Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Changes in Latitude, No Change in Attitude

I've always had a particular interest in northern cultures, especially in northern Europe. I've had extensive experiences in Iceland, Denmark, and Norway, a few experiences in northern Russia and, over the years, have had a few scattered days in Sweden. Until ten days ago, however, I had never set foot in Finland.

In the manner that the seemingly random aspect of my life typically unfolds, I stumbled across Finnish friend Virpi a few weeks ago while passing through Switzerland. Neither Jamie nor I had any real plans or commitments between the World Championships in Germany that ended on the 23rd of May, and the European Championships in Spain that begin on the 11th of July, so we had pondered the idea of spending the last half of June together in Norway. I've always enjoyed Norway (the little bit of competency in the Danish language I still have can pass for Norwegian, too). Most importantly, Jamie has yet to visit there.

When I mentioned our vague plans to Virpi, she suggested we instead join her and her boyfriend Kari at the Finnish National Hanggliding Championships in Jämijärvi (it's not near as complicated to pronounce as it looks).

When I mentioned the idea of Finland instead of Norway to Jamie, she decided that, rather than any kind of northern experience at all, she needed heat and sun more than anything else. So she opted to jump on a cheap flight to Malta while I e-mailed my commitment to the Finnish meet organizer to be part of his ground crew.

As a result of the opportunities provided me by being stationed in Germany in the Air Force right out of college in 1977, by 1980 there were only two countries I hadn't visited in western Europe (i.e., west of the now happily defunct Iron Curtain); Finland and Portugal. The intervening years had yet to change that status.

Arriving with Virpi and Kari by ferry into a Helsinki port a few days before the competition began, they headed one direction for some family commitments while I headed another to explore a bit on my own (armed with a list of suggestions from them). We met up in Jämijärvi a day later.

During the next week I spent the first part of each day either studying Finnish history online or taking short trips to nearby sites of interest to me. In the afternoons I would retrieve pilots who'd hadn't made it back to the airport.

The evenings were spent first the sauna, and then often enough afterwards gathered around a fire in a circular hut with the center of it's roof open over the fire, roasting sausages long into the next day (though I rarely made it past midnight).

These two photos were taken at 11:00 p.m. at the post competition sausage roast at an open fire that would accommodate the crowd (the circular huts were too small).

It never really got much darker than this every night I was in Finland.

Kari won the competition, becoming the Finnish Champion for the second time. The "SM"on the cake stands for Suomen Mestari; Finnish Champion

In Finland, towing by ultralights is not yet legal (and may never be) so Finns have made do with car towing. Though I had all my hang gliding equipment with me and I was given many opportunities to give it a try, a few emotional scars apparently just couldn't be overcome. The friend who taught me to car tow 15 years ago was killed only weeks later while attempting to teach someone else. Aero-towing merely makes me attentive. Foot launching makes me nervous, something I've been working to overcome this last year with more and more experience (as I've written). Car towing, however, has always just simply scared the heebie jeebies out of me.

Apparently it still does. A time or two I thought I was emotionally ready but in the end I chose to pass on every opportunity I had to fly in Finland, hoping I'd feel more up to the next day. That day never came.

No matter. The real reason I was there was to finally get the chance to explore Finland, and to do so in the company of good friends.

Two years ago, six weeks in Russia resulted in my consumption of more vodka in that month and a half than I had sampled in the previous 34 years of being of drinking age. Similarly, this trip to Finland has resulted in my experiencing more saunas than I probably have had in all my life before.

Sauna is, as most probably already know, a Finnish word to begin with. I did not experience one single Finnish dwelling that did not have an extensive and complete sauna facility (sauna, changing room, and rinsing room, and more).

Though there were no frozen lakes to dip into through a hole in the ice as I had experienced in Russia five years ago (and no lake at all in Jämijärvi), I still was happy to drop into the merely chilly lake (17 degrees Celsius) at Virpi's family's summer cottage house. We spent a few days there before heading back to Europe on the 29th.

Finland seemed so related to places I've been in recent years, but that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. Looking on a map, it all makes sense.

While the earth changes dramatically traveling south to north (as I experienced by changing 1800 straight line kilometers of latitude from Borso del Grappa in Italy to Jämijärvi), the make of the land can be quite consistent east to west. Yulia's childhood home in Velikiy Dvor, of which Finland reminded me, was almost directly east from Jämijärvi, less than 800 kilometers way. Oslo, which seemed to carry much of the same feel as Helsinki, was almost directly west, again only 800 kilometers away.

In all my travels around the world, I am again and again struck by how much both the Earth itself and we as a people are far more alike than different.

Monday, June 14, 2010

On Foot in Italy

I learned to fly sailplanes when I was 14, forty years ago. In all that time since, being towed into the air by another airplane has seemed the most natural way to fly. Though I first learned hang gliding by foot launching on the dunes of Kittyhawk 18 years ago, it wasn't long before all the hang gliding I did was aerotowing in either Marlyand or Florida.

Foot launching, then, has always intimidated me. The opposite is usually true for most hang glider pilots. They are intimidated by the high energy of being towed that seems to always be searching to find a way to go out of control. So we laugh at each other's concepts (misconceptions?) and do it the way we feel best.

So many of the most amazing hanggliding sites I've visited in Europe of the last eight years in the process of crewing for friends have been foot launch sites, something I last felt qualified to do 15 years ago. I've envied my friends as they flew above spectacular mountain ranges so I spent some time in last fall in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, re-learning foot launching so that I could fly where I wanted in both Australia last winter (summer there) and now here in Europe.

The fruits of this effort have begun to show, both in Slovenia last week and now, here, in Borso del Grappa, Italy. After I left Slovenia, I met up with Jamie and Carl, who'd left England the week before to drop down to the continent for a bit of warm weather flying before Carl returned to work on his oil rig.

If you'd care to see what kind of adventures flying couples get to have together, read Jamie's article on their epic flight there.

Monday Jamie and I joined up with Amy, a friend from the States passing through Italy, for a bit of hiking in the Dolomites around San Martino di Castrozza. When the clouds parted now and then, we had great views of stunning rocky crags. Amy and Jamie seemed more intent about the mountain's flowers, however.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Most na Soči

Driving from Austria to Slovenia takes one through a corner of Italy before descending into a spectacular network of valleys. I came here to be with two friends, Matjaz and Nena.

Their home has a terrace overlooking the blue waters of the Soča river. Their town, Most na Soči, means "Bridge on the River Soča."

I finally got the chance to fly for the first time here. Matjaz and I launched seconds apart late in the day and drifted over the spectacular valley in the diminishing light. The camera I'd set up on the back of my glider (visible in the photo below) took only a few pictures while I was still on the ground before it shut down, but Nena captured the moment for me.

Last spring here, while snow still covered the tops of the 2000 meter peaks nearby, Matjaz captured a flight on video that he made from this hill we flew off. Edited it down to six minutes, it's set to the evocative music of the movie "Avatar." I don't know how many times I've watched it but it must be at least 50 times. To me it captures the stunning beauty of this sport of hang gliding. It is so simple, the way we fly, and yet so profound in its expression of the often forgotten unlimited nature of our existence. We can fly. We truly can. Matjaz takes off a small hill as casually as if descending a few stairs, and finds the right air currents to climb, climb, and climb until he is soaring across the pyramid-shaped face of the snow-covered Krn Mountain.

We can do amazing things, we human beings.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Run, Forrest! Run!

This last week in, around, and above Zell am See, Austria has had me thinking over and over again of a line from the movie Forrest Gump;

"And so I met the president...again."

When the hugely significant becomes commonplace, it's hard not to trivialize it.

Looking around me each day, I find myself thinking, "Here I am amidst some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet...again."

There's a small hang gliding competition going on.

I'm here not to fly, nor even crew for someone, but merely to be with friends who are (such Belgian Jochen and Russian Yulia pictured here).

A bit of reflection revealed that all of the hang gliding competitions I was involved with last summer and will be or already have been this summer are centered around Austria in a manner of sorts. There's Áger, Spain (near Barcelona) to the west, as is Laragne, France (near Nice) and several places in Switzerland. To the south in Italy there is Bassano Del Grappa (near Milan) and Monte Cucco (closer to Rome). To the east, there is Tolmin, Slovenia (near Ljubljana). To the north in Germany, there is Tegelberg (near Munich).

I've spent last summer, then, and will spend this summer crisscrossing Austria on my way to or from some hang gliding site. This means a lot of time of driving through breathtaking mountains and unbelievably quaint and inviting villages...again.

Something about this has inspired me, apparently. Finally I've actually been able to motivate myself to start running again in the mornings...down manicured trails through majestic and whispering forests, in view of a horizon of white-capped peaks. I'd imagine it's hard not to feel inspired here.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Swiss Mix

My Swiss friends invited me to join them in their country for a mixture of hang gliding competitions and just simple hospitality. Freddy and Ashanta live in Oberdorf, near Stans, the kind of place probably most of us imagine when we think of Switzerland (just above the top of the tree in the lower center of this photo taken from the summit of Bürgenstock).

Jürg and Dolores live in Basel; one of Switzerland's major cities and yet it remains as inviting as a village.

I'll be back here several times over the summer. It often feels like a dream to be there strolling those streets and paths, though I can't say if it's natural beauty or the dear friends that make it such a magnificent place for me. Probably both.