy...

On a related note, I was always missing the bus or tram here. As I was walking to the stop it would always pass me. And then I realized that although it does not take more than 5 min to walk to the stop I had to add an extra 5-10 to put on all the gear... ;o)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Socializing with Norwegians

Everyone says that people are cold in Nordic countries. Is that true? Maybe too true... but they also say that once you have a Norwegian friend you've got a friend for life. But making friends is not that easy for newcomers, especially those that don't know how long they will be in the country for (like me).

I've been here for 5 months now and this week got my first invitation for a social event (by a Norwegian). I've had people over a couple of times but had never been invited back, so I was quite happy with the invite to go sledding. The idea was to meet up at the metro station where my friend/colleague (V.) would meet her friends and then take the metro to this hill where you can rent sleds and then slide down 2.8km (1.75miles) until another metro stop and then you can take the train back up again. V. was very concerned whether I would have the correct clothes, glasses, etc and made sure to get me ready for a great evening. She meets friends once a week to do something fun and this week it was sledding.

We met at the train stop and right after introductions they were off speaking Norwegian. Fine, they've got a lot to catch up on, I thought. We arrived at the final stop, rented sleds and then headed to the slope. Needless to say, I had never done this before, so things were not as intuitive as they were for the 4 Norwegians. Let's just say that you get the hang of it quickly or you fall off the mountain, but I did learn fast (although I was always the last to arrive at the bottom as I kept braking to avoid loosing complete control). While waiting for the train to go back up, Norwegian surrounded me again.

Back up, slide down, up again, down again. It was fun! But I definitely did not feel as part of the group. While waiting for the train at some point one of the guys turned to me and asked: "So, how does it feel to be lonely even when in a group?" "Not nice", I replied. "So you should learn Norwegian!" "I'm trying, but it is not that fast." "I guess... let's go down again and then we head to get a beer and speak some English." And turns to his friends and continues in Norwegian.

We return the sleds and go for a beer. The scenery is beautiful... the view of Oslo at night from the top of the slope is amazing and so are the little pockets of lights streaming from the few houses around. We head to the restaurant, take off our extra clothes and then everyone disappears... I finally realize they went to the cafeteria-style place to get food, they just forgot to explain that to me. We have rømmegrøt (a sour cream porridge) and beer and head back to the table. They decided to speak English but suddenly no one felt like talking. After a while some small talk picked up. After the beer ended we went to the train station and headed home.
What rømmegrøt looks like.

To summarize the evening, on the way back V. was trying to convince one of the guys to go to the mountains to the cabin with her and the other 2. And I was sitting right there, next to the guy but was completely ignored. This was a truly culturally awkward moment since in Brazil you would ALWAYS extend the invitation to everyone around you (especially when the conversation includes everyone) or wait and invite the one person in private, when the other people that are not invited (me) are not around. Oh well... I guess I can start to say that Norwegians are cold.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Norwegian health care system

First, a caveat: this is just my personal experience, I don't intend to judge the entire system based on it.

Well, as a foreigner, after moving to Norway you need to register at the police. In my case this was fast 3-4 days, but in A.'s case it took over a month. Once it is approved you need to apply for a personal number. Then wait for 2-3 months and you finally get it. Next step, you enroll in the health care system and pick a doctor. I asked a few people how to pick a doctor (they give you a list of available doctors in a given location and the number of patients he or she has) and they said it depends on whether you want a woman or a man, and location. I said I just wanted one that spoke English and they all replied not to worry, they all do. So I picked one (foreign sounding name, average number of patients) and set up an appointment (2 weeks in advance). If you are counting, I moved here in August and finally got an appointment late November.
On the day of the appointment I get out of work early, head to the doctor and the secretary tells me that the doctor had to run out and is a bit late. I asked how late and she said 5 min. I waited for 45min and then finally caught the doctor between patients to ask when she'd see me. Surprise, surprise... she does not speak English (and I thought a foreign sounding name would...). In the mean time the secretary (who speaks English and knows I don't speak Norwegian) has left for the day. So the leaving patient helps translate as the doctor asks me to come back the next day so that the secretary can help translate. I guess this is where I should have changed doctors (you are allowed to do so once a year) but I didn't...

Next day comes, I go back to the doctor, wait for 1 hour and then I finally see the doctor. First she wants to charge me for the appointment I missed yesterday. I explain that I was here at the given time, she wasn't and that I left because I needed a translator and she told me to come back today. She finally agrees. Then I explain that I want to do a test to see if I have a blood clotting disorder that runs in my family. I mean, I know I don't have it, but I want to know if my (potential) kids could have it. She says "yes, yes", doesn't ask me any other questions and sends me off with the secretary to get a blood sample. Before leaving I ask the secretary and she says she will let me know when the results come in.

3 weeks later, no results, I decide to call. The secretary answers, finds the results and says: "It says it is ok". I ask: "What is ok? Yes or no?". Secretary: "Result is ok.". "What does that mean?". "Well, if you want to know what that means you have to come in for an appointment." Appointment scheduled for last week.

On Friday I show up at the doctor's office and a different (much nicer) secretary asks me to wait. An hour drags by... And then I'm called in and explain I've come to get the results of the blood test. The doctor logs into the computer, finds my file and announces (through translation): "The test was not done because the procedure has changed and they need a different sample". Now, why did the secretary tell me the results were ok??? I know this is not life threatening for me, but what if it was a different test and she gave out false results?? I breathe in... out... And the doctor says she doesn't know what type of test, and would have to consult a hematologist. I ask if I can go to the hematologist instead, or the hospital where they would do the test directly but am strictly told that this is not possible. So I should come back on Monday, but I don't even need to wait in line, all that is needed is a quick phone call to the hospital and a blood sample. Sigh...

Monday comes, I go to the office (mid morning), explain the situation to the secretary (the one that gave me false results), she's dismissive and asks me to wait. An hour later I ask if the doctor has called the hospital and she says that the doctor is busy. Finally I'm called in, just to have the doctor announce (through translation) that I will have to do the test at the hospital directly. So she gives me a form with the request for the test and I leave thinking that I should have changed doctors earlier in the process (it would take 2 weeks to change names in the system and another 2 weeks to set an appointment, so I don't think an extra month is worth it) but maybe, just maybe, I can now get the damn results!

I call the hospital to check where I need to go and finally find someone that knows about the test I need to do, and explains that indeed it is a blood test and that I can walk in at the hospital and get the test done any day. So I did... and asked the lady how I'd get the results. She said they will be sent to your doctor (horror strikes my face) and she will notify you... Now what?????????

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Coffee shops (or, the best of the US, part 2)

While living in the US I basically worked out of coffee shops. And this was a personal choice as most times I did have an office. But in general I like people around me, I don't mind the noise and being in a coffee shop makes me feel like work is not "work" but more of an excuse to hang out in my favorite spots. Plus graduate studies can make you work weird hours, so being able to go to a coffee shop made working Saturday morning and the occasional evening less boring. Both in Blacksburg and then in Raleigh I had my favorite spot, where I knew the owners and even had a favorite table. Usually I choose small, independent, cozy places. Having a couch is a plus, and baked goodies as well. I go there so often that I end up knowing other people, and it becomes almost a hand out spot.

When moving to Oslo I was impressed early on by the amount of coffee shops around. It seems like every block has one! And the very first day I went to try them out, but soon realized there is a huge problem with the coffee shops here. I searched everywhere, went to 5 or 6 while walking down the streets to no avail... they have no wifi! On the 6th they told me that I could find wifi at McDonald's. I was ashamed... I always avoid fast food chains and here I am, at McDonald's for the sake of internet.

Yeah, I know I don't need internet to do 90% of my job, but being available on skype is a must if I'm not at the office and being able to do google searches expedites problem solving when I'm stuck (and, of course, emails and facebook entertain as well). So, despite all the variety in coffee shops around here (and in Paris, and Spain) I admit I miss the coffee shops in the US a LOT.

PS- Never mind that I don't like coffee... who says you cannot have tea at a coffee shop? :P

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What does a Brazilian look like?

Yesterday I had a meeting with another professor and a Norwegian Master's student who wants to write her dissertation on Brazil. When I arrive in his office they are already there and he (professor) introduces me to the girl (student): "This is Samba, she's from Brazil."
The girl's eyes pop, she stares at me and then lets out: "But you don't look Brazilian!"
Me: "It's hard to define what a Brazilian looks like..."
The professor chuckles, and says: "You mean that Pelé looks different?!"
Student: "Yeah, he does..."
Professor: "Samba, what's the proportion of European descendants in the Brazilian population?"
Me: "48%"
Student: "REALLY??"
Professor, clearly enjoying himself: "And what is the percentage of Afro-Brazilians?"
Me (thankfully, by coincidence I had just looked up some other info in Wikipedia recently and remembered the numbers): "About 7%."
Professor: "And native Americans?"
Me: "Less than 1%."
Professor: "So what is the rest?"
Me: "About 1% is of Asian origin and the rest is mixed race (44%)".
Professor, turning to girl: "See, Brazil is a big mix".
Student: "I guess so..."

Yes, Brazil is a huge mix! And race does not come into the equation as often as in other countries. I am proud to say that walking down the streets in Brazil is the place A. and I feel most inconspicuous: no one even notices us! But this was not the first time I've had such a conversation. Shortly after I got to the US for my Masters I was told by a professor that I was "too white to be Brazilian". Obviously my opinion of him dropped a few points...

And then there are other seemingly unknown facts about Brazil:
- Language: we're the only country in South America that speaks Portuguese. And yes, the only official language is Portuguese. You can go from one end of the country to the other and all that will change is the slang and some accents. People that get this wrong usually assume we speak Spanish (even though we're surrounded by Spanish speakers VERY few Brazilians speak it)... but once a friend was asked if we spoke Russian!!!
- Location: South America. On the Atlantic Ocean. Once in Florida (3 hours flight to the North of Brazil) a guy asked me where I was from and after the answer he replied: "Wow, I've never traveled that far, the furthest I've been was China...". Maybe he thought I meant Mars...
- Size: Brazil is big. It is larger than the continental US, which means it is approximately 3 times the size of India. It occupies 47% of South America and is as wide as it is long (could be made into a square :P ). No one believes this one...
- São Paulo is twice the size of New York. And Rio de Janeiro is the same size as the Big Apple.
- The national capital is Brasília (not Rio) and was built where before 1950 there was absolutely nothing, right in the middle of the country.

So maybe before the student decides to write a dissertation about Brazil she could start with the wikipedia page...
In her defense the dissertation will not be about Brazilian society.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Travel logistics

While living in the US, A. and I did several road trips. In general we'd have an idea of where the highlights of the trip would be and then would divide up the days according to how much we liked a place and how much we felt like driving. This meant that we usually did not have any hotels booked (except sometimes for a special date like New Year's Eve when I got an amazing deal on Priceline). As we were getting tired of traveling we'd check the road map for the next town and call up orbitz or hotwire to book the cheapest deal (we don't have fancy phones... they only make calls and write text messages). This means we usually got a road side USD$29.99 deal which was perfect for an overnight stop. Sometimes we also went camping, and then we'd stop at State Parks and ask for vacancies (this only failed once, in the Florida Keys between Xmas and New Years, when we ended up setting up our tent in a KOA packed with RVs... A. vowed never to spend another night at a KOA ;).
Yeah right... Planning? Validating?? Booking???

Now in Europe travel is quite different. First of all, no car: we don't even have driver's licenses! (US driver licenses expire on the same date as your US visa... and we never bothered to get them again here since we don't even have a car). Trains and buses abound, but you need to check ahead of time to make sure you have enough time for connections, etc. Plus, ironically, flights are usually cheaper, especially when booked 2+ weeks ahead of time. This means more travel planning is needed... Plus, hotels are not chains (good!) but they come in all sorts of qualities (good and bad). So some more online research is needed before booking.

In our Spain trip I had planned the transport and accommodation for the whole first week (a personal feat!) and even printed them all out (just to forget them at home...)! After the first week we were meeting a couple of friends that were traveling in Morocco and would cross to Spain to travel with us for a week. All of us agreed that we'd decide where to go where we met and no plans were made. Overall it worked quite well, internet research at hostels about next destinations helped a lot and we even "found" a place like this:
Ronda: a little Roman, then Moor, then Spanish town right on the edge of a cliff.

  The only issue was where to stay. While we liked the option of having a kitchen at hostels it usually does not pay to stay there as a couple. Hostels are usually 50% of the price of a cheap hotel per person, meaning that if you travel by yourself it cuts costs by half, but if you are 2 people it comes to about the same cost as a hotel. Some hostels are worth it when traveling with more people because you also have a social area and other amenities but the ones we encountered were VERY bare-bones. The other thing is that by deciding where to go on a whim we also ended up spending more money than otherwise in trains and buses. Oh well... the pros and cons of flexibility...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Trains in Spain (or the best of India part I)

From Madrid we took the train to Barcelona. I had bought the tickets ahead of time and was surprised to find that there was a €4 difference between "turista" class and "preferente". The cost of the train was also similar to a night's hotel, and there were fast train options (3 hours) or overnight (cheaper, 9 hours). Based on the India train experiences I decided to buy overnight tickets to save on hotel and splurge a bit getting "preferente" (supposedly each compartment had just 2 beds and a washbasin) instead of "turista" (AC 2 tier in India, meaning 4 beds in each compartment). I told A. about the tickets and we were super excited about the trip. Traveling by train was new for me in India and I quite like it. For A. it is reminiscent of childhood travels with his family and his favorite form of travel.
What I had imagined...

We find our coach and get in, just to find compartment with 6 seats each! I wonder whether we got something wrong, but wait for a second. Soon a family of 4 Brazilians settles into the other 4 seats and it is pretty crammed. We are all disappointed and A. decides to take a look at what other compartments look like. He comes back chuckling... saying that there is another "preferente" coach with 8 seats in each compartment and finally the "turista" coach with resembles an airplane setup so we should not complain. Oh well... not much we could do, we were tired from walking around all day and there was no one to ask questions around.

And what we got (minus the vintage look and the stuffy seats, ours were plastic covered).

We then realize that the seats slide down to form beds... but the other half of the bed is the seat in front of you!  That means that there could be 3 beds in a compartment... A. and I switch seats with the Brazilians so we can face each other and turn our seats into a "bed" and try to both fit in. To say it was uncomfortable is the least... not just the complete lack of space but also smelling A.'s socks right in my nose :P Soon the Brazilian family realized that we were blocking the exit (to the bathroom) and asked us to move to the window seats... some more shuffling around and repositioning ourselves later, we try to sleep. Not easy. 

Finally at some point late into the night the ticket collector came, checked our tickets and I asked him if we could move to a compartment next door which was empty. He said ok, but he did not know if anyone else would come to take those seats in the 9 stops the train made throughout the night. The risk was worth taking and we quickly shifted again (to the relief of the family and our own). Having the compartment to ourselves allowed us to have a bed each and we fell asleep. Next thing we hear is the alarm clock telling us it is almost arrival time in Barcelona. This means no one needed our seats... which begs the question of why would they fill a compartment if several others are empty in the same coach!

Oh I missed you!
And for the price we paid, I missed this one!

Indian trains may be sometimes late, not so tidy but at least you can sleep flat on your back! (Plus get nice meals!!)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Madrid: where do you fit?

After a few days roaming around Madrid (where the skies were blue and the temperature was around 13oC/55oF, which felt like Summer after Oslo), on our last evening there we left aside the city map and just headed in a random direction. Soon we were out of the touristy section and in a more residential area where people walking briskly were on the street (not the two-steps-and-stop or wavering walk associated with tourists trying to take the sights in). We kept on walking and suddenly the grocery stores, butchers, bakeries, etc were replaced by signs in Spanish and Chinese and stores selling cheap clothes and plastic stuff from China appeared. Not just the stores, but the people working there were also Asians. Soon some Pakistanis were also in sight, working at kebab stores or elsewhere (A. was identifying them by the bits of language he could pick up). And then the streets became narrower and less lit, fewer people were on the streets and only the occasional bar brought some noise. As a developing country person I instinctively became alert to my surroundings, a feeling that this might not be the place to be at night. At the same time I sensed A. relaxing, walking easier and looking around with greater interest and curiosity.
Later we were sitting at a tea shop with a hookah and a bunch of locals (a mix of Spanish, Urdu, Punjabi and Arabic was floating around but none looked like tourists) and A. mentioned how much at ease he feels in immigrant neighborhoods. I thought it was odd, as I would usually avoid these areas when traveling by myself, especially at night. I usually sense that people look at me funny, as if wondering what this gori is doing in this part of town. For A. on the other hand, it was the place in the city where he usually finds acceptance, where he is the same as the others and, especially, where there is good food. Not being a Western cuisine fan (although he's increasingly taking a liking for baguettes with olive oil ;), A. always finds a falafel stand, a Middle Eastern hole in the wall, a Chinese entrepreneur in the middle of Venice or even the occasional Indian eateries in these neighborhoods. We realized that we have opposite instinctive reactions to less lit immigrant neighborhoods when we travel in the West, while I avoid them or approach them as a stranger (or, sometimes even don't consider them the "original" country experience I came to see), A. seeks them out, giving him a glimpse of what life could be like if he lived there, or bringing him a step closer to home.

I must admit that when  in India for too long I do seek out a bakery or pizza though, so I guess we are not that different after all.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Start of the adventure

Hi everyone and sorry for disappearing... After the hectic end of the semester A. and I took off to Spain (since we could not go to Marocco, we went as far South within Schengen as possible).

Early on the 18th I took a flight to Paris, met A. and in the evening we had a flight to Madrid (don't ask why I went to Paris first... all for cheapest tickets!). It was snowing hard when the flight took off in Oslo, but no one missed a heartbeat, except for a few minutes the plane stood on the runway while being deiced.

Paris was nice, cold but nice, during the day and we arrived early to take the bus to the airport and then it started to snow. To get to the Beauvais airport (70km or 55 miles North of Paris) we usually take a 1.5 hour bus straight to the airport and it is recommended you take the bus 3 hours in advance. We were there 4 hours early and decided to grab a bite before heading out. That's when I realized that the boarding passes I had meticulously printed out beforehand had been forgotten in A.'s apartment. This would not be a problem in any other airline, but Ryanair, with their ridiculously low fares, tries to get some money out of their passengers by any means possible, including charging you €40 to print your boarding pass in case you do not bring it with you. This resulted in us rushing around the mall frantically searching for an internet cafe to get a printout (since we refused to pay additional €40 each on a flight that cost us €20 in the first place). Finally we found it at a hotel a block away. The printer wasn't working! It printed out my boarding pass but not A.'s! Precious minutes passed (as we were now very close to the time we should have taken the bus) and finally another printer popped out the boarding card! We rushed back to the bus stop while snow kept falling densely... as we were approaching we realized there was a large crowd gathered around the ticket booth, but I supposed it was just holiday passenger traffic. We arrived just in time to hear the announcement:
"Buses have been cancelled due to a city ordinance forbidding buses on the roads due to the snow. Planes are leaving as scheduled though so you have to figure out how to get to the airport on your own."

Can't believe this is actually an iphone game!

This lead to everyone scattering around and a mad race to get cabs. People were spreading out along the streets and jumping on any taxi that came by, asking if they would go to Beauvais. Most didn't. Some said they were not allowed to go that far and others said the snow was too bad. We finally got a cab, jumped in and added 2 more people to share the cost. As we headed out of the city, everything seemed to be ok, and since we still had 3 hours before the flight we were all confident. Leaving the city and taking the highway we noticed the road had not been salted and it continued to snow fiercely. Soon we were down to 30km/h (20 miles/hour) and following a long row of cars going in the same direction. After a while we saw a car literally sliding down while trying to take an uphill exit that had too much snow and ice (also, no one has snow tires here). From here on things got scary. There was about 5cm/2 inches of slush on the road and we were making very slow progress. The number of cars had decreased considerably, many just stopping by the side of the road. Then came a section of the road that was iced and some cars had slid into the ditch next to the road. Our driver kept crawling on, but a too optimistic turn of the steering wheel made us slide about 2 m/yards sideways. We stopped somehow and he managed to get back on track. A few seconds later (which felt like hours) we slid again, now almost into the ditch. We all get out of the car and try to push it, just to realize that we were sliding on the ice too. Fortunately the driver managed to steer the car back into the road and we continued the drive, an inch at a time. Then salvation came in the shape of a salting truck! We finally managed to follow right behind it and as we approached the airport we realized it had snowed a lot less there. The other girl in the cab called a friend who checked on the airline and they said the flight was on time. We arrived at the airport at 9pm when our flight was due to leave at 8:55pm.

I ran into the airport, straight to the check in counter, while A. got out bags. There they announced that the check in was closed and that we had missed the flight. There were some girls crying close to the counter but I decided to run to the gate (it is a small airport). The monitor said the plane was still boarding. I asked the lady at the gate and she also said it was too late. Then A. caught up with me, and asked again, saying we were late due to the storm, please, etc, etc. A guy then said ok, I'll check, and came back seconds later, asking if we had checked baggage (no) and let us in the gate!! He still had to run to check in to get a stamp for A.'s boarding pass (since he needed to have his visa checked) and then got us through security quickly. In total about 8 people were allowed on the plane late and as soon as the last of us boarded the plane's door was closed.