Berlin and Tromsø

Here are the photos folks: and there are many. It was beautiful, what can I say?

Unfortunately, the start to our adventures did not go quite as planned. Aside from all of the masking and testing, this was one of the fortunately rare moments when I really remembered we are still in the midst of a pandemic. I subbed for my 7th grade class on the last Wednesday of March, because the teacher tested positive, then I got on a train bound for Berlin where I had been really looking forward to seeing my cousin's concert on his European tour. The unfortunate thing was, he also tested positive, so that show had to be canceled as he recovered at an airbnb near Munich. Both have recovered without issues, luckily.

Even though the concert was the main reason we had initially planned a quick Berlin trip before the Norway adventure, we decided to go anyway and explore the city we hadn't been back to since we flew in initially, way back in September. The airbnb was booked, as were the train tickets, so we went for it anyway. It was fun to show Adam around some of my favorite haunts from my 2017 summer there too.

Adam and Kate at the Brandenburg Gate
Being tourists

After stashing our bags in the Hauptbahnhof lockers, our first stop was the famous Brandenburg gate, because, ya gotta do it. After a quick selfie or two, we continued on to the Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe, via, fittingly enough, Hannah Arendt street. The monument consists of a collection of coffin-sized stone blocks of varying heights that you can walk among. We debated also visiting the Jewish Museum, but since it was a decently sunny day (okay, to be honest it was just not completely, cloudy, which is pretty good for Germany) we decided to prioritize the parks and outdoor sights for this trip.

Our next destination was Templehofer Feld, an old West German airport-turned-park that had been left essentially as-is, except that now the only things cruising the runways are bikers and roller bladers, and all that takes off is kites these days. On the way there, we ran across the "Tabi World" lot--a sort of theme park/shrine to the classic East German cars. Adam was tempted to take the tour where you get to drive one around the city behind the guide who explains the city's sights via an audio connection to your car...I convinced him to save that adventure for another day however. We also passed the outdoor monument called "The Topography of Terror" which detailed the rise and fall of National Socialism in Germany. It was comprehensive and interesting, and luckily in English as well as German. Although the history is mostly common knowledge, it is still chilling to see it all laid out that way. On a lighter note, we also saw lots of fun and/or cute graffiti on our walk to Templehof.

Adam was suitably impressed, as I suspected he would be. It really is something. It's rare that we get to see an airport from the ground, so it's easy to forget how gigantic they are, and fun to get to stroll along the runways and imagine all the planes that took off and landed in this formerly divided city. From there we strolled over to Victoria Park and enjoyed the lookout over the city from the hill there.

We eventually meandered back to the Hauptbahnhof to get our bags. We checked in to our airbnb where our host recommended a few restaurants that were good in the area. We chose a nearby south Indian restaurant where I had some delicious Dosa and we had a nice little date night before heading back to the airbnb for an early-ish night, and the last uninterrupted one we would have on the trip.

The next morning, another of our host's recommendations led us to a cute little outdoor cafe with seats set up on the sidewalk where we had some coffee, tea and pastries before heading to catch our train to Hamburg. It was delayed. By about an hour. So suddenly our relaxed morning wasn't quite as relaxed, as our airport arrival time grew ever nearer to our takeoff time. I kept incessantly refreshing the Deutsche Bahn app to see our arrival time shift up by a minute and then and back again until Adam pointed out that this wasn't unfortunately, actually getting us there any faster.

Luckily for us, we did manage to get to the airport about 45 minutes before boarding. We were able to get through the security line quickly and race over to our gate only to find that they hadn't even started boarding yet. We even had time to go to a non-plane bathroom and fill our water bottles before we were called to board. Whew! A near miss indeed. Let's just say I have learned my lesson and significantly padded the time between train arrival and plane takeoff for my next airport adventure.

It was fun to see that I was not the only one knitting on the plane! Madeline was sitting next to a woman whose needles were busy and Adam and I were behind a woman who must have crocheted at least 7 granny squared before we landed in Oslo. We were after all going to the frozen north, so the prevalence of the wooly fiber-arts does make some sense. We didn't have window seats, but the glimpses we got of the increasingly snowy landscape were gorgeous.

Apparently the Norwegians had given up masks, we realized as we landed, which was a bit of a shock after the fully masked-up Germany we were used to. Madeline and I just had time to grab some painfully overpriced and solidly mediocre airport sandwiches before boarding our next plane to Tromsø. Another fairly uneventful flight.

As we waited in line to get the keys to our rental car at the tiny airport, each of us were drawn out to the slushy parking lot to take a picture of the sun setting over the snowy mountains, and I thought 'This is amazing. But it will probably seem like nothing special compared with the views we will see later on this trip' and I was quite right.

After a seemingly endless wait, we did indeed get the keys and loaded our backpacks into the trunk. Out first stop was the grocery store, where our minds boggled at the price of tomatoes. I guess we were rather a long way from anywhere that had weather warm enough to support tomato growth, being in the arctic circle... We also couldn't resist the "Polar Bread," some reindeer sausage for the carnivores among us, and the distinctive brown Norwegian cheese.

"Grandma's Cottage," as our airbnb was called, was indeed quite cozy and in a gorgeous spot, at the bottom of a wooded hill overlooking what was, I think technically a fjord, with snowy mountains on the other side. We never quite managed to make a real dinner that first night. We just ended up doing that thing where you are too hungry to actually cook and just nibble on the ingredients you just bought. It worked though. After Maggie and Madeline did some important research on cloud cover and solar wind intensity and Adam and I sat around uselessly, unsure of how to help, it was decided where we would go, and the ladies crept off to get some sleep before our first night of aurora borealis hunting. Adam, probably wisely, realized he would never be able to wake up again if he went to bed, so he elected to just stay up.

We blearily collected ourselves in the living room a couple of hours later, donned all of our available layers. For me, this meant: leggings, linen dress pants (they were loose enough to fit over the leggings, and in the absence of snow pants provided a crucial wind-breaking layer) wool socks, a long-sleeved silk undershirt, a wool sweater, my long wool trench coat, a pashmina scarf, a wool cowl, a wool headband under a wool beret, and lastly my wool mittens. Adam did not have nearly this many layers and somehow no wool aside from the hat I had just knit him, because he had come back prepared for spring, since our arctic journey was finalized after his arrival back in Germany.

We took advantage of the heated seats in the car as we drove out into the lovely snow-flurried night. We ended up listening to Christmas carols on the way, as it just felt so festive. There was far more snow than any of us had seen during the entire winter in Germany. We soon arrived at a spot where there was a gap in the street lamps and the clouds had cleared. We pulled over and luckily we were able to see the stars, a boat bobbing in the water and, was that...? Over the hill did you see a little...smear of something greenish in the sky? It was sort of a funny thing at first, since we had come all that way to see the northern lights, but had never actually seen them before, and therefore didn't know quite what we were looking for. There was still some cloud cover and some light pollution from the street lights so at first we didn't trust ourselves.

Ironically, it was Madeline's camera and Adam and Maggie's newer iPhones that eventually confirmed that yes, the strangely vertical and vaguely green-tinted blur just above the mountain across the water showed up much more distinctively green in the long-exposure pictures. So what we actually saw with our eyes that first night wasn't in itself that stunning, given that for a while we weren't even sure what we were looking at. But it was still exciting to confirm that we had in fact seen the northern lights.

northern lights over a mountain with a boat in the fjord in front of it

Adam had been hiding out in the slightly warmer car for a while by the time the rest of us gave up and headed back towards our warm beds. We agreed not to set an alarm for the next day, but just wake up when we woke up. It still wasn't terribly late the next morning as we had our egg breakfasts and packed our daypacks. We then loaded ourselves into the car and headed into town.

After some difficulty figuring out parking, we managed to trop through the icy streets and we made it to the outdoor gear rental shop where we were each fitted with cross country skis. It was interesting to see how they had given up on shoveling completely in a lot of places and we just saw people with micro spikes on their shoes strolling over the compressed snow on the sidewalks. I mean I suppose it makes sense: if you live in a place that snowy for that much of the year, you can either dedicate your life to snow shoveling, or just surrender to the arctic.

I grew up messing around on old wooden skis from my grandpa's basement at the snow-covered golf course as a kid, and Maggie unsurprisingly had several ski adventures under her belt. Madeline had only skied once however, and it was Adam's first time. It took us a while then, to get ourselves all situated and booted up and clipped in, our poles untangled, backpacks donned for layer additions and removals, as well as the all-important snacks and water. After I returned from the last bathroom run, I felt rather goofy for not being able to figure out how to clip my boots onto my skis. I felt less goofy by the time all of us had tried, and no one succeeded. Eventually it was decided that we should stick together, so we all loaded ourselves back into the car and drove back to the shop to figure out what was the matter.

It turned out the skis were not in fact defective, as we had begun to suspect, but were just a different binding style that none of us had seen before, and which the gear dude had neglected to explain. This was remedied and our rental return time was adjusted accordingly, to compensate us for the inconvenience.

It was snowing rather hard by the time we got to the city park's parking lot, where we unloaded and prepared once again for our arctic expedition. We set off through the park and along the groomed path, (re)learning the gliding "steps" that soon sent us whizzing over and through the snow. We had to cross a couple of roads on our way, and "herringbone" our way up a few small hills, elongated feet splayed out like a duck to gain traction. The reward, of course was getting to sail down the other side, which was quite fun, and somehow felt more daring that downhill skiing down much steeper slopes, because the significantly longer and narrower cross country skis had no ankle support and therefore much less control was possible. We had to really pull down our hats and tuck our chins into our scarves going down some of those hills, as the icy flakes pelted our faces.

Madeline, Maggie Kate and Adam skiing in a blizzard
This was a picture we took early on, so we were at least twice as snow-coated by the end!

We were throughly coated in snow by the time we reached the end point of the island of Tromsø, and were ready to head back to the car, and then warm up back at the cabin. It was very fortunate that the station wagon we had rented had a middle back seat that could be folded down so the skis could stick through and rest between Adam and I for easy transport.

Back at the cabin, we made some curry for dinner and then did some scoping out of the likeliest clear sky areas and possibility of aurora activity. The blizzard was predicted to continue, so our hopes weren't high of seeing much. We went to bed and set a middle of the night wake-up time to see try our luck just the same.

We set out a few hours later into the snow, hoping that driving a little farther off would result in clear skies. Visibility steadily decreased as the wind teamed up with the snow to add even more flakes swirling across Madeline's field of vision as she slowly navigated the twisting country roads. We were all grateful for the studded snow tires, but as we came out from one of the impressively long tunnels under a mountain, barely able to see 5 feet in front of the car, Maggie google translated the Norwegian road sign up ahead. When she discovered it meant "no railings ahead" we all just burst out laughing and decided that was it for the night, since we didn't want to find ourselves slipping over the edge and to the bottom of an icy fjord. This was our ~ADVENTURE~ crew, but we agreed that adventures should be daring and ridiculous only up to the point where hospitalization became a realistic risk. Plus, if we could barely see the road, there was no way we would be able see any northern lights anyway.

We crept our way slowly and carefully back through the blizzard to the cabin then, and crawled back into bed. The next morning we parted ways: Madeline in search of reindeer to photograph (success!) Maggie for a longer ski expedition up the hill behind the house, and Adam and I for a more leisurely breakfast and then a shorter ski adventure following Maggie's tracks up the hill.

I had been proud of myself the day before, since I had managed not to fall even once (not that it really helped my pants stay dry, the snow blowing horizontally towards us saw to that) but I sure made up for it the next morning. We labored our way up the hill then glided along on the ski tracks of those who had gone before, enjoying the view of the water and the blue sky and sunshine. There was so much snow that only the tops of the bushes stuck through; so we found ourselves skiing right over the top of them. We eventually met up with Maggie as she turned around, and after a selfie where none of us felt like maneuvering our skis to be closer together, so we were really oddly spread out, we parted ways again, and she zoomed back towards the cabin.

Adam and I somehow got a bit turned around (our specialty) but in our defense, one snowy hill does look a lot like another! So it was that we found ourselves needing to go down a rather steep hill that we didn't remember going up before. We decided that down was the general direction we needed to head in however, so we went for it. It was definitely steeper than anything we had attempted the day before, but that wasn't even the treacherous part. The real issue was that the path turned sharply right at the bottom, so that you would have to tackle the right angle without having a chance to ride out your momentum beforehand.

Adam went first and promptly wiped out at the bottom. Classic yard sale. Skis and poles everywhere. Covered in snow. He was unheart though, luckily. I then made my attempt, and through great effort and focus I made it past where Adam had wiped out thought I was in the clear. And then I hit a bump and fell straight on my face. My glasses went flying. My skis somehow ended up pointing in different directions, one behind my back and one under me. I was a bit sore the next day...

Kate after her ski crash
You can even see the snow still stuck behind my glasses

The really fun part was when we decided to walk the last little bit down another steep hill that was someone's driveway, rather than risking shooting straight across the road and into the water. It then became clear that we had overshot the cabin by a good bit and now had to walk along the slushy road, carrying our skis and poles back to our cabin, where Maggie and Madeline were waiting to load up the car in order to return our skis.

We did make it back to town and were able to return our skis on time, luckily. Maggie, Adam and I decided to rent some snowshoes for the next day, even though it didn't make sense for Madeline, since she was leaving Sunday morning, this being Saturday afternoon.

We then slit up again, to do some exploring of the Tromsø city center, such as it was. I had to peek into the knitting store, and though I saw many adorable and very tempting sock kits, I figured the directions were probably in Norwegian and therefore not very ineligible to me. After a while we met up back at the car and decided to take a drive around, enjoying the landscape in the daylight, and without the driving snow to further obscure the views.

At one point we found ourselves driving down a road where the plowed walls of snow were about the same hight as the car. We had to get out and explore. So we pulled over and the three of us got out our snowshoes and began to tromp around while Madeline took some pictures. Adam immediately declared he was team snowshoe rather than team cross country ski, and for a while we thought we had lost Maggie for good as she promptly set off up over the hill and out of sight. She resisted the temptation to mount her own impromptu solo arctic expedition, but barely. We managed to call her back and take a picture of the snow along the road being taller than her.

It was burrito night when we made it back to the cabin, and we went to bed with much higher hopes of aurora viewing than we had had for the night before. We groggily assembled once again in the middle of the night and set off to one of the places we had driven by in our earlier explorations that afternoon. I used my snowshoes to break a trail down to the water where there was a rocky beach and a dock where we could get out over the water to await the displays. We were thrilled to have an almost completely clear sky, and we didn't have to wait long for the show to start.

At first we saw some faint glimmers behind us, that were unfortunately in competition with the lights from the houses there, but soon we began to see activity in front of us, across the water. Like in Sãchsischer Schweiz, Maggie and I were the models/silhouettes for Madeline's nighttime photography, so we took up our positions on the dock.

Unlike the first night, these lights were much more obvious to the naked eye. It really was stunning to watch the colors (mostly green but some purple too) swirl and almost bloom across the sky. At times it looked like we were underneath a giant curtain that was being drawn across the heavens, at others the light spiraled and swirled above us as if it was frosty breath or smoke blowing through the air in colorful billowing waves, reflecting off the still water. I just kept gasping and pointing. It was definitely one of those astonishing "you had to be there" bucket-list level amazing experiences.

Kate and Maggie on a dock gazing at the stunning green and purple northern lights
I mean, wow

After nearly two hours of having our minds blown, our noses and toes began to remind us that we were outside in the middle of a crisp arctic night, so we eventually had to surrender to the cold and drive home again. It was yet another interrupted night of sleep, and this time we had to get a move on in the morning so we could pack up, clean up the airbnb, and drive back to the airport where Madeline was flying out and returning the car.

Since we had basically invited ourselves along on this trip, Maggie hadn't been able to cancel the airbnb she had previously booked for Sunday night, so we were staying in a separate section of town from her. The plan was to embark on a snowshoe adventure, but first we wanted to drop our stuff off. Since Maggie had heard back from her hosts first about dropping bags off before the official check-in time, we decided to just give her everything to stash there. Since the room was only for one person, she didn't want to confuse them by showing up with three, so we just loaded her up with our extra things and waited for her return. Which probably just confused them even more, since she was comically loaded up with three peoples things when she showed up.

Maggie carrying 2 backpacks, a giant coat and two tote bags
Maggie carries all the things as I walk blithely away, unburdened

After a lengthy tour of the facilities, she returned to Adam and I and our rented snowshoes and we set off for the bus stop that would take us to the start of the "Sherpa Trail" up the mountain. We decided the avalanche risk couldn't be too high since we saw hordes of Norwegians blithely slip-sliding down the path as we headed up it. View after stunning view opened up as we huffed and puffed and followed the distant dot that was Maggie striding purposefully up the mountain.

We felt accomplished when we hade it to the cable-car landing spot, and were also impressed once again at the shin hight of the informational sign, since we were standing on multiple feet of packed-down snow. After adjusting our layers we continued our journey towards the two peaks that rose ahead of us. I barely managed to pass this woman pulling a fancy steer-able pink sled astride which stat the most stylish toddler I have seen in quite a while. She had her her chic snowsuit and classy shades, and was just enjoying the ride. At one point her sunglasses fell off and I picked them up and tried to hand them to the kid, but since she was being tugged along the uneven path, was wearing mittens and had limited dexterity anyway, being probably 3 or 4 (hard to tell under that many layers) the exchange was unsuccessful. Eventually I called out something like "Wait!" and the woman pulling her stopped and I handed the glasses over to her more capable hands to reposition them on the now stationary child's adorable grinning face.

We eventually made it to the second peak, where we saw planes flying much closer over our heads than usual, and enjoyed the glittering brightness of the sun reflecting off of all that snow. We ate our sandwiches and waited for the guy with the parachute to make some moves. Our hands got too cold to stick around too long though, and we headed downhill to the cable car after a short while. Parachute guy needed up flying over our heads when we were about halfway back down to the cable car.

I crept giggling at how funny Adam looked going down the hill. It was just such a funny contrast to his deliberate, measured trudge up the mountain, now he practically skipped down the slope without a care in the world, kicking the soft powdery snow up to his waist as he strode along. "It's like walking with flip-flops on the beech!" he remarked. And it was. I guess snow shoes are sort of like giant winter flip flops, in that scenario.

Snow flip-flops indeed!

Although it took us a fraction of the time to get back down to the cable car that it had take to ascend, we still managed to juuust miss the cable car going down, but we bought our tickets and were the first in line for the next one. We felt accomplished as we considered all of our polar activities, but were, I think, all grateful that it was our last full day of the trip--that kind of day-and-night adventure is certainly tiring.

After returning the snowshoes in town, Maggie picked up our stuff from her airbnb and joined us as we checked into ours. It was a truly minuscule room with a pull-out couch that would be our bed, and a tiny kitchenette a few feet away. Good thing we hadn't tried to squeeze Maggie in! But it worked for what we needed. We exchanged photos and Maggie made us some delicious taco salad and quesadillas with the leftover ingredients from our burrito night, as we munched on the snacks Adam and I had picked up as she collected our bags.

I was disappointed that the hard candies we had bought turned out to be salted licorice flavored (blech!) but Adam enjoyed them. We also enjoyed the "crunchos" that were another version of the "smash" that our previous airbnb host had delivered to us along with some extra firewood that first night. Smash is chocolate-covered bugles that were enjoyed over the course of our escapades. Maggie rated the crunches higher, I think because they had more chocolate, but I remained a smash purist. Adam ended up liking the chocolate covered (cheese-less) cheeto-style corn puffs we got in the duty free section of the Oslo airport the next day. To each their own! The "chocolate covered salty crunch" idea was definitely a hit concept for all of us though.

After our dinner, we set out to walk Maggie back down the hill to her airbnb, with plans to meet up around 10:30 at the frozen pond in the park we had skied through that first full day, since skies and aurora activity looked promising. I nearly wiped out skidding down the icy sidewalks on the way, but on the upside Adam and I did glimpse some lovely peaks at the sunset on our walk back up, though we found no perfect viewing location, unabsorbed by trees or buildings.

It wasn't long till it would be time to leave again, and since Adam didn't want to sleep and we had either a bed or a couch but not both, we decided to hangout and I was able to check in with my family via FaceTime briefly before we layered up and headed out.

The light-show of the night before had really spoiled us. Therefore, when we saw some dazzling swirls of green appear in the peak of sky between two buildings we just took a quick picture and moved on. The joke was on us then, since that ended up being the most impressive aurora formation we saw that night. There were faint glimmers of green, more similar to our first night's sightings, but nothing nearly so spectacular as the previous night's performance. At least Madeline didn't miss out on much. We still did a couple of loops around the pond though, witch did wonders for keeping us warm, and got to watch the crescent moon set over the mountains and the stars appear in the clear arctic sky. Not a bad way to end the night, and it meant we could go to bed around midnight (our earliest night of the trip, by far) without feeling too much FOMO.

The next morning was an early one, and after a little hustling, we made it to the bus that Maggie was already on, and we all arrived at the itty-bitty airport in plenty of time to get through security and board the flight to Oslo.

Other than the yummy Norwegian pancakes that I scarfed down with some decadent raspberry jam, sour cream, and more of that brown cheese, just before boarding our second flight, the journey was uneventful. We arrived in Hamburg much more relaxed than we had been the last time, and were able to make our train connection back to Rostock with no issues. It was lovely to sleep a whole night with no interruptions, back in our own bed though, I must say. Another great (if tiring) adventure had been had!