Part I: Not without my Toddler – Travelling the coldest regions of Europe in winter!

Written By Priti Gururaja

“Congratulations! You have been selected for the Genomics workshop in Cesky Krumlov in January”, said the mail in my inbox.  I was elated but my mind started calculating ahead: Should I travel alone for 21 days leaving behind my one-year-old son? Or should I take him with me to a tiny town in the Czech Republic with sub-zero temperature?

“Are you in your senses?” yelled my mother, “It will be freezing cold and it will not be wise to take Avyakta to an unknown country”. After days of debates and discussions, I managed to convince my family that the workshop was essential for me. It was finally decided that my husband and child would both come along, and my husband would look after Avyakta while I attended the workshop. We would first travel to Norway, where I was to be hosted by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU). We booked a hotel that would allow us to cook. Despite all these arrangements, I was anxious about Avyakta’s wellbeing in two cold countries and pictured myself multitasking between workshop and home.

As the plane landed at Oslo’s Gardermoen airport, my husband and I exchanged glances. The roads, the houses, and the trees…everything around us were covered by snow. I was seeing snow for the first time! The temperature outside was -8 οC. The cold chilly air made us uncomfortable and we immediately scooted off in a taxi with our toddler and half a dozen pieces of luggage. Though it was the middle of the afternoon, it was pitch black outside with a full view of the moon. An hour’s journey took us to the Reenskaug Hotel, an old traditionally-built hotel in a place called Drøbak, our shelter for the next three days. A quick cup of coffee and hot rice warmed us up and we didn’t realise when we dozed off.

Traditional Reenskaug hotel

The next morning, we saw the sun rise only at 10 am! We spent the day in the beautiful campus of NMBU with Prof. Torbjorn Haugaasen, a tropical biologist who has worked extensively on plants, birds and amphibians in the Amazon. Dr. Haugaasen and I discussed my PhD work and exchanged many ideas, which might lead to future collaboration.

Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

The following day we did some sightseeing in Drøbak. A small place with just 15,000 inhabitants, Drøbak is the winter port for Norway’s capital Oslo. In the early 1800s, ships would load their cargos in Drøbak harbour as Oslo was ice-bound (source: www.visitdrobak.no). The houses surrounding the harbour were built by fishermen and sailors in the 1700s and are protected by Norwegian law.

Drøbak harbour

At -11ο C, it was the coldest day in Norway and snow was falling. Despite this, we decided to go out and decked Avyakta in layers of sweaters, thermal underclothing, gloves and cap. We made our way to the Sentrum or city centre, a five-minute walk from our hotel. The Sentrum Drøbak is also protected by local laws and its old world charm has been preserved for the past 100 years.

First we knocked on the door of the Julehuset, a Christmas house and must-see for children, only to be told by the caretaker that it was closed for renovation. Looking at Avyakta, however, the caretaker changed her mind and allowed us inside. Julehuset is a different world altogether! It is full of dolls of Santa Claus, elves and gnomes. Folklore suggests that Santa Claus was born close to Drøbak. Hence this house is dedicated to him! More on this here. Avyakta had a nice time looking at colourful dolls and running around the house.

Julehus
​Tregaarden’s Julehus / Christmas House (source: visitoslo.com)

Our next stop was the Drøbak aquarium. The only aquarium in the Oslo area, it was built by the local boat society and is associated with the University of Oslo. The aquarium is neatly maintained and has several species of fish and other marine animals, many native to Norway. Interestingly, water inside the aquarium is pumped directly from the adjacent harbour thereby creating a natural environment. Right next to the aquarium is a tourist office full of postcards and letters to Santa Claus sent by children from all over the world. Sometimes one can see a Santa Claus here responding to their letters!

Drøbak aquarium
Tourist office in the harbour

Early the next morning, we reached Gardermoen airport to catch a flight to Brussels. To our dismay, our flight had been delayed due to snow which meant that we could possibly miss the connecting flight to Prague! Though the flight left an hour late, we were assured that we would make our connecting flight. On landing in Brussels, however, we found our luggage missing. The airline staff apologised for the same, asked us to lodge a complaint at Prague airport, and now assured us that our luggage would be safely delivered to our hotel. A major disappointment as we were left with just our cabin luggage, sans most of Avyakta’s food and clothes. Disappointed yet positive that our entire luggage would reach the next day, we continued our journey, arriving at Prague in the afternoon.  Unlike Norway, Prague was not dark but it snowed heavily here as well.  We were already exhausted, but were yet to reach our final destination, Cesky Krumlov, another 200 km away.

The only economical mode of travel from Prague to Cesky was the Student Agency bus service. However, reaching this bus service station was a journey in itself – both in terms of distance and communication.  We were asked to first take a bus to the metro station. As the bus driver could not understand our English, a fellow passenger came to our rescue, telling us to alight when he did. Meanwhile, my husband tried paying the bus fare by card but to no avail. Fortunately, the bus driver told us not to worry about the payment and allowed us to travel. We realised the folly of not carrying Czech currency and wrongly assuming that the card would work as it had in Norway. Our helpful fellow passenger got down and we immediately followed. But there was no metro in sight – only buses and trams! Before we could catch up with him, he was already out of sight.

…To be continued.

 “Did we find our way easily or go on to face more hurdles in the new country?” Read on to find out more.

About the Author

Priti Gururaja did her Masters in Biotechnology and has always been interested in genetics. After a stint with a pharmaceutical company, she felt the need to go beyond the lab. Interactions with a field biologist led her to the wonderful world of the frogs of the Western Ghats. She got the opportunity to merge field and lab at ATREE, where she is now doing her PhD on the landscape genetics of two endemic frogs from the Western Ghats. Besides research, Priti likes to read fiction and autobiographies. Cooking, travelling, and numismatics are her other hobbies.

 

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