the real experience, or, who wants a castle anyway.

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You might think that southern France is warm. Well. Take a look at that picture – does it look warm to you?

Taking a rudimentary glance at a map, I realized that we were not far from Carcassonne, a medieval walled city that I had learned about in French class in high school. At some point, the teachers decided that the best way to make us interested in learning French was to add a little bit of history and some pretty pictures into our classes. One thing that is so surreal being here is that I can remember learning about places and people in history classes or language classes, but now I have a chance to go see them or their environs firsthand. A lot of cool history happened in America, but things in Europe are just a bit more legendary. They are old. They have a bit of myth to them.

IMGP1088(This was true in Sweden as well, but unfortunately I never learned much about Sweden in school. So all of that was discovering new things for the first time, rather than feeling like I was walking into my own textbook.)

So, I said, let’s go to Carcassonne! It was not a well-hashed-out trip, more of a last-minute thing, like, we have this Sunday and we don’t have homework, let’s make the most of it. We looked and train and tram schedules, managed to all get to the train station at 9:30 (well not all, I’m looking at you, Katie), and get on the train. When we left our dormitory it was a bright blue day, sunny and beautiful. Not warm, of course not, but picture perfect.

At some point on the train, we began realizing that it was quite hazy outside. Maybe this happened around Narbonne. Visibility was low; we knew there were hills but we couldn’t see them. When we stepped off the train in Carcassonne, we realized that it wasn’t haze. It was a snowstorm, and it was zero degrees and blustery. I have to admit I think that our first instinct was to run back into the train station, but we were here – we had to carry on. We hadn’t looked up any directions or maps of the city, figuring that the walled city up on the hill would be visible from everywhere. Not today. We checked tourist signs and streetside maps as we felt our way around the city, hunkered down in our hats and mittens.

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As we learned later, Carcassonne is really two cities. In the 1200’s, Carcassonne was a Cathar city. Despite a whole unit in a Dartmouth history class and a book read and assignment completed on Montaillou, where the heresy was really strong, I didn’t realize that the small hamlet lay just 90 kilometers from Carcassonne and that the powerful family that held the city were also Cathars. When the heretics were rooted out in southern France, the residents of the walled city were allowed to survive if they left their homes. So they went through the gates and eventually made their livelihoods down the hill, in a second city. That’s where we arrived by train. And it was quite pretty – nice shops and squares, monuments.

But at last we reached a bridge and could look up and see the castle. Yes, this is what we came for. (The wind on the bridge was something terrible.)

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So up we climbed, up and up, to get to the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Carcassonne. First, through the improbably green grassy hillside – the Mediterranean does get all its rain in the winter – and then up cobbled steps, behind walls and through arches.

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The most surprising thing once we got inside the city walls was to see…. life continue to go on. I hadn’t realized this, but the city is still a city. I guess I shouldn’t have been so shocked; after all, Fes-al-bali is a World Heritage Site and it’s very much alive. And the area is big enough that it would be a shame to turn it into a sterile museum. But nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared to walk through the last huge arch and see a restaurant.

IMGP1102All of the establishments in the walled city cater to tourists. There are restaurants, cafes, coffeeshops, chocolate shops, kitschy souvenir shops. A few smallish museums of unclear provenance. I guess that people live there, but it wouldn’t be very convenient; the real world is down in the other city. There are hotels, but they must cost a fortune. Still it was strange to see so many people walking around, talking boisterously and popping in and out of buildings.

We were sorely tempted to eat lunch, but decided instead that we should at least look around before we ate. We wandered into the main museum, assuming that it would cost a lot of money, but it turned out to be free for students – hurrah! So in we went. The castle within the walled city itself was rebuilt, redesigned, and fortified through the years, so to begin we had to walk over the stone bridge over what used to be a moat – protecting the nobles from not only invaders but also providing some insulation from the townspeople themselves. These days, the moat is dry and they were beginning to plant vegetable gardens in the grass below the bridge.

Then under another arch, where you could see the old defences: there was where the portcullis would go down, there was a gap where something hot and painful might be poured on people passing under the gate. Then, we were inside the keep.

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The museum took us inside, up the stairs, and into a dark but probably otherwise grand hall where we watched a video about the history of the city. It fell into disrepair and squatters lived in the free spaces until the mid 1800’s, when someone took an archeological interest in the site and began trying to decipher what it was supposed to look like. From that point on, restoration work was done to get the city into the shape it is in today – so that when you visit, you can imagine what life would be like.

As we walked through long halls, up and down winding stairs to scale towers, and out along the ramparts, we certainly imagined what it would be like. In a lot of ways, not that nice. For one: it was dark inside. For another: it was cold. A few rooms were sort of heated, or at least protected from the cold, but in others the windows did not have glass and we could hear the wind howling fiercely. It was scary, in a way, how it picked up speed along various rooflines and then flung itself down the sides of the high walls. I would have sworn there was a hurricane outside as the wind blew past us.

You would spend the winter cowering from the cold, locked up in this vast hulking stone castle, looking our the window with fear. At least that’s the sense I get.

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Eventually we made our way down to the lower rooms, which had been the chapel, receiving rooms, and other fancy spaces. They were more equipped for guests and for comfort – one had frescoes of horses and nights painted all around the top of the walls, and the ceiling was washed a bright blue color like the sky. In here, art from the city’s history was housed, and restored gargoyles and details from the tops of columns. All sorts of beautiful things; perhaps when the castle fell into disrepair, only the stones used in the structure were left. Maybe, back when people lived here, it wasn’t as cold and isolating as it felt to me. I can only hope.

Because, what I’m left with, even after a bowl of hot onion soup at a local restaurant, a nice trip to the ornate cathedral, and a train ride home to warmer Montpellier, is the memory of the snow flying around those cold stone walls. Supposedly, in the summer, it is unbearably hot; that wasn’t something my mind could even comprehend. Instead I was stuck thinking how lucky we are to live when we do, when life isn’t so hard, so painful, or so short.

But even despite those takeaway messages, despite the fact that our photos were not against the clear blue Mediterranean sky, the city was beautiful – and I felt more than ever lucky to be in a place where I could walk into the pages of my history books. The sheer scale of the walled city was astonishing, the number of turrets and towers, the tons upon tons upon tons of rock that had been summoned to defend the stronghold. Can something be harsh and lovely at the same time? I say yes – even as the snow flies.

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things you do in france.

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The next few blog posts, I am quite certain, will be all about the stereotypical things that tourists do in France. I used to hate doing touristy things and be embarrassed by them; I burned with shame as I snapped photos of monuments and sights. Well, now I feel like sometimes, you just gotta do what you gotta do. I’m in France! Let’s be French!

IMGP1053Even though I learned French all through high school and into college, and visited Quebec regularly for ski races and camps over a period of five or six years, I haven’t been to France since the 1992 Olympics in Albertville. Then, I was almost five years old. Unsurprisingly I don’t remember much.

So this is my chance to get to know the place. Besides the bureaucratic nightmares and endless reams of paperwork that I seem to encounter on a daily basis, it’s pretty nice. On my first Saturday in town we decided to go to one of the traditional outdoor markets. Leaving our dormitories it was a beautiful blue-sky day – but don’t be fooled, it was windy and cold. Apparently around here people say that to know whether it will be cold on a winter day, you don’t look at the forecasted temperature – you look at the forecasted wind.

Katie (in the bottom left of the photo in the cute jacket) said she knew where to go, so we hopped on the tram and got off at a familiar stop, then walked up a long, winding hill on a narrow street with the buildings clambering above us. Eventually we reached the top and real, wider roads – one with a planting in the middle, leading down to a park. With an Arc de Triomphe. I guess every French city has one of their own, no big deal.

It was a gorgeous day. We were astounded – we signed up to go to the market, and we got to walk through this incredible park first? Sure, France, I’ll take it!

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We climbed up and around the vaguely temple-like structure, which turned out to rather ingeniously house a water tank under its floor.

“The market is just down the side on the left,” Katie said.

And by the left, she meant to the left of the aqueduct. Because of course there’s an aqueduct! And of course on Saturday the farmers come and sell their vegetables under the shelter of its arches!

Seriously.

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Finally, we reached the market, and were greeted by everything we’d hoped. Vegetables. Fruit. Fish from the sea, all sorts of meats, from whole gooses plucked except for their heads, to roasted chickens, to the most incredible variety of charcuterie. Bakers of bread and pastries. Cheesemakers hawking both dainty rounds of goat cheese and huge, several-kilo slabs of regional specialties that you could order 100 grams of and they’d slice you off a piece. Honey from so many different kinds of flowers, or if you preferred, honeycomb. Jams from every fruit in the region. Spices.

We walked all the way through the market, wondering as we went along. Each stall seemed more delicious than the next; how would we decide what to buy? We faced some tough choices, that would almost certainly be decided in a completely arbitrary manner.

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I mean, I’ve been to many a farmer’s market in multiple states around the country. There was really nothing new here, minus the aqueduct. But it seemed so charming, the way they wrote the signs with big looping “2”s, and how I got nervous before I asked for something, afraid I’d mess up my French. In the end I walked away with a nice poppyseed-crusted sourdough loaf and a round of the goat cheese, which I have been snacking on ever since. It is delicious, and I don’t think that’s just because I’m seeing the world through French rose-colored glasses.

(It’s really unfortunate that my kitchen situation is so craptastic, because I could buy so many vegetables and other things and cook up a storm. Maybe I’ll write about kitchens later….)

The other highlight of the market were the vendors selling food to eat right there, or take home with you – more take home with you, it seemed, since none of them offered utensils. We were tempted by a giant pan of paella as we walked in, but by the time we returned it was gone. Next was the couscous with lamb, reminding me of all the delicious smells of Morocco. But with no forks we were sort of out of luck. We ended up buying samosas from one vendor and slices of quiche and tart from another, then hiking back up to the park to eat them.

Let me say this for fusion cooking: it can be great. Two of the samosas were traditional, and delicious. The other two had a French spin. One was basil and lemon, also yummy, but what knocked my socks off was a hot, steaming samosa filled with Roquefort cheese and crushed nuts. I am sure Indian cooks are rolling over in disgust, but I couldn’t believe how amazing it tasted. Sometimes you have to think outside the box, I guess.

Happy times – as touristy as it makes us look, I have a hunch we’ll be going back many a Saturday to do our shopping and grab a tasty lunch. Next time, I’m bringing a fork so I can dig in to that paella. Katie and Berenice agree.

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czech it out!

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Despite my harried and stressful arrival in Nove Mesto, I settled in immediately and loved it there. The next morning I woke up and walked two blocks to find a grocery store – and was amazed that I could buy breakfast and snacks all for the price of, like, three dollars! It certainly was a pleasant shock after being in Norway and Sweden to be able to actually buy things.

One interesting part of this experience, though, was the fact that this was one of the first places I had been in a while where people didn’t speak English. I’d go so far as to say that I felt the most unconnected that I ever have – even when I was living in Morocco, at least I spoke French. It was somewhat disconcerting to walk around knowing that I couldn’t really talk to people: what if I needed something? What if I accidentally did something wrong? What if I got sick? I wouldn’t be able to explain myself.

townBut more than that, I felt like a typical tourist jerk. It seems so disrespectful to go to a foreign place without even trying to learn the language, and that’s exactly what I had done. I didn’t even take the time to look up how to say “hello” before I flew to Prague. I’m not sure why this was all so far from my mind, but I ended up feeling a bit embarrassed for myself. My instincts kicked in and my brain thought, “foreign language!” and I would sputter out little bits of Swedish, which of course did not help at all. In fact, even fewer people speak Swedish than speak Czech.

That first day held the mixed relays, so I grabbed my credentials and headed up to the venue before lunch so that I could get a feel for where things were and prepare myself for the races. I had only wandered a few blocks from my house, but it was enough to be teased by the little town’s cuteness: the main streets were nice, much nicer than my neighborhood. I wasn’t in the low-rent district, but the buildings were more modern. They lacked the romantic charm of “downtown” Nove Mesto.

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I could feel it, though. From my bedroom I could see the steeple of a nearby church – which turned out to be right next to the grocery store. I checked it out.

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The next day there were no races, so I spent the morning walking around town (and found a bigger grocery store, where I tried to buy hot chocolate mix and ended up purchasing cocoa powder – d’oh! no congnates here!). Next to dingy-looking stores were some beautiful buildings, many painted pretty colors. There were also all sorts of unusual decorations, from carving (expected) to painting. A few buildings I passed had unusual decorations or writing painted right onto the outside, a tradition I haven’t seen many other places.

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And then there was the art. For being a small town, Nove Mesto was obviously proud; one building had a bust of what I can only assume was an illustrious former resident mounted over the doorway. There were metal sculptures and stone sculptures, both originals and copies. An art museum. A photography exhibit by an artist who had traveled all the way to the Himalayas to take photos, and then mounted them on a huge outdoor installation. A series of placards celebrating different dance and music events.

christPerhaps all of this is not a coincidence; Nove Mesto is the was where Jan Stursa resided, one of the fathers of modern Czech sculpture. And one of the most prominent pieces, besides the religious-themed ones, was a copy of his sculpture commemorating the sacrifices of soldiers. Based on a photograph of a battle in the Carpathian mountains, it was made into a memorial after World War I.

And standing in front of the sculpture, I thought a little bit about why the Czech Republic felt so foreign even though so many things were familiar. I later looked up some things about Czech history: they haven’t had it easy.

Take the mid-1700’s: the area was taken by Prussia, and then a famine starved off a tenth of the population.

The area then became part of the Austrian empire; people were serfs until the mid 1800’s, under absolute monarchy.

Czechs fought in World War I, and many died.

They then established their own country, Czechoslovakia, one of the few democracies of the time – excellent! But then the Nazis invaded. Democracy no more. Massacres, concentration camps, and genocide: estimates vary but I read one number that said as many as 2/3 of Czechs may have been killed. That seems impossible; I hope it is.

(Czechs returned the favor by murdering Germans after the war.)

Soon after that, Czechoslovakia became an Eastern bloc country. Communism, censorship, economy lagging, poverty.

Today, things are going well in the Czech Republic. But it’s amazing to stop and think for a moment about all that.

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Despite all that history, I was surrounded by beauty. The most well-known sight in Nove Mesto is the central church, which is indeed amazing. The painting on the hotels and residences paled in comparison with how this cathedral was decorated.

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Scene after scene – all biblical, but interpreted locally. One thing I find fascinating is how religious imagery, which all comes from the same source, can really vary from culture to culture.

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Even the details were painstakingly intricate and thoughtful.

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But, of course, I couldn’t loiter all day every day in the cute little town center. It was hi ho, hi ho, off to work we go up to the venue in the late morning, where I’d grab a delicious lunch in the media restaurant. The shuttle buses were mysterious – although I passed sign after sign advertising pickup and dropoff locations, I never seemed to find one when I wanted it. Perhaps that was because I arrived early and left late, much unlike the many thousands of fans, but in any case it was a 25 minute walk and since the weather wasn’t too cold, it was a nice way for me to relax. I brought my skis but hadn’t been able to find any trails near town, so that was my exercise for the day: walking with views of the Bohemian countryside.

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I wish I could have stayed longer – and I wish I could have skied. Circumstances intervened. But I remember my aunt Liz saying that the Czech Republic was one of her favorite places to visit, because things were unspoiled and you could ski out along the hilltops or ridgelines and just look out. It would have been nice to have that experience – but I guess I’ll just have to go back.

things I said at Peter’s service.

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I will try to keep this short, but I always write too many words. I actually talked to Pete about this quite a number of times. He always claimed that he had no great talent as a writer, but I think that was Peter being self-deprecating. Regardless, through his years in advertising and his classes in journalism at Northwestern, he knew how to put sentences together. He’d tell me that there was a right word for everything, and that there was a great value to being concise.

I hope I can do that for him today, but I’m not sure.

Last week I was in the Czech Republic, working as a journalist at a large sporting event.

About the time that my grandfather Peter passed away, I was collecting my credentials from the media office. I handed over my passport and in return received a laminated name tag with my picture on it. And then a woman approached me with a box. “The gift,” she said.

It’s traditional for organizing committees to offer some item to journalists and athletes at events like these, but I was not expecting a heavy cardboard box. I’ve previously received coffee mugs and backpacks. As I carried it home, the handle cut into my fingers, and I wondered what could possibly be inside. When I opened it, I found six bottles of Czech wine.

Looking back, I think this was perfect. Peter would have been smiling. He knew how to combine hard work with fun, adventure, and mischief, and that attitude towards life is something that we should all aspire to.

As kids, we don’t understand that our grandparents had lives before becoming our grandparents. When we’re little, we see only a pair of old people, who alternately scold us and dote on us. Luckily, as we get older, these relationships become deeper and more complex.

Peter believed that any of us could become anything that we wanted to, and that we should have the opportunities to try to do so. Many of us are still figuring out what that thing is, but Peter has always been supportive of all of us all the way through.

I’m a biologist, and Peter was certainly not a scientist. But because of his love of fishes, of flowers, of the landscapes of the forests and lakes of the upper Midwest or of the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico, we could always talk about the things that I was doing, and I find that amazing.

I feel like I am obligated to speak a little bit on behalf of all of my cousins. Abie and Peter both were devoted to the idea that we should be able to have the best educations, and they were proud of us no matter what we did. I don’t know too many other grandparents who attended each and every one of their grandchildren’s graduations, from New Hampshire to Texas. They did.

But it’s not until we are adults that we realize that our grandparents were truly remarkable long before we were even born. In the last few years I was lucky to begin to have some grownup conversations with Peter, even though I’m not a grownup.

After our last visit in particular, I was looking forward to the coming years when I could ask him more about his life, after receiving tantalizing stories about growing up on the Upper Peninsula. I’ve been lucky to travel there, so I feel like I can begin to understand his childhood – but not really, and I wanted to hear more from him. And stories about  traveling in the peacetime navy, which he always described as a plumb gig. Starting in advertising, and traveling around the southeast in train cars. Parties with Abie and their friends that would leave any of us grandchildren reeling if we could time travel back fifty years and try to keep up. Fishing trips to remote and beautiful parts of the world that most of us can only dream of seeing.

But even though I feel a void where those future stories should be, I am left looking back on wonderful times with as sweet and loving a grandfather as anyone could ask for. My cousins and I prospered from Peter’s life twofold. We had him as a grandfather, and we had his sons as fathers and uncles. I look at my father, Geof, and know that he is the best dad. I look at Keith, Chris, and Todd, and know that they were the best uncles – I remember screaming with delight when we would play when I was growing up. Where did they learn all of this, if not from their own father?

So thank you, Peter, for all that we have gained from all five Little boys.

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Peter, walking off into the garden forever.

friends to czech in on.

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After leaving Lillehammer – which was so hard to do! – I jet-setted my way to another, very different part of Europe: the Czech Republic.

I’d never been before, but I hope to go again. It was a great experience.

The occasion was biathlon World Championships, which is how I made my first trip to Ruhpolding, Germany, last year. I assumed that this year’s edition could not possibly be as awesome. Because I had crazy visa problems, I didn’t really plan the trip until the last minute. Arriving was a shitshow – I got to Prague at 8 p.m., then a two-hour drive to Nove Mesto, where some miscommunication with my very non-English-proficient landlord (who I nevertheless have to thank immensely for renting me a flat with two bedrooms for just 14 euros a night – thanks Jirka, you’re the best!) left me standing in the cold outside the door at 10 p.m. wondering whether I had been scammed and would be stranded in the middle of Eastern Europe with no friends. But it all worked out.

There were a few more hiccups, like a complete lack of transportation from the accreditation center to the venue, but hey, I hitched a ride with one of the Canadian wax techs. He was nice.

And the next day, I discovered that this trip, while different than the one to Ruhpolding, could be awesome in different ways.

The first race on the docket was the mixed relay, just like last year. I arrived at the media center, scoped things out, and half an hour before the race wandered into the stadium. And proceeded to be blown away.

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As I wrote in a piece for FasterSkier after the race, that stadium knocked my socks off. I won’t repeat everything I said there, or include any of the quotes from various athletes I talked to, but suffice to say that I was not the only one impressed. Maybe it was a combination of things – a night race almost always feels more exciting, for instance. But the bright lights, the music, the nearly 20,000 people in the stands and 7,000-plus more on the trails, and their sheer enthusiasm – that place was rocking. Just standing in the center of the stadium gave me shivers and jolts of adrenaline.

It’s an exhilarating feeling to even be part of an event like that. I can’t imagine what it would be like to race and know that those cheers were for you. It’s easy to see how the Czech team was bolstered by the crowd into earning bronze in the race.

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I’ll write more about the trip later, maybe, but as it turned out, this was exactly the kind of excitement I needed. The day that I traveled from Norway, my grandfather Pete had a stroke. Initially, things didn’t seem so bad – he was confused. But as I traveled I got increasingly alarming e-mails. He was in the hospital. There was fluid in his brain, which they were trying to get rid of. He was asleep and couldn’t wake up.

That first morning when I went to the media center, I arranged to skype with my dad and my uncle, who had flown to Atlanta. I wanted an update that told me more than the e-mails could. I felt disconnected (of course). Plus, I wanted to see their faces and cheer them up, perhaps with the story of how the organizing committee’s gift to journalists was six bottles of wine apiece, which I wondered what to do with. I should have known something was up when my uncle said, “we can skype right now!” It was 6:30 a.m. in the U.S.

That morning, as my dad was in the hospital room, my grandfather slipped away. Two days before, he had been a healthy, happy man – one embarking on a romance, actually. I was so happy for him. He was so happy. I had sent my congratulations and he had sent back a cheerful e-mail with a joke in it.

It was a lot to process, as I sat there in the media center on skype, knowing that the photographers sitting at the tables around me were listening to every word I said. I tried to speak softly not to disturb them, but I had to be loud enough for my dad to hear through the internet connection. The racket in the background made it even harder for me to wrap my head around what was going on.

Shortly after that I was in the media restaurant eating lunch (veal cheeks stewed in red wine; delicious, by the way; biathlon does some things very well, and feeding media for free is one of them) when an acquaintance I had met at last year’s championships approached me and sat down. He had been an athlete but retired at the end of Ruhpolding; he was now working as a commentator for Eurosport. The last night we were in Ruhpolding we had partied pretty hard together, along with the American team. He said something about that last night and I was incapable of responding. That’s just not where my head was. I must have looked like an idiot.

I didn’t want to impose on my friends that were racing, but I sent Susan an e-mail, and she was great. On Friday I spent the evening hanging out with her, Hannah, and Sara – all old teammates from Dartmouth who were racing. I’m not sure I was the most engaging person ever, but they were so great to entertain me and help make me feel better. Susan and I even ate dinner with Vincent Jay… I can’t believe that happened.

I’m now in transit back to the U.S. for my grandfather’s funeral, thinking about what to say at it. It was a strange last week, but besides the strangeness, maybe it was good that I was in Nove Mesto. After all, I did have friends there. For the women’s pursuit race, I went out on the course with Hannah to cheer and take pictures. Here’s her waving our beautiful flag as Susan races past – one of my favorite shots from the championships, even if it’s not the most clear or high-quality. I’m still figuring out how to shoot under the lights.

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This encompasses one of the amazing things about this trip. Hannah and I were talking about how amazing it is that we can send each other e-mails and say, hey, so I’ll see you in the Czech Republic, right? How often is it that friends with completely different lives can cross paths in such unusual locations? I got to see a new part of the world, and see my friends at the same time. It was Hannah’s first World Championships and it was cool to be there to watch. Her parents – friends and former “bosses” from my time at Craftsbury – were also there, as well as a friend and rower who is originally from the Czech Republic and sells their rowing oars there. Daniela took that top picture of our improbably little American cheering crew on Friday.

Between having my friends around and the amazing atmosphere of being in that stadium, it made everything else easier to deal with. When I got home at night, I’d think about Pete. But during the day, I was able to be off on an adventure. An awesome one.

uppland to oppland.

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My time in Uppsala came to an end in a whirlwind, but I compensated by taking the best vacation afterwards: heading to Lillehammer, Norway, to ski a lot and stay with my friend Erik Stange, who had been a TA in one of my biostatistics classes when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth and he was a PhD student.

The truth is that I never knew Erik all that well, but he seemed happy enough to pick me up at the train station at midnight and ferry me back to his family’s house. A former ski racer, much more successfully and long term than I was, he understood why someone would want to come visit, and has made his house open as a home base for other former Dartmouth skiers as well. As ski racers, we travel around and crash on people’s floors all the time; he’s returning the karmic favor. I can’t wait until I’m stable enough to do the same. (‘Yeah, you can come sleep on the floor of my 9-square-meter dorm room’ isn’t a particularly generous offer, but it’s all I’ve got right now.)

In the morning I met his wife, Emily, and daughter Greta. Growing up without any younger siblings, I was never much one for babysitting, but I had so much fun hanging out with Greta. So over the weekend we spent a lot of time around the house and out and about in Lillehammer. On Saturday, we went up to the Olympic trails and skied a little bit. In Norway daycare is partially subsidized by the government, and kids go to various “barnehagas” around town. Greta’s is right in the Birkebeiner stadium. We skied out to a little hut that the daycare owns and played in the woods for a while. Growing up in Norway must be a treat.

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Next I got to go for a ski on my own on the Olympic trails. I’d been here before: on two trips with my Ford Sayre club ski team, in high school and college, and maybe even in 1994. I remember skiing with my family and cousin when we were here for the Olympics, but I have no idea where we went.

The Olympic trails are really hard. After my ski marathon two weeks before, I hadn’t really done much in terms of exercise; at winter school I tromped around on my skis in the fields, and did one ski at Skyttorp with the UVK club. I found myself crawling around the 5 and 10 k courses, walking up the hills and stopping to catch my breath at the top. I’ve skied a few World Cup and World Championships courses now, but I have to say that the 5 k in Lillehammer must be one of the hardest. There were some truly giant, grinding climbs.

But as the afternoon wore on and the sun began to set, I would come upon scenes like this. It was great to be skiing, no matter how hard it was, and the picturesque tableaus of the Norwegian countryside made it even more worth it. DSCN0011

Sunday brought another fun day with the family. We went to Maihaugen, amazing sort of living museum in Lillehammer. In the 1880’s a dentist named Anders Sandvig saw that many of the farm buildings in the small towns he visited were being knocked down as farming became less of a focus. So he picked up some of them and moved them to this spot. Erik said that the number of buildings at Maihaugen is actually difficult to pin down, but there are houses, barns, churches, fishing shacks, and every type of structure you can imagine, all arranged into groups that you can go look at.

I know that my parents have a Maihaugen coffee-table book, so we probably went there in 1994. But I don’t remember it. Instead, I just enjoyed exploring and looking at all the cool old buildings.

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We marveled at what it would be like to tough out the Norwegian winter in one of these wooden buildings. Smoke would fill the central rooms; having enough food, grown in the short northern summer, would be a serious and worrying question every single winter. Lifespans were short, and probably not that happy in a lot of ways. Erik mused out loud: think how few generations ago that was. Our world has changed immensely.

But Greta was unconcerned with these deep philosophical questions. We were actually there to skate! Greta had never skated before; Erik had grown up in the midwest, playing pond hockey before he took up ski racing. I’m not much of a skater myself, but with the borrowed hockey skates, it was okay. We traipsed around a small pond, each holding one of Greta’s hands to keep her fuzzy side up. She seemed to have a blast, although a few times she insisted that we not squeeze her hands quite so hard. This led to an attempted explanation of the concept of tradeoffs: well, if we don’t hold your hand as tightly, you might actually fall down! A happy medium was struck.

Then, sledding and grilling sausages behind Hakon’s Hall, where I picked up my bib for the Birkebeiner back in 2006. A truly lovely weekend.

The next two days went by in a blur: Erik arranged for me to do some interviews with important race organizers in town, including the woman who runs a women’s-only race that sounds like so much fun that I will definitely have to do it sometime in the next few years.

My last afternoon, Erik played hooky from work and we went up to Sjusjoen, one of the best places in the world to ski, hands-down. High above Lillehammer, it is home to hundreds of kilometers of trails connecting various little hamlets – and plain wide-open vistas – by ski trail.

An earlier morning, Erik and I had skied up past the Olympic stadium towards the Nordseter ski center, where I remember skiing with Ford Sayre. It was beautiful, but I was walking up the huge climbs, shuffling along like the American that I am, embarrassed at what the Norwegians would think of my classic technique. Things just weren’t working for me. Erik took off, as he should have, and I wondered what he thought was wrong with me.

In Sjusjoen I was determined to keep up, and I did feel a lot better. Maybe I had better wax, but mostly I felt like I was getting my striding legs under me, skiing like a skier again. I guess four days was what it took to get my mojo back. As we adventured through the landscape, we were able to cruise easily up the long climbs, and I could chase him down the twists and turns on the other side. Every once in a while, I’d remember to stop and look at the views.

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There was one hiccup. We ended up in a slightly different place than expected, and had to ski seven more kilometers back to the car, part of which climbed over a little knob. By then I was toast, definitely bonking. Erik could tell I’m sure but I didn’t want to admit it.

At that point I knew it might be one of my last skis of the year: I was headed to places that didn’t look like Sjusjoen. At the time, I was so happy to be skiing on blue hardwax, just cruising around for kilometer after kilometer, that I didn’t mind that thought. A few days later I’m getting more disappointed – I want to be back skiing again. I know that repeating the amazing days in Lillehammer is a bit much to ask, but I’d take any trails, anywhere, just to get back on my skis.

It’s a problem with my current situation. Uppsala was great, and I’m sure Montpellier will be too, but Montpellier has no snow. Why did I think that was a good idea? Skiing is part of my identity that I will never be able to give up.

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That’s one reason it was so cool to stay with the Stanges in Lillehammer. Erik told me time after time that doing his PhD was not fun, maybe not the right move for him, and that I should consider the decision very carefully if I think I might embark on one. I appreciated the advice, a lot – most people aren’t so honest about the challenges of academia. There’s a reason I’m doing a masters now, not a PhD right away, and it has to do with all the things he said. But it’s a hard thing to admit when you’re in a program – everyone else is focused on getting the next PhD, the next postdoc, the next professorship. To say that you’re not interested in all that, or even that you’re just not sure that you’re interested in all that, well, they look at you a little funny. They maybe respect you a little less.

But despite all of his reservations, Erik has worked out a seemingly perfect life in Lillehammer. He was lucky to get a job with a research institute there, and he can do his work, raise his family (in Norway, which as I said above is a great place to raise a family), and ski his face off, or at least he could if he wasn’t so busy raising Greta and remodeling the house that he and Emily bought. Things haven’t gone completely smoothly: Emily is having trouble getting her midwife experience accredited so that she can work in Norway. But the rest seems to be good enough that, well, they bought the house.

Being let into their life for a week was just so fun. I immediately felt at home and had a great time hanging out. I could talk about biology, about skiing, about hopes and dreams for the future. One night the three of us watched the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, admitting that it was the main way we got our news of home; at lunch Emily and I listened to an independent radio station from the Twin Cities, laughing as we listened to a weather forecast that would never affect us. And I could hang out with Greta. I hoped that a little free babysitting would pay for the time I spent imposing on their family, and I hope I’ll get the chance to come back and visit again.