Friday, July 15, 2011

The End of the Adventure... For Now

So, at last, we're at the final leg of the journey. Pa and I packed up on Friday morning and hopped a flight to Tromsø, Norway, the northern-most University town in the world at 350 km north of the Arctic Circle. We were both really excited because being inside the Arctic Circle in summertime means one thing: midnight sun!! I'd been to southern Alaska before and experienced some pretty long days (sun setting at 1 and rising at 4), and our summer solstice in Lappeenranta had been pretty close (the sun was definitely up at midnight when we went to bed), but I'd never experienced the real deal and was very excited. The race I as entered in, the Midnight Sun Half Marathon, took advantage of this phenomenon by not starting until 10:30 at night! So we were definitely going to get our share of some midnight sun, whether we wanted it or not.

(First up: The Norwegian Airlines magazine is called 'Scanorama' - I like Norway already!)

We arrived into Tromsø in the mid-afternoon and, after dropping our bags at the hotel, set off through into the town. The marathon was hosting a night-before dinner for all contestants in a restaurant up on top of one of the mountains surrounding the fjord in which the island Tromsø is situated is located. These dinners, as I've researched (as I would hardly call myself an expert on marathon scheduling protocol), seem to be pretty standard, and usually involve spaghetti or some other carb-loading activity. The MSM, being Norwegian, decided to go a slightly different route by serving balacao. Now what, you may ask, is balacao? Surely it's some sort of carb-heavy dish, right? Well, it turns out that balacao is… salt cod. Only a Norwegian marathon would serve salted fish the night before a big race.

(Such beauty!)

Anyway, we decided to ride the cable car up to the restaurant anyway so we could get some better views of the totally unreal and stunning scenery around the town. It was so worth it! The sun was brilliant and shone down on an improbable landscape of steep snow-capped mountains, sparkling blue water, the pretty-as-a-postcard town, and the lush greenness of the shoreline. The mountain we were on still had active snowpack on it, which we had a fun time climbing around on and having an impromptu snowball fight with. I can very honestly say that that was the first snowball fight I've ever had in late June!!

(double eyes closed FTW)

(Jokin around on the snow pack)

(Unreal view)

(Like I said: un. real.)

(There were cairns all over the top of the mountain - here, Pa photographs one with the nice camera)

(So crazy!!! ...Actually, kind of fun looking.)

Afterwards, we explored the town a little further and found a Thai place to have dinner. I was pretty nervous about Norwegian Thai food (those cuisines don't seem to naturally come together in my mind), but it was excellent. There may have been 6 pages of seafood on the menu, but the three vegetarian options (srsly) all looked tasty and the curry I ended up getting was one of the best I've had recently… it might even give Thaiphoon, my favorite place back at Palo Alto, a run for its money! We were feeling very clever about our decision (as every other restaurant we passed looked fish heavy… to put it mildly) until Pa ended up leaving his phone in the restaurant, requiring an 11pm jog back to the restaurant when the owners found it as they were cleaning up. When we went back at 11pm the sun looked EXACTLY as it had when we'd been up on the mountain, which was unnerving to say the least. We went to bed after that, but I'm fairly certain that, had we stayed up all night, the sun would not have moved an inch further down the horizon.


The next day we had completely free before the race that evening. We went to the town hall in the morning to pick up my packet and get Pa registered for the 2.6 mile 'mini-marathon' that he had decided to run. It felt very official, getting my electronic timing chip checked out and seeing my name pop up on the screen. I was getting pretty excited… and nervous!

(Sub on the way to the town hall)

After that, we headed over to Polaria, the city's arctic museum/aquarium. They had a cool movie about life in the Arctic Circle, some hokey but rather amusing interactive exhibits about icebergs and the tundra (including a 'fake tundra' that you could walk on to feel how weirdly springy the ground is in summer when it partially thaws), and a very small aquarium with some arctic fish, crustaceans, and--most awesomely--seals. Pa and I loved watching the seals and chilled out for a good half hour just watching them gambol around.

(fishies at Polaria)

Next we went on the scout for a good carb-loading lunch for me. This ended up being nearly impossible to achieve - we literally walked around the city for two hours and found not one place that sold pasta without meat or fish in it. The one Italian restaurant in town appeared to be have gone out of business from lack of use. No wonder all the Norwegians are skinny - they only eat fish and no carbs! Finally we went to the 'American Pizzeria' where I was able to find spaghetti with meatballs. They wouldn't give me just spaghetti (only god knows why), so I ended up ordering the meatballs and then picking them off to the side of my plate. After all the effort, it hardly seemed worth it, but god damn it we got it done.

I was starting to get pretty nervous, so we just sort of chilled out from there until the race. We went to a supermarket (something I LOVE doing in foreign countries - what does the packaging look like? What gets put in the front? How are the aisles arranged? What sort of wacky canned foods can I find? (I've also found that some of a nation's weirdest cuisine will almost always appear in the canned food aisle: take canned herring in Norway, mushy peas in Britain, and pickled trotters in the US as just a few examples)) loaded up on soda water and fruit.

We also stopped at a candy shop and bought an enormous feedbag of candy to be saved as a post-race celebration (actually, if I remember correctly, I wrote a post just as I was leaving Norway that mentioned said triumphant Candy Breakfast… it was sweeeeet). Finally, I just ended up laying in bed, half-asleep and totally lethargic like I always get when I'm super nervous.

Pa ran in the 'mini-marathon' (2.6 miles; a tenth of a true marathon) at 6:30, and did great. He may have gotten smoked by more than a few ten year olds (but dude, they were FAST) but finished strong in the top third of the field. I had a good example to follow! After he was done it was still another 3+ hours before I even wanted to be at the start line for my race, so we went back to the hotel to watch Mythbusters (which, inexplicably, seemed to be on ALL THE TIME). I lay as inertly as possible, trying to keep my nerves in check.

(Pa with his competition... notice the many small children)

Finally 10pm rolled around and I changed, put my timing chip on my sneaker, and headed down to the start line. There was an aerobics warmup led by the happiest looking ice-blond Norwegians I'd ever seen, that looked so peppy I was worried I'd completely zap myself of energy if I tried to partake. Instead I stood on the sidelines and tried to do the yoga warmup I'd always done during my high school xc days.


Finally, after six months of preparing and waiting, the gun went off to start! All in all the race took me two and a half hours, and I had a blast every single step of the way. The weather was beautiful (when I finished at 2am the sun was still as bright as ever, blocked by clouds that shone a pearly pinkish-purple light down on the town) and the scenery absolutely stunning. The race went through town and then wound around the backside of the island and back. The backside was very rural, meaning that we ran past little farms with horses and cows on one side and the breathtakingly gorgeous fjord on the other. The water was perfectly still and stood as a bottomless mirror to the little fishing boats out in harbor, the heather-green reeds growing on the shoreline, the ice-blue mountains, and the quilted pink and purple sky.

I wish I'd brought my phone to take some photos, as many people around me in the 'tourist' section of the race were doing, but alas you'll just have to take my word for it. I even got passed (yes, passed… sigh) by an old Japanese man PAINTING A WATERCOLOR of the scene as he ran by. Impressive.

My legs got pretty tired by the end because I'd had to do most of my training in the pool since I injured my foot earlier this spring, but I had a lot of wind left over and felt very good cardiovascularly. I finished strong and passed like 15 people in the last mile. At the end I was rewarded with a cool medal, as much free soda and bananas as I could tolerate, and… alcohol-free beer? Whatever. I was thrilled and was abuzz with the excitement for hours after I finished, making sleep pretty much impossible. I can't wait to do another!


The next morning, before we knew it, our bags were packed and we were heading back to the airport. I still can't really believe that a lot of stuff that I got to experience this spring actually happened. It seems a lot more like a wonderful dream.

I don't know when I'll be in Europe next, but I've got some ideas for this blog yet. So, to my (possibly 2?) readers, fear not! We need not part just yet.

As they say in Germany, Tschüss!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Estonia For a Day

What a strange concept: 'Estonia for a day!' Before my friend Allie did the same thing a few years ago, I had never even considered traveling to Estonia in the first place. I mean, could you blame me? Sitting at home in my living room in Massachusetts, Estonia seems as far away as Russia (and basically is). It's a former soviet state whose history I couldn't even begin to flesh out with any sort of accuracy, where they speak a language I had little better chance of understanding than Finnish (actually that's not true - ANY language involving the roman alphabet is easier to understand than Finnish).

And yet, while we were staying in Helsinki, Pa and I were faced with a fascinating opportunity: to take a day trip to that very exotic land. How could we possible turn it down? We had no guide books, no Estonian currency, no maps, and no itinerary. Just a full day and a chance to explore. Boarding the ferry, we were both buzzing with excitement at what we might discovery.

(Purty stained glass in one of the many churches)

(Sweet view! What a day!)

And, it was awesome! We stuck to the old town area, which was by far the most touristy place we'd been to on the trip so far (so many English speakers! SO MANY CRUISE SHIP PASSENGERS) because Talinn seems to have become a fairly standard stop on Scandinavian tour cruises, but we still enjoyed it a lot. The old town is remarkably well-presented for a country that was, presumably, grappling with 'Soviet issues' until as little as twenty years ago. I don't know how much of it was reconstructed, but who cares? The entire city of Munich is reconstructed, after all (and they had an awesome exhibit in their modern museum while I was there that documented the post-WWII reconstruction process), and I still very much enjoyed that.

(Onion domes! Beauty!)

They really pushed the "medieval city" vibe as far as they could in the old town, complete with people in period clothing at every turn, lots of themed restaurants (including Olde Haansa, the place that Allie recommended to us and that we saw but decided wouldn't be vegetarian-friendly enough for me), and even tourist opportunities to try archery with period bows and arrows by the old city walls. As an ex-fantasy megageek (who still loves her some Lord of the Rings) I LOVED it. It was like being in a renaissance fair... for an entire city section.

We spent pretty much our entire time walking up and down Talinn's several impressive hills that the city was built on. Pa also decided that he wanted to climb the highest bell tower in the city that was open to tourists so we could get a look around. It was exhausting, and my legs were jelly-like when we reached the top, but the view was totally worth it. We were very lucky and got there on a day with big open blue skies and cool, breezy temperatures.

(Not a shabby view)

We sat down for lunch in a Greek restaurant, just in time for it to randomly start pouring down rain. Excellent timing! The lunch was good, but had some weird similarities to the German Greek food we'd had that in no way reminded me of any Greek food I'd had in either Greece or America (but alas, there was no überbread this time). I'm pretty sure, for example, that saganaki is supposed to be cheese seared in oil with lemon, and so be both kind of runny and kind of acidic, whereas at both places we got something suspiciously resembling an oversized mozzarella stick. Strange.

After that, it was, incredibly, almost time to go. The day had flown by. We stopped in a few more churches on the way back, including the totally intimidating Lutheran badassery that was St. Olafs. We got rained on a few more times, but managed to find shelter in churches and under awnings so it was no big thing.

(St Olaf's looking stern and awesome)

Near our ferry area, we both commented on this super creepy building that looked like an old abandoned warehouse, complete with possibly body-burning appropriate smokestack. It had a creepy flag flying over it and this obviously hand-made neon sign that proclaimed some unknown initials up high on an outcrop of the warehouse, and looked pretty much terrifying. When the apocalypse comes and the society crumbles into a series of competing warlords, this would be one of their fortresses. My dad and I walked closer, freaked out but curious.

(Possible crematorium?

(Post-apocalyptic warlord's hideout. Srsly.)

...And it was an art museum. In fact, it was Estonia's contemporary art museum. We walked in to the ground floor entrance through those heavy duty plastic flaps that they use to cover garage opening and airplane hanger entrances and found a totally indecipherable contemporary art exhibit involving a constructed greenhouse with fake grass in it in one room and a disco ball throwing weird reflections up on a picture of a safety pin and a bunch of disconnected, semi-violent English phrases in another. This is why people don't like modern art.

(ummm.... I don't get it)

(Damnit, contemporary art, you make it really hard for people to take you seriously)

After that, we walked back through an uneasily sketchy part of town to get back to our ferry, whose port seemed to be on the back end of a defunct soviet-era ferry terminal-turned-crackhouse. Literally, there homeless people and signs of heavy drug use everywhere. Needless to say, it wasn't the most glamorous introduction or farewell to the city we could have possibly received, but we still left Talinn with big smiles on our faces.

(Possible crack den situation doing down here)

The trip back was very uneventful, and we enjoyed some time out on deck getting buffeted by impressive winds and rolled by what I considered pretty aggressive swells for our rickety, 20-year old ferry to be taking on. It was brilliantly sunny and totally awesome. I love being out on the water.

(Crooz Life)

(This also happened. Teehee.)

Next up, the last leg of the trip: Norway, the marathon, and, before we knew it, the trip home. We actually got back two weeks ago (making these updates laughably behind schedule) and it still feels a little unreal, especially since my summer life has quickly become one of steady routine and minimal adventure. But, I've still got a few things to write about yet!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Finnish Folly

Next up, Pa and I headed up to Helsinki, Finland, for a taste of the homeland. Pa's grandparents were Finnish, which compared to the many other mystery members of our family makes "Finnish" one of the easiest ancestries for us to identify with. Finland has always seemed very exotic and very, very far away, so it was exciting to finally get to go!

Well, after four days in Helsinki, Lappeenranta, and Mikkeli, my only take away was: Finland is weird. Like, really really weird. I'd always heard that the Finnish language was the hardest in the world, but had never really taken that fact seriously. Now I do! It was unbelievable. Not only was every word seemingly fifteen plus letters long (usually with four or five umlauts), but also nothing sounded anything like the way it was written or related in any obvious way to its English meaning.

(One word. Five umlauts.)

I had always kind of hoped that Finnish, when spoken, would sound warbly and smooth, like it sort of looked on the page. Instead, it turned out to be weirdly bumpy and halting sounding; I was, admittedly, a little disappointed. I've also never been in a place before where I absolutely could not understand ANYTHING (maybe Budapest, but even then it seemed more manageable than Finland), which I found more disconcerting than expected.

On the upside, though, Finland was BEAUTIFUL. Helsinki was kind of hard to access, but then we drove up through the Finnish countryside in our little rental car, and couldn't stop oohing and ahhing the entire way. It reminded me a lot of northeastern California, in the high meadows on the way to Termo and other forgotten farming towns: vast green plains ringed with tall stands of pine trees and dotted by weather-hardened farmhouses. It looked like a great place to live (for two months out of the year...).

(Pa, me, and some big beautiful Finnish fields)

(Finnish roadside picnic)

The little lakeside town we visited ended up being a sort of bust, because we opted out of taking the ferry to Russia (which would have required 7 hours of travel for 3 hours of being in Russia) that had been the reason we'd come, and then the boating opportunities that the town was also supposed to have hadn't gotten set up yet because it was too soon in the season. We did check out Europe's largest sandcastle, which was pretty cool, and got to ride the most vomit-inducing swing ride I've ever experienced, which was not so cool. Pa and I were literally nauseous for hours as a result.

(Pa and a sand elephant)

(Worst. Ride. Ever.)

On a whim, we drove even further north to Mikkeli, a town famous for being the military headquarters of the Finnish army during the Winter War at the beginning of World War II. We visited the war museum, which was cool because I actually didn't know that much about the Winter War and so learned a lot. The museum also boasted THE CREEPIEST mannequins I'd ever seen in my entire life, which added an unforeseen element of adrenaline to the entire experience.

(Creepiest mannequins EVER)

We headed back down to Helsinki for our last day in Finland and were looking forward to checking out the Natural History Museum. Unfortunately, we didn't know that the hours had changed for Midsummer Week, and so we got there about twenty minutes after it had closed. D'oh! After a few minutes standing around outside the museum feeling sorry for ourselves, we created a new plan headed down closer to the waterfront to check out the main cathedral and the quayside.

(We also went to the Marimekko flagship store - sweet!)

(Helsinki's main cathedral looking tall and proud)

(Pa on the steps of the cathedral)

We got to the cathedral just in time to use it as shelter from a massive, random rainstorm that came through, and otherwise enjoyed marveling at its impressive (and sweat-inducing) steps up to and down from its entrance. Afterwards, we walked along the quay and saw ferries going out to Suomenlinna, an island fortress just fifteen minutes out in the harbor. The ferries ran until 2am and it didn't get dark until after 10:30, so we decided to grab some dinner and then check the island out.

(Sweet bearded seal fountain)

(Me and Pa)

Loaded up on Indian food from what was, as far as we could tell, the only Indian restaurant in the city of Helsinki (thankfully it was quite good!), we headed back to the ferry and headed over the Suomenlinna. The weather was a bit cool and uninspiring, but we had a great time touring the island (getting plenty of walking in!), getting buffeted by impressive wind from the sea, and (after much much searching) finding the old WWII submarine that now serves as a museum there. We were too late to tour the inside, but had a lot of fun admiring it from the outside. We headed back to the mainland at around 9:30 (still in weirdly mid-afternoon light, it felt like!), and tried to get a good night's sleep before our next big travel leg, heading up to Tromsø, Norway, that would take place the next day.

(Pa on the ferry to Suomenlinna)

(Checking out Helsinki harbor)

(Suomenlinna, as a fortress island, used its leftover cannons in creative ways)

(Pa checks out the nose of the submarine)

Overall I liked Finland, but not in the immediate, head over heels, My god how is this place so amazing?!! way that some places have affected me. It grew on me slowly over the few days we spent there, and I think if we'd spent more time it would have gotten even better. I'd love to go back and see more; it feels like a place that's full of mysteries jut waiting to be discovered.

Friday, July 1, 2011

German Jumble

Yes I know that's not a very elegant title, but hey. I wanted some alliteration, and I'm going to get some alliteration, actual first letters of words be damned.

Anyway, my trip to Germany last weekend really only could be described as a jumble. I mean, how else can you summarize a trip that crammed horses, small towns, überbread (more on that later), hundreds of drunk liederhosen-clad gun nuts, a mile of tanks, and full-time rain evasion all into less than four full days? Needless to say, my dad and I had a great time, but we didn't necessarily catch up on much sleep.

So, to the beginning. I left Oxford bright and early on Thursday morning, feeling pretty bittersweet about the whole thing. Apparently some of my friends tried to come to say goodbye to me the night before, but I had fallen asleep with the lights on and so I didn't hear them when they came to the door. I do sort of remember hearing my name a possible reference to ducks, but because of the second part (which definitely was NOT real) I had decided it was a dream and didn't get up. D'oh.

I arrived at Heathrow and quickly met up with Pa, who had just arrived from an overnight flight from Boston. After some quick hugs, we hopped on our flight to Hamburg and let the real adventure officially begin. We got in without trouble, got our somewhat adorably ugly rental car ("The Opel"), and before we knew it were on the roads. Eeee! I've been to Germany twice before already, but have never actually been on a German Autobahn before, so I was pretty excited. The Autobahn does, in fact, have no speed limits, and so we were endlessly amused (slash terrified) of the various station wagons, hatchbacks, and vans that roared past us at 200+ km/h as soon as we got on the road.

(ze Opel looking zexy)

We drove about an hour out into the countryside and went straight to the place where we'd be spending most of the weekend, the show grounds for the Luhmuhlen CCI****. There was some dressage going on that day which we watched with somewhat lackluster enthusiasm because we were both feeling pretty jetlagged/exhausted. We also peeked onto a bit of the cross country course, but quickly realized we were too tired to take anything in properly. We drove 45 minutes further south to our hotel in beautiful Soltau (note: it's actually kind of ugly, and is a bit of a heartless industrial town). We stayed awake just long enough to have a really surprisingly good dinner at a sketchy-looking Italian restaurant, and then it was bed time.

(We also found this thing on the lawn of our hotel. We never found out what it was)

The next morning we got up bright and early so that we could get to the show grounds before the competition began. I talk about the actual competition more over on my other blog, but needless to say it was awesome, and Friday especially was a great day to be an American spectator. All the American competitors did a great job and we were feeling very patriotic as we walked the course that afternoon. We whiled pretty much the whole day at the show, but did have enough time to stop at THE BEST TACK SHOP IN THE WORLD on the way home that evening.

(This sign was on our breakfast table. Unspeakably creepy older man FTW).

Now, as a horse crazy child, I've been to more than my fair share of tack shops. I've experienced the big southern warehouses, the western feed centers, the oak-paneled classiness of the Dover flagship store, and the unbelievable sprawl of the Badminton trade fair. There's not much out there when it comes to retailing horsey crap that I haven't seen before.

(Oooohhh ahhhhh)

Until I got to this store. The building was not big, but was crammed literally floor to 10' ceiling with stuff from every possible nook and cranny. Sub-aisles had been built into the walls to increase the surface area of shelves, hooks, and hanger space. One entire side of the store had probably well over a thousand pairs of britches stacked so high that you needed a stepladder to get to some of them in probably 8 crowded aisles. They also had three aisles dedicated solely to mens' breeches which was a huge coup for my dad, who usually has between 0 and 1 pairs of riding pants to choose from.

(Rug mountain)

There were also precarious-looking stacks of rugs, innumerable rows of boots and wraps, a mind-numbing selection of bridles and strapwear, an entire aisle of western saddles (really?? In Germany??), and some of the funniest hunt caps I'd ever seen, including one that had a mystifying fleecy lining. Pa and I spent about an hour wandering around in awe and came home with some serious goodies. I'd come back to Luhmuhlen just for the tack shop alone!

(You know, for the chilly days)

The rest of the weekend followed in a pretty similar fashion, enjoying the horse show and toodling through the German countryside. On Friday night we went to a Greek restaurant that served me one of the top ten strangest foods I've ever considered: breaded, deep-fried... bread. So simple, yet so strange! Überbread! It basically tasted like bread, but with the satisfaction that it was much less healthy than a normal piece of white bread would have been (and that's not saying much). It totally upstaged the rest of the meal in terms of my obsession with it, and my biggest regreat was that I dissected and inhaled it before I had a chance to capture its glory on film. Oh well.

We also had one extremely weird 'situation' on Saturday evening when we went out for a run and, on the way back, were passed by over a hundred drunk men and women in liederhosen riding in haywagons and carousing. We got to our hotel, only to discover that they had stopped there too, and had to endure like 25 drunk Germans trying to talk to us while we slunk back to our room to de-sweatify and change. I even got to see an aged, liederhosen-clad old man peeing against a tree. Ahhh, the German life. Apparently the town we were staying in was holding a massive shooting festival that weekend, which we were strongly invited to join (we could even shoot! We were assured)... but we declined. Maybe next time.

On Sunday, when the competition was over, we decided to head over to nearby Munster to see the National Panzer Museum. It seemed only fitting given our shared penchant for all things WWII. The museum was HUGE, and had hundreds of tanks stored in a series of interconnected warehouses that we could wander through. The history ranged from WWI all the way through the present day, with a totally overwhelming number of prototypes and production examples of pretty much every kind of tank you could ever imagine ever.

(Hey! I've studied these!)

(Germany also has tank speed limits, apparently. Why am I surprised?)

(Sick fu man chu, dude)

I love a good tank, but I must say that after an hour of pretty much just straight walking from one room to another with minimal stopping and contemplating and STILL HAVING MORE TANKS TO LOOK AT I was getting a little burnt out. We pretty much ignored the last three rooms, only stopping to check out a UN Tank with these crazy flails designed to clear minefields. Still, the weather had been terrible all day Sunday, so it was an amusing way to pass the last part of a crappy afternoon. And I got to pick up a shell! A good day.

(It's like a baby! A big, 40 pound, explosive baby.)

(Tank attack!)

(Pa, with his man strength, found the shell a little easier to wield)

The weekend had flown by, and before we knew it we were driving back to Hamburg on Monday morning, saying goodbye to the Opel, and setting off for Helsinki and the next leg of the adventure. I have to say that I found Germans to be way more friendly and fun to interact with than I'd imagined or even experienced previously (though actually I had had a pretty great time in Munich too, so perhaps it was just Berlin). German is seriously fun to try to pronounce, and includes far too many improbably long and hilarious-looking words to not enjoy. Even though it probably would have been more logical to go to Germany AFTER my summer-long intensive course, I still think it was great. I may have only learned a few words (all of them food-related… I know where my priorities are) but I've already used them in my class! I was also reassured that German is, at the end of the day, a fairly easy to understand language when it counts. As we were soon to learn, that is not always the case! Finnish, for example. . .