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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...


Friday

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.

Saturday

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.

Sunday

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.

Monday

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.

Tuesday

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.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Recap, Volume II

Okay, so let's see where I left off...

Soon after the last stuff mentioned in my previous post, we wrapped up the skating season for the year. This was both very good and a little sad. Sad to say "bye" to everyone for the summer, but good in that we had a few great events the last couple weeks – most importantly, a handful of my skaters took their first Swedish national test, Fri Grund (for U.S. skaters, they took the equivalent of Pre-Preliminary Free Skate, mixed with some MIF elements as well – here is a video of a skater taking it from another club in Sweden). I think that I was more nervous for their testing than for myself, back when I took my own. They were all so excited, and could all do the moves required, but then, who knows if something will cause them to have an off performance when it counts... When they each asked me if they'd pass, I repeated the same thing, "I know you can pass because I have seen you do these elements a thousand times, and so I've seen your best attempts. The judges will only see you this time, so I can't make any promises, I can only tell you to try show them your best."

For this first test, everyone passed! This one was an extra big deal because it's the test that allows them to no longer skate with helmets on (Swedes keep the helmets a lot longer than Americans, and as a coach watching them constantly fall, I am 100% good with this). One of the skaters I've coached the most over the last year yanked hers off the second she skated away, excited to come tell me the obvious results and my heart just melted. Seeing them work hard for months for this and having it pay off is better than I can even say.

The next week, we had a small club competition in which a bunch of my skaters had cute little solo programs we tossed together for them a few weeks prior (their first-ever solo programs) and then they competed in groups, one skater from each different test level through the club – four groups total, I think. They had a blast and it was fun to see them each choose their own music and make a program that was each their own.

My skaters, watching one of the older groups compete


And one more skating-related (kind of) picture that I love from earlier in the summer: a grad party at one of the home of another of the coaches. The weirdo on the left in this photo was both celebrating her birthday this day and preparing to leave us for the foreseeable future, so we made it as fun as possible, while still being quite sad to see her go. It was a fun afternoon and a wacky evening that I won't soon forget.

I'm not sure what song was playing at this point, but I'm sure this pose fit whatever was being sung...

Up next: The end of the school year. Another end with some more fun. For our fun last day, the girls and I walked over Stockholm's amusement park, Gröna Lund, and I happily obliged them by trying out each and every ride they requested – as long as they didn't make me do the falling one (think Tower of Terror – I just hate that feeling way too much). We had a blast and I laughed the whole day when the girls complained they were "melting," as it was 24C (75F) out.


Soon after that: Midsommar. As usual, this was a night full of games, food, drinking, music, sun and of course, some rain. With my husband away on business in Taiwan at the time, I took the bus up to a town named Rimbo to join with one of my favorite friends (who I don't see nearly enough), Brenda, and her sambo for a really fun Midsommar day/evening/morning.

Above are photos from the line to get on the bus towards Rimbo and then the first plate of the bunch of delicious meals we had. Below, the view around 1:00am, as it got a bit colder, so we cozied up to the fire and continued on.

At one point, Brenda disappeared. In between conversations, I sent her a text, wondering where she was, and got a quick reply that she was taking a power nap and I was free to join. I declined, as I was sure I'd fall asleep for the night if I did, and she re-joined us 30 minutes later, fully refreshed until we all finally called it around 5-6am and collapsed onto wherever we were sleeping. (For me, this was a small mattress I dragged into the cottage's entryway, along with some blankets and a pillow. Being so exhausted, I slept ridiculously well.) We all stumbled out of bed later around 11am, I think, and started to clean up the house, the yard, and whatever else we could find. Then, we had breakfast on the dock, cleaned up a bit more, and everyone headed off home. The bus and subway rides home were hilariously quiet, full of very hungover, mostly unshowered people, looking forward to their own beds.

Soon after Midsommar, my husband returned to Stockholm from Taiwan for about 40 hours, we washed all his clothes, restocked anything needed, and then he was off to Hawaii for another work trip. I hadn't really been looking forward to all his traveling this summer, as it meant a lot of evenings with only the cats to talk to (unless I made plans with friends each night), but then was invited to return to the summer house of the family I nanny for, which was super.

Instead of flying, this year I took the train and given my new job, utilized the wifi and 4 hours of travel time to work the whole way across Sweden. I was a bit concerned going into the trip about finding enough time to work while I was there, but that ended up being no problem at all, as I spent most mornings and late evenings in their guest cabin, tethered to my iPhone, getting all I needed done.

Found on my bed, upon arrival :)
After arriving, we stopped by the grocery store and I picked up this year's new foods for the family to try. Last year, we had s'mores and American pancakes. This year, I went with creamsicle floats (no root beer to be easily found here, so that was the second best choice) and Kraft macaroni and cheese (original, of course). After much skepticism and disbelief from the kids that they could be good, the creamsicles were a huge hit.

The first taste!
The weather was quite good the whole time I was there, getting increasingly warm as well. We played games, the kids had some activities, but mostly, we hung out, enjoyed nature and relaxed. Well, I relaxed... Swedes are unable to not partake in home improvement projects while "vacationing" so there was also wallpapering and power-washing going nearby most of the time, too.

Games and more games
As is usually the case when either sleeping somewhere new or just generally being someplace where I don't want to oversleep, I was up very early most mornings and after doing as much work as I had, I tried to force myself back to sleep or watch something on my laptop. Before leaving home, I'd copied the fifth season of Gilmore Girls onto the computer, so I watched that.

Morning view – photo from my phone that I took to send to a fellow fan for a laugh
And then we had a big dinner. One of my favorite aspect of a trip like this is partaking in traditional things. I think that most Americans wouldn't think much of eating turkey on Thanksgiving, burgers on the 4th or deviled eggs on Easter, but these small things, the way they're prepared, and the family style that comes with them is a really great thing to be able to experience anew here.

Their cooking is always good, but this meal was especially so, and I discovered my love of Swedish shrimp with caviar inside. It took a moment to get the hang of how to eat them (similar to learning to break apart a lobster, which most New Englanders probably learn before age 10), but after that was tackled, I had plenty.

A side note: I extra appreciate these kinds of things because more than once now, they've taught me (or I've observed) small things that later on, save me from embarrassing situations with locals I am a bit less comfortable and familiar with. Checking off the "How to eat shrimp like a Swede" item on my list was a relief.

Nearly finished!

After four days with them, it was time to head home. I both wished it wasn't so short, and wanted to get back to make sure all was well with the cats. It was, again, a really lovely trip and it's nice to have some time to catch up with the parents, know them a bit better, and have conversations that aren't rushed as we say our farewells most evenings as they arrive home and I head out. They're such a great family, I am very thankful that things happened to fall into place as they did.


The next few days after I arrived home were beautiful and I spent most mornings reading and working on the balcony with the cats. My husband arrived home from Hawaii and then took vacation time until his next trip (Athens) a couple weeks later. Rather than going anywhere for a vacation of our own, mostly just enjoyed time home together and around the city, seeing as how he had two major international trips in the last month and another slightly smaller one yet to come.

View from a bench as we ate gyros in Medborgarplatsen one evening
And last on my list of Things to Mention About the Summer for this post, this fun evening:

As a birthday gift for the girl on the far left, Anita, we all pitched in and rented not a party bus, but a little party boat, to drive us around the Stockholm archipelago while we partied the night away. It was a blast. The group that went was so very fun. Mostly Austrians, some Germans, and a handful of others from a bunch of different places. As I left the house to meet everyone downtown for our pickup from Strandbryggan that evening, I realized I'd neglected to eat dinner ahead of time. Not my best choice, given the amount of drinking that'd been predicted. But, when we arrived and boarded the boat, a big bag of sandwich wraps (chicken or salmon) along with candy, cups, drinks and more came out of nowhere from the woman who coordinated it all. So to start, we all chose our preferred wrap flavor and had a quick dinner – I really can't thank her enough for having planned it all so well.

We had a such a fun time. The music, a mix of bad 90s, traditional Austrian songs, and bad Swedish pop was a never-ending source of laughter. I took a handful of not-so-great-quality videos and strung them together here, for my memories and your comedic pleasure. We rode all through the archipelago, saw all kinds of beautiful sights, had perfect weather, made a couple of restroom stops, and then headed back to hang out for a bit longer at Strandbryggan, as the sun started to set around 11:00pm.

Okay, now we're caught up to August – until next time!