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…