Little Life Stories




SUNDAY, DECEMBER 10, 2017
Forn Fall
As usual, Carl and I have spent several weekends this fall investigating various prehistoric (forn, in Swedish) sites in the greater Stockholm area.  These day trips have been combined with mushroom picking—after a very dry winter, spring, and summer, Carl was relieved when it finally started to rain in early autumn and we picked kilos and kilos of mushrooms throughout the fall.

My mom visited us early in the season and we visited Gamla (“Old”) Uppsala, a site with three huge grave mounds (plus hundreds of smaller mounds) from around 500 A.D.  The area was a religious cult center with a very important temple that figures prominently in the region’s pre-Christian lore.
The three "King's Mounds" at Gamla Uppsala
 
One of the explanatory signs in the archeological museum gives an excellent summary of the site in relation to world events:


“The big world events affected Scandinavia.  A new type of rule was formed.  The Kings’ Mounds are a visible result. 
It began with battles at China’s border.  The Chinese Wall kept out the Mongol tribes who instead expanded to the west.  Europe was invaded by these Huns.  The German tribal diaspora began, changing the world.  At the end of the 5th century A.D. the Western Roman Empire fell.  Europe was now ruled by a powerful German elite. 
The leading families of Scandinavia took after the German example.  Warrior and religious ideals became the new trends in Scandinavia.  The Scandinavian society became more hierarchical. 
A time of power struggles between the powerful families began.  The winners built up areas of influence and were tied to specific areas.  To assert their newly won power they had the large, stately mounds built.”

Gamla Uppsala was the seat of one of Scandinavia’s most powerful and influential dynasties, the Ynglingaätten.  Many of Sweden’s early kings were from this family.  
Lots of large burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala.

Just like in Mesoamerica where the Catholic church attempted to erase pagan religion by literally building on top of pagan temple pyramids, the pagan temple at Gamla Uppsala was destroyed by early Christian missionaries and a church was built on the site in the 1000’s.  This would have been one of the earliest churches in the region, and it even became the first archbishopric in Sweden in 1164.  The original stone church was twice as large as the current church; it was diminished when the archbishopric moved a few kilometers south to Uppsala a century later.
Church at Gamla Uppsala.

Even pagan rune stones were “subjugated” at Gamla Uppsala.  This rune stone was removed from the earth, broken into the correct shape, and used as the church’s altar table until it was eventually moved to reinforce the exterior masonry.

Later in the afternoon we drove about three kilometers upstream to Valsgärde, a site with lots of burial mounds clustered on a single low hill rising out of the agrarian landscape.  The site is best known for its fifteen boat burials, where prominent people were placed in boats with a range of rich grave goods including textiles, bows and arrows, swords and shields, helmets, gilded bridles, glass goblets, dice and playing pieces, wooden tool boxes with tools, and kitchen implements.  Even horses, dogs, pigs, cows, and goats were placed in the boat with their master.  The entire thirty-foot long boat was then buried in the ground.  At some of these sites, only women were buried, but at Valsgärde, only men were buried.  Regardless of sex, only one person per generation was honored with a boat burial.  While we did pick a number of mushrooms at Valsgärde, we didn’t take any photos.  
Approach to Valsgärde and the parallel rows of boat burials.

A few weekends later we took the commuter train and a bus up to Gåsborg, a prehistoric hilltop fortress on Lake Mälaren’s shore.  The fortress hasn’t been excavated, but it was probably built somewhere between 500 and 1050 A.D.  This fortress was one of a series of hilltop fortresses built overlooking the sea route between the Baltic and Gamla Uppsala.  In an unsettled time of tribal skirmishes and piracy, these hilltop fortresses were an important warning system protecting the seat of the Ynglinga dynasty and cult temple.
Views from Gåsborg fornborg.

Carl and I have visited a lot of hilltop fortresses in the region, but Gåsborg is one of the most impressive.  Its double ring of stone walls is still easily discernible today.  The impressively high stone walls were probably topped by a wooden palisade.
Crossing through the outer wall, and standing atop the inner wall looking down toward the outer wall and the water beyond.
The interior of the fortress uses a natural depression in the granite outcropping for further protection.
The natural depression in the middle of Gåsborg hilltop fortress.

On our walk to and from the fortress, we collected several kilos of mushrooms.  In addition to the usual suspects we picked two new (to me) varieties, blodriska or saffron milk caps and brunsopp or bay boletes.  That evening we of course enjoyed delicious fried mushroom sandwiches.
blodriska or saffron milk caps and brunsopp or bay boletes

In my post “Celebrating Fall on Gotland” I have already described a weekend filled with prehistoric sightseeing and mushroom picking.  Walking atop Torsburgen’s wall
and picking Trattkantareller or Funnel Chanterelles in the center of the hilltop fortress were highlights of our autumn.
Trattkantareller or Funnel Chanterelles

An October weekend in the city found us at the park on Långholmen where the autumn foliage was magnificent.  No mushrooms or prehistoric sites, though!
Foliage on Långholmen

In mid-October, we were on the way to another hilltop fortress but we missed the bus which only goes once every few hours.  Instead of waiting for the next bus, we took a hike through nearby Gömmaren Nature Reserve.  It was a nice hike with some good fall foliage, but Gömmaren isn’t going to be our new favorite nature reserve.  Not only is it lacking in prehistoric sites, but the forest is very young.  The ecosystem hasn’t recovered after centuries of logging so there were very few mushrooms to be found.  
Foliage at Gömmaren Nature Reserve

Early November found us on Svartlöga with Carl’s aunt, see my post “Island Weekend.”  Svartlöga has popped out of the sea too late for any prehistoric sites, but we sure did gather a lot of mushrooms!
Svartlöga

We finally did make it to the hilltop fortress at Männö in Bornsjön Nature Reserve  that we had been aiming for the weekend we ended up at Gömmaren.  While Männö was historically an island, today there is no open water separating it from the mainland, just a swampy strip of lowland.  Luckily, there is a kilometer long bog bridge crossing the swampy stretch.
Bog bridging on the way to Männö hilltop fortress.

Männö’s hilltop fortress is surrounded on three sides by extremely tall and steep cliffs.  The fourth side was protected by a stone wall.  While the better preserved fortresses have easily identifiable stone walls, they tend to be collapsed, but at Männö, you can still see a bit of the original stacked structure of the stonework.  The remains of several buildings inside the fortress have been excavated, but we couldn’t tell where they were.  We did, however, correctly identify an ancient waterhole that was dug inside the fortress in prehistoric times to store water.
Männö fornborg's wall from the top, and a section of still-stacked stone.

As it was November and well after the first frost, we were surprised to find that there were still a good number of un-frost-damaged mushrooms to be found.  We filled a backpack with more Trattkantareller or Funnel Chanterelles.  Picking the mushrooms was cold business as it was just around freezing and the mushrooms were wet, but it the picking is too delicate work for gloves.

There’s no view today from the top of the fortress, but we did go down to the water’s edge for a chocolate snack.  On the way back to the bus, we trudged through a beautiful, not too wet bog.
Männö

Männö was our last hike of the year, and now we’re hoping for a cold, snowy winter! 

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 07, 2017
Winter Tires
On my run home from work today I noticed that many of the cars passing me had winter tires.  It’s really easy to identify a car with winter tires because the tires make a lot more noise against the pavement than regular tires.  Hearing winter tires in Stockholm is a sure sign that winter is on its way. 

Winter tires are not a choice in Sweden.  Every vehicle out on the road is required by law to have winter tires or studded tires from the first of December to the 31st of March.  Any snowy conditions earlier than December 1st or later than March 31st also require winter tires by law.

Interestingly, winter tires are prohibited by law from April 15th to the first of October.  Reasons for this are two-fold: to save gas and to save wear and tear on the roads.  Since winter tires make cars more inefficient and tear up the roads, prohibiting their use during the summer months is both environmentally friendly and beneficial for the roadworks budget.

Last year, there was an un-forecasted winter storm early in November (see my post Stockholm’s Best November Ever).  The entire city was in chaos, and not only because the snow plow corps was caught unawares.  Because the storm hit almost a month before the required winter tire date at the beginning of December, very few cars or taxis were legally allowed on the roads.  Even the buses were out of commission.  It seems that this year, more people are being on the cautious side and changing their tires early.  

Changing between winter and regular tires twice a year creates quite the business opportunity.  Since apartments are so tight and storage space so minimal in Stockholm, many people rent space at specialized tire storage facilities called, I’m not kidding, Tire Hotels.  Yearly storage of 4 tires costs in the neighborhood of $200, and you have to call ahead when you want to retrieve your tires because they are likely to be stored way in the back out of reach.

It’s illegal to do car maintenance in street parking, and most parking garages also prohibit maintenance activities in their parking space rental contracts.  Thus, most Stockholmers are forced to take their car to the shop to have the tires changed—an expensive affair at about $200.  So in addition to high car taxes, sky-high parking rates, high insurance rates, and bank-breaking gas prices, car owners also spend about $600 per year just to store and change their tires.  Yet another reason I’m glad not to own a car!

Tire hotel photo from:
http://jbverkstan.se/dackhotell/?gclid=CjwKCAiA0IXQBRA2EiwAMODil9Zvt9NCyZN4cQnzMwGhnxO2g5XBRjt_W8F0BfgBdkAD-9Q7lOyLDRoCwGsQAvD_BwE

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 08, 2017
This is my Everyday
I walked home from work the other day, and it was a gorgeous autumn evening.  Walking through my beautiful, scenic city, I was struck (again) by the fact that this beauty is my everyday life.
This is my everyday!  This is my life!

Toward the end of my walk I didn’t want to go inside, so I called Carl and we met at a floating bar a couple blocks from our apartment for sunset drinks.

MONDAY, AUGUST 28, 2017
Foraging: Moose Grass
During high summer hikes in the forests around Stockholm, we frequently get whiffs of . . . almond?  The almond scent is distinct and overwhelming, sometimes you really believe that you’re walking through an almond grove.  But as this is Sweden, and not Greece, you quickly realize that that can’t possibly be the case.  It turns out that älggräs, literally translated as Moose Grass, commonly known in English as Meadowsweet, is the source of the sweet almond scent.

Moose Grass grows in damp, slightly boggy areas, and it grows in profusion.  Where there’s one Moose Grass plant, there’s often a whole field of it.  This proliferation makes foraging Moose Grass easy.  Within ten minutes, we collected enough blossoms and leaves for lots of experimentation.
Part of the loot.  Gordon was also drawn to the almond scent.

We used most of the blossoms to make a concentrated, sweet infusion which is drunk cold like juice.  The recipe we used also called for lemons which give the concoction a decidedly fresh taste, but I think that the almond flavor gets drowned out by the lemon.  The infusion is good, but next year I definitely want to try it without the lemon—I think the almond flavor will be extra palpable and without the lemons, the infusion would be delicious in various creamy desserts.

You can also use the blossoms for hot tea, which we tried.  With a bit of sugar and milk, it was deliciously almondy.  It’s amazing how strong and distinct the almond flavor is.

The leaves and blossoms can even be dried and used later for tea.  I find the dried versions to be slightly almondy, but no where near as strong as with fresh leaves and blossoms.

Picking Moose Grass has been on my to-do list for several years now, but between out of town summer visitors (which we love) and summer vacation (which we also love) and work deadlines right before summer vacation (which we don’t love), we never quite made it.  This year I decided to make foraging Moose Grass our number one foraging priority, and we finally managed to squeeze it in.

SUNDAY, JULY 09, 2017
Foraging: Meadow Flowers
The pinecones weren’t a success, but we had much better luck with meadow flowers.  After eating lunch in a flower-strewn meadow on our weekend jaunt to Bogesundslandet’s Nature Reserve, Carl and I harvested some of the beauty.  The meadow probably had five or ten other flowers that are edible, but since we had left our flora guide at home, we stuck to the easily identifiable primrose and purple clover.

Once at home, we made tea from the blooms.  The primrose tea was fragrant and rosy, but not overwhelmingly so.  A bit of sugar really brought out the perfumey taste.

The purple clover tea tasted like sweet hay.  That might sound like a negative description, but it was quite tasty and was a bit like drinking a nostalgic summer countryside night.

Neither tea was terribly exciting once dried.  The purple clover still tasted like hay, but less strongly and the dried primroses were a bit perfumey, but much blander than the fresh flowers.  It seems that meadow beauty is to be harvested for near-immediate enjoyment.



SATURDAY, JULY 08, 2017
Foraging: Pinecones
This spring, Carl bought a beautiful book on foraging in Sweden, and we’ve been extra inspired to pick new-to-us edible plants.  Unfortunately, our first experiment from the book didn’t turn out so well.  According to the book, young, still green pine cones are delicious and fresh tasting, perfect for eating alone or on salads.  After gathering and boiling them, we were disappointed to find that they were in reality too bitter to eat.  Not only were the pine cones too bitter, but they were just too pine-y—it was like eating Pine-Sol floor cleaner.  Perhaps we picked the pine cones just a little too early or just a little too late, but we are not very encouraged to try again next year.
Boiled and soft, but gross.
 

MONDAY, JUNE 13, 2017
Bike Parking
Stockholm might not be as bike-friendly of a city as, say, Copenhagen.  But compared to San Antonio?  I don’t think I even need to explain.

One of the city’s newest bike-friendly campaigns is to replace a street parking spot on every block or so with much needed bike racks.   But not with just any bike rack, but bike racks in the shape of a car!  Love it!


MONDAY, JUNE 12, 2017
Pre-Historic Spring
It has been a long and drawn out Spring in Stockholm.  When the winter was so warm, folks started optimistically talking about an early spring.  But then the cold weather really descended, and instead of spring, we got this:
As Carl and I waited for the ferry to make its way across the bay and pick us up, we could hear it breaking through the ice from far, far away.  It was so cold that my phone died after taking four photos.

The ice didn’t last for long, and my co-workers were insistently optimistic that spring was on its way.  I insisted on being cautious.  I mean, in mid-march, it’s still two months until the trees even think about getting leaves.  And I should have heeded my own advice.  One weekend in mid-April, the forecast was for relatively warm temperatures and sunshine, so Carl and I didn’t wear our usual long-johns or take extra warm clothes on a day hike at a nature reserve.  Instead of sunshine, however, we got alternating sleet and snow all day long!  It had taken us an hour and half to get to the nature reserve, though, so we just kept hiking.  We enjoyed the hike but were very, very chilly when we finally got home again!

By the spring celebration at Valborg (May 1st, see “Celebrating Spring on Öland”),
I was ready to admit that spring was finally on its way.  After all, the trees were even starting to bud!  Carl and I went out to a nursery, bought tons of plants, and planted our balcony.
But then the next day, we had to bring all of our plants inside because freezing temperatures were in the forecast again.  Even I was shocked when we got a considerable snowfall on May 8th!  Gordon wasn’t fooled, though, he knew precisely what was coming and how to stay cozy.

But things warmed back up again, and we were able to celebrate the Derby with mint juleps on our balcony.  Wearing sweaters, of course!  (As a side note, no one in Sweden really seems to know what the Derby is.  The southerner in me is appalled.)

But now spring really is here.  The trees are green.  Rhododendrons are in full bloom.

I’ve been working a tremendous amount this spring, and it feels like I haven’t been doing much other than work.  But now that I stop and reflect, that’s not quite true.  Aside from all of our spring travels, Carl and I have prioritized getting out into nature on day hikes as much as possible.  And while we’re out there, we’ve been taking a look at quite a few pre-historic sites.  Around Stockholm, it’s not hard to combine a nature hike with stops at various pre-historic sites.  This whole area has been inhabited for thousands of years, and the evidence is still all around, if you pay attention.

Our sleety hike at Angarsjöängen Nature Reserve passed by a Bronze Age rock carving with horses and chariots and ships.
Later on, we climbed up to an undated hilltop fort which could be from anytime from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age to the Iron Age.  It’s not totally obvious if you’re not paying attention, but the defensive wall is still discernable to some extent.  We wandered over several extensive Iron Age burial grounds comprised of small, rounded burial mounds.  And on our way out to the bus, we almost walked right by and missed the most obvious pre-historic sight of the whole hike, a Viking Age rune stone!
Left: Collapsed wall surrounding a hilltop fort.

I’ve already written about the Viking long house foundation we saw on Öland, but I didn’t mention the Iron Age labyrinth that we randomly came across on Fårö (see “Gotland, Sweden's Provence").
Here’s the archeologist’s sketch since it’s so hard to capture labyrinths on film.

In mid-May, we went on another day hike, this time through Hansta Nature Reserve.
Blackthorn berry blossoms
No sooner had we walked a kilometer from the subway than we were confronted with a rune stone!
Just a further bit into the nature reserve, we were walking through a bronze-age cultural landscape.  On the surface the forest looks natural, but a forest of almost exclusively oak and hazelnut trees is hardly natural—it was planted and tended to keep pigs fed in acorns and hazelnuts.  Even stone walls from the Bronze Age are still visible today.  Back then, the walls weren’t meant to keep livestock in pastures.  Instead, the animals were free to roam and the walls were meant to keep livestock out of the small planted fields.
Hazel trees and oak trees on the left, a Bronze Age stone wall on the right.

The trail emerged from the forest onto a Viking Age road through a historical farm landscape.  At another Bronze Age settlement, we hiked around a grave field and past more stone walls.  There was even a large, flat stone with a small, round depression where offerings were made.  The offer stone is from the Bronze Age, but such stones were often continuously used throughout the middle ages despite the onset of Christianity.  This offer stone still seems to be in use today.

Toward the end of our hike, Carl and I were bushwhacking and we came across what we thought was an undiscovered rune stone!  But when we got home and looked it up, we learned that the rune stone had already been documented, and that it was thought to be a fake carved in the 1800’s.

Recently, Carl and I rented a car for the day to see Runriket, or “Rune Kingdom.” It’s not any real kingdom, but the local museum has put together a driving route through the rune-stone densest area in Scandinavia (and in the world as the advertising proudly claims!)  We added a few stops of our own to the itinerary, and over the course of the day, we saw about thirty rune stones.
Lilacs

While rune stones date at least back until around 800 A.D., most of them date to around 1000 A.D. when Sweden was in the process of Christianizing.  Before churches were built and became the obvious symbol of Christianity, rune stones became a popular way to advertise that you were Christian.  Clearly there must have been a big debate in the area just north of Stockholm, “to be Christian or to be pagan,” because a whole lot of people felt the need to broadcast their beliefs in the most public way possible—a big cross on a big standing stone along a public road.

Interestingly, though, the snake/dragon imagery incorporated into nearly every rune stone comes from Swedish mythology.  An interesting mix of the old and the new, carved right at the juncture in time when times were changing.

Rune stones were almost always erected along roads and often proclaim that XX built this road in memory of YY, or that XX owns all the land within eyesight, or that XX erected the stone in memory of YY and may God save his soul, or that XX built this bridge and may God save his soul.  In addition to proclaiming Christianity and honoring departed family members, the stones often have an ulterior motive of defending XX’s right to the land (maybe XX is the son of YY who died, or XX is the widow of YY who died, or maybe YY died leaving no heirs so the land reverted to YY’s cousin.)

In the Viking times, most journeys were made by boat, not overland.  The road network was very local and generally only connected a couple of farms.  But the Christian society was based on going to churches, and in order to get to church, you needed to travel along a road.  Thus, the earliest of Christian soul-saving deeds in Sweden was road and bridge building: through building a road or a bridge, you could save your own soul, or the soul of a loved one.  Of course, a rune stone was erected to notify the passer-by of who built the infrastructure and whose soul was being saved.
Left: Originally three rune stones lined each side of the approach to a bridge.  Right: This rune stone is carved into a creek embankment.

Before stone masons were imported from the continent to build stone churches, Swedes did not have a stone building tradition and they didn’t possess the technology to span with stone.  Thus, bridge building was difficult.  Instead of spanning with stone, local bridge builders used the traditional materials they knew, driving hundreds of wooden piles into the muddy soil in and around streams and swampy areas.  The piles were then covered with wooden boards which were replaced through history as needed.  Many of these bridges survived into modern times and were only replaced in the 50’s.  Amazingly, the thousand-year-old wood piles are still intact.
Left: Originally 300 meters long, this rune stone-lined  “bridge” through a swampy area wasn’t  replaced until the 1950’s.  Right: This rune stone marks the entrance from a road to a lakeside harbor.

This rune stone is the largest known rune stone and more or less proclaims the greatness of the local land owner.
It’s hard to see the whole carving at one time.  The elaborate cross is at the top of the carving.
Just uphill from the largest rune carving is the foundation of a Viking long house (we think).

This rune stone, along a Viking age road that is still in use today, is unusual in that it is two-sided.  Actually, I’m surprised that more rune stones aren’t two-sided since they were frequently erected along roads.

We ventured pretty far off the Runriket path to visit three large burial mounds near Vada Church.  This large of a burial mound is usually associated with the Vendel period before the Viking Age, but according to the sign at the site, these mounds are Viking era.

Back on the Runriket itinerary, this rune stone marks a ting or court.  We don’t know exactly how they were used or what the protocol was, but markets, celebrations, and court hearings were combined into one festive occasion which took place at regular intervals.  The ting or court was a defined area, and we believe that only the judge, who was often the “big farmer” or most powerful person in the area, the accused, and the defendant was allowed into the arena.  Whatever judgement was decreed inside the ting was upheld outside of the ting boundaries.  It is possible that corporal punishment was meted out inside the ting.

Eventually, churches were built and the importance of rune stones faded.  Ironically given that they had been such an obvious Christian symbol, rune stones and rune letters were eventually looked upon as “pagan” as the church sought to squash anything locally unique in an effort to make everyone perfect, uniform Christians.  Like the Spanish using the stones from razed pyramids to build cathedrals in Latin America, so the Germans and English used rune stone fragments as church building material in Sweden.
Täby Church was built in the middle of the 1200’s, but it is best known for its beautifully preserved wall and ceiling frescoes from the 1400’s.

Another stop along Runriket was Vallentuna Church which was built in the late 1100’s.  The church tower was originally built as a defensive tower; it wasn’t until the 1800’s that it began to be used as a bell tower.  Here, the stone mason signed his name into the church’s stones using rune letters.  While the educated quickly switched to the Latin alphabet, peasants and craftsmen stuck with the runic alphabet, in some areas of rural Sweden through the 19th century.
Here, several rune stones have been found in the churchyard walls and as paving stones for the church’s floor.  One of these paving stones is remarkable in that its inscription from the 1100’s is the first known example of a rhyming verse in Swedish.

Now it’s almost Midsummer, and time for new summertime adventures.  And maybe a few more pre-historic sites?  As I wrote a while ago, Carl and I really are Rune Stone Junkies (see below) and we just can’t get enough! 

SUNDAY, JUNE 11, 2017
Join the Military...To Protect Gay Rights!

Can you imagine a day when Uncle Sam will recruit teenagers into the U.S. military in order to specifically help protect gay rights?

The Swedish military has an advertising campaign in the subway, and they’re not trying to entice with a  steady paycheck, a paid college education, or even with big muscles and exciting weapons. 

Instead, the posters read:
“Do you also want to defend extreme values? Many of the freedoms that make Sweden Sweden are seen as extreme in others’ eyes.  For us, they are extremely important to defend.  Apply...”

And
“A country that is easy to defend.  In the military, you stand up for everything that makes Sweden Sweden, here and now.  For example democracy, freedom, and the right to love whom you please.  Read more about a job that is hard, but not hard to defend...”

One more reason to love this country.

SATURDAY, JUNE 10, 2017
Stockholm is Just So Darn Pretty (Reprise)
Even after 5 ½ years, sometimes I still can’t believe that I actually live here!

TUESDAY, MAY 30, 2017
Sunrise Sunset
I just looked at the weather forecast and actually, it’s not the weather that caught my eye, but the fact that the sun rose today at 3:46 a.m.!  And it’s still nearly a month before the summer solstice and the longest day of the year!


MONDAY, MAY 15, 2017
Sweden is Expensive Part VI
I bought two chickens and a bottle of cheap red cooking wine the other day.  The total was about $100.  The chickens were even store brand, the cheapest ones on the shelf.  Of course, they were free-range and organic.  But that’s the only kind available!

FRIDAY, APRIL 21, 2017
Terror in Stockholm
Stockholm and Sweden as a whole has now joined the rest of the “real” world where terrorism is a fact that will forever color daily life.  Last last Friday afternoon, my office was about half full when we first heard about the incident downtown—a delivery truck had been hijacked, driven at breakneck speed down Stockholm’s main pedestrian shopping street killing several people, and crashed into Stockholm’s busiest department store.  I was fascinated to gauge the reactions of my fellow co-workers who were very shaken and devastated that the unthinkable had now happened in their own city.  I, on the other hand, was saddened but not very shocked or unusually distressed.  Carl felt similarly.  It’s sad how accustomed one becomes to such things in the US—for us it was just another “unfortunate event” where “only” four people had died while for most Stockholmers it seems that the event was a major tragic incident that will be talked about and remembered for a generation or more, a bit like JFK or 9-11 in the US.

Carl and I had planned a weekend trip last weekend and had tickets for a train leaving around 5 p.m.  All public transportation was halted by order of the police, so there were no subways, busses, or commuter trains running.  Online, our train was only about 10 minutes delayed, so we walked, rolling our suitcases, from our offices to the train station only to find out that all train traffic in and out of Stockholm had also been cancelled.  The train company was willing to rebook our trip but we wouldn’t have reached our destination till Saturday evening, and considering that we’d be turning around and coming home on Sunday afternoon, we decided to just call off the whole trip and have a quiet weekend at home instead.

On Sunday after the incident, thousands of people gathered downtown to grieve together, and also to demonstrate that Stockholm isn’t about to stop living its life and give in to terror.  We didn’t join in but I was downtown running errands several days later and crowds of people were still actively leaving flowers, notes, teddy bears, and lit candles where the hijacked truck had crashed into the Åhléns department store.  Even the shopping street’s concrete lions, which are placed at intersections to prevent vehicles from entering the pedestrian shopping street, were decorated with garlands and flowers, despite the fact that the lions ultimately didn’t prevent or check the attack.  Seeing this outpouring of grief and sympathy and solidarity made me a little teary.
Hundreds of post-it notes cover the plywood covering where the truck crashed into the department store.  Most of the notes are messages of love and support to the victims' families.  Even the nearby advertising had been changed out with the message that Stockholm is Love.  
Now, two weeks after the attack, life in Stockholm continues.  Life will never be quite the same here, but many of the things that I love about Stockholm and Sweden have only been reinforced.  Tolerance.  Love.  Solidarity.

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 01, 2016
Death and Taxes
They say that there’s nothing you can count on except for death and taxes.  There’s always a lot of talk in the U.S. about the “Death Tax.” Here in Sweden, there really is a death tax, although unlike in the U.S., it is payed by everyone, every year of your working life.  Like Medicare, this death tax isn’t part of your regular income tax, although that’s exactly what it is.  Instead, it’s called a begravningsavgift or a Burial fee.  It’s no set fee but everyone pays the same percentage of their income (although the percentage varies by city).  Last year, I paid 0.11% of my income and a total of about $44 in death taxes.

The burial fee that is added to your taxes every year is like a small pre-payment for your own death and burial costs.  It covers:   
   -transport of corpse from time of death to funeral
   -storage of the corpse until the funeral
   -cremation
   -a locale for a viewing
   -a locale without religious symbols for funeral service
   -gravesite for 25 years (I don’t think you or your survivors get to choose the gravesite, and getting buried
     in a “fancy” area of a cemetery is definitely extra)
   -digging of grave, burial, filling of the grave, and putting the gravesite in order after the burial
   -general maintenance of graveyards

The tax does not cover:
   -coffins
   -gravestones
   -maintenance of the individual’s gravesite
   -religious funeral services (although if you are a member of the Church of Sweden and pay the church tax,
    your religious funeral service is free)
   -ceremonial pallbearers 

I find this last stipulation a bit funny.  If regulations specify that pallbearers are not included, why not specify that professional wailers are not provided, either?

Interestingly, while the tax does specifically cover cremation, there is no mention of embalmnment.  I am assuming that embalmnment is extra.  And an urn, is that included in the cremation?

I am curious to what extent the inclusion of cremation has affected the Swedish individual’s choice to be cremated instead of embalmed.  If 9 of 10 Stockholmers choose to be cremated today, how many of those 9 would actually have chosen embalmnment if it didn’t cost extra?

As usual with taxes, the line of what is and is not covered by Sweden’s death tax is a bit random.  But while certain costs like a gravestone are still a burden on the survivors, it seems that the bulk of funeral costs are covered by taxes instead of landing in the laps of the already overwhelmed bereaved.

My information on what is and is not covered came from:



THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 17, 2016
Radiator Love

Our cat Gordon has discovered the joy of radiators, and he has practically abandoned our laps for them.  If he’s not warming his paws on the dining room radiator, he’s snoozing on top of the living room radiator.  This is particularly cute because the radiator’s only about 4 inches wide, so he oozes over both sides, kind of like he’s straddling a horse.  Despite the narrow fit he manages to sleep for hours without falling off.

WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 16, 2016
Swedish Commencement

A couple of weeks ago, Carl and I went to a friend’s commencement ceremony.  It’s the kind of thing that you end up doing within an expatriate community—being stand-ins for the best friends and family relations that live too far away to make it to such events.

The commencement ceremony was for all the master’s programs at Stockholm University.  My friend was getting her second masters in education because as an immigrant teacher in Sweden, your teaching degree from your home country doesn’t make you eligible to be a teacher in Sweden.  Thank goodness I didn’t have to redo my masters of architecture in order to be recognized as an architect here!  (Although a short program focusing on the practice of architecture might not have been terrible considering how different the architecture and construction industries are here—my first year practicing architecture in Sweden was a little rough to say the least!)

Other disciplines participating in the graduation ceremony ranged from mathematics to law to the social sciences.  Interestingly, about half of the students did not have Swedish names.

The basics of the commencement ceremony weren’t unfamiliar to me—lots of officialdom, droning speeches, lots of names called out as graduates cross the stage and receive their diplomas, and lots of polite clapping.  But there were several fundamental differences compared with American graduation ceremonies.

First of all, the ceremony was in October despite the fact that my friend had actually graduated in the spring.  It seems pretty anti-climatic but efficient since the university gathers up as many graduates as possible into its one yearly ceremony.

Secondly, the graduates wore regular “nice” clothes but no robes, and no mortar boards or tassels.  The feeling of a sea of graduates was completely absent, and the ceremony seemed so informal without the robes and hats which impart a certain gravity to the occasion.  As the graduates weren’t wearing tassels, there was no one special moment when the group had officially graduated and switched the tassels to the other side.

Like American graduations, the students were grouped by discipline, but here in Sweden there was a somewhat amusing touch as the various groups were led up on stage and back to their seats by escorts, all of whom were young women wearing sashes as if it were a beauty pageant and not a university graduation.  After a student’s moment in the spotlight was over and they had received their diploma and shaken the dean’s hand, they all remained on stage.  After everyone in the group had received their diploma, the group, ushered by the escorts, walked up to the front of the stage to receive the audience’s applause.  They held their diplomas up in front of them so that everyone could see the proof of their graduation.  Then they were then escorted back to their seats by their beauty pageant usher.   
     
Each discipline at the university has its own herald tune, and the small orchestra played each piece before each group was ushered onto the stage.  An a Capella group provided a mid-graduation break and sang a few ditties.  Otherwise, there was no music, and disappointingly no “Pomp and Circumstance.”

After the ceremony, there was an understated celebration for the graduates and their guests with a swing band, champagne, and finger sandwiches.  I should have had a second glass of champagne considering that my tax dollars paid for it!  (As I’ve mentioned before, university is free in Sweden.)

Another difference was that the students receive their actual diploma instead of a placeholder.  You just have to be careful not to spill champagne on it...

I was happy for my friend and it was fun to celebrate with her, but I couldn’t help missing the literal and figural pomp and circumstance of American ceremonies.  Without the music and without the robes, mortar boards, and tassels, it didn’t really feel like a graduation.  
Archi-dork at work: the auditorium was quite beautiful.