Polarstern in Bremerhaven

“But where were the polar bears?” We were all on our way back to the car after visiting AWI’s ice breaker, the Polarstern – and Mattis has learned enough about my work to know that Polarstern equals ice and snow, which apparently equals polar bears. But they were not there. We did, however, see a helicopter, labs, sleeping quarters and even a film with penguins – but no polar bears.

For the past couple of years my work has focused on modeling the the Arctic Ocean biogeochemistry, and this summer I will probably participate in a cruise between Svalbard and Greenland. This area is called the Fram Strait, and it’s one of the main gateways to the Arctic, where AWI has monitored the water for several years to help explain how and why the Arctic Ocean is changing.

So when the Polarstern opened its’ doors for the public this weekend, we waited in line for the kids to see where I will go this summer. We actually had to wait in line for 2.5 hours… But Esben and I took turns in the queue, while the kids went around with the other one to check out the many activities. We saw ROV’s filming and taking samples under water, talked to the scientific divers and decorated a Polarstern bag to bring home with us. And for lunch Runa chose a bratwurst of course, we are after all almost real Germans.

And finally, after going through a metal detector and becoming registered we were allowed inside the Polarstern accompanied by our new friends from the long wait. It was nice to show the kids where I worked the last time I went and where I will be this summer. And we talked about the many different nets and machines, had a look in a microscope, saw the helicopter and even the air balloon, which the kids know from a book at home. Esben noted that the bridge had even more instruments than Jensine does, which is rather impressive, and it was cool for them to see where many of the pictures from the Polarstern have been taken.

It’s been five years since I last went on a cruise on the Polarstern. Back then my work focused on modeling Southern Ocean biogeochemistry, and especially the trace metal iron, and I was lucky to go on a 10-week cruise from Cape Town in South Africa to Punta Arenas in South America. My group was responsible for measuring chlorophyll and particulate organic carbon on the way, while others measured nutrient concentrations, oxygen, salinity, temperature etc.  All in all, it gave an overview of the conditions in the ocean when we were there and helped understand how the physics controls the biology to some degree. Apart from the interesting science, it’s quiet a privilege to go to such a special place as the Southern Ocean, and I am sure the next cruise will be another great experience.


Even more sailing

After finishing our three-week trip onboard Chip-Chip sailing south of Fyn, Sjælland and in the Kattegat, Esben had to go back to work. But the Kindergarten and school was closed for another week, so I had signed the kids and me up for a one week sailing trip on Jensine, going with my mom and dad and a bunch of other people.

Jensine is Denmark’s oldest sailing wooden vessel, and my dad was part of the group that restored it in the 1970’ies, so I have been sailing on Jensine all through my childhood. Jensine is driven and sailed by an association which everybody can join for a modest fee. Usually around 12 people are onboard when we go sailing, and this is part of what is nice about this type of holiday.


Hoisting the sails is team work

We met up in Nyborg, everybody got a bunk and a couple of people went grocery shopping for the first couple of days. And then we were off in wonderful sunshine and no wind whatsoever. We motored across the Great Belt and sailed in through the narrow fjord to Skælskør where we spent the night.  On the way to Fejø we stopped for everybody to go swimming. I didn’t want to go, but Runa insisted, so in I went. And then she of course decided that she didn’t want to go swimming anyways! It was probably a good decision because there was quiet some current in the water, but I was a bit annoyed anyways. We spend the night on the little island of Fejø where we had to ask some boats if they would be willing to move so we could fit in. Jensine needs about 25 meters of room on the dock to fit – Chip-Chip may be small, but at least we usually fit even in the smallest harbors.

From Fejø we continued back across the Great Belt and anchored in Thurøbund, one of my favorite anchorages. Here, some of the others got the dinghy in the water and went rowing with the kids. We needed some diesel, so we made a brief stop in Svendborg, and then we continued towards Marstal. Having come through the sound by Svendborg in Chip-Chip a couple of weeks earlier, the contrast of how other boats reacted as we approached was start; in Chip-Chip other boats do not seem bothered about giving way, whereas when you come in Jensine, the waters seem to open up in front of us.


Evening in Thurøbund

Marstal is famous for its’ maritime history, many wooden ships were build here and sailed throughout the world. We visited the maritime museum, where the Danish maritime history is chronichled. I have been there before, and I quiet like it, but this time I noticed a small replica of a schooner named Amigo, which was build in Marstal 1918, and as I read its’ history I realized that it was the wreck that I had been diving many times when I worked as a dive master and instructor while studying in Odense. Strange to suddenly learn more about its’ history. Now it lies in 23 meters of water in the Great Belt.

From Marstal we continued onwards to Kappeln in Germany. My great grandfather lived here as a kid, and somehow we have found ourselves visiting this lovely town a number of times in recent years. We managed to time our arrival with the opening of the bridge of the Schlei river and moored in the museum harbor just behind the bridge. We had a lovely walk in the town and made sure to get some ice cream.


The bridge across the Schlei river

From Kappeln it was time to make our way back to Årøsund, and after meeting the Danish royal yacht in Sønderborg, we spent the last night in the small harbor at Årø. Here, my sister and her kids came to visit and we had time to go to the nature playground on the island where some of us also bought some wine at the local vineyard. All in all it was a lovely week even though the kids and I were a bit tired after the three weeks on Chip-Chip. A map of our trip can be seen below the picture.


Sunset from Årø

Home alone

One of the reasons that it is possible for us to live in Germany is that Esben usually travels for his job. The way it works is that he is out two weeks at the time, currently mainly in France or the UK, and then he works from home for two weeks. The consequence is of course that I am alone with two kids in a foreign country for two weeks at a time while also having a full time job. But it’s okay. Because when Esben is at home, he is truly at home, being able to pick up the kids a bit earlier and occasionally coming in to join me for lunch. Also, we have arranged our life so that it’s logistically possible to be alone with the kids; we live right next to Mattis’ kindergarten, which is located right next to Runa’s school. So mornings are easy. And my job is a 20 minute drive away.

And then I broke my arm. Of course the weakness of our everyday life is that it works best when everybody is well and no unforeseen circumstances occur. Which they do, of course. Usually it’s Mattis who’s ill – for some strange reason that tends to occur when I’m alone with the kids – and it’s just difficult to manage everything when you have absolutely nobody to rely on. It’s getting easier of course, because we’re beginning to have a better network of people around us here. But having family nearby would just be wonderful.

When I broke my arm we were so very lucky that’s Esben’s employer was understanding and let him stay at home longer. In fact he only just left this morning, 6 weeks after the accident. And I think we will be fine. I am back at work – a bit awkward that it appears that I can do my work with my left arm only… We won’t starve, as I made a meal plan that consisted of easy food such as bred with eggs and spaghetti with tomato sauce. The kids are fed a proper meal in school and kindergarten, so I’m not too worried about making proper dinner. In fact, Mattis asked for oat meal with milk when I picked him up, which is fine.

My other survival strategy is that we all get enough sleep. Very basic, but it makes a huge difference. So I will be off to bed now.

Small house living – why?

We don’t really have a tiny house, but considering that there’s four of us sharing our 85 m2 we do have a relatively small apartment. What we have is two bedrooms, combined kitchen and livingroom – and a garden. We actually wanted more space, it seems that everybody has more space, right? But it turns out that small works out great for us, at least so far.

Before coming to Bremerhaven I didn’t realize that a city i Northern Europe could be so badly built. Bremerhaven was one of the main cities for the German navy during WWII, and was therefore heavily bombed by allied forces. After the war, houses were rebuilt, but there was just not the money and time available to make first class housing. And now it’s been about 60 years and all the old houses really need to be renovated. It’s happening, the whole city is slowly being upgraded, but there’s still a long way to go. And our flat was old, cold and slightly moldy. Not a great place for adults, and definitely not for kids. And additionally, we just didn’t have nearby outdoor areas, so our daughter spent a lot of time inside.

We actually preferred staying in Bremerhaven because of logistics, especially because Esben is away for two weeks at a time for and I then need to take care of kids and a full-time job. But then I saw an advert for a flat in a terraced village house with a small garden, right next to a play ground and very close to Kindergarten and school. And it was built in 2010, and was an organic passive house. I went to look at it with my sister, who just happened to be there, and ten other people who were also interested. But I called the owners the next morning, and after being second in line for about a week we were finally told that we could have the flat. It was awesome. We were moving to the village Sellstedt. And Esben still hadn’t seen the place.

The main reason we really, really like our place is the surroundings. Being foreigners in Germany we just don’t have a huge network of people with kids, and in the city, being in a kindergarten doesn’t mean that you live near all the other Kids. So Runa just didn’t have that many friends. As our new place is right next to the playground, she can run out and play whenever there are kids around. Plus, the neighborhood is full of young families with kids her age, and they are all in the same kindergarten right around the corner.

And we love having a garden. When we lived in Sweden we had a garden that we didn’t use a lot at all. But apparently we grew up now, and sitting just five minutes outside at night is so wonderful. I guess even more because I spend the whole day in front of a computer.

And yes, the flat is small. The kids share a room. And the bedroom, office and home gym is in the same room. All of our stuff has a place and we only buy new things after considering if we have enough space for it. But we still like it:

  • Money. It’s just cheaper. The money we save on rent now we are directing into funds for our possible future home and for traveling.
  • Money again. We don’t have anywhere to put stuff, so there’s no point in buying things we don’t need. This can, however, be a bit frustrating for grandparents who want to buy physically huge presents for the grandkids.
  • Less to clean. I guess this is partly true, our place may get a bit more dirty than a bigger place, i don’t know. But it’s really nice that we don’t have a lot to clean.
  • We are always together. We know what everybody is doing and we’re usually doing it together. And the kids learn that we need to solve problems rather than go into our own room and shut the door. Sharing of an iPad can be tough though.
  • Our kids learn that it’s fine to live in a small space. That maybe the definition of success is not a fancy house or car for that matter. This one important I think.

An accident in Denmark

Crushed. That’s the word the doctors used to describe the bones in my right arm after I slipped an fell 3m down on hard ground from our sailboat. I am not even sure what happened, I wanted to remove some tape, it was a bit slippery after the rain, and suddenly I felt myself falling. I screamed when I hit the ground, and then I stopped because I couldn’t breathe. When I regained control of my breath I screamed for help, and I could see a man come running towards me.

In a moment like this it feels so incredibly privileged to live in a country where medical help is available for everybody, no questions asked.

The ambulance arrived in about 20 minutes. By then my whole body was shaking badly, I guess from both the cold and the adrenaline from the pain in my arm. The ambulance staff gave me some pain reliever that didn’t seem to work at all, did a quick neural check and carefully got me onto a stretcher and into the ambulance. In the mean time Esben and Mattis had arrived, but Mattis, who usually loves ambulances, did not look the least bit convinced when I tried to smile at him before the doors were closed.

30 minutes later we arrived at the hospital. Because of the relative long distance I had fallen, a rather large group of doctors were ready to get me checked for spinal and head injuries. It all seemed rather chaotic, but one of the nurses stood and held my head, looked me in the eyes, told me to lie completely still and said that I could ask her if I had any questions.

I was lucky, there were no spinal or head injuries, “only” my hand, which laid in a strange angle by my side. I got a healthy dose of painkiller injected directly into the hand and was taken to x-rays. They showed that the bone in the arm called radius had splintered into several pieces above my wrist, and that one piece had come out through the skin. The other bone, ulna, had broken in a normal way. To try to but the bones into place, I was given a heavy dose of morphine and my arm was hung by the fingers with a weight tied to my elbow. After about half an hour two doctors tried to pull my arm enough apart to put the bones back where they belonged. This is where I seriously started to appreciate the morphine. After the effort to reset my arm I had more x-rays, a ct-scan and a talk with a surgeon who told me the arm needed to be operated on asap. So around 8 pm I was put into full narcosis. I woke up in a much quieter, more painless world than I had left. With a giant metal skeleton attached to my arm.

Because the bone had fractured my skin and the ensuing risk of infection, the final operation could only be performed once the wound had healed. I therefore spent the next five days in he hospital, getting an intravenous dose of penicillin every six hours, with the external metal pole holding my bones in place. Despite of high doses of pain relievers, it was 5 days of crazy pain before the final operation was performed. In it, the surgeon operated two metal bars into my arm to keep the bone pieces in the right position. I came out with a giant cast, happy that this stage of fixing my arm was over.

After having spent three days in Denmark with my parents, I drove back home with Esben and the kids. So now I just need to convince the German doctors to continue with the plan laid out for my arm.


Moving to Northern Germany

Renovations are going on all over the city of Bremerhaven, but for Germans, Bremerhaven is still pretty much synonymous with unemployment and high poverty rates. I didn’t know anything about that when I was finishing my physical oceanography studies in Gothenburg and started looking for a job. At the time, Esben was already working abroad most of the time and we had our one-year old daughter to also consider. As Esben is somewhat free regarding his home base, I could look for jobs outside of Denmark, but because of our daughter Runa we preferred to not be within driving distance from Denmark.  

In the end I looked for Ph.D. positions related to oceanography in Scandinavia, Northern Germany and the Netherlands. Because I had studied biology as well as physical oceanography, my dream was to find a position that combined the two fields. And I was lucky; AWI in Bremerhaven were looking for someone to work on coupling a biogeochemical model to their Finite Element Sea-ice Ocean Model. A pretty cool – and pretty daunting project, which I started in December 2010. 

Moving to Germany is not that complicated for Danes, it’s basically a matter of finding a place to live and sign in at various offices in the city. But how do you find a nice flat in another country? Our German wasn’t great, but we managed to find a website with flats and made appointments to check some of them out. We quickly realized that most of the places we looked at were in a pretty bad shape and located in areas where we didn’t want our daughter to grow up. Additionally, we learned that a kitchen is not normally included in flats in Bremerhaven. 

In the end we chose a 90 m2 apartment with four bedrooms in Bremerhaven neighborhood of Geestemünde. We moved there two weeks before I started working, to get settled and for Runa to start in private daycare. We had been really lucky with the daycare, getting a place for Runa close to our home with a really nice Tagesmutter. We didn’t know beforehand, but later learned that it can in fact be rather difficult to get daycare for kids younger than 3 years.  

AWI is a very international work place with people from various backgrounds. I liked working there from the beginning, and generally we felt quite welcome in Bremerhaven. The locals have been very friendly, and despite of our less than perfect German, we seem to have been able to communicate with people anyways. I guess the proximity to the sea also helped me to feel at home.