Emily C. Skaftun

(skŏf • tŭn) n. A writer of speculative fiction.

Author: eskaftun (page 2 of 13)

Israel in summer, part 6: Flavors of Israel

The next day we first stopped at Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. The site was used by a sect that was really, really into bathing. We saw the actual scrolls the previous day, of course, in the museum. This was just more ruins. It was very hot out there, at least 100. I hate to say it, but it was basically too hot to care about ruins, especially when you hate your tour guide. He was bossy and uninformative and apparently very concerned about being sued if someone fell.

Ruins at Qumran.

Ruins at Qumran.

Next we stopped at a kibbutz that makes products from the Dead Sea minerals, called Ahava. I would have liked to see the factory in operation, but the place we stopped was just a gift shop.

Crazy salt sculptures at the Avada shop.

Crazy salt sculptures at the Avada shop.

From there we went to Masada–a fortress made by Herod, way, way up on an unpromising hill. It was built there because it would be so easy to defend. But it didn’t work; in the end the people there were besieged and killed themselves rather than become enslaved. Whoops. Still, it is a very impressive site. Amazing that people were able to live there and even retain their obsession with bathing and saunas and such. It’s also funny because it’s way, way up on a hill and yet it’s only at approximately sea level. I am still not clear on what they ate up there besides pigeons and fruit. It was noonish when we visited, which seems like the worst possible time to be somewhere so bloody hot, but I’m not in charge.

Masada. It really was a marvel.

Masada. It really was a marvel.

After lunch in the cafeteria, we went to the Dead Sea. This is really quite an experience, not one I’d call entirely pleasant, but an experience! First of all, the shore of the sea has receded very far from the “resort” where we parked and changed and such. There’s a “train”–some seats pulled by a tractor–that goes to and from the shore every 15 minutes. Also, Israel could take a few cues from Scandinavia on how to design public bath-type infrastructure. The “resort” had dirty bathrooms with wet, grimy floors. Third, I wish someone had told me before we left for this trip how sharp the “sand” at the shore is. It’s salt crystals. Duh, right? But it hadn’t occurred to me. I would have bought some shower shoes or sandals if I’d known.

But! It is really a strange place. Even the Husband, who always always sinks, floats there. It’s impossible not to float. It’s hard to stop floating; your legs just drift back to the surface whenever you stop standing on them. It really is saltier than salt. Sweat drips in your eyes, but don’t you dare try to wipe it away, because your hands are covered in something much worse than sweat. There were fresh-water showers on the shore, but the water in those was so hot–even hotter than the water of the sea, which was almost too hot to get into—that it was hardly worth it. Also, the water burns men’s junk. Not women’s, apparently, so that’s one more check for internal gonads (and having tougher skin in one’s nether regions). We laughed as a set of three guys waded in and successively discovered that fact. Hee hee. The Husband found a hat floating in the water and kept it, because he is strange.

Back in Jerusalem we said goodbye to our traveling companions and got ready for our dinner with Iris. This was one of the highlights of the trip, a meal with a real Israeli in her home, though getting there was an adventure. The cabdriver we flagged down couldn’t understand me or read English (I’d written the address, as recommended), but he zoomed off confidently. Then he pulled over and asked a stranger to read the address I’d written. Then he called someone to find out where the street was. I had to talk to the person for a minute. Eep! We did find it, though, and in fact it felt like we were going the right way the whole time.

Iris was immediately wonderful. Her “sister” Tami was there too, and over a very long and excellent dinner of many courses we discussed everything from American TV to politics. That day, or maybe the day before, someone had burnt a house in the West Bank and a little child was killed. They said that as Israelis they wouldn’t go to the Old City the next day, out of respect. But oh, did we talk about everything. Israelis (or at least these two) like us think their government is crazy, and want peace. They support the Palestinians but also, of course, are pro-Israel. They know much more about American television than we do.

Israel in summer, part 5: The “new” city of Jerusalem

We began our “new city” day at the Israel Museum, which had many more exhibits than we were able to see. One of the most striking is a big model of the Old City, but it also contains the Dead Sea Scrolls, strange sculptures, and antiquities like mosaics, Egyptian stuff, and Roman glass. I would have like to spend more time there.

Scale model of the old city.

Scale model of the old city.

Then it was on to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum. Honestly, I think the one in D.C. is more affecting. There was a wealth of information here, though, and the children’s memorial, a very dark room with reflected points of light, where the names and ages of the dead children are read, was touching. There was a HUGE group of soldiers at the museum, which made it hard to get through. The museum has no shortcuts through the back and forth structure, so it was a maze.

We had lunch in the cafeteria there, which was divided into “meat” and “dairy.” We chose dairy. Apparently fish goes both ways. Oddly, few restaurants we’ve been to are kosher, but our dinner place was too, and it was on the “dairy” side.

Next we TRIED to visit the Knesset. Almost the first thing the guide said this morning (but not so early we could have done anything about it—Avshalom is a terrible guide) was that we needed passports for the Knesset. So back I went to the hotel while we waited for Israel Museum exhibits to open. What he didn’t tell us–and apparently didn’t know–is that there’s also a dress code for the Knesset: no shorts, t-shirts, sandals, etc. Most of the group didn’t pass, but weirdly I did (in my orange dress). We learned about Israeli democracy, and the key word is transparency. I wish we had some of that! While we’re at it, I wish we had a party system with coalition governments, but that’s a different story. We watched the rest of the group walk away, through the security fence, and had only to hope that they’d come back for us.

Mural by Chagall in the Knesset.

Mural by Chagall in the Knesset.

They did. Or rather, Avshalom did, and then we went back to the Israel Museum for the others, and then WALKED BACK to the same exact place he’d picked us up to look at a stupid menorah statue. He is really an idiot. I dislike him intensely.

We drove through the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, gawking at the Hasidic Jews. Seems kind of rude. I wondered what would happen to us improperly dressed gawking tourists if our bus broke down, but thankfully we didn’t have to find out. We skipped a stop from our schedule, Ammunition Hill. Will ask Avshalom tomorrow.

Back at the hotel, a pride parade was setting up outside our window. It looked very small compared to home, and with a HUGE police presence. This was needed, though, because there was a stabbing. We saw… not it, but the response to it. The emergency vehicles that had been trailing the parade suddenly dove through it like parting the Red Sea. Husband looked it up to know what had happened and found early news reports about the stabbing. In a shocking coincidence, apparently the same stabber attacked the parade 10 years ago, when Husband’s cousin was marching in it. Small world. The stabber had apparently just been released from prison, having had a 12-year sentence commuted to 10. Great job, guys. He was clearly not rehabilitated.

Our view of the Jerusalem Pride parade from the hotel window.

Our view of the Jerusalem Pride parade from the hotel window.

Even before the sirens started up, I’d been thinking how brave the queers of Israel must be to march in their pride parade. I didn’t even know how true that was.

 

Israel in summer, part 4: A city divided

Our first stop in Jerusalem was at Rachel’s Tomb, which is down a long, unpromising street of high concrete walls built to protect the Jewish and Christian worshippers from attacks. I didn’t go inside. It looked like there was little to see and I was unclear on the garb required and made very uncomfortable by the whole thing. This felt like a genuine, still-in-use religious site, and my secular tourism felt unwelcome.

Even doves need bulletproof vests here?

Even doves need bulletproof vests here?

The first real stop of the day was Bethlehem, which is in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. It is in the West Bank. We had to get out of the bus, walk through a border, and meet a different guide on the other side–Adel. He was like Tomer light, but I presume he was a Palestinian Christian, because those are the things his guiding focused on.

He took us to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which supposedly covers the place where Jesus was born. It’s a large church, shared by various Christian sects, with predominantly Byzantine art. Talk about gaudy! There was a mass downstairs when we went, so we had to wait seemingly forever to go down to the spot where Jesus was born, and then it was so crowded that we could barely see anything. Supposedly the manger is down there too, but I didn’t see it. I was surprised a stable would have been around long enough for people to start venerating it, but Bethlehem was in Jesus’s lifetime a very small town, I guess. It is pretty much inside Jerusalem these days.

They never heard the phrase, "tone it down."

They never heard the phrase, “tone it down.”

Next we visited a gift shop, which I suspect was run by Adel’s family. This took a very long time.

We got lost both ways going through the border again. We had to show passports to get back to the “Israel” side, though the person looking really wasn’t enthusiastic about it.

The border.

The border.

Then Tomer handed us over to a new guide, Avshalom, who was a huge step down from Tomer. Where Tomer was confident, Avshalom was timid and uncertain. We started with a VERY overpriced lunch, then visited the Mount of Olives. There is a massive Jewish cemetery there; very hot and grim, with no vegetation to speak of. At the base of the hill we drove past the Garden of Gethsemanee, which seems quite far outside the city for a quick place to go pray. We only drove past the garden, unfortunately.

The cemetery. To me it seemed a grim place to

The cemetery. To me it seemed a grim place to be dead.

Finally we arrived at the Old City. We entered through the Zion gate, which is riddled with bullet holes. As it turns out, much of the “Old City” is only 50 years old, having been destroyed in 1948 and rebuilt after a few wars. As always, it’s strange to see how the country lives with history–and isn’t too precious about it. We are allowed to touch almost everything. The drag is the religious part, which wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t so sexist. You really can’t tell me that god is offended by my shoulders. He made them!

Bullet holes in the Zion Gate. Just inside is a huge mezuzah made from an artillery shell.

Bullet holes in the Zion Gate. Just inside is a huge mezuzah made from an artillery shell.

At the old city, the first stop was David’s Tomb. Upstairs from the tomb is the room where the Last Supper supposedly took place–except that there’s absolutely no evidence to support that “tradition,” as Avshalom called it, and plenty to support the fact that the building dates only to the Crusader era. Oh well.

After that we walked to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus died. As the story goes, all the important places (location of crosses, tomb) were once outside the city, but since they are now holy places there’s a massive church and it’s all within the current walls of the “old” city. In that church are the last few stations of the cross, including the crucifixion spot and the empty tomb–the latter having been excavated around such that it’s hard to see it as the cave it must once have been. The church is large, maze-like, and again shared by several brands of Christian, some gaudier than others.

Jesus's three-day resting place, so the legend goes.

Jesus’s three-day resting place, so the legend goes.

Then we hit the other stations in reverse, zig-zagging through markets and rushing through them until we hit the first one, where Jesus was sentenced, if I’m not mistaken. Things were really blurring by then.

After that we hit the Wailing Wall. Again, we were separated into men and women. I always find it weird to be in the presence of people with real religion. I don’t like it. Especially to come and gawk at it like a tourist. But nonetheless I put a very inappropriate prayer in the wall. One that would take a real miracle.

Prayers in the wall.

Prayers in the wall.

At around this point in the afternoon we had an awkward amount of time left (which never would have happened with Tomer as our guide), and walked a lot needlessly, then had less than an hour free before dinner. Diner was good–Armenian, which is more of the same–and then we went to the “sound and light show” in the Tower of David. This was very, very cool. Gorgeous and impressive. The Tower itself is really a castle. It has a huge moat and crenellated top and all the works. During the show Husband and I saw two UFOs. I think they might have been birds on an updraft–or possibly flying pigs. 

Israel in summer, part 3: The Golan Heights

Our first morning in the Golan Heights started in Gallilee at the Mount. The Church of the Beatitudes commemorates all the blessings in the Sermon on the Mount. It has a nice view of the Sea of Gallilee and it’s very pretty, though not very old. It was built in 1938. Combine the newness of it with the religiousness of it, and this wouldn’t have made my must-see list. But Mom seemed to appreciate it.

Luckily, I make my own fun.

Luckily, I make my own fun.

Then we went to Capernaum, where Jesus apparently lived and preached. There is a spaceship-like church built over the ruins of his place, which would have been used as a church. The spaceship has a window in the floor. I like the way that the sites are built over without erasing what’s below. Next to it is the ruin of an early Sephardic temple.

The spaceship at Capernaum.

The spaceship at Capernaum.

The next stop was probably my favorite so far–a hill overlooking the Syrian border, with bunkers and battlements and real soldiers up there with metal silhouettes (and wacky metal art). Artillery fire in the distance. Cafe serving coffee. Tourists. Soldiers. Totally surreal. Things like this are why traveling on a guided tour sometimes makes sense. I am sure this random hilltop would not have been in my Frommer’s Guide to Isreal.

Soldiers, both real and silhouette, patrol this border.

Soldiers, both real and silhouette, patrol this border.

After that we went to a “sound and light show” that was propaganda for the Golan heights and taught us nothing. It included fake wind and rain. I consider this a total waste of time, especially as there was a brewery next door that we did NOT visit. We DID visit the Golan Heights Winery, which was lovely because wine. It’s actually very good.

After that we stopped at a falafel and shawarma place for lunch. Delish. There was a whole table of soldiers with rifles slung over their shoulders eating at the table next to us, and they invited James the Texan to be in a picture with them. Very charming. We actually saw a ton of soldiers on the road that day, mustering for some reserve training. Mary found it disturbing to see them all there, waiting for busses and such, but it didn’t seem that strange to me.
Our next stop was Tzfat, the center of Jewish mysticism. We couldn’t go into the temple on our schedule because of a Bar Mitzvah, so we mostly had time to stroll down the artist-lined street and be tempted by their wares.

Tzfat is a charming old town.

Tzfat is a charming old town.

This town gets me.

This town gets me.

It gets Husband too.

It gets Husband too.

Finally we headed back to the Kibbutz, and over dinner had a wacky conversation with Ken about tarot and numerology. He shared his Golan wine with me before we headed to a lecture about kibbutzim. Basically, they are communes.

The next day we left the kibbutz, after visiting their synagogue furniture showroom. They’ve sold furniture to IKEA–for the worship areas in their three Israeli locations. Our first stop was Nazareth, the Church of the Annunciation, where Mary was told of her impending virgin birth. There is a truly impressive church there, filled with beautiful mosaics from all over the world. The church is built over Mary’s supposed home–or the home of Jesus as a child. They were apparently troglodytes: they lived in caves.

 

Inside Mary's church.

Inside Mary’s church.

Mosaics from all over the world celebrate the Madonna, in strikingly different styles.

Mosaics from all over the world celebrate the Madonna, in strikingly different styles.

The town of Nazareth is Muslim-controlled now, and they wanted to build a big giant mosque next to the church, dwarfing it, but Israel wouldn’t let them. They even checked records to see if there was evidence that the person the would-be mosque-builders wanted to honor had died there, and couldn’t find any. So they had to settle for signs telling the Christians to convert. Tomer seemed very offended by this, but it pales in comparison to Westboro Baptist Church in my opinion.

Still not as offensive as Westboro Baptist Church.

Still not as offensive as Westboro Baptist Church.

Our next stop was Beit Alpha, where we saw its famous zodiac floor. This had the BEST video explaining the origin of the floor, with reenactors. According to the video, the mosaic artist was new and therefore cheap. But he also sucked at understanding Judaism and art. The video made it look like he sketched one idea and then totally went with that, which is what the floor looks like, honestly. An actual quote from the video is “Those are barely cats!” in reference to the “lions” portrayed. Rarely does a historical site so blatantly mock itself. Or display any sense of humor, actually. This was a welcome breath of fresh air.

From there we went to an unscheduled stop at a park with a spring, where many went swimming. The water was lovely. We just put our toes in after eating terrible mystery sandwiches. Could they have been ham? Seems unlikely to me, but the others insisted that’s what we were eating.

On the way into Jerusalem were stuck mightily in traffic. But we did make it, eventually.
After checking into our hotel and having a rest, we went to Lavan at Cinemateque for dinner. It was quite a nice dinner, though we got very lost trying to find the place and wandered almost into a canyon. Thanks a lot, misleading sign! As we were finishing dinner, an outdoor movie started up right next to our window–Back to the Future! No matter where you go, there you are!

Back to the future!

Back to the future!

Israel in summer, part 2: To the sea of Gallilee

In the morning our tour started. Our group is really small—there’s the Texans, two women from NY, Mary the blond and Randi, the odd couple of Nori and Ken, and Sadira, master of scarf-wearing. Our tour guide/driver, Tomer, is much more mellow than whoever picked us up from the airport, thank the stars.

We started at Ceaserea, where the ruins are impressive in the way of all ruins. The amphitheater is still used for shows, which seems really cool. On the other end, restaurants nestle among the ruins. I would have enjoyed visiting them if we’d been there without the group. We also stopped at a section of aqueduct on the beach, which was very pretty with the blue Mediterranean behind.

Aqueduct and sea behind.

Aqueduct and sea behind.

Next we drove to Haifa, and paused to look the Bahai shrine up and down–literally. We looked up at it, and then we looked down at it. I would have liked to see inside the actual building, but it is nevertheless neat to have seen two of the shrines now. The gardens are incredible. I wonder what it takes to be allowed to walk the length of them. A shame that everyone isn’t doing so. What good is it to create a marvel and not let people fully enjoy it?

The Bahai shrine, from the top.

The Bahai shrine, from the top.

From there we sped on to a Druze village. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this wasn’t noticeably different from any other little roadside town. We had a decent but not mind-blowing lunch and then were harangued by merchants wanting to show us their “hand-made” merchandise, which I am sure I could buy at Target.

Next we stopped at Megida (Armageddon), which was more ruins and hot hot heat. It takes a lot of imagination to appreciate ruins, and I was out of that brand of imagination for the day. One nice thing is that they let people crawl all over the ruins here; they’re not all precious about them like so many other places. But I guess that goes with them being not all that impressive, really. We did walk down to a tunnel dug under the city walls to reach the town’s water source. Pretty cool thing to have done in ye olden times, and a welcome break from the heat.

The original Underground Tour.

The original Underground Tour.

Our last tourist stop was at the Jordan River, supposedly the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus. It was pretty. A great many people in robes were being baptized there, and across the way horses were running about for no apparent reason. We were able to just step into the river, where tiny fishes nibbled and tickled our ankles. Have I been saved now?

These fish live on a diet of almost exclusively sin.

These fish live on a diet of almost exclusively sin.

Finally we reached the Kibbutz where we stay for two nights. I am still not totally clear on the kibbutz concept, and hope it gets explained tomorrow. Our accommodations are what you’d expect from any hotel. We had a nice dinner and nicer chat with our traveling companions, and then Husband and I tried to walk the “promenade” that loops around the kibbutz but probably were going the wrong way and so we turned around and came back that way. Lame.

Israel in summer, part 1: Tel Aviv, or nothing is open

I joke that we are trying to visit all the “I” countries—Iceland, Israel, etc. It’s not true, of course. We’re in no hurry to see Iraq or Iran, despite the lovely things I’ve heard about the city of Tehran.

Actually this trip was Mom’s idea. Is it a religious thing? That residual Catholicism can be hard to get over. Who knows. Mom said let’s go to Israel, so to Israel we went.

We were met at baggage by a caricature Israeli—he really reminded me of the tour guide from the Simpsons episode—fast-talking and impatient. We made it to the hotel to find it perfectly adequate despite the tour company’s attempts to upsell me—I’m glad we didn’t pay more to upgrade. Our hotel was two blocks from the beach, which is amazing. It’s really nicely integrated into the city with a boardwalk and cafes and anything else you could want.

We had dinner at a place on the beach. Great ambiance, okay food, lousy service. Don’t be in a hurry!

By the time we got in and sat for a minute it was Shabbat, and our options were somewhat limited. We walked just a tiny bit, marveling at all the stray cats in the city. They meow with no discernible accent.

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Dinner at the beach.

Saturday morning the Husband woke up feeling unwell and didn’t join us for the day. The museums Mom wanted to see were closed on account of Shabbat, and the buses weren’t running, so we walked all the way to Old Jaffa (Yafo)—about two miles—along the beach. It was really lovely. The old city is amazing and well restored. Unlike a lot of ancient sites, it’s been in constant use, which is nice to see. We attempted to visit the market on the way back, but (duh) it was closed. So we just walked back.

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A typical scene from Yafo.

It is beautiful here. Oddly more "mediterranean" than I'd expected.

It is beautiful here. Oddly more “mediterranean” than I’d expected.

We rested a long while then sought dinner around sunset—only to find that it was some kind of fast day, and NOW, even the things that had been open for Shabbat in relatively easygoing Tel Aviv were closing. Oh, you haven’t eaten since breakfast? Well too bad. We finally resorted to eating at the same restaurant from the night before. Ugh. Why weren’t we warned about the holiday? Seems like something the folks we bought the tour from might have told us.

Are you feeling independent today?

Photo: Pixabay Sparklers are okay, but I always crave big fireworks on Independence Day. Photo: Pixabay
Sparklers are okay, but I always crave big fireworks on Independence Day.

 

I have high expectations for the Fourth of July, which were instilled in me before I can even remember properly by perfect celebrations at my childhood best friend’s farmor’s.

Farmor lived next door to them in a beautiful house on a lily-pad-choked pond almost entirely encircled by houses in Seattle’s north end. Together with my friend’s three siblings, I spent many a summer day in that pond called a lake, swimming and diving off farmor’s dock and even fishing, but for some reason the Fourth was special. I suspect that reason was FIREWORKS.

Back then there was no ban on setting off fireworks (not that our ban has slowed the practice down much anyway), and most of the adults at farmor’s party would have spent ridiculous sums of money at area Indian reservations. We were always well supplied. Add to that the fact that at least half the other houses surrounding the pond had done the same thing, and it made for a pretty spectacular display. No one ever lost a finger at these parties, and we kids got to stay up late. What more could you want?

As an adult, I find it’s hard to re-capture the magic of the holiday. Without a reliable plan it tends to sneak up on me, and I end up doing something so non-memorable that I honestly can’t recall more than one Fourth of July in recent years. There are never enough fireworks! Bummer.

One year I spent the summer backpacking in Europe, and on the Fourth of July I was staying at a shady hostel in Rome—some guy’s apartment that he’d crammed bunk beds into, that was the only bed I could find that night. I asked the guy if he knew where folks would be celebrating the American holiday and he offered to take a bunch of us. So off we went, but for some reason no one but the guy remembered to bring the hostel key. When we weary travelers wished to return home before the hostel guy did, he became the hostile guy. Were we feeling independent? Not so much. Needless to say, the Roman Fourth of July wasn’t the party I was looking for.

Ten days later I found myself in La Rochelle, France, on Bastille Day. As a parade passed by with marching bands and red, white, and blue flags, I felt patriotic stirrings and reflected on how easy it is to tug on those particular heart strings.

What is Independence Day? Like all holidays, it probably ought to mean more to us than explosions and potato salad. But I’m not convinced it has to be a celebration of our violent separation from England either, or a day to pat ourselves on the back for living in this bizarre and arrogant upstart of a country (which, don’t get me wrong, I love—for all our problems America has many fine qualities too). For me, though, the holiday is a more personal one.

In the excellent movie Smoke Signals (based on The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, by Sherman Alexie), a father asks his son on July Fourth, “Are you feeling independent today?” Since that year in Rome I’ve taken this as my Independence Day mantra. Can I take care of myself? Am I doing what I want to do? Have I, at the very least, remembered my house keys? It’s nice to check in on these things from time to time.

Whatever Independence Day means to you (alien invasion? I hear they’re making a sequel to the movie by that name), I wish you a happy one. With fireworks.

 

This article originally appeared in the July 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

What, more postcards!?

It’s well past time for another installment of stories on postcards! These are postcards I picked up in Norway that now are going out to backers of the Norwegian American Weekly’s Indiegogo campaign.

 

We start off with a touching family reunion…

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And continue on a (slightly overrated) time travel adventure…

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Survive a possible global catastrophe…

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Brave some extreme road conditions…

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And solve an architectural mystery…

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We hunt elusive prey…

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And finally, a word from a serpent…

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Following the king for a day: eight observations in no particular order

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Press passes make me feel so official!

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Press passes make me feel so official!

1. The king is super punctual. I don’t know if the trains run on time in Norway, but the king certainly does. I was given a fairly detailed press schedule ahead of time, with some non-standard times (7:29 p.m.?). I was thinking of it as more of an estimate, but I’ll be darned if it wasn’t dead accurate.

2. Covering an event as official “press” is boring. I vaguely remembered this from my meager experience pretending to be a journalist (don’t tell anyone, but I am not really much of a reporter), but it reminded me even more of being on crew for a theatrical production—a lot of hurry up and wait. Some of this waiting could have been avoided if I’d known just how entirely punctual the king was, I suppose.

3. Hanging out with the press is even more boring when they all speak a language you’re still just learning. The bus ride to and from Tacoma with the Norwegian press? Nap-inducing. Of course, everyone on the bus could speak English, but also of course they chose not to. Don’t mind that woman in the last row. She’s just napping and definitely isn’t interested in your conversation.

On a personal note, this made me realize just what a long way I have to go with Norwegian. I’m getting close to being able to read and can almost understand simple Norwegian sentences spoken by Americans, but a busload of real Norwegians? Forget it. A word here and there. Pathetic.

4. Journalists are on the same team. You hear about cutthroat reporters trying to get a scoop, and I’m sure that’s the case for certain kinds of stories, but at least on this beat there was a spirit of cooperation rather than competition. However, I could see this being a problem, because…

5. Journalists who travel together all get the same perspective. I’ve read a bit about how this happens, especially on foreign beats, with war correspondents, etc., but sitting in that Norwegian press bus unable to understand the words I could easily see how this happens. When all members of the press are at the same press conferences, shooting photographs from the same angles, typing up their notes while chatting over sandwiches, how different are their final stories going to be? Not very, would be my guess.

6. If there are professional photographers covering the event, unless you too are one, don’t bother trying. Okay, I got a couple of usable shots with my borrowed camera that I barely knew how to use, but I got access to many more by asking the pro photog from PLU to share his shots with me. I got the shots for this week’s story through the Norwegian embassy from the royal press secretary. My time onsite would have been better spent taking notes.

7. Women will never advance in many fields as long as the shoe gap remains in place. The male reporters, photographers, and organizers all wore basic men’s shoes: decent looking and functional. The women all wore heels. There was a lot of walking, including times when we needed to almost run in order to get around a building to the next photo op. Guess who got there first? Kine Hartz, from the Norwegian Embassy, had a little pair of flats in her bag that she switched into a couple of times when things were slow, but the heels always came back out. And switching shoes also slows a person down. What if sensible flats were the accepted norm for woman too?

8. Norwegian VIPs are more “just folk” than American ones. All over the PLU events security boundaries had been set up, all of which the Royal Palace staff wanted to move closer. We were constantly waved closer in, in a way impossible to imagine for, say, President Obama.

The previous Sunday, at Seattle’s Syttende Mai celebration, I found myself at a table with Thorhild Widvey, Norway’s Minister of Culture, and this seemed perfectly natural. Our leaders and politicians don’t seem quite so approachable, and it’s a shame. One gets the sense that even though Norway is a rich and powerful country, it’s also kind of a small town. Or at least I get that sense, as I watch the king laugh and joke with students and reporters alike.

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Kvikk Lunsj v. Kit Kat: A comparative analysis

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun I decided to see how Kvikk Lunsj and Kit Kat stacked up, literally and figuratively.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
I decided to see how Kvikk Lunsj and Kit Kat stacked up, literally and figuratively.

Emily C. Skaftun
Norwegian American Weekly

Around this time last year I learned of the Norwegian Easter phenomenon that is Kvikk Lunsj. It seemed that the country went wild, yearly, for this… what was it? I’d never heard of it.

The name threw me at first. It’s a lunch thing? Like maybe an energy bar?

Coworkers scoffed at me. I did more research, turning up photos. Oh, it’s a Kit Kat!

I was informed, by many sources, that I was wrong. Kvikk Lunsj was far superior to Kit Kat. Not even in the same league. That seemed likely, given what I already knew about the relative quality of American versus Norwegian chocolate. I set out to see how the two candies stacked up.

I think it’s pretty clear that in packaging, Kvikk Lunsj wins hands-down. Its cheery red, yellow, and green design is bold and much more appetizing than Kit Kat’s orange (and I love orange). The label is simpler and cleaner.

But Kvikk Lunsj’s advantage doesn’t end on the outside of the packaging. Inside it has “Søndags-turtips,” a description (på norsk) of a hike in Norway. (Which I can almost read; hooray for a year of Norwegian classes!). This is obviously far superior to Kit Kat’s… foil.

At first glance, they remain remarkably similar. The Kvikk Lunsj looks slightly larger, just slightly in every direction, than a regular-size Kit Kat bar. Both are divided into four wafery sticks, but Kvikk Lunsj wins the design competition with Freia’s bird stamp outclassing “Kit Kat” in the chocolate’s embossing. Okay, initial points go to Kvikk Lunsj.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun At a glance, the candies are remarkably similar, inside and out.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
At a glance, the candies are remarkably similar, inside and out.

The ingredient lists for both are similar, with predictable variations and, one assumes, higher-quality ingredients used in Norway. This last one is pure speculation, of course. No points awarded in this category.

Is Kvikk Lunsj healthier? Of course the serving sizes aren’t the same on their nutrition facts labels, making an apples to apples comparison tricky, but… no. Gram for gram, the Kvikk Lunsj has more protein, but also quite a lot more fat. Points to Kit Kat for health, shockingly.

Taste is, of course, the most important factor in a candy bar. For my money they were close enough to the same as to be almost indistinguishable. However, one thing both I and Molly (whom I roped into my research) noticed was that even though the Kit Kat appeared to have more chocolate covering it, the Kvikk Lunsj tasted a little more chocolatey. For Molly, this made the Norwegian version the clear winner. I’ll go ahead and give Kvikk Lunsj those points.

So all things being equal, it looks like Kvikk Lunsj is outclassing Kit Kat. But things, here in the U.S., are rarely equal. You may not have a handy local Scandinavian store, like I do, where you can pick up a Kvikk Lunsj. Or even if you do, you may find the price a bit of a shock. Mine cost $3.50, versus the Kit Kat’s buck or so price tag. I get it. Importing things from Norway isn’t a cheap proposition. And the Kvikk Lunsj is slightly larger. But it’s not so much larger that three Kit Kats isn’t a lot more.

So here is my Easter recommendation for you (and I realize this is sacrilege to some of you): Buy one Kvikk Lunsj. Unwrap it; eat it; enjoy it. Save the wrapper. Then, anytime you feel the need for a Kvikk Lunsj, wrap the saved packaging around a Kit Kat bar—it’ll fit. Tell yourself that what you’re about to eat is really a Kvikk Lunsj. Save $2.50.

Happy Easter!

This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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