A Day in Siena and San Gimignano

Last Saturday, we had our first class trip. We left Florence for the Tuscan countryside, stopping first in Siena. This town (city?) had been on my list for quite some time. In fact, just this summer I read two books that were centered here: a memoir, Too Much Tuscan Sun and a novel, The Italian Party. I was looking forward to seeing how the place matched the images in my mind.

In short, it went over and above what I had envisioned. The views were more magnificent, the Piazza del Campo much grander, the streets livelier.

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I wanted more time to wander (maybe I’ll pop back some day, since it’s only an hour or so by train). Still, we got a nice overview during our time, seeing the financial, political, religious, and social centers of town with a fantastic local guide. We happened upon a classic car show and tried a local treat, pasta with cinghiale (wild boar) sauce.

 

Another highlight was the Basilica of San Domenico, which houses some important 13th century Catholic relics, like St. Catherine’s thumb and head on full display (no photos allowed, but view them here if you must). Apparently, it was common to divvy up parts of important religious figures for political reasons and to boost tourism (the rest of St. Catherine is in Rome).

Here’s the outside of the church, which you might prefer to gaze on.

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There was also Siena’s Gothic cathedral, made even more impressive by the fact that its marble mosaic floors were uncovered, which only happens a few times a year (I have no great photos of these, but click the link above to see some).

 

 

After lunch and free time, we rode the bus another hour or so to San Gimignano, which I’ve heard called “Tuscany’s Manhattan” because of its defining feature: 14 tall stone towers (there were once over 70). We climbed the tallest one and got quite the view.

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San Gimignano is pretty tiny, so after spending some time in the tower, we wandered, bought a bottle of the local wine (vernaccia) had a coffee, and headed back to Florence.

The weather was fantastic, spirits were high, we learned a lot, and it was a great day to experience Tuscany!

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Back in Florence, this week’s highlight (for me) was going with the art history class to Santa Maria Novella for a lesson in frescos, which called up long-forgotten tidbits from my Catholic education. Getting to go on these art outings with an expert professor is another perk of the job!

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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!

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!

 

 

That time I ran with the Crown Prince of Denmark

Well, myself and 35,000 others.

Tonight’s 10K race was part of a week-long celebration of the Crown Prince’s 50th birthday. From what I can gather, Frederik likes to run and celebrate fitness, so he decided to celebrate with runs in Denmark’s five largest cities. The events are organized so that everyone can participate regardless of age or fitness level, with the goal of getting people out and moving. Walk a mile, run a 10K. Do both. Bring the kids. The point is to get out there. As he declared a year ago, “When I turn 50 years old, I will celebrate the day with a race where all of Denmark can join…A run must be a race aimed at the experience runners, but equally to those who tie their running shoes for the first time and everyone is welcome regardless of age.”

Yet another reason to love Denmark.

By chance, a few days ago I saw the Copenhagen version of the event pop up on Facebook. True to form, I signed up without a lot of forethought. But I quickly came to see that it was kind of a big deal. Like, a 35,000-person, shut-down-the-roads kind of big deal (read more here). And it was at 7 p.m. Because the earlier part of the day was taken up with OTHER royal running events (kids’ run, mile run, awards, pageantry, etc.). But why would I expect less? It was the prince.

Look, here we are:

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I’ve done over 100 races and I can say with confidence that this was one of the most memorable. There was the sheer size of it: as of a few days ago, an estimated 35,000 runners were registered (but it was probably more, as you could sign up last-minute). There was also the hoopla: huge monitors were set up to show highlights of the event as we stood in the starting corrals. Helicopters flew overheard getting footage. It was broadcast on TV. I saw the Crown Prince (for maybe half a second) as he made he way to the start, surrounded by cameramen and bodyguards, and it might as well have been Beyonce. (Apparently the Queen was out there somewhere too, but I missed that. Someone told me this in the elevator to my Airbnb. Because it was apparently A Big Deal). Once the race started, the streets were lined with fans, maybe ten deep the entire way, waving Danish flags, wearing royal costumes, and cheering. Walking home afterwards, I stood at a stoplight with some runners and fans, and one person called this a “once in a lifetime event.”

 

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It was so unique; part of me wanted to take pictures during the race. But a much bigger part of me wanted to crush it.

And I kinda did crush it – my first race with a sub-7:00 minute average, and a big 10K PR of 43:08-ish. The course was flat with few turns, there was no humidity, and the Vaporfly 4% is truly a magical shoe. This either bodes well for the Stockholm Marathon in two weeks or I just blew it. Anyway.

It was a nice change to feel like a part of something here in Copenhagen. Sure, I don’t really know much — ok, anything — about the Danish royal family. I couldn’t understand a single thing that was being broadcast in Danish over the loudspeakers before or after the race. But, like everyone else out there, I get the pull of running through city streets on a beautiful spring evening. I felt genuine excitement and cheered along with everyone else when the prince walked by. Walking home with my medal, people said what I took to be “congratulations” in Danish and I gave them a “tak” in return. It’s nice to not feel like a tourist for a minute.

Did I mention that I love Denmark?

The fastest way to feel like a local in Copenhagen

[I’m vowing to blog more.]

We arrived for the fourth year of Exploring the Good Life in Scandinavia yesterday at 7:30 a.m. Thanks to a stellar movie selection and a fussy seatmate, I got about two hours of terrible sleep on the flight. Unfortunately, we had a lot of morning and afternoon to kill before we could crash out.

After a massive Espresso House coffee, I did my favorite Copenhagen thing and got a bike from a bike share stand. These things have little motors, so you can ride them even when you’re completely drained of energy. It’s super-easy to set up an account, and there are drop-offs all over the city. To call Copenhagen a bike-friendly city is a massive understatement, and–if you’re comfortable on two wheels–riding around here feels safe and natural. I never feel more at home in Copenhagen than when I’m on a bike.

I started from Central Station and pedaled around with no real plan. If I felt lost or confused, I’d just follow someone for awhile. I ended up riding 11 miles before dropping the bike off and going to a meeting, more refreshed than I could have imagined a couple hours before.

Some of the sights were old favorites:

And some new treats too, like this adorable block-long street that I may never find again.

And this.

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“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:

marathon-map

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!

Fresh Air, Lifetime, and a Shower Cap: What a Traveling Happiness Speaker Needs in a Hotel.

As an itinerant speaker for IBP, there are always a few weeks out of every year that I spend on the road teaching day-long seminars to a large audience of health-care professionals. Whether I’m in Maine, Arkansas, or California, the routine is the same: get up early, exercise, shower, and make myself presentable. Scarf down some breakfast, and get to my presentation site by 8:20 a.m. I talk from 9:00 to 3:30, usually to very nice people on some topic I love, but it’s still exhausting. I have yet to find a pair of shoes that looks professional while also keeping my feet from throbbing by 2 p.m. (these are my current faves, if I can get away with them. Otherwise, Dansko boots or Clarks won’t kill me).img_2453

After the talk ends, I hightail it. I drive at least an hour to my next location, zoning out to the sounds of a podcast while crossing my fingers for minimal traffic. I eat a really early, Yelp-recommended dinner, usually nice, always with wine, and then retreat to the quiet oasis of my hotel room, hoping to go to bed early so I’m fully charged for the next day. This is some of the hardest work I do, but also some of the most gratifying.

After 5 years of this gig, there are certain things I have come to value tremendously in my hotels, which are usually mid-range chains, like the Doubletree, Marriott, or Hampton Inn.

These things include:

  • a phone charger right by my bed (often built into the lamp) (yes, I look at my phone in the middle of the night.)
  • a king-sized bed. I am one person, averaged-sized, and this is totally unnecessary, but MAN, it is a treat!
  • Lifetime Movie Network. This is a rarity, but nothing makes me happier than unwinding to the histronics of a former Charlie’s Angel with amnesia, or the saga of a girl locked in a box.
  • a TV with a sleep timer, because I love to fall asleep to the frenzied sounds of the above (or, if not that, then some Criminal Minds or Law and Order). It’s some kind of antidote to the long days of talking about hope and happiness.
  • a shower cap. Because you sometimes want to skip a day of hair-washing.
  • a quiet HVAC system. No one wants to hear that thing turning on and off all night.
  • a window or sliding door that will let in some fresh air. So long as the temperature is above 50 and below 95, I firmly believe that natural, non-filtered air is a fundamental human right. I promise, I will not jump. I will not fall out and sue. I will close and lock the window when I leave. Just let me open my window and have my air.
  • a solid breakfast, which includes some high-protein options. Omelet bar is the best. No breakfast is the worst. A sad array of sweet breads is almost as bad.
    img_2459

    No.

  • a real bar. JUST in case I’d like to take a glass of wine or bourbon up with me to my room. These are some long days, friends, and there are still emails to answer and clothes to iron before bed. Bonus if there’s a free happy hour (this happened twice this week!)
  • a Keurig coffee maker. I know, I know. They are terrible for the environment. But, when I wake up bleary-eyed and in need of immediate caffeine, they are just so easy.
  • a gym with a stability ball and a medicine ball. Because core.
  • a decent place to pop out in the morning for a run even when it’s still dark out. It needs to be well-lit, flat, and safe. I try my best to scout this out online, but there’s always a sense of the unknown when booking a room somewhere unknown.
  • legit blackout curtains. For early bedtimes much more so than late, lazy mornings.
  • I seldom expect this but am thrilled when it materializes: a robe!

    A nice, too quick stay at Temecula’s South Coast Winery.

Things that actually annoy me or that I care nothing about on these short stays: a pool, a concierge, valet parking, laundry, and free cookies (stop it, Doubletree!).

After a week on tour, I’m happy to say that many of these places hit the mark. The Embassy Suites in Valencia was a nice surprise. And I certainly cannot complain about Pasadena’s Langham Huntington, where I’m spending my last two nights. Treat yo’self!

Next week – lobster and coastline in Maine!
What do you want in your hotel?