Carbon Offsets


I fly two or three times a year, a huge source of emissions. I try to minimize my environmental impact, but I have to fly for work, I'm not going to stop visiting my family, and if I don't get out of Paris every now and then, I go crazy. I know what a privilege I have being able to get away from the stress of the city, and I don't take it lightly- but I still haven't bought a carbon offset in eight years (UPDATE: I now do Carbotax).

Many climate experts believe placing a price on carbon is one of the best incentives for a nation, company, or individual to reduce emissions. Responsible buyers can then manage the timing and cost of reducing their carbon footprint. Offsetting projects offer a host of social benefits, like distributing curved solar collectors and providing safe water for rural Ugandan communities. However, some worry this leaves little incentive to reduce fossil fuel use and develop or adopt cleaner technology. Carbon offsets, they argue, mislead polluters into thinking they don't need to make meaningful lifestyle changes, since they can just pay others to undo their environmental harm. Critics fear the singular focus such programs place on CO2, which accounts for only half of manmade greenhouse gas emissions, may undercut efforts to reduce other GHGs, like methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, and perfluorocarbons.
Source: US EPA


Part of the controversy around some offset programs stems from a failure to show GHG reductions additional to what happens anyway. For instance, marketers claim certain projects, such as capturing methane gas at landfill sites, would not take place without financing from offset schemes, when lawmakers already require those landfill owners to capture emissions. The carbon offset market is largely unregulated, with no clearly defined standards for pricing, transparency, or offset types. Private verification companies have a vested interest in certifying reductions, while the Clean Development Mechanism executive board is not equipped to verify all claims. 

I stopped buying offsets when I learned how tree planting programs- which aren't popular anymore- introduced non-native species  to vulnerable areas, disrupting local water supplies and ecosystems. Some programs used formerly forested land or funded commercial tree plantations, for which large areas of native forest and populations were displaced. Worst of all, the Clean Development Mechanism-approved Plantar project awarded credits for using a low-carbon process to turn trees into charcoal. Even the best forest offset programs were not immune to wildfires or logging, making it difficult to measure or sustain reductions. Today, high-quality options exist for consumers wishing to protect themselves from fraudulent or risky carbon offsets, like Voluntary Gold Standard and Verified Carbon Standard. These nonprofits subject projects to a rigorous screening process, verifying all economic, social, and environmental benefits. Not only are you assured your money is financing something good, you get to see exactly how it's working and how much carbon you've saved.

Source: Buildings Energy Data Book, US Department of Energy


The main reason I don't buy offsets now- which isn't to say others shouldn't- is because greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide in particular, are produced not just from airplane rides but routine activities, like watching TV, using appliances, leaving the modem on all night, driving a car, or blogging. I should support social / economic / environmentally beneficial programs anyway, regardless of whether I fly or not. Since I have time to work on volunteer projects myself, like turning an abandoned parking lot into a community garden or replanting native species, that's my preference. People are busy and similar programs might not exist locally, so others may decide offsets are better. Rather not pay for carbon credits? Though a study by MIT students found lifestyle changes have limited impact on energy use and emissions, environmentalists, behavioralists, and climate scientists generally recommend consumers shrink their footprint by: 

  • Insulating houses
  • Composting
  • Reducing home water / energy usage: for instance, turning down the thermostat and putting on a sweater, using compact fluorescents, skipping the dryer, taking shorter showers, flushing less
  • Driving less, carpooling, walking, biking, and using public transport 
  • Downsizing to smaller homes
  • Buying less and buying secondhand
  • Giving up bottled water, feedlot beef, and dairy
  • Living in a large metropolitan area with high density, compact development, and working close to home

If people continue living high-carbon lifestyles, offsets counterbalance emissions at best. Travel is important to me, but I want to be responsible about it. My husband and I try not to vacation to keep up with friends, bloggers, and trends, instead taking holidays based on our interests or cultural values. We like to engage with the community and stay in sustainable lodging. There are plenty of ways to minimize our impact besides - and including- carbon offsets. 

Paris to Go

Greenwashing



If you're reading this blog, you probably already know what greenwashing is- false or misleading environmental claims. There are six broad categories:

  1. The hidden tradeoff. Marketing a product as eco-friendly based on a single green attribute, like recycled content, without addressing other issues, such as where the materials come from, or how much energy is required for production. For instance, bamboo products grow quickly and are self-propagating. However, manufacturers may obscure the harsh chemicals needed to transform raw bamboo into usable material. Dean Foods markets Horizon organic milk as better for the environment, yet their cows dine on pesticide laden, genetically modified feed. The Body Shop focuses on fair-trade, "natural" aspects of their products, which contain petrochemicals. Carbon offsets absolve purchasers of guilt, fooling some into thinking they can consume more, instead of making lifestyle changes. I bought savon de marseille because it was "local" (within 500 miles) and natural, even though it contained palm oil.
  2. No proof. Environmental claims without supporting evidence at the point of purchase or on the manufacturer’s website. Household lamps and bulbs may be labeled "green" without evidence or certification. Personal care products can say "no animal testing" without providing proof or verification. Paper towels and tissues claim post-consumer recycled content without evidence. Some Energy Star-rated GE appliances furnish no proof of measurable reduction. Icebreaker clothing touts sustainability without providing an annual carbon footprint or clarifying Zque ethical standards.
  3. Vagueness. Marketing products based on broad generalizations too vague to have any real meaning, such as "all natural," "earth friendly," or "non-toxic." The mobius loop indicates recycled material, but doesn’t show the percentage of recycled material, or where it comes from. Arsenic and formaldehyde are included in all-natural cosmetics, like nailpolish. Lush Cosmetics markets a palm oil-free soap base, but uses sulphates derived from palm oil. Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney brand themselves as sustainable designers, without publishing carbon footprints. Additionally, they use PVC, toxic additives (such as chromium in the case of Vivienne Westwood, Azo dyes and chlorophenols for both), and sweatshop labor. Update: Stella McCartney is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative and uses Italian production facilities  - which may or may not be immune from scrutiny, since some import illegal Chinese labor - for ready-to-wear / accessories and polyurethane, not PVC. According to Vivienne Westwood labels, production is in China and Turkey. "All natural" Tyson chicken sources meat from factory farms and CAFOs. "Pure and natural" Huggies diapers contain only 20% post consumer material. Food items labeled "GMO free" may require intensive petrochemical resource inputs to produce.
  4. Irrelevance. True claims that aren’t helpful to consumers, like CFC-free hairspray and sunscreen. Chloroflurocarbons were outlawed years ago, yet Skintimate shave gel still advertises it "contains no CFCs, which deplete the ozone layer." Bob's Red Mill sells 'aluminum-free baking soda' when baking soda doesn't contain aluminum anyway.
  5. Lesser of two evils. Tom's of Maine wants you to use their natural toothpaste with titanium dioxide and zinc chloride (which is corrosive by ingestion) in aluminum barrier laminate instead of plastic-free toothpaste or powder. Hemp crops are easy to grow and the deep tap root secures topsoil, but some producers and processors use heavy toxic chemicals (such as formaldehyde) to make the fabric.
  6. Fibbing. Some brands slap an organic label on their products without having established third-party certifications to show for it.

Why does any of this matter? It's easy to buy something- and possibly pay extra- because of misleading marketing. Look at how many people buy more expensive, energy-intensive items than they normally would, for the simple reason that they're marked "local" or "gluten-free" (not criticizing, just saying it happens. It obviously happens to me). Organic certifications in particular can be problematic thanks to regulatory loopholes. Ecocert, for instance, allows a mere 10% organic content, permitting sulfation, hydrogenation, petrochemicals, and synthetic preservatives. Soil Association is more transparent, though still permissive with petrochemicals and synthetic preservatives. USDA accreditation is costly, and some of the requirements are silly, like having a dedicated shower for the certifying agent, whom the USDA is not legally responsible for. Some of my favorite small family farmers cannot afford organic certification, yet use energy-conserving, soil-friendly, ethical growing methods, including permaculture. Further, words like "natural" are highly subjective and mean different things to different people. Lead is natural. I don't mind silicone makeup (I hate it in hair products); others do. Parabens, petrochemicals, mineral oil, fragrance, and alcohol are just some natural ingredients many eco-conscious consumers find undesirable.

Instead of relying solely on labels, think about the potentially toxic materials needed for each item, and the energy inputs required to produce it. Just because something is zero waste, organic, vegan, or local doesn't necessarily mean it's better for you and the environment. Bulk soaps, shampoos, and foods can contain palm oil, sulfates, and hydrogenated ingredients (the Skin Deep database is a particularly good resource for beauty products). Food miles are not a good indicator of carbon footprint or the overall impact of food, and depending on the crop, local foods may require more pesticides and chemicals to cultivate. Each consumer must decide what products align with their individual values. Maybe you're more concerned with endocrine disruptors and palm oil than animal testing, or vice versa. You don't have to spend all your time reading labels and doing research- I don't. My Aleppo or farmer's market soap has no certification (Alep certainly isn't local), but I know how it's made, how the employees are treated, I sometimes know the maker personally, and I like every single ingredient used. Don't be overwhelmed. The point is to be balanced and moderate when it comes to environmental responsibility, making informed choices instead of taking greenwashing claims at face value.

Paris to Go

Zero Waste Period

This post is not sponsored, though it contains both informative and Shopstyle affiliate links. If you click on a link, I may earn a small commission on a per-click basis.

It took me forever to try a menstrual cup, and for the life of me, I don't know why. I was afraid. I thought they'd be gross and hard to use. Now I'm obsessed! It was the single most life-changing zero waste switch I made. Dysmenorrhea, hypermenorrhea, amenhorrhea- you name it, I had it all. With the cup, my period regulated itself. Cramps went away. Each cycle was lighter and shorter. Instead of doubling up on super-plus pads and tampons to prevent leaks, I can swim, wear light colors, and function normally. I only wish I started sooner.

In the US, around 19 billion pads and tampons are thrown away annually. Feminine hygiene products sent to wastewater treatment facilities require hours of costly, energy-intensive processing, after which they end up on beaches or in landfills anyway. Disposable options don't biodegrade in septic systems, and landfill conditions preserve them. The average woman may use up to 16,800 tampons in her lifetime! That's a lot of trash, pesticides, dioxin, and potential toxicity to deal with, even at ultra-low levels of exposure. 

Researching non-disposable options led me down an eye-opening rabbit hole. There are natural sponges, period panties, crocheted hemp and cotton tampons, and reusable pads ranging from Glad Rags to Luna Pads to homemade, organic fleece styles. Despite my initial misgivings, I decided it was better to collect, not absorb, and purchased a clear, medical-grade silicone Moon Cup- certified vegan, with a fair-trade, organic cotton storage pouch in renewable-energy powered, 100% post-consumer recycled packaging. Designed to last a decade, the $35 investment offers significant savings over pricey (and often ineffective) pads and tampons. I immediately loved the convenience of not having to schlep to a store every time I had my period, or ask a friend or co-worker for a tampon in emergency situations.  

Some women report needing several cycles to get used to a menstrual cup. Others try various models before finding a good fit. The Moon Cup size B, for women under 30 who haven't given birth yet, worked perfectly right away. I trimmed a few centimeters off the stem for comfort, folded it in half, and couldn't feel a thing. Rinsing the cup with water first aids insertion. There were no leaks, even while sleeping, and compared to tampons, removal was a breeze. With a capacity of 28 ml, you may not need to empty during the workday- on average, heavy bleeders lose about 80 ml blood per cycle. In public restrooms, simply pull the stem to empty and A) re-insert as is, B) bring drinking water into the stall with you, or C) wipe with toilet paper. Just wash hands before and after handling, clean the cup when you get home, and don't drop it. Sounds overwhelming, but the cup seems a lot more sanitary and convenient than tampons or pads, without any foul odors to boot. 

Silicone usage is controversial among zero waste, plastic-free folk. Silicone is a synthetic rubber composed of alternating silicon and oxygen atoms. It is non-toxic to aquatic or animal life, nor does it negatively impact soil and water. However, medical grade silicone is derived from petrochemical resources and often tested on animals. I know this seems hypocritical, since I'm all "down with microfiber" and staunchly anti-synthetics, but I feel comfortable using silicone because it's highly durable and, though non-compostable, fully recyclable. Toxicity databases and longitudinal studies indicate silicones are inert and unlikely to pose hazardous health threats. From what I've read, claims of cyclic and linear polysiloxane toxicity, carcinogenicity, and inflammation occur infrequently, in the presence of other toxins and infections. Of course, this is a personal choice, and everyone should do their own research before making a decision. Fully biodegradable rubber cups, such as the Keeper, are one option for women without latex allergies. I read online that menstrual cups are compatible with intrauterine devices, but found only one study about expulsion, so consult a gynecologist before use (UPDATE: I've used these with an IUD with no problems).

The main factors to consider in choosing a cup are flow (determines cup size), how high or low your cervix sits (determines cup length), firmness (depends on bladder strength), color (I prefer dye-free, but some people want color to hide stains, or express their personality or something), handle type (not everyone likes the stem), and ethics. For instance, you may want to purchase from a company with a buy one, give one program. Don't stress too much about the other stuff- differences between cups are fairly nominal. Use vinegar or boiling water to sterilize; reusable pads and tampons can be tossed in the wash. Not quite ready for reusables? NatraCare disposable pads and tampons are organic, biodegradable and unbleached. To me, a single reusable cup made the most sense economically and environmentally, considering the cost of disposables and energy inputs needed to harvest and process plant cellulose. 

Paris to Go

Zero Waste Shaving


To me, the scariest part of going zero waste was not shopping with bulk bags, composting, or asking for takeout in my own containers. It was switching to a safety razor (and menstrual cup, but more on that later). YouTube videos depicted long, seemingly complicated shave routines requiring brushes, creams, and balms. Forums spun gory tales of bloodthirsty blades wreaking havoc on delicate areas. Research yielded the unsatisfactory conclusion that reducing my environmental impact- according to the EPA, over two billion disposable razors end up in landfills each year- would require learning to shave all over again. 

I appear vaguely Asian in countenance, but I'm 50% my dad's indeterminate swirl of ethnicities physiognomically, so my hair is coarser and there's more of it than the average, considerably less hirsute Korean. Fifth grade was a watershed year; I shaved ever since, drying the plastic-encased blade after each use. Most blades lasted around twelve months. If I'd been more diligent, I could have used them even longer! Still, that's a lot of cartridges and shave gel containers in the trash. What once made me feel grown-up and sophisticated soon made me self-conscious, thanks to chicken legs and razor burn. Venus wasn't easy on the allowance, either (remember when Jewel sang that weird song for the Schick Intuition commercials?).

When my interest in zero waste grew, I resolved to use up the last cartridges and switch to a safety razor. I braced myself for a lifetime of 30° angles, anticipating a sharp increase in nicks and cuts. Reading online, it sounded like women were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to safety razors, like shorter handles made shaving difficult, nearly impossible. Here are some of the unfounded myths I encountered during research. Spoiler alert: The "myth" classification is based solely on my own overwhelmingly positive experiences with safety razor shaving.

mYTH:
you need multiple blades for a close shave
Multiple blades catch and pull hairs, causing irritation. Prone to clogging, disposable cartridges tend to miss spots, slicing stubble only partway. A single blade cuts cleanly without the extra passes required of multi-blade cartridges, resulting in less razor bumps, burn, or ingrown hairs. From what I've seen, the smoothness of a shave is inversely related to the number of blades- I shave half as often with a safety razor. Someone should tell Chrissy Teigen this. Apparently she shaves twice a day!
MYTH:
safety razor shaving is time-consuming and difficult
It's the same as disposable razor shaving, only way easier! I can't believe I wasted time reading guides on how to use safety razors when the differences are nominal. I hate the internet. Just lather up with a bar of soap- I don't even use a brush- and shave as usual, applying less pressure than with a disposable. I use the same olive oil or Aleppo soap we use in the shower, but some people use Dr. Bronner's, coconut soap, oatmeal soap, DIY shave creams... whatever. It's not complicated. 



MYTH:
safety razor shaving is expensive.
Only if you want it to be. My Merkur long-handled safety razor was $12 three years ago and I'm still on the first blade. I also bought a pack of Kai double edged blades for less than $0.60 per blade, since I didn't realize I could sharpen mine indefinitely (still on the hunt for a vintage sharpener). Doesn't a Venus razor cost like $14 at Target? Cartridges are twice as expensive, plus shave gel is $4 a can. Safety razor shaving may require more of an upfront investment, but maintenance costs are significantly lower, according to a 2009 American Laser Center study estimating the average woman spends $191.40 per year shaving. I spend about $5 a year.



MYTH:
safety razors are more dangerous.
I'm really clumsy- not in the faux-relatable Jennifer Lawrence way, but in the if-I-get-one-more-concussion-I'll-be-a-vegetable way- and it took months to nick myself with a safety razor. Even then, that was only because my cat jumped in the bathtub. The infrequent cuts I get are minor compared to the chunks accidentally carved out with disposables. The safety razor is also gentle on sensitive and delicate areas. 

In short, I experienced significant time and money savings, no learning curve, and a markedly smoother, longer-lasting shave after switching to a safety razor. Less shaving means less water used and less trash! We could argue that not shaving at all is more environmentally friendly, and hairlessness merely a normative cultural imperative. However, it's far too late for me. Not shaving makes me itchy. If you're looking to switch, please use up any disposables at home first. I recommend a long handled razor (you can even buy vintage) with a butterfly head for easy cleaning- adjustable models are available, though I don't miss that feature one bit. Dry the blade afterwards, storing in a drawer or medicine cabinet. Some recommend keeping the blade in oil to prevent oxidation. Moisturize as usual, apply deodorant, whatever you normally do. Prefer waxing? Click here for a zero waste Oriental sugaring tutorial.

Paris to Go

Mon Eclair










ECLAIRS SUR MESURE

THE CONCEPT
Opened 2015
52 Rue des Acacias, Paris 17


A place for high end pastry lovers to create their own gluten-free eclairs. Developed by gourmet pastry chef Gregory Cohen and 2014 World Champion of arts sucrés Johanna le Pape, the eclairs put a luxury spin on Pinkberry or Chipotle-style customization. Select a base made fresh from raw, all-natural ingredients, then add toppings like coconut creme, passion fruit marshmallows, and lemon meringues.


THE TASTE
Five stars
www.facebook.com/MoneclairParis

I loved the chocolate tonka with caramelized nuts and pralines. The choux base is outstanding, flavorful with a pleasant, crispy-yet-fluffy texture. The tatin caramélisé was another favorite, featuring caramelized apples, vanilla cream, and crunchy granola topping. The mango passion confit was not to my taste, though the coconut cream and marshmallow topping was excellent. Finally, I'm not crazy about the café latte. I'm pretty sure that's because my American sapictive sensations are triggered only by cloyingly sweet things. A more refined palette would likely appreciate it.






























Paris to Go

Recycling E-Waste

How many phones have you had in your lifetime? I've had six, five of which I grew dissatisfied with and dumped for a newer model within a year, like Hugh Hefner with his wives.

Eventually I realized the impact my quest for a socially acceptable phone- from the once-cool slider to the emergence of touch screens- had, not just on the environment, but on people living in countries stripped and mined for technology. My stomach turns to think about the Windows laptops I went through from middle school on, as if they were Kleenex; towards the last day of term they'd break down irreparably, every year, without fail. I now type this on a first-edition Macbook, secondhand, still as fast as functional as ever. You can't say that about many Apple products anymore.

Over 135,000 cell phones and 31,300,000 computers are thrown away annually, thanks to upgrades, built-in obsolescence, and prohibitive costs of maintenance and repair. Add this to discarded refrigerators, telephone sets, radios, and other consumer electronics, all with built-in lifespans of five years or less, and we have 384,000,000 electronics being tossed out, not including DVDs and other media. Not only do these electronics contain known toxins, but the mining process leads to social and economic strife and wildlife deaths in countries far removed from us. 




From Baotou to Hong Kong, China's rare earth minerals are shaping up to be more of a resource curse than a blessing. A report released by China's cabinet reveals that "excessive rare earth mining has resulted in landslides, clogged rivers, environmental pollution emergencies and even major accidents and disasters, causing great damage to people's safety and health and the ecological environment," observed the New York Times. China is a hub of rare earth metals with more than a fifth of the world's rare earth reserves. However, it has depleted its most accessible reserves, transforming minerals into the latest iPad or iPhone. In Mongolia, this resulted in a 10 square km lagoon of radioactive runoff, covering a once fertile area of diverse crops. Sulphuric acid and coal dust coat the countryside, sickening animals and people, ruining fields where watermelon and eggplant once grew. 



Though the Chinese government has taken notice of the contaminated groundwater, toxic soil, and excessively depleted rare earth supply, local and regional governments still encourage mining. Critics note increasing federal regulation of rare earth mining in China may be subterfuge- simply a means of controlling production and profits while local people struggle to adapt to their degraded environment. Meanwhile, prolific amounts of electronic waste are sent to the so-called "developing" world for recycling, where environmental regulations are weak or non-existent. The "not in my backyard" mentality prevents domestic disposal of neurotoxin-and-carcinogen-laden electronics, so brokers send them overseas, where locals begin the life-threatening task of stripping the valuable metals contained within.  



These hazardous methods may cause disease and disability due to noxious gases produced by the stripping process. Workers in China, for instance- women and small children- are exposed to dangerous fumes and corrosives exhausted from toxic metals in electronic waste. Besides the social equity aspect, there are separate concerns as to the pollution and toxics involved in e-waste recycling, and the possibility these toxics may leach into soil, groundwater, and streams. Some countries are experimenting with bold federal initiatives aimed at targeting e-waste. In Switzerland, electronics are incinerated to produce energy for clean-burning factories outfitted with scrubbers that inhibit air pollution. This is funded by an advanced recycling fee, or tax, paid at the point of purchase. However, people recycling this waste may still be impacted. Electronics often emit dioxin when burned, which could evade containment methods. Further, mercury, cadmium, lead, barium oxide, and sulfur dioxide are generally present in electronic waste. Barium oxide in particular is absorbed rapidly in the body and can affect the nervous system permanently. The others are known carcinogens or impair neurological development, sometimes causing fatalities due to severe damage in the blood-forming, nervous, urinary, and reproductive systems.


Other contaminants expelled during the recycling process include mercury, PCB's, and organochlorine pesticides, which affect fish species and the humans who consume them. Often these toxics are known as persistent organic pollutants, endocrine disruptors to people and animals. The most immediate problem is to health, since emissions caused by the burning of unsalvageable materials, flame retardants, and heavy metals in open fields pollute the atmosphere, releasing carcinogenic compounds into the air. 

All things considered, what are the implications of the rate at which many countries use and discard electronics? Mass consumption and a throwaway mentality increase the need for overseas e-waste recycling, because all the junk has to go somewhere- but not in our neighborhoods. To mitigate this environmental woe, consumers must buy less, and secondhand where possible. A new law in France will force manufacturers to list how long their appliances will last, repairing or replacing faulty items for free within the first two years of purchase. Initiatives like Restart aim to educate consumers in basic electronic repairs. Just finished a Marie Kondo-style cleaning spree? Have a garage sale and list items on Freecycle or Craigslist instead of recycling, which should always be a last resort. Garage sales are my preferred method. People paid me for junk, then turned around and upcycled it into something wonderful and useful. Could you give unwanted electronics to someone in need? Make sure any organizations you donate to manage contributions wisely- some companies send items to brokers anyway. My favorite end-of-life-cycle destinations in Paris are the creative resourceries and recycleries. Eco-systèmes and Ou Recycler offer helpful guidance on how best to dispose of appliances and electronics. Click here and here for tips on how to extend the life of electronics and here for a downloadable fact sheet. Click here to read about Fairphone, an ethical, conflict-free phone designed for longevity and repairability (thanks Anne for the tip!).

Sources
Arena, J. M. 2009. Poisoning - Toxicology - Symptoms - Treatments. 
Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, Bradsher, K. China, conceding errors, vows to overhaul rare earth industry. 
Cadmium. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/cadmium/index.html 
Mercury. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/hg/effects.htm 
Rare-earth mining in China comes at heavy cost for local villagers. Guardian Weekly. 
Wong M.H. (2003) Sources, fates and effects of persistent organic pollutants in China, with emphasis on the Pearl River Delta. In: Fielder H (ed) Persistent organic pollutants, The handbook of environmental chemistry, Vol. 3, Part O, Springer-Verlag, Berlin, pp. 355–369.
Paris to Go

Northern Norway
















“A community is like a ship. Everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm.”
-Henrik Ibsen















TROMSØ TO ALTA




 


FINNMARK AND TROMS COUNTIES

GETTING AROUND

Rent an electric or diesel car to see the Aurora Borealis instead of booking a tour. Driving from Tromso on the 91 to Alta ensures breathtaking views of mountains, fjords, and snowy peaks with dancing light shows along the way. If traveling in winter, leave early so you can see both sun and moon on either side of the horizon and enjoy the scenery on deck as two ferries carry you across the water. Be sure to stop at Ramfjordbotn, Balsfjord, Svensby, Lyngseidet, and Samuelsberg for stunning vistas, sunsets, and photo ops. Every corner is like a fairytale, or something out of The Neverending Story. Don't forget to download music before you hit the road- Northern Norwegian DJs, it seems, do not enjoy Rihanna as much as I would like them to. After a two hour nonstop block of house music, they finally played "Love Yourself" and I was never so happy to hear Justin Bieber in my life.

STAY

Bjorn and Bibbi's Airbnb

Tromso
I think this is the best Airbnb we've ever stayed in, and we've stayed in some real stunners. They provided everything we could possibly want, from reflective jackets (a must when there's only three hours daylight) to hot chocolate, heated floors, those little rubber things you put on your shoes to prevent slipping on ice, and an awesome television channel called "Humor 2" showing Fresh Prince, Parks and Recreation, even throwbacks like Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place! Our hosts were so friendly and sweet and the kitchen was perfect- perfect for me warming up the vegan-and-gluten-free cinnamon rolls I found at Co Op Prix. Situated near the university, you can hike around the neighborhood at midnight to see the Northern Lights. You can also visit a local graveyard and walk right up to the water's edge. The Airbnb is a ten minute drive from town, with ample parking. 

STAY

Sorrisniva

Alta
Set in a lush valley, some areas of which are only accessible by snowmobile, Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel juts up against a river and forest teeming with wildlife. Co-owner Hans Ulrik, who started the hotel with his brother, treated us to drinks before we watched the northern lights from our hot tub. The igloo is surprisingly warm and comfortable, and the restaurant incredibly delicious, with homemade gluten-free bread, chive butter, flavorful veggie dishes, cloudberries, and fresh river water. I wrote a report in school about how snowmobile usage is bad for the environment, but you must do a snowmobile safari with Utt at night. Driving across a frozen lake and seeing all the stars sparkling clearly was like being in the world's best planetarium, especially wonderful since it was a full moon. My husband said it was the best experience of his life!

EAT 

Peppe's Pizza

Stortorget 2
This was the greatest discovery of my life. Order their thin crust gluten-free veggie pizza with artichokes and a million other vegetables; you won't be sorry. We ate there several times on our trip, and I have to ask: is pizza the unofficial food of Norway? All the restaurants have plentiful gluten-free options, but this tops them all. I prefer it to popular Egon, which strikes me as a TGI Friday's kind of place, with a far more beautiful interior. Note: If eating at a chain bothers you, go to Bardus or Aunegarden instead.

Oteren

Not a restaurant but a village
Under the shadow of Mount Tamok, in a valley three times the size of Manhattan with only 70 residents, some locals made me a delicious potato and chive soup, homemade gluten free bread, and a cute and spicy gluten free carrot cake. I was touched. It's a great place to see husky dogs without having to book with a farm, and also an ideal spot to see the Northern Lights.

Sorrisniva

Alta
Reindeer is the specialty at the glamorous, Gstaad-esque restaurant of the igloo hotel, straight from the Laplanders, who herd them over the Finnish border in summer (we came across a Sami native walking his reindeer down the street and talked to him for a few minutes. Our only other reindeer sighting was in the wild- she came right up to us, and pooped). My husband had his in blueberry coulis. I ate Jerusalem artichoke, parsnip mash, an artistic cauliflower puree, and the best potatoes ever, cooked in evergreen oil. We also got a sense of Norwegian community when we made friends with couples from Norway and Venezuela and solo travelers from Hong Kong over ice cubes filled with curaçao. Side note: I found it interesting that the Norwegian couple lived and grew up ten minutes outside Oslo, but made the distinction that they weren't from Oslo. I grew up forty minutes outside Cleveland, and I still say I'm a Clevelander. I thought it was a noteworthy cultural difference. They also explained how everyone in the neighborhood pitched in to keep the paint on their apartment building fresh, clean the streets, shovel snow, etc. Community!

VISIT

Bibliotek

Tromso
The library of my dreams, by architect Gunnar Bogeberg Haugen, based on the Mexican Candela shells. Originally an old movie theatre, you can sit in the former cinema seats at Perez bar nearby. Go to the second floor of the library, curl up with a Cora Sandel novel, and gaze at the mountains, lights, and Arctic Cathedral across the water.

Arctic Cathedral

Tromso
Built by Jan Inge Hovig, a classmate of the Sydney Opera designer Jorn Utzona, this masterpiece is visible by plane or all around Tromso Sound. The organ, which features reindeer hide bellows, is similarly breathtaking. 

Art Museum of Northern Norway

Tromso
You can't miss this beautiful building on Tromso's oldest street, nor their exhibition on the shared history between Norway and Russia. 

Polaria

Tromso
This architecturally stunning aquarium is less academic than I hoped, but the seal show is too cute (they perform, not for humans, but to keep from getting bored in captivity, and they are in love with their trainers... they look like cats cuddling with their mother). Polaria, which is designed to resemble ice floes against the water, is a great place to learn about Svalbard and conservation efforts there, plus the MS Polstjerna building is equally impressive.

Ersfjordbotn

Kvaloysletta
Beautiful spot to hike, walk along the fjords, and climb waterfalls. Great place for a light show.

Rakettkiosken

Tromso
Built by an 18 year old woman, this historic wooden building somehow survived a great city fire and is now the site of music festivals. From there, visit Gestapo Alley (Bankgata 13), where the Norwegian resistance fought Gestapo torture, and Skansen fortress, built in 1000 AD.

      











Another thing I respected about the people we met was how active and outdoorsy they were despite the weather. In Cleveland, if there's a snowstorm, people do NOT like leaving their beds, much less spending hours hiking or walking around, as the Norwegians we saw did. Also, dogs and cats don't wear sweaters or little booties like in Paris, despite obvious cold. The pets were perfectly happy running and jumping in the snow, even the tiniest chihuahuas! Anyway, it has nothing to do with Norway but I wasn't wearing makeup in these photos and I'm ok with them. Water only is the best thing I could have done for my skin. And my existing boots and parka were just fine for all my activities, including driving the skidoo.


     
Paris to Go