27 August 2009

Thank God for chamois cream

I got an innocent-seeming email last week from a riding friend about getting a couple of longer rides in over the weekend, when he was to be in bachelor mode. I was game-- what'd he have in mind?

His list included riding to Sancerre at the Loire-Burgundy border, maybe Joigny in northern Burgundy, heading down to Provence for a few days to climb Mont Ventoux and do some mountainous rides out of Nice, and schlepping out to Mont St Michel on the Atlantic coast, which while interesting, was really a bit more riding than either of us wanted.

But the candidates fell for a variety of reasons-- cost of getting down to Provence, Sancerre's a nice distance, but not that interesting physically a destination, riding to Joigny meant riding a fair ways on routes we already knew-- and so Mont St Michel kept moving up the list by default.

I wasn't convinced it was a good idea. I'd looked into the ride this spring, and it's a long way, and I didn't want to spend very much money on this trip. “We could make it in 2 long days and get one of several reasonably priced trains back home on Sun night,” he said.

I was worried about my tendonitis and other nagging injuries; 215 miles in 2 days probably wasn't the best way to start up again after being in Japan 2 weeks. “We'll take it easy, have time off the bike for lunch and snacks, and there are lots of places to bail and catch a train back,” he said.

Of all the places on the list, I've actually been to Mont St Michel once, almost 30 years ago. “I've never been there,” he said, “and I've always wanted to go.”

Aha... I'm starting to see the driver here.

“And how cool would it be to turn the corner and see it there, then have fresh shellfish for dinner?”

Bingo-- now, I get it.

He had this whole Mont St Michel fantasy worked out in his head: catching the vision of the Mont in the late afternoon sun as we hit the coast, rolling right up to the beach for a dip in the Atlantic in the shadow of the Mont before crossing over, feasting on just-caught fruit du mer and Mere Poulard's famous fluffy omelets. He'd been playing that romanticized film in his head for years, and he sensed his chance.

Cut! Sounded more like a horror movie to me: heavily traffic'd highways and cheesey tourist traps for the last 20 km, mud rather than sand at low tide, shellfish allergies that would make eating out a game of culinary Russian Roulette, and a view that omelets, however fluffy and however silly the capes and hats worn by the guys who beat the eggs to the click-click-click of tourist cameras, aren't especially satisfying recovery food.

But I was interested in seeing the countryside between here and there, I was intrigued by the lure of back-to-back centuries, and seeing the admittedly spectacular Mont a second time in 30 years wouldn't exactly qualify as redundancy. So OK, I said-- let's go.

So we set off Sat AM from the Trocadero in Paris, with a perfect view of one iconic symbol of France, for another. We got lost almost immediately. OK, not really lost, but we hadn't mapped out getting out town, since we do it so often. For some reason chose to go a way we'd never really done before, and so we had to backtrack a few times, find our way around unexpected one-way streets, etc. Starting this kind of ride tentatively can cast an early ominous pall on the day, and it didn't get any better quickly as my riding companion, recently returned from a trip to the States, was redlining as we noodled along easily up the gentle long slope to Versailles. 5 miles down, 115 to go today. Gonna be a long one.

Picking our way past yet another famous site, the Chateau in Versailles, we had a few tricky unmarked traffic circles, and we were still crawling. But once out of the congestion and into the countryside, we started to get some momentum. His jet-lag fog lifted after the first 50 km or so, when we stopped for some more sugar and liquids, and we had a stretch of good directions and signs, and we were cruising. Stopped in one town when the trail went cold, a tiny old man in a tractor cap on a bike wobbled up and gave us directions with a big, genuine smile.

You're foreigners, he said, and we said that yes, we're Americans. He noted how big and strong Americans are (I explained that I'm big, and my friend is strong), and as we pushed off he yelled after us, “Vive les Americains!” We both laughed out loud at the surprise of such an exuberant reaction from a Frenchman. But we were out of Paris, and more importantly, it was the weekend of the 65th anniversary of victory in the Normandy Invasion and the liberation of Paris. And for that weekend, especially among those old enough to have been there, the normally annoying anglophones were probably A-OK.

And in fact, our route took us straight through the jaws of the Falaise Pocket, the site of the decisive battles closing the Normandy invasion. Chambois, Argentan, Mortain-- this is where it happened. And we saw countless celebrations marking the anniversary that weekend: elderly British men in uniform decorated with medals and accompanied by their descendants having beers at the sidewalk cafes, American era tanks and jeeps displayed (or still rolling) in towns, and big outdoor barbecues and picnics. Memorials and simple markers to those who died there in both world wars lined most of our ride. The lack of French military resistance in the 2nd WW is something of a (mostly good-humored) joke in the US, epitomized by Goundskeeper Willie's classic remark to his French class in one Simpson's episode, “Bonjourrr, ya' cheese-eatin' surrender monkeys,” but the losses suffered by the French in WWI, nearly 1.4 million military and 1.7 million total, or about 4% of the total population, are often forgotten in that teasing. It's hard not to be moved by memorials in villages almost too small to merit a dot on the map with hundreds of local names on them.

On our ride, the hills of this region were peaceful and quietly beautiful. We rolled through one picturesque village after another, past chateaux and abbayes and medieval churches without the luxury of time to stop and visit, but also without seeing a car for hours at a time. We'd intended to get to Argentan the first night, 200 km from Paris, so that we'd leave ourselves a shorter 2nd day, but without knowing how my knees would hold up, we didn't dare make hotel reservations. And calling some places in the afternoon while stopped for coffee didn't leave us with warm fuzzy feelings. So when we rode through Gacé, still 30 km short of our goal, and saw a gorgeous 19th century B&B along the road, just a block or two away from another hotel that had an outdoor restaurant, we first looked into it and then checked into it for the night. Nice room, decent dinner outdoors at the place up the street, a boulangerie with a scene display from the Tour de France in their window (perhaps from a time the Tour rode through? This one looked to be from about 1950...), and the pleasant surprise of some gratis Calvados as digestif on our return to the B&B. A guy could get used to this.

Le Castel Morphée in Gacé: 19th century splendor outside and inside, a collection of American cars (!), billiards table in the parlor, digestifs served by an amiable hostess, and at least the night we were there, a meeting of the "our parents were related" club...

The chateau in Gacé, halfway between the hotel and dinner.

Le Tour under glass

The verdant countryside from our window.

The next day was longer than we'd have liked, started later than we'd have liked thanks to a French start time for breakfast at the B&B, and started with fewer calories than we'd have liked, but the terrain through Chambois and Putanges-Pont-Ecrepin was the perfect morning wake up, great momentum climbs and descents, and since we were fresh, we knocked out the previous day's missed 30 km in no time. Things got steeper and less cohesive after that for most of the rest of the day, and it was hotter than the first day. We each had a painful blister at a saddle contact point, and about 60 km from the finish and still in the hills, my right knee picked up yet a new pain, which can change one's outlook quickly. A few NSAIDs and retreating for an hour into that time trial focus place, though, and it relented. We were tired, but as the hills again became less steep and long, rather like Lancaster County without the Amish, we knew we'd make it. Finally with about 15 km to go, it leveled out, and though the roads were the busiest we rode all weekend, they were fine. We were both bonking just a couple of km from the Mont, so we stopped and ate the last of our sandwiches while watching the grazing marsh sheep, one of which I probably ate for dinner, cooked in a cocotte (cast iron skillet) with white beans and a very tasty stock-based sauce, the beans on the bottom getting all crusty and caramelized. Simple but delicious cooking.

Putange-Pont-Ecrepin, one of dozens of beautiful little villages we rode through. There's only a picture of this one because we needed to stop for water.

The famous (and tasty) salt-marsh-fed sheep.

Sight for sore butts: Le Mont.

The Mont was even more touristy than I remembered. Only 50 people actually live on the island, and so we didn't see a single business that didn't exist solely for tourists. Like San Gimignano, it has the feeling of Disney World, and still bonking, and tired, and maneuvering the bikes through the crushing crowds, and frustrated by trying to figure out how we were really going to get to our 9.07 train 60 km away the next morning, the scene and the cheesiness were pissing me off. But the day-trippers were starting to head out, and we got cleaned up and had a wander around before stopping for a cider and then dinner on a terrace on the rampart, watching the tide rush in and hoping that we'd get to see the few remaining cars of the people who had apparently not heard or understood the repeated loudspeaker warnings about the coming tide in 5 languages float away (no such luck-- they were all moved without incident). Late at night, the Mont deserted, one could almost imagine what it must have been like in earlier centuries. And though its current gothic splendor is 19th century renovation, it's a spectacular vision from just about any angle at any time of day.

View from town at low tide. The bay is silting in, helped by the construction of a permanent causeway some years ago, but a public works project is scheduled to dredge it.

And at high tide. The bulk of the change takes place in about 30 min. If you don't move your car "schnellstern," it might not be there when you get back.

All lit up.

It's only at night that this place actually feels like it might really have been an Abbey, once.

Sunrise from our hotel window.

The trip back was mostly uneventful. The sunrise was stunning, we made it to the station with a few minutes to spare, and though our train was both oversold and 2 cars short, and so packed to the gills with returning vacationers, we and the bikes made it back none too worse for the wear (though I still have flashbacks of the giant fleshy buttock that was pressed against my shoulder and back for the last hour of the trip).

In the end, the visit to Mont Saint Michel might not quite have lived up to my friend's internal idealized movie, but the reality was surely a much longer ways from mine. It was a really neat place to be after 2 pretty great days of riding.

I've never done back-to-back centuries-plus before, but I'm ready for the next one(s). He mentioned in passing maybe riding down to Nice sometime. Let's see, that's 600 miles... so that's about chicken-bucket of ass cream. I can live with that.

22 August 2009

All in a day's work

In Japan, they have to tell you not to work too hard.
In the US, they want you to work overtime.
In France, it's illegal to work overtime.

19 August 2009

The ride

Rolling through the Bois at 7 on Karen's wheel, it's chillier than I expected. Glad I wore the arm-warmers. Hard to figure it'll really be mid-90s this afternoon. It was dark this morning when we got up, a big change even since we left for Japan. That means our longer-than-Philly days are going to pretty quickly become shorter-than-Philly days. It also means that the distance riding season is about to close, and I've missed it. So much for the plans of seeing France on epic rides from the apartment. Usually the shortening days mean the hot humid days are numbered, and that cyclocross is just around the corner, the best part of the year on both counts. But not this year. There'll be no cyclocross this year.

As soon as I get up on the bridge, the cool microclimate of the Bois dissolves. Maybe it will hit 90 today. The gentle grade of the bridge is the first work of the morning, soon to give way to the wall on the other side. Now I'm working, out of the saddle, steadily pushing up the gnarled street, avoiding the cars backing out of their parking spots on the way to work. Not many of them today, this week, this month. It'll be different in September, when everybody's back, and when I'll have to wait longer for light. The pumping in my chest feels good, it's still early, but the building pain in my knees is a reminder that in most years I could do this for 20-30 minutes, instead of just 3 or 4, so I'm happy to be over the top, where I pass a guy in his 20s on a heavy commuter, coming from further up the ridge, handlebar in one hand, cigarette in the other. We pass a delivery van on either side before going our separate ways.

The GPS beeps out its prompts on this new route I'm trying through Versailles, trying to send me twice around a traffic circle before exiting, and I wonder again why its pro bike team-sponsoring manufacturer seems so intent on adding training management capabilities while ignoring the woefully inadequate route-mapping and bike-relevant plotting. Sometimes I hate this thing. The new route won't be so good in September; maybe I should have ridden through the palace grounds, since it's been so dry. Last time I did that a big group of mountain bikers laughed at me as I rolled through on my road bike over the mud-covered country pave and through the big holes, the grit stuck between my tire and my chainstays wailing insistently. I smiled sheepishly in response, later learning they were laughing because one of their crew had fallen just before I showed up, and they were discussing the details of tread pattern and tire volume as I slid upright through the same muddy corner on my 23 mm slicks.

Just this one last stretch of crap, along D307, and I'm free. If I can just get through here without flatting... The GPS beeps out a turn around a 1-way street I usually ride illegally; OK, I'll bite. Little climb and a fun pinball road among old stone houses back down to the main route. OK, so the GPS can stay.

1:03, and the real riding finally starts. Wending down from the ridge into the valley, it doesn't take a lot to make the bike really move, now. It's fast, and I always feel strong here, like the first few minutes of a time trial, when I'm hopped up on adrenaline and feel like I can crank out the power forever, before my body catches up and fills with pain. I miss that pain, sometimes. The new pain sucks; there's no warped pleasure in there.

Surprising amount of traffic on this little country road at this time of day, but all of it going the other direction. That makes the decision to ride the loop this way doubly good. I'm feeling pretty smug about my luck, having chosen the direction of the loop for visibility, to have the low morning sun at my back so drivers can see me, rather than traffic flow. Not as lucky on the bigger highway that follows, but it won't matter by the next turn.

Totally worth it. The rolling road pulls me forward, coaxes and then rewards the effort to push up each rise. There's no sound aside from my breathing, the whoosh of my tires on the pavement, the faintest clicking of the chain in the drivetrain, and the wind. I pulse through shady old forests and fields of recently harvested wheat, the short stubs left by the combine have a pronounced nap in the still-low morning sun, bright blonde as I approach with the sun behind us both but deep gold as I turn around, to clear my nose. It's team colors out here, gold and green. I can't imagine not doing this, not hammering over the tiny farm roads and careening through sleeping stone villages with their medieval churches. At this moment the fact that my knees both hurt, that I can't really train, let alone race, that I'm feeling guilty about some lingering work obligations, that I'm surprisingly disappointed to not be going home in a month to see friends and do one of my favorites weekends of 'cross, doesn't matter. Riding is all that matters. And though I've been here, and I suppose many more-beautiful places in the world, on the bike before, today it's experiential overload. It's overwhelming.

I've got more company as I close the loop, but it's August, and it's not yet 10.30, so still little enough that I can take the long screaming descent in the highway itself, rather than on the path. I have just enough left at the bottom to stomp my way up to St Germain en Laye, where the road I need is closed for work. I know that the detour passes the spectacular chateau on the edge of the hilltop, though, so I'm not complaining. I consider stopping for a coffee on the square across from the chateau, wanting the ride to last a little longer, hoping that sitting out under the umbrellas in the building heat will add just that extra cherry on top of this magical ride. But it's done, and I know the bad coffee will only break what's left of the spell.

17 August 2009


When we first considered the possibility of an international assignment, there were two logical choices from the standpoint of Karen's job: Paris and Tokyo. There was business justification for each, each has an office that does the same work she does in the States, the official business in each location is conducted in English, and Karen had good working relationships with people in both offices.

Never having been to Asia, and speaking just 1 word of Japanese (nagura, a soft chalk stone used to create a slurry on Japanese waterstones used in the last step of sharpening chisel and plane blades; not terribly useful in everyday conversation, but I pronounce it with vigor), I preferred Tokyo, figuring that if you're going to go somewhere to live differently, it's hard to imagine a place more different than Japan. Karen, who had actually been to Tokyo, suggested that a.) Tokyo was maybe more culturally separate than would be comfortable, b.) Tokyo was perhaps too big and dense to have any hope for riding or racing bikes, and c.) even if we don't speak French beautifully, we can at least recognize the letters. As usual, the woman presents some reasonable arguments. And Paris has offered both plenty of good living and plenty of “different” from our life in Philly. No complaints on that choice.

Still, once I've got an idea in my head, I'm a dog with a bone, and so when it looked like she was going to travel to Japan for business again, I was all over a companion air ticket like a hipster on a fixie. As has become a recurring experience in traveling for her job, we went through a will-she-won't-she go period until about 12 h before departure, which meant I was preparing for going alone (not going wasn't really an option worth considering), lining up alternative hotel arrangements and the like via internet. A little stressful, but if living abroad has taught us anything, it's that dealing with the unexpected is to be expected, and that with a little thought, things can usually be made to work out in some flavor of well enough. In the end, her trip was on. I grabbed my passport, and away we went.

I'd bought several guide books, but thanks to the mad scramble for alternative travel plans, was a bit behind in planning my site-seeing itinerary when we landed. In the reading I'd done, one suggestion stood out against all others for both the level of interest and the purity of logic: on the first full day in Tokyo, when you're probably up at 3:30 AM anyway, visit the Tsukiji (pronounced something like tskeejee) fish market.

So it was that we were en route by 5:00 AM, well before the famously overwhelming Tokyo rush-hour crowds would descend, but still far from riding empty trains. On transferring from the JR Yamanote circle line to the Hibiya subway line, we saw several men and women in tall rubber boots, and since it was too early for a 'cross race, we locked in on them and followed them to the market.

Almost nothing in Tokyo, neither street nor building, is labelled with addresses. So finding specific places of interest can be a challenge. However, the Tsukiji market is so big as to be easily found by even the most jet-lagged tourist, rubber booted guides or not. It's hard to overstate the size, busyness, and role of this place in Tokyo's food chain. In its sprawling, packed, complex, over 1000 vendors sell their wares. More than 2000 metric tons (that's about 4.5 million pounds) of seafood moves through this market each day, nearly all of it before 9:30 AM. Wholesalers buy lots at auction very early in the morning, transport their purchases back to their stalls, then sell to their customers, mostly retail vendors and restaurant suppliers or chefs. The alleyways in the market are tiny, wet (from constant hosing and spilling water), and teeming with sea products of all shapes, sizes, and quality. There's an abundance of sparklingly fresh, exquisite seafood: fish with perfectly clear eyes, gorgeously red gills, and perfectly firm flesh, mollusks in bubbling water with their shells open and trying to feed, squid that still have translucent pigmentation, and live eels and fish swimming in barrels or styrofoam containers of clean water. But not everything off-loaded from a fishing boat was caught that morning or handled deftly. Seafood is expensive everywhere, and even in a seafood-adoring place like Japan, there need to be products for all price points. So there are also wholesalers moving fish with clouded eyes and a bit too much give in their flesh. Nothing as nasty as what's for sale at most of the Philly fish markets, mind you, but more pedestrian than the dreamy voiceovers might have you believe. And for all of the awe the amazing variety and quality of the bounty elicited, the implications of the sheer quantity (here and all over the world) on ecological resources were hard to ignore. No matter where you come at it from, Tsukiji is a powerful experience.

The sense of chaos is hugely entertaining. In any given stall, there's an orderly and ordered efficiency of hyperactivity, but the alleyways are a jumble of mini forklifts, motorized carts and wheel barrows, heavy with enormous tuna purchased at the auction (for as much as 20 million yen, or roughly $210,000, per fish) and barrels of fish in sloshing water. People in stalls cleaning live fish and eels, running bandsaws, breaking down giant tuna, or cutting blocks of ice by hand. It's a decidedly low tech place, which in Tokyo's ultramodern context somehow makes it even more moving. It'll be interesting to see how the market changes when it moves across the bay in a few years. It'll no doubt be a different flavor of amazing.

The outer market, where there are more stands selling seafood but also everything ranging from produce to kitchen gadgets to rubber boots and wooden Japanese slippers, goes on for blocks. We had breakfast at 7:30 in a small stand with maybe 10 seats at a counter, where we ordered from a large board of pictures outside while waiting in the considerable line. An ample bowl of rice groaning under 4 thick pieces each of 2 to 4 kinds of sashimi (tuna, salmon, and toro (fatty tuna belly) featured most heavily), with or without sea urchin (uni) or salmon roe, with wasabi, a small bowl of pickled vegetables, a bowl of miso soup, and a glass of tea for $15-25. Now that's what I'm talking about.

That the Japanese aren't French (or Parisian, anyway) took only moments to figure out that first morning. The elderly Japanese woman sitting next to me at breakfast told me in a little broken English, considerably more gesticulation, and a whole lot of smile that my chopsticks skills were impressive for a freakishly big, ugly white guy, a sentiment that was expressed again a few days later by one of Karen's work colleagues at dinner.

I think I'll put that on my resume.

One of the few times the freakishly big, ugly white guy knew where he was going in Tokyo.

Bumper cars in the roads outside of the market.

For wholesalers only, the tuna auction room, post-auction. Japan is largely a cash-based society, but it's hard to imagine these guys are carrying around 100 million yen for their morning's purchases.

Gorgeous fish, this. Let's follow it on its journey through the market ...

Headed for the bowels of the market. There's a lot of traffic in here, a lot of time-sensitive business being conducted in small spaces, rather like a professional kitchen, which requires a high degree of awareness and familiarity to be safe. If you're not paying attention here, it's easy to get run over. The outermost stalls might take 15 min or more to get to from the auction room. These guys would rumble along for about 5.

Tools of the trade: can't use a little knife on a big fish. When you've spent 6 figures (7, in yen) on a fish, you don't hack it apart willy-nilly or hastily. Some fish are cut frozen, using bandsaws. But a lot of them are still cut by hand, by real professionals.

The midline bones are connected to the ... well, never did learn my fish anatomy.

Using an oroshi hocho (a knife with a 150 cm long flexible blade; the guy closer to the camera is holding the blade with a towel) to cut along the entire carcass to release the filet.

Voila-- filet of tuna, carried on a big plank of wood about the size of a back-board. A large tuna can weigh about 1000 lbs, and individual filets can weight 200 lbs or more. They're then broken down further.

Though all of the giant tuna look amazing, prices per kilo of flesh depend on the quality of the fish, how it was handled, and on the cut. Prices range from ~$20/pound to well over $100/pound. Toro, with so much fat it's visibly marbled, commands very high prices. We saw slices of tuna cheek (anybody who knows Karen knows that the cheek is the best part of just about any fish) at the sushi restaurant we ate our last dinner in Tokyo going for $50 per piece. The less glamorous parts are smushed up, bagged, and sold for use in tuna rolls and such. There's a reasonably good video of the whole tuna process here.

Though there's no question that the giant tuna are the stars of the show, there's a an amazing supporting cast. See this and this (it's long, but even the first couple minutes give a sense), or if you favor professional productions, this for videos.

No idea what these are, but they're profoundly ugly. And probably delicious.

The eyes don't lie... hard to find squid this fresh in Paris.

I think this guy is hauling mostly produce away from the market, but it looks like he's got 1 styrofoam container on there.

Patience will be rewarded: waiting for breakfast. Hello, Tokyo!

16 August 2009

Schengen, baby!

Though every day in Paris is like a vacation, Karen had this crazy idea that she deserved a few days away from work earlier this summer. And so, anticipating that Paris might be hot and miserable in the summer (a false assumption, it turns out), we decided to head North for a few days. As Karen already mentioned, we spent the solstice in Stockholm, since we'd read that after the Santa Lucia holiday (mid Dec) through Christmas, the solstice was the biggest deal going in Sweden. Why not go up and see the stereotypically reserved Swedes party like it's 1999?

Our flight wasn't until early evening, so we spent the day in Paris enjoying ourselves at the Picasso museum before having lunch at a restaurant on the Place des Vosges, where the petite woman seated next to us hoovered up a football-sized serving of beef tartare in about 15 minutes, followed by a glass or two of vin rouge at a little outdoor wine bar in the Marché des Enfants Rouges in the in 3e. We were feeling no pain as we finished packing and headed out on the trains to the airport. Great relaxing start to a vacation.

Until I realized, nearly an hour into the trip to the airport, that I had left my passport sitting on the entry hall table in the apartment. Curse you, red wine! No way to get back home and out to the airport in time for the flight, and so my mind was racing to find any Plan B that would actually have me in Stockholm for at least part of the time Karen would be there.

Turns out that somebody had already taken care of Plan B for me, some 24 years ago. The Benelux countries and France and Germany, in the so-called Schengen Agreement (named for the town in Luxembourg where the agreement was signed-- yeah, I didn't know there was more than 1 town in Luxembourg, either) decided that it was silly to keep checking passports between countries that had otherwise worked so hard to reduce barriers between them. Since then, the agreement has spread to pretty much all EU counties (and some EFTA countries), such that there are no border controls at all between about 25 different countries in Europe. That means that flying between France and Sweden requires an ID more like a driver's license than a passport, and though I'd also forgotten my international driver's license, I wasn't quite moron enough to leave my French residency permit at home. So I should have been good.

That didn't mean I wasn't still stressing on the way to the airport, or while standing 40 minutes in line to check in. Rules in France are enforced the way they are on SEPTA trains, at the whim of the conductor, and I was convinced I'd be sitting at home alone that night after being laughed at by the evil ticket agents. But there were no problems, and it was with considerable relief that I munched my pretzels in the late evening sun over Denmark.

Things from there were pretty anti-climactic. We were looking forward to some partying the next day-- eating herring, a bonfire or two, and maybe doing some May pole dancing (since I'm led to believe it is not pole dancing in the way it would be on Columbus Ave in Philly). But those fantasies were put to rest quickly, when the young woman speaking flawless English who checked us into the hotel told us that all of the celebrations had taken place already that day and that the city would pretty well close down for the next day or two. 364 more days until the next outbreak of Swedish mirth.

Turns out it didn't matter-- there was plenty to enjoy over the next few days we were there. Often I travel and think a place is nice to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there. Stockholm was a nice enough place to visit, but I think it would be a nicer place to actually live. Though perhaps not the most intense or electrifying place in the world, the city is unusual in that it's actually set up for the quality of life of its residents: bike lanes, running trails, an emphasis on clean air and water, good beer, and polite and civically minded people. And (May) pole dancing. Sweet.

Without any more chatter, here are the pics. Didn't get any of the haircuts we got as stop #3 on the European Capitals Haircut Tour.

Evening sun in the old city, probably about 10 PM, still an hour or more before sunset.

Stockholm is really a series of islands, and the sea still features heavily in modern culture.

So much so that some Swedes apparently have trouble staying out of it.

Karen on a morning run, while I rode alongside on a clown bike kindly provided by the hotel. Her longest ever run (around one of the islands), and I got lost.

Obviously this isn't Paris...

Can't go to Sweden and not eat meatballs. Actually, they're not all that interesting, culinarily. And my (Norwegian) grandmother's were better than these, to boot. Also in the traditional food scene, we did a smorgasbord, with enough herring preparations to have one every day of the year. Herring for breakfast at our hotel, too, which is a little more than I could take. The yogurt and sour milk with muesli (and magnificent lingon and cloud berries) were more my speed.

Life imitating art?

Typical Stockholm street.

Stockholm's city-owned fleet of bikes, which connect to the rack through balls in the bottom of the baskets.

One of Stockholm's street-side bicycle pumps.

Traditional Swedish headwear, on the boat to Vaxholm in the archipelago.

Vaxholm, basically the gateway to the less populated portions of the archipelago. It's a major vacation destination for Swedes.

The Volvo Ocean Race was in Stockholm while we were there, and our boat to Vaxholm went ride through one of the in-harbor races. It was really cool to watch (and note the old multi-mast ship behind them).

Vaxholm Castle, 19th century replacement for others dating back to the mid-1500s, built to protect the sea route to Stockholm.

Your hosts.

The Vasa, in the Vasa museum. Big, expensive war ship built in the 1620s that sank 30 minutes into its first test sail. Oops. Raised in the 1960s and restored/conserved (for example, sprayed every day for 17 years with PEG before drying for an additional 9), it's now the centerpiece of a museum that is at least as interesting for what it explains about life in Sweden (and at sea) in the time as the ship itself.

Stockholm is insanely expensive, and the alcohol taxes are astounding even compared to the other high costs. So instead of drinking wine, which is mostly imported from France and served for 10x the cost here, we drank the more local beer. Baltic porters have always been among my favorites, and they were a lot easier to find there than in Paris.

Changing of the guard at the palace. Not sure what's up with the pony tails.

Though most of the food we ate in Stockholm was pretty forgettable, we had a very nice meal our last night there at F12, one of the many restaurants in town owned by Melker Andersson. No doubt about his nationality.

Stockholm at dusk is especially beautiful. Since sunrise was at 3:30 AM while we were there, we never sampled that.