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.

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The hallowed weekend

Growing up in Australia, Halloween wasn’t a big thing in my life. It seems often to have been associated with sniffs and ‘oh, that’s all a bit Americanised, isn’t it?’ which usually leads straight into a rant about how every year Christmas decorations are out earlier and earlier.
There was neither trick nor treat on my street, pumpkins were left unscathed and costumes were something you got for themed birthday parties.

An uncommon sight in Perth

An uncommon sight in Perth

Here in Sweden there’s a similar sense of not taking it too far, but in addition there’s another tradition underlying the new, and as with Jul it concerns light.

Halloween at our apartment started with a frenzy of baking, in which I decided that festivals are basically about food and on a cold rainy day, fiddling about with an oven and sweet food isn’t a bad way to go.
I started with a basic spiced cake, which didn’t turn out exactly right, and will have to be the subject of another go in future. The less said about it the better really.

Next was an ancient Roman delicacy, the awkwardly named Placenta cake, that originated as a religious offering. I found a great blog with heaps of recipes and did the modernised version and it worked well. As with Carthaginian porridge, there’s something about baked cheese and honey that I really like, and that the Romans apparently enjoyed as well.

An offering to the gods

An offering to the gods

Thirdly Soul cakes, which was what I found when I searched for traditional Halloween cakes. They were originally made to honour the dead, and were handed out door to door, and might possibly relate to the origin of trick or treat. There are certainly tasty and easy to make, and my partner amazed even myself with his ability to make them magically disappear. My lesson from this cake though was not to put the raisins on while baking. Cooked raisins aren’t especially raisiny.

Soul cakes

Soul cakes

Finally I made a pile of rolls for dinner, using a miraculous recipe that only requires 30 minutes from start to finish. All delicious and fluffy and perfect with a homemade burger.

Homemade burgers

Homemade burgers

Before you begin wondering where the normal blog went and why a kitchen-fancier has taken over, let’s leave the kitchen and discover another Halloween tradition. As I mentioned earlier, pumpkins were quite safe from the carving knife while I was growing up, but as part of our new life here in Sweden my partner and I decided to give the tradition a go.
Fortunately there were 3 pumpkins left from the wagon loads earlier in the week when we wandered down to the supermarket on the 31st, and 2 of those looked decent enough for our purposes. Some googling and pondering gave us designs and steps, and so after dinner we sat down with a few episodes of Buffy and began to carve. It was surprisingly easy and we were both pleased with our attempts. There will be more carving next year I am sure.

Our pumpkins

Our pumpkins

The next day was partly spent preparing for the Halloween party that night, during which time we realised how under-prepared we were. In order to use one of my favourite dresses I decided to be a witch, complete with a pouch of rune stones, a bunch of herbs, Freya and other suitable jewelry and my candle-lit pumpkin. My partner chose to become a ghoul, and was quite convincing, especially once he put on the cloak. We both did pretty well, considering it was our first time getting dressed up for Halloween.
The party was a lot of fun, with spooky food, friends, new friends, music and a very wide range of costumes.

Herbs and runes

Herbs and runes

And during all these adventures in and out of traditions, the cemetery below our window filled with flickering candles and wreaths of pine and flowers. All Hallows Eve is celebrated over a series of days here in Sweden, so everyday the candles would spread just a little bit more, and we could see family and friends tending the graves and standing vigil. These lights in the darkness, and the remembrance of the dead are a nice counterpoint to the fun and silliness of Halloween. I can imagine people up and down Sweden dressing up as ghosts, monsters or beasts, and then the next day, with the face paint perhaps lingering behind their ears, they head to the cemetery to light a candle for their grandmother and think about those who have passed, and the thin barrier between life and death.

Lights in the cemetery

Lights in the cemetery

Lights in the dark

Fourth Sunday of Advent

As I have been updating this post, the four advent candles have been burning behind my laptop, and a little while ago the first candle burnt out, leaving the others to slowly sink. It is the last Sunday of Advent and Jul is almost here.

The sunburnt buildings and sweet tea of Istanbul seem a long time ago now, with winter settling in and Jul approaching. We have seen snow come and go, and the city unite in traditions that date back before memory. In sunny Australia where the sun sets after 7pm on a christmas night, the profusion of lights on houses and in trees are a glitzy and fun gimmick, to celebrate the season and create as much flash as possible. Here, as the days shorten and are more often overcast, the lights in the windows and in the trees keep away the darkness until the year turns again.

Two of my favourite traditions I have seen in Sweden so far are related to keeping the darkness at bay and though are ostensibly Christian, feel like part of an older tradition.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

I must have heard something somewhere about Advent candles, as I’d been looking around for a candle-holder weeks before December arrived, to no avail. I wasn’t even sure exactly what to look for, other than assuming it held four candles and possibly looked like a smaller menorah. In case you’re reading this and wondering what I’m rambling about, the Advent candle tradition says that for every Sunday in December you light the first candle on the first Sunday, the second candle on the second, the third on the third and on the final Sunday all the candles are lit. As I understand it the tradition is some sort of count down to Jesus, but I like to think of it as a count down to Jul and the new year, and a good excuse to get involved in some old traditions.

As the weeks went on they started to pop up all over the place, and I eventually found just the right one in the city. I got four red candles and eagerly awaited the first Sunday, and watched as other windows filled with candles and lights. Most other windows have electric lights, with multiple candles in a triangle shape, which I’ll probably get next year for the sake of practicality, but in my opinion nothing beats slowly burning candles lighting up a room. Wherever I go in the city, in every neighbourhood, office building and shop, almost all windows contain Advent candles, lighting up the room and a little bit of the world outside.
There are also stars, in a variety of patterns and colours, which are hung instead of or over the candles, though what the specific tradition they represent is, I don’t know. Needless to say we have one.

Our star, with the Liseberg tree behind

The second tradition begins with far off voices gradually getting louder, and light slowly filling a dark room. When I first saw it and heard it, at the Göteborg City Hall, I was transfixed. They had stuck with tradition, and the girl who entered the room first had 6 real candles on her crown, and the other 5 were wearing pure white robes and red bands around their waists as she did. They were all singing the traditional song, Santa Lucia. They sang a number of songs in Swedish, a couple in English and then ended with the first, slowly walking out in a line as their voices faded away. I have since seen a Lucia tåg (train) at my Swedish school and semi-accidentally took part in an attempt at the world’s longest Lucia tåg, both of which were more fun and felt like part of the glue that holds Swedish culture together. The first one I saw, though, felt magical and reverent.

Lucia, watched over by Hermes

One version of the story says that in around 300CE there lived in Syracuse, on the island of Sicily, a young woman named Lucia. She was betrothed to some guy, and all was fine, until her mother became sick. She prayed to all the gods she could think of (this being in the late Roman Empire, they had amassed plenty for her to choose from) and ran from doctor to doctor to find a cure but to no avail. Then one night she dreamed of an angel who promised that her mother would get better if Lucia converted to Christianity, became celibate and did some proselytising.
Despite Christianity apparently being a crime at this time, she agreed. So she went around talking about Jesus and broke of the engagement, which upset her betrothed (I assume that her mother also got better, as I couldn’t find a mention of her after this stage). He told the local law enforcers about her proselytising and they attempted to arrest her, but though they grabbed her and tried to drag her away they were unable to move her. Then someone else came up with the idea of stacking wood around her and set it alight, but even engulfed in flames she lived, until someone else stabbed her with a sword. Later she was made into a saint. Even later than that her story was combined with ancient Swedish traditions and became the festival of today.

In addition of the procession of girls, and in some cases cone-hatted stjärngossar (star boys), on this night many younger people are said to party late into the night. This is supposed to be a celebration of the ending of the school or uni year, but again the tradition goes back further. An ancient Swedish tradition said that on the 13th of December the Lussi, an evil female demon, would fly around the land with her followers the Lussiferda, and kidnap anyone silly enough to be outside or who had been naughty. To protect themselves and the households people would hold a vigil all night long, keeping candles lit and watching the darkness. These days people don’t fear evil spirits who may steal them away, but some things last long after people remember why they started.

Last night we held our own party to keep the darkness at bay, a gathering of friends who came to eat and drink and talk, and enjoy the warmth and light. It happened to be on the Winter solstice, and in memory of our country that had just celebrated the Summer solstice, we served kangaroo, among curry, pepparkakor, cheesy, nutty, honeyed bread and pastries supplied by one of our guests. Before the year is over, and as the year turns, we may gather with friends again in the night, with yet more eating, talking and drinking, marking time till the end of winter.

The last Sunday draws on

In two days we’ll celebrate Julafton (christmas eve), opening the presents piling up under our little tree and watching by skype as our families open their gifts. Then we hope to travel somewhere not too far away, to explore more of Sweden and get away from the day to day life, and if we’re lucky see some snow. We may not get a white christmas this year, but it has so far been more of a christmas in other ways than I have ever had, apart from the lack of my family, which for me has always been the heart of Jul.