The Night Train

Our next adventure is in Lapland, which doesn’t look all that far north thanks to map projections, but is actually 440 miles/700 km from Helsinki. Flights take about an hour, the train takes 11 hours, and driving takes about 12. We weren’t in a hurry, so we decided to take the train (and save some money).

They offer an overnight train where you can book a sleeping cabin, which is something neither of us had experienced before. This all sounded very exciting and I had romantic visions of the sleeping cabins you see in the movies. Stefan decided to hedge his bets and made me have a couple drinks before we boarded.

I’m pleased to report that the cabins actually worked out great! They are small, of course, but its much more comfortable than an airplane seat. Each cabin has 2 bunks, a small seat, a sink, its own thermostat, a mirror, a place to hang up your clothes while you sleep, room to store your bags under the bottom bed, and a window. Some even have en suite toilets and showers, while the others have access to shared ones. (Yes, showers). Also, there was free wifi.

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Those straps keep you from falling out of the top bunk while you sleep.

 

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The sink lives in a small cupboard.
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The en suite bathroom had a clever design – the wall moves so you’re either in shower mode, or toilet & sink mode.  Very space-efficient!

 

The train also had a dining car, which sounded more glamourous than it was, but did offer quite a lot of food and drink. And it was fun to walk between train cars to get there.

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The Dining Car, which is mainly where bored people hang out.

The shower had surprisingly adequate amounts of water coming out of it, but you had to push a button repeatedly to make the water continue to flow. 100 pushes later and you were clean, though!

Sleeping was a little strange with the motion of the train – every time it slowed down I was worried we were missing our stop (they don’t make any announcements in the sleeping cabins). Also, its pretty easy to hear your neighbours – if I spoke Finnish, I’d certainly know everything about the people next to us.

All in all, though, it was a very pleasant journey! Finding and boarding the train was easy, the cabin was comfortable, and there was gorgeous scenery outside. I definitely recommend it!

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I do wish the windows had been cleaner so I could get a decent shot out of them…

Midsummer in Finland

Midsummer is pretty much THE holiday in Finland.  Its always celebrated on a weekend (regardless of the actual solstice day) so people have plenty of time to eat and drink a lot.

Most families seem to have some kind of summer home.  A summer home has just a few requirements: a sauna, a location adjacent to water, able to accommodate a sizeable group, and have plenty of mosquitos. 🙂

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The setting was so peaceful…

For Midsummer, you gather a group of friends and family, then spend the weekend eating, drinking, playing lawn games and taking saunas.  So that’s what we did! Our friend Johannes was kind enough to invite us to his family’s summer house, which was about 90 minutes north of Helsinki.

The weekend included 10 adults, 3 children, and a poodle. Though the house looked small from the outside, there were bedrooms hidden everywhere! Everyone had a place to sleep, and a seat at the kitchen table.

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The German, who was colour-coordinated to our sleeping cottage.

This group of friends has been spending midsummer together regularly for 10 years or so… they were all friendly, welcoming, and super-interesting people. I suspect it was less drinking than some midsummer celebrations given that 3 of them compete in triathalons (one of whom is a pro athlete), but that also probably saved me a vicious hangover. (And made me feel lazy since they would go for 3 hour bike rides or 2 hour swims.)

We were requested to bring dessert for the group.  We each tried to prepare something in the kitchenette of our hotel before heading to the house, but given the difficulty of finding the ingredients we needed in the grocery store and the ill-equipped hotel kitchen, we decided to bring s’mores as backup.  (Graham crackers do not exist in Finland – we improved with some cookies.) We decided to make the s’mores in the interest of cultural exchange.

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If nothing else, the kids loved them.

Meghan’s oatmeal choc chip cookies also went over well, and now her family recipe has  international distribution.

We basically spent the days preparing meals, eating meals, and cleaning up from the meals, with a little bit of activity in the afternoon.  My favourite was a game called Mölkky, which is a little bit like lawn bowling meets billiards, but instead of rolling a ball to score, you basically throw a small log at the pins. (Seems like an appropriate Finnish twist)

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Markus in action, starting off the game.

At one point while we’re all playing, a bee flew up my skirt and got trapped in my dress.  Being very careful not to spill the wine in my hand or flash the group, I quickly managed to find a spot to safely place my wine glass before entering a complete freakout – throwing my phone across the lawn, falling on the ground, flailing my skirt around, screaming –  ultimately getting stung and making a spectacle of myself. I guess it was a good way to break the ice.

Every night we’d take turns in the sauna – women would go together, then men (or vice versa).  The ritual is to sit in the wood-burning sauna for as long as possible, then jump in the freezing river, then repeat. Its surprisingly relaxing & refreshing, despite the cold water and trying to thwart the mass of mosquitos waiting to feast on you as you’re running between the sauna and the lake.

All in all, it was a really relaxing and fun way to spend midsummer with a really lovely group of folks!

 

Stockholm

We spent about 9 days in Stockholm and were craving some “normalcy”, so we dialed back the tourist activities in favour of meeting up with friends, Zumba classes, personal projects on the computer, and some Netflix/Game of Thrones.

Everyone speaks English. Even though restauant menus and all signage is in Swedish, people are friendly and happy to help translate for you. And being a vegetarian wasn’t a problem – there were always a couple options at every restaurant.

Our AirBnB turned out to be huge, but very sparsely furnished (even though our host and his family supposedly live here during the year). It has the basics – bed, couch, etc. but could certainly use a coffee table in the living room and some kind of counter/surface in the bathroom. This left plenty of room for me to do Zumba, though, and the location was great.

That said, the sun rises at 3:45am and our bedroom faces east, apparantly. The first couple nights I woke up at 4am thinking it was midday. (Seriously, it was that bright.) So we improvised some curtains… they aren’t pretty, but they definitely helped us sleep!

We know quite a few app developers from our time at Apple, and it was really nice to meet up with them. I suspect the conversation was a lot more relaxed now that it wasn’t “official business”. (Though I still loved seeing their apps and couldn’t resist giving a bit of UI feedback.)

These were always people I enjoyed meeting, so it was nice to see the feeling was mutual, even though we no longer have ties to Apple.

Our friend Jonas grew up on Sodermälm and took us for an epic, 4 hour walking tour of the island. We saw the places where he grew up, heard us stories about his childhood, and he showed us secret vista points we never would have found otherwise. We ended with dinner at a spot in a park where you BBQ your own food. It was a great meal, a fantastic tour, and excellent conversation.


We spent another evening with some game developer friends who had left larger studios to start their own. We had an amazing vegetarian dinner and talked about all aspects of life in Sweden, game development, US politics, films, boats, travel, etc. It was a really nice, relaxed evening.


We also met up with a couple friends from Cupertino who were here on vacation – Stine and Isabel. Isabel and Stefan and I were on the last Tech Talks tour together, so we know we can trust each other’s taste in bars and restaurants. We had a fantastic dinner with some of Stine’s Swedish friends one night, and we also had some fun at the modern art museum, which I highly recommend:

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Inside one of the Yayoi Kusama pieces.

We did spent one day playing tourist on the island of Djurgården. The majority of the island is covered with parks and walking trails. Everything was lush and green and very pretty. We took a leisurely route to a cafe that grows all its own produce for lunch. Along the way, we passed many different groups of geese with babies. One group decided to take a break in the middle of the path. As a woman walked by with her smallish dog, the dog, in typical fashion, charged at the geese – barking and straining at his leash. Well, the geese were having none of this and charged right back, pretty fiercely. The dog immediately retreated, and the woman basically had to lift up her dog by the leash (aka its neck) to get it away from the goose. I’m sure the dog will think twice before yapping at geese again. I couldn’t stop chuckling all afternoon.

 

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Beware of The Geese

 

Djurgården is also home to the Vasa Museum, which we went reluctantly went to. Neither of us gets fired up about old boats, but every Swedish person we knew (and a couple Danes) said we should go there, so we did. I have to admit, it was very interesting!

The boat was constructed in the 1600s and sank almost immediately on its maiden voyage because the king wanted more cannons than the boat could support. (We made many jokes about how this is a common metaphor for what happens in software design.) It wound up in a somewhat protected area, so the ship didn’t really deteriorate. In the 1960s, they were able to pull it out of the water largely intact. The ship is easily 5 stories tall, and while you can’t go inside, its still amazing to see it up close. It is impressively large – I will no longer think the size of the boats in Pirates of the Caribbean or Game of Thrones are exaggerated.

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The people off on the right should help give a sense of scale

The museum also had a replica of one of the gun decks you could walk through. Despite the boat being huge, the ceilings were very, very low. Everyone must’ve been very short back then or had horrible backaches from hunching over all the time.

A few observations about Stockholm:

  • Swedes love the sun but they don’t get much of it. So when its a nice day, you’ll see every patch of grass or dock on the water covered with people sunbathing, and the cafes overflow into the sidewalks to maximize seats in the sun. (Even 7-11 puts seats outside for their customers.)
  • Swedish is a strange language… sometimes the words look very similar to English and are easy to understand, and sometimes they are completely unrecognizable.  I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce anything, other than the standard greeting of “haaaaay” (which is pronounced kind of like a sassy gay man).
  • They walk on the left, but drive on the right.  The escalators all seem like they are on the wrong side to me.
  • There are a lot more people asking for money here. They are far from aggressive (like the SF beggars) but its very visible – pretty much every ATM and supermarket and train station has someone sitting on the sidewalk with a cup. Our friends hypothesize that its due to the large influx of immigrants… it gives me new perspective on the immigration crisis.

 

Stockholm has really been a nice, relaxed time. I feel like I’m finally settling into the fact that I’m not working, and we were here long enough that I had time to do other things besides travel planning. While “normal life stuff” like laundry, grocery shopping, etc., all takes longer when its in a forgeign language, I also managed to do some of the things I never had time for when I was working… for instance, I might actually finish the book I started over a year ago! (Ha!)

I still sometimes feel guilty for not being more productive with my time – sitting at a coffeshop on a Tuesday afternoon somehow feels over-indulgent – but I’m trying to remind myself that it’s ok to just take it easy and enjoy myself for a bit.

Next up, we are headed to Finland for midsummer, including an overnight train ride to lapland where the sun never sets!

Zumba in Stockholm

Well, I’m pleased to report Zumba in Stockholm has been a much better experience – I’m completely blown away by how friendly and welcoming everyone is!

I researched some classes in advance but couldn’t tell if I could just drop-in so I emailed a few of the instructors. Several of them responded with invitations to their classes for free (even at the gyms, where they could leave me a guest pass at the front desk). One instructor was on holiday in Utah but even so, offered to leave me a pass for the gym where she teaches so I could take a class from someone else – so nice!

First class was Amina’s and it was so much fun! Many of her routines have middle eastern influences, which I always enjoy. (And she clearly has a lot of trainging in middle eastern dance.) She was very easy to follow, her class was a great mix of music, and her students were friendly. She was incredibly welcoming and gave me a lot of info about the class location in advance. (The studio was under construction and I never would have found the door if it wasn’t for her detailed instructions.)

Next up was Sergio, who was kind enough to list me as a guest at a very fancy gym & spa. He teaches 13 classes a week, and it shows. He’s very high energy, sassy, and was incredibly easy to follow. And he’s in phenominal shape – I was in awe! So many of his routines had so much attitude – it was a lot of fun.

And then finally, I went to Emelie’s class, which was also great! She teaches 4 classes a week while going to school full-time, which is super-impressive. Her cueing was by-the-book perfect and she was soo easy to follow. She invited me to lead a couple songs – I’m not sure the freestyle posing in Shaki Riddim was a hit, but no one can resist Booty Booty. She also had choreography to “Zumba Let’s Go”, which was different than mine and the class in France, so I was careful to follow along and not pre-emptively slap my ass while everyone did something else.

So if you’re in Stockholm and craving some Zumba, I highly recommend all of these instructors! There seems to be plenty of great classes, and everyone was so friendly…

The Swedish Post

Periodically we wind up with some small chore that would be easy to accomplish in the US, but seems to take ages to sort out from abroad. For example, I got picked for jury duty in SF. All I needed to do was fill out some form on the Superior Court website letting them know I moved, but the website would never resolve… I checked it several times per day on multiple devices, even using a VPN service, but no luck. Ultimately, my Dad was able to access the site and fill out the form for me. For some reason, I couldn’t access the site from Sweden.

So when The German was notified that the IRS couldn’t process his tax return, we braced ourselves for the worse. (Funny that the IRS was able to cash his check just fine, yet not process the paperwork.) After some back and forth with Deloitte over email, it turned out he could just print and sign a single page, and then mail it back to Deloitte, who would sort out the rest. Sounds simple, right?

Step 1 was to find a printer. After locating a Kinkos-esque type of place, we spent 30 minutes trying to transfer the file to them. The file was on his phone, and they said they have a new spam filter and the email he sent wasn’t coming through. They only had PCs so we couldn’t AirDrop the file to them. And they didn’t seem interested in actually helping us, so we left. They claimed they would email us when they received his document. Unsurprisngly, we haven’t heard from them.

We were meeting a friend at their office before going out to dinner, so we thought we’d try there. At first, it looked like the printer wasn’t working. However, the magical “try turning it off and turning it on again” did the trick and we got it printed… on A4 paper. (Hopefully this doesn’t come back to haunt him but there’s really no way to get 8.5 x 11 sized paper here.)

The next day, we spent about 30 minutes in a 4 block radius trying to locate a post office. Google and Apple maps were failing us. We eventually asked someone in a convenience store, who told us a bunch of Swedish street names we didn’t really understand so we just wandered in the direction he was gesturing. Ultimately, through a combination of Google Translate, aimless wandering and sheer luck, we managed to find an official postal counter inside a grocery store.

But from there, I think the whole transaction took less than 5 minutes! We stood in a short line and then were greeted by friendly clerks, who helpfully explained all the mailing options, sold us a single envelope, and efficiently sorted out the postage. They loaned us a pen to address the envelope, double-checked it all looked good, and wished us a nice day! And when the clerks weren’t busy helping postal customers, they acted as cashiers for the grocery store!

This is pretty much the opposite of every experience I’ve had at the Castro post office, where there’s only one grumpy employee, moving as slowly as possible, unable to find your package, and absolutely not caring about any aspect of their job. Maybe the USPS could get some tips from the Swedish Post…

One Week in Copenhagen

In Copenhagen we stayed with my friends Thijs and Kir. Thijs and I worked together at Apple and Kir came to my Zumba class. They moved back to Denmark about a year and a half ago, so it was really nice to see them. And they were incredible hosts – between Kir’s homemade bread and Thijs’ gourmet cooking, there’s no chance we lost any weight during our stay!

Copenhagen is a small and flat city, which makes it very walkable. Though they have great trains and buses, bicycles are the favoured form of transportation.

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A small portion of the bikes parked outside of Central Station

You see bikes parked everywhere, and none of them are chained to anything. There are generously-sized bike lanes, and everyone takes the traffic laws very seriously – most cyclists use hand signals but don’t wear helmets, everyone obeys the lights, and no one jay-walks. I think I only heard a car horm once during our week here. And all of the cobbestone streets have a portion that is smooth pavement, which is especially great if you are wearing heels or dragging a suitcase behind you, but I suspect this was designed for the benefit of the bikes.

Also, everyone speaks English, vegetarian food wasn’t hard to find, and the weather was great. So all in all, a very easy place to visit.

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White asapargus with lemon balm

While we didn’t manage to get a reservation at the world-reknowned Noma, Thijs did score a table at Geranium. The restaurant has 3 Michelin stars, only 10 tables and just as many chefs – it was an incredible 4-hour dinner and I certainly don’t feel like I missed out by not eating at Noma. Kir even spotted some Danish celebrities there.

 

 

 

 

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Thai cucumber soup with coconut snow

I also highly recommend Mielcke & Hurtigkarl. Though it has no Michelin stars (which is surprising) it was delicious and creative food. Its tucked inside a park in a smaller neighbourhood – they took advantage of this by starting the meal started with champagne and some snacks in the garden. I was also very impressed by the wine pairings – the food and wine really enhanced each other in a way that I hadn’t experienced before.

 

We spent one day at the Lousiana Museum of Modern Art. Its about 45 minutes north of Copenhagen on the coast. The artwork is certainly interesting, but more impressive is the building itself. Its predominantly underground, tucked into a hillside overlooking the ocean. They have sculpture all over the property. Its the first time I’ve seen a Calder mobile in the open air, and many of the scultpures were intended for climbing. Nothing is very well-marked which I thought was unusual and fun – it was up to you to wander around and discover it. (Unsurprisingly, The German was less enthusiastic about the freeform exploration aspect – ha!)

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View from the museum’s cafe

Another highlight was Tivoli Gardens, which is the second oldest amusement park in the

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The lawn around this fountain was maintained by a robot bunny, who I suspect is a cousin of the Roomba.

world. Its right in the city center but you’d never know it after you walk through the gates. There are lots of gardens (as the name implies) and the entire aesthetic is very charming – it’s not too polished and feels more authentic somehow. There’s really something for everyone: a huge range of restaurants (and good ones – not your usual crappy theme park food), a massive play structure for kids, a couple different stages (a symphony was performing the afternoon we were there), and of course, plenty of rides.

 

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The oldest coaster is still hand-operated!
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Gardens, boats, and some barf-inducing thrill ride – all in one place!

We also managed to catch up with a few other friends, get a haircut (thanks to Kir for hooking me up with her stylist), made a quick trip to the Zoo, explored Christiania (the “freetown” in the middle of Copenhagen, which was like a mix of Berkeley meets Zeitgeist), spent a lazy afternoon having drinks on the waterfront of Papirøen and several evenings relaxing with Thijs & Kir in their garden.

So all in all, a really great week!

Now we are off to Stockholm via trian. While its not the fastest way to get there, its already proven to be cheaper and more comfortable than flying, plus you get a better view and free wifi!

 

Budget Airlines

So just so you don’t think it’s all fancy pastries and champagne, we have been trying our best to minimize transportation and accommodation costs. We walk a ton or take public transit, are using frequent flier miles for flights whenever possible, and have stayed in some pretty crappy hotels (when we can’t find a reasonable AirBnB or aren’t staying with our awesome family or friends).

So this morning we took a 7am flight from Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris to Copenhagen on Veuling.com. (Yes, the airline has the stupid “.com” in their name.)

We we originally planned to take the first train to the airport at 4:53 am, which would have gotten us there with about 75 minutes to check luggage and go through security, and only cost €20. The timing made me nervous, though, as you never know how long the lines will be at the airport or if we will get lost getting from Terminal 2 to Terminal 3. And my previous experiences at CDG always involved chaos and what seemed like miles of walking through the terminal.

With the current rail strike, our hotel said there’s no guarantee the first train would run, and we already experienced the effects of the strike when our train to Paris from Reims was cancelled and we had to wait 4 hours for another one. I thought we might be able to take a bus, but the schedule wasn’t working well with our flight time and my local friend implied the neighbourhood where we were staying wasn’t that great. A taxi would be €55 and Uber would be cheaper (if we could get one – it’s not very popular in Paris it seems).

So we set our alarm for 3:30am with plans to grab a taxi if no Ubers were available. We tried desperately to go to sleep early. It seemed like moments after we finally fell asleep, the hotel called our room (11:04pm) to ask if we wanted a taxi ordered for 4:30am. Sigh.

At 3:30am the alarm jolts us awake and we get ready rapidly. Check-out of the hotel takes 30 seconds, an Uber is there in less than 1 minute, and there’s absolutely no traffic so we get to the airport in 25 minutes instead of an hour…

…which means we arrive before 5am. And while we aren’t the first people there, its pretty deserted. And it’s too early to check in. So we are first in line and breeze through check-in and security rapidly  – murphy’s law since we had plenty of time to spare.

The terminal is small and dirty – the tables & chairs have food crumbs on them, and pretty much every chair is stained. There is only one water fountain and it doesn’t work. They had signs everywhere that they were testing new furniture and to take a survey about it on their website, but the wifi login screen redirected in some kind of never-ending loop, so I didn’t get to tell them that whatever chair they pick should get cleaned daily.  🙂 Given that we are the second flight out of that terminal, I’d hate to see what it looks like in the evening.

After some incomprehensible announcement in French, everyone rushes the gate agent to load onto a bus. They did their best to get every passenger on one bus, so its pretty cozy. Then we drove to the plane, where we watched the ground crew for 5 minutes or so before everyone was permitted to run from the bus to the plane.

Absolutely everything costs extra on this airlines – a glass of water or juice was €2.60. Picking seats was an extra €5 per ticket so we didn’t bother, which means we wound up across the aisle from each other (even though it seemed like there were plenty of opportunities for us to be seated together). And check out the leg room!


The German had to move seats twice because his seats were broken – the first seat didn’t have the bottom cushion part attached, and the second one was stuck in the reclinedposition. The person in front of me also had an auto-reclining seat, which meant the back of his seat was uncomfortably close to my mouth. And the plane was pretty much as clean as the terminal.

I laughed out loud when the safety announcement concluded with “It’s time to get comfortable and enjoy your flight”. Ha! Good luck with that!

So it’s not all glamorous out here on the road – we’ve just prioritized food & wine over convenient transport and nicer accommodation.

Goodbye, Reims…

Its been a fantastic week in Reims, and we have 8 empty champagne bottles to show for it! We are off to Paris for 2 nights, assuming the torrential rains or the rail strike doesn’t interfere. Then we will kick off the Nordics leg of the journey in Copenhagen!

So language in Reims was a bit difficult – I had about 6 weeks of French in high school, which has certainly been better than nothing. And as a vegetarian, I haven’t been eating especially well (other than our lunch at a 2-Michelin starred restaurant). Don’t get me wrong – the cheese & bread is delicious, but I haven’t had much else during our time here.

The German had a great observation – every culture has some stereotypical thing you see people carrying as they walk down the street. In the UK, its usually an umbrella. In the US, its usually a Starbucks cup. And here, its baguettes. Seriously. We can’t take more than a few steps outside of the apartment without seeing someone walking down the street with a baguette. Yesterday we saw someone running down the street with a baguette, like there was some kind of baguette emergency.

Also, everyone smokes here. They really are living up to the stereotype of smoking Gallouis cigarettes and carrying baguettes down the street.

Another thing which struck me about Reims is that everything closes for about 2 hours midday for lunch (other than restaurants, of course). Shops close, kids go home from school, and everyone stops and eats. As someone who ate lunch at her desk for the past several years, I was really struck by how nice it seemed that everyone stopped and took a midday break. I don’t know if people in offices get to do the same, but I hope so…

Zumba in Reims

So after all the eating we’ve been doing, I thought it would be good to check out a local Zumba class.

I found one within 10 mins walk of our place. I was excited that I managed to locate it pretty easily. One of the other women waiting for the class was very friendly and spoke a little English – I’ll refer to her as Nice Girl from here on out since I never got her name.

This photo was on the wall in the lobby of the dance studio, so I was a little worried:


The main room was a huge studio with plenty of windows. About 20 women showed up for the class, mostly right before it started. Nice Girl pointed me out to the instructor, who shouted “enchanté” from across the room as the prior class put away their mats. (I think it was some kind of gymnatics class, and the same woman was the teacher.)

Class started about 10 minutes late (yet still ended on time). I chose a spot in the back like a good newbie.

Class started, and it was pretty much impossible to follow this woman. She was often off the beat (or maybe they count music differently in France), forgot the choreo pretty regularly, or just wandered around the room most of the time. One song she had to skip because she couldn’t remeber the choroegraphy, and neither could anyone else in the class.

When she was actually doing the routine, there was absolutely no cueing whatsoever. Though to be fair, she did occassionally shout things out in French – it could have been verbal cueing, though probably just encouragement, but since it wasn’t “champagne”, “fromage” or “baguette”, I had no idea what she was saying.

At one point, mid-routine, she makes her way over to me and starts rambling at me in French. I give her the standard “I don’t speak French” (in French) while I’m thinking “Shouldn’t you be teaching this class right now?!”. She continued to talk, so Nice Girl had to stop dancing, come over and translate. Apparantly the teacher just wanted to know where I was from – obviously that was so urgent she had to ask it in the middle of a song.

So I just did my best, as did the rest of the class (a few of whom walked out early). I tried following the front row girls, but they weren’t as good as my own front row crew. 🙂 Halfway through at a water break, Nice Girl came over to compliment how well I was following, which was sweet of her.

There were a couple songs that I knew, but the choreography wasn’t always the same (which really did my head in). One of them my class knows as “Zumba Let’s Go” (a Jessica specialty – I made sure to lip sync the part Jessica normally sings). At the chorus, the entire room was facing my direction and I was pretty confident the choreo was the same, so I slapped my ass with gusto… which was not their choreography, of course. I am pretty sure everyone enjoyed that.

At the end of class I was trying to figure out how to pay. The instructor came over and I thanked her very much and then we had sweaty air kisses. Nice Girl came to help translate, but it was very hard to understand what was happening. I guess its €165 for a year of classes, €45 for the summer. And the way to sign up is to mail in a dr’s note saying you’re fit enough to do the classes – Nice Girl empasized that this was very important (wtf?) along with a photo. At one point I thought the teacher said I could pay for a single class for €25 (which is still far too much for that class), but then she kind of ran off. So I decided to just take all the info and bail. Suffice to say, I won’t be going back. If classes cost a ridiculous amount of money, they should tell you up front! (And you all know I tried to figure that out in advance.)

There’s a different Zumba class on Friday afternoon – I might try giving that one a shot. It coudn’t be worse, right? 🙂

Champagne, continued…

I booked an all-day tour through Viator which took us to the Epernay area. I was excited to see the Avenue of Champagne, and also taste at some of the smaller houses that aren’t generally open to the public.

There were only 5 people (including us) in the group, plus our guide Christine, who was great. She was incredibly knowledgable but not overly preachy. As we drove through the charming (yet foggy) countryside, she told us more about the champagne traditions.

Everyone must strictly adhere to process in order to be called “champagne”. Grapes are only allowed to be harvested by hand so the skins of the grapes aren’t damaged. This means you need a LOT of people to help, since the entire champagne region has to be harvested in 10 days – people come from all over the country to help/get additional income. The grapes can only be transported 30 minutes after harvesting to the press – anything more compromises them. And there’s some kind of quota each house must produce, and since champagne needs to age for at least 15 months, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that there won’t be a champagne shortage anytime soon.

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The thomb of Dom Perignon

The weather wasn’t great (again – apparantly it rains 300 days per year here) so we started at a church with the tomb of Dom Perignon. He was a monk who was very passionate about champagne, and everyone credits him with making it popular.

 

Next was a drive down the Avenue of Champagne, which is basically one grand building after the next… pretty much all of the major champagne houses are represented there. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to just knock on the door and ask for a glass of champagne.

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A small portion of the Moet & Chandon property on the Avenue of Champagne

Our first appointment was at Moet & Chandon (which includes Dom Perignon), the largest champagne producer in the world. They say a bottle of Moet & Chandon is opened every 2 seconds. Their tour also started with a video, which I liked much better than Taittinger’s… less propoganda and a lot more champagne porn – slow motion video of champagne being poured, bottles being corked, etc. The German thought it looked like an Apple commercial.

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Paying my respects to the patron saint of champagne

 

The tour was still interesting, albeit we knew all the basics already. We did hear them say multiple times that someone from Moet was credited with the phrase “Champagne is the only wine that makes a woman more beautiful.” At the end of the tour, the tasting was done in the cave, which was a nice touch. But at the end of the day, I don’t really care for the taste of Moet & Chandon, and sadly they didn’t offer us any Dom.

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Exit through the gift shop, of course. I liked how the Dom section was black, while Moet was all white. It was huge, and completely over the top.

From there we went to have lunch at a small producer called Julien Chopin. We had 3 courses paired with their champagnes. My vegetarian lunch was surprisingly great, and everyone else seemed to enjoy all sorts of meat like pate, veal, etc. Of course there was local cheese and bread on hand. The dessert course was entirely pink (Beth would approve)! And then we finished with some of their Ratafia, which is a bit like port but made from chanpagne grapes.

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I’m not sure which was better – the rapsberry tart or the rose champagne…

 

Our final stop was at Andre Goutorbe, which is about as small as it gets – they produce around 50,000 bottles/year, and don’t export anything. It’s a truly family-run house. The husband and wife team are involved in all of the day to day operations… in fact, the husband was moving bottles on a fork lift while we were there.

They showed us how the grapes get pressed. Apparantly, they save the best juice for their chapagne, and then send the second-best stuff to Krug and Moet! My favourite was the Blanc de Blanc that had been aged in oak. And instead of a cage they tie the cork with string, which is a nice touch.

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Each cork has be to tied by hand.

So all in all, another great day drinking champagne, and I actually ate something besides bread and cheese!