vienna trip.

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A few weeks ago I turned 28. That means I’m entering my 29th year. That means I’m almost 30! Ack!

I realized shortly before my birthday that actually, I have not traveled much outside of Switzerland since arriving here. I suppose my masters was so travel-heavy that I was facing exploration-exhaustion by the time I started my PhD. So I went to Sweden for World Championships for a few days, to Tenerife for vacation, and that was it for my first nine months living in central Europe.

I think I was ready to rebegin. So I booked a plane ticket to Vienna, a city I had never been to and, frankly, didn’t have as many ideas about as probably I should have. I don’t remember much about the Austro-Hungarian empire from my middle-school history classes (and we certainly didn’t learn about them in high school, where history was hands-down the worst department of them all), and I had very little 20th-century history either. I guess the most I knew about Vienna came through music; after all, I played classical piano.

Unfortunately the 4th-of-July weekend in central Europe was smack in the middle of this horrendous heat wave, which is possibly the worst in the last 150 years depending on where you look. In Switzerland I think it’s still slightly behind the 2003 wave, but close; in Germany, the highest temperature ever recorded in the country was measured in Kitzingen.

So I didn’t end up spending a lot of time outside in Vienna. But a lot of time in museums with air conditioning. Here are some highlights of the trip.

1. Friedensreich Hundertwasser

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One of my favorite discoveries is something I wouldn’t have even known about if my friend Knut, who had spent a month living in Vienna this spring, hadn’t told me to look for it. Friedensreich Hundertwasser was an architect and artist, and several of his biggest public projects are in Vienna. Technically, he lived in Vienna most of his life, but the guy’s itinerary went around the world multiple times!

Above is the city’s hot water heating plant, designed by Hundertwasser. Imagine going to work there every day. Pretty cool. It was the first Hundertwasser site I saw, and I was hooked.

Later I went to the Hundertwasser museum, called the Kunst Haus Wien, housed in a building he designed with lots of tile and old planks on the floor and some trees growing inside. I saw some of the other art, including very, very cool paintings and prints. So much color, working with gold leaf, working creatively. Hundertwasser had a philosophy of sustainability and world peace through every part of life. That comes through in his art.

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One of the first things I saw in the museum was a large poster. On one side was a tall photo of Hundertwasser: 1928-2000. On the other side was a photo of a tree: Hundertwasser 2000-2015. The artist was buried on his land in New Zealand and a tree was planted over his body. That tree grows on. It’s not a completely original idea, but it was so forceful to see the tree and the man placed right next to each other that it nearly bowled me over in its poeticism.

You can learn more about Hundertwasser on this website.

2. The Natural History Museum

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The Habsburg empire included a lot of men (and some women) who were extremely interested in science. As the empire grew, samples of plants, animals, and fossils were sent back to Europe; Austrians also explored by sea and land as the worldview of Europeans expanded. The collection in Vienna is, well, extensive. It encompasses more than 30 million objects.

In all science museums, the collection is actually much larger than what can be displayed. That’s of course true of Vienna’s natural history museum as well. But they do have a huge, ornate building to house the collection in, purpose-built to show off Austria’s treasures.

My housemate Geri suggested that I visit the museum, saying she could spend “days” there. I could as well. It was awesome. A few small notes, not necessarily my favorite things that I saw, but cute ones that photographed well:

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In a collection about the history of the Austrian university research system, there was a display of models of ocean creatures made out of glass. Yes, that’s right, glass. A team of incredibly talented glassblowers capitalized on the fact that translucent organisms don’t always look that cool when stored in alcohol, can’t be dried, and can be hard to draw. The results are incredible – and also accurate and informative.

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Finally, I always love the connection between birds and dinosaurs. It’s a fun one to make. Glad the curators capitalized on this. In the same exhibition room were some dinosaur fossils and skeletons and an animatronic dinosaur! Here’s a video (not by me).

3. A Special Exhibition. Also in the museum was a special exhibition of large-format black and white photographs of bison. Taken by Heidi and Hans-Jurgen Koch, a pair of German artist/photographers, they were paired with text and it was a revelation. At first it was strange to look and think about buffalo and learn from a pair of people who didn’t grow up with the same legends of the American west as I did. Can they possibly really get it? I was almost offended. But on the other hand, skipping some of the mythicism and the rewriting of history that always happens in our educational system. It was an amazing display.

You can see some of the photos in an online gallery from Der Spiegel. Although there’s something missing when you’re not looking at gorgeous prints in the flesh, so to speak, they are amazing.

You can buy the book of their work, called Buffalo Ballads, on Amazon. (It’s also at Powell’s, which I usually recommend, but it’s on backorder there. Still, here’s the page)

4. The Leopold. I went to a lot of museums. I really enjoyed the Leopold, which focuses in particular on Egon Schiele, an artist I was not familiar with. I liked his work, and also particularly liked the way it was presented: with lots and lots of context. The museum is based on an extensive private collection, and the building was built fairly recently so there’s lots of space. There are displays of Schiele’s personal correspondence, photos of different places he had lived, and information about his relationships and the culture in Vienna at the time.

Learn more about Schiele here.

There’s some other nice art from the early 20th century as well.

5. The Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum)

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Just across the park from the natural history museum is an identical building which houses much of the Habsburgs’ art. The paintings are great; the architecture is amazing.

I spent more time, though, wandering around the Kunstkammer, rooms that housed collections of objects owned by the Hapsburgs. Some of it was straight-up art, procured by the royals or gifted to them. But a lot were not paintings. The top photo here is a calculator! A calculator. As mentioned, the Habsburgs really liked science, technology, and progress. There’s a great collection of clocks, navigational tools, and other nifty things. All gold-plated, of course.

And lots of dishes, table ornaments, jewelery, and other stuff. As I walked around, I kept thinking, wow. Those Habsburgs though.

6. Belvedere

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That feeling only continued when I went to the Belvedere Palace. Crazy, they were.

Also I really enjoyed the Gustav Klimt exhibit there, although I wish there had been more of it. It was advertised all over Vienna as “KLIMT AT THE BELVEDERE!” !!! WOOWW OMG !!!! But… I wanted it to keep going.

7. Wiener Schitzel. There’s much good Wiener schitzel to be had in Vienna. Have some. I found mine at Finkh, a great restaurant in an off-the-path location. I recommend it: besides the great schnitzel, I had a great seasonal summer salad with halloumi cheese and avocado, and they also had Augustiner beer, my favorite from Munich! I didn’t even need a reservation, even though it’s a small restaurant which was written up in the New York Times.

8. Running to the Danube

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It was hot as hell. I didn’t run for the first two days I was there. On the last day, I steeled myself to do it. A canal runs through (ish) Vienna, but I really wanted to see the Danube River itself. So I ran a few kilometers out of the city to have a look. It was cool. There are nice paths along the canal to run or bike or rollerskate (yup, saw some of that).

9. Karl Marx Hof

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I started this list with some architecture, so I might as well end it with some, too. I went to take a look at the Karl Marx Hof, a massive socialist housing project from the 1930s. Seeing a few photos online, I wasn’t expecting to find it very interesting. After all, the idea of living in a building that stretches several blocks, continuously, all connected, gives me feelings of physical revulsion. I’m a country girl! That’s not my style!

But actually, the project was really cool. The interior parks and courts would be lovely places to spend time, and the people living in apartments had really embraced what could have been quite a sterile space. It seemed organic and quirky in a way that you would never expect if you looked only at the architectural plans.

olympic memories.

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Dedicated readers of this blog will remember all the things I wrote about this winter when I was in Sochi, Russia, for the winter Olympics. What a trip that was! You can revisit it here.

I was thinking about the Olympics this week as Norway withdrew its bid to host the 2022 winter Games in Oslo. Man, that would have been a lot of fun. The whole ski world was holding our breath, daring to imagine how insanely awesome an Oslo Holmenkollen Games would be. But they won’t be. I thought not only about my experience this winter in Sochi, but also a long time ago when my family went to Albertville in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994 to watch aunt Liz compete.

The result is this editorial, which I am pretty proud of.

When I was putting it together, I flipped through our photo albums of the Albertville and Lillehammer trips, which was super fun. I scanned a few of the photos, which I’m posting here! One takeaway, for sure: I used to smile more, when I was a kid….

The top photo is of a birthday party in Lillehammer. My uncle, father, and grandfather all have February birthdays, so there were always birthday parties at the Olympics. For this one, we brought a book of paper cut-out masks, and colored them all in. Lizzie is hoisting a glass of wine (I can’t remember if this was before or after her competition); I appear to be killing my poor cousin Mary, as my mom reaches across like stop, you insolent pain in the ass…

I have a new plan for 2022, which is that even if the Olympics aren’t in Oslo, that might be the best place to be. We already know that their television coverage is infinitely superior to what we get here in the U.S., so why don’t we all just head to Oslo and watch the Games from there? We can hit the Nordmarka on our skis in between events. Please join me. Oslo, I think this is a big tourism opportunity for you.

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Trøndelag.

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And so, one day, we left Svalbard.

It was sad, in a way, and it had its snafus. We went for one last hike; we drove the car back to the airport, stopping to fill it with fuel along the way but struggling for ten minutes to get the gas cap off. I laughed: what if we missed our flight because of the rental car gas cap?

And then we were off to Tromsø. It had been sunny, but chilly and blustery when we left 78˚N. We flew over the archipelago, seeing the many many glaciers we couldn’t see from town – Spitzbergen is covered 60% in snow (don’t quote me on that though).

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When we landed “down south”, it was t-shirt weather and the sun was hot. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that we were still far, far farther north than most people will go in their lifetime. Tromsø felt like the tropics.

Our friend Cecilie picked us up at the airport and brought us back to her house, where we also met up with our friend Nikoline. Then they drove us out of town to a favorite picnic spot along the fjord. In the back was Cecilie’s bassett hound, panting and shedding adorably.

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It’s hard to describe the sun in the north. I didn’t have a reason to because in Svalbard, it rarely shown. On those few days that it did, it was strong and bright and a joyous occasion.

When you’re merely in normal Scandinavia, the summer sun begins to dip at night. It might not get dark, but it’s not like noon, either. Sweden and Norway, especially in late summer, are encompassed in a glow of dusk – the sun resting at an angle on the horizon, bathing everything in its peculiar light. Amazingly, my camera did manage to pick this up.

We could have sat there for hours in the sun, all night, really. As it was we walked along the shore and the basset’s short legs took him to and fro. Sometimes he’d slip and almost fall, but he gamely scampered on, betraying no sense of the fact that he was not a dog built for anything but flat ground.

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Cecilie made us salmon burgers, the most delicious. And brownies, which we heaped with ice cream on top. She had found Helen her favorite new drink, a special ginger beer that we had never heard of before. The only thing better than the scenery in Tromsø was the hospitality. I really hope that I can offer Cecilie and Nikoline the same in return one day.

Helen and I had to catch a 6 a.m. bus to Sweden the next day, but Cecilie gamely woke up (despite not being a morning person!) and packed our lunchbox with not only lunch, but all the rest of the brownies. When we ate them in Narvik before switching to the train, I had rarely felt so spoiled in my life. Cecilie’s mother is American, so she knows how to make a real brownie.

And then we were off, traversing through the fjords and over the mountains. I had never thought much of northern Norway, but as the bus wound through the alpine landscape, I thought it might be my most favorite place ever. I wanted to jump off the bus right there and wander off into the heath, to climb over the bare rock hills.

It wasn’t just the Tromsø fjord that was so astonishingly beautiful; it was everything going East, too. I definitely have to go back some day.

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Svalbard day 1.

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On Friday morning Helen and I woke up very early (separately: her at her aunt’s house in Södermalm, Stockholm; me at my hotel by the train station) and went to the airport. We checked our bags and the giant styrofoam box of soil coring equipment that I was bringing as a favor to a researcher in Uppsala instead of them having to ship it. And then we were off! First to Oslo, then to Longyearbyen.

There were some adventures immediately. When we checked in, we were told we’d have to collect our bags in Oslo and bring them through customs, since we were continuing on a domestic flight from there. Makes sense: I have to do that every time I go to the U.S. (and Norway is not part of the E.U., so it wouldn’t be surprising that things flown from other parts of Europe would need to be examined). So we got to Oslo, followed the signs for “domestic connections” which took us to the baggage claim, and found…. our bags never showed up.

I eventually went to the SAS help counter.

“Hi, we’re flying to Longyearbyen, and our bags never came off the belt?”

“Oh, they’ve been checked all the way through! You didn’t need to collect them here!”

Okay then. Back out – to the departures hall – and back through security. Then, we checked out gate assignment and found that it was in the international hall. So, moral of the story: Svalbard may be a Norwegian territory, but it still counts as international!

I was surprised when we boarded the plane that it was actually a bigger plane than the one we had on our Stockholm-Oslo leg. And it was almost full. I’d imagined the Longyearbyen airport being a tiny thing – maybe like Visby – but that was not the case at all. So we arrived with a lot of other tourists and locals, our bags never had to go through customs, etc. Standard travel, only we ended up in a faraway and crazy place!

We got our rented car – a big black jeep – and went to the university, where we checked into our room in the Guest House. It’s really nice. More space than most places I’ve seen elsewhere in Scandinavia and they’ll even clean it for us once a week! Very cushy, not like I was expecting for Arctic research.

Since we don’t have our polar bear training or our rifle yet (we get all that on Monday), we couldn’t get up to much trouble this weekend. We mostly walked around the town, which is protected from polar bears. You’re not allowed to leave the town limits without a rifle. It was pretty cool though. First of all, we saw reindeer just hanging out…

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But also, that first evening, a lot of lovely scenery.

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And a lot of snowmobiles. More snowmobiles than people here!

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Today, we slept very late (we were both exhausted) and then went to the Svalbard Museum. It’s a pretty cool museum about the history and nature on Svalbard.

Something I learned from Helen’s research that cleared up longstanding confusion: Svalbard is the name for the whole archipelago of islands here. Spitzbergen is the name of the island we are on, which is the biggest one. So there. I guess I should be more specific with my words in the future.

After that we went for a walk along one of the roads out of town. The first challenge: it is nesting season for Arctic terns, and they nest right along the edges of the road. Thus, when you walk by, they believe you are attacking their nests. They fly at you and apparently will peck your head. We didn’t believe this, but began walking and were quickly attacked by birds (no injuries were sustained, but it was scary). We felt like idiots and went back and grabbed a pair of the long red plastic poles which are provided. You can’t use them to fend the birds off – they are a protected species – but if you carry them vertically in the air, the birds can’t fly as close to you and won’t attack your head. They will, of course, still fly pretty close and make a lot of squawking.

I still think Arctic terns are among the most beautiful birds.

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After walking a bit, we came across a sled dog kennel. OMG, so cute.

dogsRight after this, we saw a packed nesting ground for common Eiders. As we were marveling at how many there were – literally, they blend in so you don’t notice them at first but all of a sudden we saw what must have been at least 100 of the birds, hunkered down in the dirt/vegetation – a huge seagull came along. One of the eiders must have gotten up from her nest, because the next thing I knew, before I could even process what was happening, the seagull was flying to the edge of the group, and it had a fluffy thing in its beak, and then I saw it land and gulp down a duckling.

Yes. I saw a seagull eat a duckling. That just happened.

Carry on.

The rest of the walk wasn’t so eventful, just beautiful. We reached the end of the polar bear protection zone and headed back.

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There’s not much to do in Longyearbyen that doesn’t cost an excessive amount of money, so I’m not sure how we are going to occupy ourselves tomorrow. The mountains look amazing, but without our rifle we can’t go hiking. So, we can’t wait until Monday when everything gets straightened out. footer

 

on top of the world!

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I’m in Davos, and I’m on top of the world! Okay, not quite literally, I’m not on top of the biggest mountain here and the mountains here certainly aren’t the biggest in Switzerland. But I’m on top of something, and I can see quite far, and thankgodI’mbackinthemountains.

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But also… I feel emotionally like I’m on top of the world. I have an exciting announcement: I’ve been accepted to do a PhD at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology. I will be working in the lab of Dr. Florian Altermatt, which I’m really looking forward to. My project on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning using a meta-ecosystem framework will be fun and challenging. I’ll have to learn a lot! Already, I know that I will need to learn to identify and work with amphipods, small crustaceans which will serve as our main study taxa, and how to set up mesocosm experiments. There’s also talk of using stable isotopes to track carbon and other fluxes through ecosystems, which I’m excited to tackle. I was at Eawag on Thursday for a visit and interview, and I think that it will be great group to work with. A lot of smart people but all really friendly and, most importantly, everyone seemed very happy. That’s something important when you are deciding whether to make a 3-year commitment!

I’m really relieved to have my future worked out a little bit and to think that I won’t be unemployed once I finish my masters. I’m looking forward to settling down in one place for 3 years – I want to continue traveling and having adventures, but I haven’t felt like I have had a home base to come back to in my time in Europe so far, so that will be a very welcome change. I can have a few more belongings than fit into one suitcase, and hopefully my road bike too. I never realized how much I would look forward to a little bit of stability.

And, I’m excited to be at Eawag for a few more reasons. It is a very amazing research institute, highly respected and covering all aspects of freshwater research, not only ecology but also more applied things. For instance, on the news page you can find, in close proximity, an announcement of Dr. Altermatt getting the big grant which will fund my project; “Combining the best of both toilet worlds“; “Cocktail of pesticides in Swiss rivers“; and a notice about extending the wastewater treatment plant. I think that working in a place which has multiple fields of focus will be a great opportunity and hopefully make my research more dynamic. It’s great to think of being able to check ideas with people looking at other aspects of river ecosystems. And, because of their focus on sustainability, the main building is the amazing Forum Chriesbach which is built from a lot of prototype materials, harvests rainwater for the bathrooms, and is so energy-efficient that it doesn’t have a heating or cooling system!!

Finally, my degree will be through University of Zurich, which is also pretty cool. While I was in town for the interview I stayed with my friend Timothée and visited the campus and his lab. There is a lot of very cool research going on there, and in general, Zurich is an amazing academic environment. There’s also ETH Zurich, the Swiss university, and the two institutions collaborate on seminars and courses. It is going to be a very stimulating few years.

So, I have a lot of joy in my life right now. For the weekend, I’m focusing on tying up some loose ends and spending a bit of time in the mountains which I have missed so dearly.

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spring in Gotland.

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Over the last few weeks I have been lucky to receive some great visitors to Visby. First my mother came and now two other friends (one at a time!). It’s always amazing how sometimes you don’t do things or see the sights in the place you live until other people come to visit. Suddenly you feel you have to show them around, and you realize you don’t know how! So I’ve learned quite a bit about Visby and Gotland in these days.

It has also been nice because as tourist season approaches, more and more things are opening up, whether it is cafes and restaurants or the ruins of old cathedrals. This weekend I was able to finally go inside some of the ruins and man, they were incredible. So thanks to my visitors for finally getting me outside doing things (and eating some FANTASTIC food, as I rarely go out to eat by myself here in Sweden, $$$$).

When my mother was here we rented a car and ventured to the far north of the island, to Fårö, which is actually an island of its own. We took a small ferry across the channel (just a five minutes ride or something – in the U.S. they’d just build a bridge, but the ferry was great and I prefer it!) to the home of Ingmar Bergman. Confession, I have never seen a Bergman film. But I will have to now. Fårö is amazing. I don’t have much time to write, but here are a few pictures. Click to enlarge.

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.

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A little late on the report for this one, but I recently got back from Portugal. Portugal! The warm, sunny Iberian peninsula.

For some reason it had never occurred to me to go to Portugal before. On my list of things to do in Europe, this wasn’t on it. No offense, Portugal: neither were a lot of other typical tourist things. But when my masters classmates and I were planning out our “winter school”, we had one primary criterium: cheapness. After that we were divided between whether we should go somewhere typically wintery and play in the snow, or go south. South won, and after a heated debate between Greece and Portugal, we ended up in Lisbon.

It was great!

My friend Lore and I built in an extra two days to be able to explore and do touristy things. We hit all the famous monuments, the gardens, big churches, and wandered the twisty, hilly streets of the old city. It was awesome. The first day, we arrived to our beautiful hostel right near Barrio Alto (Lisbon Calling; the rooms are beautifully designed, the beds comfortable, and the price cheap: an amazing community which will forever make other hostels seem depressingly inadequate), and wandered up the hill.

We got a “refresco” at a kiosk in the square; we sat at the foot of a huge statue. We ate petiscos, the Portuguese version of tapas, at Taberna da Rua das Flores. Holy cow, were they good. Lore doesn’t really like fish that much, but she was brave and ate them anyway – even more remarkable because it was mostly raw. But the flavors! Sort of fusion, but a little bit of tradition. The first dish we had was some kind of small herring-like thing, raw with a sauce and sesame seeds and seaweed. I’ve never liked pickled herring but I was floored at how good it was (and the seaweed too, yum!). I’m on a student budget and basically never eat out these days, so maybe the food seemed even more remarkable to me. It had just been a few hours in Lisbon, but we were already pretty sure we loved this city.

We slept well in our beds, woke up to a lovely Portuguese breakfast included in the hostel’s room fee, and set off toward Belém, west of the city of Lisbon proper. There, first we tried the famous pastéis de Belém, some pastries which I can’t even describe other than scrumptious. They were warm out of the oven; the line out of the pastryshop extended around the corner. Not even in Paris have I seen such a queue for a pastry. And, dusted with cinnamon, we soon found out why.

pasteis

We spent several hours exploring a large Hieronymite mosastery, then wandering through some gardens, past a large monument to Portugal’s explorers, and up to the Tower of Belém. I’m fascinated by old things: we don’t have many of them where I come from. The Abenakis lived in our part of New Hampshire, and they don’t leave behind big monuments (which, of course, is actually better in a number of ways….). The first European settlers arrived in my little town of Lyme in 1764. We have a few very old houses, but nothing like this. While my town was a little collection of settlers and farmers trying to scrape by, Portugal was the richest empire in the world. (okay, well, it was a little past its prime in the late 1700s, but still)

I got to see that. It was cool.

Everything was beautiful. Everything was sunny. It was a perfect day.

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I had been working quite hard before I left for winter school, and was really still working there: while I waited for Lore to arrive that first day, I had been busily typing away. In Sweden alone, we have one paper which has come back from review (and to which we must, of course, make huge changes), one which we are finalizing with co-authors, and one for which I’ve done about half the analysis and none of the writing. I’m also finally turning my Switzerland thesis into a manuscript. Plus, money is getting tight and I’m trying to apply for more grants (do you know of any small grants for graduate students? please!? I’m getting desperate!!).

So to walk along in the sun with Lore leaving all of our cares behind us – I can’t even explain how good that felt.

It felt good.

After our Belém sightseeing it was 2 p.m. and we were starving, so we were forced to stop and grab lunch at a touristy cafeteria and while not exactly disappointing, it was overpriced and nothing compared to our meal the night before. We headed into Lisbon proper and explored a bit in Baixa/Chaido, and bought gelato and sat looking at the river. Nice.

Then: we met up with my friends Marta and Gonçalo! They started the masters with us in Uppsala so many months ago, and Marta was one reason I was really excited to move back to Uppsala. I actually lived with her in January. They took us to a miradouro, basically a nice park up on a hill overlooking the city. Classmates Min Ya and Berenice soon arrived from the airport and joined us. We sipped beer and relaxed and were so happy to be together.

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Ah so happy!! (l-r) Lore, Marta, me, Min Ya, and Bere. Photo from Bere’s camera.

I’m all for sightseeing, but I found out what people really do in Lisbon: they relax and sit in miradouros with their friends. There are no laws against public drinking. It’s a lovely, lovely way to spend an afternoon. At some point a few days later, I stopped being so set on running all over the city to see this cool thing or that, and realized that hey, maybe we should take this message to heart, and stop and sit and relax and enjoy ourselves somewhere with a nice view and a glass of wine.

Man, this is getting long. The next day, winter school itself started. We moved to Quinta Sao Pedro, a lovely estate across the river, and it was more like a retreat.  It was a very productive session: we all workshopped the introductions of our theses, which was super helpful. The next day we worked on figures, each presenting three from our papers and getting feedback on what we did well, what we didn’t do well, and how our visual representation of our data could be improved. In another session we worked on our CV’s, comparing notes and how to organize things. It was, in all honestly, a much more useful and helpful experience than I thought winter school would be.

hard at work. photo: Lore Ament.

hard at work. photo: Lore Ament.

We did other things. We went to the beach, and to the aquarium. We ate a lot of good food. We drank a lot of beer and wine, and I fell further in love with Portugal’s vinho verde. We went to a fado house and listened to great music as we ate dinner.

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Our message for the half of our classmates who decided not to come to winter school. You lose, suckers!! Photo: Berenice Villegas.

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Photo: Berenice Villegas.

group photo from bere

Photo: Berenice Villegas.

Looking west. MEMEs from across the ocean (l-r): Brazil, Mexico/USA, just USA, and just Mexico. Photo: Berenice Villegas.

Looking west. MEMEs from across the ocean (l-r): Brazil, Mexico/USA, just USA, and just Mexico. Photo: Berenice Villegas.

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phew. Arash and me relaxing. Photo: Berenice Villegas.

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photo: Berenice Villegas.

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Sunset on the beach. Photo: Berenice Villegas.

In the end, almost everyone left. Min Ya, Lore and I stayed a little longer, and went to a beautiful botanical garden in Principe Real. We could have stayed there forever exploring.

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And then, after another night in the hostel and a morning sitting by the river soaking up the sun, Lore and I left too.

Getting home was a nightmare. Fuck Air France.

I’m left with nothing but happy memories of Lisbon, and I can’t wait to go back again. I can’t believe that I had never known how obvious a place this was to go visit. Go! visit it!

I’m back to work, back typing away at all those papers, but I feel quite a bit better after a week in a totally different place.

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daily diary

Yesterday was an easy day. With one phenomenal North American result between the two races, we didn’t have to do particularly intensive coverage. It was in fact the easiest day we’ve had so far, except for the day before when there was no races! So here’s what it looks like on an easy day:

8:30: wake up. yeah it’s not super early, you’ll see why later. First I read and respond to e-mails and correct mistakes we have made in articles we posted last night.

9:00: go for a jog. It’s not the most inspiring jogging up here, you can do a loop all the way around Gorki Village in about ten minutes. It takes you through the village plaza, which is nice, but also past a lot of ongoing construction. There’s a few building projects on such steep slopes that Alex and I are certain they won’t last five year. As I was running by one, a pile of rocks literally fell off the retaining wall and rolled down the hill. So much for that. Alex and I jog together about half the time; this day I was alone.

9:30: take a shower and pack for the day. when I go to bed at night my stuff is usually exploded all over one side of the room because I’m too tired to organize it, so packing means picking all the pieces back out.

10:00: go down to breakfast. Nat arrived shortly after me so we ate together. It is an amazing buffet! Everything you could imagine, even maple syrup. The scrambled eggs are amazing and they often have smoked salmon. I want to eat everything, every day. This is the only square meal we get each day so it is not something to rush through – it’s something to savor. The buffet is included in our hotel fee but we aren’t getting reimbursed for other expenses and of course, food at the venues is incredibly overpriced and not all that good. You can’t even get free water in the media center – a far cry from what I’m used to on the biathlon World Cup where they serve amazing food for free to all media workers. So, we take our time and stuff ourselves at breakfast, then sneak apples into our bags as well as little sandwiches we have made with the bread and other goodies from breakfast. So far nobody at the hotel has yelled at us.

10:30: Nat and I leave the hotel.

10:33: we arrive at the top of the gondola in Gorki Village and start heading down.

10:41: we get off the gondola and start walking up towards the mountain.

10:58: arrive at the base of the gondola to the Laura biathlon and cross-country ski venues. Go through security.

11:01: get on the gondola heading up.

11:07: the gondola stops…. we are all nervous.

11:09: the gondola restarts! thank God!

11:16: get off the gondola

11:18: get on a bus to the biathlon venue.

11:20: the bus stops at a weird place where I guess some volunteers sometimes get on or off, but there is absolutely nothing around there so we don’t understand where these people are coming from.

11:24: arrive at Laura biathlon venue! Phew!

11:26: sit down in the media center

11:35: walk out to the shooting range to try to snag Susan for a hug during training – it’s her birthday! Unfortunately she did a short training so I missed her. She had invited me over to the athletes’ village but I didn’t have time to go on this particular day and I felt terrible for abandoning her on her birthday. Happy birthday to my favorite biathlete! Anyway, since I’m out there, I have some useful off-the-record conversations with Matthias Ahrens, head coach of the Canadian team, and Max Cobb, an American who is the TD (basically, head organizer) of the biathlon races at the Olympics. The course conditions are very difficult to prepare for and Max really has his work cut out for him. We talk off the record about twice a day and it’s great to have an American in this job so that they are available to us – for the ski races it’s a Czech guy, and obviously it’s not anywhere near as easy for us to get constant updates about what is going on from the officials’ side of things!

11:57: go back to the media center. work a little.

12:15: start walking up to the cross country venue.

12:21: arrive at the shuttle departure for athletes and staff next to the venue. I met up with Pepa Miloucheva, my old coach from my days on the Craftsbury Green Racing Project. Pepa is here coaching Tucker Murphy, a fellow Dartmouth grad (much older than me) and ecologist (much better than me) who is originally from Bermuda. Tucker trained with us in Craftsbury off and on before the Vancouver Olympics, where he was the first skier ever to represent Bermuda. He’s at it again this year and Pepa is here as his coach – she walked with Tucker in the opening ceremonies as he carried his flag, and they all wore great Bermuda shorts. Anyway, it was SO FUN to see Pepa! We got to catch up a little bit over a coffee before we both had to scramble back to work. It’s amazing the different ways people find to get to the Olympics.

12:45: leave the coffee place

12:52: arrive back in media center. Get to work on publishing an article. Pretty much every day, we all publish something before racing begins. Often it’s dealing with the leftovers from previous races – Alex was working on something using all the quotes we had from the sprint day, since we were so busy covering Kikkan and Sophie and the actual race winners that we never wrote much about the other Americans and Canadians. Other times, it’s things that aren’t directly connected to the racing, just other fun Olympic stories. Nat was working on a “reporters’ notebook” piece about making the trip down to the Black Sea on our off-day, and I wrote something about the flagbearer nomination process, since Susan was the voting representative for biathlon and told me how it worked. It was pretty cool actually. But it was a hurry to….

1:46…. publish it before…

2:02: walking up to the cross country venue.

2:08: The race actually started at 2 p.m., but the first loop was off in the woods on the other side of the venue so we went up a few minutes late and stopped lower down on the course. We watched people go by, tried to keep the best track we could of splits for the racers we cared about, and I took some photos. We ended up standing next to these two guys from North Dakota who came to watch hockey but were taking an off day to come up to the mountain. They had just randomly decided to come to cross country skiing – one of them was a recreational skier but the other had never been skiing in his life! They asked lots of questions and it was sort of fun to explain cross country skiing to them. Credit to these two guys for checking out an entirely new sport!

2:55: Ida Sargent skis by, the last American bib in the race and after the top-seeded skiers. After taking a few more pictures, run up to the mixed zone.

2:57: Arrive in mixed zone. Alex is already there and Nat arrives soon. Talk to Sadie, Ida, and Holly. Stick around while we look for U.S. and Canadian coaches – eventually Alex runs off to look for them. Nat runs off to look for Vidar Lofshus, the Norwegian coach. I stick around even longer as I wait for Marit Bjørgen to finally leave the extensive broadcast area – seriously she had to give so many interviews – and make it to the written press section. Then wait longer while she talks to the Norwegian press. Finally, she makes it to the English-speaking press section. Get a few quotes.

4:00, roughly: head back to the media center. On the way down I run into Nat and Alex who are talking to Reto Burgermeister, the Swiss guy who coaches Alexander Legkov and Ilia Chernousov. Have an off-the-record chat.

4:15, roughly: arrive back in the media center. I download the photos I have taken and quickly upload a dozen photos to our facebook account. Nat says he will go to the press conference but it turns out we’ve missed it already… whooops!

4:35: start transcribing the interviews from the American girls.

4:45: realize that it’s way way way too hoot in the media center. we move outside and are working on our laptops sitting on the terrace of the biathlon building, with the beautiful mountains in the background.

5:20: go back inside to finish writing the article on the American girls.

5:48: publish the story about the American girls. Nat is still working on the international race report and Alex has the challenging task of putting something together about the Canadians, none of whom did well. They keep working.

5:55: grab a start list and run out to the shooting range.

6:00: arrive on the range just as the first starter of the men’s biathlon 20 k, Evgeniy Garanichev of Russia, leaves the starting box. Watch some of them start, take a few illicit photos while trying to hide my point-and-shoot camera. Move over to the range as Garanichev comes through, and begin the tough task of trying to track how many shots each racer misses over four stages in an interval-start race. I quickly jettison the stats for people I don’t think have a good chance of ending up on the podium, but I’m still trying to keep track of about 25-30 racers, who are scattered throughout the field. Sometimes I will have two on their second prone shooting and three on their first standing all at the same time.

6:15: am approached by Dr. Jim Carrabe, the head medical guy from the International Biathlon Union. I interviewed him a few days ago so we watch the results scrolling through and we have an off-the-record chat. I really appreciate it and it’s great to have these connections. He’s also a nice guy. However, during this time I lose track of shooting for quite a few racers! Tough to multitask!

7:10: Tim Burke has finished up his final shooting and is out on course. I leave the shooting range and head in so that I can catch him in the mixed zone.

7:14: pit stop in the media center to grab my puffy coat, because I am freezing cold. Alex is still in there working (Nat had long ago headed out on course with his photographer credential to take photos) and says she’ll join me soon.

7:20: arrive in the mixed zone. It’s a while before anyone comes through. Eventually, Nat comes and he talks to Tim and Lowell. Alex talks to Russell Currier. I talk to to JP Le Guellec and Brendan Green. In between, we chat with the other reporters and watch the results trickle in on the jumbotron in the stadium. From the mixed zone, I had to stand on my tippy toes to see anything other than the top two lines of the results as they scroll by. But you want to know – for the later starters, I had already left the range so I don’t know how they shot, which is good information to have before you start talking to them!

7:55: take a few minutes to enjoy the sunset.

807: back in the media center.

8:15: head down to the press conference. we are determined not to miss it so I decide to go. Lowell had a great race and Nat has a lot of material from him, so he will head up that effort, and Alex will try to put something together with the material from all the guys who did not do as well.

8:34: press conference is over so I head back upstairs and start working.

9:25: Max Cobb wanders through the workroom and stops to chat. More off-the-record conversations. Nat asks what this weather situation is doing to his job and he says something like “it is making my life a living hell.” we talk a lot about what else can be done to fix the course situation, but the answer is not much. Max says that the last resort is to change the times of the races, since the snow is still cold and fast and nice to ski on in the morning. But at the Olympics, with all the tickets and broadcast arrangements, you can’t really just change the time of a competition unless you have a darn good reason. It seems that the powers that be don’t consider a huge percentage of the field crashing horribly to be a sufficiently good reason. As I said before, poor Max.

10:10: publish my story after I have gone through Nat’s hundreds of photos and pulled out a few of the best ones. It’s a pretty interesting one – my favorite part is that Erik Lesser, the German biathlete who took silver, was doing it in part for his grandfather, who raced for East Germany in the 1976 Olympics. Axel Lesser was the second leg of the relay and was skiing in second place when he somehow crashed into a spectator and either due to injury or equipment breaking had to withdraw. Anyway, the silver medal came back to the family after all thanks to the grandson. Erik Lesser also talked about his 93-year-old great grandfather. It was a fun story.

10:15: relax a little bit and post some photos on facebook.

10:30: put up a short blog post about the biathlon mass start start list, which has just been published. The mass start is limited to 30 men and remarkably, three Canadians and two Americans have made the cut. Their spots came at the expense of Tarjei Bø, the Norwegian who is the reigning World Champion in the discipline but has had an abysmal Olympics so far, and Germany’s usual top-ranked biathlete, Andreas Birnbacher. Lots of interesting stuff in there.

10:57: publish.

11:01: we begin packing to go home as Nat and Alex have also finished their stories. Yay!

11:07: actually walk out of the press workroom. we have made a mess and our brains are mush so it takes us a while to get our shit together.

11:10: we are about to get on a bus to the gondola when Nat realizes that he has left the camera on the workroom table… he runs back inside.

11:10 and 10 seconds: the bus leaves. we aren’t on it.

11:12: we get on another bus.

11:15: the bus actually leaves, with us on it.

11:17: bus arrives at the gondola station.

11:18: get on the gondola. we ride down with some Russian volunteers who speak basically no English. They are very friendly though so we have a fun and strange conversation on a variety of topics, using a lot of hand gestures, simple words, and basically we all end up laughing at each other. It’s fun to talk to them.

11:30: get off the gondola and begin walking back towards Gorki.

11:49: reach the bottom of the Gorki gondola!

11:59: get off the gondola at the top.

12:00: we are walking down the steps from the gondola when a guy lounging beside a golf cart insists on driving us to the hotel. This has never been an option before. Frankly it’s nice to stretch our legs but he seems pretty insistent so we get in. The guy proceeds to tear through Gorki village taking the corners at top speed like a rally car driver! Alex is sitting in the last row of seats facing backwards and I’m a little worried we are going to lose her. It’s pretty fun and we are laughing like maniacs. I wonder if the driver is drunk.

12:01: arrive at the hotel. Nat is tired and goes to bed, but Alex and I are way too jazzed up from the day to fall asleep. We’re also starving as all we have eaten is snack food since breakfast. So we make ourselves a little supper: crackers and cheese, apples and nutella. And we drink a beer. There’s nothing on television so we look up a few videos on YouTube and respond to a few more e-mails. I read a couple of pages of my book, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out a Window and Disappeared. It’s a great book! You should read it. Anyway, we slowly decompress from the day.

1:15: go to bed. We continue to chat about things with the lights off as we’re falling asleep.

This is the earliest we’ve gone to bed in days – on the sprint/women’s pursuit day, when we arrived back in the hotel we couldn’t relax and instead had to keep working (although we did pop open a few beers as we continued to transcribe, write, and sort through photos). That day I think we didn’t go to bed until almost 3 a.m. That’s more the normal situation, which explains why I sleep until 8:30, which is far later than normal for me, and then struggle to pry myself out of bed.

And then the process starts all over again.. usually by realizing that one of those stories that we published at midnight has some major typo or mistake in it. A great way to start the day!

le vol du train jaune.

curve bridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So that was Le Train Jaune part 1.

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

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train jaune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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valley village