Little Life Stories



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.

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2016
Stockholm's Best November Ever

As long as I have lived here, Novembers in Stockholm are drearier than dreary.  Cold, grey, rainy, dark, muddy—totally uninspiring for any outdoor activity.  But so far, this has turned out to be Stockholm’s best November ever. 

It started with a beautiful dusting of snow that took us by surprise one morning.
That quickly melted away, but just a couple of days later, Stockholm got a real snowfall of about 4 or 5 inches.  It really was crazy early for such a solid snow (at least in my experience); the colorful fall leaves hadn’t even fallen off the trees yet.  The timing of the snow was perfect for daylight weekend enjoyment, and Carl and I took a lovely walk through the snowy city.

Just a couple of days later, Carl’s parents were talking about a coming snow storm.  I really didn’t think it was going to amount to much—a blizzard in Stockholm’s dreary November?  I wish!  But they were right and it started snowing on cue.  And continued snowing.  And snowing.  By the next morning there was already almost a foot of snow.
On my way to work...
And it continued snowing literally all day long, at blizzard proportions.  I hadn’t experienced anything like it in Stockholm before.
Leaving my office at the end of the day.

After about 24 hours of blizzard, the skies cleared and the evening city was practically silent, nearly at a standstill due to all the early, sudden snow.  What little noise there was was hushed by the fluffy snow.  Leaving my office, there were mounds of fluffy white everywhere.
The snow was so fluffy and so mounded that it looked like a giant jar of marshmallow fluff had exploded over the city.  Amazingly, all of the fall foliage disappeared overnight, apparently magically evaporated by the snowfall.
One of my neighbors was very nice to shovel paths in our courtyard, but the bikes definitely look snowed in!

All in all, it snowed about two feet, but it already started melting the next day.
All over the city, crews were hard at work shoveling the heavy snow off roofs.  Dangerous to be a pedestrian!

Luckily, though, it didn’t melt toooo quickly and there was still enough snow by the weekend for our best day of cross country skiing ever.
Carl and I made our way 20 minutes south of the city to a new-to-us nature reserve with prepared cross country ski trails, and the conditions were absolutely perfect.  The sky was cloudless and blue, the temperatures moderate, the air completely still.  The snow glistened in the sun, and we had the perfect combination of glide and resistance under our skis.  Despite being relatively out of shape and most definitely out of skiing shape, we glided along the meadows at a relatively quick pace (for us) and even, gasp, passed a few people.  The skiing was so perfect and the day so beautiful and the experience so perfect that we kept skiing and skiing and skiing.  Despite being already sore after the first lap, we couldn’t help but continue, and we skied two additional laps before heading back to the commuter train.
icy lake

The skiing had been SO GOOD that we were very gung-ho about going back and skiing some more the next day, but when we woke up, we were so sore and tired that we could hardly walk.  So instead of skiing, we decided to return to the nature reserve and hike some of the well tramped down paths we had noticed while skiing.

It turns out that the extent of packed trails was actually a bit limited, so after a few kilometers of very beautiful and relatively easy trails, the walking became considerably more difficult.  Soon enough we were walking through so much snow that snow shoes really would have been in order.  The walking was quite a workout, but the snowy forest and snow-laden trees were so beautiful and peaceful that we didn’t really mind all that hard work.

Eventually, we stopped in the middle of a trail, packed down the snow, laid out a picnic blanket, and then proceeded to have a lovely, if somewhat chilly, picnic.  We probably looked pretty ridiculous sitting in the middle of the snowy trail on a picnic blanket as if we were at the beach, but no one came by to laugh at us.

It’s now Tuesday, and it has been drizzling on and off most of the day.  The snow is quickly melting away, and I doubt that there will even be a hint of snow left by the weekend.  Temperatures are supposed to rise to the mid-40’s by Friday. 

Stockholm’s usual dreary November seems to be setting in, but at least it’ll only last two weeks this year instead of the usual four!
Thanksgiving celebration flowers

FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 04, 2016
All for the Environment
A couple of evenings ago, I fell in love all over again with Sweden, and with Swedes.  It was a dark and stormy night.  It had been raining steadily all day, and the streets and sidewalks were one big messy puddle.  It was just a degree or two above freezing, and the steady, freezing wind was blowing the rain sideways.  It had been dark for hours, and it was so cozy in our softly lit apartment.  I didn’t want to go out in that weather, but I did anyway.  My destination: the garbage truck.

Household garbage is collected twice a week from my building’s garbage room, but everyone knows that “dangerous garbage” is NOT to be thrown into the regular household garbage bins.  Anything that contains harmful chemicals from light bulbs to batteries to electronics to paint cans to aerosol spray cans is to be taken to “dangerous garbage” centers.  For those of us without a car, it’s not so convenient to get to these suburban garbage centers, so the city drives collection trucks, stopping for 45 minutes in various neighborhoods along the way.  The dangerous garbage truck makes an appearance near my block about once a month, so we have to store anything chemically until the next time the truck comes around.    

We had been pretty bad about actually getting our stuff to the truck and had collected quite a pile.  Since we’re hosting Thanksgiving dinner this coming weekend, we’ve been in clear and clean mode all week, so it was more than time to get the pile off our kitchen floor and to the garbage truck.  On my way to the collection point, as my umbrella was repeatedly blown inside out by the wind, and as my feet got wetter and wetter from all the unavoidable puddles, I wondered if the garbage truck would even show up in such weather.

But when I turned the corner, lo and behold, not only was the truck in place, but there was even a line of people waiting to hand off their dangerous garbage.  There they were, waiting patiently in the wind and rain and nearly freezing temperatures to properly dispose of their chemicals.  If there ever was a sign of the everyday Swede’s dedication to a clean environment, this was it.  All for the environment, indeed.

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 29, 2016
Evidence of Fall from our Balcony
Stockholm’s trees are starting to get a tinge of yellow, but the Virginia Creeper on our neighbor’s roof is beautifully scarlet.  I’m not sure that the vine is good for the chimney or for the roof, but it sure is pretty!

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2016
Our Stuff has Arrived!
Gordon's enjoying his new jungle gym
The shipment of our belongings from our storage unit in San Antonio to our apartment in Stockholm has arrived!  The apartment is absolute chaos while we unpack, and the pile of packing materials in our hallway was getting a bit scary before the movers came back to collect all our moving trash (this was definitely the best part of the door-to-door international moving service!).  So far we have the kitchen in relative working order, but the rest of the apartment is still littered with piles of stuff.

It has been fun to see our belongings again, and even better yet to start using them!  So far, we have not found a single thing broken thing (knock on wood!) , and we have unpacked copious quantities of glassware, china, and other fragile things.  I’m really quite surprised and relieved since we haven’t been super impressed with the care and consideration that the movers in San Antonio or in Stockholm have showed.

Part of what is taking so long to get the apartment organized is that so many things require adaptation.  Carl spent an evening rewiring five lamps to have European plugs, and we spent several evenings figuring out how to make an American bedframe work for a Swedish mattress.  The bedframe was too small in both directions, so it was a bit of a puzzle to make it work, but now we have slept on it for several nights without collapsing onto the floor.  The jerry-rigged side rails get covered over by the bed skirt so they’re not too much of an eyesore.

It’s getting a bit old living in such chaos, but it’s going to take quite a bit more time before we have everything on our list accomplished.  We have somewhat of a deadline in early November since we’re hosting Thanksgiving this year, but hopefully our guests will understand since the apartment’s bound to be only half-organized by then. 

TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 27, 2016
Stockholm is Expensive Part V
I just spent about $50 at the hardware store buying 12 small steel angles.  Ouch.  And I don't even have a use for the screws that were included!

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 10, 2016
Fifth Stockholm-aversary
View from my run home the other day
I have now lived in Stockholm for five years and three days.  I just love it.  I’ve found my home, and I hope that I never have to move away.  I’m always eager for a trip but in the end, I love coming home to Stockholm.

We just got home from our first real trip back to the US since we moved here (we had been back for a very rushed week for a wedding just a few months after we moved here, and I did have a 24 hour layover in New York on my way home from Mexico last summer).  This time we were in the US for three weeks and had time to take stock of our surroundings.  It was wonderful to see my mom and to visit with friends, but the trip really cemented for me how much I DO NOT want to live there anymore and how much I really DO love life in Stockholm.

Besides my friends, there’s really very little of real value that I miss in the US.  But here’s a list of the five things that I miss the most:

Fitted sheets:  Although fitted sheets have recently made an appearance at IKEA, most Swedish top mattresses are too thin and floppy to work with fitted sheets.  Instead, common practice is to use a flat sheet and to wrap it under the top mattress.  This means that your bottom sheet is always wrinkly and never fully stretched tight.

Rich, flavorful ice cream:  Swedish ice cream is decent, but it’s just too lagom (moderate).  The flavors aren’t very strong and the texture isn’t as rich and creamy as American ice cream.  While Swedish ice cream may have one add-in like pecans, there’s not a single overboard flavor with multiple fun ingredients.  I do miss my ice cream with fudge swirls and peanut butter cups!  We do frequently buy vanilla to accompany fruit pies but we have given up on other flavors.

Large, independent book stores:
  I have found one independent bookstore here, and it’s even an English bookstore, but the selection is very limited (they don’t carry Pat Conroy, for example).  I really miss browsing.  Goodreads and Amazon are great tools, but they aren’t an experience.

REI:  Stockholm has a couple of so-so outdoors stores, but they’re nothing like REI when it comes to selection, service, and staff competence.

Ease of friendship:  This is the one serious topic in my list.  Quite simply, I find making friends hard in Stockholm.  I have found a few lovely friends, and I’m truly grateful for them, but making friends is much harder here than it ever was for me in the States.   


And here’s a list of five things that I really DO NOT miss from the US:

Loud, blaring music and TVs:  Life is so much quieter here in Sweden.  There are no blaring TVs in airport waiting lounges.  Cafés generally have soft music at a volume which allows for contemplation, conversation, or reading.  Stores do not blare music out onto the sidewalk.  There is no elevator music.  I never even realized how wonderfully quiet Sweden is until these loud and jarring three weeks in the US.

Billboards and excessive signage:  In Sweden, business establishments generally have one modest road sign with arrow.  Is more really necessary?
 Driving and car dependence:  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good road trip, especially if it passes by something like the world’s largest roadrunner, but I do not enjoy driving on a daily basis.  Nor do I enjoy the ugly, car-centric environment prevailing in much of the US.  I love my new life of walking and easy, reliable public transportation.  I love living in a city that was designed for and that still prioritizes pedestrians over cars.  

The American Dream (and all the political crap that goes with it):  I love living in a society that fundamentally cares about and takes care of its citizens.  Excellent, public health care, free university, and basically free pre-school are all instances of a society that prioritizes its people over its capitalism.

Junk in food:  I’m not talking about junk food; Sweden has its share of junky fast food chains.  I’m talking about junk IN food.  When you buy bread in Sweden, it actually contains things like wheat, and does not contain things like random, over-processed soybean leftovers.  Beef contains beef, and no antibiotics, flavor enhancers, or weird preservatives.  There are basically no such things as granola bars or flavored oatmeal packets, meaning that ingredients lists are generally readable and comprehensible to non-chemists.  As long as you stay out of fast food joints, you know that what you eat in Sweden is made of real, not-too-processed ingredients.    

I really can’t believe that five years have passed since we moved here.  Time has raced by and we are having so much fun here!  I still feel like a Stockholm newbie and have so much more to explore and discover.  The more we see, the longer our to-see list gets. 

TUESDAY, JULY 12, 2016
Sweden: Land of One Hundred Thousand Lakes
 
I grew up in Georgia and then spent a good bit of my adult life in Texas, both well south of the last ice age’s glacial reach.  Yesterday's lack of glaciers resulted in today’s lack of natural lakes.  Neither Georgia nor Texas has a single natural lake.

And then I moved to Sweden, which, according to SMHI, Sweden’s weather service, has about 100,000 lakes that are larger than a football field.  These lakes cover 9% of the country’s landmass.  Apparently, no one has taken the time to count the smaller tarns and lakes, but there are an estimated 420,000 of these.  Small and large lakes combined, Sweden has more than half a million lakes!  This results in a slightly more watery landscape and an entirely different culture that either Georgia or Texas where the focus is instead on rivers and creeks.

I was contemplating all this last weekend when Carl and I were basking in the sun after a swim in one of Sweden’s lakes.  Going for a swim in a lake was Carl’s birthday wish, and it wasn’t hard to fulfill considering that we had half a million to choose from.  We took one of Stockholm’s commuter trains to the last stop, walked on a trail for 30 minutes, and then plunked down on a glacier-smoothed rock beside a glacier-formed lake.  After two months of unusually warm weather, jumping in was refreshing but not shocking.   

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 22, 2016
Goodbye 1950's, Hello 1880's!
Our first celebratory dinner in our new apartment.
We have moved!  The move went really smoothly and now we are in the process of unpacking and getting to know our new neighborhood and all of the local cafes, bars, restaurants, grocery stores, and boutiques.  We are surrounded by so many interesting spots that it’s going to take us a while to try them all!
Hello 1880's! The facade of our new building.

Our old apartment is now sold and handed off to the new owners.  The selling process went well, and incredibly quickly.  We signed the papers on our new apartment on a Friday, met with a real estate agent the following Monday, three days later the photographer came to take photos of our apartment, the online ad went live on Friday, and the 45 minute open house was a week later, on Sunday.  Three days later, on Wednesday, we had sold the apartment!  From meeting with the real estate agent to signing the contract, the process only took 17 days.
1950's details from our old apartment: the front door handle and the closet door locks.  Lots of teak!

There were only six parties that visited our open house, which was far fewer than we had expected.  Carl and I were quite nervous that there weren’t going to be enough interested parties to drive up the price to our expected level, but all it really takes is two really interested parties.  There were three bidders on our apartment, and the price was raised to exactly our expected level.  Phew!
Our old apartment building's front door with awesome trapezoidal teak with inlayed steel handle, and the door between the apartment lobby and stairwell with amazing 50's heptagonal shapes.

Our renovation in combination with Stockholm’s crazy real estate market meant that after 4 years, our apartment went up 78%.  That is just crazy.  But we’re not complaining!

While I didn’t love living in the suburbs, I did like our apartment—it was comfortable and customized exactly to our needs and desires.  Unlike most architects, I’m not the hugest fan of mid-century modern design, but I did appreciate several of the 1950’s details in our building.
Granite in our old apartment building--on the wall of the lobby, on the floors in the public spaces, and on the staircases.

I am much more a fan of our new building, which is from 1884.  Our apartment has only a few details remaining from that time period, but they add so much patina and character to our dwelling.  My favorite detail is the deep window niches.
Gordon loves our wide, sunny window niches as much as I do!

The building’s facade and public spaces are rich in period details, and I find such joy in entering our grand entrance hall.  I’ve always been a homebody, but these days coming home is extra delightful.
Our new building's entrance hall looking toward the street and toward the courtyard.  I love that you can see in to our lovely green courtyard from the street.

The main building is a bit fancier than our building since the courtyard buildings were often used to house servants or other working class people while the wealthier class lived in the building facing the street.
Elevator and stairwell in the main building.
Our stairwell isn’t quite as grand as the main building’s, but I do love the deep balconies that punctuate the facade at every half floor.  Before the advent of electricity these openings allowed daylight into the stairwells.


The verdant courtyard also adds to our delight in our new apartment.  A couple of residents have green thumbs and a good bit of extra time, and they do a beautiful job of keeping the garden lush and leafy and blooming.  Walking through the courtyard on the way up to our apartment is such a calming contrast to the busy city right out the front door.
The courtyard is enclosed on one side by a small "baking cottage;" it was common in the olden days that all baking was done in a separate building, probably to reduce risk of fire.
Our balcony looks down into this oasis (and into the leafy courtyard next door) and Carl and Gordon and I have been spending quite a bit of time enjoying the sun and the greenery.
Garden view from our balcony.

MONDAY, MAY 23, 2016
Bomb Shelter Storage

I’ve been meaning to write about this topic for three years now, but we’ve always had too much stuff in our apartment storage unit for me to be able to take photos of it.  But now that we’ve had to clear out the unit for our move, I decided that late was better than never.

The apartment building was built in the 50’s at the height of the cold war terror.  The US was certainly paranoid about atomic bomb and missile attacks from the USSR—just imagine how paranoid Americans would have been if the US had been sitting just one little country away from the communists, and I think you’ll get a fairly good idea of how the Swedes felt during that period.  During the 50’s, just about every new building, public and private alike, was built with a bomb shelter in the basement.  
Our apartment building's front door with bomb shelter sign.

Many of the school renovation projects I have worked on have had bomb shelters, and through these projects I learned that Sweden still actively maintains all of these shelters.  Part of the renovation funds went to a bomb shelter assessment, testing of the equipment, and renovation.  Not only are the bomb shelters maintained, but they are also routinely resupplied with new stores of food, water, flashlights, batteries, etc—enough for several hundred people to survive for a few days through the worst of the radiation aftermath from an atomic bomb.  Generally, the shelters are allowed to be used as basement storage as long as everything can be removed and the bomb shelter reinstated within 48 hours.

I also learned that somewhere around 2010, Sweden started allowing buildings to decommission their bomb shelters.  The downside to decommissioning is that the building lost a significant tax break, but the upside was gaining more useable space as well as not having to maintain the bomb shelters’ complex ventilation systems.  However, when Russia started acting out in the Ukraine and accidentally beaching submarines in Swedish waters a couple of years ago, the government put a moratorium on decommissioning and now buildings are required to maintain their bomb shelters again, as if it were still the 1960’s.

Our apartment building has two separate shelters, each large enough to house about 200 people.  They are down in the second basement, two levels underground.  
Basement corridor leading to bomb shelter/storage room
To get into them, you have to go through two separate sealing doors which look a lot like submarine doors from a 1950’s movie.  
Inside, they are split up into a warren of smaller rooms connected by maze-like corridors.  Just like the schools, our bomb shelters are used as storage, and each apartment is assigned its own small storage room which is enclosed by an easily removable wooden cage.  The bigger the apartment, the bigger the storage room, which is a bit counter-intuitive if you ask me!  Being the smallest type of apartment in our building, our storage unit was about 4 feet wide and 8 feet deep.  However, we got the raw end of the deal because a large portion of our foot print was taken up by a piece of archaic (but still maintained!) air exchange equipment.  
Corridor leading to our storage unit, and the inside of our storage unit with air exchange equipment.

The basement storage is a bit too musty for most things, but we still managed to fill it up with bags of dirt from our balcony planters, balcony furniture and pots during the winter, skis, sleds, charcoal, the cat carrier, suitcases, etc etc etc.

In addition to a private storage unit, most apartment buildings also have both a bicycle (in the first basement) and a baby carriage storage room (right by the front door).  Our bicycle room is unusually generous and even has space to store sleds!

TUESDAY, MAY 17, 2016
Gordon's Ready!
Moving Day is on Friday, and Gordon is ready!  Carl and I still have some last minute things to pack up, but we’re nearing packing completion.  Gordon just wants to make sure he gets to move, too!

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 20, 2016
47 Degrees and Ice Cream Weather
I’ve wrote before about how Stockholm completely changes character when the weather turns.  In winter, people tend to stay home, hunker down, and hibernate as best they can.  But as soon as spring arrives, the entire city begins to live as much of life as possible outside, and out on the town.  Suddenly the parks and sidewalk cafes and squares are teeming with people, all with their faces turned to the sun.  

This year the change has been extra sudden and noticeable because we have had two nearly perfect weeks in a row with deep blue skies, warming sun, and little to no wind.  Crocuses and daffodils are in full bloom along with hundreds of wood anemones.  

I am particularly amused by the sudden abrupt switch this year because all of the sudden, everyone seems to think that it is ice cream weather.  The high temperatures are only 45 or 47 degrees, but the corner store near work is having a half-off ice cream week, and nearly everyone I see, from kids to office workers to the elderly,  is out enjoying their first ice cream of the season. 

Our office has a tradition on Friday afternoons of having a sweet treat to accompany our coffee, and last Friday our receptionist went around and took everyone’s ice cream order.  She returned to the office with individual (half-off!) ice creams for everybody.

A few years ago, I would not have considered 47 degrees to be sit-in-the-sun-and-eat-ice-cream weather.  But now I’m enjoying my first ice cream of the season right alongside the natives.    

WEDNESDAY, APRIL 13, 2016
We Bought a New (Old) Apartment!
So much has been going on in the last six weeks that I am waaayyyy behind on my blog.  Besides lots of travel, the main thing that has been keeping us busy is the fact that we finally bought a new apartment!!!!  We are deliriously excited!  As you can probably tell from my posts over the past year, this real estate business has been causing a lot of existential angst in our household for a while now, and it feels good to have finally made a decision and then act on it!

The apartment is two blocks off Fredhemsplan on the island of Kungsholmen in central Stockholm.  That sentence alone gives away several of the reasons that we’re so excited about the apartment: at Fredhemsplan, two of Stockholm’s subway lines cross, giving us immediate access to most of Stockholm.  Not only that, but three out of four of Stockholm’s trunk bus lines pass by, giving us access to most of central Stockholm every two minutes.  Fredhemsplan is just two stops from the central station, and the apartment is in the central and urban part of Stockholm with dozens of grocery stores, cafes, bars, restaurants, and boutiques as well as two libraries and just about every service amenity that you can think of within a couple of blocks.  And, I am just in love with the fact that we’ll be living on an island.  Tee hee!

Not only are we moving to an island, but I will be able to commute to work by boat!  The boat’s not the fastest method to get between the islands of Kungsholmen and Södermalm, but it sure is the prettiest.  I am also looking forward to lots of evening walks by the water--our new apartment is only 3 blocks from the canal separating the island of Kungsholmen from the mainland.

Our building was built in 1884, which is actually a bit of a mystery because most of this area wasn’t developed until 20-odd years later.  Something fun for me to research!  The facade of the main buildign is relatively opulent with its Italianate ornamentation and protruding central bay.  Our apartment isn’t in the main building, but is at the back of the courtyard in what was likely the servants’ dwelling.  Today, these courtyard buildings are considered equally as attractive as the main buildings because they are much quieter than the main building and because you have a lot more privacy; the downside to the courtyard buildings is that the apartments often get a bit less daylight than the street apartments.
From the street, you walk through this entry hall and out into the courtyard.  Our apartment is in the building to the left in the courtyard picture.

All but one of our windows face due south, though, so I am pretty sure that we’ll get plenty of light.  Even our balcony faces due south, although it is probably somewhat shaded by the tree that is right outside.
Our balcony looks out onto the courtyard and to the main building beyond.

On the interior, there are only a couple of clues to the building’s age: deep window niches and the rounded stairwell wall in the shower.  Otherwise, the apartment has been recently renovated and a new oak-plank floor has even been laid over the original pine floors.  We weren’t really looking for such a modern-feeling apartment, but we fell in love with this apartment anyway, I think because it is so comfortable feeling.  It’s not a fancy or showy apartment, but we felt at home the minute we walked in the door.
French balcony in the living room, shower stall.

At 840 square feet, the new apartment is significantly bigger than our current apartment which is 581 square feet.  In Sweden’s real estate language, our current apartment is two rooms and a kitchen; our new apartment is three rooms and a kitchen (a living room, a bedroom, an office/library/second bedroom, and a kitchen).  We are looking forward to having a bit more space, both so that we can bring over our things from our San Antonio storage unit and so that we’ll have a more comfortable set-up for guests.  So come visit us!
Vardagsrum = Living Room.  Kök = kitchen.  Sovrum = Bedroom.

The kitchen isn’t huge, but it is functional and it does have an amazing wall of storage that will come in handy for more than just kitchen gadgets.  I really like the layout because the kitchen is open to the dining area and the living room without the mess of the kitchen being visible from these spaces.  I think the apartment layout is perfect—social without being toooo open.
The dining area connects the kitchen and the living room.

Our new living room is relatively small, but it’s big enough for a couch and a couple of arm chairs, which is all that a living room really needs.  There is a huge, five-foot wide sliding door between the living room and the office/library/second bedroom (kid’s bedroom in the real estate photos), so the rooms can feel connected or separated, depending on the needs of the day.
The extra room and the living room can be separated by a huge sliding door.

The bedroom is tucked away in a private corner of the apartment, although guests are sure to traipse through it to get to the balcony.  The WC is separate from the shower—my American friends seem to think this is strange but I actually think this makes a lot of sense and will make for more efficient mornings when both Carl and I are trying to get ready at the same time.
Think we'll be painting that wallpaper in the bedroom...

One of the best parts about this apartment: It has a washer and a dryer!!!  For so many reasons, I am so, so sick of using our building’s common laundry rooms, and I can’t wait to be able to do laundry on demand!  No more having to leave work early in order to do laundry!

The new apartment is insanely expensive; I never, ever thought I’d spend so much on real estate in my whole life.  Luckily, we’ve made a good profit on our current apartment and the new payments shouldn’t be toooo painful.  It feels worth it to get to live in the city.  When I dreamed about living in Stockholm, my dream didn’t really encompass living in the suburbs.  But now, after four and a half years in the ‘burbs, my Stockholm dream is really coming true!

(All of the above photos came from the real estate agent's website.)

MONDAY, FEBRUARY 29, 2016
The Amazing Incredible Lack of Weekend Traffic
Carl and I recently went on our second weekend road trip from Stockholm (see Going to Winter), and both times we have been pleasantly surprised by the amazing and incredible lack of weekend traffic.  I grew up in Atlanta, and Carl spent 8 years in Seattle, and we both have nightmarish memories from college of trying to get out of town for weekend adventures.  Getting out of greater Atlanta on a Friday afternoon literally takes several hours, and getting back into town on Sunday evenings can mean sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours.  I remember purposely starting the trip home after weekend hiking trips in the north Georgia mountains after 9 p.m. so as to avoid the weekend traffic.

Stockholm is an entirely different case.  I am guessing that there is more traffic on summer holiday weekends, but at other times of year, leaving town on a Friday evening and coming home on a Sunday evening is a trouble-free piece of cake.  This last weekend, coming home from Orsa, traffic didn’t even slow down below the speed limit!

This amazing and incredible lack of weekend traffic is just one more thing that I love about Stockholm—as much as I love the city itself, I also love how easy it is to get out of town.

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 07, 2016
What is Charm Worth?
Charming, not charming.
In my post “Real Estate Ridiculousness” from a few months ago, I wrote about how crazy the real estate market is in Stockholm these days.  Carl and I have been hoping for a major crash, but it doesn’t look like we’re likely to get our wish.  Prices for apartments in Stockholm went up an average of 17% last year alone, and prices continue to rise this year, and no one is forecasting a major shift due to continued low interest rates and the continuing housing shortage in Stockholm.  We continue to stalk the real estate website almost daily, and we have even unsuccessfully bid on a couple of apartments recently.  We are simply not willing to pay the going rate, but we keep (unrealistically) hoping that the deal of the century is going to pop up without anyone else noticing.

As we have honed our must-have and nice-to-have lists, we have realized that we are looking for exactly the same thing as most other Stockholmers.  It’s not so surprising that a central location with convenient access to the subway is a high priority for everyone, but I’ve been somewhat surprised how closely our definition of “charming” aligns with everyone else’s, as evidenced by a clear demarcation in price between what I deem “charming” and “functional” apartments.

By charming, I, and most other Stockholmers mean: A building from 1925 or earlier, creaky hardwood floors, high ceilings, deep window niches, a functional fireplace or tile stove, and possibly even plaster ceiling mouldings and wood paneling.  To be truly charming, an apartment must be surrounded by similarly charming buildings and have no modern or even modern-ish buildings within its immediate view.

The difference between a centrally-located but non-charming apartment in a non-charming location (but within a couple of blocks of a charming area) vs. a charming apartment in a charming location is about $180,000.  Adding in a charming location to the non-charming apartment makes the difference about $100,000.  Another way to phrase this is that an apartment from the 1960’s and the next-door apartment from the 1920’s has a price difference of about $100,000-$150,000.  Original hardwood floors and deep window niches are very, very expensive!
The living room on the left is easily worth $100,000 more than the living room on the right.
      
It’s not too surprising that Stockholm is outlandishly more expensive than a small town in middle-of-nowhere Sweden, but the real estate statistics from 2015 are even more crazy than I imagined: An apartment in Stockholm is 20 times more expensive per square meter than an apartment in a small town, and a house in the suburbs of Stockholm is 24 times more expensive than a house in a small town.

SUNDAY, JANUARY 17, 2016
Squeak!
I’ve learned a lot about snow since moving to Scandinavia, and one of the things I’ve learned is that snow squeaks when you walk on it and it is really cold out.  And the squeak gets higher pitched the colder it gets.  These past few days, temperatures have been hovering around 1 degree F, and the snow is squeaking at a crystal-shattering soprano pitch.

This cold snap hasn’t kept us indoors, however.  We’ve been out and about cross country skiing, long distance ice skating, walking around the city, and generally enjoying the crisp, clear, sunny days.  Hooray that winter has finally arrived!


WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 09, 2015
Constant Temperature
It’s another warm December in Stockholm.  In fact, this Sunday it was warmer than it was on Midsummer’s Day in late June.  Temperatures are rarely extreme in Stockholm since our weather is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream and mediated by all the surrounding water, but I’m pretty sure that this year has been even more level than usual.  Carl and I are continuing to joke that we didn’t move far enough north!

WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 07, 2015
Losing my Language
The longer I live in Stockholm, and the longer I communicate in Swedish every day at work, the more I lose my native English.  Words disappear frighteningly quickly, and even common expressions get replaced by bad translations of the Swedish equivalent.  Prepositions which accompany just about any phrase get exchanged for the Swedish preposition.  I am most worried about my professional vocabulary which is getting harder and harder to recall when someone at work asks me to translate a technical term.  Just about every one of my verbal English sentences contains the word “thingy” and when writing in English, I find myself looking up the Swedish word in the dictionary in order to remind myself of what the word is called in English.

It’s tragic.  I’ll never completely lose my English, but my fluency and ease are noticeably diminishing. 

But I keep writing my blog as much as I can, which isn’t often enough.  About 50% of the books I read are still in English, and I peruse the New York Times and several English-language blogs.  At first I felt lazy that Carl and I speak English at home because I felt like I should practice my Swedish as much as I possibly could.  But now I’m thankful that part of my life is still in my native language, and that I have the chance to exercise that side of my brain every day.

On another note, I could never be a simultaneous translator.  Learning a new language has definitely given me a new respect for those who have the talent for simultaneous translation.  My mind is definitely a one-language-track mind, and I find it extremely difficult to switch tracks.  Once I’m in Swedish mode, I tend to unconsciously use Swedish to answer questions that were asked in English.  When someone asks me to translate a word or phrase, I have to consciously sit down and switch my brain into English.  When I head home from work at the end of the day, my mind continues thinking and processing in Swedish until I deliberately remind myself to switch over to English mode.

Curiously, while my English is constantly deteriorating, I don’t feel like I am making noticeable progress with my Swedish any longer.  I still have good Swedish days and bad Swedish days, but the bad Swedish days are more frequent than I would hope.  It still takes extra effort to speak in Swedish (although writing in Swedish is pretty close to effortless at this point) and I am still unsure about my word choices just about every time I speak up in a meeting.  I am sure that I am still making progress, but the gradient of progress has definitely leveled out.

As I round out this post, I am trying to think of a positive note to end on.  While losing my native language and making slow progress on my new language don’t feel very encouraging, I am still overwhelmed with gratitude that I get to live in such a wonderful society, in such a beautiful city, and that I get to experience a new culture from the inside. 

THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 2015
Thanksgiving
Alison's gorgeous turkey and to-die-for stuffing
Three years in a row now, we have celebrated Thanksgiving with our dear friends Alison and Christian.  They are both architects and studied under a friend of a friend who sent Christian’s email address to me shortly after we moved to Stockholm.  We’ve been friends ever since our first blind fika, and I am so thankful that they are in our lives!  Alison is American, and Christian is Swedish, so their situation isn’t all that different than Carl and mine.  Between moving from one continent to the other, architecture, a love for writing and reading, constant travel cravings, and a deep appreciation for nature, we have a lot in common!
Alison's rolls and my angel biscuits.

Alison’s brother lives in Helsinki with his Finnish wife, and they have joined us in Sweden for our last two Thanksgiving celebrations.  They are super interesting people and it’s really intriguing to compare notes on what life in Finland is like—Finland is so close, and in many ways so similar to Sweden, but Finnish culture is quite unique and different.
Alison's green beans and her brother's cranberry sauce, with cranberries imported from Finland of all places!

Alison and her brother grew up in Alaska, which is about as far from my home state of Georgia as you can get and still be in the US.  We’ve all been fascinated at how much regional variation there is in the traditional dishes we grew up with and affectionately love.  For example, sweet potato soufflé and creamed corn were unheard of for Alison and her brother, and they grew up with rolls while I grew up with biscuits.  We’ve combined all of our traditional favorites into one huge Alaskan/Southern feast, creating a new tradition of our own.
Sweet potato soufflé (minus the pecans and the marshmallows) and creamed corn

This year has been a tough one health-wise for Carl and my families, culminating in a devastating car accident on my side and cancer on Carl’s side.  News of the car accident and of the cancer reached us just days before our Thanksgiving celebration with Alison and Christian, and Carl and I were a bit more subdued and feeling less festive than usual.  The age-old questions of why bad things happen to good people, and what is the point of trying so hard when it can all end so suddenly and so randomly, were weighing heavily on us.  The randomness of life and death is just hateful sometimes.

But even though many of life’s toughest trials are arbitrary, so are many of life’s best gifts.  Meeting Carl as well as Alison and Christian was more-or-less random, and they are among the “things” that I am most grateful for this Thanksgiving Day.  Today I give thanks for the positive chance events that brought my most beloved people into my life.
For Alison, it's not Thanksgiving without a pumpkin pie.  For me, pecan pie is an integral dish.

SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 15, 2015
Sweden is Expensive Part V
I spent about $150 at the grocery store the other day.  I bought:
2 boxes of crackers
1 bunch of grapes
About $5 worth of cheese
A $10 cake pan
Pledge floor cleaner
2 whole chickens

Really???

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 24, 2015
I FINALLY got my Swedish Driver's License!!!

This probably doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is, believe me.

When non-EU citizens move to Sweden, they are given a one year driver’s license grace period.  During that first year, they may drive in Sweden with their driver’s license from their home country.  After that first year, they are no longer allowed to drive in Sweden without a Swedish license.  Getting a Swedish license is no simple matter of swapping out one license for the next: instead, you have to go through the entire process from learner’s permit to driving test in order to get a Swedish license.

And the Swedish driving test is no small task.  Both Carl and I failed the test TWICE before we finally gave up and took a couple of driving lessons.  On our third tries, we passed.  It’s not like we have any shortage of driving experience, either, considering that we’ve both had our American licenses for about 20 years and have driven extensively in the US and internationally on vacations.

Even getting to the driving test stage was time consuming and expensive.  The process looks like this:
Registration for a learner’s permit: about $30
Vision test: about $20
Risk education (alcohol, sleepiness, etc.): about $75
Skid course: about $300
Theory test: about $50
Photograph fee: about $10
Practical test: about $175
(The driving test fee includes a rental car fee, because unless you have a car with dual commands, you have to rent a car from the testing office.)
Practical test: about $175
Two lessons: about $350
Practical test: about $175
Card fabrication fee: about $20
Grand total to get a driver’s license in Sweden: about $1380

The only useful part of the ordeal was the required skid course training.  Since most of my driving experience comes from Georgia and Texas, I haven’t exactly driven much on ice and snow.  While three hours on the skid course isn’t enough time to really learn how to drive on ice and snow, it is enough time to get a feel for how a car reacts to slippery conditions.  My favorite part of the skid course experience was starting from zero, accelerating as fast as I could up to about 70 mph, and then slamming on the breaks in the slippery zone.  The resulting skid is better than a roller coaster ride!

Once we got to the test stage, the process became very stressful.  Taking all of the tests and lessons involved taking a lot of time off from work, right in the middle of deadline season.  Neither Carl or I had any problem passing the written test, but you have to pass the practical test within two months of the written test or you have to start over again.  After failing the driving test twice, it was beginning to feel like I wasn’t going to pass before my written test expired.

The first time I took the driving test, I definitely didn’t drive very well.  I was really nervous and didn’t perform well.  I would have failed me, too.  Also, I didn’t really know how to “eco drive,” (skipping gears etc.) which is a requirement.  I was also put off by the fact that the driver’s test car had six gears and that reverse was located in an odd place.  Why on earth does the driver’s test car have a gear shift that is unlike any car on the market?

But the second time I took the driving test, I was sure I had passed.  Everything went really well, and I was extra “risk-aware” and slowed down for crosswalks and such.  But I still didn’t pass!  My feedback consisted of two criticisms.  First, I sometimes didn’t look in my right side-view mirror when making right-hand turns.  Secondly, when exiting a roundabout, I sped up before the increased speed limit sign.  Technically, I was driving about 5 kph over the speed limit when I exited a roundabout.  Sheeeeesshh!  So picky!

When I got to my third test, my heart sunk when I saw that I would be tested by the same person that failed me the first time.  But I guess I drove exceptionally well, or he felt sorry for me, or three tries is the magical number, because I finally passed!

And now I have my coveted pink Swedish driver’s license.  Yay!  When Carl finally got his license we celebrated by renting a car the very next weekend and driving to Nynäs Nature Reserve (see my blog post).  We’ll do a similar weekend trip to celebrate my license soon, though we haven’t planned it yet.

Yay for weekend trip mobility!

SUNDAY, OCTOBER 04, 2015
Real Estate Ridiculousness
In 2014, real estate prices in Stockholm went up with an average of 17%.  The upward trend continues in 2015 and it feels like prices are spiraling out of control.  As soon as Carl and I adjust to one price point, the market has already surpassed us.  Last week we got excited about this apartment—it is perfectly located in a historic area of town and even had a working tile stove for cozy winter evenings by the fire!  But within 24 hours of the showing, the bidding war had pushed the price about $285,000 over the asking price.  Needless to say, we were bid out of the running.

Like many others in Stockholm right now, Carl and I feel a sense of hopelessness about ever being able to afford our dream apartment.  In the US scheme of things, we’re not asking for all that much—about 800 square feet, a fireplace or tile stove, a dishwasher, a washing machine, and some storage space.  But in central Stockholm, that’s like asking for the moon.

For a year or two, Carl and I were waiting out the real estate ridiculousness, thinking that the market was bound to crash sooner or later.  If nothing else, many people would be priced out of their apartments when the interest rate goes back up from today’s 1.7% to a more normal level—suddenly, monthly payments would double or triple and people would be forced to sell their apartments at a loss.  But now we’re not so convinced that a big crash is on its way any time soon.  The banks are locking 10 year mortgages at below 3%, which means that the banks don’t think that the interest is going to go up for at least 10 years. 

Carl and I had more or less come to the conclusion that we needed to jump into the market now, before the prices get any higher.  But we were ready to jump in at what was apparently the 2014 level of prices, and the 2015 prices are now about 30% higher—meaning that we are no longer even close to being able to afford our dream of 800 square feet in central Stockholm.

Compared to many others who are priced out of Stockholm, we are relatively lucky.  We own a perfectly ok apartment that’s not all that far out in the suburbs.  We don’t have 3 kids in a 550 square foot apartment like our upstairs neighbors.  We don’t have 90 minute commutes.  We don’t need to move.  But it sure would be nice to have a little more space than our 550 square feet, to live in an energizing part of town, to be able to bring our things over from our Texas storage unit, and to have a cozy fireplace.  And it would be nice to be able to have all of that without moving to a less beautiful city!

FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 04, 2015
Foraging: Lingonberries
Last weekend, Carl and I were camping on Björkö, or Birch Island.  We were really on the island to check out Birka, middle Sweden’s largest and most important Viking city.  But once we saw a perfect patch of lingonberries, we just couldn’t help ourselves.

Lingons taste similarly to cranberries in flavor and in tartness.  They are also used in a similar manner as cranberries, too: accompanying meat or as a juice.  But while cranberries grow in bogs, lingons grow on the forest floor, often not too far off from blueberries.

When accompanying a meat dish, lingons can be prepared in two ways: either cooked with lots of sugar into a jam, which is called Lingon Sylt, or Rårörda Lingon which is “raw stirred” and smushed together with sugar.  In years past we’ve made the jam, so this year we decided to try something a bit different and went for the raw version.  Super tasty!!!


MONDAY, AUGUST 17, 2015
Foraging: Juniper Berries
Last weekend Carl and I took a bus to Eldgarnsö, a nature reserve on an island off of the island of Färingsö which is off of the island of Lindö which is off of the island of Lovö which is off of the island of Kärsö which is off of the mainland.  All of these islands are connected by bridges, and there is an impressive network of Stockholm city busses out there considering the sparse population and considering the fact that before getting to Eldgarnsö, you’ve been passing by farms for at least 40 minutes.
Left: View from Eldgarnsö.  Right: Parts of the Eldgarnsö nature reserve and island is still a working farm.  The old windmill doesn't have its blades any more, but it sure does make for a cute guest cottage!

It has now been sunny, warm, and dry for a few weeks, which means that the mushroom population has diminished drastically since I wrote about the chanterelles last weekend.  While we didn’t find any mushrooms to take home from our outing on Eldgarnsö, we did stumble upon some juniper trees which were absolutely covered in berries.  Usually, the berries are much sparser, but these trees were quite the jackpot.  Our friends and family here in Stockholm shouldn’t be too surprised if our hostess or Christmas gifts turn out to be juniper berries...

The berries are now drying out in anticipation of use in autumn venison, moose, and elk dishes.  Yum!

WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 12, 2015
Foraging: Chanterelle Mushrooms
The best thing about August in Stockholm just might be chanterelle mushrooms.  Depending on the year and the summer rainfall, chanterelles can either be copious or hard to find.  The past two summers have been quite dry, so we haven’t found many chanterelles at all, but this year, there seem to be a good number of them.

Last weekend Carl and I took the commuter train out to Rosersberg Palace.  After visiting the palace, we wandered through the old hunting grounds.  We took a quick dip in the lake and enjoyed a picnic in the sun before hiking inland into the forest.  We weren’t really on a mushroom mission but at this time of year, Carl is always prepared with a whole backpack full of empty containers, just in case we stumble upon a mushroom pot of gold while wandering through the forest.
Rosersberg Palace and grounds

Chanterelles really are like a pot of gold with their golden coloring which make them relatively easy to spot.  They are also unique in look and color which makes them hard to confuse with any type of dangerous mushroom (in Sweden, anyway), so they are quite safe to pick.  They often grow in clumps so once you’ve found one chanterelle, you’re likely to find quite a few others strewn around the area. 

Sometimes we find so many chanterelles that Carl dries them for future use.  We have several uber-tasty recipes for chanterelle soup, chanterelle pasta sauce, chanterelle sauce for venison, and chanterelle quiche.  But our favorite thing to do with chanterelles is really quite simple and is perhaps Sweden’s classic chanterelle dish—chanterelle sandwiches.  After cleaning and chopping the mushrooms, Carl puts them in a frying pan over medium high heat.
It’s not until after most of the water has escaped from the mushrooms and evaporated that he adds butter and salt.  The mushrooms continue to fry until they soften.  Upon toasted bread, the chanterelles are exquisitely tasty.

FRIDAY, JULY 10, 2015
Bipolar Summer
It took a long while for temperatures to warm up this year, but when summer arrived, it really arrived.  It was so hot that there was a Class I weather warning in Stockholm for four days running—temperatures were projected to get up to 86 degrees F, so the population was warned to stay in the shade and drink lots of water.  After living in Texas for 7 years, I am amused to no end that 86 degree temperatures would be cause for such caution.

After Sweden’s heat wave, things have gotten a lot rainier and cooler.  Today the high is 55 degrees F!  Again, that low of a temperature would be unthinkable in Texas in mid-July.

SUNDAY, JUNE 14, 2015
Small Calories
I’ve always been a stickler for English grammar, and a misplaced apostrophe is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me—it makes me shudder and hurts my sensibilities.  I’ve been noticing grammatical errors in Swedish for a few years now, so I suppose that it was only a matter of time before they before they started to make me shudder, too.  Being irritated by grammatical errors must be another step on the fluency ladder.

The grammar of this subway advertisement is so awful that it’s difficult to even translate it.  A direct translation is something like “A lot of flavor, small calories,” but not even the word “small” is correctly used as “lite” is used to describe singular nouns while “små” is used to describe plural nouns.  Obviously, the message that the beer importer is trying to get across is something more like “A lot of flavor, a small number of calories” or even “A lot of flavor, few calories.”  But even though I know what the advertisement is trying to say, it drives me crazy that it doesn’t actually say what it means.  

WEDNESDAY, MAY 27, 2015
Rune Stone Junkie
Left, Gripsholms Slott: "Tola had this stone raised for her son Harald, Ingvar's brother.  They (he?) set out eastward on a manly expedition for gold, and died south in Arabia." Right, Lovöns Kyrka: "Illuge had this stone raised for Tingfast, his son, ... after his brother.”
I have always loved anything archeological.  It’s not a mystery how I ended up this way considering that both my mother and my grandfather probably would have been archeologists if they could do it all over again.  Growing up, my favorite pastime when visiting my grandparents was to see their slides of Greek ruins.  On our various road trips, my mom and I visited just about every significant Native American site on the eastern seaboard.  As an adult, I travel more often on “cultural” trips (Amsterdam, Rome) and on “outdoorsy” trips (kayaking in the Lofoton Islands, hiking Sweden’s Kungsleden) than on “archeological” trips, but my visits to Incan cities in Peru and to Petra in Jordan rank as some of my fondest and most vivid travel memories.  I have a non-discriminatory love and fascination for all things archeological with no emphasis on a particular time period, culture, or area of the globe.  I am equally enticed by Cambodian temples as I am by cliff dwellings in the New Mexico desert.

Since moving to Sweden, I have developed a particular fondness for rune stones, pre-historic fortresses, and burial mounds.  I love that this stuff is sprinkled all over the Stockholm region and that just about any weekend hike will pass by at least one rune stone or burial mound.  Rune stones, pre-historic fortresses, and burial mounds are so common in the region that most Swedes, having grown up with it, seem largely unaffected by it all.  But I am spellbound by how visible this pre-history is, how common it is in the landscape, and by the sheer quantity of it that has survived. 

Between early May and late October, Carl and I are out on a day hike at least one day every weekend.  Sometimes the day is more focused on foraging nettles, mushrooms, or berries; if it is particularly warm the day is more focused on finding a good swimming spot.  Sometimes we’re out on a mission to see beautiful wildflowers.  Pretty often, the goal of the hike is some sort of archeological highlight. 

Reading the informational signs at all of these archeological sites has given me an idea of Sweden’s pre-history.  Here’s a quick overview with the types of archeological finds that are associated with each period:

Older Stone Age: As the ice receded, hunters and gathers moved steadily northwards.  Humans arrived in the Stockholm region approximately 7000 BC.

Younger Stone Age: Agriculture hits Sweden around 4000 BC.
    -chamber graves (southern Sweden)

Bronze Age: Increased trade with the outside world.  A gradated society develops.  1000 BC.
    -petroglyphs (southern areas of Sweden)
    -chamber graves (southern Sweden)
    -stone ship settings--burial place ringed by raised stones in the shape of a ship 
Gotland
    -small stone piles in the form of triangles, circles, ovals, and squares (marking burial places)
Lovön
    -large burial mounds (southern Sweden)
    -large stone piles marking burial places
Gotland

Iron Age: Climate gets colder.  Emigration southward due to harsher conditions.  Contact with the Roman Empire.  Trade eastward over the Baltic Sea.  Village-sized settlements.  Around 0 AD.
    -raised stones (marking burial places)
Lovön
     -small stone formations marking burial places (triangles, circles, ovals, and squares)
Lovön
     -fields of small grave mounds (lack of large burial mounds points to a more dissolved, decentralized society)
Adelsö
    -first rune stones (Sweden’s first written alphabet)
    -labyrinths
Gotland

Migration Period: Clashes with new peoples that wander into the area.  Gradated society with city-like religious centers.  More and more trade eastward over the Baltic.  0 AD to 500 AD.
    -city-like stone fortresses
Öland.  Round stone fortress with an entire city in the middle.
    -large burial mounds
Gamla Uppsala
    -rune stones
    -stone ship settings (burial places)
outside of Västerås

Vendel Age: Increased trade over the Baltic.  Increasingly gradated society with an extremely wealthy and powerful ruling class.  500 AD to 800 AD.
    -stone ship settings (burial places)
    -hilltop fortresses
Adelsö.  Natural high point reinforced with stone walls on the less-steep slopes.
    -fields of small grave mounds
    -large burial mounds
outside of Västerås
    -rune stones
Lovön.  Sometimes runes were carved onto hillsides of stone. This one reads “Alfred had this carved for Svarthöfde and for Igulfast, his sons, and for Åsgöt.”
     -boat graves (wooden boats buried with their owner)

Viking Age: Trade over the Baltic goes inland through Russia all the way to the Black Sea and to the Mediterranean.  Very gradated society with slaves.  800 AD to 1000 AD
    -rune stones
Skokloster Slott.  One of the only known double-sided rune stones.  This one reads "Andvätt and Gullev and Gunnar and Horse and Rolev had this stone raised for Tord, their father.  Fot carved the runes."

    -city-like trade centers in Sweden and in Russia
    -fields of small grave mounds

Middle Ages: The Viking Age ended and the Middle Ages began when Christianity came to Sweden.  Now that Swedes were Christian, they couldn’t continue to attack and raid other Christian settlements.   Viking expeditions ended and a more settled, European way of life began.  Slavery ended.  1000 AD -.

Almost none of these archeological sites makes the guidebooks, so we tend to learn about them by association.  A sign at one site will make reference to another site which peaks our interest, so we go home, look it up, and add it to our weekend sightseeing list.  Four years later, our list has grown infinitely long and our weekend to-do list is overwhelming.  A major roadblock to visiting a lot of the sites on our lists is that we don’t have driver’s licenses in Sweden.  We hope to rectify the situation in the fall, whereupon we will finally have access to the more far-flung sites on our list.  This Rune Stone Junkie can’t wait to hit the road, because I love this stuff!

(In addition to the site signs, I've gotten some general info from
http://www.larshammaren.se/6_svforntid.htm and
http://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sveriges_f%C3%B6rhistoria)