Sunday, February 27, 2011

xtranormal: Pirates of the Caribbean, Rudolf, Conan, and La Jetee

Thank you to everyone who has been nagging encouraging me to write more -- I guess it's a nice compliment. There are all kinds of things up in the air here at the Regal Vizsla, some of which can be disclosed, some of which can not. But for now, a mammoth post about all kinds of things.

In any case, we just returned from vacation in Sweden. And I hate to say it, but we went conventional. I'm not insulting Sweden or Swedes when I say that they are pretty conventional, but compared to Mongolia and the Ukraine, the alphabet is the same and Swedes' fluency in other languages (especially English) puts most of us to shame. As a point of comparison, we came out of the Arrivals area looking for a taxi into Stockholm. Unlike Mongolia where a horde of drivers will grab the luggage off your back with the magic password 'taxi', the entire taxi stand had roughly twenty cabs parked in an orderly grid with the drivers looking attentively at you waiting to see who you'd choose.

As a side note and after one more trip through JFK airport, I should also say that JFK is increasingly looking like the stereotype we used to have of 'Soviet' airports. Even with its non-enclosed smoking areas, giant Kalashnikovs of vodka, and assorted Merhan Nasseris sleeping in the lounges, Sheremetyva now seems polite, clean, and in relatively good working order. JFK is an embarrassment in terms of its facilities and what passes for customer service.

The purpose of our trip was really to spend three days above the Arctic Circle just outside Kiruna at the Ice Hotel. But we had elected to spend a couple of days on either side of that in Stockholm. Meg did a great job of finding nice places to stay in different districts and we spent a good chunk of each day walking around and being good old-fashioned tourists. On our first full day after consuming a fabulous buffet brunch, we decided to walk along the waterfront and over onto Djurgården to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was the largest warship of its time and sunk very shortly into its maiden voyage, after capsizing most likely due to stiff winds and insufficient ballast. The ship was brought up from the shallow sandy harbor roughly 350 years later in phenomenal shape, apparently because that part of the Stockholm waterway has relatively brackish water -- and whatever worm it is that eats ships underwater apparently needs salt. The restoration efforts are phenomenal and its museum strikingly effective. As a royal flagship, the Vasa has a level of ornamentation to it that, frankly, made me think of Pirates of the Caribbean and I kept imagining Geoffrey Rush jumping out from one of the cabins. We also took a harbor sightseeing cruise, one of the coldest things I have ever done -- and a little disconcerting to feel the wooden-hulled ferry breaking ice and brushing it out the way. And while we barely glimpsed a few of the islands, it was a great exposure to the Stockholm Archipelago -- which, like coastal Maine, is very different in the summer than it is in the winter.

After the Ice Hotel we stayed in Gamla stan (the 'Old Town'), whose waterfront can be seen in this photograph taken from the tour boat. The tall spire in the center belongs to the Tyska kyrkan (the 'German church'). Gamla stan has all the charm of other medieval cities that I've been to -- Edinburgh's Old Town, Kiev's Podil neighborhood, or indeed the venerable St. Andrews -- with its handful of longer, wider thoroughfares and narrow, meandering side streets. While we were there, several folks mentioned Talinn, the capital of Estonia, and I imagine I'd like it, too. We walked all over Gamla stan, enjoying the hidden nooks and crannies, the colors, the architecture, and the sense of time that inhabits the place.

We had talked about going to the Ice Hotel for a while... which in some ways is a little like going to Las Vegas, probably something everyone should do once (and most will not choose to do again). It is a brilliant marketing idea and a great solution as to how to diversify the economy in a distant, rural mining community with a still prominent indigenous community. One of the features of the Ice Hotel is the annual design competition that gives artists the opportunity to submit drawings for one of the thirty-two 'art suites'. Here are pictures of two of our favorites: Marcus Dillistone's Frigid-Dare and AnnaSofia Mååg's Arktikos. As you can probably tell, the first is set up like the inside of a fridge, the second features a mother and two cub polar bears (presumably) watching over the bed. For those of you who are interested, the hotel has both 'cold rooms' and 'warm rooms': when you stay in a cold room, and because the ice rooms are all open during the day for visitors to see them, all your stuff goes in lockers and when you're ready, you check out a sleeping bag, change into your sleeping stuff, slap on a hat, and clamber onto the reindeer pelts and into your bag. And marvel at how different the room looks with the lights off, in almost complete silence, and the cold crisp air on your face. And you are woken from your 20degsF sleep by a cape-clad gnome carrying a jetpack of warm lingonberry juice. True. Drank a lot of lingonberry juice and ate a bunch of reindeer meat on this trip.

We stayed in a regular ice-room our first night and then, at the hotel's imminent wise suggestion, spent the next two nights in a 'warm room.' Which felt like luxury. And it made enjoying our various excursions even more fun. Like riding an Icelandic pony for 2.5hrs in -20degsF in a quest for moose. We didn't see any moose till we got back to the stable and found them chomping down the horse forage. I'd love to say that I got to experience a true tölt on my lovely mare, Elja, but between the cold, snow, and a ridiculous amount of clothing it would be lying to say that I somehow summoned and sustained either of her gaits on our way round the training track afterwards.

We also visited a musher's kennel and took a dog-sled back to the airport. It was pretty interesting hearing about the legal requirements the Swedish government expects of mushers' kennels and also hearing about various ways they take care of their dogs. (FYI: at least in Sweden, a fair number of mushers cross-breed their huskies with pointers, in part to ensure a certain genetic variance, and in part to try and compete with Alaskan mushers who it seemed had bred pretty much developed the best huskies from within their 'pure' lines. Some folks refer to this cross-breeding as a 'Eurohound' -- although legendary Swedish musher, Egil Ellis, calls his experiments with cross-breeding to pointers, 'Scandinavian hounds.') There are some pretty not-surprising legal requirements of musher kennels -- minimum run space, insulated dog houses -- but the surprise was the requirement that no dogs were kenneled alone, but in pairs. What was pretty neat about our kennel tour was that we were guided by half of Belgium's Iditarod competitors, Dries Jacobs, and it was neat to hear how a young guy from a flat country with no real winter had comes to compete in both the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest and has hopes to compete in the Finnmark. He was excited to hear about how field trialers get their dogs in shape by roading and dragging cables, with horses and ATVs, and he in turn told us about the world of booties, massage, and ridiculously long races. A couple of things folks here might be interested in would be mushers' use of either Algyval or Emu Oil as a post-exercise liniment and shoulder vests that feature internal pockets for hand-warmers to ensure warmth and therefore blood flow for mushing dogs' shoulders and chest. The ride back to the airport the next morning was 75mins of freezing cold and pretty damn cool. There's not much else to say about it, other than it was a great way to leave Jukkasjärvi and head back to Stockholm.


If any of my readers happen to be experts in either film history or Swedish maritime history, can you please explain to me what the heck this has to do with a 17thC Swedish warship? Meg and I both think someone punked the Vasa Museum. Turns out someone else saw this in 2007 and was equally confused.

On the shuttle bus from one part of Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle airport, I couldn't help burst out laughing. If you haven't clicked on the 'Going to Ruffled Grouse Camp' cartoon on the right sidebar, please do so. It might be the funniest thing I've seen in a long long time (except perhaps 'Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy' with Swedish subtitles). However, it's the same voice giving you directions in English on French airport buses! "Oh! By the way, we have just passed your gate..."

As much as Stockholm's Arlanda airport was like landing in an Ikea store, Paris's Charles De Gaulle Terminal 2 wins for the 'best aesthetic design' award. If you click on the Wikipedia link, you'll see that Paul Andreu's design has experienced some challenges largely due to shoddy construction firms, but the pierced sides of the oval walls are pretty striking, especially with the contrast of bright carpeting and bare concrete. Would have taken more pictures, but I think it's illegal. Having said how nice the colors were, I should also say that for what seemed like long periods of time as we walked from the shuttle bus drop-off (back) to our departure gate, the place seemed deserted -- almost like Chris Marker's La Jetée (1962). Nevertheless, even the no-sink sinks in the washrooms were really cool.


Worthy of mention: we left the boys at a new kennel this time around. I mention what will now be our short-stay only kennel, Grace Lane Kennels, because the comparison is useful for others and because I genuinely believe that the folks at Grace Lane are attentive to our dogs. But Grace Lane is a turn-of-the-century kennel with fixed runs for its clients -- and while they offer additional leash walking to customers, that might work for froofy 5lb dogs, but it's not going to be fun for either one of our two demons.

At Kim's recommendation, we took them up to the not-at-all-manly-sounding Bow Wow Bathhouse up in Deerfield, MA. First of all, as folks who do read this blog know, our dogs have done great with kenneling, even sharing a pickle barrel for a month out in AZ this summer. Second of all, I don't necessarily believe that an off-leash facility is the best place for every dog, or every dog at the same time, or that there aren't any number of charlatans out there who market 'off-leash' as a substitute for 'supervision,' but here's what I will say to Marcy at Bow Wow. I picked up my dogs and they were happy to see me -- but not anxious to get away. Momo has historically lost a little weight at boarding kennels, even if he is being fed above his normal ration and not getting the hours of free-running exercise he normally gets. He looked awesome this time around, his weight seemed the same, and his mood was clearly upbeat. Very pleased.


The Team will be headed to Virginia for the next two weekends -- for the Old Dominion and Conestoga vizsla club trials. I hadn't planned to go and won't be running Jozsi (who needs more not-hand-planted birds), but was asked to run a friend's dog in the Amateur stakes in the faint hope that we can finish up her AFC. I am entering The Mominator in the Amateur Gun Dog Stakes and also in Conestoga's Hunting Dog stake, so we'll see what happens. If he decides he's going to light out 200yds and finds birds with as much style as he did at his last trial, who knows what will happen.