Goodbye to Tromsø

After almost a full year in Norway, I am back in the states. Coming home was hard. I packed, repacked, and weighed my suitcase almost as many times as I broke into tears over leaving. I deeply miss the friends who became my lifelines while abroad. I caught an incurable case of mountain fever and ache for the stark landscape of northern Norway. But it is also so good to be home with family. I am reminded of the subtle beauty of the Midwest and nothing beats a home-cooked meal 🙂

On July 14th I said goodbye to Tromsø and flew south to meet friends to spend the last of my summer vacation together. We decided on a roadtrip to the west coast of Norway through a region known for its dramatic fjords and perpetual rainy weather. Along the way we stopped to eat moose burgers and marveled at the Borgund “Stav church.” The medieval wooden church was built in the 12th century. Strikingly, the roof was decorated with carved dragon heads. Dragons seemed like unusual decor for a church; we learned later they were were modelled after the prows of Viking ships to ward off evil spirits…

Hours later we reached our final destination: a climbing route in the village of Loen known as a Via Ferrata. The term “Via Ferrata” is Italian for “Iron Road.” Essentially, the Via Ferrata is a steel cable which runs along a rock face and is bolted to the wall for less-experienced climbers (like us).

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On the Via Ferrata. Photo credit Kristen Mueller.

The first Via Ferratas were built in Italy during the World War I for military purposes. Today the routes are used for recreational climbing and there are over 1000 Via Ferratas worldwide. The Via Ferrata in Loen is one of the most well-known in Norway. The route began gradually on a forested trail but the trees quickly gave way to rocks. The first climbing face we encountered was called Jomfruberget, which literally translates to “virgin rock.” We were certainly inexperienced since this was our first Via Ferrata, but luckily we caught the hang of things after a while.

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Ingrid scaling Jomfruberget: the “virgin rock”. Photo credit Kristen Mueller

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Norway’s largest glacier, Jostedalsbreen, slowly came into view in the distance as we climbed. The glacier has shrunk significantly in the past years but it remains the largest in continental Europe. Via Ferrata Loen also boasts another European record: the longest hanging bridge. We were careful not to look down as we walked across the swinging bridge with a 160 meter deep canyon plunging below us. Later we were challenged to walk across a similar canyon on a single steel wire – with our harnesses clipped in safely to cables on both sides of course 🙂

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Don’t look down…Photo credit Kristen Mueller.

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Ingrid crossing the steel cable. Photo credit Kristen Mueller.

After several hours we reached the top at about 1011 meters above sea level. From the peak we tried to catch our breath while admiring the spectacular view. The drive back from Loen was bittersweet as my time in Norway drew to a close. But what a trip and what great company to spend the last few days with!

Since coming home, I’ve been trying to reflect on the year in Tromsø. Although this is far from a complete list, I’d like to end by sharing a few tips from the locals on life in this small Norwegian town north of the Arctic circle.

10 tips for life in northern Norway:

  1. There is no such thing as bad weather only the wrong clothes.
  2. Weekends are for hiking in the mountains, not staring at a computer screen.
  3. Don’t make eye contact when taking the public transportation.
  4. Brown cheese, spoonfuls of fish oil, and a generous helping of Arctic cod are essential parts of the northern Norwegian diet.
  5. Arrive no more than 30 minutes before your flight departs from Tromsø airport. Anything earlier is overkill.
  6. Don’t even think about walking if there is enough snow left to ski.
  7. Coffee is best served as strong as you can possibly bear it, at least 5 times a day.
  8. Wear ice spikes on your shoes all winter. They’re not just for tourists.
  9. Summer in Tromsø officially begins the first day the temperature is above 50 degrees Fahrenheit and it isn’t raining. Go to the beach, play sand volleyball, grill hot dogs, eat ice cream and jump in the icy Arctic ocean.
  10. “Kos” is an important Norwegian word without a direct translation to English. It’s a word that describes a cozy, candlelit evening spent with friends during the polar night. Preferably in a remote cabin with the northern lights dancing outside the window. Those nights I’ll never forget.

For the Fulbright and for everyone who supported me this year, either in Norway or across the ocean, I am forever grateful. Goodbye, Tromsø, for now 🙂

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Land of the Midnight Sun

Hard to believe my Fulbright year in Tromsø is already drawing to a close. It seems just yesterday that I arrived, fresh off the plane. Thank you to everyone who has supported me while I stretched my wings during this year abroad! On July 21st, I fly into Minneapolis. Can’t wait to be stateside again after almost a full year away.

It will be bittersweet to leave, but I’ve been cheered up this past week thanks to some good friends visiting in Tromsø. Carly, Nikki, and Gretchen are three sweet ladies from the cross country running team at Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The night of June 18th we made our racing debut above the Arctic Circle: the Midnight Sun Marathon.

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The Midnight Sun Marathon is the world’s northernmost certified marathon and in June the temperature for the race was a balmy 40 degrees (Fahrenheit). The marathon course is a stunning sweep along the mountain-ringed coast past white beaches and picturesque wooden houses. The race started at 8:30 pm and went over the midnight hour. Although it was cloudy and threatened rain, the sky never darkened fully, even at midnight. With enough energy gel and water, we all pulled through. After 26.2 miles later, we crossed the finish line holding hands – exhausted but happy with our sub-4 hour marathon debut!

 

We slept in the next morning then celebrated the race with Norwegian heart-shaped waffles and ice cream. The rest of the week was spent sightseeing and doing some light hiking in Tromsø- complaining about our soreness the whole way of course!

Now we are headed south to travel Scandinavia together by train. We have spent the past couple days touring around Oslo by tram and subway. We were lucky to have sunshine and perfect weather to take the ferry to Langøyene islands in Oslo fjord.  The Vigeland sculpture park was stunning by sunset and we closed out the day grilling hot dogs by the lake Sognsvann.

I’m writing this now as we sit on the train from Oslo to Stockholm. We plan to celebrate Midsummer in Sweden for a few days then take the train onwards to Copenhagen. More photos and a new post of our travels to come soon 🙂 So lucky to have the opportunity to travel with friends and celebrate the end of the Fulbright year!

Ja, vi elsker

May is the month of national holidays in Norway.  Labor day, Ascension day, Whit Sunday, Whit Monday and Constitution day are all packed within a two-week period, so there are plenty of vacation days to be outside and enjoy the round-the-clock sunlight. Most Tromsø residents head to the hills to go climbing and catch the last of the spring skiing. Hard to beat T-shirt weather on the mountaintop! A huge thanks to friends here in Tromsø with cars, skis, and gear to make all the outdoor fun possible.

Constitution day on the 17th of May is the most important holiday by far. The Norwegians go all out. Many dress up in their national costume called the “bunad.” These beautiful but wildly-expensive outfits come in different styles to represent the regions in Norway. Bunads are typically hand-embroidered and worn with silver jewelry passed down through generations. Another perk is getting to wear “bunad shoes” with ornate silver buckles that remind me of the trendy footwear pilgrims wore on the Mayflower.

I was so lucky to get to borrow a bunad to wear for the 17th of May from Rigmor, a kind-hearted work colleague at the University of Tromsø. Rigmor is from Mülselv, a fjord-ringed municipality in northern Norway. As you can see from the pictures, the Mülselv bunads are typically black or navy with colorful embroidery. Rigmor did all of the needlework on the bunad below herself! No words can express what the gift of wearing a bunad on the 17th of May meant to me, as a Norwegian-American. I also had another great present: an American visitor, and good friend from college, Brett. This was our first 17th of May celebrated in Norway, so we were determined to try it all.

Norwegians start the day right with a big 17th of May breakfast including champagne (!). We gathered with the Tromsø women’s choir around a table decked with smoked salmon, bread rolls, fruit, cakes, and more. The choir also has a tradition of drinking “nubbar” with breakfast. Ladies of the choir filled me in on the word “nubbar” since it wasn’t part of the vocabulary we learned in NORW 253: Norwegian Conversation & Composition back at St. Olaf. “Nubbar” is the slang word for tiny bottles of aquavit: a strong, bitter-tasting cornerstone of Scandinavian drinking culture.

 

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The breakfast table! Photo credit to Merethe Eidstø Kristiansen

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Photo credit to Merethe Eidstø Kristiansen

The 17th of May started with a blustery concert outside the beautiful Tromsø library. We sang by the wooden statue of Alberte, a fictional Norwegian character by author Cora Sandel. Alberte is one of the few statues of women in Tromsø, so it was only fitting for an all-women’s choir to welcome in the national day by her side.

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Concert at the library! Photo credit Tone Hugstmyr Woie.

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Photo credit to Bjarne Isaksen

Later, we marched to the concert hall to join the Arctic Philharmonic Orchestra and Tromsø boys choir. We performed patriotic repertoire like “Norge mitt Norge” and “Tromsø Skjønne Ø i Norden.”  Exiting the concert hall, we met the Russ parade in full swing. Russ in Norway is a rowdy celebration lasting several weeks for Norwegians who will soon graduate from high school. Russ teenagers wear ridiculous jumpsuits and drive around in brightly-painted vans while blaring music. Cool. Russ in Norway is something high schoolers look forward to (and save cash for) for years. They even have their own Russ business cards made with pictures and inappropriate jokes to hand out to small children who ask for them. The 17th of May and the parade marks the end of the Russ weeks every year in Norway.

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Singing at the Kulturhuset. Photo credit Merethe Eidstø Kristiansen.

After the Russ parade, the “Citizens Parade” began. Every club, sport, and group in Tromsø  made an appearance. The greyhound owners of Northern Norway turned up, and so did the Tromsø kid’s ski team that showed off by racing on pavement on their old skis during their parade. Fittingly, it started to snow. We proudly belted the national anthem “Ja, vi elsker”  as we marched down the main street.

 

At the end of the parade, it was time to unbutton the bunad and kick off our pilgrim shoes. Hot dogs, ice cream, and a day full of memories. This 17th of May was truly unforgettable.

Later in the week, I was lucky to receive even more American visitors. My Lincoln High School pal, Amy, and her mother Susan, joined us for a weekend of sunshine and exploring a nearby island, Sommarøy. We even tried a local delicacy for breakfast: seabird eggs (pictured below). It was sad to see the visitors go, and even more crazy to think that I’ll be back in the U.S. in just two months!

Keep calm and sing in the choir

Just last weekend, choirs from all over Norway took Oslo by storm for the “Akademisk Kortreff (Academic choir meet-up) 2016.” This Norwegian musical gathering only occurs once every three years, so I was lucky to join as part of the Tromsø Akademiske Kvinnekor (Tromsø Academic Women’s choir, or TAKk for short). TAKk is a young choir, started only six years ago. From it’s humble beginnings, TAKk has grown in size to over 45 members under the direction of our talented director, Bjarne Isaksen. Over the course of this year, the ladies I sing with have gone from being choirmates to some of my close friends and second family in Tromsø. It was a joy to sing together and represent Tromsø together with our brother choir from the north, “Det Norske Mannskor av 1995” (The Norwegian Men’s choir of 1995). We traveled south to join choirs from Bergen, Stavanger, Trondheim, and Oslo for a total of over 250 singers.

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Tromsø Akademiske Kvinnekor visits Oslo

 

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Tromsø men’s choir: “Det Norske Mannskor av 1995”

 

On Friday night, we performed a concert at Uranienborg Church, a beautiful Gothic church in the heart of Oslo (pictures below at right). The stained glass was designed by Emanuel Vigeland, younger brother of the renowned sculptor Gustav Vigeland. You may recognize Gustav Vigeland from famous statues of naked people (pictures below left).

The acoustics in the Uranienborg Church were spectacular. We opened with a Latvian piece Skumja Mate, followed by a musical rendition of “Shall I Compare Thee” with text by William Shakespeare. Next came my favorite piece, called Without Time, Without Season by Peter Illyich Tchaikovsky. We closed out the program with works by Schumann and a beautiful hymn called Mu Vaibmu Vadjul Doppe (My Heart Always Wanders) sung in Saami. Here is a link to the Spotify playlist of some of the pieces we sang.

On Saturday, all of the choirs combined for the Gala Concert in the grand concert hall at the University of Oslo. The famous Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (think “The Scream”), painted eleven murals and paintings for this hall. The most iconic mural by Munch, mounted in the enormous front space of the hall, is called the “The Sun.”

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Performance by the Trondheim students men’s choir

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“History” – a wall mural in the concert hall by Edvard Munch

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Universitets Aula: The University of Oslo Concert Hall

It was only fitting for us to sing “Ved Rondane” by the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg in this majestic setting. Each of the seven choirs present were then given seven minutes to perform their own music. We chose to “joik” which is a traditional Sami form of song and then finish with a lively Bulgarian folk tune. At the end of the concert we processed out singing “Studentersangen” (the song for students).

With all the men in suits and women dressed in ball gowns like tropical birds we paraded from the concert venue to the Oslo City Hall. There, to our surprise, the concert organizers had arranged for the bells in the city hall to toll the tune of “Lad oss hvirvle” one of the group pieces we had just sung. Spirits high but calves weak in high heels, we processed the ballroom for the Gala dinner followed by dancing and more songs.

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Singing outside the Oslo city hall directed by Marit Tøndel Bodsberg

Throughout the weekend we also had the opportunity to participate in fun workshops including swing dancing, folk music, improvisation, and choir directing. With so many great options it was difficult to decide! I decided to participate in the folk music workshop. There we learned the art of “kveding” which is the distinctive style of singing characteristic for Norwegian folk music. We had a blast learning folk music from different regions of Norway and arranging them into a mini-concert which we gave at the Gala Dinner.

The choir weekend flew by, but it was good to return home to beautiful and sunny Tromsø after a weekend of rain in Oslo. Anette Ulriksen, a talented member of our choir, took some great photos and video footage from the weekend which she put together in a fun video montage here! Thanks Anette 🙂

Now it is time for TAKk to prepare for our concerts for the 17th of May! The 17th of May is the Norwegian national day, celebrating the signing of the Norwegian constitution in 1814. This holiday is celebrated around the country with parades and concerts, hot dogs and ice cream. Norwegians wear their national costume: the “bunad.” Luckily I’ve found one to borrow for this upcoming holiday!  There is still time to book your tickets to come visit  🙂

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TAKk singing in the University of Oslo concert hall with soloist Emma Margret SkĂĽden (left)

 

 

 

Berlin, Berlin

Every year, the Berlin Fulbright Seminar brings together around 300 American Fulbright grantees together from their host countries all over Europe. The conference is also attended by nearly 200 German Fulbright candidates about to embark on a research exchange to institutions in the U.S. Over schnitzel and beer, we mingled for four days learning about experiences in different European host countries.

 

One of the highlights of the conference was the presentations from the Fulbrighters. At the opening ceremony, we heard some incredible talks ranging from the “Muscle Activation of Human Motion during Vehicle Collisions” to the research of an astrochemist studying the composition of interstellar space. We were captivated by the performance of Desiree Brodka, the first German opera singer to do a Fulbright. Desiree spent her Fulbright year at the Oberlin Conservatory has since become an acclaimed soprano. She danced, sang, and held us spellbound until the final soaring note of the operetta Giuditta.

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“On my lips, every kiss is like wine” – Desiree Brodka performing an English rendition of the operetta Giuditta. Photo credit to Stefan Zeitz (www.stefan-zeitz.de)

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Previous Fulbrighter, Desiree Brodka, and her accompanist Joseph Nykiel. Photo credit to Stefan Zeitz (www.stefan-zeitz.de)

 

The conference schedule gave us liberal time to explore the city of Berlin on our breaks. It was my first time in Germany, so I played all the tourist cards. We traced the path of the Berlin Wall and admired the East Side Gallery: 1.3 kilometers of the Berlin Wall still intact and transformed into a street art gallery. We jogged through “The Green Lung” – Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park. We gaped at the Reichstag Parliament building and wandered solemnly through the maze of the Holocaust memorial. And yes, we took selfies at the Brandenburg gate.

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Obligatory Brandenburg Gate selfie with Tara and Kate

 

Apart from the normal tourist attractions, we made sure to sample the abundant cafes and pubs scattered all over Berlin. Many of us grantees were giddy about how cheap food, coffee, and beer were in comparison to the high costs of Norway. Only 1 euro for coffee? 3 cups please!

The attacks in Brussels came during the middle of our stay in Berlin. Although we were assured that Germany was not in any danger of imminent attack, the shock of the brutal bombings radiated from Brussels to Berlin as one of the closest cities. Our hearts go out to those who were impacted by the attacks. Flags in Berlin were at half-mast and the Brandenburg gate was lit up with colors of the Belgian flag. All of Europe is in mourning and it is humbling and terrifying to be here at such a critical time.

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Brandenburg gate lit up with the colors of the Belgian flag to show solidarity after the terrorist attacks on March 22, 2016. Photo credit to GillyBerlin (www.flickr.com/photos/gillyberlin)

Another main topic of the Fulbright conference was the refugee crisis. 139 American Fulbrighters teach English in German schools and many teach refugee students. We heard from those volunteering at refugee camps and working on the frontlines for integration of refugees into Germany. Fulbrighters shared heartwarming stories of students mobilizing to help out at the camps and intelligent refugee children picking up the language quickly. But the challenges of the refugee crisis are immense: How can we, as foreigners ourselves, help lower the walls of prejudice, poverty and illiteracy faced by the newcomers?

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Fulbright Panel at the Berlin City hall. Photo credit to Kate Huebschmann (also for photos below).


After Berlin, I returned to the mountains of Norway for Easter break. We drove out to the family farm in Trøndelag, Norway and spent some days at the cabin of my second cousin, Merete. In the spirit of a true Norwegian Easter holiday, we went skiing everyday and ate “Kvikk Lunsj” (the Norwegian version of a Kit Kat bar). The whole family also played an annual card game tournament of “Selbuwisst” in a round-robin style with over 35 participants. I discovered quickly from my cousins that the tournament is to be taken very seriously – the competition was fierce!

 

 

I also entered in an ice-fishing competition out on the frozen nearby fjord. This time the luck wasn’t on my side (see picture below). If there was an award for “smallest fish,” I would have taken home the prize. My only catch weighed a whopping 15 grams including the bag 🙂

 

Speaking of fish, we also ate the Norwegian traditional dish of “rakfisk” which translates directly to rotten fish. Last October, my cousins caught trout, salted them, and placed them in a bucket under pressure to ferment. Six months later the fermenting fish were sufficiently “rotten” and were ready to be eaten raw. We enjoyed the raw rotten fish delicacy with flatbread, potatoes, butter, onions, and sour cream. It actually tastes great! If you don’t believe me, you’ll just have to try yourself 🙂

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Enjoying a meal of rakfisk with relatives in Merete’s cabin

Hoping you all had relaxing spring breaks as well! Now I am home in Tromsø. Sending wishes for peace and safety  to you, wherever in the world you are 🙂

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Cousin Eirin and I at the cabin in Grøndal’n

 

 

Off to the Reindeer Races…

Last month, Tromsø hosted “Sami Week” to celebrate cultural heritage of the indigenous Sami people in northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The weeklong festival included concerts, Sami language courses, and a traditional arts & craft market in the center of town.

On Saturday, contenders of all age groups competed in a reindeer-lassoing contest. To make things fair, reindeer antlers were fixed to poles in the town square and participants had 5 attempts to lasso them successfully. The competitors were so skilled that just two failed attempts instantly eliminated a participant. Time to start practicing…

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Lassoing contest! Photos by Illustratedjc available on commons.wikimedia.org

The highlight of Sami week was definitely the World Cup in Reindeer Racing.  12 athletic reindeer from all over Norway and Finland, were brought into Tromsø to race for the title, honor, and glory of “Fastest Reindeer in the North.”  Jockeys on skis were pulled along by the galloping reindeer for the 200 meter race down the main street of Tromsø. Amidst fierce competition, the defending champion, Ingrid, claimed first place by less than an antler’s length!

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Photo by anjci available on commons.wikimedia.org

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Ingrid, the champion reindeer racer

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Photo credits to Tara Miller

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Photo credits to Tara Miller

After Sami week, the festivals were far from over. Just a week later, Tromsø hosted the International Snow Festival. Teams from around the world including Thailand, Germany, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway and the U.K. were flown in to Tromsø to create snow sculptures main square. Teams were each given a 3m x 3m x 2.5m snow block to work on day and night. 72 hours later, the larger-than-life snow sculptures were unveiled at the opening ceremony.

The main square in Tromsø was abuzz with families admiring the finished sculptures. Children were clambering on top of sculptures of wizened owls, snowflakes, coral reefs, and lilies. The Thai sculpture of an elephant was my favorite  🙂

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Speaking of snow, the skiing has been great here lately. Tromsø has extensive trails on Tromsøya (Troms island), Kvaløya (Whale island), and on the mainland. The total amount of groomed trails just in the surroundings of Tromsø adds up to over 250 kilometers. Lucky for me, one of these trails goes almost exactly from my house to the front door of the lab. And I’m not the only one who commutes by ski: it seems like nearly all of Tromsø is skiing to work. It’s so popular there can sometimes be traffic jams on the trails!

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The ski commuter trail to work

The weekend of Valentine’s day, all the Fulbrighters in Norway gathered together for a seminar in Oslo and ski weekend outside Lillehammer. We heard about the progress of everyone’s projects and met some of the new Fulbright scholars who arrived for the spring. The topics of the seminars ranged from fish feed nutrition to diabetes to the international criminal court. One of the new scholars, Dr. Irina Sekerina, is coming to Tromsø to conduct linguistics research on the disappearing feminine gender in the Norwegian language. Another Fulbrighter, Andrew Bahle is doing neuroscience research in Trondheim with advisors who were awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize for Medicine. Such an interesting and talented group! We finished off the evening with a reception at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Oslo.

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Fulbright grantee Tara Miller presenting about her  research. Photo credit: Kevin McGuiness

The exciting part of the weekend was, of course, skiing. A three-hour bus ride later we found ourselves up in the mountains outside Lillehammer at a resort called “Skeikampen.” In good company with the other Fulbrighters, we enjoyed two days of fresh snow and sunshine. Some of the Fulbrighters had never strapped on skis before in their life while others, like Nels, have been ski racing since a young age.

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Smiley Tara out for a ski

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Nels Thompson, in St. Olaf skiing gear. Um Ya Ya!

Although skiing was fantastic, another highlight weekend was the buffet at the Thon hotel. We have been living as students in a country with some of the highest food prices in the world, so you can imagine the excitement over an all-expenses paid gourmet Norwegian buffet. The buffet boasted at least 5 different dishes prepared with salmon everyday and a full spread of other options. Hard to complain when the most difficult decision to be made is whether to eat smoked salmon or baked peppercorn salmon 🙂

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Skeikampen ski resort

All too soon it was time to say goodbye to the other Fulbrighters and return home to Tromsø. Next up is a trip to the European Fulbright Seminar in Berlin next week. Really looking forward to seeing Germany for the first time. Until then, Auf Wiedersehen!

 

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Photo credits to Tara Miller

Cruisin’ to Lofoten

These past few weeks have been busy in Tromsø with the 10th annual Arctic Frontiers conference. This conference brought together over 1300 participants from around the world including politicians, businesspersons, scientists, students, volunteers, artists, and the press, all focused on one common theme: the state of the Arctic.

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Arctic Frontiers began with fanfare at the Fram Centre on Sunday, January 24th. The opening night featured presentations about recent polar expeditions. My favorite presentation was by Johanne Jerijærvi, a 14-year old from Kirkenes, Norway who is the youngest girl to have skied to the North Pole. Johanne was one of four “Nansen kids” selected for a Norwegian TV-program called Oppdrag Nansen (Mission Nansen). Mission Nansen documents the journey of four Norwegian 13-year-olds during their cross-country trek to the pole. Norway: where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average (and ski to the North Pole).

At the Arctic Frontiers opening night we also heard from Professor Yngve Kristoffersen, a renowned researcher from the University of Bergen, about his Arctic exploration with a polar hovercraft he built himself. In 2015, Kristoffersen put his hovercraft to the test during an ambitious expedition to an unexplored (and dangerous) region of ice pack. This mission yielded several new discoveries including the documentation of a fish species not previously known to be present in Arctic waters.

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Prof. Yngve Kristoffersen’s polar hovercraft. (Source: http://www.geo.uib.no)

Another impressive talk was given by Jan-Gunnar Winther and Harald Steen with results from the Norwegian Winter Research Expedition to the Arctic Ocean (N-ICE). To deal with harsh winter conditions, researchers locked the N-ICE vessel in an ice cap and drifted for over five months during winter 2015. Scientists collected physical, chemical, and biological data round-the-clock to create a comprehensive picture of winter dynamics in the Arctic. The N-ICE expedition received worldwide attention and made the cover of the National Geographic magazine. And they deserve the fame. Can’t say I would want to be locked in the ice for half a year…

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The Norwegian research vessel locked in winter sea ice (Source: http://www.ngm.nationalgeographic.com)

These three presentations served as an exciting sneak peek to kick off the weeklong conference. On Monday, the conference began with a “Policy Section” with dialogue between Arctic leaders including the Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs, chair of the Arctic Council, and president of the Sami Parliament.

As the week progressed, topics of the conference ranged from the law of the sea to rights of indigenous people to ecosystem dynamics. During the “Science Section” of the conference I got to present my Fulbright research. I was really nervous but it was a great experience!

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Immediately following the conference, 20 early career scientists and I embarked on a 6-day workshop to the Lofoten islands in the Norwegian sea. This PhD workshop through the ARCTOS research network brought together students from 14 different countries for a course on writing research proposals. Our areas of research spanned political science, marine biology, sociology, geophysics, glaciology, anthropology, chemistry, civil engineering, ecology business, and economics, but we all had a common interest in the Arctic.

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Workin’ hard in Lofoten. (Animation and photo credit goes to Jaroslav Obu)

The trip started on board the Hurtigruten coastal steamer. While participating in the workshop, we cruised from Tromsø down the coast of Norway towards the Lofoten islands. What a view! We enjoyed interesting lectures with varied topics including Arctic diplomacy and the Lofoten fishing industry. One of my favorite speakers was the artist Scott Thoe, who, among many other things, has painted stunning murals in Lofoten to breathe new life into rundown buildings. Below is some of the artwork by Scott Thoe. To see more here is a link to Scott’s website.

The goal of the workshop was help us think “outside the box” when writing grant proposals rather than to stay confined within the limits of our niche research area. As part of our final assessment, we worked in groups to write multidisciplinary research proposals and present them before the “research council” (our workshop leaders).

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ARCTOS PhD workshop (Photo credit: Ulrike Grote)

While in Lofoten, we were also lucky to have time to enjoy the beautiful nature of northern Norway. We toured the Lofotaquarium, Lofotmuseum, and Gallery Espolin. I especially enjoyed the Lofotmuseum devoted to the traditional lifestyles of fisherman in the region. Gallery Espolin was an impressive collection of work by the artist Kaare Espolin Johnson whose paintings depict various aspects of life on this remote Norwegian archipelago.

To sum it up, the ARCTOS PhD workshop was a refreshing blend of group work, nature hikes, and discussions with the professors leading the trip. On board the MS Nordlys coastal steamer on the way home, we were lucky to see a spectacular show of northern lights. Out on the open ocean, they were the best I’ve ever seen! Although my camera is not able to capture them, the talented photographer (and researcher) Mikhail Varentsov was along with us as a workshop participant. Enjoy some of Mike’s photos from our cruise back to Tromsø 🙂

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Photo credits to Mikhail Varentsov:  Shutterstock account. Facebook account.

 

 

 

The Arctic Methane Filter

I figured it was about time for a post on what I do in the lab  most days when I’m not out whale watching 🙂 Here goes…

Thanks to a scholarship from the U.S.-Norway Fulbright Foundation, I am conducting a yearlong research project in Tromsø, Norway. My Fulbright advisor is microbiologist Dr. Mette M. Svenning. Dr. Svenning’s lab is in the Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at UiT: The Arctic University of Norway.

My research project focuses on bacteria that consume methane. These bacteria are called methanotrophs, and they have been discovered nearly everywhere in the world, including hot springs and Antarctic lakes [1,2]. Some methanotrophs have even been found growing at pH 2 in volcanic mud [3]. However, they tend to thrive most where methane emissions are high, like landfills, rice paddies, and wetlands.

Methanotrophs use a really interesting series of chemical reactions to consume methane. First they convert methane to methanol, then they convert methanol to formaldehyde. They have developed complex systems to grow normally despite high intracellular concentrations of these toxic chemicals.

Some methanotrophs (Type I) use formaldehyde while others (Type II) go one step further to formate to build multicarbon compounds like sugars, fatty acids, and proteins. This unique chemistry of using methanol as a feedstock to build multicarbon compounds has many industrial applications. Here is a link to a review of the applications of methanotrophs in biotechnology.

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Methanotrophic bacteria. Image by J.C. Lara, University of Washington. (www.methanotroph.org)

In the Svenning lab we specialize in studying Arctic methanotrophs. Why Arctic? Well, for one, Tromsø is located over 200 miles north of the Arctic circle, so we can take Arctic soil samples out the back door 🙂 But more importantly, the Arctic is changing faster than the rest of the world. In the past 100 years, the Arctic temperatures have increased at almost twice the average global rate [4].

The Arctic is also a significant source of global methane emissions. What’s the big deal about methane? Pound for pound methane has a 21 times greater heat-trapping capacity than carbon dioxide, which translates to a greater global warming potential [4]. We often think of methane as a stinky gas coming from cows, but it also leaks into the atmosphere when we drill oil or cultivate rice. Methane escapes at an alarming rate from melting permafrost, which translates to increased methane emissions from a warming Arctic.

You’ve heard all the gloom-and-doom about climate change before. It’s depressing. We get tired of hearing about it and get overwhelmed by it. It seems like there’s not much we can do except stress about how dire the problem is. But we can focus on the positives, one of them being the fact that there are bacteria that consume methane and act as sink for greenhouse gases.

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Data from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Image retrieved from Wikimedia Commons (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AIRS_Methane.png)

Methanotrophs are the only biological sink for methane. In the Arctic, they live in the thin layer of soil above the permafrost and act as a filter for methane. Researchers estimate they consume over 80% of methane produced in the soil [5]. In the Arctic, cold-adapted methanotrophs are even capable of consuming methane at freezing temperatures. Pretty incredible!

In 1996, the Svenning lab discovered a new species of Arctic methanotroph called Methylobacter tundripaludum in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard [6]. Since its discovery, several research groups have shown that M. tundripaludum is active everywhere in the polar region. Methylobacter has been found in tundra bogs in Siberia, in Canadian High Arctic lakes, and on the Russell Glacier on the Greenland Ice Sheet [7,8,9].

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Solvatnet near Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard where M. tundripaludum was discovered. (Photo credit: Edda Marie Rainer)

My Fulbright project studies effects of temperature on M. tundripaludum’s capacity to consume methane. Our lab is especially interested in how tiny changes in gene expression at the genetic level may have big effects on the global carbon cycle.

To study changes in in M. tundripaludum gene expression we are using a next-generation sequencing technique called “RNA-Seq.” The central dogma of biology is that DNA codes for RNA which codes for proteins in the cell. Like its name suggests, RNA-Seq is a method used to study the “RNA” part of this process.

 

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Image adapted from the RNA-seqlopedia ( http://rnaseq.uoregon.edu/)

RNA-Seq is used to examine all the expressed mRNA in an organism. I like to think of RNA-Seq as snapshot of the state of a cell. We get an image of what genes are actively being expressed in the bacteria. If we take multiple snapshots under different conditions we can identify what is changing. It’s kind of like a “Spot the Difference” puzzle, but we use statistics to find and prove the differences. We used RNA-Seq to observe changes in gene expression in M. tundripaludum under four different temperature conditions:  8 °C, 15 °C, 21 °C, and 27 °C.

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Biological triplicates of M. tundripaludum grown at four different temps

Why those temperatures? 8 °C was the temperature of the soil layer in Svalbard where M. tundripaludum was discovered. Unfortunately, the Arctic is expected to warm 2-11 °C in the winter and 1-6 °C in the summer by the end of this century [4]. We chose 15°C, 21 °C, and 27 °C to test a variety of warming scenarios.

And the results? We’re still in the process of analyzing them, so you’ll have to wait and see 🙂  But out of over 4,500 genes in the M. tundripaludum genome, we found that almost 95% of them had differential expression under at least one temperature condition. This makes for a complex “Spot the Difference” game, because temperature affects almost everything in the cell. But one clear result is that M. tundripaludum is very resilient to changes in temperature. Despite being a cold-adapted species, it still consumes methane efficiently at high temperatures. For us, and the Arctic, this is good news!

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Spitsbergen, Svalbard (Photo credit: Edda Marie Rainer)

As my favorite author Barbara Kingsolver writes in Animal Dreams, “The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof.” Friends, I’m living in that hope here in northern Norway.

Come visit! 🙂

 

References:

  1. Tsubota, J.; Eshinimaev, B.; Khmelenina, V.N.; Trotsenko, Y.A., Methylothermus thermalis nov., sp. nov., a novel moderately thermophilic obligate methanotroph from a hot spring in Japan. Int J Syst Evol Microbiol 2005, 55, 1877–1884.
  2. Bowman, J.P.; McCammon, S.A.; Skerratt, J.H., Methylosphaera hansonii nov., sp. nov., a psychrophilic, group I methanotroph from Antarctic marine-salinity, meromictic lakes. Microbiology 1997, 143, 1451–1459.
  3. Dunfield, P.F.; Yuryev, A.; Senin P.; Smirnova, A.V.; Stott M.B.; Hou S. et al. Methane oxidation by an extremely acidophilic bacterium of the phylum Verrucomicrobia. Nature 2007, 450, 879–882.
  4. IPCC, Climate Change 2013 – The Physical Science Basis, Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC. 2013.
  5. Conrad, R., The global methane cycle: recent advances in understanding the microbial processes involved. Environmental Microbiology Reports 2009, 1 (5), 285-292.
  6. Wartiainen, I.; Hestnes, A. G.; McDonald, I. R.; Svenning, M. M., Methylobacter tundripaludum sp nov., a methane-oxidizing bacterium from Arctic wetland soil on the Svalbard islands, Norway (78 degrees N). International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology 2006, 56, 109-113.
  7. Liebner, S.; Rublack, K.; Stuehrmann, T.; Wagner, D., Diversity of Aerobic Methanotrophic Bacteria in a Permafrost Active Layer Soil of the Lena Delta, Siberia. Microbial Ecology 2009, 57 (1), 25-35.
  8. Martineau, C.; Whyte, L. G.; Greer, C. W., Stable Isotope Probing Analysis of the Diversity and Activity of Methanotrophic Bacteria in Soils from the Canadian High Arctic. Applied and Environmental Microbiology2010, 76 (17), 5773-5784.
  9. Dieser, M.; Broemsen, E.; Cameron, K. A.; King, G. M.; Achberger, A.; Choquette, K.; Hagedorn, B.; Sletten, R.; Junge, K.; Christner, B. C., Molecular and biogeochemical evidence for methane cycling beneath the western margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Isme Journal 2014, 8 (11), 2305-2316.

 

 

Whale breath

For the holidays, my mom and her boyfriend, Doug, took a trip to the North Pole…or almost. They stopped in Tromsø to see me instead. What a gift to have family visit!

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Mom, me, and the polar bear at Mack Ølhallen – Tromsø’s oldest pub

The first day in Tromsø we went on a whale safari in inflatable rubber boats. The whales were incredibly active that day feeding on big schools of herring. The not-so-gentle giants were often so close that we could smell their breath when they surfaced: a putrid fish smell. Mmmmm.

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The humpbacks are majestic creatures to admire from afar, but real stinky when you lean in too close. One humpback even swam underneath our rubber inflatable; Thankfully it didn’t decide to surface at the moment it was under us!

We learned on the safari that humpacks use a sophisticated hunting technique called the “bubble net.” A group of whales will swim in a circle to release bubbles and create a wall that appears impenetrable from the perspective of the herring. Unable to escape the bubble net, the herring are herded towards the surface of the ocean until they are jumping frantically out of the water. This is the sign for the whales strike. The entire group rises to the surface in tandem, mouths gaping to gulp down as many herring as possible. We were lucky to see as many as twenty humpback whales using this method, their heads rocketing out of the water in unison with jaws open to feed. The steps are perfectly synchronized: First, a roiling, panicked wave of silver herring followed by the elegant and deadly arc of the whales. A terrifying and beautiful dance.

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Whale watching suits. I kept mine and wore it to the New Years Eve Party.

After a few days in Tromsø, we traveled southwards to the rolling hills of Trøndelag, Norway. We visited the old family farm, “Slupphaugen”, where my grandmother grew up during WWII with 10 brothers and sisters. Now my second cousin, Oddgeir, and his wife Vibeke are running the farm. There are still 50 sheep living at Slupphaugen, but since farming isn’t so lucrative these days, both Vibeke and Oddgeir have to commute to the city to work as well. They have a lovely home and it was wonderful to spend time with relatives!

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Sheep at Slupphaugen

The holidays are steeped in tradition here in Norway, and celebrating Christmas at my cousin’s house outside of Trondheim was no exception. We ate the jellied delicacy “Lutefisk” on the 24th and “Juleribbe,” (Christmas ribs) on the 25th. Of course we also had the traditional rice porridge with a single almond hidden it. Whoever found the almond in their bowl of porridge won a sweet marzipan pig as a prize. I was so surprised when I bit down on the almond that I swallowed it whole and had no proof that I had found it. An uproar ensued among my younger cousins who were convinced I was lying. It wasn’t until the porridge pot was scraped clean that they believed I hadn’t faked finding the almond.

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Kransekake: Another delicious Christmas tradition

NRK, the Norwegian TV channel features an interesting lineup of films for Norwegians to enjoy over the holidays. On the 23rd, NRK always shows a short slapstick humor film called “The Countess and the Butler” (Grevinnen og hovmesteren). I’ve embedded an online version of the short film here so you also can share in the NRK Christmas tradition.

Tre Nøtter till Askepott (a Czech version of Cinderella filmed in the 1970’s) is also viewed by nearly every family in Norway on Christmas Eve, despite the fact that the film is in Czech and dubbed over by a single Norwegian actor who voices all characters, both female and male. An equally strange TV tradition is the Russian musical called Rock ‘n Roll Wolf. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking and Emil are other Christmas classics here, although Home Alone 1 & 2 also get their fair share of viewing time.

All too soon, my Mom and Doug had to board a flight back to the U.S. Instead of heading back northwards immediately, I jumped on a southbound train from Trondheim to Oslo. It was a beautiful journey past wild Norwegian forests and rocky bluffs. The train rolled through quaint towns including Røros, which is a UNESCO world heritage site. In Oslo I met up with Ingrid, Nels, and other Oles to welcome in 2016. We lit off New Years fireworks, and met friends both new and old.

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For a few days after New Years I had wonderful stay in Moelv with Ingrid, a friend from St. Olaf, and her family. They were incredibly generous hosts! I got to help feed the cows, pet the horse, go hiking with the 3 dogs, and meet many of Ingrid’s old friends.

Ingrid and I also visited Lillehammer, the site of the 1994 Winter Olympics. We climbed 936 steps of the Olympic ski jump…then went home and ate cod 🙂 About as Norwegian as it gets. I’ve finally made it.

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So thankful to the Garfelt-Paulsen family for being my second family here. Now I am finally settling in back home in Tromsø.

Happy New Years everone!

Island life

Christmas has arrived in Tromsø, along with fresh snow. The trails are traffic jams with every Norwegian on the island cross-country skiing to work. The Norwegians pass me on the trail like cars used to pass my old Cadillac on the highway…Rest in Peace, Caddy. But so fun to ski to work!

This past weekend I stayed with some friends at a seaside “hytte” or cabin on Rebbenesøy. Rebbenesøy is a small island (only 30 square miles) located northwest of Tromsø. On Saturday morning we rushed to catch the ferry to Rebbenesøy: the ferry only goes 4 times a day and has to be called and ordered some mornings only if you need it. Rebbenesøy is populated by about 50 people, and remarkably had a small school for several years that just recently closed. Now the six students who live on the island take the ferry to school in Tromsø.

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Alex and Gyri’s cabin on Rebbenesøy

My friends from work, Alex and Gyri, own the hytte on Rebbenesøy and love to spend the summer hiking in the mountains and swimming in the secluded lakes. Now that the mountains are covered in snow, Gyri led us on only a short hike the nearest peak. From the outlook we could see the orca whales breaching in the fjord. Later in the day the whales came so close to the shore that we could watch them from the window of our cabin.

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View from the cabin

Saturday evening we enjoyed lingonberries and local reindeer meat – gifts from the Sami family who live near the cabin and are friends with Alex and Gyri. With two guitars, some Akvavit, and a piano, the weekend flew by. We shared coffee and songs with Odd Arne, a bachelor fisherman who has lived on the island his entire life with a fat cat and an accordion. With good company and good laughs it was bittersweet to catch the last ferry home.

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Jane and I on Rebbenesøy

Life in the laboratory at UiT is going as great as ever. Recently another Fulbrighter in Tromsø, Jane Luu, and I gave a seminar at UiT entitled “Life on Saturn’s moons?” Jane is an astrophysicist who studies exoplanets, and I study extremophiles (microbes that live in extreme environments), so together we gave a fun talk about the potential properties of  extraterrestrial life. Jane Luu has already had an incredible career before she arrived for her Fulbright here in Tromsø: she just casually discovered the Kuiper belt, proved that Pluto isn’t a planet, and was awarded the Kavli prize. There is even an asteroid named after her: 5430 Luu, yet she’s one of the most humble and kind people I know. Jane is only here through Friday, so it will be sad to see her go. Thankfully, this Friday, my mom and her boyfriend Doug will arrive to spend Christmas together here at the (almost) North Pole. So lucky to have visitors for Christmas!

To get in the holiday spirit, some friends and I baked enough “pepperkaker” or gingerbread cookies to feed all of northern Norway. Children in Tromsø have built a replica of the entire city of Tromsø out of gingerbread that is on display in the library. Their skills are far superior to the gingerbread shanty I made…it fell apart and the evidence of its existence had to be hidden (it was delicious). In the grocery stories you can also buy “Serinakaker,” which are Christmas cookies (The literal translation is “Serina cakes”). Mmmm 🙂

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Gingerbread version of the local brewery in Tromsø

 

The holiday season in Tromsø also comes with no shortage of Christmas concerts. Earlier this year I joined a Norwegian choir called “TAKk” (the Tromsø Akademiske Kvinnekor) and we have been practicing since summer for our Christmas concerts in the Arctic Cathedral. Enjoy a short video clip of us singing Magnificat Primo by Chiara Margarita Cozzolani 🙂

We also sang in a concert with the 4 other choirs in Tromsø accompanied by the world’s northernmost pop orchestra in the world’s northernmost cathedral. (Northernmost is an overused claim to fame here.) The Arctic cathedral has beautiful acoustics, and it was a joy to sing with so many different choirs. Here’s a link to a video clip of us singing “Svete Tihi” by Pavel Chesnokov.

Happy Holidays everyone 🙂

 

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Tromsø city center decorated for the holidays