Back to Bavaria.

I am in Uppsala, Sweden, now, having completed two days of my orientation program here – just the weekend separates me from my anxiously-awaited first day of Real Classes. But before talking about Uppsala, I want to write a little bit about what I did after Montpellier – I went to Ruhpolding, Germany to visit some friends, and I had a great time! As my mom wrote in an e-mail, the pictures look like “pictures from a … picture book about what Germany is supposed to look like. Lucky you, in the picture!”

I had to leave Montpellier at 6 a.m. on Saturday morning and drag my bags through the street to the tram station, a ten-minute ordeal that left me sopping wet and disgusting. I was so happy that the train would be taking me to cooler climes. I rode to Lyon, switched stations, and then took three more trains before ending up in the mountains of Bavaria where Pam Pichler picked me up at the station – just as she did back in March when I arrived to report on World Championships.

Back then, Pam had to leave the next morning to go to a conference in Las Vegas; luckily this time we had more time to talk. I was still exhausted so I quickly collapsed into the same big, comfy bed that I slept in last time around, joined by one of the family’s cats. In the morning, it really took all of my willpower to get out of that bed.

It was raining and gray, but even then it was beautiful. I drank a lot of tea and lounged around the house with Pam and her husband Walter and daughter Malin, who made a delicious German plum tart from scratch; older daughter Nina was at her very first day of work. It was cozy to have a cup of something hot and look out into the drizzly valley.

After lunch, my friend Susan, who was in town for a biathlon training camp, came over to pick me up and we joined her teammate Sara (both of them were my buddies on the Dartmouth Ski Team back when we were mere babes) and went on a little adventure. Somehow, this trip had aligned perfectly so that I was in town on their day off and actually got to see them. As Susan drove the van on narrow, winding roads through the hills and mountains, we caught up on everything: I told them about school, Sara talked about the classes she’s taking through the Keller School of Management, Susan said that she jumped in the pond-like “swimming pool” outside of their little cabin every morning and it had left her cold all day.

We parked outside of the Berchtesgaden National Park and wandered through little tourist shops until we ended up at the lake of Konigsee.

I’m going to use this word a lot, but: it was beautiful! It’s a long, skinny lake that has clifflike walls in some parts, and you can take a boat ride where someone blows a horn at the cliffs and the echo comes back so perfectly that it sounds like there are two horns. We opted not to do this, but walked around the one end of the lake and admired the views. Looking at a map, we could see that there were trails up the steep slopes on either side of the lake, with huts to stay in or alms to eat at. Some time in the future, I really hope I get to come here and make a hiking trip out of it. The scenery is just spectacular.

As you may know, the area also has an interesting place in history. It was here that Hitler had his Eagle’s Nest built, and you can see it atop one of the ridges near the lake. Again, we didn’t walk up there, but I’d love to read a little more about the history of the area in that era in particular before I come back. I will come back.

We drove down to the actual town of Berchtesgaden, which is perched on a hill. It took us a little while to wander our way to downtown. On our way we passed an amazing cemetery – they do things a little different in Germany than in the U.S. – and a beautiful church. Once on the equivalent of main street, we tried to look for a cafe to grab a coffee at, but this being Sunday afternoon most things were closed (and Berchtesgaden is small, so there weren’t that many shops in the first place). We had to settle on gelato, which was funny because it was actually kind of chilly. I selected hazelnut and am happy to report that it was delicious, even if it didn’t help my internal temperature.

Of course, part of my trip to Ruhpolding was to work for FasterSkier, so after we drove back to Susan and Sara’s cabin I met up with one of their teammates for an interview before having dinner with the whole biathlon team. After Susan took me back to Pam and Walter’s, we drank more tea and talked for an hour or so. Susan and I used to do so many of the same things – running, skiing, ecology research, leading outing club trips – and we still have the same interests, but we’re adults now and we both have real jobs, I guess you could say. And we are both fascinated by each other’s jobs and curious about how all these things we love might be able to fit together into a real life. It’s amazing for me to be able to catch up with friends like Susan, especially in such a seemingly random place – I have had some pretty cool opportunities in the last few years.

The next morning I ran up to the biathlon venue (my first exercise in a week, and I could tell….) to observe their training session and do more reporting work. (For lots of pictures of that experience, check here.) When I arrived back at the house Pam and Walter were sitting out in the garden in the sun. They have a little microclimate in their backyard which can grow nectarines, grapes, kiwis… what!? It was quite warm and lovely and I could have sat there for hours.

As it was, I said goodbye to Walter, who was just home on lunch break from a job helping to renovate some houses one of his relatives owned. And then it was time for me to take a shower and re-pack my bags – just a short visit to Bavaria this time around. Pam and Malin drove me back down to the train station and I was off, wishing that I could stay much longer.

I only met the Pichlers this winter through my old ski coach Dennis Donahue, who had worked at the U.S. Biathlon Association when Walter coached the national team, but they have become great friends and very generous hosts. Again, it’s just another example of how lucky I’ve been in the last few years – how many people can travel to a tiny town in a foreign country and develop a real friendship with the people they meet there? I think the explanation is that I am blessed to have many kind and amazing friends of my own, who of course know more people like themselves. Thanks, world, for offering up so many wonderful things to me.

A Week in Montpellier.

I shamelessly stole this photo from my friend Min Ya’s facebook page. Thanks for taking photos, Minya! These are just a very few MEME (my program: evobio.eu) people I met this week: me, Nikki and Kristel from the Netherlands, Daniel from Mexico and Portugal, Paul from the Netherlands, and Katie from England. All but Paul are newbies in the MEME masters program; when Daniel, Katie, and I head to Uppsala in a few days, Paul will be there finishing some things up to graduate and he will be able to show us around.

Before going on, I should explain a bit about my program. It’s evolutionary biology, which I’m really excited about. I’ve been an ecologist for all of my scientific “career” (HAHA) but I have realized that I find evolution really fascinating at a large scale. Okay, that isn’t anything new. What’s new maybe is that I also realized that knowing some genetic techniques would be really important to be able to answer some bigger, more interesting research questions, and also that having those skills will make me a much more competitive applicant for ecology jobs. So, evolutionary masters degree, here I come! Our program is two years, or four semesters, and you pretty much have to switch campuses (there are four main ones to choose from, or you can do an “external project” anywhere else as long as someone from one of the four universities signs on as a co-advisor) every semester, and attend at least two different schools. We will be traveling a lot.

In all, almost 50 students were in Montpellier for the week along with five or six or so coordinators. And they were all awesome! The biggest contingents were from the Netherlands, Colombia, and Mexico. I am the only American in my class but there are a few in the years above me, and a few Canadians too. Mostly, though, it’s people from other places. That’s already taught me things like…. in the U.S. college takes a year longer than everywhere else. Yet another reason I feel kind of old. There are two students in the year ahead of me who are actually 20 years old. They must be geniuses.

Our program was a combination of things for different people: orientation on the first day for us newbies, graduation on the last day for the oldest students, lectures and outings and a journal club in the middle for all of us. The first day was learning about the different campuses, what research opportunities there are, how we can fulfill all the various requirements from each university to get our two masters degrees (that’s right, I’m going to be a double-master when I am through with all of this). For each university, one of the coordinators gave a presentation and then a few students talked about what it was like to live there, what trips to go on during the weekends, how to find housing, and what to do in your spare time. At the end of each of the four university’s presentation I was convinced that THAT was where I wanted to go.

So: I am off to Uppsala, which sounds like it is definitely one of the favorite places of everyone who has been there. After that my tentative plan is to do spring in Montpellier, next fall in Munich, and then my final term back in Uppsala. But as the older MEMEs have told me, plans will change and evolve and mutate (ha!) a million times between now and then.

On day two, we had lectures by a few of the Montpellier faculty. All were interesting; my favorite one was by Sonia Kefi, who looks at patterns at the landscape level and what makes those systems resilient to change – or where the tipping point is in processes like desertification. I am thinking of how I can blend that with evolution to do a project, although there are also so many other interesting things in Montpellier I could work with (like Tour de Valas). You can see more about Kefi’s work at her website.

We also had presentations by all of us newbies about what we have done so far – both in science and in life. None of us were sure what to talk about. I put up some pictures of me skiing, which I think confused people (less so, though, than when they saw that I had my ski bag with me: “you are never going to have time to use those!”). Other people talked about where they’ve traveled, what their favorite movies are, or some things about their country. I learned that so many of my new classmates have already done amazing research, and been all over the world. We are a pretty cool group of people, if I do say so myself.

Then we went to Tour de Valat, which I wrote about. On the final day, a few of the graduating students defended their thesis projects. It was so interesting to see that they worked on – one was looking at using genetic sampling to estimate population size of primate communities, one at the evolution of trees depending on fire regime, another at the important of self-pollination in a plant community. Completely different topics, highlighting that we all have the ability to really do whatever research interests us. What is better than that!

Finally, we had a journal club – several groups of students were assigned to each of seven articles and had to present the papers to the rest of the group. All in all, this was a good way for me to ease back into school. I haven’t been in school for three years. I’ve read papers and helped edit them in our lab in Oregon, but it is one thing to look at how a paper is written when you know everything about the project was about and how everything was done beforehand. It’s something else to read about an experiment you are completely unfamiliar with – sometimes completely, if it’s modeling or genetics – and parse everything out. That I haven’t done as much in the last few years.

Most fun, of course, was getting to know the other students. Every night we would sit outside our dorm rooms and just talk and drink wine. It is such a fun group of people! We are going to have a really good time in the next two years. It reminded me of my freshman year of college, when you automatically and instantly make friends with people and are inseparable. Because we were all fairly bewildered – only two of the incoming students had ever been to Montpellier before – we moved as a herd, fifteen-strong, wandering to the supermarket, cafes, the campus, back home. One night all fifty of us were supposed to go have a picnic on the beach but we missed the bus, so there was a long straggling line of us walking the 20 minutes along the road to get to Carnon. I’m sure it was a sort of funny sight.

It is sad that we are splitting apart and heading off to campuses all over Europe and even America (a few second-year students are going to Harvard for the fall), but I love the people who will be in Uppsala with me, and we will see some people again at a winter school in January. And we’ll visit each other. The absence will make it more exciting when we re-shuffle to different campuses in the spring, too – we will get to see people for the first time in several months.