Holiday Atmosphere

Bonjour! Here, simply, are a few holiday images and a video from Carcassonne and Toulouse. We hope you enjoy!

One evening in Toulouse after seeing a movie (in English, with French subtitles):

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Floating lights above the street under which we often park
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Simple bulbs in festive cascades at Galéries Lafayette (the Macy’s of France)
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Carpet of lights above the main shopping street

A video of the shopping street and its animated lit Christmas tree:

Now on to Carcassonne:

Each year around St Nicholas’ Day, Carcassonne hosts the Marche aux Flambeaux (the march with torches).

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People gather outside La Cité, buying wax torches. The proceeds support local charities. Led by medieval reenactors, the festive crowd crosses through La Cité, out the stone gate, down the hill, across the Pont Vieux (old bridge – 14th century), and into the main square of the Bastide (the “new” city from the 13th century). Our friends Jef and Val are leaders of the medieval participants.

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The first horse at the head of the crowd, leaving the Aude Gate
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More of the merry medieval band
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Val and Jef above the crowd, with watchful eyes
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Over the Pont Vieux, with La Cité beyond
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Place Carnot
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Among the holiday cabins
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In La Cité

 

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We think Santa has the right idea.

 

Chamonix

We recently took a road trip to Venice and back. This post and a few of the next ones come from some of our travel moments.

Chamonix, France, lies in a valley directly below Mont Blanc, which is Europe’s tallest mountain. There is a lookout called the Aguille du Midi at an elevation of 3,842 m, 968 m lower than the top of Mont Blanc. From there, there are purportedly grand views in all directions atop the peaks of the Alps. Alas, the upper portion of the cable car system was closed for maintenance.

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On the other side of the valley, a cable car ascends halfway up to the place called Flégère at elevation 1,877 m. In winter, additional lifts can take you higher up the mountain to ski runs. We arrived at the base at 10 am, opening time, with the expectation of a nice ride up, a little time enjoying the views, and a return descent.

Just off the cable car, we found clear sunny views across the valley, to Mont Blanc and adjacent peaks, including the Aiguilles du Grépon, du Chardonnet, et Verte. Our view looked directly south, right into the sun. Very little of the peaks were in direct sun, just silhouettes against the brightness. The cable car terminus was in our way, so we thought to walk up the gravel path a little to get a clearer view.

A little higher, and the panorama was full. But still silhouetted by the low sun. We wanted to see the mountains in full bright light, so decided to stay a while longer. The gravel path continued up the mountain to the next switchback. We decided to go up just one more level.

From here the view was even better. The sun was starting to illuminate the edges of the mountain ridges, as well as to cast rays down across the forests facing us. Maybe just a little higher.

Now we spotted a group of people above us who were pulling on what we realized were paragliders that were lying on the ground. We had already seen a number of paragliders over the valley. We wanted to see them take off. So up another level.

We found a spot just above their launching field. The wind was gentle. All but one person were sitting on the ground amid their piles of colored sails. A leader or instructor was on her radio. She had a very strong voice so we could hear her talking about the wind currents, and relaying information coming over the radio. She helped the standing person spread out the sail behind her. We, and they, waited and waited for gusts of wind. Just as we were about to give up on seeing a launch, suddenly the sail was inflated and the person flew off the cliff and into the sky above the valley. It happened so quickly that we missed filming the launch.

We decided to wait for the next launch, determined to capture the jump into the void. A little higher up the hill for us, of course. Now a man was positioning himself. He earlier had been talking cockily about how to turn figure eights in the air, much to the consternation of the leader. He stood, waiting, with his back to the hill. With a new gust, his sail filled and he ran off the cliff. Instantly, the sail deflated, twisting on itself. He disappeared below onto the steep slope below. We think that the only thing that got hurt was his pride.

Finally, our phone was in position for the next launch. Lovely and exhilarating to watch this person, slung beneath what a moment before was a swath of thin fabric, float away high over the deep valley.

By now, the sun was shining on the glaciers on Mont Blanc and the other icy valleys. The upper air was so still that jet contrails stayed fine completely across the sky.

While we talked about staying up here forever, we knew we needed to descend. Looking down at the cable car terminus, we realized just how high we had hiked, one switchback at a time. On the leisurely stroll down the views continued to shine and awe.

Back at the cable car, we realized we had enjoyed the views, air and walks for 4 hours. The time had slipped by just like the paragliders.

Delightful.

La Cité du Vin

La Cité du Vin (The City of Wine) opened its doors in June 2016. Just this month, it received its millionth visitor. Perhaps we were numbers 1,001,034 and 1,001,035. Maybe I went for the architecture; maybe we both went for the wine. 

La Cité du Vin’s raison-d’être and mission are modest (this is Google’s and my translation from the website): 

Wine is an inseparable part of the culture and living heritage of our country, but also of many other countries on five continents. It has made possible forging bonds between men, shaping landscapes, and generating myths, rituals and a true culture. 

Since 5,500 years before our era, wine has been at the heart of human life. Wine sculpts our landscapes, accompanies our beliefs, our customs, our traditions, our social practices, and it invades our imaginations. 

Universal, plural, it crosses the borders, the centuries, imposes everywhere its material and immaterial mark. It constantly reinvents itself in new forms, in multiple uses. 

The Cité du Vin’s mission is to share this millennial culture with an international audience, to enlighten its meaning, to help protect and transmit this universal intangible heritage.  

The building and its setting 

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The architecture firm XTU from Paris designed the building. The architects described the building this way:

This building does not resemble any recognizable shape because it is an evocation of the soul of wine between the river and the city… Every detail of the architecture evokes wine’s soul and liquid nature: seamless roundness, intangible and sensual.

We think it looks like a wine decanter, and why not?! The owner of the attractive bed & breakfast where we stayed in Bordeaux said that she sees a sock. 

The building is now a monument in a major urban-redevelopment area on the site of the former industrial district of Les Forges along the banks of the Garonne River. The district is one big construction site, full of building cranes and a myriad of new residential and commercial buildings. We had read that Bordeaux is experiencing an exploding real estate market: the high-speed train line — TGV — between Paris and Bordeaux opened in July 2017, making it possible for Parisians to be in Bordeaux in just 2 hours. Now Bordeaux is an attractive outer, albeit upper-crust and increasingly unaffordable, suburb of Paris. 

Have a glass of wine in the markets of the world 

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We selected an hour-long “polysensorial” wine-tasting experience. Along with other English-speaking visitors (from New Zealand, Ireland, Spain, and Germany), we sat at low tables around the edge of a circular room. Seamless photo montages slowly flowed around the room.  

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From time to time, a spritz of scented air came our way: was that the smell of leather, or barbecue, or tomatoes?  

Our charming French host introduced four different glasses of wine for us, without telling us what each one was. Each of four wines was introduced by a seductive stream of images, sounds and smells from different places around the world. The first was Mediterranean areas (Provence, Greece, Italy). Another was scenes from Algeria. Our charming French host invited us to imagine the foods, tastes and experiences of these places as we sniffed and tasted each mystery wine. She did not tell us anything about the wines before we had some time to experience them on our own. She was splendid in assisting us to identify aromas and tastes. I loved it when she said that we come to each glass of wine with our own scent and taste memories and associations. So if I say the nose evokes pineapple, and you say banana, then that is just because of each of our own specific past experiences. Our host made it safe for everyone in the room to share their own associations.  

The wines that we enjoyed, and their world-market contexts were: 

  • A rich vintage Prosecco from Valdobbiadene in the Veneto — Mediterranean markets 
  • A lightly sparkling Pinot Gris from Alsace — Markets along the Mekong River 
  • A Cabernet Sauvignon – Pinotage from South Africa — diverse Algerian scenes and foods 
  • A Malbec – Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Argentina — Andean barbecues and markets 

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The permanent self-guided tour 

At the entrance of the main exhibit area, the staff presents you with an iPhone-like device and headphones. Throughout the exhibit areas, you just point the device at a dot symbol and the audio connects you to the exhibit. You can wander in any order and pace that you want. The exhibits flow in all directions beneath the organically shaped building shell. 

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The interactive displays helped connect scent experiences with their sources. We liked the refined steampunk aesthetic: The shiny glass covers and the brass tubes captivated us. The offered scents were clear and accurate (which is not always the case in this type of olfactory exhibit). 

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One section was entitled The Art of Living. Three long tables were set with virtual items, and surrounded by big chairs. We visitors were invited to sit at the table — along with two animated conversationalists in tall bright monitors. As they talked about experiencing wine and food at the social table, the table top animated and morphed to illustrate their points. 

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Other exhibit areas explored wine in cultures through history, highlighted vintners from many wine regions of the world, visited different terroirs, and helped new wine experiences to understand why wines have the colors, textures and aromas that they do. 

At the end of the tour, we took the elevator to the Belvedere at the top where we were offered a choice of wines from which to select one to taste. Unlike so many places we have visited in France, here there were wines from around the world, not just from France. I selected a red wine from Armenia, because, well, have you ever had an Armenian wine? It was light, slight of aroma, and not very deep. But now I’ve tasted a wine from Armenia. Mike selected a Rioja from Spain, and was rewarded with a rich complex glass. 

While it was inevitable to have wine bottles in the decor, the ceiling of the Belvedere was attractive anyway. 

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A few of the wines for sale in the “wine cellar.” 

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For us, the polysensorial wine tasting was the highlight. No big surprise, because any time we have the opportunity to explore wines, especially with a good guide (or salesperson), we enjoy ourselves. The collection of exhibits was very attractive and engaging; they were extremely well designed and made. But, at the end of the day, smelling, feeling and tasting wine is far more satisfying than just talking about it! 


PS: A foodie dinner 

We went to Restaurant Côte Rue for dinner the night after our Cité du Vin experience. We had selected the restaurant because of good reviews, the work of young chefs, and the fact that it was only a few-minute walk from our B&B. Each dish was beautifully presented, all were tasty, and a couple were notable. Here’s today’s food porn for your enjoyment. 

This was our favorite. Complex when we explain it, but all the textures and flavors cooperated very well. The rose-red sauce at the right is a tomato-beet mousse. Beneath it is a layer of a creamy white cheese. And beneath that were three pieces of white fish, ceviche style, with a bit of caviar. To the left is an arrangement of slightly pickled tomatoes, beets, and radish slices. Neither of us is a fan of beets, but in this dish, the beets were gentle, and the combinations of beet, tomato, vinegar, creamy cheese, crunchy radish, and ceviche fish kept delighting our tongues. 

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Dorade (a white fish), with a verveine foam.

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Roasted beef with young zucchini and carrots, and dried black olive bits.

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The cheese course was just goat cheese. We have discovered that in many restaurants, if there is a cheese course, it can be just three or four slices of unremarkable cheese. Here, the chefs cannily chose a single creamy goat cheese from the Bordeaux region. They decorated it with tiny flowers and herb sprigs; this was not just to be pretty: the tart herbal field flavors complemented the cheese. Little fresh figs, simple almonds, and a delicious slightly crystalline local honey charmed us. 

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PPS: Our B&B 

Our B&B was beautiful, and its owner / host, Béatrice, was full of life. Highly recommended: Bordeaux Wine Lodge. The breakfast table for just the two of us: 

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Poppy red and vineyard green

We’re happy to offer a fresh change from all the recent arctic-themed posts. Spring, and even a bit of summer, have at last arrived in our neighborhood. Colors and freshness are everywhere.

After weeks of gray skies and rainy days, the sun’s warmth has incited fields of red poppies. Some fields and roadsides have become carpets of scarlet.

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It seems to us that there are many many more poppies this year than what we remember from last year. Perhaps, since last year was our first spring in Carcassonne, we hadn’t noticed as much as we do now. I looked online for some explanation about why this year’s “crop” is so rich. I couldn’t find any conversation: apparently it is not as remarkable to long-time residents as it is to us. In fact, in rural areas, poppies, however attractive to artists and tourists, are considered weeds. They grow easily in just about any soil; they compete with other crops like wheat; and one poppy plant can generate over 50,000 seeds in a season.

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The red poppy is a resonant symbol from the First World War. The centenary of the war’s end is this year. After years of horrific battles in the fields of Flanders, during which the ground was trampled and drenched in blood, poppies were the first flowers to push through. Each flower represents a fallen combatant.

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I found one more poppy symbol. The writer says that this connection is a bit poetic as well as an old rural legend. Usually, the red, white and blue of the French flag recall the blue and red of the French Revolution, which frame the white of the king. Instead, out here in the country, the colors are those of wildflowers: the blue of cornflower, the white of camomille, and the red of the poppy.

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Poppies try to steal the thunder from the newly awake grape vines, but the vines will have much more endurance through the summer. The stripes of vineyards drape over almost every hill and plain of this region. In the course of a single week, we noticed the first pale green sprouts atop the dark old vine trunks. And then, almost overnight, the vineyards transformed into fluffy fields of new grape leaves.

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We have learned that this first spring stage is called bud-breaking. This is the time when the vigneron (the farmer of the grapes) finishes pruning the vines and starts preventive treatments to combat grapevine pests and diseases. We can see from our living room window our neighboring vigneron on his narrow tractor systematically passing between the lines of vines. Octopus arms spray what we imagine are pesticides (we hope no) or fertilizers. He mows down the grasses (including a few poppies) that are flourishing between the vine rows. (When the tractor is absent, we see earth-colored white-tailed rabbits hopping among the vines. We trust that they wait out the vigneron in safe burrows.)

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The vines are now growing swiftly, lengthening by 5 – 15 centimeters each day. Before the next milestone, when the vines bloom, the vigneron will select the new branches that promise the best grapes.

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Snowmobile Adventure

At the end of our arranged tour in the arctic, Norwegian Airlines cancelled our morning flight from Kiruna back to Stockholm. They booked us on an evening flight, which, once we thought about it, gave us another full day in the beautiful landscape. We checked with the activities desk at the IceHotel where we had just spent the night. Happily, there were available places in the afternoon snowmobiling activity for the two of us.

At the appointed meeting time and place, we were standing with about a dozen other people, assuming that we all were waiting for the snowmobile tour leader. Right on time, a young woman walked up to the group, calling out “Bylund?” in the Swedish pronunciation: Beeluund! We assumed we were just the first name on her list, but that was the only name she called out. Smiling, she, Beatrice, said that she assumed that based on my name we were Swedish, and she said that we were the only two people on this day’s activity. She was excited because she could take us to a special location that she can’t take larger groups to. Sounded very good to us too! She was full of good cheer and excitement to be out on an afternoon’s snowmobiling.

Beatrice walked us over to three snowmobiles; we each got our own. I’m a complete novice; Mike, because of his many years’ experience of motorcycle driving, finds a lot of familiarity. We headed out with Beatrice in the lead, me in the protected middle, and Mike finishing our little convoy. It was a gloriously sunny day with vivid blue sky and no wind. Our route started on the frozen Torne River (which provides the ice for the IceHotel). The river was covered with at least a half meter of super dry snow powder. While riven by lots of snowmobile tracks, it also still offered big expanses of untouched powder. Beatrice instructed us to drive through the fresh powder to enjoy the float and glide. Each time we crossed an existing track, which is really just air, the snowmobile sped up just a bit. It revealed the fact that the snow powder is only slightly more dense and substantial than plain air.

Beatrice watched over us to make sure we were comfortable with the snowmobiles. We stopped at the edge of the woods where she explained that we were going to go to the top of the mountain above us. She said that some of the track is steep, but not to worry because the snowmobiles are powerful. Was she reassuring us, or warning? But she was so happy that we followed her eagerly.

The trail wound through a gorgeous snowy forest. The sun shone brightly between the tree boughs.

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Then, as she had explained, the track turned straight up the hill amid the trees. I kept her in sight while concentrating as hard as I could on the track, trusting the power of the snowmobiles. We ascended for what seemed like quite a while. Then Beatrice stopped, exclaiming, “We made it!” We couldn’t see Mike behind us so we waited a few minutes in the sunshine. And a few more minutes. No Mike.

Beatrice said that she would go see if he needed help. She bounded back down the track on foot, and disappeared around a bend and into the forest. I took some photos and just soaked in the cold beauty. I was wearing a balaclava for warmth and the helmet for protection, both of which made it hard to hear much. After a while, when the time seemed heavy, and I started to wonder if something was wrong, I could barely hear a voice. I pulled my helmet off and called out. I still couldn’t make out the words, but if someone was calling out, then they definitely were calling for help. Now it was my turn to bound down the track. Even though it is was a track over which snowmobiles had obviously previously run, it was still only lightly packed powder. Bounding down the hill was more of a controlled fall.

After what felt like a long distance, I found Beatrice and Mike standing by the snowmobile which was on its side just off the track. Beatrice was laughing and positive; Mike looked more serious, obviously feeling guilty for having slid off the track. In fact, in the first minutes after the overturn, he had been pinned under the snowmobile. It was the very deep powder — up to our hips — that had caused the tumble, but it also had kept the full weight off of Mike’s leg. He had been able, with effort, to squirm out from under the snowmobile without its falling further. Other than a bruised knee, he was OK.

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The snowmobile was also deep in the powder and would require at least all three of us to get it back up on the track. Part of the approach was to pack more snow under the main tread of the snowmobile, while digging out the front skis. The snow was so powdery that, when we packed it with our feet under the snowmobile, it just flowed back out again, like water. It was also almost impossible to get sturdy footing in the powder from which to push on the snowmobile. While it was still a really beautiful day, we were working up a sweat packing snow, trying to rock the snowmobile, and attempting to get traction again. Beatrice said a few times that, “This happens all the time. Don’t worry!” We weren’t so sure about that!

At last, she said that we should leave the snowmobile where it was. She would call her colleagues who would come to pull it out of the snow. We then trudged up the snowy track which seemed even steeper now that we were on foot. Beatrice, fit outdoorsy twenty-something that she is, sped up the hill. Mike and I, not quite any of those attributes, took the ascent in segments, working up a good sweat. (Notes to selves: Must exercise more at home!)

After a few minutes to catch our breath and cool our clothing layers a little, Mike and I hopped on the snowmobile that had been mine, and Beatrice on hers. We proceeded further through the forest, which was now almost level. Very soon, we emerged on the top of the mountain. A glorious immense view lay out before us: The frozen Torne River and its islands, the IceHotel and village off in the distance, snowy mountains and forests as far as we could see. The view, the setting, the shiny day, and the arctic landscape were all stunning. We couldn’t stop saying that we now understood why Beatrice liked this spot so much. We were very grateful!

She asked us if we’d like some hot lingonberry juice. Of course! She lay two reindeer skins on the snow. In between them, she lay down fresh evergreen boughs, followed by an alternating grid of logs and birch bark. She knelt over an unrolled portion of bark, with a knife in one hand and a small rod of magnesium in the other. She scraped the rod with the back of the knife blade repeatedly until a spark leapt onto the bark and ignited it. Within a few seconds, the wood construction was fully ablaze. The metal pot of lingonberry juice heated up in a matter of minutes. We knelt on the reindeer skins, sipped the hot juice, and enjoyed the glorious view and setting, and Beatrice’s animated company.

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Except for our conversation and the crackle of the fire, it was very quiet on this summit. So we could catch the distant sound of snowmobiles long before two of Beatrice’s colleagues arrived. Two handsome young men pulled onto the summit, with our snowmobile and one of their own. They had towed the fallen snowmobile back on the track. We all joked about all the drinks that Beatrice would have to buy her colleagues to atone for our having tipped over one of the snowmobiles. She grimaced and said that yes, in fact, at least 24 drinks, one for each of her entire team. The two guys bounded past our fire and reindeer skins to peer over the edge of the snow field and down the steep side of the mountain. I thought they would tumble over and disappear. They were just excited to see if there were good skiing slopes and conditions up here. All five of us chatted for a while. One of their colleagues back at the hotel was French; he was trying to teach them some French. In their funny accents, they shared a few of the expressions they were learning. I wanted to know if their colleague was teaching them phrases that were funny or obscene while telling them that they meant something innocuous. Fortunately, there wasn’t any of that. But he was teaching them some pretty direct pickup lines.

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The two guys finished their lingonberry juice, got back on their original snowmobile, and headed back down the mountain, waving goodbye. We put out the fire and stowed the supplies.

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We were back to our three-person convoy. We were out in the open snowfield. Beatrice headed out, with me back in the second spot, and Mike in the third. Within about four seconds, it was now my turn to tip into the deep powder. It only took being a little bit to the side of the track. I wasn’t under the snowmobile, but it had definitely sunk deep into the snow. Now Mike and I could feel equally guilty about our snowmobile performance. The three of us applied the packing, rocking, and pulling techniques from the first time, with exactly the same results: no movement! Beatrice finally said that we should just leave this one here like we had done with the first. She stayed positive the entire time, remarkably! Mike and I definitely worried that she was going to have a difficult reception once she got back to her boss. While these mishaps were not what we anticipated, we were safe and sound, and having an adventure. We explained as clearly as we could that, while perhaps Beatrice would have problems with her boss, for us, we were having a great day and had zero complaints. She, even with her cheery demeanor, looked a little relieved.

Once again a convoy of two snowmobiles, we headed down the mountain. Mike drove (much better to have the experienced driver at the handlebars). Downhill tracks look even steeper than uphill tracks. You have to balance a mixture of gentle breaking and keeping the snowmobile going fast enough to stay atop the snow. We were both pretty gun-shy by now. Mike did great. I did great too, saying, “You’re doing great!” a lot.

Finally at the bottom of the forested hill, we emerged back onto the frozen river. Mike could relax a bit and enjoy floating over the untouched powder. The snowmobile was still rather hard to steer precisely; it tended to float to one side or the other even while speeding over the snow. But it was a wide river with only our two snowmobiles on it. Glorious sunshine and landscape. Really beautiful.

After an outing of almost four hours, we pulled into our starting place. We reiterated how much fun we had had, and how sorry we were for having gotten not one but two snowmobiles stuck in the snow. She gave us big hug. She took a deep breath, and said, “Now I’d better go talk to my boss!”

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Dog sledding in Lapland

During our travels in the Swedish arctic in search of the Aurora Borealis, we spent many days out in the gorgeous landscape. On one of these days, six dogs toured us around on our two-person sled.

The leaders of our sled day, and the dogs’ trainers, told us to wait until the dogs were silent before calling out to them to start. The dogs are so eager to run that they jump, bark and yelp in anticipation. The owners want to ensure that the dogs associate quiet and order with the pleasure of running.

Once the dogs became still and attentive, we called out and they leapt forward. They were running full-tilt instantly, tails wagging all the way.

At one point during the outing, we all stopped in an open snow-covered spot. Suddenly many of the dogs, including “ours,” started pulling to the left and barking. We held the sled in place while the owners coerced the dogs back onto the track. Apparently, a vulnerable reindeer was standing in the nearby woods, attracting the eager attention of the dogs.

Once back at home base, we were instructed to give “our” dogs a post-run massage; it is important to help relax the dogs’ muscles after the exertion and assist their circulation from feet back to heart. We were instructed to massage the front legs from feet up, then down the back from head to tail, and finally the back legs from feet up. The dogs were in heaven! They nuzzled us, licking, tails wagging furiously.

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Oh yeah, and we saw some moose sauntering by across the nearby frozen lake. Just another day…

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Dinner Time Stories

We had seen a YouTube video of the Petit Chef experience a few years ago, so when we discovered that the show was being offered in our Stockholm hotel (AtSix Hotel), we jumped at the chance to experience it.

The hosts escorted all the diners into a room with long nicely lit tables, set against a giant display screen. At each place setting was a closed leather-bound book. Once everyone was settled, we were asked to open the books to a middle blank page. Projected from above, a tiny animated French chef appeared on each book. He started to tell us all about his history as a young chef in Marseille.

(The stripes in the images come from trying to photograph the projected computer images.)

We all sat transfixed, smiling and laughing as the little chef wandered around the table and turned virtual pages in the books to show us post cards and animations of his travels across Asia.

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Images and patterns from his adventures spilled out beyond the books, coloring the entire table with gently animated patterns, like living fabric.

At various points in his story, the illustrations slowed to attractive background, and the waiters brought remarkably tasty clever dishes.

Depending on the theme of the dish, the display screen filled an entire wall with lovely evocative imagery. For example, floating candles in paper rose into the night sky as we ate our Chinese-inspired course.

The experience of the table’s coming alive with the Petit Chef’s charming story delighted us: a little theater magically appearing on the table. To our surprise, the food was good too! Highly recommended!