Under the Jul tree

Since moving to Scandinavia we have celebrated Jul twice. Last year’s was unique in that it was the first away from our families, and the Jul just past in that it was our first ever white christmas. Yet if you look at the weather report for Göteborg there is only a smidgen on snow on Julafton and Jul, so how did we manage it? Well, we cheated.

At around this time last year we went on a quick post-Jul trip to Norway, staying a couple of nights in Oslo and seeing the sights. On one day we decided to visit the hometown of my maternal grandfather, and while we were there a fortuitous series of incidents led us to an evening at the home of my mother’s cousin. This led in turn to a weekend in a hytta around easter and as the year drew to a close, an invitation to spend Jul at their home.

So it was that on the 22nd of December we heaved suitcases filled with clothes, food and gifts and a set of skiis to the bus station, for the first leg of our journey to Lillehammer.

We have now taken the bus from Göteborg to Oslo four times, and so far the repetition has not spoilt the beauty of the landscape. The forests and cliffs just before the border between Sweden and Norway is still stunning and rugged, and the sweeping road around the Oslo fjord hasn’t failed to distract me every time. With the latest trip we were also treated to signs of snow almost from the moment we crossed the border. As we neared Oslo it was lying in piles by roads and clinging lightly to trees. The street of the city were slushy and people strode around muffled against the cold. We broke up the journey with a night in Oslo, and so took it easy for the first day and night.

A skating train

A skating train

We strolled around taking photos and looking for food, checking out the ice-rink that we remembered from a year ago and the lights strewn in the trees and between buildings.

Lights on the ice

Lights on the ice

The following morning we started the final leg of the trip. Snow covered the tracks, and as we boarded and the train wound it’s way north, the snow deepened and thickened, creating a world of beautiful monochrome.

At the final stop we disembarked and were met by my aunt (not exactly true, but easier to say that mum’s cousin) who greeted us with many velkommens and hugs. We had arrived.

By the time we had been welcomed by my uncle, cousin and their dog and were settled in at their home, it was mid-afternoon and the setting sun was leaving an eerie blue light on the snow piled outside. This is known as the ‘blue hour’, and given the sun rises later and sets earlier than usual at this time of year, I got to catch many of them. We decided to have a look at the lights on the main street in town, and were offered the use of one of the family’s sparks (literally: kick). It’s basically a kick-along sled with a seat, and after a very quick lesson we were soon sliding our way into town, my work mostly consisting of holding on to the seat and going, ‘weee!’ a lot. Along the way we saw others sparking, including a lady with a christmas tree and very good balance.

The mainstreet, on which cars and sparks were not allowed, was lit with festive lights and all the shops were open, some playing music and others handing out free glögg and cakes.

Mainstreet in Lillehammer

Mainstreet in Lillehammer

We checked out the stores with traditional jumpers and craftware and explored the half-familiar streets, then as my hands began to get numb headed home. Along the way we met a curious cat, who seemed alternately fascinated and bored by the runners of the spark, and chased us for a little while.

At home we defrosted and a little while later were rounded up for one of the very important Jul traditions: decorating the tree. My uncle had found it while we were in town and it was set up and bare when we arrived, waiting to be decked out in the boxes of decorations that suddenly appeared.

So, armed with lights, baubles, figurines, tinsel, cognac laced glögg and the ambition to make the finest Jul tree ever, my cousin, my partner and myself set to. As if we were some sort of highly trained decorating team, the tree was soon full of light and colour, topped off with a string of Norwegian flags (though a single dalahäst gave it a touch of Swedishness).

A hint of Norway

A hint of Norway

After congratulating ourselves and being treated to a very lively dancing Santa performance we settled down to the first of the traditional Jul meals.

Lillejulafton consists of a vast array of delicacies, mostly meats and eaten with different sorts of bread. There was specially pressed pork from a local butcher, pork rolls, homemade spiced wild meat sausage, sliced lamb, sil, jam, mustard, flat bread made out of potato, bread rolls and the loaf that my partner had baked. There was also the rakfisk, a ‘lite’ version of the Swedish surströmming which I neutralised with many trimmings and actually enjoyed. This was all washed down with Julebrus, a Norwegian soft drink from a local brewery and wine.

As the clock neared 19:00 my cousin began to look at his watch more often, and we were soon called to the tv room to take part in something very important, something that people all across Norway were rushing to their tvs to watch and enjoy: Grevinnen og Hovmesteren. This is an English language comedy sketch from the 60s about a butler and an elderly lady and is shown every 23rd of December. Apparently it was missed one year and there were complaints, as there were as well when it was late another year. As we watched all the favourite lines were called out and we laughed every time James tripped over the tiger. Exactly why this is such an important part of the Norwegian Jul tradition is unknown, but it may have something to do with the line, ‘Same procedure as every year,’ the main catchphrase from the sketch. In a country where everyone sits down to watch a sketch in another language year after year as part of a traditional holiday that stretches back before written history, perhaps this is an acknowledgement and a gentle joke at their own expense.

As is often the case with meals in which you pick at the food and take helpings as dishes are passed around, we were all soon extremely full. After tidying up we settled around the fire and under the tree to chat until we couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer. Soon followed sleep, to prepare us for the most important day of Jul in Scandinavia: Julafton.

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Changing minds, fika by fika

There are many remarkable things about Sweden, some of which are well known and others not so much. There is of course the high standard of living and the beauty of the country and the ways things around here usually just work. This week I have also found out that it is a country in which politicians, or at least one politician, can be found giving speeches in living rooms spreading a message from person to person, requiring only a donation to a charity as payment.

Oratorical shadows

Oratorical shadows

The day dawned chilly and overcast. My partner and I had returned from a party at 3 that morning and so were somewhat the worse for sleep, but nevertheless managed to rouse ourselves enough to face the cold air and head into town. Others who for whatever reason had voluntarily or involuntarily decided to be up and about at the ungodly hour of 9am on a Sunday also stumbled around the tram station, the fresh breeze waking us up as we stood around and tried not to think of our beds. My partner and I chatted to stay alert, and kept an anxious eye open for our tram, wondering what lay ahead of us at our destination. We had been invited to the event a few weeks since and though we knew the basics had no clear idea of exactly what would unfold.

The first thing, as it turned out, was a house buzzing with smiling and excited people, chatting and saying hi to everyone as they set up the rooms or just wandered around. There was also, excitingly, a wonderful spread of cakes, biscuits and snacks waiting for us to explore, behind a charity jar in which we happily paid for the generosity of our hosts.
Every minute that passed brought more and more people, many of whom swarmed the kitchen, sending us out to take seats and nibble on our treats as we waited. There was a very potent sense of anticipation in the room, though a particularly Swedish one, by which I mean that it hung unobtrusively on people’s words and in their faces, and maintained voices at a steady rumble. When the guest did arrive it was almost difficult to tell, other than a slight flurry of movement and shuffling as people found a place to sit. The crowd, numbering about 60 by this point, were soon settled and then Gudrun began to speak.

Gudrun

Gudrun

She spoke about democracy and power. Every relation concerns power, she said. Equality isn’t an opinion, but something that should flow through all parts of society. We should be united against militarism, and work against conflict.
She spoke for an hour and a half, coaxing and persuading, and filling the whiteboard with scrawls and orating to our living room of 60 as if she was speaking to us all individually. It reminded me of a scene from a film, the name of which I have forgotten, in which speakers hustle from house to house spreading illicit words and stories to rapt audiences, one step ahead of the law. The lawless darkness couldn’t be found this time, but the sense of being part of a movement and listening spellbound to a persuasive speaker most definitely was.

A politician in the living room

A politician in the living room

After the speech we all mingled, some buying books from Gudrun, who sat somewhat appropriately the Christmas tree, and others chatting and eating. My partner and I bade goodbye to friends and went out into the day, trying to articulate our feelings from the morning. The notes I took seem a mess of circles and half-Swedish, half-English sentences whose meanings have been partly lost. The impression that is clear is that while the papers and tv are full of the compromises and back-and-forth of the face of politics, in living rooms and halls around Sweden there is at least one politician who is sharing a fika and a few hours with those who ask, and then waiting as the seeds sprout.

A journey with boxes

Just last weekend my partner and I went on a journey. There was at least a week of preparations, involving packing, bookings, packing books and measuring things. Things were sorted, some things were chucked out and things we had forgotten about were discovered under other things. It was… not exciting but it kept us busy. Finally the big day arrived, and with the help of a very helpful friend we picked up the vehicle we’d booked and began our journey.
We started with the bed and the couch, as they were the biggest.

Yes, we moved house. I was hoping to drag it out and make it seem like an adventure, but for all those who have moved (which I assume is pretty much everyone..?), I surmise that adventure is not the word that comes to mind when you remember moving. Maybe ‘argh’ or ‘never again’ or possibly ‘no, not the boxes, anything but the boxes’. At the moment, I’m somewhere between the last two phrases. And we still need to go to IKEA to get shelves for extra books and generally putting things on and lights and everything else. Wee!

Ok, sarcasm and drama aside, all the sorting, packing, carrying, cleaning, carrying, unpacking and sorting has been worth it. Our new place is new, clean and spacious and during the wonderful and brief few hours of sunlight we have a view of a birch and pine forest out of the kitchen window. And a large kitchen. And a dishwasher. It’s the nicest place we’ve stayed in so far in Sweden, and actually the nicest place we’ve rented together at all, including that one place in Perth. If I had my family over here for dinner, no one would have to sit on the couch arm to eat dinner ever again.
As it’s a first-hand contract we can also do pretty much what we like with it, including putting up pictures on the walls, which I can’t wait to do. We can also stay for as long as we want, which feels like quite a luxury. It will give us time to settle in and make ourselves comfortable. And did I mention there’s a spare room, with space for a spare bed? Yes, that is a hint to all of you who have considered visiting Scandinavia at some point. On that note I make great porridge.

Leaves on a cold day

Leaves on a cold day

So while we’ve been planning our move and settling in, the coldward turn of the weather has become more and more noticeable. Leaves are frosted over and sparkling in the occasional sunlight, footpaths are slick with ice and the regular rain is really starting to get miserable. All of which means that when there is sunlight, it is glorious. As my previous post demonstrated, a day of sun is something to be treasured and basked in. Not only is it a lovely and slightly warmer break from the dark and cold, but the effect of the sun sliding low along the horizon makes the light even more defined and beautiful. Even big brown office buildings take on a welcoming glow. The birch and pine stands near our new home have been quite beautiful.

Trees in the morning light

Trees in the morning light

The darkness has also lead to a certain social pressure that mounts whenever I look out of the window or walk down the street. In every window (I’m not even exaggerating…) there is a triangle of candles, most often electric, and at least one lit up star. We have our own advent candle holder, though I’m not sure how long I can justify not having an electric one. Perhaps this is an even crueler way to troll Swedes than sitting next to them on an empty tram: not putting up advent lights. Soon, very soon.

A walk in the sun

A walk in the sun

Soon will also bring Lucia, Jul and New Years, and vising friends and family and birthdays. I think with all these things to look forward to, the darkness won’t seem quite so cold.

A view in the sun

I bet those are not words you thought would be featured on this blog for a while! While most days are cloudy and it’s recently started to get really cold (the thermals, winter boots and new woolly jumper under my jacket have been required), there has been sunlight, and it is glorious.

Domkyrkan in Autumn

Domkyrkan in Autumn

The morning of a day last week dawned clear and bright, and so the planned tea and chat inside with a friend was changed to a scamper around town to enjoy the brief sunlight. As I waited at a tram stop I snapped photos of warm coloured brick buildings lining the road, lit in the sun and then blissed out for a few minutes by standing still in a beam of light and photosynthesizing. Also yes, I do know something about biology, but until someone can come up with a better word for the sensation I’m sticking with my version.

Warm walls of Vasagatan

Warm walls of Vasagatan

Our wander took us along Vasagatan, scattered with students and cyclists, all slightly dazed by the sun, and then into Haga. Perhaps inspired by the Jul decorations that went up some weeks ago, I made a stop at a spice shop and picked up a couple of pinches of Iranian saffron. You may expect this to be featured in baking adventures in future posts.

As mentioned before, no doubt a number of times, an old fortress sits in the centre of Haga, one of a pair in the city. Being round and sitting on a hill, it resembles a crown and in fact has a gold (plated I assume) crown on it’s pinnacle. It can be reached by a series of steep steps, which I always climb with my usual vertigo induced rush and babble, this time assisted by a cheerful chat about Mayan pyramids and how lucky those sacrifices were to not have to climb down all those steps afterwards.

Göteborg from above

Göteborg from above

At the top we were able to catch our breath and enjoy Göteborg spread out beneath us, lit up and quietly bustling. In comparison with the last time I’d been up there, I was able to pick most of the landmarks, and orient myself with places I knew. Around us wandered walkers, parents with prams or students resting on convenient benches and arches, treating the hill as a spectacle or just part of their daily routine. From there we were also able to spot the old observatory in Slottskogen, easier to see now that the trees were almost bare. That, then, would be our next stop.

The observatory from afar

The observatory from afar

A short walk later found us at the foot of the observatory, a strange, short and round building with a second off-kilter roof which was presumably necessarily for some sort of stargazing.

The observatory from nearby

The observatory from nearby

The stargazing has long been moved to a newer building, but there was still a fine view of the surrounding park and city. From certain points it was even possible to imagine that we were in the middle of the wilderness, with forested hills stretching to the horizon. Other angles revealed a busy European city, trams and people rumbling and rushing along the streets.

City or wilderness?

City or wilderness?

Climbing down the hill we found a sofa embedded in a stone wall. Before you get too confused about Swedish design and surrealist modern art, I can confirm that it was stone and that it was also quite comfortable, if you don’t mind a chilly rear. If I had had blankets and pillows and a book, it could have been a nice place to while away a few hours.

Comfy sofa

Comfy sofa

As the light began to fade slightly, we headed to a cafe overlooking a lake for a snack and something to warm us up, and along the way found a monument that I had never noticed before, despite picnicking near it a number of times. It was a stone pillar of some sort, and I still don’t know it’s purpose, though I’d imagine it relates in some way to memorialising someone or something. Right in front of it sat a small park bench, the two making a fine tableau in the bright late autumn sunlight, while also confirming something that I know is a fact true of all places in Sweden. Where there is a view, whether it be of a stone, a city or a forest, a place will be maintained and people will stroll, chat or simply soak in the rare sunlight, and there is almost always a bench.

A place with a view

A place with a view