different lifestyles.

opener

We had a three day weekend for Easter. We went to Monte Carlo.

Okay, that’s not quite right. We went to Nice for the three-day weekend and one day we went to Monte Carlo. Let’s be clear: we can’t afford to stay in Monte Carlo. Nor, really, even eat dinner there.

I contemplated not even writing about this trip. I don’t know what to say about it – I went with my classmates and we had a good time.

But the juxtapositioning to my previous trip bears noting. I almost considered not going to Nice; I didn’t know much about it, but traveling to see a city just because it’s a city that people go see isn’t really my style. I didn’t come to France with a list of things to see, cities to visit, checklists of things you’re supposed to do when you’re in France. I had some ideas, but Nice wasn’t one of them (and Monte Carlo certainly wasn’t).

It would be so nice to travel with company though, with my classmates who I love. What was I going to do otherwise? Stay in Montpellier, the city that makes me un peu malheureuse? Duh. I was going. (This was confirmed as a good decision when, two days before we left, my friends were talking to our buddy Reto, a Swiss guy who had also done an exchange semester in Sweden, and he looked up tickets and decided on the spot to fly to Nice and meet us for the weekend. If I had missed that, it would have been terrible and embarrassing.)

When we arrived we wandered the city streets and eventually found a Lebanese restaurant that served up a mean Moussaka. We spent the rest of the afternoon walking around, to the beach and boardwalk, up to a park overlooking the city. We soaked in the sights and it was great. So fun to be done with classes – we had finished the day before, and this was a celebration. We soaked in the atmosphere of no responsibility.

The next day, Monte Carlo. As we walked out of the station, the sun on the Côte d’Azur was so bright we could hardly see the paradise around us.

station

We wandered down the streets of this immaculately planned and landscaped city, seeking the water. There’s not much space; tall luxury apartment buildings swooped skyward, roads slithered underneath. Monte Carlo is built onto  steep slope that tumbles down to the sea; sometimes you don’t realize how tall the buildings are because you don’t know that you’re not staring at the window on the ground floor.

gardenIt was almost silent; when you have your own personal chef and house staff, why would you leave your condo at nine in the morning? You’d sit on your balcony or open the windows of your bedroom and admire the weather, the blue that seems to reflect off of everything. Or you could go up to your rooftop garden, lush and green from all the photosynthesis of the Mediterannean spring. And soak in the quiet, the calm of cars worth hundreds of thousands of dollars not yet plying the streets.

I don’t know who cleans Monte Carlo, or when, but by morning, it is immaculate. In so many ways a very unnatural place; as biologists we should have been appalled. But it didn’t feel sterile. It was nice to see a street with no trash, to not have to worry about stepping in all of the dogshit you find in France itself. There were flower beds everywhere, of course blooming. It smelled like flowers. This must be science fiction.

We found a playground. This was an affordable way to enjoy the city.

playground

As we walked down the last street towards the port, I saw bikes flash past. My first thought was, man, if I was rich enough to live here I would buy the fanciest frickin’ road bike you’ve ever seen, and I would be so fit and and have a great time. Then my second thought was, wait a minute, that was a lot of bikes going really fast. I think there’s a bike race!

There was!

bike race

bike 2

This was paradise, I thought.

This surprising development was enough to convince even my classmates to stand in the sun and watch for a little while as the jerseyed riders streaked past luxury yachts. I explained how a criterium worked. It turned out to be a disappointingly lame crit: just a one-kilometer loop with two turns. But they were steep enough to bunch the field up nicely. Still, even just a few laps in, there were groups separated by almost half the length of the course.

You can only watch bicycles race around in loops for so long, so we began to wander down the port itself, looking at all the fancy boats. We laughed at their names, imagined what the owners had done to get all their money, and joked about what we would do if we were lucky enough to own one of those boats. I tried not to imagine how much it must cost to have a slip in the port of Monte Carlo.

After a rainy previous day in Nice, it was enough for us just to take in the sun. I hoped I wasn’t getting sunburned.

boats  blue water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

port

We spent the rest of our time walking around, buying an overpriced and honestly not that good lunch (should have just sucked it up and payed a truly exorbitant amount for something good – if you’re buying lunch for a reasonable price here, they know you’re not their core customers…), and walking around some more. It was lovely.

As was the rest of the trip when we returned to Nice. I try to have a structure in my life: wake up in the morning, run, go to work, come home, answer e-mails or work for FasterSkier, make dinner, keep working, read something before bed. There’s little downtime, it’s always on to the next task. Now that I’m training for a marathon there’s an extra layer of control, even for me: you have to run at least this far, you have to not eat too much, you have to remember to sleep. To get away from that all for a weekend was liberating in a different way than going on a ski trip. There’s two kinds of vacations and both are very necessary! I felt guilty when I came home; over three days I had only run once. Unacceptable. But the standards I set for myself can be high. This weekend I was a normal person. And I know I will go back to being me, so it was fine.

It was more than fine. It was great. It was the Côte d’Azur, and I’m definitely coming back for another vacation later in life. The blueness of the sea, the tropical trees, everything. Delightful.

japanese garden

casino

plants

Now imagine racing around this corner in an F1 car:

F1

Bureaucra-see?

immigrant

This is what an immigrant looks like.

I think I look pretty normal. And I’m not sure why you wouldn’t want me in your country. I mean, I know I’m a little biased, but I’m a university graduate, working on an advanced degree, got my visa aboveboard, had it with me when I entered the country… I’m not sure why I should feel unwelcome.

And I can only imagine how fun it would be to try to enter France some other way, for example, illegally. And then try to stay. Montpellier is in the poorest region of France, which is certainly not unrelated to its position on the Mediterranean coast: there are lots of immigrants pouring into these ports, and France does not welcome them or integrate them at all. I recently read a great essay comparing these cities’ economic woes, unfavorably, to those of America’s rust belt. There’s imigrants, and poor, and homeless, and addicted – and by appearances, nobody does much about it.

Because you know who are an immigrant’s worst enemies? Liberté, egalité, and fraternité, that’s who. I’m afraid the venerable trio may have fallen a bit from their ideals.

I have to say, happily, that I am finally a legal resident in France. Six and a half weeks after arriving here, visa in hand,  I finally have a sheet of paper that says I’m allowed to stay. And for me, it was easy. I shouldn’t even be allowed to complain. But the number of appointments, paperwork, exams, trivialities… I would say it’s mind-blowing, but people do tell you that France is a bureaucracy that fuels its own appetites for paper (another great post: David Lebovitz’s, here). It’s true. I felt like France found a way to marginalize me, a relatively affluent white American.

It actually began way back in the fall, with the Visa Saga. I’ll gloss over the visa part, except to say that it lasted until the end of January, involving three separate trips to the French embassy in Stockholm, a lot of e-mails and phone calls and hair-pulling-out, and my consideration of either dropping out of my masters program or spending the spring semester in Munich just so I wouldn’t have to deal with France.

Think about that for a second. I was so dejected by French policy and bureaucracy that I thought the rules would be easier to follow in Germany.

Finally, the very day I left Sweden, I got my passport with my visa in it. Woohoo, I thought! Wait, not so fast.

I was legal to travel and arrive in France but, it turns out, not to stay. For that, you have to get a whole different “stamp” from the immigration office, OFII – it’s really the same thing as your visa, but from a different agency. The embassy in Stockholm gave us a piece of paper that we had to take to France and give OFII. If we lost it? Tough luck. You don’t get another one, your visa does nothing to vouch for you, you don’t get your residence permit.

I didn’t lose it.

So upon arriving, I copied my passport with the visa and the entry stamp from customs and brought it to OFII. A few days later I got a letter: my medical appointment would be at 8:30 a.m. on March 28th, and my interview at 9 a.m. The fact that I had two different obligations was immediately intimidating. Then there was, too, the fact that we didn’t get to have any say in the time – I had three free half-days from class that week, and Wednesday morning was not one of them, but too bad.

Min Ya and Berenice also had the same appointment. We told our professor: we have this silly OFII thing at 8:30, sorry, we’ll miss the first part of class. But we’ll be there by the first break!

He looked at us like we were crazy.

“Well, I don’t know how they do things here in Montpellier, but I know that in other places those immigration things take a really long time. Maybe we’ll see you in the afternoon, or who knows, it might take all day.”

What!?

Still, I was cocky and unconcerned. Although multiple signs should have warned me, I was so confident that this would be a brief formality that I didn’t eat breakfast. I had this plan: I’d go, fly through the appointments, and then come home and do some chores before going to class, since my professor was so sure I’d miss the whole morning anyway – why not take advantage of it?

When we walked into the lobby of the OFII building, there were already at least ten people there. The office is on the first floor (or, what we could call the second floor in America) and they don’t turn the elevator on until just after 8:30. The doors to the stairs are locked and can only be opened with a keycode (apparently the same on the way down, too – hope there’s never a fire!). So we all milled about in the lobby waiting for the elevator to start working. 8:30 came and went.

Eventually, we made it up to the office itself, where a bunch of us sat in the lobby waiting. We checked in at the desk, and then nothing happened. I first really realized that this was going to take a while due to the sheer number of people: we had obviously all been given 8:30 “appointments”, but what that really meant was, sometime today. There was no such thing as an “appointment.”

By nine, I had seen the first of the doctors, who asked me my height and weight and to read the top line of an eye chart, paying no attention as I did. I guess that was just screening, because I returned to my chair in the lobby. We all did: maybe fifteen people saw this woman, then sat back down. There were several more steps in the medical process, but the next examiners were apparently not at work yet.

Or perhaps it just took a long time to set up the x-ray, which is how they screen for TB. One by one, again, we were called in; we had to strip off our shirts and breath in as we smashed our chests up against an x-ray machine, then wait for the technician to produce the x-ray itself. It seems improbable that this is the cheapest way to test for TB, but what do I know. I got a free x-ray out of it. I’m thinking of hanging it in my window. What startled me more was the demand that we just strip down. No hospital gowns here; take your shirt and bra off, miss. In French.

The other thing that seemed incredible was the timing. Okay, so they don’t want dirty immigrants bringing TB into France. I get it. But if they were so worried, wouldn’t they call us in immediately? If I did have some dread disease, I had been living and breathing on the earnest and hapless French citizens for more than a month and a half. If you’re going to make me undress to protect everyone’s health, at least try to make it seem like you’re doing a good job with your public health program.

At the end of the x-ray assault, I at least got to go to a different waiting area – where I joined all of the people who had x-rayed ahead of me. We still needed to see one more doctor, but she wasn’t in her office yet. So we waited. Gradually, everyone who had initially been in the reception area was in this new area, and nobody had yet seen the last doctor. There weren’t enough seats for all of us.

The last doctor asked us me if I was on any medications or had been to the hospital recently. Did I smoke? Use contraceptives? I thought – who the hell cares? I’m pretty sure they couldn’t have kicked me out of the country for smoking, since the French themselves smoke like chimneys. So what’s the point of asking? There’s now a paper somewhere, that nobody will ever look at, saying that I don’t smoke or take any medications. And that paper belongs not to some health care service, but to Immigration.

Over an hour and a half after I was supposed to have my “interview”, I finally got called into the last office I’d see in that building – to a woman who did not speak anything other than French. I pulled out my passport, and she asked to see the letter I had received in the mail from OFII.

“Et les timbres?” she asked.

“Quoi?”

“Les timbres. Vous avez les timbres?”

“Les…. Repetez, s’il vous plait?”

She was becoming exasperated.

“Vous devez payer, les 58 euros.”

Yes, yes: this I knew. To get a student visa to France, it costs 99 Euros. As Erasmus Mundus scholarship recipients, this fee was waived – thanks, Embassy of France. But OFII was not so kind. There’s also an immigration “tax”, which for students in 58 Euros. And this was not waived. We had to pay to live here.

I pulled out the receipt from the Embassy stating that I owed only 58 Euros.

“Ah, celui-ci,” I said. “J’ai de l’argent.”

“Non. Vous avez besoin de timbres.”

Now I was really confused. She kicked me out of her office, saying that I could buy the stamps – that’s what “timbres” are – at a Tabac. I held a counsel with Min Ya and Berenice. Did they have stamps? No, they did not. Did they know what the stamps were? No, they did not. That made zero of us that had any idea what the hell was going on. Luckily, another poor battered immigrant waiting began to explain to us that the only way you could pay was with pre-bought stamps. He had bought his online and showed us a printout, stating that he had paid 58 Euros. That wasn’t an option for us, since we didn’t have a computer or a printer. We went in search of a Tabac, having still no idea what we were actually looking for.

It was raining, also. As we tromped through the rain and past the hobos, I was getting more and more furious. Why was the stupid OFII letter only in France, and why did it not explain where you buy these special Timbres? As we left on our quest, we saw another girl get up and leave, too. She had been listening and didn’t have any Timbres either.

The first Tabac did not help.

“Bonjour,” I said. “Est-ce que vous avez des timbres pour payer les….. choses officiels?”

“Rien,” the guy replied.

Right. They sell them at all the Tabacs.

So we tromped and splashed down another street, found another Tabac, and bought our damn timbres. They are just like stamps for letters – they might even be stamps for letters. In order to stick them to a piece of paper, you lick the back. We turned over our change, got our tiny stamps, and headed back to OFII. The lady mocked us when we arrived. I directed mental thunderstorms her way all afternoon.

Luckily, I had everything else I needed: an ID photo, a signed and stamped attestation from my dormitory that I lived there. Smooth sailing. She put the residence permit in my passport, and, x-ray in hand, I was free to go!

Just in time for lunch. By which I mean, my first meal of the day. And then, afternoon class.

For me, the paperwork is far from over – I still have to make my research at the university official. But at least I can’t get kicked out of the country. I’m allowed to live here. What a long, strange journey it has been. Welcome?

voyage aux alpes.

DSCN1209

A few days ago I saw an opportunity: a Monday morning with no class. That meant a weekend a few hours longer. This could not go to waste and on the spur of the moment I bought a train ticket for Grenoble, booked a hotel, and got my skis down from their dusty perch atop my closet.

This is the beauty of your 20’s, I’ve said again and again: you can get up and go. You have work or school, but no house, no husband or kids, no pets that need to be fed, no garden that needs to be watered.

My approach to travel has certainly changed a bit since beginning grad school, though. Now I spend the time to search out a deal at a fancy hotel, and it’s totally worth it because the craphole of a dormitory that you are stuck in is so miserable. Even if time is money, it’s reasonable to spend some making sure that you’ll have a big bed and a nice shower (the benefit of traveling at the last minute is that even if I’m cheap, I’m a better guest than having an empty hotel room). These are things that do not exist at CROUS Montpellier. Even in Sweden, I used to simply look for the cheapest hostel or a floor to crash on: better to spend the money on many trips that cost practically nothing. Now, with a little bit more cash spent, I can enjoy comfort that I never, ever find in my daily life.

(To my classmates who say that everything is too expensive: I suggest a job. I have one and I haven’t died yet or failed out of school, and even the tiniest bit of extra money every month makes a big difference in how you’re able to spend your time.)

And so on Saturday I found myself at a hotel in Grenoble, with a shower that poured water out of a foot-squared matrix of spouts like a rainstorm. I sat under the hot water for 20 minutes, soaking up the chance to be in a shower where you don’t have to hit the button every 15 seconds to restart the water. There’s plenty of water here.

The plan had been to ski, but that first day it hadn’t worked out with the buses, so I ran up and up and up into the hills above town, first past the views of the city – which says it is the second-largest economy in France – flanked by Alps, and then into the hill farms, no city in sight. My calves ached, my knees twinged on the way down, my feet slapped. I collapsed into my huge bed that night.

Come Sunday, I finally boarded the bus to Autrans. It was raining and gray. In the city, there was no snow to be seen anywhere. As we rounded one hairpin turn after another, cutting through gorges and across cliff faces, there was still no snow. I got more and more nervous.

About ten minutes before arriving at the small town that hosted the cross country ski races at the 1968 Olympics, I began to see snow through the fog. But it was still raining. It was 9:30 and the bus home didn’t leave until 5:30. I wasn’t sure how I was going to occupy myself all day in the rain.

After walking to the nordic center, I timidly approached the ticket booth.

«Je veux skier, même s’il ne fait pas si beau» I said, doubtfully.

«La neige est bonne» the woman replied. «C’est meilleur que s’il faisait chaud…»

I thought to myself, of course she’s saying that. She’s just trying to sell tickets and convince people that it isn’t completely disgusting outside. That’s her job.

When I finally stepped into my skis and took the first few strides, though, I saw she was right. They had groomed that morning and the corduroy – barely skied on because the weather had turned most people away – was surprisingly fast. It felt more icy than waterlogged, and didn’t have the cementy-potatoes feel that I had been dreading. Okay, maybe this was going to be fine.

Just as I had on my run the day before, I climbed up and up and up to start. Knowing that I had almost 2000 feet to ski up into the Alps if I really wanted to try the whole trail system, I paced myself. But the skis slid easily, and my body worked better than I had expected after the hard run the day before, and after a month of not skiing.

I eventually reached the upper trail center of Gève, where it wasn’t raining anymore. Half my climbing was complete. Onward I skated, onto a trail called “Panoramique.” Not so much today, but it would take me up to the ridge and around a snaking bowl that, I am sure, would have had lovely views if it hadn’t been fogged in. Every once in a while things would clear for a moment and in just one direction I would glimpse a few ragged peaks before they disappeared back into the fog.

After two hours of skiing and some hard climbs, I reached La Quoi. But things weren’t over yet. Up here, it hadn’t been groomed, and the skiing was slower; it was also snowing. But there was a loop of maybe eight or nine more kilometers along the ridge, which dropped down to a refuge before climbing up through a steep meadow to rejoin the trail and head home. At the refuge I bought a lunch of ravioli and cured ham, plus an entire pot of Russian Earl Grey.

Back on my skis, it was cold. The next few kilometers alternated between rain and snow. I had expected to feel better after lunch, but I had been skiing for almost three hours already and I did not feel better at all, at least not at first. I began to wonder if I had made a huge mistake: the weather was terrible, and here I was, 15 or 20 kilometers from the touring center, cold and tired. I could die out here!

That was a little bit melodramatic. Yes, climbing was hard, but as soon as I got on more gradual terrain, it was so easy to be on skis, gliding along, even in the slow mush. At one point, feeling cold, I decided to sprint up a hill to try to get the blood going. Much to my surprise, after a long ski and months of no speedwork, I fell into the easy rhythm of attacking and reached the top of the hill warm.

It was an exhilarating feeling: I’ve still got this. Against all odds, I’m still a skier.

And as I began my descent of the Alps, cruising around corners and gleefully picking the best lines, popping up and over the hills with my momentum and a few quick hop skates carrying my speed, I thought: I’ll always be a skier.

Maybe it’s not so different than the joy I found in Font Romeu a few weeks ago. But for one thing, I’m in better shape now. Trails or no trails, two weeks ago I decided that I would be damned if I sat on my ass all day and signed up for a marathon to kickstart a running routine. I have incentive to go run, even if I don’t like the places I’m running. After two 30-mile weeks and a crash diet, I felt fit (fitter; hills still kick my ass). I swear I felt lighter and stronger than I had in Font Romeu. Skiing for hours was hard, but not as hard as it had been then.

For another thing, my entry to Montpellier had been confusing, more confusing as time went by. I found myself in a city unlike anywhere I had ever lived. Not a city to be a sportswoman. There’s a lot of pavement and cars that pay no attention to pedestrians or cyclists. In the first few days I thought, well, I just haven’t found the good part yet. But as the weeks wore on, it seemed more and more impossible that my kind of city even existed within anywhere in Montpellier.

Here, there’s no ski club for me to embed into, nobody to tell me the secrets to happiness. Some of my classmates have made new friends here, outside our program. I’m jealous. They have people who share their interests and their cultural backgrounds, people to cook Chinese food with or talk in Spanish. How did they do it? Where are the people like me? I glimpse them every once in a while, but I can’t truly find them.

Hence, running in yucky places, on the hot pavement, dodging ubiquitous dogshit that covers the sidewalks.

It’s not that I’m not having fun – it was nice to have so many options for what to do at night, pubs and restaurants and classmates who I love. We have a good time. In the last few weeks it has seemed so impossible to have the kind of life that I’m used to that I thought, well, maybe I just resign myself to this semester being different, because this isn’t miserable.

Back in the States, my friends are all multitaskers. They are professional skiers who paint amazing pictures in their spare time (look at Hannah’s website!); scientists who get out every weekend to kayak or rock climb or mountain bike; professors who rip turns on their tele skis at every chance; adults with full-time jobs who nonetheless donate their free time to coaching kids. They hike the mountains, play Frisbee, farm. Doing one thing never means that they can’t also do something else.

That’s how I lived too, but it’s foreign here. Sure, people have interests – drinking, watching movies or sports, eating, (occasionally when the weather is good) being a tourist, talking to their boyfriend or girlfriend on the phone. These interests prevent many further trips and adventures. It’s “normal” that these simple things are all a student has time, or desire, for. Being a student is apparently very limiting.

School had never defined me before, but I was ready to let it. Maybe this was my new life, the kind of friends I would always have. Maybe my old life was over; maybe this was growing up. Had my friends at home just not grown up yet? Or was following several passions a uniquely American trait? This wasn’t so bad, after all. We won a bottle of vodka in that pub quiz. In a few years, I’d be married to another scientist, doing research somewhere as part of a PhD.

As I skied back down to Autrans, I rejected that completely. Not a single person I know in Montpellier knows or understands the joy that I get from being on snow, or how having skis attached to your feet is easier and more natural to me than running. They are my good friends and always will be, but they can’t be my only friends. Just as a few of them have found people outside of our program, I need that, too.

To come back and not be able to even convey this feeling I had on my skis was just wrong. To not be able to share this trip with anyone was disappointing. I have no problem traveling alone – I find it much more agreeable than most people probably do, and it’s relaxing to be able to decompress and just not talk – but there’s an undeniable yearning to have someone to experience these new places with. I wish I could have turned to someone as I sped through the trees and said, “isn’t this awesome?”

But nobody was there.

If I can survive this semester, I’ll find them again. If I marry another scientist, he’ll be one who climbs mountains or ride bikes or does something – anything – in the outside that I love so much. Maybe he’ll fish or hunt, or watch birds or dabble in nature photography. Maybe he won’t be a scientist at all. Maybe I won’t get married at all! But in the next months, I will find some friends who won’t pass off my trips as that unfamiliar, but cool, I guess, thing Chelsea does because it makes her happy.

Sitting on the train back to Montpellier, my legs ache. That’s my souvenir from the weekend – that and the reminder to keep being myself, that my people are out there and sometime soon I’ll find them. Until then, I’ll keep running and enjoy the nights out at the pub. Just not every night.

le vol du train jaune.

curve bridge

Skiing was not the only highlight of my trip to Font Romeu. There was also a train: Le Train Jaune, to be exact, a small old-fashioned train that feels like the Wild West and takes you through the valleys and up into the mountains, clinging to steep cliffs as it goes.

I had seen a brochure advertising this train in the station when we went to Carcassonne, and that’s actually what gave me the idea to go skiing in the first place. On the cover it loudly proclaimed: “Une autre façon de découvrir la montagne!” Huh, I thought. The train goes straight to the snow. Sweet deal.

So I tried to buy a ticket. Apparently this train is not all that popular, because the woman behind the counter had a very difficult time binning it together with the tickets to get to where the train leaves from… that should have been my first clue. (Don’t worry, in the end it worked out fine and I loved the train!)

On Friday when I left, I hopped on the regional train in sunny Montpellier with my skis, feeling silly because of the disconnect in seasons. I got to Perpignan, where I was supposed to connect to another train, but that train was canceled. I didn’t have time to ask why as I sprinted out to the “gare routiere” or bus station, where they had arranged a bus to take us to our destination. It’s a lot less efficient to take a bus that stops at each train station – you have to navigate multiple roads, intersections, villages with tiny streets where I swear we had only an inch on either side of the bus and I was worried we might crush parked cars. I worried that we wouldn’t get to Villefranche in time for me to make my connection to Le Train Jaune.

We finally made it. After dropping off everyone else, there were just eight of us left going to Villefranche, a small town already far up into the valley. It turns out that only two trains go to Villefranche: one from Perpignan, and Le Train Jaune. And here I discovered why our last train had been canceled. Snow. Le Train Jaune was not running. I began to wonder if I had made a horrible, terrible mistake.

After waiting in the station for an hour or so – and we were already quite late when we arrived – they finally arranged a bus for us.

bus

I had originally planned to ski that afternoon – it is why I skipped class that morning instead of simply traveling later in the day – but with all of the delays it had become impossible. And as we climbed over the passes and up and up and up in elevation, things got slower. With all of the snow on the road, cars had to stop and put on chains. But there was nowhere to pull over to do so, so people would just stop in the middle of the road and chain up. There was also no room to pass, so we sat at a standstill for ten or fifteen minute stretches at time. Finally, we got to the point where everyone had chained up or turned around, and things began to move faster. Our bus driver was aggressive. I tried not to be scared.

Font Romeu station on the return trip... when I arrived the first night, it was dark, cold, locked, and snowing.

Font Romeu station on the return trip… when I arrived the first night, it was dark, cold, locked, and snowing.

When we arrived at the train station in Font Romeu, it was closed, since we hadn’t arrived on the last train but instead long after it. That presented a problem, because it’s four kilometers straight uphill to get to the actual town. I had asked my hotel what the best way to get there was, and they said, “there will be taxis.” Well, there were no taxis. Everyone else who lived there quickly talked among themselves and arranged carpools with each other, and left.

That left me and one other girl, who turned out to be from Quebec. There was a taxi number posted on the side of the building, but when I called it, it was a wrong number. She said she was waiting for a friend – well actually, a friend of a friend, someone she had never met – to pick her up, and she’d ask if I could get a ride too.

The funniest thing about this was that she hadn’t had a phone that worked in Europe, so she had borrowed one from another woman on the bus to call her ride. But while she was talking, the woman got in a car with another passenger and drove off! So we were left in the cold, outside of the locked train station, with a random women’s iPhone.

Luckily, the friend of a friend, who turned out to be Scottish, agreed to give me a ride. Thank God. When I left, the girl from Quebec still had the iPhone, and wasn’t quite sure what to do with it – there had been at least fifteen minutes before we got picked up, and the woman apparently hadn’t realized that she didn’t have her phone….

So that was Le Train Jaune part 1.

I was understandably concerned when it was time to leave Font Romeu that maybe there would be a repeat of this situation. But there wasn’t – it was a beautiful warm sunny day and things were running right on time. I took a taxi down to the train station and basked in the sun for 20 minutes waiting for our chariot to arrive.

station

train jaune

And it turn out to be absolutely as fun and beautiful as I had imagined. The train tracks went places that roads did not: hugging the sides of steep valleys, traversing huge bridges across canyons, offering glimpses up other side valleys towards unidentified snowy peaks. The people on the train ranged from babies to octogenarians, and we all oohed and aahed along together. At one point or another everybody stood up and pointed their cameras out the window. Even the teenager who made sure to sit in a seat separate from his family.

interiorIn particular I watched a girl, maybe five years old, who was traveling with two older women – I imagined them being her two grandmothers, or maybe a grandmother and a great aunt, or something like that. First the child stared at my long ski bag and her grandmother asked me what they were. “Les skis de fond,” I said. The girl looked confused. Her grandmother then described how you don’t always ski downhill, sometimes you have other skis, and you can go uphill, downhill, wherever you want! The girl was delighted.

But more than eavesdropping, I just watched how they interacted. The grandmothers had little napkin-wrapped items of food that they pulled out of their bags, cookies and apples, and a thermos full of hot tea which they poured out into little mugs. As we passed by different views, they would point out things to their granddaughter: do you see the animal tracks? Look what those people are doing! They seemed to be enjoying it every bit as much as she was.

It reminded me of what it would have been like to travel with my grandmother McIntyre, right down to their warm but well-worn jackets and sensible pants. My grandmother loved speaking French and I think of her often when I’m here, whether it’s wandering in the market or walking to school. I once went with her to Quebec, but how wonderful would it have been to go to France? We are so lucky to have grandmothers.

scenery 4When I wasn’t thinking about that, I was looking around. There were traces of people everywhere, even though the slopes were steep and rocky and I can’t imagine how they would support much of a population. I wondered: what did people do here, for thousands of years? You could see the forms of old roads leading off into the woods, or stone walls delineating – what? At one point I saw that some areas had been terraced, with stone retaining walls holding back each layer of soil. In one place, someone had begun to restore the terraces and planted an orchard. This would be a hard place to farm, much harder than any hill farm in New England. The land is practically vertical, and so many rocks.

Of course, the rocks are useful too. On the seemingly most improbable of ridges, even up on some small peaks, you could see defenses or, more likely, a church. They were made out of the hillside themselves, blending in with the rocks that were harvested to build them.

Or sometimes you’d come across a village deep in the valley, the crook between two slopes. Perpetually shaded from the sun, it seemed – but also protected from the wind and elements, and with easy access to the water that flowed out of the mountains.

Again, I tried to imagine. There had clearly been civilization here for years and years, networks of connected villages and farms and churches. It seemed like such a hard place to make a living, and yet rewarding, apparently, too. What was it that made it inhabitable, besides the beautiful scenery and the summer sun?

When we reached Villefranche – which is amazing, by the way, I hadn’t seen much the first night but it turns out to be an old fortified city with walls and towers and ramparts… what? – I had to get back on a normal train and go back to normal life. But I was left with some photos of the beautiful scenery from Le Train Jaune – a great way to travel, as long as it’s not snowing.

scenery 1

scenery 2

scenery 3

valley village

skiing in fourcade’s hometown.

I can understand if you think that all I do is go on vacation.

But let me assure you: it doesn’t feel that way. After only a week of statistics class, I feel about as far from a vacation as someone can get. Greek letters for sums and products, derivatives and coefficients, dance before my eyes; my waking hours are spent thinking about residuals, deviances, normality, likelihoods. I can assure you, it is no picnic.

And so last weekend, despite the strong protestations of our professor, I took off on Friday to spend the weekend in the Pyrenees. After all, they’re only a couple of hours away. Oh, happy, happy day.

panorama2(Click to enlarge, I think.)

I left Sjusjøen, Norway, a month ago, thinking that I’d had my last ski of the year. I tried to hard to make myself be satisfied with that concept. It had been a really great ski – shouldn’t that be sufficient? Now it would be back to work, I’d have a whole new city to explore on foot, even if there wasn’t any snow.

But while Montpellier is great for many things, I don’t even like running here. There’s no green space, no anything – just narrow sidewalks carpeted in dog shit, cars that drive too fast and don’t like to stop for pedestrians, and too many intersections to have to stop at. It’s a lovely place to be a person, and a terrible place to want to exercise. I needed the mountain air (even if it wasn’t for exercise). I escaped.

I woke up on Saturday morning to bright, bright sunlight streaming through the window of my little hotel room in Font Romeu, and immediately set about procuring breakfast: pastry, of course, and some fresh yogurt. Then, up the gondola to the ski area. Yes, that’s right. If you don’t have a car, you can take the gondola from the center of town and it’s a ten-minute ride to the base lodge. Even with your cross country skis. As the valley falls away behind you, there are some quite nice views.

gondola

The cross country trails don’t actually start at the base, but above it. So I corked in some VR50 kickwax – it was warm, but the snow was still cold – and started making my way up a wide trail groomed with corduroy but meant for walking on. Strangely, walking is something you do at resorts here – trails lead to refuges and vistas up on the ridges, and are groomed every night. I took one of these to the La Calme lodge, where I got my first look at some classic tracks. They were beauties.

I spent most of Saturday skiing around on the right side of the mountain. A trail named after Martin Fourcade climbed up to the ridge of the Col Rouge, crossing a major downhill-skier thoroughfare on the way; after that I dropped into the woods and wound back and forth, but mostly up, through the trees until I popped out near the top. I climbed a gradual grade separated off by snowfence from the alpine trails and was soon at the very highest point in the whole resort. One lift dropped off one side of the peak, another of the other. Skiers were unloading from both and I felt very out of place on my skinny skis.

left  right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had to check my map to be sure what to do, but just as I thought, I skied though the melee and in between the two lift lines, before dropping down out of site on a trail made just for me. Ha! It was quiet, beautiful, and all those people probably didn’t even know that there was a mirror trail system, a sort of alternate universe, to explore just beside their own.

fond

I skied another big loop, with glimpses of tall ridges peeking through the trees. It was a glorious day, incredibly sunny and with a gentle breeze to cool you off. My skis started slipping and I had to put on some warmer hardwax, which then of course started sticking in the shady sections. No matter: I really didn’t care. The skiing was lovely and I managed to go for three hours despite the fact that, as I said, I haven’t been getting any exercise. My hip flexors were protesting loudly by the time I was done.

And – to decide you are going home is definitely a treat. Think about it: you’re at the height of the resort, and you just get to go downhill, on trails that are built for cross country skis. All of my training on the S-Turns at Oak Hill came in handy as I flew down the mountain. I think I was having as much fun, and probably going as fast, as the tourists on their alpine skis. When I got back to La Calme I was so exhilirated that I (slowly) climbed back up the Martin Fourcade trail a few more times, just so I could have the rush of zipping around the corners again.

Although I had to spend the afternoon working on school and other things, I did get to relax and explore the town a little bit. It’s a fairly old place for people to come to enjoy the mountains, and gave me an idea of what a traditional European winter getaway is. The streets were windy as the town is perched on the side of the hill, and they were also decorated. I found a nice spot to get a coffee and enjoy the sunset.

sunset 1

sunset 2

sunset 3

Can you tell? So much sun. I’m peeling now, and for two days after I got back to school I still had a serious sunburn. My friends made fun of me, but to me, it’s worth it: why the horror at a sunburn? Okay, so I’m going to get cancer, but it means I was outside, enjoying life. If you live in fear of sunburn, if you find it incomprehensible that someone would come back from the weekend with a sunburn, then… you’re missing out.

On Sunday I explored the other side of the trail system. I’d seen on the map a long 11-k loop, and wanted to check it out. That required going to the other side of the La Calme base and checking into a separate set of trails (they connected high on the ridge). To my surprise and delight, this set of trails was completely different than what I had skied before. It was like someone had built two separate resorts. Instead of climbing through the trees, I sailed through huge open vistas with incredible views of the mountains on all sides.

Just a few kilometers into my ski, in short sleeves and skate skis, I raised my arms above my head as I flew through the fields and laughed out loud. This was life. I was free.

That sounds corny, but seriously, that was what was passing through my head. I felt alive. I felt like there was nothing better, in the whole world, than being here on this snow in this sun. If the world could stop and I could relive this day over and over, I would not have complained.

mauroux

I skied a couple of laps of this big loop, adding on some smaller ones that I had to check out at the top and at the base. But the feeling was the same. Even when my legs got tired, when it felt like the muscles in my calves were disintegrating and cannibalizing themselves as I pushed up the hills, even when the wind coming across the top of a ridge made it feel like, in my feeble state, I wasn’t going anywhere – I kept skiing. There was always the next spot of sunny snow around the corner, the next downhill to rest on, the next incredible view that I knew was coming up.

At one point there was a small sign that pointed to “Pic de Mauroux, 0.4 k”. Curious, I skied about 200 meters up a hill before dirt began to intrude into the trail. I took my skis off and kept walking, and soon found myself on top of a “pic”: it wasn’t anything incredible, except that, at the edge of the plateau, the valley dropped off and the views were, once again, beyond pretty. It was strange to be on a snowless hill after skiing all day, but I sat in the sun for a moment and took it all in.

panorama1Another place to recover was a small “refuge”, a stone building with a fireplace inside and a deck and picnic tables outside. Every morning the man who ran the place would head up the mountain on his snowmobile, carrying some supplies for the day. You’d be skiing and come around a corner, in the woods feeling like you were far from everything, and there it would be, tourers sitting at picnic tables and laughing over their soup or omelette. For me, I just got a cup of tea, and sat out in the sun. People come and go, with kids or dogs, wives or parents, and it turns an afternoon in the mountains into a social experience to be shared only by explorers under their own self-transport.

refuge 1

refuge 2

As I skied down the hill to the gondola for the last time, I was pretty sad. Why did I have to go home, when all this was here? But, it must be said, vacation can’t be every weekend. For one thing, Font Romeu is priced exactly like what it is – a resort. But for another, I have to actually be a good student and do my work.

Still, these trails, this snow, that sun, it’s so amazing. To think that it’s right there, a train ride away – it’s taunting me. Maybe my monthlong absence of winter made me appreciate the trip more than I normally would have, but I think it was easily the best place I’ve ever skied in my life. If you have the chance, go! Maybe I will, too.

ohfontr

fontr

fontr1

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

IMGP1126

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.

IMGP1089

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.)

IMGP1084

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.

IMGP1092  IMGP1097

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

IMGP1105  IMGP1107

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

window2  window1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

window3  window4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

snow

snow 2

things you do in france.

IMGP1052

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!

IMGP1057

IMGP1058  IMGP1063

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

IMGP1064

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.

fruits

IMGP1069

IMGP1070

IMGP1076

veggies1

IMGP1074

IMGP1073

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.

IMGP1078

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.