Stavanger is a place of contradictions. The fourth largest city of Norway is situated on the southwestern coastline. Depending on who you ask, you will hear quite different stories about the place. Some might talk about Stavanger as being Norway’s (or even Europe’s) petroleum capital. The big-oil resources have not only helped the city of Stavanger to accumulate wealth – they are also a symbol of the nation’s global economic importance. As recently as January 2020, the Norwegian government officially opened a new giant oil field, 140 kilometers off the shore of Stavanger. It is estimated to generate a maximum turnover of US $100 billion. Norway itself obtains its energy mostly from renewable sources, especially wind- and hydropower. Stavanger’s oil and gas are mainly export goods.
The other side of Stavanger is more in line with the picturesque face of the city. Countless ships still sail towards the old port; tiny wooden houses (often white, sometimes colorful like in the “color alley”), narrow streets, the fish market, and cobblestones make up the charm of the gamle (old town). Less well known is the impressive variety of street art, which can be discovered when wandering about.
The fjords around Stavanger are passageways to many of the smaller islands situated close to the shore. The best way to experience Stavanger’s natural beauty is going outdoors and exploring the landscapes surrounding the town. Once you stand on a rocky mountain overlooking the region, you realize how tales of trolls found their way into Norwegian folk tales.
On the Road
Our Stavanger adventure started in Munich. We drove up to Stavanger with Hanna’s red camping bus. It is like a little house, with a bed, a cooking stove and, most importantly in Norway, a heater. Hanna even sewed curtains to cover the windows and keep out the cold. Our journey led us to Hamburg, Aarhus, a beach on the very northern rim of Denmark, Hirtshals, and then to a small lake between Kristiansand and Stavanger, before we finally arrived on the university campus.
Malin lives in a student dormitory, just outside the main building of the University, and she was able to move in as soon as we arrived on campus. Hanna resides in a shared flat closer to the city center, from where she can cycle up the hill to the university. On a sunny day you can see quite far, right out to sea. Getting into town from the university by bike takes 30 minutes, up and down steep roads.
Our courses at the University of Stavanger (UiS) are all connected to the local Master’s in Energy, Environment and Society – an interdisciplinary program. The focus is mainly on environmental and energy politics from a global, comparative perspective. The entire interior design of the university is cozy and thought through. From light installations to plant pots, cushions, colourful wallpapers, fluffy carpets and artistic paintings – Norwegians know how to make spending a lot of time indoors bearable. This is quite important when you can’t leave the house for a short stroll because the wind is howling relentlessly and the rain splashing mercilessly against the windowsills. The Norwegian weather forecast’s website is called yr.no, which means something like “drizzling rain.”
The university library is more of an open, creative space. You can find rocking chairs, beanbags and hammock-pergolas. You are allowed to play games, speak loudly and bring your own food. When we first visited the library and a housemate of Malin’s waved and shouted, “What’s up?” through the hall, we winced in unison. Even though it felt a little weird in the beginning, we quickly adapted to the local habits – and brought some cinnamon buns and tea into the library while discussing the first paper we had to submit.
One of the reasons we have decided to come to Stavanger is the Greenhouse at UiS. Dolly and Finn Arne Jørgensen, two researchers in the field of environmental history, initiated this platform for sharing research, developing ideas and projects, and discussing environmental topics. A couple of professors and PhD candidates join them in the weekly Greenhouse Lunch, where current themes and activities are shared, planned, and promoted. We have also been there once and were heartily welcomed to the group. Unfortunately, the lunch is coinciding with one of our seminars, but we will join them again soon for other events, in a second installation in this miniseries, will keep you updated about what the environmentalists here are thinking and working on.
Until now, we have tried to get outside as much as possible. Stavanger’s surroundings offer countless possibilities for experiencing nature. We both became members of the UiS friluftsliv group (outdoor sport group), which organizes all kinds of outdoor activities. Most of the hikes in the area are easily accessible by public transport, with some entailing underwater tunnel rides and ferry cruises. It is definitely worth visiting the Vigdel beach, close to Sola. We wandered on wooden planks through pliant dunes, climbed over rugged, craggy cliffs, and saw a rainbow appearing from the depths of the stormy sea. Moreover, it is an excellent spot to have a picnic and eat homemade cinnamon rolls with loads of confectioner’s sugar. Another nice tour is taking the public bus to the island of Rennesøy and wandering along the steep cliff towards the mountain range. It really is an adventure path and no matter where you go, it is impossible not to take dozens of breaks to admire the view. With the friluftsliv group we went on two different hiking trips that both ended with a bonfire. We grilled marshmallows and roasted home-made bread dough on sticks over the flames.
On another weekend trip we joined some members of the friluftsliv group on a ski tour with the Norwegian mountain club DNT in the region of Sirdal, about two hours drive from Stavanger. We didn’t really know what we signed up for, as the tour was a mixture of slalom, cross country skiing, and snowshoe hiking. The scenery was beautiful, it was an experience we wouldn’t have wanted to miss, but we still found ourselves with incredible muscle aches on Monday morning.
One of the most popular leisure activities in Norway is spending time in cabins. We slept in two different cabins on our ski trip, and learned that there are quite some things to be aware of when signing up for such overnight stays. After eight hours of tour-skiing through the snowy mountains on just the first day, we finally arrived at our cabin.
We felt like doing nothing more than falling into one of the bunk beds and closing our eyes. But two Norwegians girls still had enough motivation to take off all their skiing equipment, run down the hill, and jump into the icy water of the river running by. Malin decided to join in the experience. The water was so incredibly cold that you couldn’t even feel it anymore. It is a miracle how the body still manages to function in these temperatures.
Compared to this experience, lugging the water buckets from that same river back up to the fireplace was a rather relaxing task. After so much physical activity and fresh air we were really hungry, and nothing on earth could taste better than pasta with tomato sauce then. With a heavy woolen blanket thrown around our shoulders and the dim light of the candles (which were lighted to save electricity) the evening was made even more cozy. We played cards and told stories about our favorite hiking trips. One thing we learned from that skiing trip in Sirdal was that the further you are away from a proper road, internet connection, and running water, the more hyggelig it gets!
The way to the heart is through the stomach
Food is very expensive in Norway. This is a fact. A bowl of simple green salad costs 7 euros in the university cafeteria. The only way around this is making your own food, and being creative. The 20 people that share the kitchen in Malin’s student dormitory come from 15 different countries. Since arriving, we have cooked many different dishes from various regions of the world in this kitchen. We made huge amounts of hummus and falafel and spent hours rolling sushi. One day we prepared pizza dough and tiramisu for the entire house, with instructions from Jacopo, an Italian student from Milan. The more people share the food you cook, the more affordable it becomes.
We even joined in the International Food Festival of the university. Teams received 40 euros to buy groceries and cook traditional food from their country. The winning team receives vouchers for the cafeteria. Unfortunately, we didn’t win – competing with countries like India, Vietnam, and Mexico, we were hard challenged from the outset! In the end, the winner was South Korea. We made Semmelknödel and Scheiterhaufen – spinach and parsley dumpling with creamy mushroom sauce, and a sweet dessert made from old bread, milk, cinnamon, apples, berries and loads of sugar. We had a lot of fun and more people than we expected complimented our food.
Despite the often non-existent sunshine, we really enjoyed our first month in Stavanger. A lot of things are still on our bucket list for the next months, so we will surely not get bored. One of the most important things is learning Norwegian, which will hopefully give us the chance to dive deeper into the culture. We will share our experiences in snakke norsk med nordmanner and everything else that left us sometimes clueless, sometimes smiling, during our exchange in Stavanger in our next blog post.