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July 24, 2013

Pricey Big Macs and a Controversy over Immigration in Oslo, Norway

After Reykjavik, Oslo seems a proper city. Reykjavik didn’t even have a bloody McDonalds, not that I like Mickey D’s, but it’s an indication that it’s not a large market. We paid $16 for a Big Mac meal in Oslo so you know it’s an expensive town. But then Norway is one of the richest nations in the world. They have massive reserves of offshore oil and gas in the North Sea and the government manages revenues from their exploitation very well, giving Norwegians some of the highest standards on living in the world. Norway is the 4th biggest exporter to the EU behind China, Russia and USA and 2/3rds of that is oil & gas.

Another clear contrast to Iceland is the proportion of immigrants. Over a quarter of Oslo residents are immigrants. All of Reykjavik had maybe one quarter of an immigrant. Talking to people we met, we realized our hostel was widely known to be the cheapest place to stay in Oslo. Even day laborer types stayed there! I had a chat with a Polish fellow and a Canadian/French man who had recently arrived looking for work and were comparing notes over a beer. Neither was having much luck finding work and they were already discussing where they’d go next if they didn’t find anything in Oslo. It seems you need a permanent local address to get a job and landlords want proof of a job before they rent you anything so these two were stuck in a Catch-22.

In fact, the big story that leapt out at me in Oslo was immigration. Unlike the US which has centuries of experience with immigration, large scale immigration to Norway is relatively recent and happened very quickly. This has spurned something of a backlash. Most Norwegians are now dissatisfied with or at least concerned about immigration.  Anger at immigration, or “Multiculturalism” as he referred to it, was the justification used by the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik who in 2011 bombed government buildings in Oslo killing 8 people, and then shot and killed 69 others, mostly teenagers, at a labour party youth camp. Norwegians are also more nervous after the recent riots (May 2013) in an immigrant suburb of Stockholm as Swedish and Norwegian immigration systems are similar and both have a high proportion of refugees.

The big word that kept coming up in my conversations with Norwegians was “integration”. Yes, the immigrants were there and now they are here, but they are not giving up their old ways and becoming Norwegian. Depending on who you speak to, this is because of social exclusion that keeps them marginalized and removes the incentives to integrate, or because they are simply unwilling to change regardless of the opportunities before them. Frankly I think “integration” is a euphemism for “assimilation”. Integration sounds reasonable, assimilation doesn’t. Assimilation reminds me of the Borg menace from Star Trek.

For non-trekkies, the Borg are a pseudo-race that sweeps across galaxies forcing other species into their collective and connecting them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails abductions and injections of microscopic machines called nanoprobes. The Borg’s ultimate goal is “achieving perfection” (thank you Wikipedia because I am not a trekkie either. I was always more of a Star Wars guy).

In a nutshell, Norway needs workers but Norwegians don’t want to have more children, so their only option is immigration, but they’re unhappy with the immigrants they’re getting because they’re not becoming Norwegian fast enough.

To any admiral contemplating a sea invasion of Oslo I say "you've got to ask yourself one question - Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

To any admiral contemplating a sea invasion of Oslo I say “you’ve got to ask yourself one question – Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

We toured the Oslo Opera House, Akershus Fortress, OsloCity Hall, the National Gallery and the MunchMuseum, but by a large margin the highlight of Oslo was FrognerPark which contains the Vigeland sculpture park. The artist responsible for the park design and all 212 bronze and granite sculptures, Gustav Vigeland, was nothing short of a spectacular genius. The frozen characters scattered about the park represent human and particularly familial relationships and offer a deep study of the emotional complications that enter these relationships from factors like love, shame, obligation, competition, betrayal, beauty, envy, pride, disappointment, ageing and death. The expressions and body language of the sculptures are so spot on that you can distinguish between paternal, maternal, fraternal and other relationships on their basis alone. As you journey across the garden you feel the fury of the cranky grandfather chasing his mischievous grandkids, the warmth of the old woman comforting her adult daughter with a broken heart (or sadness over miscarriage, it’s up to the viewer to interpret) and the sadness and jealously of the less loved and popular brother. Seriously, I wasn’t expecting to be affected this way but I found myself in deep reflection in the park that day as the sculptures shared with me their most intimate insecurities, pitiful failings, heroic courage and boundless love. It’s not an experience I will soon forget.

Vigeland Park viewed over clasped granite hands

Vigeland Park viewed over clasped granite hands

Just like with Reykjavik I want to be clear that this post is about Oslo. We visited that city but not the country of Norway, not properly anyway. We did see some of the countryside as our train carried us from Oslo to Stockholm, but we saw no Fjords and really, that’s what this country is famous for. Perhaps on another trip.

June 21, 2013

Land of Fire and Ice – Reykjavic, Iceland

This island of volcanoes and glaciers struck me as different from the beginning, so I went over the list of countries we’d already been to and confirmed it was the smallest country by population we had ever visited (not counting Monaco, Vatican City or any territories). Also more than half of Icelanders believe in elves – that’s different. Of the ~300k total residents, 2/3rds live in the Reykjavik area, and at times it does appear everyone at least vaguely knows each other.

Iceland Landscape

Iceland is one of the most expensive countries we visit on this trip along with Norway, Denmark and Japan. $100 a night gets you a single room with shared bath. The land of ice sounds cold, no? Combine that with shared bath and you’d think hot water would run out early in the morning and late risers would be forced to bathe in freezing glacier water. It’s actually the opposite. Cold water runs out before hot water in Iceland thanks to their thermal springs. Because of this hot water from the tap smells of sulfur so brushing your teeth or taking a shower smells the same as eating a cold boiled egg at a budget motel’s breakfast buffet (totally safe though). We smelled the same sulfur at the geysers of Yellowstone a few weeks back. 25% of electricity produced in Iceland is geothermal (the rest being hydro so 99% of generation is from renewables), but gas is expensive at ~USD9/gallon, like most island states.

Iceland outside

Reyjavik feels more  like a really big town than a city. The nightlife that Reyjavik is famous for in actuality comprises of only a handful of pubs/clubs, fewer than in Clarendon (an area in Arlington, VA). The party scene is lively, with the revelers both younger and drunker than most Americans are used to seeing. Far from being a crime, public intoxication is a national pastime here so guys peeing or puking in a corner and drunk girls teetering precariously atop their high heels as they stumble from bar to bar are common sights. Police presence is virtually nil which is both good and bad. On the one hand, you can have a good time without risking waking up in prison. On the other hand, if you get in a fight and are outnumbered, you better be a fast runner or you will definitely wake up in a hospital. I saw a fight break out where one guy took some serious blows before bolting into a bar where the bouncers blocked his pursuing attackers.

I did get shoulder slammed by a guy trying to pick a fight in Kaffibarinn, one of the trendier clubs, but given the size and solidness of his shoulder, I walked away without a second thought. No idea why he picked on me. But assholes exist everywhere and the Reykjavik bar crowd is very friendly. There are lots of foreigners speaking English and while the locals converse in Icelandic, they all speak English as well and on several occasions started conversations with us out of the blue. Since Iceland’s population is small and 95% ethnic Icelandic, genetic diversity if low, and while “soft” inbreeding can result in ugly people, luckily in Iceland it has not. So for the single folks out there, particularly those with an affinity for blondes, Icelanders are attractive, big partiers and friendly to foreigners.

Iceland Nightlife

One caution on partying – buy your booze at duty free as you enter the country because alcohol is expensive, and outside of bars is only available at a few stores which close at 6pm. The locals pre-party at home and only hit the bars around 1am. Lastly it must be noted that party nights are Friday, Saturday and that’s it! All other days are dead because as stated earlier, Icelanders have ritualized their party schedule this way.

Unfortunately we didn’t see much of Iceland’s natural beauty because it’s cost prohibitive for us at the moment – Iceland’s an expensive country and we’ve got to make our money last 16 months. I can see us returning later on a separate trip to see the rest of the Island and the Western fjords in particular which are spectacular.

The one trip I did take outside Reykjavik was to SCUBA dive in Silfra which is a glacier lake with a crack that divides the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This crack widens by 2 cm each year and is wide enough to swim down into up to a depth of 22 meters. The water is supposed to be the clearest in the world, offering visibility of up to 100m. It’s clarity comes from the fact that the water travels through porous volcanic rock for between 30 and 100 years from the glacier to the lake and this does an amazing job of filtering it. Water temperature when I went was 2 degrees Celsius. Because of how cold it is, divers have to wear a dry suit with two layers of insulation underneath, gloves, hood and since the dry suit increases buoyancy, you need more weights than you normally would. Lastly, if you’re not dry suit certified, you also need a BCD (Buoyancy Control Device) which is redundant extra weight since you can control buoyancy with the dry suit. In the end, my gear weighed about 35 kilos but more than the weight, all the layers of stuff I was wearing reduced my range of motion and the thick gloves made operating my camera difficult. My dry suit seals held up great as did most people’s but three divers in my group aborted their dives due to water leaking into their dry suits. In the end it was cool to be between continents but not worth all the trouble and cost (roughly $300), plus there are virtually no fish in there. I saw one brown fish maybe 2 inches long, but I don’t think anyone else saw fish.


One bonus of doing the dive was getting to see the Icelandic landscape outside Reykjavik. It is lots of green gently rolling hills with pretty waterfalls and small lakes here and there, but no trees. I don’t mean hardly any trees. I really mean not one single tree anywhere, which was weird. I climbed a hill near the dive site and my foot sank ~5 inches into its soft surface with every step because it was covered with a thick layer of moss. This surprised me but it makes sense since volcanic ash is incredibly fertile. I remember seeing similar hills on the Big Island of Hawaii, although I never attempted climbing one.

On our last day we saw a massive celebration in Reykjavik to commemorate their national day, June 17, on which they won independence from Denmark in 1944. Check out our photos from Iceland here. It’s an interesting country but now it’s off to Norway!

May 9, 2008

Photos from our month-long Western Europe trip…

…can be found here:


May 9, 2008


An oddity! Great weather in London. Street musicians were out, playing by the pubs and restaurants and there were more people out than normal for a Saturday afternoon. I stayed with my cousins on Edgeware road and went to Picadilly Circus with my friend Ziggy and cousin Ali for 3 hours of billiards, air hockey and bowling (I got 5 strikes in a row, one short of my best). My aunt made my favourite Pakistani dish that night for dinner. The next morning, I played with my niece and nephew before catching the Heathrow Express out to the airport and making my way back home.

May 9, 2008


Upon further examination, it turns out my cell phone and USB thumb drive were also stolen along with my Swiss army knife and cologne. Still not a huge deal and lesson learned. You can and should lock your checked in luggage outside the US.

We spent 6 days in Paris in all. Since I am writing this blog entry at the end of the trip, I’ll just mention the highlights. The science/technology museum (I can’t remember the French name) they have there is very interesting and interactive. I spent half a day roaming about it and inspecting the earliest iterations of inventions and technology that have impacted science and how we live today.

We did the Eiffel tower old school, by taking the stairs as far as they go, all the way to the second level from where we watched the tower do its “sparkly” thing.

We took a boat cruise up and down the Seine.

We took in a Paris Cabaret. The one we saw was LIDO, which I thoroughly enjoyed even though most of the acts and the dancing overall were disappointing. Vegas shows are of a higher calibre both in terms of imagination and execution, although there were a few “oooh” and “aaah” moments in LIDO. These included a dancing horse, two ice skaters on an elevating ice rink, an acrobatics act and a bottle of champagne to make everything else more enjoyable. The constant barrage of feather adorned frontal nudity may have also helped.

We took a day trip to Versailles which although massive was not as peaceful and calming to walk through as the Al Hambra in Spain.

We visited my aunt and uncle in Paris for dinner one night.

We took in the Louvre, the Arc de Triomph, Notre Dame cathedral, Saint-Sulpice church, Parc de la Ciutadella Barcelona (where we sailed toy sailboats in the pond) and other Paris stuff. Since we had 6 days, we didn’t feel rushed and did a lot of casual walking around the city, especially in the 7th. We were all art museumed out after Italy so we only visited the Louvre, and that too out of a sense of obligation. I never thought much of the Venus de Milo or the Mona Lisa and seeing them in person didn’t change that. However, there was lots of art that did move me as well as ancient Persian and Babylonian artefacts that were spectacular.

Our hotel was the Renaissance Trocadero in the 16th. Although very central (we could see the Eiffel Tower from our balcony) it was also very expensive and boy did we feel it. I’ve been told the 16th is the most expensive area of Paris which is already an expensive city. As it turns out, the only time in my life I’ve ever had McDonalds for all three meals in one day was in Paris. Even that didn’t wind up being cheap. We spent $60+ that day on McDonalds for only two people!

I left Paris for London via Eurostar while Colleen flew out to DC directly from Charles de Gaulle.

April 26, 2008


Our trip is winding down with 6 days in Paris remaining once we leave Spain. In truth, we´ve started feeling travel fatigue and hard. Intially, we were planning on seeing Granada, Cordoba and Seville in our 3 days in Andalucia. After seeing the Al Hambra on the first day, we decided to stay put in Granada for all 3 days, maybe partially because walking up to the Al Hambra from the city and seeing all of this expansive collection of gardens and buildings left us exhausted.

Turns out Granada is big on the backpackers´circuit and has a very vibrant nightlife that doesn´t quit until close to daybreak. I´m starting to feel my age, unable to carry on partying with the mostly college students I ran into here. The city itself is very charming, especially with the spectacular weather. The South of Spain in like heaven after some pretty cold weather at times in Italy and France.

April 26, 2008


We ran all over Barcelona yesterday, taking in the harbour, La Rambla, the Gothic Quarter, the Sagrada Familia, the Gaudi museum and many Gaudi buildings along the way. We had great weather and loved the open areas and many public squares in the city. It was especially nice hiking to the highest point in Parc Guell and looking down at the sunwashed city below. Tomorrow its off to Granada and the Al Hambra!

April 23, 2008

Tennis / Monaco / Lost Bag

The big thing we did in Monte Carlo was go to the Monte Carlo Masters. We watched 2nd and 3rd round matches between the likes of Davydenko, Federer, Nadal, Ancic and Gasquet. The center court stadium was not large so we weren’t far from the action and our seats were at the net (We paid a hefty premium to the scalpers to get these tix at the last minute). The highlight for me was watching #1 Federer come to within 2 points of losing to ~#140 Hidalgo but then fighting from 1-5 down in the final set to win it in the tiebreak.

We walked around Monaco which has already done most of the setting up for the famous grand prix in May. We saw lots of exotic cars roaming the streets but were otherwise not too impressed by the city. We didn’t have enough time to see the casinos though. We had to make it back to Nice for our flight to Barcelona (which is where we are now).

My lost bag finally made it back to me after taking a detour to 2 cities in Tunisia. My swiss army knife that I’ve had for ~14 years and a cologne were missing. Not a big deal but I filed a claim with the airline and filled out a report with the Nice airport police.

April 23, 2008


A great fun town although we both decided we liked Nice better. A little touristy but with nice beaches and good if overpriced shopping. I saw a 120,000 Euro watch in one store! We walked around for a few hours, stopping every now and then to sit by the shore and enjoy the sea.

April 21, 2008

Nice is nice!

Great weather if a bit windy in Nice. Unfortunately, airline lost my bag so have to make do with samer clothes tomorrow. Found out there is Tennis being played in Monte Carlo so we are looking into that and may see a match if the draws look promising. Walked about on the beach and went to a flea market outside. We also passed Nice’s city hall where film crews were at work getting ready for a scene for a new French movie.