Thursday, May 05, 2016

Budapest & Copenhagen

In the last couple months, I've had such a fun couple of trips for skating purposes. Much of the travel in my life has surrounded skating (especially prior to our move abroad), so anytime I have the chance, I'm happy to jump into the familiar routine. So, here's how they went!

Budapest – April 6-10, 2016

This trip was more about learning, with no actual coaching. It also involved some sightseeing, but primarily, we were there for the 2016 World Synchronized Skating Championships. This trip was a long time coming and by the time it arrived, it caught us off guard that we were actually finally doing it. The plan started coming together by late last summer, as we knew Worlds would be in Budapest (close by and very cheap), so we had to go.

The others I coach with in Stockholm with were the obvious answer for travel buddies, but then we were offered up a 10-bed place in the city center for 5000kr ($600) for the five days and it became obvious that everyone interested would be more than welcome. (The apartment we stayed at usually goes for quite a bit more, but is owned by the parents of one of my skaters, so they were happy to give it to us at a huge discount.) Here's the view upon entering the courtyard of our apartment:

So the list ended up being nine of us: Me, two coaches from Stockholm, a friend (ex-skater) from Boston, a friend (ex-skater) from Estonia, two members of a film crew working with one of the coaches from Stockholm the end of a documentary at the event, and then a past German exchange student my family hosted (featured here, which I've also traveled extensively with) and her boyfriend. It was a big group and worked excellently. There was always someone to hang out with, always someone to share a dish with, always someone to go see a sight with, and plenty of people to chat about skating with. We stayed up far too late, woke up as early as we could, played Cards Against Humanity, ate lots of cheap food, drank cranberry cider, and enjoyed lots of cheap taxis all over.

Eva, Kiva, Isabel

Budapest was beautiful. We got incredibly lucky and had amazing (and hot!) weather the first couple days we arrived. The group I traveled with happily whipped off our winter jackets the second we stepped off the plane into the contrasting summer heat, compared with what we'd just left behind. Some of the group even got sunburns. (The last couple days we were there got a little bit cooler and had some rain, but at that point, it didn't matter, as all our activities were inside at the rink.)

On the day the majority of these pictures are from, we walked what was essentially all of Budapest. I tried to capture the majority of it...

And now, to the rink...

Overall, the competition was excellent. The rink was pretty small compared to what I've been used to, and while this worried me at first, when we arrived, we instead realized it simply meant there were almost zero bad seats to be had. The top teams to impress us (outside of the usual) were Mexico, France's short, Italy's long and Hungary overall. It must have truly been awesome for the Hungarian team, as when they got on the ice, the whole arena nearly exploded with cheers.

Ultimately, we weren't so thrilled with the results. I certainly wouldn't have had Russia in first. But, it's been a long time coming for them (their first World gold), so we couldn't help but cheer them on. We were so psyched that USA1 won the long program, so we'll take that at least.

And last but not least, on our exit from the competition, we bumped into our three apartment roommates who were filming the documentary. They were asking people for comments on the competition and all of us being as quick as possible to get out of the limelight shoved Kiva forward to do her thing.

It was so fun, returning home felt like coming back to earth. But then Kiva then came with me back to Stockholm for a few days and joined us on the ice for some coaching, which was so great for both us and our skaters.


Copenhagen – March 25-27, 2016

Going backwards in time before that was our trip to Copenhagen, Denmark with a small group of skaters from our club. Two of them skate on the team I coach, so I primarily oversaw their activities, but helped with whatever other ways I could find as well. It was so fun to travel with everyone and see how the competition was run, but the best part of the weekend by a long shot was watching these two experience their first-ever competition.

They never stop making us smile. In fact enough, that at practice this past week, I had to stop myself from laughing at how darn cute they were during their program.

The weekend was a blast -- super, crazy-exhausting, and awesome. I was so nervous for them to have the best first competition possible, with all fingers crossed that there would be no silly accidents or something. And very thankfully, it went off without a hitch. They skated superbly and we were so proud.

This trip was pretty limited on pictures, and a few people who I mentioned it to ahead of time completely didn't believe me when I told them, "I'm quite sure I won't see the city..." And I was not mistaken. We went from the airport to the hotel to the rink and back. Nothing more or less, there was not a free second between all the fun at the rink and the sleeping we were desperate to do when not at the rink. I wouldn't have had it any other way. Surely I'll see Copenhagen itself someday.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Lapland 2016

Last month, I spent half a week in Lapland. To sum up what Lapland even is -- here's the opening quote from Wikipedia:
Sápmi, in English commonly known as Lapland, is the cultural region traditionally inhabited by the Sami people, traditionally known in English as Lapps. Sápmi is located in Northern Europe and includes the northern parts of Fennoscandia. The region stretches over four countries: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
This trip was packed full of things to do, so I'll go day by day for a summary. Note, I started writing this post while on the way home from the trip, but then go so wrapped up in work and another trip, so I'm finally finishing it now. Now, from the start...


The trip started off with one word: cumbersome. I wanted to swing by the rink to drop off some skating dresses and watch as much practice with a guest coach as I could before going to the airport, so I brought my luggage with me. After my time was up, I had a long walk to the commuter train towards the airport, which was made a good deal more annoying by the amount of snow I had to deal with. As I dragged my suitcase through the snow, I thought of all the alternative suitcases I'd like to have -- one with big snow-capable wheels, or maybe something with a sled.

I made it to the station with 3 minutes to spare, got to the airport with 20 minutes until boarding, messaged Anita my dinner order as I approached security, and sat down to eat quickly before we boarded our flight, 5 minutes before it took off. Domestic flights within Sweden are such a pleasure, with their lack of waiting around, ID checks, or excessive lines.

We flew for the next hour and a half towards the northern city of Kiruna. When we landed, we stepped off the plane and down the stairs to the tarmac, met by a very crisp, cold night. From there, we got our bags (I think the local airport has two, maybe three rooms) and got on a bus to the city center. From the bus, we walked to our hotel (somewhat long, and again, in quite a lot of snow). We settled in for the night, with plans to be up early and out the next morning.


The next morning, Anita left early to get the rental car while I got ready, packed up, and brought our stuff down to meet her. From there, we drove from Kiruna to Lofoten. It took us about 6 hours and was one of, if not the, most beautiful drives I've ever done. Through mountains, fjords, wild reindeer, along lakes, the sea, on and on, it was amazing. We listened to podcasts, took pictures, talked about everything and anything -- the six hours blew by.

Our route:
(The small cluster of stars to the left of where it says "Baltic Sea" is Stockholm.)

I took a bunch of videos and some pictures during the drive, and have strung them together (along with a bunch of our other footage) here:

Saturday evening, we arrived in Lofoten. We checked into our hotel and were pleasantly surprised by how great it was. We didn't have low expectations or anything, but the whole trip was as budget-friendly as possible, so this particular hotel was a kind of hostel/apartment thing wherein we rented a room within an apartment. The room itself was just like any hotel room (with its own bathroom) and required a keycard to enter, but then in the common area there were doors to two more bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room, all decorated very nicely. We think we had one other couple (or person?) staying in one of the other rooms, but we never actually saw them -- only heard someone come in later in the evening.

After dropping our stuff off, we set off to walk around town and get the lay of the land, as well as take some pictures as the sun set. It was a beautiful little town that smelled like fish everywhere we went. But not in a bad way, just in a fishing village kind of way, and it was enjoyable, being so cold and crisp out anyhow.

On the way home, not wanting to spend the rest of our budget on dining out in Norway (which is quite expensive), we stopped at a grocery store and got supplies to make a taco dinner and breakfast stuff for the next morning. We spent the evening keeping an eye on the northern lights forecast and prepared to rush out if the possibility arose to see anything decent, but had no luck with that.


Our plans to get out the door and back on the road early did not go quite as planned. It was my day to drive and my first actual moments driving (the first time I'd done so in a year and a half) were absolutely terrifying. As I remembered how to drive a stick shift, I steered the car up and out of the underground parking lot we'd paid to park in beneath our hotel. When we were at about the halfway point out of the ramp up to the street, the car started to slide. As we slid, it stalled, and I held onto the steering wheel, keeping it as straight as possible, as we slipped backwards down the ramp. Surrounded by concrete walls on both sides, this was terrifying. Somehow, I managed to keep us from hitting anything. Once back in the garage, I hopped out and Anita swapped in. We also had the added fear of the sporadically-closing garage door, so I stayed out of the car to press the button to keep it open while Anita tried to drive out. After two more failed attempts, we gave up. Anita's last attempt was the closest to exiting, but because of that, the car had the most speed and slid back down the fastest, ending a bit sideways, which was the most terrifying.

At this point, I went inside the hotel to ask what their solution to this problem would be (given that it was their garage and surely we weren't the first with this problem). The boy working the front desk made a phone call and in a few minutes, three people from the hotel and one guy who had just been passing by, were helping to move the car. After a few minutes of shoveling in as much gravel as they could, the four of them got in position, counted down, and, making it look far too easy, picked the car up and moved it. Anita then hopped out, and one of the hotel workers slid the car back down into the garage, added more gravel, and then, successfully drove it out.

The weather started off bad, but in about an hour, we were back in the sun. Another gorgeous drive of 6ish hours later, we were back in Kiruna. After dropping the rental car off and a quick grocery stop for our meals for the next few days, we were picked up by our camp's shuttle van and on our way there.


The next morning, we were up and ready to go bright and early. After heading over to the cabin full of outdoor wear, we were snowsuited up with big boots, heavy duty gloves, helmets, eye-wear, etc., ready for our snowmobile tour to the Ice Hotel and Sámi museum. This was a blast. It'd been a while since I last drove a snowmobile, but after a few minutes, it was comfortable again. Somehow, while holding on behind me, Anita managed to get some awesome footage, shown in the video posted above. (I was on the back of the snowmobile on the return trip and didn't have the guts to try taking my phone out to record more footage.)

The ride was great and incredibly beautiful. After a few laps around a frozen lake and passing through the woods, we arrived at the Ice Hotel. After having a quick look around, we set off to walk to the nearby Sámi camp. There were a bunch of cultural exhibits and even some reindeer, which were, of course, our favorite.

It was awesome to see them up close, and we stuck around until they got bored of us and wandered off. After that, we went back to the Ice Hotel. Anita paid to do the tour while I ducked off to the side to check in with work on my phone and make sure I wasn't missing anything important while off having fun.

Upon getting back to our cabin that night, we began religiously checking the northern lights forecast for the evening -- our last -- in the hopes that we'd finally be able to catch something. We packed up our remaining food (halloumi cheese and meatballs), grabbed a frying pan, and went to a nearby campfire hut (I have no better name for what these things were) to settle in for some dinner and night sky-watching.

We cooked and ate our dinner while refreshing the forecast and checking the view out the window for a few hours before we noticed someone's camera flash going off outside. At that point, Anita ran back to grab her camera and tripod from our cabin while I cleaned up our dinner stuff and got my own camera ready. Soon after, even though the forecast hadn't been great, we had a seriously awesome northern lights show on our hands:

I easily took a hundred decent pictures during the next four-ish hours we spent absolutely freezing outside, trying to see everything we could, desperate to ignore the insane cold. My feet, despite all my terrible freezing hours while skating, had never been more cold. The rest of me was, thankfully, somewhat warm. Anita was shaking, chattering, and I worried, about ready to fall over at some points. But she was having none of it, and pressed on. We got so many great pictures and were just plain amazed. It was so fun to sit around the campfire with the other groups staying at the camp (a group from Ireland, two New Yorkers, and some Germans), having snacks, chatting and watching the lights as they came and went.

For one of the first times, I experienced something that non native English speakers get all the time: the ability to switch languages to speak privately at times. (The first time a Swedish friend realized English speakers are never able to do this while vacationing abroad, etc., she was so full of pity for us.) Now I know this could be a rude thing to do, and of course it would be if done excessively, but it's something I've always envied of my foreign friends. And this night, it came in quite handy that the rest of the group were just passing tourists in Sweden and so, as needed, we could quickly comment to each other in Swedish without worry of being overheard. (Side note: This came in even more handy on our later US trip, as I was able to quickly let off some steam about the terribly annoying guy on the flight next to me who didn't stop fidgeting the entire trip, constantly elbowing and keeping me awake for 5 hours. I was about ready to explode at that point, thinking about how tired I'd be the next day.)

By 1am I think it was, we collapsed into our exceptionally warm beds. I heard later that the lights continued very late into the night, but I'm glad we didn't know that, or I think we'd have turned into blocks of ice trying to see it all.


The last day. In the morning, Anita was off for some dogsledding, which I opted out of in order to get some extra work done. So I cleaned up the last of our stuff, checked us out of the cabin, and started to write up this summary of the trip. When done, she returned and after tracking down someone from the cabin staff to give us a ride, we were off to the airport. The flight back was uneventful and quick. As I arrived home and walked in the door, I was greeted by two mildly interested cats and one husband who wondered if I'd brought some kind of meat-smoking device home with me. I didn't realize until that point, once removed from the surroundings, that my jacket smelled as though it had been cooked over a campfire itself, as did all my clothes. I don't remember much more from that night, as I was about ready to fall over and asleep by then. Such a fun, exhausting and awesome trip!

Monday, February 01, 2016

Crazy Start to 2016

It's been a while. But, that's life. So, here I am again, documenting what I've been up to so that I can remember later, or at least so that my family can have written proof I exist while I've been unable to keep in touch as well as I should while being busier than ever.

January started off dead, with few things to do other than work, and few friends to see, as many were away on vacation. We stayed home this year, celebrating the holidays ourselves. I won't lie, this is not one of the highlights of expat life -- it's quite frustrating to have to choose between a nice, quiet Christmas at home or traveling thousands of miles to have the traditional Christmas with the full extended family. Both are nice, but the sting of missing the big family parties is made a lot worse by the day-after Facebook feed full of pictures of kids another year older, family traditions, and other things that are taken for granted by many.

I made a point to arrange gatherings with friends during this time, recognizing that I'd probably want to feel as with "family" as is possible around those days. We are surrounded by a small group of great friends here, and I'm exceptionally thankful for that. And over the last half year or so, I've found that I quite like hosting events, which is now possible given that we have a much bigger apartment with a nice, big dining room table. So during the holidays, we held a few really nice dinners. And then throughout January, the same.

After the holidays were over, things resumed at full speed. From the start, I knew January would be a crazy to just get through and get everything done, and I think I managed all right. It was one of those "When it rains, it pours" times. On days when I had a huge from-home workload, I also had agreed to dinner with friends. On days when I had extra late skating practice, I also had no choice but to be up and out early the next day. It was one thing after another, but really, I wouldn't have changed it. I had a lot of fun, met some new people, caught up with friends, traveled a bit, and learned a lot.

In the middle of the month, I went with our older team out to a competition in Gothenburg, just as I did last year. It was a blast, yet again, made especially fun because this particular competition is a large, international one with teams from countries all over the world, so I got a chance to cheer for Team USA in addition to our own and sit near Americans as we spent longggg days in the stands, which felt quite nostalgic. I didn't go all-out, but wasn't going to hide the team spirit either:

(The back of my jacket has the name of our skating club in nice, huge letters, so I considered this fairly supporting both sides.)

A funny moment from the competition: given that there were so many international teams around the rink, I thought, "This is great, I can speak English and no one will think I'm a lazy expat, just that I'm a visiting foreigner." And so, I walked up to the counter to order my lunch, only to find that the person taking my order didn't speak English (which is exceptionally rare in Sweden). It seems the universe really wants to force that one on me. At the least, I think the woman was surprised that the American trying to order in English was able to switch to Swedish. So, I'll take what I can get.

One thing that I particularly enjoyed about this weekend spent at the rink was that, after just about three years here now, being in a competition rink is becoming like it was in the US again. Walking around for a few minutes results in bumping into a handful of friends and/or hearing, "Hey Jamie!" from somewhere, which is something I missed without even realizing it.

As I always have, I took lots of videos at the competition, which are all online here, for those interested. My favorite programs were Skyliner's Junior Free and Nova's Junior Short. As I'll be coaching a team that competes next year, these videos and what we were able to see that weekend felt all the more important, as preparing a team for that level of competition within the next year feels quite daunting at times.


So January was a bit crazy, and February looks to be about the same. I have my normal schedule for the next 11 days, which I've attempted to keep free to too many extra activities, and then am off with Anita to Kiruna (and Lofoten and wherever else we drive) for 5 days. After that, I'm home for about a week and then off to Gothenburg again for a weekend skating competition.

In March, I have a weeklong trip to Boston, and then the week after, another weekend away at a skating competition, but this time in Copenhagen, and for ice dance, rather than synchro (which, though I have an undying love of synchro, I am exceptionally excited for).

So far, April holds a very fun five days in Budapest for the synchro world championships with some of my best friends from all over (USA, Estonia, and of course Sweden), and then a fun week after that with the American friend, who will be coming back to Stockholm with me. A few days after that, we have a synchro seminar, which, quite thankfully after all this craziness, will be here in Stockholm.

After unintentionally taking last year off from most travel, this year is so far shaping up to be the exact opposite, and though it's a bit of a balancing act at times, I'm loving it.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Things to Remember

A few pictures of things lately:

Finding Luna sleeping on the welcome mat in the middle of the night
And catching her looking guilty just after she knocked over my thank you card
Skaters before their pig-themed practice
Asked to create a practice word problem and didn't realize until confusion ensued that, given that I don't drive here, I still think in imperial units for driving-related measurements.
And this gorgeous sunset view from our balcony.