There and Back Again

In late January, Stephen and I took a short trip to Washington, DC. I was already planning to go for a three-day conference during the week, so Stephen decided to fly down to meet me on Friday night and stay for the weekend.

In past years, we've often visited the DC area in March, when Boston is still snow-encrusted and dreary but the first flowers are popping up in mid-Atlantic yards. It always cheers me up and gives me hope that spring truly will come again.

But this time we found ourselves there in the deep cold of midwinter, so we had to find our flowers and greenery indoors at the Botanic Garden. It was warm and misty inside, and even the relatively cool and dry desert room full of succulents and cacti was a welcome break from the blustery weather outdoors.

Looking at these (slightly blurry) pictures reminds me that the spring bulb show at Smith opens this weekend. We went last year and it was packed. The crowd was literally shoulder-to-shoulder, and we had trouble getting to the exit when the exhibit closed because there were so many people lingering in front of us. We New Englanders are starved for signs of spring at this time of year.

We also saw some greenery in our hotel, which had quite an elaborate courtyard. We had brunch in that little indoor "forest" down by the lagoon. Note the floating piano!


Snow Pro/Con

We've had a lot of snow this winter - 70 inches as of today. The average for the  entire winter around here is 42 inches, and we've still got two or three months of winter weather to go! The extreme weather has its benefits and drawbacks.


1. Snow days! This is my fifth winter in Cambridge, and my workplace has had one or maybe two snow days in all of the previous winters combined. This year, we've already had two, plus a handful of delayed openings and early releases. You just don't expect that to happen much once you're out of high school, but it's a nice surprise when it does.

2. New snow. Freshly fallen snow is so lovely, and week-old snow is so gray and dreary. It's been nice to have the fresh snow replenished so frequently this winter. The city looks clean and fresh and bright.

3. Extreme conditions. It's kind of thrilling to see snow piled higher than the cars, so high that you can't see over the snowbanks. The neighborhood feels like a different world with this new landscape.


1.Traffic pile-ups on the sidewalk. By "traffic," I mean pedestrians. I realize that I'm lucky not to have to rely on a car to get me to work, but the snow limits walkers, too. As more snow falls and there's fewer places to pile it,  the sidewalks get narrower and narrower, which means no more passing lane. If you get stuck behind someone walking slowly, you're stuck for good. And if you run into someone coming the other way, one of you has to "pull over" into the snowbank.

2. Flooding. Our apartment is on an upper floor, so I'm not worried about my stuff getting ruined, but the office where I work is slightly below ground level, and any melt-off leads to water running in under the front door. I once had a minor moat around my desk during the spring thaw, and I anticipate that there will be a lot more water coming in once the temperature gets above freezing this year. And here's the gross part: the rising water flushes out cockroaches looking for higher ground. There is no insect that I like less than the cockroach.

3. Dirty snow. As I said, we've had frequent fresh snows this year, but at some point the storms are going to stop and the snow will begin the long, ugly process of melting away, gradually turning gray and black and revealing all of the litter that was buried beneath drifts as the snow fell. It will be an extra-long process this year.



I love to make things, but I rarely set aside time to do so. I like to handsew and knit and bake, but I put those things off until some indeterminate point in the future when I'll have more free time - as if that's ever going to happen. This NY Times article that I found a while back ("Carpe Diem? Maybe Tomorrow") really hit home. Like many people, I procrastinate when it comes to fun things as well as pain-in-the-butt tasks.

Luckily, I have some friends who feel similarly, so we've started meeting for a biweekly "crafternoon" during which we eat pizza and work on whatever projects have been languishing around our apartments. Earlier this winter, I finished crocheting an afghan that I'd begun before grad school and then put away for three years. I've repaired and altered a lot of my clothes at crafternoon, and I'm finally nearing the end of a hand-quilting project that I began in 2006. Stephen recently finished knitting a mitten that he'd had on the needles since college! I try not to get too ambitious and stress out over being super-productive, though. Sometimes I just chat and eat pizza if I'm not in a creative mood, or I'll make us a banana cake for dessert and call it a day. 

I'm surprised at the extent to which this phenomenon has improved my quality of life. Instead of feeling overwhelmed when I think of non-essential projects ("When will I have time to re-hem that skirt? Never."), I just add them to the crafternoon to-do list. Now I just need to learn to set aside time for all of the essential tasks that I procrastinate on. I don't suppose filing my tax return counts as a craft, does it?

P.S. We thought we were so creative coming up with the term crafternoon, but it turns out someone has already published a book with that name! Oh well.



I really like school. I hate doing homework and having assignments hanging over my head, but I like learning new things and the sense of progress that school gives you: every lecture, exam, and paper brings you one step closer to finishing the class, and each class completed means you're a step closer to a degree.

Even though I finished my Masters program last May, I decided to take a molecular biology class in the fall, and I’m going to take another in evolutionary biology next semester. I haven’t taken bio since high school, and I really liked learning about the human body and going to lab sessions. The exams were really tough, though. I had to re-adjust my expectations of a “good” grade. But I'm undaunted! In face, I’ve got a whole long list of classes (epidemiology, negotiations, etc) that I’d like to take once I'm done with these. It’s like a hobby now.

I like that school moves in cycles, with high and low points of activity and new people coming in each year. That’s one reason that I like working at a university, too--the cyclical nature of the work--although it’s sad when our favorite interns graduate and leave town.

But I also like the breaks from school, the negative space around the semesters. As difficult as it was cramming for my lab practical and final exam in mid-December, I felt so relieved and light as soon as I left the lecture hall on the last day. And I really treasure the hours I have now, between the fall and spring sessions, to catch up on reading-for-fun and projects around the apartment. And sleep!


Scandinavia Mania: Best for Last

Last stop: Dalarna. Okay, this actually came in the middle of the trip, but I wanted to save my favorite part for last.

One of the things we'd been really looking forward to on this trip was celebrating Midsommarafton (Midsummer's Eve), one of the biggest holidays of the year in Sweden. We'd heard that the best place to go for traditional midsummer celebrations was Dalarna, a province in central Sweden. (You may be familiar with the Dala horse, a symbol of the region.) 

Stockholm cleared out for the holiday weekend on Friday morning, and we left in our rental car, a great big silver gas-guzzler that we got as a free "upgrade" because all of the small cars were already booked. Yikes.

The first festival we visited was in Tällberg in the late afternoon. When we arrived, there were lots of people in traditional costumes dancing in a cleared field. All of the women were wearing crowns of wildflowers, so I braided one for myself, too. According to our guidebook, these wreaths are sometimes saved and added to the New Year's bath for good luck.

We watched them raise the maypole, then went to a nearby cafe for a dinner of waffles with whipped cream and cloudberry jam.

Then we drove to Leksand, where there was a much bigger festival--more like an outdoor concert. Hundreds of people (maybe even thousands; it was hard to get a good look at the crowd) sat on picnic blankets watching a band play as the maypole was prepared. Then pairs of men lined up and hoisted the pole as the spectators cheered them on.

Once the pole was up, everyone rushed in (including us!) and danced in a circle. Stephen and I couldn't understand the words to the songs, but we tried to follow the crowd and figure out the moves as we went. The only song I can remember now was Små grodorna ("The Little Frogs"), but I think there was another about elephants, and maybe one about playing various musical instruments. There were a lot of drunk teenagers and the ground was littered with discarded bottles, which added an element of precariousness to the fast-paced dancing. There were so many people dancing that you couldn't stop moving even if you were able to see the hazards in front of you. Luckily we made it through unscathed.

Since it was right around the summer solstice, dusk arrived very late. After the festivities had ended, we drove to Lake Siljan to watch the sunset. The water was calm and the colors were deep and saturated.

And then we got engaged! Here we are right after I asked Stephen if he wanted to get married, just as the last light was fading. Misummer's Eve is supposed to be an auspicious day for new beginnings. What better time to get engaged?

Well, that's a tough act to follow, but we still had a couple of days in the region before we went back to Stockholm. The next morning, we visited the house of Carl Larsson, an artist who painted scenes of rural Swedish life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Carl and Karin Larsson had eight children and a very warm and loving home life which Carl depicted in many of his paintings. Apparently the Larsson family still owns it and occupies it for part of the year. It seemed like a great place to grow up.

Our last stop on this leg of the trip was this little church in the town of Ovanåker where my great-great-great-grandparents, Olof and Ella, were married before emigrating from Sweden to the United States. Luckily, it was easy to find and looked almost exactly the same as in the decades-old photograph my dad had given me. (I think my paternal grandfather had a local genealogist take the picture when he was doing research about our ancestors in the 1980s.) We took some pictures and walked through the graveyard, looking at the names on the tombstones.

Finally, we had to pack up and say good-bye to Dalarna and to our tiny cabin with the lilac hedge, but I think this will always be one of my favorite places in the world.

The end!


Scandinavia Mania: Iceland

We didn't get to spend very long in Iceland, either, but I loved every minute of it. (Except for the minutes when our credit cards were being charged. Food and transportation in Iceland are pricey!) We got in very lateour original flight from Copenhagen was canceled, so we had to get a later flight through Stockholm. As always, the late sunset was disorienting. It wasn't bright out, but it was dusky when we arrived at 1:00am.

 We stayed in a cute bed and breakfast with a shared kitchen. I had toast with jam and a bowl of corn flakes in the morning, and wondered whether corn flakes are a universal breakfast food or just something that people buy for tourists. (I had corn flakes for breakfast at our hotel in Istanbul last spring, too.)

There were still lilacs blooming in July! Ours are usually gone by June.

We didn't have much time to spend in Reykjavik. We headed for the Blue Lagoon in the morning so that we'd have time for a long soak before our flight back to Boston. What an otherworldly landscape! It felt like being on a different planetexcept for the bar in the middle of the lagoon.

And then it was back to Keflavik, the prettiest little airport I've ever seen. It's the kind of airport that LL Bean might design, with locally-sourced stone and wood, huge skylights, and shops selling woolen mittens and thick fleece jackets.

This is the only airport I've ever stayed in overnight. (We spent the first night of the trip in this terminal between flights.) I didn't get much sleep, but the stained glass window overhead was a nice view to wake up to.


Scandinavia Mania: Finland, At Last!

Now where were we, lo the many months ago? Ah yes, Finland.

We were only in Finland for about 36 hours, not even enough time to make it to the mainland. We stayed on Åland, an autonomous, Swedish-speaking archipelago in the Baltic Sea.

To get there, we took a bus to Kapellskär, a port north of Stockholm, and rode the Viking Line to Mariehamn. The ferry was enormous, with several restaurants, a casino, and a duty-free shop--plenty to keep everyone occupied for the two-hour ride.

We got to our stuga (cabin) around 11:00pm. I was so excited to see a kitchen inside. It was our first opportunity for a home-cooked meal in weeks! Of course, we were too tired too eat by then, but I did make us some pasta with tomato and garlic the next night, and it was such a treat not to have to go searching for a cheap, vegetarian-friendly restaurant when we were both starving.

We rented bikes and went out to Kastelholm, a medieval castle in the countryside. The trip was a little farther than I'd anticipated, so we had to bike back quickly to avoid the hefty late-return fees. I think we got back to the rental agency five minutes before they locked up. I haven't biked in a long time, so my backside was super sore by the afternoon--I had to pedal standing up for the last twenty minutes. Afterward, we celebrated our successful fine-avoidance with cones of mjukglass (soft ice cream).

Stephen's parents gave us a wake-up call the next morning at 6:00am (11:00pm for them) so that we'd be sure to make the morning ferry back to Sweden.

And that was it for Finland!