Ciao, Firenze!

We’re a week into JMU’s Semester in Florence program, and I am fortunate beyond belief to be the FMIR (faculty member in residence) to 28 students. My job involves living in the 16th century Palazzo Capponi with the students, teaching a class on positive psychology, holding office hours, running weekly meetings, being on call one weekend a month, and taking the students on excursions to places like Siena, Turin, Naples, and Pisa.

The faculty flat here is huge, with pretty much everything a person could need. Including white noise machines to block out the street sounds. It’s near the students, but also very private. They keep asking me if I can hear them in the wee hours. Nope!

I’ve established some comforting little rituals, like making stovetop coffee in the Bialetti and going to the little nearby grocery store pretty much everyday (food here doesn’t last as long as our preservative-laden stuff, and it’s hard to carry much on foot). Also, running in a beautiful, tourist-free park in the cool mornings, and sitting on the terrace each night with a book and some wine. Speaking of the terrace, it’s quite possibly my favorite thing about this apartment. It’s all mine, with a view of the nearby Piazza Santo Spirito, cool breezes, amazing sunsets, and mouth-watering smells wafting up a nearby steak restaurant. The only downside is that I haven’t been going out into the world as much as I normally would, since I have pretty much everything I need for happy leisure time up here.

The first week involved a lot of settling in, figuring things out, filling out forms, recovering from jet lag, and getting reacquainted with the city. There were lots of runs and walks, getting a bit lost from time to time, and taking one fantastic bike ride into the Tuscan countryside.

Food highlights include gnocchi with four cheese and truffle oil, fried anchovies with sage and lemon, a few top-notch pizzas, lemon ravioli, a balsamic vinegar tasting, and gelato galore. And we are just getting started!

Thankfully, there are a lot of lovely, long walks to be taken to counteract all of this delicious food!

Stay tuned for more updates on this three-month adventure in la dolce vita!

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Study Abroad in Scandinavia – Week 2

[If you missed the Week 1 recap, find it here.]

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May 29

Week two began with a daytrip to the college town of Lund, in southern Sweden. This is a great place to escape the city, relax, check out the cathedral you see above, perhaps collect some data, and definitely eat some delicious cardamom buns.

One of my favorite things about Lund is a lovely botanical garden, where we had a class meeting and discussed the concept of flow. The garden’s colors weren’t as vivid as last year’s, probably due to a drought, but we still found some nice patches.

May 30

Today was our last full day in Copenhagen. We had a fairly long class, mostly on work-life integration and “busyness bragging”. Lunch was all about going to favorite places one last time: the organic hotdog cart, the bagel shop, that one ice cream/churro place, coffee coffee coffee. Dinner was a pre-ordered meal that was…hilarious.

img_0550Joe and I were staying in the Norrebro neighborhood, which was ground zero for the first night of Distortion, a massive music festival that is better described in photos. Just imagine this scene over a square-mile or two. And imagine us trying to wheel huge rental bikes through this. We were not popular.

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May 31

This was our day to travel to Stockholm, a five-hour train ride that left at 8:20 a.m. Despite a few snafus for Joe and me (a cab that didn’t show and my desperate plea to a stranger to please drive us to the station), it all went smoothly. This is always a great chance to catch up on sleep and reading.

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The students met with a DIS rep to take them to their housing, which is north of the city in a suburban area called Sollentuna (I remember this by picturing a mopey fish). Joe and I settled into our Gamla Stan (“Old Town”) Airbnb and immediately watched the previous night’s series finale of The Americans. Priorities.

June 1

Today started with a summertime must-do: a lunch cruise into the Stockholm archipelago, a chain of 30,000+ islands that stretches east from the city into the Baltic Sea. Many Swedes have summer houses and boats here (1 in 10 Swedes owns a boat) and it’s an important part of warm-weather recreation.

img_0649.jpgWeather is usually a primary concern for me on this study abroad, because so many of our activities are outdoors. But it’s barely mentioned here because we continue to be so ridiculously lucky!

 

After the cruise, we had a class meeting on the small island of Skeppsholmen. Topics were friluftsliv and the feeling of awe, both very appropriate for the day.

There was some Gamla Stan wandering, too. As a well-preserved medieval town, pretty much everything here is photo-worthy.

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We found the oldest statue in Stockholm, the “little boy who looks at the moon,” and rubbed his head for good luck.

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Without too much planned for after, we all ended up at our apartment for a very stimulating class discussion! img_0661(Okay, it was actually a show-and-tell of our wedding photos.)

June 2

Today was largely a free day for students to collect data and explore Stockholm. I had planned to run the marathon (read all about that here) and was so happy and surprised that a group of students chose to spend a few of their free hours watching and cheering.

 

In the evening, most of us went on the Stockholm Ghost Walk, a tour of Gamla Stan that gives us a dark lesson into the history of Stockholm: mass executions, brothels, doomed searches for buried treasure, and not one, not two, but three different types of the plague. And lots of restless spirits. Good fun.

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June 3

Yet another beautiful day to spend outside. We all took the streetcar to Skansen, the world’s oldest outdoor museum.

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img_0814It’s massive and has all kinds of exhibits about traditional Swedish life (imagine a Swedish Colonial Williamsburg), but the Nordic animals were the biggest hit.

 

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June 4

A big class day. The DIS facilities here are housed in the Royal College of Music. They practically require a retinal scan to access, but they’re quite nice when you do.img_0687.jpg

A bonus: the school’s metro stop, Stadion, features this:

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Stockholm’s metro is sometimes called the world’s longest art museum.

Anyway, we had a morning class meeting, a lunch break, and an afternoon guest lecture on Swedish politics from DIS professor Steve Turner, an American who’s been living in Sweden for 40 years. This was an intellectual high point of last year’s program, and was perhaps even more so this year, given the increasing frictions here and an important upcoming election.

img_0884It’s all too easy for us to leave here feeling like the Scandinavian countries are doing everything right while we are, umm, not. This lecture highlighted the complications of implementing the social welfare system and the moral conflicts woven into immigration policy. In short, it filled in some important gaps.

June 5

Our last day, already?

Today began with class. We first debriefed and discussed the previous day’s guest lecture, then everyone briefly presented their individual project findings. Our allotted two hours of classroom time flew by. We broke for lunch, packing time, and time to do all of those last things.

We met for a last group dinner at a Stockholm mainstay, Kvarnen. We finally got our fill of Swedish meatballs.

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After dinner, we searched in vain for a karaoke place. Finding none, we settled for some very non-Swedish street singing, an Irish pub, and a late-night subway ride with a fire extinguisher incident that I need to learn more about (everyone is fine).

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Last night, someone asked me to define the group in a single word. I couldn’t decide between three:

united – this group of 13 was often all together, and when they weren’t, I could never identify any cliques or anyone who wasn’t a part of things. Everyone seemed to genuinely like each other and look out for one another. I saw a ton of compromise, empathy, and good humor, even in stressful situations.

zany – I never worried about them being bored. They could create fun wherever they went, whether by killing a half hour by making their own beatbox band (complete with a few singles, an album cover, and a t-shirt design), cheering like mad at a marathon (generally not thought of as a great spectator sport), laughing their heads off at a catastrophically bad meal, and certainly many shenanigans I never heard about.  It was so much fun to be a part of this crazy crew. They reminded me to worry less and to laugh a lot more.

resourceful – they quickly demonstrated that they could figure things out on their own. They seldom needed me to point out directions or to suggest where to go. Multiple times, I realized that my suggestions were pretty lame compared to the things they’d find. They were also really good at getting things for free, like this:

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June 6

My last day here. The students seem to have taken the sunshine with them, literally and figuratively. It’s Swedish National Day (think a toned down version of the 4th of July in the U.S.). Many things are closed, my energy is sapped, and it’s suddenly 50 degrees and cloudy. In other words, it’s a good day to blog, pack, and eat one last cardamom bun.

Until next year, Scandinavia!

Study Abroad in Scandinavia: Week 1

We are a week into JMU’s Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia and have been centered in wonderful, summery Copenhagen all week.

Day 1

For the first time, we’re working with the Danish Institute for Study Abroad for housing, activities, classroom space, etc. The day started with a huge group meeting for all DIS participants at the building that used to house Copenhagen’s circus (?!) and is now a too-fancy-for-us concert venue.

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We toured our classroom and facilities, which are perfectly located right on the main shopping street (the Stroget).

We had a great guest lecture from a DIS professor and learned many things. The most striking may have been to toughen the kids up young. Here they have forest kindergartens (“learn to be cold and uncomfortable, learn to climb trees and use knives”), and fairy tales with non-Disneyfied endings.

Afterwards, we wandered over to Kongens Have (the King’s Garden at Rosenborg Palace), and to Nyhavn for the requisite group photo. Today had a lot of classroom time but was also a good orientation to the city.

 

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Day 2

Our 10 a.m. class started with a hop over to Sct. Peders Bageri for what some say are the best cinnamon buns (a.k.a., cinnamon snails) in the city, available only on Wednesdays.

This provided an easy segue into the day’s topic: savoring. When are we most present and grateful in a given moment? When is this easy and natural and when is it difficult? How can we be better at this, both in everyday life and in our travels? (Naturally, this leads into a discussion of technology, photography, and social media and whether this stuff helps or hurts our savoring ability.)

To bring mindfulness to life, Joe led us through the raisin meditation. For the first time ever, we had an entire room of raisin lovers, with no one grumbling and wondering why we couldn’t be doing this with chocolate instead.

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The afternoon took us to Christiania, Copenhagen’s second most popular tourist destination. Reactions to Christiania are pretty extreme. Some see it as dodgy and dirty, others find it idyllic and don’t want to leave. Whatever the reaction, it’s undoubtedly fascinating as an alternate way of living and as a social experiment with an uncertain future.

This was the first time I’d done a guided tour (given by a 40-year Christiania resident) and it was much better than simply wandering around aimlessly. In addition to being informative, she was as quirky and surprising as the place itself.

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The students wanted to stick around for dinner so we parted ways. My love of a great view won out over my fear of heights, so I climbed the exposed spiral tower of the Church of Our Savior. The 360 view was breathtaking and I had the place all to myself, but note the death grip…

 

Day 3

We put our mindful eating and savoring lessons to good work today on the Copenhagen Food Tour, which takes place in and around the wonderful Torvehallerne food hall. This is one of my absolute favorite outings. It hits so many marks: savoring, yes, but also New Nordic cuisine, local food, and sustainability. We also get a touch of history and subtle lessons in the culture. Our guide, Maria, is an expert and a hoot.

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We took class outside afterwards, to the nearby botanical gardens.

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Did I mention that the weather here is absolutely perfect? We’ve been extremely lucky so far! Part of me feels like we’re missing something key about Scandinavian psychology by skipping out on the cold and grey. A much bigger part of me is thrilled to be spared.

Day 4

Today’s class topic was cycling. Copenhagen is the most advanced, forward-thinking bike-friendly city in the world. Could this contribute to a high degree of happiness? And, if so, why? Is this something we can bring back with us, or does it require a certain infrastructure, climate, and topography that we just don’t have? Is driving in the U.S. just too convenient and cheap to make bikes appealing? This one is hard to place on the “can we bring it back or not?” continuum.

We didn’t have anything scheduled for the afternoon, but it was another perfect weather day. Half of us headed on the train north to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, while others rented a boat and cruised around Copenhagen’s harbors.

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We all met up for a night at Tivoli Gardens (btw, if Christiania is the second-most visited place in CPH, Tivoli is the first). It features gardens, yes, but also rides, food, fireworks, performances, etc. etc. etc.

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Day 5

The weather was iffy for the first time, so we postponed our trip to Lund and made it a free day. Joe and I explored our local neighborhood, Norrebro, while the students had more far-flung adventures. Some took a long (!!) walk to the Carlsberg Brewery, and a few others biked out to the outskirts of the city to look for the six hidden giants. So much for the strong advice that a car is needed for these expeditions!

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That brings me to this fact: I am so thrilled, impressed, and inspired by this group’s level of adventurousness. They set out on daunting journeys like these enthusiastically but with common sense. They’re brave; they’re not afraid to get lost in a foreign city, to drive a motorboat, to follow a Danish train schedule, or to learn to ride a bike in the busiest biking city in the world (which is kinda like learning to drive on the D.C. Beltway at rush hour). AND they also manage to be prompt, prepared for class, and respectful of one another. I couldn’t ask for more.

Day 6

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Today was our bike trip to the seaside town of Dragor, 11 miles south of Copenhagen. The weather had been looking dicey but fortunately cleared up enough for us to head out.

We started out in the heart of CPH and, well, a 17-person group of shaky cyclists in a busy city is quite the project. Eventually, we left the crowded urban bike lanes and hit more relaxed Amager, the Baltic Sea, Kastrup, the airport, and – finally – adorable Dragor. We had some ice cream, some walk-around time, and then it was time to head back.

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This was probably a bit more than we bargained for – some windy spots, a few intense moments of traffic, a couple bike snafus – but we did it. 22 miles!

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Day 7

Our first semi-gross weather day (a.k.a., the typical study abroad weather). I was glad: morning rain made it a perfect movie day. We had a long class that included a new documentary, Finding Hygge. We discussed this idea of…what, exactly? Coziness, relaxation, comfort, easy conversation, lack of stress…

Hygge is a concept that is so woven into the Danish psyche that it’s difficult for them (and us) to define and discuss. And yet it’s held up as a key component of happiness here, so it’s well worth considering. What we concluded is that hygge is not showy, not materialistic, and not stressful. It requires time, intention, and cannot be forced. It has a potential dark side that we have to be on the watch for. And – with practice – it’s perhaps something we can take home with us (unlike, say, socialized medicine, state-funded college, or five weeks of paid vacation per year). And it would make a great name for my future dog, but that’s another story.

Students also shared their favorite moments via photos and I was – again – so happy to hear about their adventures, but also to hear how much they genuinely like one another, are willing to compromise, and have these hilarious moments together.

It was a very good day, although not a particularly photogenic one. But here’s my 4 a.m. sunrise photo and my ice cream.

For the evening, students broke into small groups and had dinners with Danish families around Copenhagen – which I can’t wait to hear about – while Joe and I had an unforgettable meal at Kiin Kiin.

And another week of adventures awaits!

 

 

“What has this trip taught you about yourself, as a person or as a traveler?”

I recently posed this question to my class of 13 JMU students as we neared the end of our 18 day, short-term study abroad class in Sweden and Denmark. Eighteen days may not look like much time on the calendar, but it’s jam-packed with novel and challenging experiences: sleeping four to a room, learning public transportation in a foreign city, coping with jet lag, living out of a suitcase, trying new foods, considering new ideas, and being very, very far from home. Plus, several of the students had never traveled internationally before, and most had never done so on their own.

So, if they were to stop and reflect, important insights were right there for the taking.

Here are some of my favorite responses to this question:

“I’ve learned that I love the challenge of getting to know a new place without the help of maps or cell service. It forces you to talk to locals to get help and to get lost in order to find new sights/attractions.”

“I’m much more adventurous than I thought I was. I realized I’m very open to new experiences.”

“I love to travel by local transportation rather than renting a car because it immerses you in the life of the local people of the country you’re visiting. It’s a way to see the people, but also see the sights without the worry of driving a car.”

“The more I try to hold onto a special moment, the less present I am. It’s okay to enjoy something and then let it go.”

“Exploring and wandering can be the most fun.”

“I need alone time to recharge. And I miss leisure reading–I need to make more time for it at home.”

“I actually really enjoy alone time to frolic and discover new places on my own.”

“I’m much more capable than I give myself credit for! I’m capable of taking care of myself, getting around, making friends with strangers, and dealing with all of the problems that can come up while traveling.”

“I like to spend my days in smaller groups, and I appreciate moving at a more slow, local pace, not rushing off to see all the tourist destinations.”

“After traveling to a different country for the first time, I realize that I like familiarity. There’s a lot to see in the world, but that also includes things at home, and I’m going to take advantage of it!”

“I have so much left to learn. I looked at this trip as a pinnacle and a finish line, but now I know it was just the beginning. There is a world outside to explore and it’ll take time to do it. Now I know that there’s a world to discover inside of me, too. This whole life of ours is a trip, a journey, and I cannot wait to see where mine goes.”

Travel can always teach us something — about the broader world around us, but also about ourselves. Thanks for the memories, you guys…and for the lessons you always manage to teach me.

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Did I mention that we lived for a week in a castle?

Why I’m Not Sad about Winter This Year

I typically get a little down every year, right around this time. The days are getting dramatically shorter, the windows are soon to be sealed shut, and my bright summer dresses have been relegated to the back of the closet. To pass the time between November and March, I’d binge-watch and binge-read and count the days until my self-imposed hibernation ends and the warm Virginia weather returns.

What changed? Well, a couple of years ago I learned about the Danish concept of hygge, and this winter, I vow to bring more of it into my life.

Hygge (pronounced – kind of – like HOO-ga) is one of those untranslatable foreign words that suggests a way of thinking that we Americans just don’t quite grasp (but a fun attempt to define it is here). It roughly translates to coziness, contentment, and lack of anything unpleasant. It can be found in quiet conversations with friends, in candles, fireplaces, snuggly robes, a glass of wine, warm blankets, or steaming coffee. A hyggeligt (the adjective form of hygge) environment is your safe haven.

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In Denmark, hygge is practically a survival strategy in the long, cold, and very dark winters. The sun goes down around 4 p.m. and doesn’t rise again until mid-morning. That means that anyone who is employed in the traditional working hours has little opportunity to experience daylight. And this deprivation drags on for months.

This sounds like a recipe for depression, yet Danes are constantly rated among the world’s happiest people. As many have suggested, hygge may play a key role.  And, unlike universal health care, generous parental leave, and subsidized college education, the beauty of hygge is that it’s something we can easily import to States.

Creating Hygge at Home

Want to have a more hyggeligt winter? Want to transform the dark, cold months into something to anticipate and savor rather than something to grimly endure? Here are some tips:

Start with a little self-experimentation. Look around your home and note what spaces and items make you feel content and at peace. What is it about these spaces? And what spaces make you feel tense or unhappy? Those might need some addressing. (Right now, there is a huge stack of books and papers under my coffee table. Every time I see them, I feel a little tense as I’m reminded of the work I’m not doing. Definitely not hygge!)

What does make me feel warm, safe, and snug are these slippers (seriously worth the splurge), these candles (not a splurge at all!), watching reruns of Gilmore Girls, looking through old photos, or reading a good novel with a lot of lights turned on. Even better if I can smell something yummy cooking. (Slow-cooker meals, therefore, are very hygge.) And that pile of books and papers? That has got to go.

Start by checking in with yourself and coming up with your personal definition of hygge. And get your family in on the discussion too! Here are some great tips for working hygge into family life.

Think carefully about the spaces you inhabit. Is your home welcoming? Warm? Cozy? Danes generally don’t go for big, sprawling spaces but instead pay thoughtful attention to details: lighting, books, meaningful possessions. Less clutter. There are no hard-and-fast rules here (but if you want some ideas, just type “hygge” into Pinterest, or check out this piece). Hyggifying your home is possible at any income level and, at most, may require purchasing a new lamp or two. You don’t need to get fancy. In fact…

Hygge is most definitely not fancy. It’s not pretentious or status-conscious. No judgment, no posturing. Cast aside your need for perfection. Don’t put off inviting people over because you still have to replace those broken kitchen tiles or perfect your recipe for coq au vin. Sharmi Albrechtsen, who frequently blogs about Danish happiness, once told me that trying to one-up or impress your friends and family with fancy food and drink is pretty much the opposite of hygge, as it doesn’t foster warm feelings at all. Instead, hygge is modest, comforting, and familiar. This recent trend, then, might just be perfect.

Don’t hibernate. Stay social. Winter can foster a real sense of isolation as we hunker down and close the world out. But Danes stay social in the winter, having small gatherings, going to snug cafes, and getting really, really psyched for Christmas. Christmas is huge in Denmark. It seems as if all of December is spent gearing up – preparing food, decorating, visiting friends. And the big event? With the lighting, music, family, friends, and traditional foods, you might say it’s hygge at its finest.

Want to read more about hygge and related concepts? Here’s a fascinating take on how people can thrive in harsh winters around the Arctic Circle (in Norway, but still). Author and reluctant Denmark transplant Helen Russell explores hygge and Danish happiness in The Year of Living Danishly. And I can’t wait to see what Danish happiness researcher Meik Wiking has to say in the forthcoming Little Book of Hygge.

 

Running’s Peaks, Ends, and Mindgames

Two weeks ago, I was crippled by a pretty trivial decision: run Huntington Beach, CA’s Surf City 10 Miler, the distance I had signed up for, or heed the warnings of both my physical therapist and my aching Achilles and drop down to the event’s 10K.

The two courses were pretty much identical – both out-and-backs along the scenic, flat Pacific Coast Highway. The 10K just turned back a little sooner. As I pondered this decision: to drop down to the 10K or not to drop down, I went into full-on nerd mode as the concept of duration neglect popped into my head. Based on this well-established psychological principle, if I wanted to have good memories of this race, the total distance or time spent running mattered less than did the emotional peak and the way in which it ended!

So, what did I want from this race? I certainly wasn’t running it for a prize. I wasn’t in competition with anyone. I just wanted to run strong, have fun, and not get hurt. So, I decided to downplay the distance, or the duration, and opted to ensure a solid peak and a strong end. That way, I would have good memories of this special seaside race. The 10K it was.

Looking back two weeks later, I DO have a positive memory of this event. I felt fit and strong the entire time. I ran a negative split and a big PR of 45:06: good for fourth place overall and third in my age group (a shout-out to the dominant 30-39 year-old ladies, eh??).

But, beyond these more objective markers of success are my memories of pride and exuberance: Getting faster as time went on. Passing person after person, without pain or fatigue. And then crossing the finish line, shocked that my sixteenth 10K was, unexpectedly, my fastest one ever.

Did I wish for a second that I had run 10 miles? No way! Distance had become way less meaningful than I’d expected. Duration neglect was alive and well on the PCH. I had a solid peak and a strong end. The miles I’d logged were unimportant.

But sometimes duration neglect can work against us.

Another decision I’m grappling with is whether or not to run the Richmond Marathon in a mere two weeks, given my Achilles pain and other mysterious and enduring foot aches. Here, duration neglect takes center stage again. When I look back on previous marathons, even recent ones, details of the multi-hour slog are all but gone from memory. What remains is that peak – the realization that I am going to do it. That singular sense of badassery and pride as the miles tick by. And then the end – the triumph of crossing the finish line, getting my medal, and maybe eating a massive burger.

I truly want to respect the distance, but it’s awfully hard to do that when my psychological makeup is designed to work against me. 26.2 is a vague notion, manageable – no, conquerable – in the abstract. (And maybe this is a good thing. Would anyone choose to repeat this experience if they could mentally recreate each and every painful step?)

So, to run the marathon or not to run the marathon? As it unfolds over three-plus hours, it will be so much more than a peak and an end. It will be 26.2 miles, a distance that is just plain hard to get my mind around in any kind of real way.

In trying to make a decision that does respect the distance, I consulted the race map, trying to imagine myself at each and every mile. Maybe this could undo duration neglect just a bit. Here goes:

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Mile 1-3 – navigate the crowd, try to resist the urge to go out too fast.

Miles 4-8 – a nice straightaway, settle in to a comfortable pace. Enjoy some downhill. Have a gel around 8. Don’t speed up too much.

Miles 9-12 – Cross the James, go through some woods, hit a gradual uphill. Don’t even think about being done yet.

Mile 13.1 – Halfway…only halfway. Be happy-sad about that.

Miles 14-16 – Approach the windy, gradually uphill bridge I’ve heard about. Try not to get psyched out. Fight through. This might be the worst of it. Maybe switch from podcasts to Hamilton. Have another gel.

Mile 17 – Back to downtown, optional bail-out point. Don’t do it! (Unless your Achilles is sending you an unmistakable QUIT message. Then do it.) See Mark. Don’t do the math. Don’t kill people with cowbells.

Miles 18-20 –  Enter potential slog territory. Try to catch up to people ahead of you. Smile when hitting the 20 mile mark. Stop worrying that your toenail fell off. It probably didn’t, and who cares if it does?

Miles 20-23. Enter that boring section of flat and ugly. Just think about anything else. Crank Hamilton. You are not throwing away your shot.

Miles 24-25. You should know at this point if your BQ is likely. And if it is, you will feel so freakin’ amazing. Remember last year’s half, when you hit this section and felt so happy knowing you were going to finally break 1:45? Like that, but better. This is your peak. Bask in it.

Enjoy the massive downhill and cross the finish line!

So, does this pull focus from the peaks and ends from marathons past and give me a sense of the distance and challenge I’m up against? Yes. So why do I feel pumped up instead of intimidated??

Maybe that’s my answer. Bring it, Richmond!

One Small Thing That Makes Air Travel So Much Better

Like so many of us, I don’t particularly like flying. At best, it’s a necessary evil made bearable with a novel, a glass of wine, and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. At worst, it’s utter misery, as evidenced by stories like these.

But, really, when you think about it, flying is actually pretty amazing. Remember Louis C. K.’s epic rant? “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky,” he exclaims. Indeed, we are many miles in the air, traveling to another state, another country, or halfway around the world in mere hours. And we get to see some amazing things from up there. I’m always surprised when people in the window seat draw the shade, never to open it again. Why miss out on the sunrises and sunsets? The landscape of the place you’re leaving or the place you’re going?

One of my favorite things is to fly in and out of my hometown of Charlottesville. One flight path takes you right over Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Once, I was able to find my house. Sometimes, I try to pick out certain mansions that I know only by their imposing gates and fancy-schmancy names. For the few minutes it takes to take off or land, I am both creeping on and savoring my town with every ounce of my being.

But many times, I don’t know much about the places I’m traveling in and out of. Or flying over. So, the experience is made so much more interesting and meaningful when I’m told what the heck I’m looking at.

Where was this? Wish I’d known!

I recently flew from Fresno to Phoenix on a cloudless day at a fairly low altitude. For much of the flight, what I saw out the window was otherworldly. Brown and barren yet incredibly dramatic, with very few roads. But every so often, I’d see a lone house, or something vaguely industrial, or something that might qualify as a town in the middle of all the nothingness. What was it? Where was I? I guessed Nevada or very eastern California, but I would have loved to have known for sure.

Yesterday, on the other hand, I flew from Charlotte to L.A., and before we even took off, the pilot told us, “Today we’ll be flying over the Great Smoky Mountains (where we might hit a couple of bumps), then into Kansas (just south of Wichita), then over the southern part of Colorado, where you’ll start to see the Rockies. Those on the left will see the Grand Canyon as we get closer to the end of the flight.”

I count three natural wonders in that announcement (four if you count Wichita). Three chances to glimpse what people center entire vacations around, in the space of five hours. Given this, should we be so quick to conclude that flying sucks?

The Grand Canyon

As a further courtesy, this pilot (who I’ve decided loves his job and is just all-around awesome) would pop onto the P.A. every now and then to tell us to look out the window. “Those on the right can see Lake Tahoe right now, and those on the left can see the Grand Canyon,” he said, pulling my eye from my novel to the landscape below. A bit later, he was back: “Right now, those on the left will see Palm Springs and the Salton Sea,” he said, as we started our descent into LAX. I have to go to Palm Springs in a few days, so it was especially interesting to glimpse it from above, and I was grateful to be oriented to where we were.

If I had my way, these announcements would be a requirement on every flight (those lucky souls who can sleep on planes may disagree with me).

Is your pilot not sharing? Then maybe you’re lucky enough to have a built-in seat screen with a map option, so you can click away from your 25th viewing of The Notebook for quick checks of where you are in time and space. I recently had one of these on a SAS flight to Copenhagen, and even though much of the flight was spent over the Atlantic, way too high up to see anything, it still added to my experience to be able to tell myself, “Wow, I’m flying over Newfoundland right now.”

Even better: there’s a new app called Flyover Country, which uses GPS technology (not wi-fi) to tell you exactly what you’re flying over. It also links to related Wikipedia articles if you want to learn more. You need to be at a relatively low altitude and cloud cover must be minimal, of course, for you to be able to see and for the app to function optimally, but still – very cool. I hope to try it out on my way home next weekend!

The World’s Best Bagels…and So Much More

“Arriving in Charlottesville from the lush, rural Virginia countryside, you almost feel like you’ve stepped back into ancient Rome.” – The New York Times

“Just two hours from Washington DC, C-ville (as the locals call it) offers quiet country retreats and horseback rides in nearby Shenandoah National Park, the natural beauty of the Blue Ridge mountains, as well as a wealth of history that includes the homes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Its array of restaurants offer exceptional gastronomic variety.” – The Guardian

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Photo: static1.squarespace.com

Not to brag or anything, but my adopted hometown of Charlottesville regularly tops all the charts: “Healthiest small towns.” “Best college towns.” “Top places to retire.” “Best tennis towns.” “Best places for book lovers.” And even “America’s happiest city.”

Locals outwardly scoff and grumble about how each new accolade will bring even more people and more traffic to our ever-expanding town. But, deep down, I think we all like knowing that we’re spending our lives in a place that doesn’t suck. Hey, if Southern Living, Travel and Leisure, CNN Traveler, and so many others think my town is the greatest, I’ll happily use that knowledge to validate my life choices.

But it’s more than just validation I seek; it’s appreciation. Because as I sit in traffic, buy my groceries, and navigate my to-do lists, it’s so easy to forget that I live in a special place. So, for all of the cynicism that might accompany them, our “best-of” lists can really serve as a nice reminder of what we have going for us.

Just now, as I did my morning Facebook scroll, I came across yet another Charlottesville superlative. “The best bagels in the world are in Charlottesville, Virginia,” the piece began. True or not, I was reminded of how lucky I am to live within walking distance of some pretty spectacular carb-bombs.

I also love reading other people’s impressions of the area, for example, this piece from the Packed Suitcase blog. It’s fun to think, “People come to my hometown for their vacation.”

Need other reminders of Charlottesville’s awesomeness? For just a few, check out:

Now all this place really needs is a Wegman’s. Oh, but wait!

The Pepsi 10K, one year later.

Late last summer, my angry low lumbar spine was soaking up the sweet, sweet goodness of a series of epidural steroid shots. I was told that the benefits, if any, would be gradual, but I woke up the day after my first shot feeling fresh and new and pain-free for the first time in years. Gone was my morning hobble and its accompanying grumpiness. Gone was the pain that shot down my right leg after driving for more than 10 minutes, which left a series of doctors, chiropractors, and physical therapists baffled. 

This was great, but how would running be? Tentatively, I went out to try the Pepsi 10K, a local favorite that benefits Special Olympics. It was one year ago this week. 12047030_10102333139441666_3143013651970462020_n

Mile 1 was downhill and adrenaline-charged. Hard to gauge what was happening. But by mile 2 and 3, I was sure: the pain was gone! I welled up. Running had suddenly been transformed from a painful slog (yet a habit I stubbornly refused to give up) into a source of joy again. I was ecstatic. It was like Christmas.

I did not run my best race that day. But my love of running was back. My optimism was back. And I was so grateful.

And my next few weeks of running remained full of gratitude. I kept expecting the pain to return, as these spinal shots don’t work their mysterious magic forever, so I thought of each run as a gift. My back was like Charlie’s brain in Flowers for Algernon: Enjoy it while you can! But…the pain never did return. So I kept running. And added in some other good stuff like planks and squats and a foam roller. And I kept getting faster. I broke 1:45 in a half marathon in Richmond in November. I ran a 5K PR (22:28) the next month. I broke 80 minutes in the Ten Miler in March and 1:42 at the Park to Park half in April. Sub-8 minute miles no longer felt like an all-out sprint but like something I could sustain for over an hour.

Then, simply because it lined up with my travel schedule, I dared to sign up for the Stockholm Marathon in June. I ran a 3 minute PR there in June (3:45), no wall-hitting, no death wishes. Just some backlogged podcasts and then the Hamilton soundtrack, plus sun, sea, smiles, and Swedes. What was happening?!  13307481_10208563860747915_5672304648203809910_n

I was proud and feeling quite the badass. But somewhere in all of these successes, my gratitude for the simple act of running started playing second fiddle to my competitive nature, while basking in my pain-free glory was supplanted by concern for new, minor aches and pains (Achilles, feet, blah blah, boring).

Anyway, today, I ran the Pepsi 10K again, and was suddenly reminded of the wonder and appreciation I felt a year ago, as well as all of the progress I’ve made since. (And, ok, I ran a PR, too: 46:56.)  I didn’t feel that teary, awed gratitude nearly as deeply this time – maybe that would be impossible – but the rolling hills of Owensville Road were a strong reminder. It’s so easy to forget what a gift running is, you guys. And what a gift the steroid shot can be, too.

I highly recommend both.

“The Good Life” Comes to an End.

As I write this, I’m three hours into a five-hour train trip, heading south from Stockholm to Copenhagen. A few cars up sit twelve drowsy college students who are probably alternating between napping, snacking, working on their final course presentations, and – quite possibly – reflecting on the fact that it’s almost over.

We’ve just spent the past 16 days touring Sweden and Denmark on a study abroad called “Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia.” We have just one last evening together in Copenhagen, and then they all start to disperse: some are off to Norway, one to Iceland, another to Berlin, and still another to Amsterdam. Others are going back home, back to their parents, siblings, graduate school prep, and summer jobs. And two of them graduated last month, don’t really know what comes next, and – understandably – really don’t seem to want to think about it.

While our main objective was to study the well-documented high rates of Scandinavian happiness, we also did a Color Run, learned to make moose meatballs, biked through Malmo, and cruised through the Stockholm archipelago. We played hilariously bad beach volleyball, danced around a maypole on Midsommar’s Eve, and visited the Christiania commune just one day before it was infiltrated by cops on a drug bust. We found a cure for culinary homesickness at a TGI Fridays, laughed through a border crossing snafu at the Copenhagen airport, celebrated two birthdays, survived the rides at Tivoli Gardens, took a ghost tour of Stockholm, and sang karaoke at a Swedish dive bar. And I’m sure they would add things to this list that I will never know about. As it should be.

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What I do know is that three weeks ago, these twelve were virtually strangers, but now, I see the potential for life-long friendships. The time has been brief but intense. They’ve shared experiences that no one else will really understand. They have inside jokes and nicknames that would be lost on anybody on the outside. And they are united in the knowledge that their experiences here will never be replicated.

I hope their transition is an easy one. Because as nice as it might be to see their families and friends, to return to comfort and predictability, no one back home will really get it. They’ll try, asking questions and expressing interest at the photos and stories they are bringing home. But it’s just impossible to bridge the psychological gap this trip has created. Reverse culture shock is very real and experiencing it doesn’t make anyone an ingrate. (But the guilt associated with that belief, like “I shouldn’t feel so unhappy when I just had this amazing experience,” can actively heighten the distress.)

As for me, I’m equal parts relieved that a stolen cell phone was our biggest disaster, happy to be free and responsible only for myself, and sad to be saying goodbye to this thoughtful, curious, and hilarious bunch. A few of them, I know I’ll probably never see again. A few will be in my class this fall. The rest may pop into my office once or twice. Maybe we’ll try to put together a reunion dinner. But, the cold reality is that we will never be together again, as a group, in this part of the world. This experience will never be repeated.