The hills and folks

It’s been 3 weeks since we arrived back in Australia, and there’s a lot to take in and share. So I’m going to start small.

I like going on regular runs, preferably first thing in the morning when the air is clear and I can avoid having two showers. Wherever we lived in Göteborg I was able to find a path through a forest, or through town to a creek or around a beautiful lake. I relied on the surroundings to do part of the work of getting me running everyday, to see the seasons pass, the geese return from their winter migration and the berries ripen. I loved the lake most of all, regardless of the season or weather.

A brief moment of sun

Kåsjön

Now I’ve found myself in the hills where I grew up, among forests that would be best described as green and rough, and still familiar as family. Up here (for a relative value of up) the soil is rusty red and gravelly and the trees gnarled. In winter the dust isn’t able to settle so the leaves are glossy green and fragrant, and grasses and weeds are flourishing in the forests and gardens. It’s the best time of year to go on morning runs, before the heat starts to set in and there’s enough chill in the easterly winds to cool the sweat. I’ve started a routine, heading up the hill before turning so I can run partly downhill home, each day going slightly further. The gravel can be tricky and the path is never really flat or straight, swinging around corners and up and down slopes all the way, but I’m starting to learn it.

Morning run

Morning run

I’ve passed many people during my runs, walking dogs or cycling, and all have smiled and said good morning, as it has always been done up here. No longer do I make brief eye-contact and then glance away, concerned at breaking the unspoken Scandinavian code of personal space. That bubble of personal space is much reduced here, and the edges blurred. Strangers strike up conversations on train platforms, locals stare more openly at those who are different, acquaintances make comments that would be rude elsewhere and the young move easily forward to help the elderly. I have also discovered a liking for banter in public, something I’d always felt awkward about. Short questions and greetings have become chats, easy and comfortable, the slang and accent coming back to me bit by bit.

Hovea Falls

Hovea Falls

It feels new and old at the same time, the mundane now a little bit exotic and what was familiar a month ago now foreign.

Old pub in Fremantle

Old pub in Fremantle

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Frozen lake, bright sky

A brief moment of sun

Even though there was a light dusting of snow last night (enough to fill a teacup), the sun is out today and the blue sky makes it feel as though the true winter is almost over. There will be clouds and rain and cold, for sure, but not the drifts of snow and frozen lakes that are a ‘real’ winter. Today then seems a good time to show you all a little bit of the winter that was just passed, the sort of winter that I love.

Snow had been falling off an on for weeks, bending down the trees under the soft, dense weight and freezing the lakes nearby. While snow is in itself beautiful, the moment it comes alive is when the sun comes out. One day we went for a walk on a weekend morning, and more than once I was quite literally stunned into stillness and silence by the beauty of the trees, light and snow.

Snow in the forest

Snow in the forest

Branches sticking up through the snow were coated in a thin, shining layer like crystals, which drifted lightly off when flicked.

Snowcrusted shrubbery

Snowcrusted shrubbery

The forest, where not so many months ago we had picked berries, was muffled and still, though at any moment I expected a breeze to tumble a branch load of snow onto my head.

Sunlit path

Sunlit path

After my fella returned home, I continued on to the nearest lake, wondering if it might be frozen. It was was, very much so.

Kåsjön alive

Kåsjön alive

Not only was it frozen, which a layer of snow covering the thick (so I hoped) ice, but it had been transformed into a park, or to my romantic mind, a winter wonderland. Children scampered about in their fleuro one-piece outfits, adults walked their dogs and people of all ages skated and skied, leaving long, crisscrossing tracks behind them. Nervous at first, I walked over the tracks, listening for the creaking of ice and then walked more and more confidently across to the island that 2 years ago I had swum to. Under wide, bright blue sky and in the centre of the vast openness of the lake, the claustrophobia of winter fell away, down into the freezing, dark water under the ice.

Walkers on the lake

Walkers on the lake

On the shore nearest to the houses, areas of the ice had been cleared and with shoes or picnic baskets for goal posts, ice hockey games were underway. Often it seemed the dads were ahead, but now and then a son or daughter would sneak past and a parent dramatically fall over, equaling the score. In sheltered bays little children were being taught to skate, knees locked in fear and well padded bottoms covered in snow.

Icehockey

Icehockey

In the distance, old couples walked their dogs, disappearing into the further reaches of the lake.
If there was ever a heaven of ice and snow under a low hanging northern sun, this was it.

Then later that week a storm hit the west coast of Sweden, bringing wind and snow. A lot of snow. By the time it had ended, there was 30cms of it in our neighbourhood, and enough in town to stop trams, buses and cars. It was, in the words of frantic sensationalist newspapers, SNÖKAOS, which I think doesn’t need translation. This resulted in many people not getting in to work, including my fella, and one of my all time favourite news bloopers. My lesson for the day had been cancelled, so after a few productive hours of work we set off for the lake, my eagerness to show off the beauty and novelty of walking across it pushing me through drifts up to my knees that hadn’t yet seen a shovel. Though there was no sign of the sun through the thick clouds and the snow-wading was tiring us out, we reached the lake before too long. It was still frozen, also covered in deep snow, but as yet without any tracks or trails over its surface. Coaxing my fella out into the open, we made it to the island and sat to contemplate the wide openness, and quiet. Still beautiful, it seemed a more severe and solitary beauty than I had seen myself on the sunny day so recently.

A brief moment of sun

A brief moment of sun

Since then the temperature rose, rain fell, the snow melted into slush and then washed away, leaving only patches of black ice to tread carefully around. We might still get snow, but the day of minus temperatures and nights of -18 seem behind us now. The question isn’t how much snow do I need for a snow man, but when will the first flowers start to bloom?

No swimming yet

No swimming yet

2015: Travels and moving forward

So 2015 is now in the past, and while like any year it creeps along at walking pace while living it, looking back it seems now to have been very full and sometimes reaching a sprint. It has been a year of travelling (7 different countries!), big steps forward (my own business) and important decisions.

It started, as all years do in Sweden, with fireworks and then a trip to Stockholm. Later in the month I met my mum in Copenhagen and traveled around with her, as we showed each other our lives in the North, both past and present.

As the darkness and cold continued to set in, there was a trip to sunny Malaga, a brief inoculation against the winter that has also left me in love with Spain.
Time passed, fear came to my home town, and then Easter and the turning of the seasons. I continued to work, relief teaching at schools and gathering private students, learning as I went. That fear seemed to grow throughout the year, rising from under the surface and at least right now it doesn’t look as though it’s going to recede any time soon.

More trips around the Nordic regions followed, including a cruise across the Baltic and a short stay in Aarhus, Denmark. Summer arrived, and with the holidays I left a beloved school, experienced my second Midsummer picnic and attempted indoor gardening. Other hobbies included joining a flamenco choir, trying to make it to a language café in between teaching and tasting the brews made by my partner.

As summer passed we flew to Malta, experiencing long sunny days, chaos, sea and incredible history. Back at home work continued to increase, with more and more private students and work through a consultancy. I found less time for writing and reflection, and for the first time since I started this blog, the gaps between posts became 2 weeks or more rather than 1. As my focus shifted, I set about making the most of the change, and formally set up my business, including a website and a business plan.

With the end of the year almost upon us, we visited London, a place I’ve long considered as a home that I’d not yet got around to visiting. It met, surpassed and left my expectations far behind, giving me yet another place that lurks invitingly in the back of my mind whenever I’m feeling restless.

Finally we returned to Australia for family, christmas and a holiday of sorts. It was intense, as any trip home to family, friends and real life is bound to be. As well as the various pressures and commitments, the days of the festive season were for the most part relaxing and enjoyable, filled with food and love. I also got a bit of a tan, though you wouldn’t think so if you asked the repairman who came to fix our dryer. I’m fairly sure I let him down a bit.

Then the year came full circle, with fireworks in the cold, cheering and friends, and a return to the long, dark wait until Spring. 2016 is still new and fresh and full of potential, and no amount of guesswork can tell what might happen. A few things are certain, and will be shared in their time, but mostly the year is unwritten, and we shall we what we shall see.

Sending music into the night

I get the impression that my antipodean friends and family believe that a Swedish winter consists entirely of cold, darkness, dreariness and staring mournfully out of the window in between chugging down beer and eating potatoes to drive away the misery. I want to make it clear, here and now, that this is not entirely true.
Yes, the vitamin D deficiency gets us down sometimes and comfort food is tempting (oh wedges and mash, what would I do without you?), but those of us who choose to live up here find ways to cope and sometimes even drive away the darkness.

Way back in November, all of four months ago now, we were invited to a concert across town in Majorna. We were unclear as to what sort of music there would be, but trusted the inviter’s taste enough to assume it would be interesting. After passing rooms full of billiards, young men smoking on the street and closed nail-art shops we found an obscure door and were within seconds enveloped in warmth and the smell of incense. The concert had already started, so after hanging up our thick layers of jackets, beanies, scarves and mittens we shuffled and apologised our way to the corner where our friends had already taken up position.

The band

The band

On the stage was a band of six men, a guitarist, two drummers, a cellist, a saxophonist and a bassist who treated us to cross-cultural melodies that I couldn’t begin to guess at the origin of. They seemed to twine from the east to west, and probably north and south too, and had all of the feet in the house tapping along. A lady from India then joined them, singing traditional songs in a style I’d never heard before being joined by an Iranian woman whose presence took up the whole venue. She was amazing, and managed to provoke the room into breaking into a veritable orgy of dancing. Fellow audience members who had seemed typically reserved and quiet were bursting all over the stage, a long line and then circle of dancers twisting around along with the music. Or in the case of some people, along with the music in their heads which seemed to have a different tune. Being Australian, and therefore reserved in a different way, we sat and watched and sipped our wine, as I at least tried to ignore the itch in my feet.

Once started the dancing can't stop

Once started the dancing can’t stop

We followed the concert with a few drinks at a local pub, claiming paintings of vintage aircraft, dancing, guessing the names of songs and staying until closing time.

When the year had turned and we’d returned and mostly recovered from the excitement of Jul and visitors, another celebration arrived. This time is was a housewarming at the home of a good friend of mine. We turned up late, due to getting a little bit lost, and arrived to find an apartment full of Swedes, warmth and talking. We bobbed around between rooms, chatting and listening, and finally found a space in the living room to enjoy our dinner. I had seen on the invitation that guests were invited to bring their instruments, as the girlfriend of my friend is very heavily involved in music, and it seemed as though most of the others who had come to the party were as well.
As the night drew on we became the slightly stunned but gleeful audience of a sudden orchestra of violinists. A guitar and banjo joined in at various times, plus little people dancing among the legs and chairs, but for the most part violins were coaxed into life, belting out folk music and dances. They all seemed to be speaking a language I couldn’t understand, switching between styles and songs with cues I couldn’t hear or see. At the high point, there were 7 violins playing at one time, and I’d guess about 9 in total passed in and out of the apartment. Though I can play music to an extent, these people had the ability to play in the other sense of the word, in the same way that I sometimes like to do with words – throwing them around to make patterns and for sheer enjoyment.
We left late, or early, with the music following us down the street.

Keeping away the cold

Keeping away the cold

So my advice, if you want to take it, is if you are feeling cold and miserable on a winter’s night, follow an invitation for a night of talking and music. Even if you don’t bring your own violin, you can sit amid the music and forget the cold.

A family forest and frozen archipelago

For us folks from little old Göteborg, it’s always a bit of a jolt arriving in Stockholm as you climb off the train and are soon enveloped in masses of bustling folk, tourists, locals going to and from work, locals between pubs, beggars and others whose intentions I could not guess. So it was this latest time, as I met my partner at the station. As I mentioned in the previous post, my mum had already arrived and my fella had just finished a day of work, so all that remained was for both of us to make our way to the house where we would be staying.
We joined commuters on the pendeltåg to Uppsala (one day I’ll follow it the whole way), and after a wander and a bus ride we arrived at our stop. My mum found us there and before long we were unloading our baggage at the guest rooms and I at least was starting to relax a bit.
After a little refreshment, we went to the home of one of my mum’s childhood friends, the lady who had arranged for us to have the guest rooms. We were welcomed into warmth with wine and conversation, and soon felt at home. We would end up spending the beginning and end of the next few days at her home, and I think we took the ‘make yourself at home’ line to heart.
We had a delicious, cosy dinner followed by lots of chatting and finally, as my eyelids began to droop, we went back to the guest room and rested.

The next morning my partner went off to work early, but my mum and I took our time getting ready, breakfasting at the apartment and planning the day ahead. Around mid-morning we were on a train bound for the city and were soon after wandering the streets of Gamla Stan. After investigating the Palace and taking photos, our first stop was a cafe that had been recommended by the daughter of our host.

A history of visitors

A history of visitors

As she said, there was a sign out the front promising mint tea, which turned out to be everything she had said and more. It was basically a large mug filled with handfuls of mint leaves, chunks of ginger and slices of lemon (and after an incident with mum’s drink, a little bit of melted chocolate), and was wonderful.

Mint tea

Mint tea

The minty, gingery warmth more than made up for the slight envy I may have had for my mum’s bowl – mug doesn’t cut it here – of hot chocolate. Thus warmed and sweetened, we continued our explorations. We had no plan and so took what streets we found, admiring old buildings, posing in front of the Nobel museum and exclaiming at the rune stone lodged in a wall.

Stockholm in the sun

Stockholm in the sun

As we finally left Gamla Stan, we had a look around the Medieval Museum, hidden under Norrbro. I’d been there once before, and it was just as interesting this time. We followed a tour guide around and poked around ourselves, admiring the reconstructed houses, monastery, markets and recreations. As before, I was struck by the poignant model of a woman realising she had the plague, and a monk eternally checking his herb garden.

A monk tending his garden

A monk tending his garden

Back outside we continued our journey through the busy shopping and business areas of the city, catching a short tram ride to Nybroplan and then finding Östermalms Saluhall.

A calm elk

A calm elk

We had a snack and took part in people watching, noting the grandparents with grandkids, old friends, couples and those who ate alone who surrounded our little table. A walk around the hall revealed amazing fish, a remarkably calm elk head, feathered chickens and countless other treats and sights.

An unimpressed fish

An unimpressed fish

Back out in the cold we took refuge in design stores and a cafe as we made our way back to the station bit by bit, finally arriving in time to relax before being served another delicious dinner.

The first time I visited Stockholm, I also trekked out of the city to visit the suburb where my mum grew up and found her old home. I’d been in a rush, as I got lost on the way, and so only made a note of the concrete pool in the front yard that she’d told me her father had made and thought that it seemed very quiet and un-lived-in. As we approached the house this time, comments about remembered landmarks and friends filled the front of the car – ‘that’s where so-and-so lived’ ‘I saw him three years ago’ ‘what happened to her?’ ‘do you remember the quiet boy at the end of the street?’ My partner and I sat in the back and stared out at the normal looking suburb, rows of similar looking houses blanketed in snow and hills covered in thick forests. We pulled up at my mum’s old house, and after showing off the letter box made by her father she lead us up into the forest. I’d heard a lot about this forest as I was growing up – days of picking berries, building huts, making bows and arrows, playing tricks on neighbours and all of the other pastimes that 4 children can invent away from the interference of adults. As we picked our way over drifts of snow and around trees she pointed out familiar rocks, a place where they built a hut, the multitude of blueberry bushes, the tracks in the distance where they skied and the path from school.

Childhood forest

Childhood forest

I imagine that as a child the forest would have been as big as a whole world, with endless possibilities and even with adult eyes more suited to measuring and creating meaning I could see the trees that would make perfect hideaways and the borders of the forest seemed to fall away.

From the forest we went for lunch at the local shopping centre, which had grown a bit over the years. At the supermarket my mum excitedly grabbed a brochure with the name of the suburb, as alas we had been unable to find t-shirts of the ‘I ♥ ____’ variety.

That night was to be a reunion for my mum and a few friends, so my partner and I had the evening to ourselves. Following a recommendation, we went to Medborgarplatsen or ‘Medis’, the most real feeling area I had yet seen in Stockholm. Rather than packs of tourists, it seemed mostly inhabited with locals and though the restaurant where we ate had English menus it didn’t have tourist prices.

On Sunday morning my partner returned to Göteborg, so us three ladies went on a boat tour of the archipelago. I had last seen it in August on an old steamer, sitting out on the deck admiring the green islands and watching families have parties on their terraces across the water. This time there were no outdoor parties, and much of the greenery was covered in a blanket of white.

Winter islands

Winter islands

It was still lovely, however, crisp and clean contrasts of dark green, grey blue and white across the land- and water-scape. The tour included a guide, who punctuated the trip with history and anecdotes, and seemed very excited to find people who could speak Swedish. He’d break off now and then and give us a tid-bit that he didn’t share with the others, and despite getting the age of a famous skiier and the Germanic ally who had betrayed the Romans in the Teutoberg forest wrong, he was an excellent guide.

Living in the archipelago

Living in the archipelago

Some final wandering through the city followed the tour, and we then headed back to the apartment for our last dinner together. We finished with a dessert that had amazed me so much the other time I ate it that I was given seconds. Who would have thought that fried pepparkaka dough, icecream, blue cheese and fig jam would be the perfect combination? If you take nothing else away from this blog, I hope it is a nagging curiosity about how this recipe could exist and a yearning to try it.

On the following day my mum and I both departed, though at different times and to different places. She caught an early train to Oslo, and then on to Lillehammer. I went later in the morning on a train back to Göteborg to return to what would become normal life. Thus ended the part of my mum’s trip that was spent with us, about two weeks of conferencing, touristing, eating, talking, walking and celebrating. She is now back in Australia, I imagine having long adjusted to normal life and a pretty dramatic temperature difference. Who knows how long it’ll be until she’s here next, exclaiming about snow, showing us how to make Thai food and sharing explorations. I hope it isn’t too long.

Family, home and snow games

Every time we have guests coming to visit us from overseas, I have to quell the urge to turn into a cross between a tour guide and a real estate agent, showing of my home city like some newly renovated town house. This urge was even stronger when we recently entertained my mum, as part of her journey around Scandinavia. Due to, or maybe in spite of, my arm waving I’m fairly sure she accepts that while it isn’t Perth, it will do for now.

Unfortunately Göteborg wasn’t doing itself any favours when we first arrived, if you’re from Australia and are missing the sunlight. We arrived on the second day of a heavy fall of snow, and as we tumbled off the train the flakes were falling in thick, soft clumps, swirling around us and sticking to our beanies. As she grew up in this sort of weather, my mum seemed pretty delighted with it, the heavy suitcases notwithstanding, and once we were waiting for the last leg of our journey home she released possibly years of a repressed need to throw snowballs and make snowmen.
Our home sometimes seems to be in a different climate, so by the time we’d reached our neighbourhood, the snow was even thicker and in order to get our suitcases home we rotated clearing a trail and takingregular rests. We would see soon eough why the suitcases were so heavy.

The first of three snowmen

The first of three snowmen

Once we had settled a bit and warmed up, an activity of great importance was discussed, the very mention of which had made my mum nearly vibrate with enthusiasm. There was just enough sunlight to make it worthwhile, so without further ado we were back out the door, my mum and partner clad in waterproof gear and clutching skis. Even though she hadn’t skied for many years, my mum soon seemed to get the hang of it, though took the chance a few times to ‘sit down’ for a little while. And yes mum, it was more than 3 times. While they sped around and tumbled, I took photos and tried a bit of art, and then as the sun set we went back to the warm apartment.

Skiiers

Skiiers

It was then that the weight of the suitcases was explained, as bottle after bottle of wine was unloaded and finally a six-pack of Little Creatures beer, a special treat for my partner. Dinner was eaten, relaxing was done and then we all collapsed in our respective beds, quite exhausted.

Yet another snowman

Yet another snowman

By some coincidence, our visitor from Australia had arrived two days before Australia Day and had with her piles of flags, bunting, balloons and local food. As Australia Day was to fall on Monday, we had arranged to have a bbq at our place on the Sunday, inviting a few of our friends over to celebrate. And so around midday, as the decorations were being hung up and the food prepared, friends began to arrive and soon the bbq was lit out on the snow covered backyard.

A bit of decoration

A bit of decoration

While we waited and sipped our drinks, there were a few snowball fights, one angel and one very happy chap with his bbq. The food was tasty, there was music and my mum took pride of place at the table, talking about Australia, sustainability and Scandinavia. It was fun and relaxing, and even if the temperature never rose above 0 and there were no fireworks, it was just the sort of party that sums up how I see the Australian attitude to life.
Plus, there was vegemite, a coffee pavlova and Timtams.

Bbq in the snow

Bbq in the snow

For the second full day, I took my mum into town, trying to make the most of the cold, overcast and snowy weather. We went to Universeum first, wandered around the exhibits, through the rainforest, stared up at mammoths and shivered, and played with the interactive science exhibits. It was fun, a bit silly and interesting, and we capped it off with a snack which in my case turned out to be extremely hot mustard with a hint of hotdog.

Mammoths, not as cold as us

Mammoths, not as cold as us

Mouth still burning, we headed out into the weather to grab fika with a friend of mine at my favourite cafe. We of course ordered a semla to share, and enjoyed it with tea, coffee and chatting as our coats dried and the snow fell outside. Soon we were on our way again, through town to investigate Scandinavian homeware brands, and coo over Marimekko and Iittala. As night closed in we met my partner for dinner at our favourite burger restaurant, and toasted to a lovely stay in our home town.

On the third and final full day, I had to work in the afternoon so our guest entertained herself, visiting museums and art galleries, and being amazed at the variety and quality of art that this little town has. That night I was also asked to do a night class, so I got home late, but in time to eat the Thai meal that she had prepared. On the morning of the next day we parted at the train station, her to begin her journey to Stockholm and me to prepare for another class.
Through some sort of strange chance, myself, my mum and my partner would all be descending on Stockholm within the same two days but at different times. The same day my mum left my partner did as well, and so for the first time in over a week I had space and an apartment to myself. I blogged and worked for much of this night, keeping the loneliness and quiet away, and as the lesson on the next day was cancelled I had the following morning to pack and prepare to join them. Which was how I found myself on a train heading to Stockholm, preparing for new sights and familiar ones, friends I had not seen in a while and new people to meet. After four hours I would see it all, but until then I had a book to read and work to do, and so I sat back and waited.

The end and the beginning

The days after our return from Lillehammer were filled with…nothing much in particular. We unpacked, nested, ate leftover pepparkakor and started planning and gathering supplies for the end.

We had two fellow country folk visiting to celebrate with us, so bits of planning slowly built up until the 31st finally arrived, accompanied by our visitors. After they got off the train there was only a brief window of sunlight in which to show them our hometown, so we gave them a quick tour via a tram and a walk, and then headed home. Then followed a little smörgåsbord, some drinking, music, chatting and relaxing, and a gradual build up to the big moment. It seemed though that others were not as patient, as crashes, bangs and flashes continued around us almost without pause.

Finally, with 15 minutes to spare, we went out to the pre-arranged location. Chinese lanterns floated beneath the clouds and lights filled the horizons, and at 12 our own supplies were lit. Within seconds 36 fireworks went off, filling the sky with colour and our ears with noise. It lasted about 10 seconds in total, and pretty much as soon as it was over I wanted more, and thanked whatever luck had ensured that fireworks were not banned in this country. Across the road another party wished us a happy new year and we returned their cheers, laughing and coughing slightly from the drifting smoke.

For another half an hour the celebrations continued all around us, some crackers in backyards, fireworks shooting horizontally up streets, an occasional fire engine and the horizon lit up on all sides. The previous year we had been in the middle of town, and though it had also been full of barrages of fireworks, the open space of our new neighbourhood gave us a better sense of the number of celebrations and the excitement felt in the community. Whether it was due to excitement at the profusion of fireworks or greeting the new year, the night was filled with happiness and a little bit of danger, which is a good sort of beginning.

Trying to photograph fireworks

Trying to photograph fireworks

The next morning we would have to get up early, so we went to bed as soon as we got home, and seemingly moments later were awakened by our alarms and were then out the door. Our destination was Stockholm, and the journey there featured measuring the speed of the train (quite fast), remarking on the tinyness of the cakes and failing to catch up on sleep. We soon arrived in the big city, and after dumping our stuff at the hotel set out to explore.

Streets of Gamla Stan

Streets of Gamla Stan

I had visited Stockholm twice before, so the size, charming old streets and lovely harbours were no surprise, though it was nice to see it through new eyes. We headed to Gamla Stan first, and spent hours wandering up and down the wide and narrow streets and alleys, checking out the shops and taking a lot of photos.

Lights at night

Lights at night

As it got dark dinner was had and as if carried by the thick, cold winds we made our way back to the hotel to while away the hours with chatting, snacking and laughing.

An old saint, getting into some slaying

An old saint, getting into some slaying

Sadly, our visitors hadn’t come alone. With them they had brought a strain of flu, and so on the second day in Stockholm one of them was struck down and unable to join us for adventures. So instead three of us set out, making our way through the cool morning air to Djurgården.

We took the long walk to the island, winding along the banks of the river past the palace, bridges, elaborately fronted apartments and even a bird feeding station, which was very popular with the locals.

Stockholmers at breakfast

Stockholmers at breakfast

Once on the island we dodged the rain to the Vasa museum, and managed to get there before the long queues. The ship was impressive, as usual, a great dark hulk that seems to take up all available space. I had tried to downplay how impressive it was to our guest so that she would be even more impressed, but I think she saw through my ruse. Possibly my excitement gave it away.

The Vasa

The Vasa

We spent a while admiring the ship, and trying to sort out an issue that had come up, and before we knew it the time had come to head back to town. This time we took the shorter route through the main streets, passing giant elk, shops, squares and a lot of busy city folk. Having already packed we then went over to the train station to eat and wait for the train. Following its arrival and many farewells, we climbed aboard and discovered to my delight that we were in a booth that had a distinct Hogwarts Express feel. The novelty never quite faded, and the pianist at the bar kept the glee going for the remainder of the ride back home, where we were pleased to discover, it had just snowed.

The days after Jul

The day after Jul has always been associated with resting and recovering, at least in my old home. We’d wake up late, have a brunch of leftovers, reorder our rooms with the new gifts, flick through the inevitable books and consider the age old question of whether it’s sensible to float around in the pool on the new inflatable sofa while holding a full glass and avoiding spillage. And how long it would be before my sister bombied in and overturned both the sofa, myself and the glass.

For various reasons, not limited to the lack of inflatable sofas and my sister, we had a different day after Jul last year. It was on the 25th for a start.

As mentioned previously, I’m used to having Jul on the 24th according to Scandinavian tradition. I am also used to having it again on the 25th, according to Australian tradition, which isn’t followed in Norway. As such rather than two Juls we had two Boxing Days, both of which we spent in Norway. The first was spent recovering from Jul, heading out for wintery exercise and then a family meal and the second getting into a bit more exercise and finally beginning our journey back to Sweden.

The Julenek

The Julenek

After we had woken up and refreshed ourselves, we had a chat with family back in Australia. Thanks to the miracle of Skype, we were able to chat to a whole party of people enjoying a sunny bbq, and try to get our collective heads around the 50+ temperature difference at either end of the call.

We then packed on layers of jackets, beanies and gloves, grabbed some skiis and went out for some much needed exercise. It isn’t the custom in Norway to spend a whole day relaxing when there is snow outside, and it seemed that the rest of the town had the same idea. My own attempts weren’t quite as skillful, but we managed about an hour before we called home for a ride. While we waited I realised that my eye lashes were freezing together for the first time in my life, and my partner was developing long, frosty threads on my beanie and scarf. Around us the sunny weather belied the cold, and almost fooled us into not noticing the cold. Almost.

If only there was an automatic setting

If only there was an automatic setting

Back at home we unlayered ourselves and dressed up nicely for the visitors who would be arriving soon. They were the family we had met to visit the graveyard the day before, and soon after we had smartened ourselves up they arrived and the Jul celebrations continued.

The tradition on this day is to have a long lunch on the leftovers from the Jul dinner and have another go at the schnaps, which is what we all duly did. Chat, food, jokes and laughter rolled around, and soon we found ourselves under the tree enjoying a selection of biscuits, cakes and treats. The eating and chatting continued long into the evening, and then the guests departed with hugs and hopes to see each other again before too long.

Evening falls

Evening falls

In the relative quiet by the fire, my partner and I unwrapped the final gifts that had been sent my his family, that we had kept back until the Australian Jul day. More chatting, sipping wine, playing with the nutcracker, snacking and reading followed, finished off by sleepy goodbyes and curling up for one last night in Norway.

The nutcracker

The nutcracker

On our final day we decided to have one last go on the spark, and see if we could take some photos at Maihaugen, the local open air museum. The temperature had dropped even more by this time, and clouds covered the sun, so despite the beautiful surroundings and our energetic walking and kicking along, we were soon chilly. During the walk back my chin went completely numb and I ceased to have any feeling in my toes. We did have fun sliding down slopes on the spark, though and going ‘weee’ in a way that I hope didn’t disturb the neighbours.

The stave church at Maihaugen

The stave church at Maihaugen

Before too long is was time to pack and get ready to go, and as we did so snow began to fall, the first we had seen during our trip. So it was with the outside world slightly muffled by falling snow that we said goodbye to our hosts, trying to express our enjoyment and gratitude for the wonderful Jul we’d been invited to share. Then we were out, in the car and then at the station, tromping over to the waiting train.

The snow fall

The snow fall

Jul was over for another year, our first white christmas and hopefully not our last. It was one of the loveliest I have had, and I hope that my writing conjures up the memories of it for you as writing it has done for me.

Marzipan pigs, almonds, family and light

An unexpected benefit to having parents from Scandinavia and Australia is that not only do you get an untraceable accent but two christmases. I can still recall the glee of opening presents a day before everyone else I knew, and the conviction that I’d better not question it in case my parents changed their minds.

The tradition has always been to have a big lunch with family and friends, and then in the evening, when the children’s patience had reached fever pitch, someone would burst in wearing a santa suit and the unwrapping would begin. Over the years the unwrapping would creep earlier and earlier, and the santa suit was left in the cupboard, though the dinner and gathering of those nearest and dearest always remained. These are the traditions I associate with christmas, and what I had expected to an extent when we were invited to the Norwegian family Jul last year. A few weeks prior to Jul I got an email detailing what would happen, a list of traditional meals and events that we would be following. We were intrigued and I was  slightly nervous that we would upset the carefully orchestrated flow of the holidays. As it turned out I needn’t have worried, though perhaps more effort at stretching the capacity of my stomach may have helped.

Julafton morning light

Julafton morning light

So it was that when the 24th dawned and we had all enjoyed a hefty breakfast, one of the important family rituals was prepared. I set up my laptop in the study and made a call across the world, and was soon chatting to my family, who were drying off from a dip in the pool. We marveled at the snow and 30+ weather outside our respective windows, gossiped and laughed and tried to bridge the gap of distance as much as technology can allow.

After the call was finished my partner dashed off to try out his skis for the first time, which my cousin had kindly waxed the night before. While he zipped back and forth on the snow I relaxed at home taking photos and helping with some work. There were a few visitors who stepped in to wish the family God Jul and hand out biscuits and best wishes, and before too long the skiers returned, cheeks flushed from the cold and ready for a little something to eat.

Jul decoration

Jul decoration

Lunch on Julafton in this house is risengrynsgrøt, or rice porridge, served with butter, sugar and cinnamon and crucially one almond. The almond is mixed into the rice and whoever happens to find it in their serving gets a chocolate covered marzipan pig. My cousin was the current reigning champion, with the last 5 almonds under his belt, and so seemed fairly confident of victory. But what about beginner’s luck? Thus ensued a meal of careful munching, poker faces and surreptitious poking through the thick, milky rice. After the first serving no one admitted to finding the almond and so second servings were offered, and despite my stomach beginning to groan I got a few spoonfuls. With tensions mounting and suspicious glances filling the room, my spoon hit something solid. I am terrible at poker faces, so when I spat it out a few minutes later, I think I had lost the element of surprise. There was cheering though, and cries of ‘You come to my house, and you take my pig!’ from my cousin and among it all I received the pig. Victory was sweet, even if I did feel as though I could never eat again.

Traditional wafer cakes

Traditional wafer cakes

All the excitement and eating required a bit of relaxing so for the next few hours we sat around, read a bit and helped with preparations for dinner. As the light faded from the sky we headed out the door for another tradition, with family I hadn’t met and would never meet.
The first time I had visited had been a few days after Jul the previous year, and we had been taken to the graves of my grandfather and great grandparents. Their gravestones had been slightly reclaimed by the snow that had been cleared not long before and the candles were still there. It was this tradition that we would be continuing.
The first stop was my aunt’s mother’s house where my uncle and his wife were staying. After a brief stop to say hello and introduce ourselves we were on our way to the church. Inside a mass was underway, the notes of Silent Night drifting out to us as we made our way past the crowds of candlelit gravestones. All around us candles flickered and families stood, clearing snow or lost in thought. There was a continuity there that I haven’t seen in Australia, where generations are so often split up by oceans and forgetting.
Soon we found our family and after clearing the snow off the stones a candle was lit and laid by the grave of my great grandparents. I was then given a candle and as I lit it, my aunt explained that I was the first of my grandfather’s line to light his candle. It was with great care that I set the candle down and scraped snow out of the curved lines of his name, and wished I had met him more than once.

My grandfather

My grandfather

Back at home we changed into our finer clothes, and sat around to enjoy schnaps and a Jul concert on tv. The cheers and wishes for God Jul continued, and followed us as we settled around the dinner table and watched as trays of food, sauces, creams and delicacies were piled around us. The main dish was pinnekjøtt, or salted lamb ribs, which is the traditional Jul dish of the area of Norway where my aunt’s husband comes from. It was served with mashed swede and potatoes and washed down with yet more schnaps, wine and julbrus. Full of food, drink and good spirits there were speeches to accompany the meal, about welcome, family, traditions and gratitude, and cheers all round.

When we reached the point where we absolutely couldn’t fit anymore food in, we tidied up and relaxed around the fire. A box of music appeared by the piano and my aunt treated us to Silent Night and a few old Norwegian carols and I wondered if anything would ever feel more Jul-ey than this.

A skier in the tree

A skier in the tree

The Jultree soon called us and we settled around for the last of the big events. There was no santa suit or ho ho ho-ing, but anticipation as my aunt’s husband announced each gift and we all watched the unwrapping. Our gift to them, a candelabra, seemed to be appreciated and stayed lit for much of the remainder of our stay. In return we got handknitted mittens in a local design which turned out to be the warmest mittens we have owned so far. I was also given some pieces of family heritage, two wooden spoons hand carved by my great grandfather. I felt, and feel, privileged to be entrusted with them.

After the unwrapping was complete and the wrappings had been gathered, dessert was served around the tree. It was handpicked cloudberries in homemade wafer cones with cream, and was delicious.

Replete with food, gifts, drink and happiness, we sat around until late, chatting and reading until the struggle to keep our eyes open became too much. With more calls of God Jul and best wishes, we climbed the stairs and slept the sleep of the contented.

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.