gray but grand helsinki weekend.

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It’s been a while since I did something quite so frivolous, but I made a spontaneous trip to another country this weekend. I was in Stockholm for three days between when my mother left (thanks for visiting, mom! highlight of my spring!) and when I’m heading to Canada for my grad school visit. Instead of flying back to Visby or taking the ferry, at not insignificant cost and only to be home for one working day, I figured I’d go see one of the nordic cities that was still on my list of to-visits. The flight to Helsinki was only $100. I bought the ticket.

Unfortunately, as my friend Aino said when I asked her what I should make sure to see in Helsinki, “It’s definitely not the best time of year there.” I think it was sunny for a grand total of about two hours during my entire visit. But that didn’t make it bad. Far from it. I think that Helsinki is one of my favorite cities I have visited so far: it’s very alive, and has a fascinating and beautiful mix of classic style, art deco architecture, and modern design. I loved it.

Right off the plane I took the bus to the city and walked to the design museum. On the way there, I was serenaded by a string quartet. They were pretty good, and it was a lovely omen for my visit.

The design museum was great. I can’t say I know a lot about design, and tend to be pretty ignorant of modernism – I had to take art history in middle school, but we never got past the 1920’s and didn’t cover architecture at all. Sure, I’d heard of Alvar Aalto and seen Marimekko prints everywhere. Other than that, I was pretty ignorant of Scandinavian design, other than knowing that it was based in simplicity and functionality. I remember staying in Aino’s flat in Davos in December, and being amazed at how sparse it was. Yet every single item in that flat was beautiful.

The design museum took me through how such an aesthetic emerged. I admired the handcrafts that were the pride of Finland in the late 1800s and early 1900s; saw a video of the amazing Finnish pavilion at the 1900 World Fair; watched the shift from classic European and Russian elements to art deco; and then, suddenly, the emphasis on functionality of the mid-century postwar years, where Finland became the most acclaimed country in Europe in terms of design. Tableware, art pieces, everything was beautiful. Glass in particular. Then plastic. Cute pop clothes. Finally, angry birds.

I understood how my grandfather, an ad exec in 1970’s Atlanta who had traveled the world as an officer in the navy, would have admired and coveted Scandinavian glassware.

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There was also an exhibit featuring Danish artist and fashion designer Henrik Vibskov, who I had never heard of before. It was pretty fun!

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I spent much of the rest of the trip exploring the city on foot. I’ve been very busy recently and so I couldn’t spend all day every day having fun – I had to stay in my (lovely) hotel room and do some work, too. I tried to schedule those times for when it was raining. The rest of the time, I walked and enjoyed all of the details of Helsinki’s landmarks.

Poor Finland: it was part of first the Swedish empire, then given up to Russia in the early 1800s. There was a famine, then a declaration of independence in 1917 and a civil war. The country fought hard during World War II and bore the weight of rationing and deprivation. Throughout all of this, they maintained a sense of national identity. The street signs may still be in both Finnish and Swedish, but this sure as heck does not feel like Sweden. Based on my limited experience in Russia, it doesn’t feel much like there, either.

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I was impressed with the mixing of styles, which somehow felt very right. Two Lutheran churches, a few blocks away from each other, are quite famous: the cathedral, built in the mid-1800s, and the Temppeliaukion, built in 1969 (more on that later). The two buildings couldn’t be more different in many ways, but it didn’t seem strange that they should exist in the same city fabric. Plus, while the Temppeliaukion is very modern, the other churches in the city also feel quite unlike the cathedrals I have visited in the rest of Europe. Finland is strongly Lutheran and as a result the interiors generally lack ornamentation. There’s not much stained glass, no gargoyles, no paintings on the walls like in the Uppsala cathedral. The interiors are light and leave a lot of room for thought. Finland loved white colors and clean lines far before Alvar Aalto.

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One of the most amazing places was the Temppeliaukion church, a Lutheran temple designed by the Suomalainen brothers and built in 1969. Another church was planned to be built on the site in the late 1930’s, but with the breakout of war, it never happened. 30 years later, the Suomalainen brothers took over and built something completely different. It had no tall spire, like the original, more traditional plan; it was round; it was partly underground. From the outside, the church doesn’t look like much.

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Inside, though? yeah.

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The space was completely amazing. It wasn’t that big, actually, and being drilled in the rock could have made it feel dark and damp. Instead, I felt the expansiveness of the space around me. It was one of the most intense sensations of atmosphere I have ever felt. The light streamed in from the upper walls, and strips of copper coiled around and around on the ceiling, creating a sense of infinity. Without a single illustration from the Bible, I could understand how you could feel God in this space.

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On Aino’s recommendation, I also went to the Ateneum museum, Finland’s national art museum. The first floor housed some amazing paintings and sculpture which helped me understand the Finnish perspective. The Kalevala, Finland’s national epic poem, has been on my reading list for months, and my interest has only been renewed. The art was beautiful, and among the works there was mysticism as well as realism about the challenges of agrarian living and poverty. Beautiful, beautiful pieces.

The reason Aino had mentioned the Ateneum, though, is that it had an exhibition celebrating Tove Jansson’s 100th birthday! I was so excited when I learned this. I read the Muumin books growing up and absolutely loved them. In fact, the last time I went to Finland (back in 2010, when I was skiing way up north and didn’t get to see the city), I took this picture in a souvenir shop with some Muumin goods:

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Picture me equally excited as I spent an hour perusing Jansson’s work. The exhibit was quite incredible. It included a lot of original artwork from the books, as well as sketches where she developed the final form of the illustrations. There would be the same general picture as a rough line drawing, a fully articulated pen-and-ink, and in paint, for instance. I didn’t realize that the stories had also been a comic strip, so that was cool. One of her friends also built elaborate dioramas of Muumin scenes! What fun. It made me want to go find and read all of the old Muumin books in my grandparents’ house, and then buy all the ones they didn’t have. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, start here).

Jansson didn’t just make the Muumin books, though, she was also a “prolific” artist and writer, as Aino said. Many works of different types, from drawings to paintings (among my favorites: an early one called “Mysterious City“, and a series of more abstract paintings of sea waves from the 1970s) and even huge frescoes.

Another highlight were prints that she made for the left-wing satire magazine Garm. Many of her messages were perfectly easy to understand even if you don’t know Finnish or Swedish. They were remarkably pointed, including during the war years. Here is a good example. This made me even more convinced that Jansson was a pretty remarkable lady. Big thank you to Aino for pointing out this exhibition!

Besides the architecture, art, and design, Helsinki was just a nice city to be in. There is lots of outdoor space, green lawns, and the port. Because of the weather I skipped going to Suomenlinna, the island fortress that is a must-visit. So I guess I have to come back another time. But it was a really delightful city to be outside in. (click to enlarge)

I’m really glad I made this weekend trip and can’t wait to come back to Helsinki in the future! I didn’t even sample the food or music scenes, both of which are fairly legendary at this point. Helsinki is becoming a more and more hip city. I hope that by the time I come back, it hasn’t gotten to hip for me.

quick trip to visby.

I have been meaning to write something about my last day in Ruhpolding, as it was lovely… not sure if I’ll ever get around to it. Life is busy! I moved to Uppsala successfully and am living in a beautiful flat with my friends Marta and Johanna. It’s so great to be back in Sweden. On Thursday I competed in the district championship relay team with my little club here, Uppsala Vasaloppsklub. Our team was: Christina, who could be in the 35+ age division but we didn’t have any other women interested in racing, so she competed in the 17+ division with us – she’s good; Karin, who is also good but is also quite pregnant!; and me, anchoring. They classic skied, I skated. It was the first time that UVK ever had a women’s relay team so we were really really excited just to be there competing. We finished third! The race was at night which is always fun as you feel like you’re really zooming along when it’s dark out, just flitting between the lights on the trail.

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Photo by Jon Orvendal who was sick and couldn’t race, so he came to watch and was SO frustrated not to be skiing. I really had so much fun being back with my skiing friends!

Anyway, besides that, I made a quick trip to Gotland, a large Swedish island in the Baltic. My supervisor lives and works there on a separate campus of Uppsala University, so I was there for two days. It was quite productive as we finished one manuscript which is getting ready for submission, and started working with the dataset for the next two papers. Also I got to see some of the city, which is a really cool old place. The city walls are from the 1200s and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As my supervisor lives there, you’ll hear much more about my future trips to Visby as well. It’s just a 45 minutes flight from Stockholm or you can take a ferry. Based on my first visit, a highly recommended destination!

Click photos to enlarge.

the next and the next and another day.

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From today I have exactly 21 days left in Switzerland before I move to Munich for the fall and begin writing papers.

That’s why I have been a little bit silent: I feel that every day is something that I must seize and make the most of. I imagined that I would spend this summer exploring the country, but in fact I have rarely left this little area of Graubünden. And yet there is so much left to see! I want to climb every mountain, cross every pass, run along the best of trails. Every morning, still, I wake up and wonder, am I dreaming? Is it really possible that I actually live here?

I only have 21 more mornings where I can wake up with this wonder in my mind.

Things are even more complicated because I am getting cracking on my project. Working in ArcGIS, extracting weather station data from the SwissEx platform, learning new programmin in R – it is busy and exhausting. (Do you know anything about structural equation modeling? Please help me!) It feels nice to be using my brain again to try to solve problems – fieldwork is great fun but not always the most stimulating mentally – but when it is sunny out I chafe to be outside using this last bit of time. Luckily this weekend it rained.

Last weekend, I didn’t have all my data yet so I could get out into the mountains without feeling guilty about abandoning my models. I woke up on Sunday to a lot of rain, so I went back to bed for another hour before setting off up the Dischma valley and parking my bike at Teufi. I had a long hike planned in front of me, but I didn’t know exactly how long, yet.

A constant frustration for hikers and mountain bikers in Davos is that there are two lovely, beautiful finger-like valleys extending out of down. One is the Dischma valley, and the other is the Sertig. You can explore either of these valley, but it is difficult to connect them. If you want to hike from one to the other – for instance by linking two well-known passes, Scalettapass and Sertiglass – you either have to take the bus back, or your bike is stuck at the starting point while you are in a completely different valley, or something like that. You get the idea.

Yet as I looked at the map the day before I saw a new trail: it ran from Teufi, which is halfway up the Dischma valley, over the mountains to Sertig, the last stop on the road in the other valley before it turns into trail. Why had nobody told me about this?

So bright-eyed and bushy-tailed I set out from Teufi. Up the steep switchbacks, along a boulder-lined stream pouring down from the peaks, and past Alp Rüedischtälli, pictured at the top. ‘Alp’ is the name for a farm in Swiss-German. It had the tallest and neatest stone walls I have seen anywhere in Switzerland and was perched high above the valley. Maybe I will become a shepherd after I finish my masters, I thought.

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From there the trail continued up a huge, wide-open valley that was empty except for cows. At one point I passed the shepherd and his dog, but that was it. It felt vast and wild, which was incredible since I was so close to Davos proper. I’ve hiked on trails far further into the mountains that nonetheless felt like highways. But here I was, alone in this cavernous basin. That’s what weekends are for.

Eventually I scaled the ridge to the Tällifugga pass, where I did encounter some other hikers. The ridge extends all the way from Jakobshorn, the mountain that juts into Davos Platz and is easily accessible by gondola. The cable cars are always packed and I suspected that unlike me, many of the people I encountered had not earned their vertical meters the hard way.

First pass of the day: I celebrated and ate some wasabi peanuts.

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From there, I assumed it would be a hop, skip, and a jump down to Sertig. It wasn’t. It took nearly an hour to get down, and that is the boring part of hiking. Down down down, trying to go fast and get to the next interesting part.

But I did make a friend on the way down. I turned a corner at 2400 meters and found a herd of horses grazing in the meadows. They were shiny, well-fed, happy and healthy. Just casually munching on the side of a mountain. A few were standing directly in the trail, oblivious that this was a way for people to walk. I stopped and rubbed the face of a yearling Haflinger filly. She was so friendly that as I walked away, she followed me. So I stopped and scratched her ears some more. Usually the cows you find on these mountains are unaccustomed to people, more or less. But the ponies had obviously been ridden and loved all summer, and maybe were out to pasture now in the fall, missing their human company and attention.

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Finally, I was down at Sertig. It was 12:30 and I began to realize the size of the hike I was attempting. I had crossed between the valleys once, the short way; what was left was going around the long way, connecting the two famous passes. It wasn’t going to be short. Just to get up to Sertigpass is quite a hike. I had somehow suppressed this from my mind as I was planning. As I walked up the dirt road along the bottom of the valley, the sun was shining down hotly. I had planned to crest the pass and then eat lunch at the Lai da Ravais-ch-Suot lake on the other side. This was obviously not going to happen. I found myself sitting on a boulder and ravenously devouring my pork and root vegetable handpie.

Soon after that, the clouds that had been sitting just on the other side of the ridge began to drift closer and look a little blacker than they had before. As I hiked the last few hundred vertical meters before the pass, I felt rain drops. I was walking through a huge scree and boulder field, and the rocks would soon become wet and slippery. Three men passed me hiking fast on their way down, and they looked at me like, it’s this time of day and this weather and you are just going up the pass? What is wrong with you? I wondered what they were scurrying away from, and what I would find on the other side.

Indeed, at the pass it was a little blustery. The view of Piz Kesch was BAM! And it was, Bam, Winter. Soon it began to snow and I could see the storm swirling around over the lakes where I had planned to eat lunch. For the second time in a row, it looked like I would not be making it to the lakes. Given the weather, I thought it would be best to hurry along. I still had a lot of hiking in front of me. I was wearing just spandex capris, and although I had another jacket in my small backpack, I had no rainpants or anything warmer for my legs. When you’re moving fast, that’s okay, you stay warm. But the prospects of a few more hours in the rain-slash-snow sounded less than pleasant.

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Luckily, 20 minutes later I had dropped out of the storm and back into the sun, which illuminated the huge Val Funtauna, a valley where I had hiked before with my coworker Gunther when we accidentally took a wrong turn looking for the lakes (that was the first time I failed to reach them). I skirted along the side of a ridge, happy to be heading this time not towards Piz Kesch but towards Scalettapass and home.

But when I reached Scalettapass an hour later, it started to rain again. I looked down the trail and saw wet, slippery rock. I had planned to eat a celebratory chocolate bar in the sun here, happy to be atop my third and final pass. Instead, I retreated into the emergency hut atop the pass and ate my chocolate as the rain battered the windows. Ten minutes later it was definitely still raining, but it wasn’t so windy. I went back outside, bundled up in many layers and my raincoat, and started down the trail. I ran in the places that I could, hoping to cut down on the time I had to spend outside in the rain. But much of the trail was slippery so I had to hike.

It wasn’t the most fun way to end my epic loop, but I enjoyed the scenery of Dürrboden, the end of the road down in the Dischma valley, coming closer. Finally I was on the flat. And then I was at the restaurant.

I was presented a choice: did I want to finish the loop in style, hiking back halfway down the valley to Teufi and my bike, or would I take the bus down? I was exhausted by this point, and decided to at least check the bus schedule. But my choice was made for me: the last bus of the day had left ten minutes ago. Because of the rain and ugly weather and it being a Sunday afternoon, there were only three cars in the parking lot. The chances of hitchhiking were zero. I started walking.

There’s not much to say about the last hour of walking down along the bottom of the Dischma valley. I was tired. I tried running, so that I would get back sooner, but I would stop after a few minutes. The Dischma is remarkable in that it doesn’t seem like it should be that long, but actually it goes on and on. It is the longest of the valleys extending south from Davos, and you remember that when you are walking or biking along it.

Finally, back to Teufi. Three passes, eight hours of walking, lots of weather. The day started and ended with rain. I hopped on my bike and went home.

I was psyched to have discovered the first pass, a new connection between the valleys. Alp Rüedischtälli and the valley behind it are now my favorite place that is easily accessible and close to town. Yet as I told people about my trip, they never knew what I was talking about. (For one thing, it turns out that “Tällifurgga” just means mountain pass in Swiss German, so even though that’s the name of the pass it doesn’t sound like anything specific.) But I’ll go back again.

These are the sort of things you do when you only have 21 days left in the Alps.

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wonderment.

I already wrote about the amazing community at the Guarda workshop. But let’s be honest, the scenery was pretty great too. Here are some of my photos. Click to enlarge.

a sense of community.

(l-r) me, Robyn, and Ewa getting our nerd on. photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

(l-r) me, Robyn, and Ewa getting our nerd on. photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp. other photos are mine unless otherwise noted; click to enlarge to better quality.

I recently returned from a weeklong evolutionary biology workshop in Guarda, a small village in the Swiss Alps. Now that I’m back, people are asking, did you learn a lot?

Well, yes. But that’s not exactly the point of the workshop. There’s an “armchair lecture” from a member of the staff every night after dinner, 45 minutes of speaking from the sofa with no powerpoint or visuals. Other than that, the workshop is about how to work together to develop scientific ideas, and it’s about the process of, well, thinking about science. I think that’s an incredibly important thing to work on, every bit as important as sitting in a classroom listening to lectures – if not more important.

And this style of workshop got me really excited about science after a long spring doing a project that really burnt me out in a country where there’s so much paperwork and administration that it’s sometimes hard to focus on research. No internet, no resources? At Guarda, you had to use your head and your logic to think about scientific questions. And it was really fun.

More than that, though, I was incredibly inspired by the people around me. Both the professors and the 26 students made up a very diverse group. It surprised me how much this meant to me since I am in an international masters program with students from all over the world. The whole point of my masters is to bring diversity and provide a wealth of different opportunities in various areas. But in MEME, I am one of the oldest students. With only a few exceptions, most of the students have come straight out of their universities. Yes, the academic experiences we have had are diverse, and the countries we come from are many, but there still seems to be, for the most part, one path towards a career in science: undergraduate, masters, PhD, beyond.

photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

photo: Marie-Eve Monchamp.

By contrast, look at the picture above. We’re all white, we’re all from Europe and North America. In that sense, not diverse. But these were the people I lived with in a flat for a week and we had an amazing wealth of experience. The photographer, Marie-Eve, is from Quebec. She went to culinary school and worked as a baker for a while. On the left is Lina from Switzerland, the only one to go straight through. Robyn, in the blue shirt, took time off to work some conservation jobs at home in England. Raphi, in black, owned a bar and managed ten employees before returning to science, and also works as a sound engineer for bands at live performances and helps run a music festival. Ewa studied pharmacology and started working at a community pharmacy for a few months before, as she likes to joke, “I knew that if I had to keep standing there handing out aspirin pills I would kill myself.” Instead, she’s now doing a PhD trying to find better model organisms with which to study the complex mental health diseases that appear in humans and have no analogs on which to test causes and treatments.

Then there’s me.

where should we go? photo: me.

where should we go?

Spending a week with these people was like a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief at the same time. They were all so passionate about their research areas, and also just lot of fun to be with. One of the professors had studied music before becoming a computational biologist, and is an amazing cello player who was having a concert the day after the workshop ended. In Guarda, nobody judged you for not taking the straight path to a PhD. Instead, they appreciated what additional insight these life experiences might have brought you, or the fact that you must have returned to science because you were really motivated – after all, it would maybe have been easier to keep being a pharmacist, a bar owner, a baker…. a ski journalist…

So we worked hard on our projects all day, trying to reason our way through tough questions and find model organisms for our projects. We bashed heads, agreed to sorta-agree, moved on to the next step, started over again. It was exhausting. At lunch we would slink back to our flats for lunch and then head out into the mountains for the rest of the break, breathing in the cool alpine air and letting the endless diversity of floral shapes and colors inspire us some more.

The first lunch break was amazing. We still barely knew each other, but here we were, wandering around this paradise. It took me about five minutes the next morning to run the same distance that we made it up the trail that first lunchtime, because we spent so much time stopping and taking pictures. All around us was so much splendor, it was hard to keep moving.

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Usually I think of hiking or walking as an opportunity to go some significant distance; I want to get exercise, and I take in the views at the pace of a run or walk. But I had absolutely no problem wandering off into a meadow and realizing 20 minutes later that I had barely moved.

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That day we did cover more ground. But there was a healthy dose of botanizing and naturalist-talk too. One of the things that was so fun about hiking with these other students was that so many knew something about plants or animals. There were birders and botanists. I was behind the curve trying to translate my knowledge of Rocky Mountain flora to Europe; sometimes I’d recognize a genus or a plant that looked to similar to something in Crested Butte that I would swear it must be the same species.

But few people were complete experts on alpine flora and fauna. Instead, they brought hefty volumes of Flora Helvetica and we would all gather round, peering over each other’s shoulders as we identify that purple orchid in the boggy part of the meadow. We’d see a beetle or a frog or a butterfly (or a dead mouse in the trail) and the default response was, how cool!

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Curiosity was the theme of the week. That, and making the most of these new friendships that we had for the week – no internet to distract us, no e-mail to the outside world, just enjoying each other’s company on adventures both intellectual and alpine.

Barbecue above the village at the end of the week. photo: Christina Holm.

Barbecue above the village at the end of the week. Not every day do you stand around drinking beer with Stephen Stearns and Robert Trivers. photo: Christina Holm.

joyful hiking. photo: Raphi Sieber.

joyful hiking. photo: Raphi Sieber.

watching new friends make more new friends. photo: me.

watching new friends make more new friends. photo: me.

I'm pretty pleased (and the handbag is back). photo: Antoine Juigner.

I’m pretty pleased (and the handbag is back). photo: Antoine Juigner.

paris.

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I’ve been so busy recently. I’m finishing up my research project here in Montpellier, both working in the lab and trying to do my statistical analysis of the results and write it into a paper. As always, I’m dealing with my supervisor being on vacation or otherwise not shouldering her share of the work. I also have to write a proposal for my next research project – in fact, I should have done so already. In between all of that, I have to make the time to both get a work permit to go to Switzerland for the summer, and to renew my French visa for the fall.

It’s tough to take a day off in the middle of the week to deal with visa issues, but that’s what I had to do: travel to Paris, a three-hour train ride, to go to the Swiss embassy. As much as it was an unaffordable pain in the butt, I had never been to Paris before, and I was so excited! Unfortunately, I also had to get up at 4:15 in the morning to walk to the train station (no trams that early!) and so for most of my time there I was a little bit of a zombie.

I’m afraid I don’t have the time to do my visit the justice of a full write-up, but suffice it to say, I now understand why people talk about Paris in mystical and mythical terms. Having only about six hours to explore, I eschewed all the museums and anything you might have to pay for and perused many of the gardens and the streets of the Latin Quarter. The embassy was just next to Invalides, so I wandered from there to the Grand Palais, through the Tuileries, around a neighborhood (with a quick stop at a fancy chocolate shop) to the Palais Royale, then across the river into the Saint Germain neighborhood, through the Luxembourg gardens, and back down the islands in the middle of the Seine. It’s amazing how nonchalant people are as they pass amazing bit of architecture after amazing bit of architecture; around every corner, it seems, is something so spectacular to people who live anywhere other than Paris.

I finished off my visit with the obligatory trip to Notre Dame, which is a true marvel. And, finally, a visit to Berthillon ice cream. I figured I should treat myself to one suggestion from David Lebovitz; he said this was the best ice cream in Paris, and I trust him on not only all things Paris but all things ice cream. The Gianduja a l’Orange was to die for. Then, it was back on the train, back to my little bed (which felt so great after such a long day) and my lab and my papers.

Without further explanation, here’s a dump of photos. It sprinkled rain off and on, so I only had my camera out about half the time – imagine all the things I didn’t photograph! Click to enlarge any photo, and then you can scroll through the gallery fuller-screen.

sauternes in photos.

I didn’t have time to take too many photos in Sauternes, but is was beautiful so I wanted to share what I got. On my crappy camera, so they aren’t amazing. I hope I captured, though, how happy I was to be back in the countryside again!