Wednesday, December 28, 2011

God Jul! (Merry Christmas!)

We had a fantastic Christmas!  On Thursday we went to a big Christmas party at a nearby farm.  They served standard Norwegian Christmas foods (rice porridge, clementines, gingerbread cookies, gløgg), and we got to join in the traditional dancing and caroling around the (very huge) Christmas tree:

The kids had a blast jumping in the hayloft:

And Julenissen (literally "The Christmas Elf," the Norwegian name for Santa Clause) even showed up and gave all the kids chocolate bars:

On Christmas Eve (the big day for celebrating Christmas in Norway) I made caramel rolls from scratch for breakfast.  They were delicious and beautiful and (as I'm not the most accomplished baker) I really impressed myself and my whole family.  Here is a link to the recipe, just in case you want to impress yourself and your family.

I tried to celebrate like a real Norwegian by making risgrøt (rice porridge) with an almond in it for lunch.  Sergio was the one who found the almond and won the marzipan pig.  Jonah and Oscar (as you can see below) did not think this was fair:

Davin made our Christmas Eve dinner.  The kids helped him plan the menu.  The ham, scalloped potatoes, asparagus, and rolls were Davin's idea.  The boys came up with the macaroni and cheese, buttered spaghetti noodles, pears, carrots, and chocolate.  Look how beautiful it was:

After dinner, Julenissen really did bring presents to the door, just like we'd heard he would.  He was, however, wearing a mask, which led Oscar to speculate that maybe he wasn't the real Santa, just a really nice man who likes making people happy and doesn't have any kids of his own.  In any case, Oscar thought it was really great of him to bring them presents.

Sergio has been saying for weeks that Santa was going to bring him an "oransje" cake for Christmas.  He's obsessed with the color orange, and oransje (pronounced "oh-RAHNJ") is the Norwegian word for it.  His plan was that we would put a candle on the oransje cake and sing "Happy Christmas to you / Happy Christmas to you / Happy Christmas, Dear Sergie / Happy Christmas to you!"  And what do you know?  It happened just like that.  He kept squealing, "Just what I wanted!"

Sergie with the oransje cake Julenissen brought him (and sporting face paint, also compliments of Julenissen)

Below is a picture of me in front of our Christmas tree.  I'm including it because I'm a little over eight months pregnant now and I've been getting requests for photos that show my belly.

Me, 36-and-a-half Weeks Pregnant

Here are my favorite ornaments from our tree--the Santa ornament was made by Oscar, Jonah made the "gingerbread gentleman" (complete with top hat and cane), and the last one is a tin of liver paste:

On Christmas day, the kids opened their stockings, we went to Mass, and we gave each other our gifts.  Then we spent the day relaxing and playing with the new toys.  In fact, the kids don't have school this week, so that's how we've been spending most of every day since then as well.  We've been doing things like playing with Play-Doh, playing way more Super Mario Bros. than I approve of, and building elaborate courses for Hex Bugs (a super fun toy that arrived in an amazing package full of gifts from my family in MN): 

Hex Bug Course - First Bug to Find its Way out Wins!

I hope all of you are enjoying this Holiday Season as much as we are.  We wish you Love, Peace, and Joy.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Norwegian Christmas Traditions

Norway is totally transformed at Christmastime.  Nearly every house has candles or white lights in the windows (I've seen very few colored Christmas lights).  Here in Bergen, they set up "The World's Largest Gingerbread Village" and put huge Christmas trees up all around town, including IN the lake at the center of the city:

Juletre in Lille Lungegårdsvann, Downtown Bergen
The grocery stores are transformed, too.  Starting in November, regular foods (milk, flour, etc.) appear in new Christmas packaging, and lots of special Christmas foods show up on the shelves.  Here are a few examples:

Julebrus - Christmas Soda

Julepølse - Christmas Sausage

Juleøl - Christmas Beer

Oscar discovered another important Christmas product at school a couple weeks ago.  It was a snowy day and they took the kids up into the mountain just behind the school and made a bonfire.  They ate lunch around the fire and drank something called "gløgg."  It's spiced with cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom and it's served warm.  Oscar's bonkers about it.

Gingerbread (pepperkaker) is huge around here at Christmastime, both for eating and for decorating (making ornaments, gingerbread houses, etc.).  Jonah and Oscar have both spent whole days at school doing nearly nothing but baking gingerbread cookies.  It's common here, even in the older grades, for regular academic lessons to come nearly to a halt during December to allow the children to instead make and do things for Christmas.  Jonah, for example, visited the gingerbread village with his class yesterday.  Today they're all going ice skating.

Oscar had something called "Nissefest" (Elf Fest) at school yesterday.  When his teacher told me  about it she said, "So if he has a Santa costume or a little red Santa hat he can wear those, otherwise just dress him in red clothes."  Since (of course) he doesn't have a Santa costume, I sent him in a red sweater and thought I'd done a great job.  But when I brought him to school I saw I'd made a huge mistake.  Nearly every single child was dressed in an elaborate elf costume (some complete with fake freckles).  I didn't have my camera with me, but I found a photo of another preschool's Nissefest online to give you an idea:

A preschool Nissefest

One very important Christmas tradition in Norway is "going around the Christmas tree."  Everyone holds hands and dances around the Christmas tree while singing Christmas songs or carols.  Oscar did it at school yesterday, Jonah will do it with his class as well, and people all over Norway will do at their own Christmas celebrations. 

Jonah told me that at school he learned that here in Norway Santa brings the kids their presents after dinner on Christmas Eve, while the kids are still awake (!).  He comes in the front door and asks, "Are there any good children here?"  This was very surprising news for me, but I asked around, and apparently it's true.  Sometimes, though, Santa's in such a hurry that he only has time to leave the presents outside the front door and ring the doorbell.  I'm interested to see what will happen at our house...

I've also been told that in the days leading up to Christmas I should be prepared for carolers who might come to the house dressed in costumes and expecting candy.  It's something like America's Halloween.  I find this really fascinating.

But the tradition I'm most excited about involves Norwegian rice porridge (which I think is delicious, by the way).  Apparently, all of Norway eats risgrøtt (rice porridge) on Christmas Eve day.  I'll make it, too.  It's eaten commonly throughout the year--served with sugar, cinnamon, and a dollop of butter--but the difference on Christmas Eve is that a single peeled almond is added to the pot.  Whoever finds the almond in their dish wins a marzipan pig:

Here, like in the US, people do a lot of baking at Christmastime.  Unfortunately, this is only exacerbating the already crippling NORWEGIAN BUTTER CRISIS.  Maybe you've heard about it.  If not, you can read about it here.  We use a lot of butter in our house, so this has been pretty rough on us.  Luckily, after two weeks of searching, Davin found a store on Tuesday that had some Belgian butter and was able to stock up.

In other news, we got a lot of snow here recently, but it's almost completely melted by now (and the weather is back to the usual--lots of rain).  But the cold weather allowed me learn about another Norwegian custom:  leaving babies outside in their strollers to nap--even in the winter!  I went to pick Oscar up one day and found a baby (about one year old) crying in his stroller just outside one of the doors to the school.  He was all alone.  I thought he must have fallen asleep while his group was out playing and had been forgotten.  I quickly wheeled him inside, thinking the staff would be mortified when they realized he'd been left out, but they only said, "Oh, did he wake up?"  It turns out they consider it more healthful to have the children sleep in the fresh air rather than indoors passing viruses to one another.  I looked into Norwegian pneumonia rates, and they're no higher than the rates in other developed countries, so probably it's a fine way of doing things, but it still feels pretty shocking to me.

The snow was exciting, though.  It made the mountains near our house look really beautiful:


And the kids were SUPER excited about sledding.  There were maybe four snowy days in a row, and every day of it, I'd drop Oscar off at school and he'd sled there until lunchtime.  After lunch he'd go back out and sled again until I picked him up.  The hill in the schoolyard was always crowded with 3-5 year olds on sleds.  Each day right after school, Jonah, Oscar, and Sergie would sled together near the house until dark, then come in and drink hot chocolate or gløgg.

This is the type of sled usually used here.  Oscar's using his to catch hail,
which he explained will definitely be clean enough to eat.

Wheeeeeeee!  (Jonah, Oscar, and Sergio)

Saturday, December 3, 2011


We just got back from Madrid, Spain a few days ago.  We traveled there to spend Thanksgiving with Davin's brother, Sergio, and his family.  We went from Bergen to Frankfurt, Germany, had a 6-hour layover in Frankfurt, then flew to Madrid.  Sergio met us at the airport.  We took a couple of subways to reach his apartment, then got to bed around 1:30am, totally exhausted.

I took the picture below at the Bergen Airport.  Restroom symbols in Europe tend to be much cuter than those in the US:

The boys love spending time with their cousins, Monica and Cecilia, but we had to have many of our adventures without them since they were in school during the week (from 9:00 to 12:30, a long break for lunch, then back to school from 3:00 to 5:00[!]).

We spent our first day in Spain walking around Central Madrid.  Even though Madrid is a huge city, its main cultural and leisure attractions are densely packed into a relatively small area, so we were able to see quite a lot on foot.  We went to the palace and watched the changing of the guards, we saw the Prado (from the outside), and walked down streets full of great-looking restaurants, street performers, etc.  We had lunch at a nice little place that served me an amazing torta with mushrooms and leeks.

Jonah and Oscar in front of the Palacio Real de Madrid
This street performer was incredible.  His marionette played the violin beautifully.
The next day was Thanksgiving, but Davin had a conference in Barcelona, so we postponed celebrating it until he was back.  Instead, we went with Uncle Sergio to the Madrid Zoo.  There we watched a seal show, a raptor show, a dolphin show, and a birds of paradise show.  We also saw some really, really cute twin panda cubs.  

Jonah & Oscar at the Madrid Zoo.  The twin pandas are wrestling behind them.

Davin, meanwhile, was also having a great time in Barcelona.  One of the highlights was seeing Sagrada Família, an astounding Roman Catholic church designed by architect Antoni Gaudí:

Church of the Holy Family (Sagrada Família)
On Friday, I took the kids to the Prado, one of the world's great art museums.  Before we left for Spain, we researched some of the pieces we'd be able to see at the Prado and talked with the kids about them, so they were really looking forward to seeing the works in person.  They showed an especially keen interest in gory paintings, like Francisco Goya's Saturn Devouring his Child, which both repulsed and fascinated them (it does the same for me, actually--Goya, after apparently losing his mind, painted this picture directly onto the wall in his dining room).  It's super gross so I won't put an image of it here, but you can click on the link (above) if you want to see and learn about it.

The kids' favorite painting, by far, was Heironymous Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights.  We sat in front of it for at least 20 minutes playing "I Spy" ("I spy a three-headed lizard"..."I spy a pig dressed like a nun"...etc.).

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Heironymous Bosch

Another painting that really knocked them out was Rogier van der Weyden's The Descent from the Cross:

The Descent from the Cross, Rogier van der Weyden

They couldn't got over how richly detailed it is.  The artist painted the individual threads that make up the fabrics, the individual hairs that make up the fir trim on one of the figure's clothes, etc.  All three boys kept asking me to lift them up so they could see up close how realistic the tears of the woman on the left are.

Detail of the tears of the weeping woman in The Descent from the Cross

Jonah and Oscar were so impressed that they said that Van der Weyden was an even better artist than Davin. 

When Davin got back from Barcelona in the afternoon, his brother left him with me at the Prado and took the kids to his apartment so Davin and I could look around the museum for a few hours on our own.  It was wonderful.

Madrid, by the way, has lots of great art outside its museums as well.  We saw some really cool public art, like these giant baby heads:

Awake Baby Head

Asleep Baby Head
On Friday evening we had our Thanksgiving celebration.  Mary prepared the dinner pretty much single-handedly.  She did a fantastic job.  And it was so good to be with them for the holiday.

We all went to an amusement park called Parque de Atracciones de Madrid on Saturday.  Jonah, Oscar, and Sergio had never been anywhere like it.  I don't think they even realized such places existed.

Oscar and Cecilia are both super brave and were bonkers about the thrill rides, especially the scary roller coasters.  The photo below shows Oscar on "Star Flyer."  His is the smallest pair of dangling legs.  He's 25 stories high and traveling at 45 kpm:

Monica, Jonah, and Sergio preferred the tamer rides.

Davin with Sergio and Jonah on something a little less horrifying.
On Sunday morning, we all went to a children's mass, and afterward, to a puppet show in Retiro Park.  Retiro Park is a huge public park with tons of activity and lots and lots of play areas.  The boys and their cousins played in at least half a dozen of them.  Then we went to the movies and saw Puss in Boots.  The kids loved the film, and I was surprised by how much I liked it, too.

Monday night--our last night in Madrid--Davin and Sergio (the grown-up, not the 2-year-old) made paella, a national dish of Spain, for supper.  It was a really nice way to finish up our trip.

Sergio and Davin's Paella with Chicken and Seafood

We had such a great time, and Madrid was so wonderful.  The first couple days back in Norway were a little difficult because we'd gotten spoiled with all that Spanish sun, and Bergen felt darker and rainier than ever.  But it snowed yesterday, so that helped--it was a lot less wet and lot brighter.  And the kids were super excited to play in the snow.  Also, Bergen sets up "The World's Largest Gingerbread Village" every year in the City Center and it's open now, so that's also very cheerful.