Tales from Bergen, Norway

IMG_1854Norway has been on my list for a long time now, but I knew enough about the place that I decided if and when I finally visited I wanted to do it right.  There was enough to see it was more than just a weekend destination, it rained often enough it was worth looking up just when it rained the least during the year, and it was far enough north that I knew to visit during the long days near the summer solstice.  I mean if you were going to a land of world-renowned scenery and $15 pints of beer in the pubs you’d make sure you maximized good weather, right?  Right.

So anyway, I finally found a long weekend straddling the end of May and beginning of June to visit, bought a ticket to Bergen on the coast entered the country armed with an umbrella and duty-free liquor… and promptly never needed the umbrella as the sun shone gloriously for 18 hours every day. (The duty free liquor was actually more for my Norwegian Airbnb hosts than for me, as the cardinal rule of Norway is you must always offer to bring alcohol to its citizens when visiting.) Seriously, I even got a little sunburnt by the end of it as taking sunscreen to Norway was just something that had not occurred to me!IMG_1865

All told, it was glorious.  Really.  I chose to base myself in Bergen, the second largest city of Norway with less than 300,000 people, a bustling harbor front, and a historic area of lovely little wooden houses called Bryggen, or Norwegian for “wharf.”  Every day the fishmongers still set up in the wharf area hawking their wares so you can have a nice meal by the water trying all the different sea creatures, as they have since times of yore except for the fact that the fishmongers now speak Spanish and Italian to each other, and on weekends the boaters from the area all tie up on the wharves for a bit of a party.  It’s all very hard not to like.

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Once the town got boring (really, it was small, so I’m not sure it was a “city”) one could head up into the mountains around town via cable car or incline- Pittsburgh-ese for funicular- and go hiking in the mountains around town.  I guess you could hike up the entire way too, but I preferred to save my energy to maximize the areas above the tree line where the view was spectacular.IMG_1870IMG_2020IMG_1877

Even if I hadn’t seen the fjords (which I did on a long day trip I’m determined to post pictures from still) Norway would have unquestionably qualified as a new favorite- no small thing to say when it’s your 55th country.  My only regret about the entire thing is I am now surely disappointed for the rest of my life when it comes to the weather in Norway- for me it should always be sunny with blue skies- though in the grand scheme of problems that’s a burden I’m happy to bear!

Photo: Fjord in Norway

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Sorry, writing lately has consisted on my end of a research paper rather than a travel blog, as apparently one leads to a doctorate but not the other. (I’m sure you’re all shocked.) Not to say I’ve been still on weekends, it’s just I’m busy having the adventures and not writing about them!

Until I find a few more spare moments though, might I present to you a few photos from a few days I spent in Norway during a long weekend? Which it turns out is a marvelous country and a new favorite of mine? (I mean, just look at that view!)

More later!

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Artie Aardvark Navigates to Noordwijk

Per tradition of this blog, my experiences last week at the Dutch astronomers conference is handed off to the mascot of my project, Artie Aardvark.  Take it away, Artie!

Last week I was very excited, as it was time to meet up with all my good friends in Dutch astronomy at the NAC, the annual Dutch astronomers conference.  Hooray!  NAC is in a different place every year, and this year it was in Noordwijk, which is near Amsterdam in the middle of the area famous for tulip fields in spring.  Because it’s not that far from Yvette’s apartment in Amsterdam- Google Maps said it would take two hours of bicycling- but a bit of a hassle to get to with public transportation, I decided to go to the conference by bicycle.  I hope the Astrobites poster is secure enough for the ride!

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During the ride I discovered this is a very pretty part of Holland, and in fact probably the area people imagine when they think of when they think of the Dutch countryside.  There were lots of bicycle trails everywhere, and canals, and even flower fields!

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There are also a lot of little roadside stands like this in this part of Holland, at the end of the driveways for the farms.  You can buy flowers directly from the farmers by putting money in the little box on the side, which I thought was really cool.

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Finally after two and a half hours of biking- I guess Google Maps doesn’t take into account the fact that aardvarks can’t pedal as fast as humans*- I made it to the conference, poster and all!  Hooray!

* or, you know, Artie’s photographer for the occasion isn’t up for Google Maps estimates when stopping often for photos… -YC

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I must say, the NAC is a very good conference to attend if you are learning all about astronomy like me and are curious about many things.  This is because it is small with about 200 scientists and students this year, and you can learn about a lot of different topics.  My favorite talks were about a young pulsar who had a companion that might be another pulsar, and the discovery of an extrasolar planet with rings over four hundred times bigger than those of Saturn.  That’s more than the distance from the Sun to Venus!  Amazing!

When the talks were done, though, it was time to have fun with all my astronomer friends!  First we found a geocache next to the hotel disguised to look like a log next to a tree…

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And then because we were near the beach, we went there to enjoy the spring sunshine!

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Afterwards, I was really hungry and decided to have a snack…

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And got up my energy for the bowling competition later that night!  My friend Dario even won a prize for having one of the best bowling scores!

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This was also my least favorite part of the conference, though, because while Yvette stopped paying attention to me for a few minutes I was aardvark-napped by some other astronomers!  Luckily I was found and safe the whole time, but it was scary!

Anyway, at the end of the conference, it was time to cycle back to Amsterdam.  This time I took a different route, along the sand dunes by the North Sea.  It’s probably the most isolated area I’ve seen in Holland… and also the hilliest!  It might not look like much, but the bike is a single speed so some of those dunes felt steep!

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I was also surprised at one point to see a lot of antennas poking out of the dunes, and discover a huge radio listening station!  Apparently it was used to receive signals when the Dutch still had colonies in the East Indies and other far away places, and also by the Germans in World War 2 to listen for their U-boats.  You can pick up all sorts of far away signals when next to the ocean due to special conditions there.20140528-113532-41732796.jpg

Finally, after the dunes I turned in towards Haarlem to catch the train home from there- you can bike all the way back to Amsterdam, of course, but that ride is not very interesting and I was getting a little tired by this point.  There was still a lot to see though, because between the North Sea and Haarlem a lot of rich Dutch merchants hundreds of years ago built country houses.  A lot of them look like palaces to me!  This was the view of Elswout, which I found when a little lost on the bicycle path.  It is very neat how in Holland even when you get lost you find the nicest, prettiest places…

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Finally, when I got home, I went straight to my bookshelf for a nice long nap.  NAC is good, but left me NACered by the end of it!

I Went to Stockholm…

1782181_777184388982980_8617740477778773189_nSo I really ought to say a few words about Stockholm, right?

We are in the middle of the silly season in the Netherlands, classified by the odd phenomenon whereby all the public holidays are in springtime save Christmas. (Seriously- I counted and there is an eight week stretch where I only have a five day work week once, and no public holidays the rest of the year.  I really wish the Dutch would consider moving one to autumn…) There is nothing like holiday time to burn to make a girl dust off her list of places to visit, so last week I took a long weekend to head north, to Stockholm. Continue reading

My Latest Astronomy Writing

ImageIt occurs to me that sometimes I’m not the best when it comes to pointing out my various non-travel articles that I publish, and the best way to fix this is to jot them down in a quick post so you can check them out.  So without much further ado, here we go…

Firstly, as the photo above implies, I have an article in the May 2014 issue of Astronomy- a rather long one too, all about the lives of supermassive stars.  To excerpt the first paragraph,

Supermassive stars are the true rock stars of the universe: they shine bright, live fast, and die young.  Defined as stars with a stellar mass of a hundred times that of our Sun or greater, these stars can be millions of times more luminous than the Sun and burn their fuel several thousand times more quickly.  As most people know, if you have a hundred times more money than your neighbor but spend it several thousand times faster you will run out of it more quickly, and the same happens for stars- while our Sun’s lifetime is about 10 billion years, supermassive stars die in just a few million years in explosions that can be detected more than halfway across the universe.  These are stars that lead unusual stellar lives, from beginning to end.

How could you not want to run to your nearest newsstand and pick up a copy of the magazine after reading that?!

Ok, if you are too cozy in front of your screen to run out into the real world, I just published an article today on Astrobites all about how Arecibo has detected a Fast Radio Burst.  What are they, and why should you care?  All is explained if you follow the link!

(Also, it occurs to me I likely forgot to link one or two Astrobites articles over the past few months.  So if you are particularly interested in them, my author page with all my articles for them is here.)

Over, and out.

Historic Willemstad, Curacao

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One of the odd things about the Dutch is like many small nations they have slight inferiority complexes about some topics, and my experience is colonialism is one of them.  They didn’t manage to grab as big a chunk of the world as England or Spain, so the Dutch spend a surprising amount of time lamenting things like how their ancestors traded Manhattan for Suriname.  I suspect this is all a combination of slight national hubris and wishing their bitterballen were more readily available elsewhere, which they nurse by ensuring you can drink Heineken in ever-more-remote corners of the planet.

Anyway, the reason I mention all this is the Dutch have still convinced a few places around the globe to fly the Dutch flag, and one of the ones they have clung to the longest is Curacao.  Curacao has been a “constituent country” for a few years now- they run their own affairs but are still a part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands when it comes to foreign policy and all those things- but more importantly the island is crammed to this very day with Dutch tourists and expats to the point where I practiced my Dutch more here than I normally do in a week in Amsterdam.  Curiously, they only got this island in the first place because no one else wanted it- the Spanish found it in the 1500s but were not impressed due to its lack of gold and much fresh water, so when the Dutch decided to claim it in the 1600s as a base for trade in the area no one really complained or made much fuss over things.  From there they proceeded to build fortifications to defend the port of Willemstad, along with a town with canal houses as only the Dutch can-

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Like many towns in Europe, there is an elaborate set of chimes to ring out the hour and half hour, complete with local wooden figures who march around the clock on the hour.  Except of course we are not in Europe, so the figures are Caribbean!

Willemstad has been a bustling outpost of the Dutch kingdom ever since (excepting a few inevitable fights with the British here and there), first as a center of the slave trade which made them rather wealthy and then when oil was discovered in Venezuela in the early 1900s and a refinery was built over the old slave pens, making the Dutch in Curacao very wealthy again.  The local government now owns the refinery which is in turn leased to the Venezuelans, but what makes Willemstad interesting compared to many other Caribbean towns overrun by tourism is how they still have big ships devoted to industry passing through-

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Whenever the big ships come through, half the town is divided from the other half because it necessitates opening the Swinging Lady bridge, a pontoon bridge that pedestrians use to cross the channel.  It really is something else lit up at night!

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photo (17)Anyway, after mulling it over I decided the Dutch really ought to forgive their ancestors for trading Manhattan for Suriname already- it’s clear they were tired of the weather and decided if they were going to cross the ocean to a colony there’d best be beaches and cocktails waiting there.  And my experience with Dutch is they also love to complain how they just traveled to a new exotic location only to run into fellow Dutchmen there, so this surely would be a greater issue if they’d done colonialism a little more successfully.

That said, to be clear Willemstad is a lovely little town, and a nice break to explore from the beaches of Curacao.  It really is no exaggeration that if you’d told me to imagine a Dutch town in the Caribbean this is pretty much exactly what I would picture it like!

 

Feet in the Sand- Curacao

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Artie Aardvark sits in the shade, adjusting his sunglasses against the glare of the azure ocean.  He sips a mojito, awaiting word on the wire from Havana…

Ok, I did not bring the aardvark- he has a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in place on holidays, and only comes along for work for some reason- and this is about as far away from work as one can get.  Curacao!  I’m writing this on my balcony looking south over the Caribbean Sea where I’m told Venezuela lies about 60km away (not that you can tell other than the giant oil refinery on the island and the standard beer here being Venezuelan), spending a week with my feet in the sand when not scuba diving.  So a rather nice week getting acquainted with the fishes when not reading an inordinate number of books I never manage to read at home.

Also I will note because I’m proud of it that this trip was made possible thanks to my writing last year.  It is immensely satisfying to ponder the exact shade of blue of the ocean and think of how you’ve graduated to a “nice scuba diving holiday in the Caribbean” level of writer, believe you me!

The aardvark scowls in frustration at the paper delivered by his assistant, and orders another drink.  He ponders the problem facing him in great detail.

“Yes,” he muses, “yes… I would look really good in a Panama hat.”

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