Friday, March 22, 2013

Travel Log #11 Let's Fika

We woke up the next day to a Swedish breakfast of bread, sliced cheese, sliced cucumbers, chunks of tomato, messmör (a sweet butter made from whey), meat, and good strong coffee. I didn’t quite take to the messmör, but we’ve definitely incorporated the rest into our breakfast routine back home.

We spent the morning eating, talking, watching the kids play, doing laundry, and in general getting some much-needed down time. After lunch, we packed up  and went into town to see the sights. Vӓsterås is one of the oldest cities in Northern Europe and has been inhabited since the time of the Vikings. It’s the site of a very large Viking burial mound, but since everything was covered in snow and we had four small children in tow, we sadly had to skip it. Instead, our friends took us on a tour of the historic parts of town – including the beautiful town church – and then we went shopping downtown.

Walking through the historic district

The town church

One of the many old grave markers on the floor of the church. I believe this one was from the 1600s.

I had been really good about not spending tons of money on souvenirs thus far, but when I saw some traditional Swedish Christmas candelabras on sale, I couldn’t resist. It wasn't until we were about to leave a couple days later that we realized we would need two very large and expensive adapters to make them work in the U.S. Thus our Swedish friends acquired two new candelabras. 

I did bring home a very simple and very expensive white dress for Miren to use on St. Lucia’s day next year. You wouldn’t think it would be too hard to find a plain white dress or nightgown in the States, but after months of looking, I concluded that American girls apparently need everything bedazzled or covered in writing. So I gave up and suffered the high Swedish taxes instead. 

Time to shop!

 After our outing, we went back to the house to enjoy our favorite Swedish tradition of all – fika. Fika is sort of a mix between an American coffee break and English tea time. You stop the day for a cup of coffee or tea and often a sweet snack shared with friends and family. It differs from a regular old coffee break partly because it’s engrained in the culture and partly because it’s about pausing and socializing with other people. It’s not just something for office workers in the break room or a lone person stopping at a Starbucks for coffee to go. We’ve always done something sort of similar at home (lately it’s been a snack and cup of hot chocolate for the kids post-school day), but it was fun to hear an official term for it. The word nerd part of me also loves that it can be both a verb and a noun – i.e. “Let’s fika” or “Come over for fika.” For this fika, our friends treated us to more great coffee and authentic saffron buns (lussekatter). I tried making them the month before for Lucia’s Day, but these were infinitely better than my attempt.

After another lovely dinner and another lovely night talking and watching Swedish TV, we headed for bed. I had to wake up at 2am to assist with an online worship for work (a plus of working for an online church is that you can work anywhere, but it becomes a minus when you have a huge time change). But at least I knew I had one more day of relaxation before hitting the road again…

Travel Log #10 Hej Sverige!

Our wonderful friends in Vasteras

(Ok, please suspend your disbelief for a moment and pretend we are still back in January instead of approaching Easter. Better late then never....right?)

The next morning, we headed over to the train station to catch a train to Vasteras, Sweden. We had our reservations in hand, arrived early, and finally managed to figure out exactly where to stand on the platform to get our correct seats without having to travel up and down once inside the train. As we waited, I noticed a trail of soft pink and blue make its way across the sky as the sun reached over the top of the city skyline. Flocks of birds rose and fell in white plumes, searching for bits of dropped food. Slowly the city was coming to life with bike commuters headed off to work and tourists wandering on foot. I reached for my camera and then thought better of it since the train was due any minute.

Fifteen minutes later, the train was officially late and I still had no picture to make up for it. Then a voice came over the station speaker system saying something we couldn’t understand, but it caused the rest of the crowd to make a mad dash. Apparently our train was not only late, but arriving at a different platform. In a flurry of chaos, the large crowd (including the elderly, the wheelchair bound, and families with small kids like us) had to travel all the way down the platform, up a set of steep stairs, across several lanes of rush hour traffic, down another set of stairs, and back down the new platform to the train that was threatening to leave any second. I took all three kids and some luggage, while poor Robbie struggled to get the heaviest bits of luggage up the steep stairs.

I caught a break in traffic before he made it up the stairs, so I went ahead. By the time I found our train car at the very end of the train, I was ready to collapse. I paused at the door and turned, expecting  to see Robbie struggling several feet behind us, but he was nowhere in sight. The only thing that kept both me and the kids from completely losing it at that point was the sight of a pristine rainbow stretched across the sky in front of us. I stood firmly in the doorway to ensure that this train would not leave until my entire family was on it, and we waited while watching the rainbow. Just as I was about to enter the full-fledged panic zone, Robbie magically appeared. Apparently he had gone to the wrong platform and had to backtrack to find us. He leapt on, we found our seats, and off we went to Sweden breathing a sigh of relief.  

One of my favorite parts about Sweden is that it looks exactly the way you expect it to look. The kids FINALLY got to see the snow they were hoping for and I got to see miles of forests and lakes dotted with their trademark red and yellow cottages. The cities and towns were either old and quaint or sleek and modern a la IKEA. (Lest you think I’m relying on a ridiculous stereotype, let me assure you that many houses and shops in Sweden are actually decorated with stuff from IKEA.)

The only downside was that Swedish trains gave me horrible motion sickness. I forced myself to enjoy the scenery by occasionally opening my eyes, but typing and getting work done on the train was out of the question. (And thus my return to blogging oblivion) 

When we finally arrived at the station in Vasteras, I was grateful to step off my torture device and back into the fresh air. Our friends Andreas and Malin were waiting for us with a rental car, so after exchanging hugs, we loaded Robbie and the kids into Andreas' car while I rode with Malin and their kids Joel and Ellen.  

On the plane ride to Europe, Robbie told Fionn that we were visiting a little boy his age in Sweden named Joel and Fionn had not stopped talking about it ever since.  On the car ride, Malin explained that Joel was equally excited and wasn’t worried about the language barrier because he claimed he already knew English. His knowledge apparently included “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and counting to 25. But, hey, it was more than our kids knew about Swedish!

Despite the language barrier, the kids hit it off right away and the boys were especially grateful for the chance to sit and play toys rather than be dragged on and off trains all day. Joel quickly learned how to say, “Follow me,” and “You have to share” in English. Fionn apparently learned a word that sounded like Inga and told us it was Swedish, but no one could ever figure out what it meant. 

Joel and Emerson try to scare us out of the play room...

After some play time, our friends treated us to a dinner of homemade meatballs, mashed potatoes, gravy, and lingonberry jam made from lingonberries Andreas’ father picked himself. Since travel for me is as much about local food as sightseeing, I was in complete heaven. (I didn’t eat the meatballs obviously, but Robbie said they were excellent –and I ate a veggie alternative that was delicious.)

We put the kids to bed and then stayed up (way too late) to catch up on each others lives and compare life in Sweden to life in the U.S. (We met our friends while they were living in the U.S. working for the same Swedish company that Robbie worked for temporarily, so they have experience with both cultures.) Of course, no place is perfect and we learned a lot about Sweden’s problems, but our discussion still pretty much confirmed my obsession with moving there. Six weeks of paid vacation, subsidized day care, a huge paid maternity AND paternity leave, low crime rates, great education system, the list goes on and on. Now if only I could magically learn Swedish and find a job in religion in the one of the world’s most secular countries…


Monday, January 14, 2013

Travel Log #9 Soaking it Up and Sucking it Up

The next morning, we got ready and went over to the train station to reserve seats for our train ride to Sweden (see previous post). While at the station, we tried to get lunch at the food court and figured with all the choices we could please everyone. Emerson decided he wouldn’t eat anything except crackers and it dissolved into a huge fight that ended with me dragging him kicking and screaming through the streets of Copenhagen back to our hotel. Normally I would take that kind of Emerson catastrophe into the bathroom for privacy until he cooled down, but once again, we were faced with bathrooms that charge money to be let in.

This kind of meltdown is embarrassing enough when it happens in our regular life, but it was infinitely worse in a crowded city where everybody already talks several decibels lower than the average American (so a heck of a lot quieter than our circus).

By the time I got him back to the hotel, I was shaking with anger and sick to my stomach that this was how we were wasting our one precious day in Copenhagen. In retrospect, this blowup was a long time in coming. He was having an extraordinarily good period for several months and actually won student of the month for his class in December. But as the principal was announcing his name for the award, his teacher was giving him an X for bad behavior. That was the beginning of a not so good period. Traveling, with all the schedule changes and constant pressure to be quiet and well-behaved, further turned him into a little devil who relished every opportunity to cause trouble.

I’d like to say our little blowout was a turn for the better, but honestly his behavior is about the same. But we vented just enough steam for me to step back and realize that trying to make my kids into quiet Scandinavian children was just not going to happen and I needed to reserve my energy for days like this. Maybe the pressure of constantly being with my husband and children for a month straight will improve my parenting in the end. Or maybe we’ll strangle each other. Only time will tell…

Anywho, we salvaged the rest of the day by going to the children’s museum inside the National Gallery. The kids got to be their crazy selves with no restrictions for several hours, including abandoning the Viking ship I thought was completely awesome so they could spend more time cooking in the pretend ancient kitchen. I love that I never know what my children are going to do from one minute to the next.

As we tried to leave the building, we were blocked by cameramen and photographers mobbing a couple who were coming in for a film event in the Gallery. Somewhere on Danish television there is a video of these (unknown to me) celebrities with Emerson in the background complaining about his sleeves being bunched up.

When we finally escaped, we went to Nyhavn (a harbor from the 1600s and the home of Hans Christian Andersen for 18 years) for dinner. Luckily we found an empty (i.e. kid-friendly) café that served great smorrebrod at a good price, so I finally got my wish:

We spent the rest of the night looking at the quaint houses and ornate buildings that would have looked straight out of a postcard if we could have taken pictures in the daytime. I thought Michigan winters were dark with cloudy skies and the sun setting around 5. But the skies here were just as cloudy and the sun set around 3. So here’s Copenhagen at night:

It was a short stop and we only touched on a few of the city’s highlights, but it was well worth it. Screaming kids and all.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Travel Log #8 Velkommen to Denmark!

When the next day dawned, we were feeling better and ready for the next leg of our adventure. We caught the train without mishap and spent the morning watching the sunny countryside sweep by. We got an unexpected adventure when the train went inside the ferry to Denmark. We were told to get off the train, which was an interesting ordeal, but we came up the stairs to find ourselves on a floating mall. There were stores, a food court and even a play area for the kids, which we all greatly appreciated. We scored three surprisingly healthy kids meals for lunch and boarded back onto the train when we reached Denmark. 

I spent the rest of the ride with my face plastered to the window since we didn’t have time to stop in the small towns my ancestors are from. We had planned to take the bus out there and search the graveyards and churches for any records, or at least say we had walked through the towns, but the logistics of doing that with three kids and all that luggage just couldn’t be overcome. This was as close as I came - the train stop for Maribo where my ancestors lived for generations:

When we finally landed in Copenhagen, we made a blissfully short walk to our hotel and vegged out for a couple of hours. Our two full days in the city had been whittled down to a day and a few hours thanks to our detour in Germany, so we tried to make the best of the night by taking a walk through the main square (Radhuspladsen) and Europe’s longest pedestrian street called the Stroget. The boys enjoyed playing “Red Light/Green Light” in the square and we enjoyed watching the hordes of bikes roll by.

View from our room

I was determined to eat some good Danish smorrebrod (an open face sandwich that has been turned into an art in Denmark), so we searched the side streets for a good restaurant. We had been warned that Copenhagen was insanely expensive, so we finally bit the bullet and picked what seemed like a reasonable restaurant. I didn’t end up getting the smorrebrod I wanted, but we all had a good meal and didn’t cry (too hard) when we saw the bill with 25% tax. I could tell by the conversation the waitress was having with the tourists behind us that they had not been forewarned. I did think it was strange that Robbie kept pushing the kids to drink their water, but after we left he pointed out that a glass of tap water costs about $2 a glass.


 On the way back to the hotel, Robbie decided to go searching for some contact solution, so I took the boys with me. (Incidentally, he found about twenty 7-Elevens within a block of each other, but no contact solution. Danish people really love their 7-Elevens), Our hotel is only a couple blocks from all the main sights, so not a dodgy area at all. But there were a couple of strip clubs a few doors down, and now that it was dark out, they had big posters of half-naked women on the sidewalk and music blaring from speakers. As we walked by, the boys decided this was a good time to stop and boogie down to the music. Seeing my 4 and 6-year-olds dance in front of a strip club was not exactly what I expected when I read that Copenhagen was kid-friendly.