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.

Sunny days and nights

These past two weeks we have been able to see our city from a slightly different perspective; that of tourists. My partner’s parents have been visiting from Australia, and when we were able we took them for walks, visited sites or recommended places to visit. For the most part they seemed happy to wander around and explore themselves, and then on most evenings we’d go over to their apartment. Through some sort of incredible luck, their visit has coincided with over a week of sunny days, which ended the day they left. So we’d head over of an evening, and before long it would be 10pm and the sun would still be shining through the windows.

Out on the islands

Out on the islands

After a few days my partner’s sister and her boyfriend arrived, and we continued to show off our home city and share late dinners at the rented apartment. On one day we took a ferry to Brännö, one of the islands in the southern archipelago. Aside from some brief cloud cover it was clear and warm, roses were out along trellises and over fences and some grassy fields even had sheep and lambs wandering around in them. It was all extremely bucolic. We had lunch in the sun, under the supervision of the restaurant cat, and fika at a cafe hidden among the dockyards as we waited for the next ferry.

A ferry alternative

A ferry alternative

When we got back to town we spent some time on the balcony of the apartment, soaking in the evening sun and musing over summer, travel and luck. After we had all rested enough and some of us had got their nerves in order, we headed over to Liseberg.

It had been decided a few days previously that a few of us would attempt the Helix, a new ride that we had seen being constructed and whose passengers we regularly heard as they swooped and screamed around the tracks. Sadly it was temporarily closed when we got there so instead a brave few tried out Atmos-fear, the 116m free-fall tower that is the source of most of the screaming that you can hear from the park.

Atmosfear

Atmosfear

A couple of us decided to watch, and managed to see the others as they slowly ascended and then very quickly dropped back down. They seemed quite shaken afterwards, but were still game enough to try out Balder, the big wooden rollercoaster that I had tried last year. Remembering what it was like, I went and had a glass of wine with my partner’s mum and waited for the more adventurous people to join us.

They eventually did, looking a bit more exhilarated and still eager to try Helix, which had just started up again. As we sat and drank, the band stage was filling with dancers of all ages and styles, all of whom had definite moves. I don’t seem to notice notices for dancing classes any more than I saw in Australia, but judging by what I’ve seen at Liseberg, dancing does seem to be pretty popular here in Sweden. Perhaps it’s those long dark winter nights.

Finally the time had come. The now slightly reduced group went over to the line for the Helix, and those not taking part found a table at the Austrian themed restaurant to wait and eat. Soon they returned, and the food arrived, and in all the talk of the rides I felt very little regret at not going. Perhaps I’ll try in future, when the need to prove myself outweighs the memory of those vertiginous drops.

Liseberg in the evening

Liseberg in the evening

As darkness finally began to set in, the parents decided to call it a night, while the rest of us headed into town. We’d decided that we needed to show them the side of Göteborg where the locals spent their time and were soon in a noisy, crowded pub, chatting and trying not to listen to the loud Australian behind us, telling his new friends about goon-bags.

They have all since left for other travels, though we plan to meet them again in Oslo next week, possibly for the last time until we next visit Australia.

In other news, the first part of my Swedish course finished last week. The class, including many people I’ve studied with for 6 months, had a last fika with the teacher who has been with us from the start. The new classes next term will be with some of the same people, and a few new teachers, and the work will only continue to get harder. And then it too will end, and all sorts of other options will be available. Not too long now.

A Midsummer Eve’s picnic

I believe I often mention here how much I have grown to appreciate the passing of the seasons and the depth and endurance of the festivities that mark them. Last Friday I got yet another example, as I ate, talked and briefly danced my way through the longest day of the year.

As with Jul, most people in Sweden visit their families for Midsummer, heading off to remote towns or across the country for a few days of eating and catching up. Friends of mine with Swedish partners began disappearing days before, while those of us left in Göteborg cast around for a way to join in the celebrations. Somewhere my partner and I had heard about traditional festivities in a large park in the centre of town, and while I had heard it was mostly for the benefit of non-Swedes, it seemed like a nice way to get into the spirit.

A maypole

A maypole

My partners’ parents were still in the country so we arranged to have a picnic with them. The feast included sill (pickled herring), baby potatoes, mushroom and cheese pie, fruit, salad, chicken kebabs and lingon sauce. Plus cider and beer of course. Combined with the sun and company it went down extremely well, so much so that we somehow forgot the strawberries, which are an essential part of midsummers eve.

Midsommarafton feast

Midsommarafton feast

As the day drew on people began to gather around the maypole and a stage, joined by folk in traditional costumes. We wandered over to have a look, and through the crowd managed to see heads bobbing up and down in time to the folk music being played on the stage. Soon the folk dancers stopped and the crowd began to change shape, opening up into circles and pushing spectators into clumps. Without much warning the circles began to bounce and twist around, holding hands and singing along to the band on the stage.

Flower crowned dancers

Flower crowned dancers

It was extremely infectious and only my shyness held me back from joining in. The various dances, including the infamous frog dance and something about washing clothes before going to church on Sunday took about an hour, in which I wandered around dodging dancers and enjoying the atmosphere. Right at the end I was spotted by a friend, who called me over and then pulled me into their circle of cheering and kicking strangers.

Dancing around the maypole

Dancing around the maypole

After the crowds had dispersed we decided to move our picnic to that of our friends, including a few Swedish people who were able to explain a bit more about the traditions and even tried to teach us traditional songs. We ate strawberries and cake and time passed. In time it began to get a bit chilly, but no less bright, and my partners parents left.

Soon after one of our friends marked out a rare empty space on the grass and began setting up small wooden blocks. The blocks were part of an old game called kubb, that we were told dates from the Viking era. The aim is to knock over your opponents blocks with wooden batons, and then knock over the king, which stands in between the two rows of blocks. Easy said than done! Despite looking simple it took a lot of strategy, not to mention good aim, though in the end the ladies team prevailed. Twice. Not that we made a big deal about it, of course.

The game goes on

The game goes on

After this we continued to relax as the sky gradually became darker, till at around 11.30 we decided to warm up in a nearby bar. When we eventually left the bar the sky was thick with clouds, and just dark enough to make out one star in a small gap, the first we’ve seen in a long time.

The rest of the weekend felt like Boxing day, with most of the shops and cafes closed and the streets deserted. Today the country returned to normal, though somewhere, in sheds or storerooms, maypoles of all sizes wait for next year, when the weather will hopefully be as clear and sunny as that on our first Midsummers eve.

A tourist at home

I am writing this from my apartment in Göteborg, as outside the sun shines the the flowers continue to bloom in every possible hue. It’s a contrast to the overcast chill of my last day in Perth, an irony that is definitely not been lost on me.

The morning choir

The morning choir

Though it has resulted in this post being a few days later than usual, I thought I’d wait till I returned to Sweden to write the final post about the trip to Australia. Now that I’m back I have a different perspective than what I had when I was sitting in my old bedroom, listening to the magpies in the trees outside the window. Sitting here in the apartment, listening to the cars roar past on the highway outside the window, the whole trip seems almost unreal. It’s the feeling I was somewhat expecting when we arrived in Perth 3 weeks ago, as though the months in Sweden had been a passing fancy, and we were now back home at last. Instead I felt off balance for about two weeks, a mix of jetlag and an unsettling feeling that the familiar was foreign. I tried to explain this to family and friends, and I’m not sure now whether it made sense, or whether I inadvertently sounded as though I was gladly clear of our home town. Although, the only way to really sound like a native is to knock it, right?

A black swan

A black swan

One part of the trip that I very much enjoyed was getting to spend time in by myself among trees. I do that here as well, but it’s different when it’s the types of trees and shrubs I grew up with and can name. There were walks around the home, including finding half of a smashed bee hive in the empty trunk of a fallen branch that still smelt of honey and visiting one of my favourite parks.

A pearly eucalypt

A pearly eucalypt

The pine plantation that surrounds the park was my childhood image of a fairy tale forest, and I spent hours there acting out adventures with friends or just wandering by myself and staring up at the towering pines and pretending I was in a forest in a far off land.
My family had bbqs in the curve of a creek, under a tree whose leaves turned gold in Autumn, and one of my favourite photos of my dad was taken there, as he supervised the wood-fire bbq.
Also in the park is an old oak, planted in 1870 which from a distance looks dense and no taller than the eucalypts surrounding it. When you walk along the raised platform and step underneath, it’s as though you’re inside a dome of leaves, sheltered by branches that reach almost to the ground that are in turn held up by an immense trunk. I’ve seen karri trees over 70 metres tall in the south of WA, and old olive trees in Italy, but for me they don’t compare to that old oak.

A 144 year old oak

A 144 year old oak

In addition to walks in the forest, I spent most of the final week driving around to last-minute catch ups, and eating a lot. I just looked at my calendar and Sunday through to Thursday are back-to-back lunches, afternoon teas and dinners. I also managed to see my grandma, who I haven’t seen in many years. It’s impossible to replace nine months of casual meet ups with a few hours over tea or a meal and surprisingly surprising to remember that time passes at the same speed across the world. People move on to new jobs, try new things, change plans and go about their lives, irrespective of any imaginary pause buttons. Hearing of new plans and ideas, I’m looking forward to seeing how much change another year will bring.

Dinner at Little Creatures

Dinner at Little Creatures

So what have I learnt from the trip?

That a holiday and visiting an old home are not the same thing.

Nothing beats good food and good company.

It takes a few days for my native accent to cease being hilarious.

Something can be both familiar and foreign at the same time.

Home doesn’t have to be one place.

Magpies and old places

I would be interested to know if there exists in any language a word for the feeling that something is both familiar and strange at the same time. It is a feeling that I have discovered since arriving in Australia on Sunday night. Driving up into the hills, seeing the old and newly greened bushland, and my parents’ house, it seems as though I never left. Perhaps the whole thing was some Eurovision induced fantasy.

Whether or not the months in Sweden have been a dream, the long flight over here couldn’t have been faked. As anyone who’s made long-haul flights will know, the only thing worse than 10 hours tightly packed into a cabin is the queues, waiting, security checks and sudden rush before and after the flights. The reward of course is arriving, and for us being able to see our families for the first time in months. Thanks to skype we never feel too far away from them but the internet is no substitute for a hug.

The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean

That first night we slept like the dead, waking up mid-morning to a strange feeling of warmth. While it’s been mostly cloudy with occasional showers since we arrived, it is much warmer than what we left behind and I am right now indulging in a pair of shorts, which I have not worn since we left last year. Though my mind is slowly adjusting to being on holiday and being in Australia, my body is still finding the warmth and humidity strange, and noticing more than ever the scent of eucalyptus, the soil after rain and the din of all the birds calling in the bush.

The sun behind a grasstree

The sun behind a grasstree

I went for a walk on Wednesday afternoon and felt a bit like a tourist, amazed by the cries of the various parrots, cockatoos, magpies, finches, mudlarks and other unknown birds, and the strange shapes and colours of the plants lining the gravel path. I was reminded again of the contrast between soft and hard shown in the Australian bush. The parrot bush, with its sharp edged leaves and downy yellow flowers, the prickly moses with buds not yet in bloom and an unknown grass the blades of which twist like calligraphy.

Calligraphy

Calligraphy

Another new experience was the other people cycling, walking or running on the path. Without exception, they smiled, nodded or said good morning and we passed each other. One fellow shooting past on a bike even said thank you when I moved to the side of the path in response to his bell ringing. I suppose people in Australia, or at least those who live out beyond suburbia, will probably shrug and wonder what I’m talking about. You see, in Sweden, if you meet someone on a path, or on a road, be they walking, cycling or running, the most acknowledgement you can expect is a nod. Mostly I get the briefest of eye-contact, if that. There are a few ladies who are an exception, as I pass them every day and one of their dogs generally chases me, so I get a semi-apologetic smile and ‘hej’ as I outrun the little ball of fluff. I am now experiencing the reverse of what I got used to months ago, as I blink in surprise at friendly greetings from strangers.

Prickly Australian natives

Prickly Australian natives

Further proof that I am in Australia came on Wednesday night, as I pulled aside the curtain in my bedroom to close the window. Perched on the sill, looking just as surprised as me, was a little gecko. It turned out that the top of the window screen was slightly open, so I climbed up and pulled it out so I could set the gecko free (no double glazed windows in Australia) and as I did so a big black spider scuttled across the screen. Thinking it was a redback, I may have sworn a bit, waking my dad up and startling both the spider and the gecko. It was just a plain black spider, and with a bit of shaking I got it off the screen and then tried to coax the gecko out of the window. It decided instead to scamper into a gap under the sill and as far as I know is still there. I have made sure that the screen is closed, so hopefully I won’t have any more surprise guests. On the fluffy side, I have also seen a bandicoot and two rabbits. I’m sure a kangaroo will be along at some point too.

The reason for the trip, or at least the reason for the timing, was a wedding. One of my partner’s closest friends set the date for his wedding shortly after we’d left for Sweden, so the plan to pop over had been in place for a while. The wedding was on Thursday, at a very nice venue right next to a river. It was relatively small, around 60 guests, and beautifully planned. The ceremony was short and sweet, the bride looked lovely and the groom slightly nervous but pleased. There were garden games while photos were taken, and I first beat my partner at giant-connect 4, and then we drew at chess. Well we reached an impasse so I distracted him, stole the king and made him forfeit. After which we had a reception in a very elegantly decorated pavilion, with tasty food, slightly embarrassing and sincere speeches and then dancing. The night ended as the bride and groom were driven to the airport and the guests who had lasted stumbled off to cars or taxis. I’ve only been to a few weddings, but in terms of planning, calmness and sincerity, it was the nicest.

This week has otherwise been spent recovering from jetlag, resting, spending time with family, talking, watching my brother and his girlfriend play netball (their team won), seeing friends and planning for the coming weeks. Already my days are filling up, and the first week is nearly over. Soon there will be more people to see and plans to make, but until then I’ll sit in my old room, listening to magpies and the rain.

A gravel trail

A gravel trail

Pine, wind and snow

While spring has most definitely sprung in the west coast of Sweden, winter is still clinging to the valleys and mountains in the heart of Norway. On our train ride north from Oslo two weeks ago, winding through valleys as it followed a river for most of the way, it felt as though we were travelling back in time. Tiny pockets of snow gradually grew into piles and drifts, and ice spread its sheets over the river.
At our stop we were met by a cousin of my mother who for the sake of brevity I’ll call my aunt. We’d met her and her family in January when we visited Lillehammer, and it was as a result of that meeting that we were being driven up to a cabin on a mountain to spend a weekend Norwegian-style.

The road up to the mountain had been the site of an avalanche the year before, and it was still scarred, with many sections of road having been relaid and the riverbeds still full of the stones and earth that had been torn from the hills. It had happened at the end of winter, when the melted snow had come rushing down the valley, and had also taken a few houses with it. Luckily no one had died, but it did serve as a reminder of the massive forces at work in the mountains. Seeing the land up there, I can understand the old stories of trolls and giants, because what else could explain the tumbled boulders and steep valleys that seemed hewn by an indiscriminate hand?

The sun through clouds

The sun through clouds

We soon reached the cabin, nestled among a few pines and birches and at least half a metre of snow. Behind it loomed a snowy hill, and behind that a row of mountains peeping out of the clouds. My partner and I managed the feat of simultaneously losing one leg up to the knee in the snow as we walked from the car. From then on we were careful to stick to the path of hardened snow, and only went out with only shoes one other time, which was when we left.

The cabin, or ‘hytta’ became exactly my ideal image of a winter cabin. Made of pine in the traditional style, it was cosy, warm and spacious, and I instantly felt comfortable and at home. My aunt’s husband, who we had met before, greeted us at the door and we were then introduced to my aunt’s mother, who was very tolerant of our attempts at speaking Swedish and our inability to speak Norwegian, and who also partook of the beer and wine that was shared around as we settled in (and also when we got ready to eat, when we ate, after we ate, when we came back from an excursion outside, when we prepared for another…).

Cabin decor

Cabin decor

As we had arrived in the evening we then had dinner, and out of the windows we could see ‘the blue hour’ settled on the snowy hills behind the cabin. In April it usually happens around 9, when the sky is clear and the sun has just sunk below the horizon. The whole world seems to glow with a deep blue, and then slowly fades to darkness.

Sunset on a frozen lake

Sunset on a frozen lake

The next day we got up not particularly early (it being a holiday) and after a thorough Norwegian breakfast we bundled ourselves in warm jackets and ski boots and headed out to enjoy the sport that Norwegians are raised with. The snow was a bit sticky, but we were soon on our way along a track, my partner falling a few times and then getting the hang of it and myself falling a few times but never quite finding the glide. I could manage to shuffle along but I think I’ll need further practice to be able to fly over the snow. Particularly up in mountain cabins, oh yes.

After a few hours we headed back and needing a bit of food after our exercise we had a bbq. Unfortunately the snow was a bit heavy to use the outside bbq, but we made do with sausages roasted in the fireplace, wrapped in potato bread and followed down by beer. We then did the traditional nap, curling up to read or snooze as the afternoon passed.

Tracks in the snow

Tracks in the snow

I had noticed when we’d been preparing the skis that there were a pair of what looked like snowshoes on the verandah, so I asked my aunt about them and soon after we were trudging across the snow, mostly managing not to step on the soft snow and lose our footing. We did the obligatory snow angels and explored the covered woodlands. By the time we came back the water for the shower had been heated and my partner had enjoyed a shower, so I took my turn. Knowing that the water had been pumped by hand outside and headed in the laundry kept the shower shorter than normal, and as a result I felt even more refreshed. I was also a bit tempted by the sauna but I wasn’t sure if that would require a dip in the snow to balance out the heat, so kept that to myself.

My angel

My angel

Cleaned and refreshed, I then encouraged my partner to join me for a walk on the snow, heading for the frozen lake I had seen earlier. The sun was starting to go now by this point, so the light and shadows were stunning, the trees almost seeming to glow amid the smooth white drifts.

Pine trees in the sunset

Pine trees in the sunset

I took the pristine smoothness of the lake as an invitation to leave a message, in Norwegian of course, and realising that the appointed hour for dinner was approaching we headed back to the cabin, slowed down by gazing at the scenery and occasionally losing a foot or two.

A greeting on the ice

A greeting on the ice

Dinner and dessert went long into the night, in Swedish, Norwegian and a bit of English, and before we knew it our eyes were growing heavy and we headed of to bed for the last night. We awoke the next morning, and as we got ready for breakfast I was already starting to miss the view of snow skirted trees and distant mountains. After a hearty traditional breakfast, including expertly wrapped sandwiches for the journey, we gathered by the door with our luggage and sadly said goodbye.

A pristine lake

A pristine lake

Two weeks later I can remember the crispness of the air and the sparse beauty of the snow covered hills, and at least for now the scent of pine still lingers on my woollen jumper and scarf. I hope that we’ll be able to see the cabin in summer, to cycle along the ski tracks and paddle in the lake where I wrote a message on the ice, but if not at least I know that winter lingers for a long time in the mountains.

A circle completed

On the second full day of our Norway holiday, things didn’t go according to plan. In the most wonderful way.

Lillehammer

We caught an early train to Lillehammer, hoping for snow and the chance to ski, or in my case probably fall over repeatedly and hilariously. As the train wound out of Oslo we could see patches of snow and ice crusted lakes, the white growing as we went further north. On our arrival however the chances of skiing were limited, so we set out to explore the town while we thought about what to do. The first stop was the Maihaugen Museum, an collection of buildings from various times in Norwegian history, and a short, if icy, walk from the train station.

I should mention at this point that visiting Lillehammer was not only motivated by the prospect of skiing. Since I was small my mum told me about her father and his family growing up in the town and her own visits to the family farm, then the Winter Olympics in 1994 and her last visit to tie up affairs after her father died there. If I was going to have the opportunity to visit a town with family ties, I had to go.

Farm houses in Maihaugen

Walking up the icy paths I wondered whether my own family had walked in the same places, and seen the same buildings and gazed around at the snow covered hills. Maihaugen was open and free to enter in winter so we explored the old rural section, a collection of buildings from the 1700s, including a quite grand stave church and farmsteads. The lake in the centre was frozen over and in the quiet I could almost imagine it was a living town waiting for the cold to end. When we headed back to the main building to plan our next stop I managed to get a bit of wifi and found a message from my mum asking if I’d contacted her cousin who lived in the town. So I sent off an email with my phone number in case I was out of range, thinking it was a longshot but it couldn’t hurt to try. My mum had also asked if I was able to visit the church where her father is buried, which turned out to be half an hours walk from the town centre. Still pondering what to do, we headed to the Olympic centre to hopefully get a bite to eat and perhaps try some tobogganing.

Stave church dragon

On our arrival we discovered a Christian Youth group have commandeered the centre, and that the lack of snow made tobogganing and any other outside winter sport impossible. I then got a phone call from my mum’s cousin. Yes, she was in town and yes she would like to meet us. In fact, once we were finished exploring the centre and having a snack she could come and pick us up. Which was how I ended up standing in a small town in Norway being hugged by family I’d never met, after not having seen any family for about 4 months.

She took us to the huge ski jump, and location of the opening and closing ceremonies, where the torch still stands unlit and a few mad people try running up the stairs on either side. The thought of standing at the top and letting gravity take over were pretty terrifying, even from the safety of flat ground below.

The ski jump, with mysterious red lines

We then went to the church, where the yard was covered in snow. My grandfather’s grave and that of his brother and my great-grandparents had been cleared on the 24th, as part of a Norwegian tradition, so to make out the names we only needed to brush aside some snow and leaves. Lichen covers quite a lot of the stone which had been brought from the family farm, but his name is legible. I’d only met him once that I could remember, but he was my grandfather and more importantly my mother’s dad, and it felt as thought somehow a circle was being closed, stretching from Norway, to Australia and back again.
We then climbed back into her car to visit more family.

My grandfather

At this point I should mention that the terms for family relationships in Australia have left me unprepared to find a word for my mum’s cousin, not to mention her children and their children. In Swedish I’d guess she’d be my morfarbrordotter, but somehow aunt feels more accurate and less of a mouthful. We settled on third cousins for her children, and fourth for her grandchild, who was the most adorable tractor-loving wispily-blonde haired toddler I’ve met. I met him at my aunt’s house in the arms of my uncle-in-law, who warmly welcomed us in. Their house smelt of pine and spices, and was extremely cosy. We were shown their christmas tree and seated in the kitchen, where we were given cups of tea and settled in to get to know each other. As Jul was so recent, they were still burning a festive mix of herbs, including frankincense, and a dish full of traditional Jul cakes, biscuits and wafers was brought out for us. We also got to taste Norwegian brown cheese, which I heartily recommend, and which I happened to buy this evening. In time my third cousins joined us, with one of their girlfriends, and we chatted and ate and drank and watched the littlest family member, which was a show in itself. After a few hours of this, we looked up train times and were offered a tour of Lillehammer before the train arrived. Amid more hugs, and promises of skiing lessons from their family cabin in the forest, we left.

The tour was the best kind, from someone who knew and loved the town and knew the alleys that lead to old bridges and schools were generations of my family went. I also found out more about my family, and what life is like in Norway. Most of all though, I learnt how welcoming family can be and found a place where I can almost feel the footsteps of my ancestors.

Back in Oslo we spent our last half day walking along the water front in the surprising sunlight, visiting Akershus in daylight and in the fortress the Norwegian Resistance museum. In there I learnt that I knew very little about Norway’s fate in WWII, and stories I have been told about my grandfather and other family became clearer, though no less tragic.

With time running out on our Norwegian holiday we headed to the bus station, and boarded for the not-too-long drive. Back in Göteborg I felt some of the usual feeling of homecoming, but a part of me also wished it could have stayed in a little Norwegian town north of Oslo.

Ice melting in Maihaugen

I am aware that in my last update I mentioned that there would be fireworks, but as is my wont the word count on this post went over so Nytt År will have to be saved for next week. Oops.

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.

The island city

My mother was born in Sweden (she is a Norwegian citizen however, which is another story) and grew up in Farsta, a suburb of Stockholm. As I grew up way over in Australia, I heard about days spent in the forest, picking berries and how delicious they tasted, playing games and exploring. The forest I imagined was like those in fairy tales, with tall pines, soft undergrowth, moss and streams. Not like the gravel earth, grey and green trees, clusters of bright flowers and spiky undergrowth of the forests I’d grown up in. I grew up with an idea of where my mother had come from, and a curiosity to know more about it. This may be part of the reason for wanting to live in Europe (in addition to my possible Anglophilia; see previous post for further details), and as soon as it was confirmed that I’d be living in the country where she grew up, I knew that I had to visit her home.

This is the long way of saying that since I moved to Göteborg I’ve been hoping to visit Stockholm, and last Tuesday I did. My partner had arranged a flight for me last week, an early one that would allow a full day of wandering and a not too late return, so before dawn I was up and out of the apartment, walking through empty streets to the nearby tram station. Through pre-planned jumping from one transport to another, I arrived in Stockholm nice and early, with my breath steaming in the chilly air and decided that breakfast must be the first stop. I’d read a review of a cafe in Stortorget that sounded perfect so I headed there by foot to soak in the city better. My walk took me through the Swedish Parliament building, past the Palace and into Gamla Stan. As it was early, the stores were all closed, but I made a mental note of the less-touristy places to try later, as my secondary mission was finding a birthday gift for my brother. I eventually found Stortorget and the cafe, and was then told that it opened in an hour, so went somewhere else instead.

Parliament building

That done, I looked at the next item I’d starred on Google maps, the city museum. I could unwind and relax there, looking at the old things in cabinets before setting off for something more strenuous. It was closed till 11. The trip to Farsta then climbed to the top of my list.

Public transport in Sweden, that I have experienced thus far, has been really good. As such I was able to get to Farsta easily, and after getting a bit lost I found the cul de sac where my mother’s old house was, and then the house itself. It was small and as she’d described it to me. There was a cement fishpond out of the front, that her father had built, and I could see the forest right behind it. Having found it I took photos and looked at it a bit more, and then headed back to Stockholm. I imagine that had my mother been there I could have seen it through her eyes, though visiting it brought a bit of her with me.

By the time I’d returned to Stockholm the city museum was open so I made my way there for some exploring. After a look around I agreed with the ticket fellow – it was ok but the Medieval Museum may be better. He was right as it turns out, but more on that later. Hunger pangs making themselves known, I headed to Gamla Stan for something to eat and then the gift mission. As I wandered through Gamla Stan, peering at shop fronts and dodging crowds, I realised that I wasn’t the only tourist in Stockholm. I would have been surprised if anywhere else on earth had any tourists remaining to be honest.

A rune stone and cannon in Gamla Stan

The next mission was that of immersing myself in history and interesting trivia, so on the recommendation of the ticket fellow I headed for the Medieval Museum. I was however waylaid, as the royal family decided to make a trip to the Parliament building, requiring a police blockade, mounted police, guards with big feathers in their hats and mounted guards. Plus two carriages, one gilt and containing the royals themselves. I stayed for a few photos and to watch the pageantry along with the rest of the crowd, and though I didn’t know it then, turned and strode away from the entrance to the Medieval Museum. I did work this out though and came back and had a great time. It’s a wonderfully set up and fascinating museum, despite being a bit small, and I would happily have stayed there much longer. The next item was the Vasa museum, as I had time for one more museum and it had been recommended by everyone who’d seen it. They were right, it was amazing. Massive and incredibly well preserved, it loomed over me as I entered the huge room, all dark timbers and intricately carved faces. I again immersed myself in the history and before long it was closing time. All that remained was the wander the streets and take in the city, till it was time to head to the airport.

Royal carriage, sans royals

Now I’m back in Göteborg I think the best explanation for the comparison between the two cities required knowing something about Australia. Stockholm I can see as a Sydney sort of town, with suits and bustle and the Important Government and Business Institutions. Göteborg is more like a combination of Fremantle, Melbourne and Hobart, a charming and neat port town with culture and a relaxed atmosphere. I enjoyed visiting Stockholm, but I much prefer to live here.

The Vasa

As the time ticks on the the first month anniversary of our arrival, I suspect the rush to travel may abate a bit in the weeks to come. Once winter arrives there will be plans for the North, where the snow will be thicker and there’s a chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis, but until then we’ll see. Tonight at least will hopefully involve a visit to Liseberg, though whether I will dare the roller-coasters and other rides that send the daily screaming to our apartment, I can’t say yet.

The statue at Strömparterre, calling up a storm