My time in Uppsala came to an end in a whirlwind, but I compensated by taking the best vacation afterwards: heading to Lillehammer, Norway, to ski a lot and stay with my friend Erik Stange, who had been a TA in one of my biostatistics classes when I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth and he was a PhD student.
The truth is that I never knew Erik all that well, but he seemed happy enough to pick me up at the train station at midnight and ferry me back to his family’s house. A former ski racer, much more successfully and long term than I was, he understood why someone would want to come visit, and has made his house open as a home base for other former Dartmouth skiers as well. As ski racers, we travel around and crash on people’s floors all the time; he’s returning the karmic favor. I can’t wait until I’m stable enough to do the same. (‘Yeah, you can come sleep on the floor of my 9-square-meter dorm room’ isn’t a particularly generous offer, but it’s all I’ve got right now.)
In the morning I met his wife, Emily, and daughter Greta. Growing up without any younger siblings, I was never much one for babysitting, but I had so much fun hanging out with Greta. So over the weekend we spent a lot of time around the house and out and about in Lillehammer. On Saturday, we went up to the Olympic trails and skied a little bit. In Norway daycare is partially subsidized by the government, and kids go to various “barnehagas” around town. Greta’s is right in the Birkebeiner stadium. We skied out to a little hut that the daycare owns and played in the woods for a while. Growing up in Norway must be a treat.
Next I got to go for a ski on my own on the Olympic trails. I’d been here before: on two trips with my Ford Sayre club ski team, in high school and college, and maybe even in 1994. I remember skiing with my family and cousin when we were here for the Olympics, but I have no idea where we went.
The Olympic trails are really hard. After my ski marathon two weeks before, I hadn’t really done much in terms of exercise; at winter school I tromped around on my skis in the fields, and did one ski at Skyttorp with the UVK club. I found myself crawling around the 5 and 10 k courses, walking up the hills and stopping to catch my breath at the top. I’ve skied a few World Cup and World Championships courses now, but I have to say that the 5 k in Lillehammer must be one of the hardest. There were some truly giant, grinding climbs.
But as the afternoon wore on and the sun began to set, I would come upon scenes like this. It was great to be skiing, no matter how hard it was, and the picturesque tableaus of the Norwegian countryside made it even more worth it.
Sunday brought another fun day with the family. We went to Maihaugen, amazing sort of living museum in Lillehammer. In the 1880’s a dentist named Anders Sandvig saw that many of the farm buildings in the small towns he visited were being knocked down as farming became less of a focus. So he picked up some of them and moved them to this spot. Erik said that the number of buildings at Maihaugen is actually difficult to pin down, but there are houses, barns, churches, fishing shacks, and every type of structure you can imagine, all arranged into groups that you can go look at.
I know that my parents have a Maihaugen coffee-table book, so we probably went there in 1994. But I don’t remember it. Instead, I just enjoyed exploring and looking at all the cool old buildings.
We marveled at what it would be like to tough out the Norwegian winter in one of these wooden buildings. Smoke would fill the central rooms; having enough food, grown in the short northern summer, would be a serious and worrying question every single winter. Lifespans were short, and probably not that happy in a lot of ways. Erik mused out loud: think how few generations ago that was. Our world has changed immensely.
But Greta was unconcerned with these deep philosophical questions. We were actually there to skate! Greta had never skated before; Erik had grown up in the midwest, playing pond hockey before he took up ski racing. I’m not much of a skater myself, but with the borrowed hockey skates, it was okay. We traipsed around a small pond, each holding one of Greta’s hands to keep her fuzzy side up. She seemed to have a blast, although a few times she insisted that we not squeeze her hands quite so hard. This led to an attempted explanation of the concept of tradeoffs: well, if we don’t hold your hand as tightly, you might actually fall down! A happy medium was struck.
Then, sledding and grilling sausages behind Hakon’s Hall, where I picked up my bib for the Birkebeiner back in 2006. A truly lovely weekend.
The next two days went by in a blur: Erik arranged for me to do some interviews with important race organizers in town, including the woman who runs a women’s-only race that sounds like so much fun that I will definitely have to do it sometime in the next few years.
My last afternoon, Erik played hooky from work and we went up to Sjusjoen, one of the best places in the world to ski, hands-down. High above Lillehammer, it is home to hundreds of kilometers of trails connecting various little hamlets – and plain wide-open vistas – by ski trail.
An earlier morning, Erik and I had skied up past the Olympic stadium towards the Nordseter ski center, where I remember skiing with Ford Sayre. It was beautiful, but I was walking up the huge climbs, shuffling along like the American that I am, embarrassed at what the Norwegians would think of my classic technique. Things just weren’t working for me. Erik took off, as he should have, and I wondered what he thought was wrong with me.
In Sjusjoen I was determined to keep up, and I did feel a lot better. Maybe I had better wax, but mostly I felt like I was getting my striding legs under me, skiing like a skier again. I guess four days was what it took to get my mojo back. As we adventured through the landscape, we were able to cruise easily up the long climbs, and I could chase him down the twists and turns on the other side. Every once in a while, I’d remember to stop and look at the views.
There was one hiccup. We ended up in a slightly different place than expected, and had to ski seven more kilometers back to the car, part of which climbed over a little knob. By then I was toast, definitely bonking. Erik could tell I’m sure but I didn’t want to admit it.
At that point I knew it might be one of my last skis of the year: I was headed to places that didn’t look like Sjusjoen. At the time, I was so happy to be skiing on blue hardwax, just cruising around for kilometer after kilometer, that I didn’t mind that thought. A few days later I’m getting more disappointed – I want to be back skiing again. I know that repeating the amazing days in Lillehammer is a bit much to ask, but I’d take any trails, anywhere, just to get back on my skis.
It’s a problem with my current situation. Uppsala was great, and I’m sure Montpellier will be too, but Montpellier has no snow. Why did I think that was a good idea? Skiing is part of my identity that I will never be able to give up.
That’s one reason it was so cool to stay with the Stanges in Lillehammer. Erik told me time after time that doing his PhD was not fun, maybe not the right move for him, and that I should consider the decision very carefully if I think I might embark on one. I appreciated the advice, a lot – most people aren’t so honest about the challenges of academia. There’s a reason I’m doing a masters now, not a PhD right away, and it has to do with all the things he said. But it’s a hard thing to admit when you’re in a program – everyone else is focused on getting the next PhD, the next postdoc, the next professorship. To say that you’re not interested in all that, or even that you’re just not sure that you’re interested in all that, well, they look at you a little funny. They maybe respect you a little less.
But despite all of his reservations, Erik has worked out a seemingly perfect life in Lillehammer. He was lucky to get a job with a research institute there, and he can do his work, raise his family (in Norway, which as I said above is a great place to raise a family), and ski his face off, or at least he could if he wasn’t so busy raising Greta and remodeling the house that he and Emily bought. Things haven’t gone completely smoothly: Emily is having trouble getting her midwife experience accredited so that she can work in Norway. But the rest seems to be good enough that, well, they bought the house.
Being let into their life for a week was just so fun. I immediately felt at home and had a great time hanging out. I could talk about biology, about skiing, about hopes and dreams for the future. One night the three of us watched the Daily Show and the Colbert Report, admitting that it was the main way we got our news of home; at lunch Emily and I listened to an independent radio station from the Twin Cities, laughing as we listened to a weather forecast that would never affect us. And I could hang out with Greta. I hoped that a little free babysitting would pay for the time I spent imposing on their family, and I hope I’ll get the chance to come back and visit again.