uppland to oppland.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

last days.

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Another stolen photo from Min Ya.

Today I move out of my dormitory, into a hotel for a night, and then – hopefully – out of Sweden. (I am still having visa problems so maybe not, but that’s another story.) I can’t believe it has been five months – what? How is my time here already coming to an end? I don’t want to leave. A classmate who is already in Montpellier, France, where I’m headed, posted on facebook that it was “22 degrees, get excited!” and I was not excited at all. It’s January. I don’t want winter to be over.

Last week we had a fun winter school at the Erken Laboratory, a limnology field station owned by the university. Aside from a presentation from the director of the lab, we didn’t do any limnology; instead, all of us MEME first-years gave presentations on a general theme of “evolution in a world of human-induced change.” I talked about the evolutionary consequences of overfishing and overharvesting, speaking quite a bit about cod, which I hoped would make my uncle Todd proud. In all, the presentations were really great – it was impressive for a student-organized symposium that people put so much work into things. I think none of us wanted to embarrass ourselves in front of our current or future classmates.

We also brought in several speakers from Uppsala and other universities, who gave great presentations about their research and offered to take in anyone who was interested in doing a project with them. So that was cool.

But mostly, we enjoyed the scene – the lab is on a huge lake, 25 square kilometers, and surrounded by some forest and a lot of farmland. We stayed in the “manor house” that had been donated to the University in the 1920’s to start the field station, and it was quite cushy compared to other field stations I have visited! We had a huge kitchen, some sitting rooms, board games to play… and the beautiful outdoors to explore. Every morning and afternoon walking back from the lecture hall we would have these views, like in Min Ya’s picture. Half of the students are currently at Groningen University in the Netherlands, and we hosts were excited that we could show them the real Sweden. The lab even has a sauna, so we could teach them the ways of heat and steam.

I managed to ski most days, not on trails but just tromping around in the fields or on the snow-covered lake. One day I saw a pack of wild hogs running along the treeline of a hayfield. It took a few looks to realize what they were.

So that was lovely, and it was nice to see our friends from Groningen, who we hadn’t seen since summer school if at all – a few I had never met. Of course, they were awesome. I miss them already. We’ve made a vow that our cohort will stick together, no matter where in the world we happen to land.

Just before winter school, I jumped in a ski race – a local one, but a 40 k seeding race for the Vasaloppet, the biggest marathon in the world. There were hundreds of people and it was a delightful shitshow of sharp corners and disappearing tracks at the start. I spent the whole race passing people and was shocked to end up third! I even won some Swedish money and a new ski bag, which unfortunately I didn’t need so I passed it off to a friend in my ski club.

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It’s hard to sum up my time here in Uppsala – I will remember it forever. And I am completely certain that I will ome back next spring to do my final project here, because I love it. I love the town, the city, the university. The department where we work is amazing and everyone is very friendly; they are nice to graduate students, respect graduate students, and have enough money that they are always offering to help you do a project in their lab. I’ve never seen such a great research and learning environment before, and it’s certainly something to aspire to.

But I’m also going to miss my friends! Half of our coursemates were regular masters students here, so they will be sticking around when we leave. I feel bad abandoning them because they have been so fun; it will be really special to come back and finish my degree with them. I’ll also miss the ski club, a lot. It has a unique feel to it with all adults and skiers of all levels just getting together to go train, have fun, and learn from each other. I think it’s a great model and not one that is so common. Of all the people in my program, I’m the only one that did any sort of activity outside of school and I’m so happy that I did; these new ski friends are amazing and welcomed me with open arms. My classmates didn’t make many Swedish friends or learn much about Sweden; I did. Lucky me.

So, til next year, Sweden! I’ll think of you often, as I’m melting on the Mediterranean.

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old flames.

 

At no point during my trip to Kiruna did I figure out how to take pictures that really captured the light. Saying that it was dark in Kiruna would be sort of true, but sort of missing the point: when there’s snow, the seven hours of each day that see the sun above the horizon stretch much further, and they often turn pink. Instead of being lit by the sun, the land is lit by its snow. And on the city’s longer trail systems, that is what you are skiing through: an open landscape, to a large extent, and vistas with miles and miles of snow.

My first day in Kiruna was actually one of the brightest, little did I know at the time. But it certainly contributed to my immediate delight as soon as I clipped into my skis: I was on snow! Skiing! I remember that in past years, the first time on skis was awkward. Coming from rollerskis, the snow is an unfamiliar surface for you to slip and slide on. But this time, it felt completely right. I was onto the tracks and off on an adventure. Sometimes when you don’t do something for a long time, you wonder if you really do love it or whether you’re making up stories in your head. In this case, no stories: I really, really love skiing. There’s a reason, and this is it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the first loops I tried was called the Midnattsolstigan, or Midnight Sun trail. Okay, so it was the wrong time of year for the midnight sun, but it was a lovely trail, looping through some old mined-out hills and swooping down into a valley with expansive views of the whole region. As I skied there one day, a snowshoe hare scampered along in front of me, almost impossible to pick out against the white background.

Another long loop was called the Jägerspåret, or Hunter’s Track. It reminded me a little bit of Green Woodlands in the way that it climbed hills, then dropped down to tour around bogs. The seventeen kilometers were in various states of grooming, and I encountered everyone you could imagine from the Swedish skiing public on that trail: people the age of my grandparents in stretched-out lycra and windbreakers, a fourteen-year-old boy skating, a guy my age who strided past with perfect classic technique, middle-aged men and women out for their daily loop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But perhaps the most fun I had was in the evenings. Kiruna used to host World Cup races; Bente Skari, Vincent Vittoz, Kristina Smigun, and Bjørn Dæhlie all won there. The first kilometer of skiing lulled me into a sense of security: no wonder they don’t race here any more, I thought. This is easy. But then the trails cut down, under a bridge, to the bottom of the hill and climbed back up it, then all the way to the top of the height of land, then dropped down again, swooping around turns and climbing though scrubby conifers. It was harder than I had thought – and it was a lot of fun, to ski on trails where you could really carry speed.

And, of course, they were lighted. How else would you ski in Kiruna in the winter? Because the World Cup trails are closest to the city center, whereas the longer loops extend into the hinterland, they are the most easily managed. And to be bombing through the darkness on those hills and twists and turns was even more exhilarating than usual. Those skis were some of the best, the ones where I really remembered: this really is the greatest thing, ever.

the most beautiful church in Sweden, and how I got there.

On Wednesday night, after a day of scrambling around to and from Stockholm and generally being frantic, I climbed onto a train at Uppsala Centralstation and went to sleep.

It was a new experience: people don’t take trains so much in the U.S., and almost certainly not for long journeys. They’re just commuting vehicles, if anything at all. But here in Sweden – well, the trains might not be on time, but they go an amazing number of places, and they are pretty nice. In my three-berth sleeping room, we each had a made-up bed with sheets, a pillow, and a blanket; towels to use in the shower; our own sink, mirror, soap, and cartons of drinking water. Exhausted, I chatted with a very nice woman who was headed to her hut outside of Gällivare, where she hoped to skate on the frozen lake. Then, when it reached an acceptable hour, we climbed into our bunks and went to bed.

When I woke up, we were flying by snowy fields. We eventually reached Gällivare and were put on a bus (another train had broken down on the tracks and we couldn’t get past it… trains are notoriously late and broken in northern Sweden, particularly in the winter) and I chatted with another nice woman, who was actually from a tiny village just across the border from Muonio, Finland – a place I have been, and that I never expected to meet anyone else who even knew where it was (pardon the horrible grammar, I couldn’t figure out how to fix it and I’m tired!). As we pulled into Kiruna, my anticipation mounted. I had been planning this trip for weeks; what would it look like? All I knew was that it was waaaay far north, relied on iron mining for its economy, and that people from the south wouldn’t want to go there in the winter.

We got off the bus and I hoisted my ski bag onto my shoulders and began the walk up the hill to town. My hostel didn’t open for checkin until 2 p.m., so I left my bags there and went for a ski. It was a lovely ski, just as everything in Kiruna was lovely.

(The hostel itself felt like if your friend’s grandmother took her guest bedroom straight out of the 1970s, plopped a flatscreen TV in it, and rented it out for cheap…. but it was a nice hostel, clean, good kitchen, no complaints. That funny little room did begin to feel like home, plush sofa and everything.)

When you think of a remove city sustained my iron excavation, a city that nobody in the country really thinks of, the idea you see is not Kiruna. Kiruna has downtown shopping malls with names like “City Galaxy”, public art, cute coffeeshops, and girls with blonde pixie haircuts who shop at Lindex and H&M. It has a sewing shop that also sells bodybuilding supplements like NOXplode. It has bars styled after England (The Bishops Arms Tavern) and Bavaria. And it has lighted ski trails on a World Cup course, where you might see kids, grandparents, or anyone in between out zooming around on skis – or walking their dog.

And, it has the most beautiful building in Sweden.

That’s right. In 2001, Swedes knew enough to vote Kiruna Church the most beautiful public building in the country. It’s not a usual church: built from 1909 to 1912, it’s made entirely of wood and painted a deep, bright red like only the Scandinavians can paint things. Its expansive gables an buttresses were imagined by architect Gustaf Wickman to imitate a traditional Sami tent. I can imagine how the church would glow under the midnight sun, the light reflecting off the huge triangular flanks of windows.

But in the snow, it’s just as beautiful. Where else in the world are flying buttresses shingled, serpentlike?

And the snow is what we had. Snow and fog: one of the few disappointments of my trip was that I was unable to see the northern lights, because it was cloudy every night. When I woke in the morning, the city would almost always be shrouded in a sort of misty fog: you could see the next house down the street, but any further than that and the features would start to melt to some extent into the whiteness of the sky. Churches are tall, and this one is on a hill, so I expected I would be able to simply pick out its towers and walk towards them. But I couldn’t see; I had to navigate a map and not until I was two blocks away could I see where I was going.

Another seemingly strange feature is that the main building doesn’t have a bell. Instead, there’s a completely separate building which houses the belltower, and that, too, is something you might see poking out of the mist. The top you can imagine sitting on a church – but the bottom is fortified into something you might imagine to store grain over the winter, or stockpile supplies for an inevitable bad harvest. I really have no idea what the history of the structure is, but it’s fascinating to look at.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Wickman took another idea from older cathedrals and changed it to fit the circumstances: carvings of saints or bible scenes which often grace more Gothic buildings. In Kiruna, the face above the door is adorned with traditionally flat etching – no relief, just line drawings upon the wood.

Tradition was maintained, though, with a collection of gold-painted figures looking down at paritioners and admirers; they represent ideas like humility, love, and rapture, but also arrogance, melancholy, and despair.

The crazy thing about the Kiruna Church is that it’s going to be torn down. Probably not tomorrow, and probably not next year: but like all of Kiruna, it will be demolished and then rebuilt. That’s because there is a giant vein of iron ore that runs directly underneath the city, and for the city to survive, it has to literally consume itself. Houses, neighborhoods, and the town hall will be relocated, and the church is no exception. Luckily, as one town leader explained, it’s made of wood so it can simply be taken apart and put back together again.

That makes me sad. What does it mean for a building of any sort, and a church in particular, to be taken apart? Maybe it’s because my father is a carpenter, and I can imagine some of the beautiful things he has built being torn apart, but I’m afraid that a little bit of the church’s soul will be lost when it’s ripped to the ground. When it is unceremoniously trucked to a yet-to-be-decided location. When it is reduced to its constituent pieces, which in no way add up to the whole. Its current home on the hill, nestled in the trees, seems to me to nurture and protect Kiruna Church. That’s its home. It can’t be dug up.

Is that blasphemous? To worry about a church’s soul?

Or is it stranger that I, dedicated agnostic (ha, oxymoron), am so worried about the church and its spiritual integrity and resting place?

Either way, it’s a beautiful building, and I’m glad I got to see it in the spot Wickman picked for it – where it is perfectly situated to show off the calculus that combines the culture of northern Sweden with awe-inspiring cathedral architecture.

the royal city.

Last weekend we finally made our first trip to this country’s capital. After being one of the people who spearheaded the trip and figured out the train schedules, I had an inauspicious start to Saturday: Min Ya, Katie and I had gone to our very first gasque, a fancy dinner with lots of drinks. I stayed out quite late and had a bit of a hangover… but made it to the train station nonetheless and tried to sleep on the train. Which is great, because nothing can go wrong – well, too wrong – when you have our lovely crew. Here’s a photo Andrès’ girlfriend took of us, which I think could be used as a sitcom promo. I mean, we’re basically a walking ensemble comedy.

Anyway, it was a beautiful fall day, and so we spent the morning mostly just walking around the city, which was also beautiful. Stockholm has about a million museums, but it seemed silly to waste such a sunny day – there are fewer and fewer as the fall progresses – inside looking at exhibits. So we we walked around the royal palace (I imagined what it would be like to be here for the World Cup city sprint in the winter, when they truck in snow, and sighed again) and the rest of the old city on an island referred to as Gamla Stan, along the waterfront, and around the island of Skeppsholmen, which is part of the Royal National City Park. It was nice.

We did break our museum rules a bit. We had been told that there was a great cafe at the Moderna Museet, a modern art museum that just happened to be on Skeppsholmen, where were already. So although we didn’t pay the hefty fee to actually see the museum itself, we checked it out and saw some of the cool artwork that was outside. One particularly intriguing part was a courtyard with mirrors and pools of colored liquid hanging above your head. It made for good pictures.

We also went to the Nordiska Museet, a culture museum in quite the amazing building. They were having their annual chocolate festival, which is why we splurged and payed admission. The chocolate itself was kind of a bust – very few free samples! – but we got to check out the museum, which was pretty cool. Lots of history, handcrafts, furniture, and an exhibit on the Sami. But even just being inside was a treat – here’s a view of the main hall from the top floor.

The whole time we were wandering around, we were kept company by our good friend Carl Linnaeus, who popped up in a surprising number of different places around the city. This one was in the Humlegården park.

Late in the afternoon, we wandered by what has to be my favorite church I have seen so far in Sweden: St. Johannes Kyrka. It was closed, so we couldn’t check out the inside, but I spent a lot of time taking pictures of the outside. I love the bright green of the copper against the bricks, and the unusual shapes of some of the building’s lines. The details were pretty great, too.

After a lot more walking around and dinner at an Indian restaurant, we called it a day and got back on the train. We had thought about staying later to check out the city’s nightlife, but Min Ya and I were pretty much toast and it was a struggle for me just to stay awake until nine. It was probably a good decision for our pocketbooks, too. But at the end of the day, we all were left thinking, wow: Stockholm is a really great, beautiful city. I already know I’ll be back. There’s museums I want to see, and I’d like to just spend more time there. Until then, Stockholm, goodbye.

kräftskiva: no shellfish allergies here.

Kräftskiva. What a great invention by the Swedes. This is supposed to be how it goes: you have a nice lawn party at your lake house, grub up some crayfish with your bare hands (you may or may not be drunk yet), boil them, drink schnapps, make silly hats, eat crayfish, drink some more schnapps, eat some more crayfish… etc, etc. An end-of-the-summer celebration that ends with everyone in falling-down drunk in their nice clothes, possibly splattered in shellfish shells. How lovely. We had to try it.

Except. We’re broke-ass students, and we certainly don’t have a lake house. Instead, Reto bought some pre-cooked crayfish from the store, and I bought some shrimp to boil up (“recipe” below the jump!), and we sat in the little kitchen on Andrés’ floor in our giant dorm building. And we didn’t have any Schnapps, just one 3.5% beer apiece. Despite those potentially buzz-killing changes, my first-ever kräftskiva (yes, I’m planning to do this every year for the rest of my life) was awesome.

I mean, Reto made me a newspaper hat. And put a crayfish on it.

Apparently the Swiss are great milliners.

The crayfish were simple: all you had to do was defrost them. Despite the fact that Reto suggested we get one box for every two people, there were about a metric fuckton of crayfish in one box and I’m really glad we only had one. While the horrified, dead, dethawing crayfish watched, I poured their giant prawn friends into a vat of salty, dill-filled boiling water (hint: that’s the recipe: a bunch of dill in some salted water, go). Mmmm! Tasty! Or, if you’re a shellfish, Ack! The horror!

 

This is going to sound silly, but it was actually kind of hard to cook the shrimps correctly. I read that you’re supposed to cook this kind until they turn bright orange, but they never turned bright orange. So I let them merrily boil away for a while until Min Ya said, “enough! I think they’re done now.” Thanks Min Ya!

In fact, I think she might have the most shellfish experience of all of us; Min Ya proved to be the most adept at eating crayfish and scooping out every single last bit of meat, even the ones that might not be meat (“Yeah, you can eat that part, but I’m not going to tell you what it is, it’s better if you don’t know”). We tried to learn lessons from her, but it just got sort of tiring, even if they were delicious. Thank goodness for the giant shrimp, which only require a very elementary level of peeling.

So we played with our food. Yay! We’re children! A true kräftskiva.

On a serious note, when I arrived home from Atlanta, I was emotionally and physically exhausted (I tried to sleep on the plane, but at one point I woke up to find the extremely overweight Greek man next to me staring at me creepily and intently…. it was hard to sleep after that). I had two texts and a facebook message saying that my friends were cooking dinner and making gin and tonics. I ignored them, turned off my phone, and went to bed. Cheerful drunk parties seemed so far from where my head was at; I wasn’t sure I even wanted to see my classmates.

After sleeping for twelve hours, I changed my tune. I loved these guys, and I remembered it. I knew that the best way to start feeling better, to start feeling okay about the world, was to fall back into our silly, childlike friendship, to drink coffee and eat cake and talk about poop (yes, that’s about fifty percent of our conversation; we’re adults; we’re scientists). I think that my perspective is still a little bit different than in the careless days earlier in the program, but by the time we were crushing crayfish skulls together on Thursday, I was right at home again, and I had to think how lucky I was to have friends like these who send you messages saying, “crayfish party tonight.” I mean, how many people get those messages? Crayfish party? What?

So, next summer, especially if you’re feeling a little bit down, find some crayfish and some funny hats. Or at least find some giant shrimp. You can thank the Swedes. I did.

How to be a Viking.

My life has taken some unusual turns right now. I’m writing this on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, where I will see my dad’s entire family for the first time, ever – the last time we had a complete family reunion, my cousin Pablo wasn’t even born yet. Despite the joy that it will bring me to see my family, some of whom I am ashamed to admit I haven’t seen in years, it’s not a happy occasion. But more on that later.

Despite the turmoil over my grandmother’s illness that seemed to make me permanently melancholy over the last ten days, some thing don’t change. I have great friends here and I like to get out and do things. Last week my friend Reto, who is doing an exchange semester from Switzerland where he is working on his bachelor’s degree in Bern, gathered us on the roof of our dorm for grilled sausages and beer. It was a lovely evening.

“There’s a reason why I invited all of you here tonight,” said Reto, or at least something like that.

We were surprised: we thought this was just a party on the roof, not an occasion.

“I saw a poster for something called the Extreme Viking Challenge, and I thought maybe you would want to make a team for it.”

Before he even described what the event was, I knew I was in. Some of my other classmates were less sure. But after he described the six-kilometer course through the woods that included obstacles and climbing walls, and told us that if we could complete it we would become true Vikings and earn a place in Valhalla, everyone said that they would at least come watch those of us who were foolhardy enough to attempt the race.

I checked the weather no Friday night: rain in the forecast for race day. Given that organizers had already promised plenty of mud, I tried to psych myself up and think about what I could wear that would be the least miserable in the conditions. The next morning we took a bus to a random stop in the middle of some farm fields and walked down a dirt road in search of the race, following intermittent signs scattered among the barns, tractors, and a sawmill.

By the time we got to the venue – actually a paintball range, complete with mazes of bunkers, towers, and a gutted schoolbus – we were already wet and cold. The organizers offered us camoflage onesies in case we didn’t want to get our clothes muddy, but I couldn’t imagine being weighed down by a full-body cotton suit, so I turned it down.

When race start rolled around we walked into the woods, slipping even without trying to run. I was cautious as we finally took off down the road, but still somehow was in the lead even though I was jogging; I guess everyone else was even more worried than I was about both the mud and the upcoming obstacles. In short order we hung a sharp left over a ditch into the woods, and the fun began. First, crawling up a web of tires hung over a huge boulder face.

A man in a bright pink shirt scrambled up them faster than I did, and as we set off into the woods I tried to match his pace. He was nimble jumping over downed limbs and avoiding branches that seemed to conveniently hang just at face-level; it was easier for me to follow him. The course was marked by one or two lines of surveyor’s tape strung along between trees and stakes in the ground, which sometimes stopped or changed direction abruptly. While the man in pink had to follow the route, I could just follow his very bright shirt.

After mucking around in the woods we came out in a large cornfield, where I was able to catch up but we were weighed down by the mud that stuck to our shoes in larger and larger clumps – it was like wearing snowshoes. On the other side we tried to kock the mud off, only semi-successfully. After some more fun in the woods we were again in a field, and this time we had to sling a log over our shoulders and run out around a rock in the middle and back again.

I wasn’t cold anymore: I was having a blast.

The rest of the course was just as advertised. One section was a real swamp, with water that came up to my knees. Somehow, the man in pink manage to power through and keep running. The grass was so knotted that it tripped me up, and there was a lot of deadfall that I had to climb over – I was afraid I wasn’t nimble enough to jump without knowing how deep the water was on the other side. In a few places, I was worried that my shoes would be sucked off by the mud.

The obstacles were much more fun. Besides a few walls, there were also large barricades made of logs stacked one on top of another; fun to climb over. At one point we came back into one of the original fields and snaked back and forth over a series of obstacles. Logs one after another as a long line of balance beams running the length of a ditch; nets to crawl under, ensuring that we get intimate with the mud; running through tires; throwing ourselves up, onto, and over a collection of concrete retaining walls. One was high enough that I didn’t make it on my last attempt.

When we re-entered the woods there was more. Nets to climb up and over, wires to traverse, monkey pars (slippery in the rain!) to swing across, more pathfinding through the forest, and finally, a rope swing across a small “pond” (or really more like a giant, muddy, intentional puddle). The rope was so slippery that I fell off halfway across. And then: I popped out back on the road and slid my way to the finish. I had never caught the man in pink, later revealed to be a serious mountain biker, after he left me in the swamp, but I was the second person to finish and I was quite happy.

That gave me the chance to go back and watch a few of my friends as they made their way through the zig-zag field. I cheered especially hard for Katie, who is a tiny, tiny English girl and was at a distinct disadvantage for all of the height-related obstacles. I actually helped her over a couple of the taller concrete walls.

The sense of accomplishment we felt was very real: Katie and Daniel, in particular, I don’t think had ever done anything like this. It wasn’t just something that was fun for me to do, the crazy girl who goes running and rollerskiing and exercises more than the other masters students think is comprehensible, but it was fun for all of us. And it was fun to do together. I think it brought us together.

Reto, whose idea this was in the first place, enjoyed the course so much that he went out and did it a second time. After we changed into dry clothes, we sat around waiting for him, eating snacks. The organizers also ran the paintball range and offered us the chance to play, but we decided to take a rain check (literally) and come back on a sunny day – the longer I sat waiting for Reto, the colder I became. The warmth I felt while I was racing was replaced by all-consuming daydreams about a hot shower.

Just before we left, I was offered my prize for being the first woman across the line: a swig of fine Viking cognac. Contrary to belief, the bottle was already half-empty when I poured myself a glass! Not bad for a rainy Saturday, and it sure beat sitting in my room being glum about the weather.

Arholma. Our home.

Winter is coming, they say. I’m not bothered by winter – in a lot of ways I can’t wait – but this is Sweden, and they’re probably right. Every sunny day, every bright weekend, we have to make the most of it. We aren’t going to get so many more.

That’s what I thought about last week as the weekend drew nearer. We didn’t even have homework yet, how lucky was that? Before the dark and rain and busy schedules came, we needed to get away. So I mentioned the idea of heading to an island in the Baltic, which was accepted by my classmates, and then went about the task of selecting which island. The Stockholm archipelago has between 30,000 and 35,000 islands, islets, and reefs. Many of the larger islands are served by ferries and have hostels, and each and every one looked like a wonderful place to spend a three-day weekend. After waffling for a long time, I arbitrarily picked the island of Arholma, because it was one of the northernmost choices, almost exactly due east of Uppsala. I made reservations for ten at the whimsically-named Bull August hostel, and as soon as we got out of class on Friday at lunchtime, we were all giddy with delight.

Of the seven MEME students here in Uppsala, six were coming, plus our classmate Inga, a Latvian who is on exchange in our Evolutionary Processes class, and Paul, a MEME from the first cohort, who was bringing his friend Sophia, also starting her masters here in Uppsala. We split into teams to shop for groceries and alcohol before heading to the station and getting on a bus for Norrtalje.

Since my camera was buried under sliced cheese and lunchmeat, I borrowed Min Ya’s camera to take this photo. It was beautigul in the late afternoon light! This part of Sweden is quite rollingly flat, and reminded me of home a little bit: lots of fields, some forests, big red barns. Of course, a lot of things didn’t look like home either. But it was nice to chat as we watched the landscape pass by on the other side of the window. After transferring buses in Norrtalje, we went on to Simpnas, a little town on the coast. We tumbled out of the bus and onto a ferry and were literally laughing and smiling like little children: that’s how happy we were. We were at the sea! On a boat! On vacation with no obligations! It’s hard to explain exactly how deeply happy I was at that moment, but I think it’s a feeling that we all shared. A photo I stole from Min Ya (L-R: Andrés, Romain, Daniel, Paul, Katie, Inga, me):

When we got off the ferry, we were surrounded by people going home: there were happy hugs, and an ecstatic black lab who was reunited with its owner. The island’s residents hopped on their bikes, which were parked in a big collection on the other side of the harbor, and cycled off down the main dirt road. I had no information about where the hostel was other than that it was an 800 meter walk from the ferry. After looking at a map posted on a signboard to get the general idea that we needed to go south, we began lugging our backpacks and grocery bags down the road. It was quiet, except for us – as always, boisterous, loud, probably pretty obnoxious to anyone who is not a MEME themself…

I got to explain the phrase “cow marshmallows.”

The first view of Bull August was just as lovely as I had expected from the website. That night, we cooked up some pasta and ate it outside on the lawn before retiring to the kitchen to play cards and enjoy some of the dearly expensive wine we had brought with us. Freedom!

There was an Ornithological Expedition, led by Inga, scheduled for 8 a.m. on Saturday morning, but it didn’t leave on time, a casualty of the evening’s activities. Around 8:45, I quietly crept out of the girls’ bunkroom, slipped on my running shoes, and began jogging south to the other end of the islands. After a few more hayfields, I entered an almost completely wooded area that I assumed was part of the nature reserve that covers a large portion of the island. 15 minutes later, I made it to Granö, a ferry dock on the southeastern edge of the island. With a grand total of six square kilometers, there wasn’t too far for me to run.

I turned around and when I was almost back to Bull August, I met the Ornitholodical Expedition, consisting of just three people: Inga, Daniel, and Romain. Although I was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and it was much too chilly to be dressed so lightly (this is Sweden, after all) when you weren’t moving, I turned on my heel and joined them. As we walked along the road, Inga pointed out birds to us, but we also tried to identify some flowers, and, in Daniel’s case, eat them.

We turned on a side road that ended up just being the driveway to a farm (there aren’t really any roads other than the main one…) but continued our birdwatching nonetheless – and also saw a bevy of tiny frogs in the moss on the side of the road. They were really cute. Taking advantage of the right to roam laws and mentality in this great country, we cut across a hayfield and through the woods before ending up on the dock facing a small, calm, perfectly flat channel and another small island. We lay down on the wood planks and soaked up the sun (I was cold). It was perfectly quiet – something we encountered over and over again but never ceased to be amazing.

After heading back to the hostel to eat breakfast and collect our later-sleeping companions, we packed sandwiches and embarked on an expedition. The goal: swimming. Other than that, we didn’t have much direction. We wanted to go to the eastern coast of the island so we could look out into the sea, not at the mainland, so we walked towards Österhamn, the eastern village of the island. Then we turned north. A driveway petered out into a dirt track through the woods. We kept going.

There were mushrooms for Daniel to inquire about, and lingonberries and blueberries for the rest of us to eat. The heather was deep and cushioning whenever we stepped into the trees.

The track wound back and forth, albeit gently. Still, we had no idea where on the island we were going to end up, and we began wondering if we were heading straight north instead of to the shore. Romain ventured off into the woods to try to cut over to the water and returned saying that we were close. Around just a few more corners, we found it: the sea.

To backtrack all the way to Simpnas, the atmosphere here wasn’t what I was expecting. The air didn’t have that salty tang that I associate with the ocean, be it Atlantic or Pacific – and that’s what I wanted. But the Baltic, my classmates pointed out, is not an ocean. It’s a sea. And so it’s not even that salty. In my head, I had forgotten how separate the Baltic is from the Atlantic proper – Denmark really rears its little head in there and cuts off the connection. Instead, it felt more like I was at one of the Great Lakes. I wondered if the water would be as cold.

Well, it wasn’t as cold as Superior, but it was pretty chilly. Daniel was the only one who was enthusiastic enough about swimming to actually backstroke his way around in our little bay. After jumping in and then wading a bit, I retreated back to the rocks to absorb the sun and warm up. We wrapped ourselves in towels and ate our lunch looking out at the water and the inevitable small island across from us. The wind came up and I began to get cold, so I put my clothes back on and explored the rocks a little bit; Romain went all the way around the next point to see what he could see.

Eventually it began to look like rain so we walked back through the forest to the hostel, and dug out the kubb set. Kubb is a Swedish lawn game that I learned back in Eugene from my friends Brian and Andrea; at the time, I thought, “this is great! I’m going to get to Sweden and already be an expert!” Anyone who knows me will laugh at that assertion, because the game involved throwing wooden sticks and we all know that hand-eye coordination has never been one of my strong points. But after taking a long time to attempt to explain the rules – you have five blocks and so does the other team, and you take turns throwing your six round sticks to try to knock over the other team’s blocks – we decided that it would be easier to just play.

We had a blast.

I think the woman who ran the hostel was laughing at how bad we were.

But that was okay.

While I was initially the expert, everyone else quickly caught up. Mainly, we were wildly inconsistent in our throwing abilities. After three round-robin tournaments we decided to challenge the German children who were also staying at the hostel, and did manage to beat them, thank goodness. Even with a language barrier, we’re better than six-year-olds! As the game ended it began hailing so we scurried inside.

That evening, we grilled sausages and played more card games. Talk eventually turned to philosophical questions that kept a few gentlemen up until five; I went to bed much before that. Ever since that “Sartre at 100” class I took my freshman year at Dartmouth, talk about philosophy kind of turns me off.

On our last morning, I woke up just a little bit earlier and tried to go for a real run. First I headed back to the port to see what time we needed to be on the ferry. Then I followed the dirt road north. Having been to the dock at the southern end of the island, I wanted to see the other end. Plus, the woman that ran the hostel said that the northern end was her favorite: the south, she said, was boring.

Can you believe how blue the sky is on Arholma?

“Arholma Nord” is another lodge/guest house that was a little out of our price range, but that’s where I was headed. They had tacked signs onto the trees along the road: 1000 meters. 800 meters. 400 meters. 200 meters. Like the previous morning, this wasn’t going to be a long run. I tried to blend in as I jogged through the compound and towards the water. The buildings were situated around a little inlet, so I didn’t get the wide-open sea view I wanted. Undeterred, I decided that I would just climb over the rocks until I got to a suitable place along the shore. So, as some tourists’ children watched before resuming their games, I headed off-piste and scrambled across the smooth boulders than sloped down into the water.

Up and down, avoiding big drops, looking for the best route: it reminded me of Grant Brook in my backyard in Lyme, where I had grown up hopping from rock to rock up and down the stream to keep myself busy. Only children have to develop a bit of ingenuity. But more than that, the rocks reminded me of Acadia, which has got to be one of my favorite places in the U.S… well, okay, I have a lot of favorites, but it’s really nice.

I found a spot on a point looking out into the sea, blocked by only a few small rocky islets. I sat in the wind and watched a boat go by; I watched huge birds pull fish from the water; I lay down and closed me eyes. Then I sat up, not wanting to waste the scenery. Five minutes. Ten minutes. I couldn’t see any people, only a single boat dock sticking out from behind a wooded outcropping around the corner. In a few hours, I’d be leaving the island. It seemed unbelievable.

Rather than cut back across the rocks, I decided to try a route through the woods. I cut over to where I had seen the dock, and found a house, but no driveway. Instead I followed the trace of a trail – more than a deer trail, less than anything else.

At times, I would lose the trail completely – poof, it was gone. But I could feel where it was, which direction I needed to go. It’s not a feeling I have really experienced before. But I’d keep going, and then the trail would magically re-appear again. Sometimes I was jogging over mossy rocks, others dodging the small trees and picking up caked mud on my calves. Eventually I was dumped out into the parking lot (if you can call it that – after all, there aren’t cars on the island) of Arholma Nord. I waved goodbye to the north side of the island and ran back down the dirt road, all the way back to Bull August, dragging my feet at the idea of leaving. The sheep in the fields stared at me; can I stay here with you? I thought.

When I arrived back at the hostel, Inga was out on a birding expedition and a few people were still asleep. I drank coffee with Paul and made myself an improvised breakfast based on the few things we had left: bread and nutella, an apple sliced and sprinkled with this amazing chili-salt-lime spice powder that Daniel had brought to Mexico. I don’t know how to describe it, but I also don’t know how I have lived without it up until this point in my life.

Everyone eventually stirred to life, and after packing up our bags and cleaning the rooms and the kitchen we waved goodbye to our hostess (I’m quite sure she was glad to see us go) and walked off down the road, with a few hours to kill before we had to be on a boat. Our first objective was to find the large tower that we had seen peeking through the trees, and hopefully climb it. We took a path around the east side of the island, but the tower hid itself from view. The boys got ahead of us but we resourceful girls noticed a trail with a sign, and guessed that it must lead to the tower. Leaving out backpacks at the bottom – there is no crime on Arholma – we climbed up the hill. I was wearing clogs, and Katie flats. It wasn’t ideal. But it also wasn’t long. At the top, we found the tower, although it was locked.

We sat, taking in the view and the last bit of quiet we’d have for a while.

Romain came climbing up out of the woods; from the road below, he could hear our voices. So there were five of us, in no hurry to get up and leave. After having known each other for just two and a half weeks, we have become remarkably close friends. We are very lucky that our group is as open and wonderful as it is; it’s hard to imagine what it would be like to land in this program without these connections.

(Romain took the picture of us girls, on Min Ya’s camera.)

Eventually, we made our way down the hill and over to the ferry. And then we left – back on a bus, then an hour at the bus station in Norrtalje, where we ate greasy, cheap gyros, and finally back to Uppsala. I was exhausted – but so happy.

“How was your weekend?” Our other friends and classmates asked. But I didn’t know where to start.

“It was great,” I’d say. “Incredible.”

They would nod.

Leaving Muonio.

This morning, after a cold, easy classic ski, we said goodbye to Muonio. We packed our skibags, packed our duffels, swept the floors with the funny little angled broom, and put the dishes to dry in the cupboard rack above the sink for the last time. Finally, we got in the car and drove away from Lomamaja Pekonen.

We had no idea what our living situation was going to be in Rovaniemi, but I knew I would miss the perfectly-designed little cabin, which really made the most of its tiny space. I’d miss the heated floor in the mudroom, the mini-sauna to dry your clothes in, and the cute little cup-size shelves over the stove.

Okay, so I wouldn’t miss the stove. It was a terrible electric two-burner system which took forever to cool off and burnt almost everything. I won’t miss that.

But almost everything about Muonio I already miss. I certainly miss the skiing. We were just beginning to explore the possibilities in Muonio – they were starting to groom the long trails to other hotels and ski areas, and Lauren and I had explored a new trail this morning. I had seen my fifth reindeer on the trail (the first four were all together), and I wish I could ski the high loop around the windmills one more time.

I even miss the racing. Yesterday I felt like I began to figure things out. It definitely wasn’t one of my best races ever, but it was just a normal race. I went out there and I skied, and I went pretty hard, and that was that.

I have never been an excellent early-season racer, but I think with a few races under my belt I might have the early-season blues out of my system (hopefully). Luckily, there are races here in Rovaniemi, but I wish I could keep racing against the better field from Muonio now that I’m feeling more confident.

Here in Rovaniemi, we’re back in a city. We’re definitely outside the city, but you can no longer walk out of your driveway and be anywhere in town three minutes later. That was nice.

As ski racers, we travel around the country and the world, rarely spending more than a week or ten days in each new place. It was a treat to get to enjoy Muonio for that long. But you learn that you can’t be too sad when you leave somewhere and head to the next race; you have to think of what was great about it, file it away in your memory, and then look forward to what’s next. If you really love it, you’ll make it back someday.

Will I make it back to Muonio? I’m not sure. Maybe I’ll come back to race here next year, and maybe I won’t. It’s not something I’ve decided yet. But my first experience above the Arctic Circle was a great and interesting one, and I want to come back to this circumpolar region in the future for sure. I’d like to explore more in the winter, and I’d like to see it in the summer, too, when it’s the land of the midnight sun.