lisbon.

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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.

scenery 1

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valley village

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.

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.