Ash, autumn, kantareller

The day after the Höstfest, we got off to a good start with a breakfast that lasted a few hours, which I assume is just how it’s done in the country. Thus strenghened, we patted the cats and played fetch with the dog, and wondered what to do.

The previous day, in addition to the party, we’d visited a local bakery which specialised in traditional knäckebröd, or crispbread, some of which we ate during the morning-after breakfast. The backroom had been open, so we were able to see the line of soot marked ovens, wood stacked underneath in preparation for baking day. In a glasswalled room the round discs of bread hung in endless racks, waiting to be packaged.

Waiting  knäckebröd

Waiting knäckebröd

The whole area smelt wonderfully of baking and ash, and the earthy fragrance of burnt wood.
A series of photos on the wall showed the opening day, the baking hall packed with crowds, with one particular face snapped more than others. It was the face of Benny Andersson, one of the Bs in Sweden’s most famous pop band, who had helped to finance the bakery. Proving perhaps that Sweden does really revolve around this little collection of valleys.

So the following day, after getting the cat out of one of the baskets, we hit the road and soon arrived at a little torp a few kilometres from the BnB.

A helping cat

A helping cat

A torp is a Swedish cottage, usually made of wood, and originally owned by peasants. While they owned the houses they didn’t own the land, and over time many became the virtual slaves of the landowners, unable to survive on the small plot of land they could use and unable to save up for anything more. Many left during the migrations of the 17th and 18th centuries, and now the cottages have become summer homes, or the permanent homes of those who want to return to the land. We had met just such a couple the previous night, and it was them that we visited. The old, red painted wooden cottage was extremely cosy, and they had plenty of space on their land for a decent veggie patch and chicken coop, plus a growing shed up the back.
More important for our purposes was the forest, which stretched invitingly up the hill.

It took some time, but guided by the friend who owned the cottage, we were able to spot the orange coloured kantarell mushrooms amid the fallen birch leaves. Crawling along on our knees, brushing aside drifts, we found collections under fallen trees and tree roots sometimes smaller than our little fingers and sometimes as big as our fists. They were all tossed into our baskets, which gradually filled as we went further and further into the forest.

Birch in the sun

Birch in the sun

The trees changed from birch to pine, the ground thickening with moss that at times reached up to our ankles. Then it gave way to mixed forest, and carpets of blueberry and lingonberry bushes, still full of sour berries that hadn’t seen quite enough sun. Through thickets of raspberry bushes, grasses and fallen tree trunks we went, scanning the ground, until we reached another pine forest. This one again had a mossy floor, but underneath the mounds grown on the tree roots were streams and swampy puddles, invisible until your foot slipped into one. So we clambered from mound to mound, now and then crouching for some of the precious mushrooms, and occasionally flailing our arms when we missed our footing.

In the woods

In the woods

With our baskets filling and my toes numb through my thin, not-quite-winter-ready socks, we turned home. This time we went by a shortcut, bypassing the thicker parts of the forests, and passing an old stone wall which must once have guarded a house that was now long gone.

Back at the BnB we cleaned the mushrooms and prepared for dinner.

Bountiful mushrooms

Bountiful mushrooms

We cooked the mushrooms in butter and garlic, and ate them with fresh bread and leftovers from the party, washed down with homebrewed beer and cider. They tasted well worth the hours spent in the forest, and even better with company and a dog worn out from playing at our feet.

Before we left the next day to start our long drive back to Göteborg, we visited the Dala river. It flowed just over a field behind the BnB, and from a small path we reached a jetty among reeds. Attached by a wobbly plank was a wooden platform kept afloat by airfilled barrels that bobbed on the river. It also had an engine and two chairs, and seemed a very comfortable way to mess about on the river.

Messing about in the river

Messing about in the river

We stayed attached to the shore while the dog splashed about, and I took pictures of the river in the sun, and the church steeple of the nearby village that was just visible further upstream.

Stora Skevdi

Stora Skevdi

The drive home was mostly uneventful, broken up by the counting of sheep, cows, horses, wind turbines and a couple of deer and foxes. Then home.

It took another week before I got around to cleaning the country mud from my boots, and even now the smell of ash and burning wood lingers on the bundle of knäckebröd as I eat it thickly buttered for breakfast.

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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.

Cannons, crepes and a copper mare

Last week Göteborg was transformed from a little town bracing itself for Autumn to cosmopolitan city full of art, food, folks and culture, carrying an umbrella just in case.

The festivities had begun on Sunday, the day that we returned from our Stockholm weekend. My partner slid back into the normal working week and I began the next level of Swedish classes, so plans to visit the Kultur Kalas faded into the background. Whenever I passed through town I’d be aware of some commotion, and a gathering of tents just around a corner. The local papers that I grabbed as I caught my bus to class featured pages of schedules, descriptions of events and reviews, all trying to pull me in.

It wasn’t until Wednesday that I was finally dropped into the middle of the party, in an authentically Göteborgare way.
We had just finished our evening at a Swedish language cafe, when we tagged along on an exploratory mission to the city centre. Via tram and feet we approached the hub and after turning a corner were suddenly in the middle of a crowd of people, circling, gathering and rushing past food stalls. I completely lost track of where I was in town, and had to rely on the ‘Älg kebab’ and ‘British Fish and Chips’ signs to navigate.
Once we reached the other side of the crowds, we wandered to the main square of Kungsportsplatsen where an audience was gathering in the shadow of Kopparmärra. An American was jokingly threatening the oncoming clouds as his Swiss compatriot tried to sort out wiring and keep the audience distracted. They started their show, acrobatics and music and silliness that had the audience clapping along, but even the most skilled performance couldn’t keep us tied to the stands as the rain began to pour down. After sheltering in a cafe, we used a break to run to a floating restaurant to dry and drink. As the evening wore on we tailed off, facing the rain and still milling crowds for the trip to our warm, dry homes.

A drum band in a canal

A drum band in a canal

In the meantime I read in the paper that a singer I had heard of was going to be performing on Thursday. I had read about Sofia Jannok in Swedish class, an interview in which she discussed the feelings of distance and difference that she felt as a Swede raised within Sami culture. She sings in Swedish, Samisk and English, and is a very strong supporter of native rights and Sami culture, and so my interest piqued, I looked forward to seeing her in person.

On the day of the concert I had fika planned in the city, and as I had not had time before, I decided to get lunch from one of the stalls in Brunnsparken. Drawn by nostalgia and curiosity, I got in the line at the Australian tent, and ordered a crocodile burger. The best way I can describe it is a mix of chicken and fish, and not necessarily in a tasty way.
After fika, during which I was happy to remove the flavour of the crocodile, I wandered around the many displays and activities. Most were for children, who ran around under the supervision of their parents, playing in giant see-through balls or trying out crafts of various kinds. Unlike the crafts that I usually see at such festivals, these were actually engaging and useful, ranging from weaving and carpentry to making porcelain cups. I saw many children and their parents tackling the construction of small wooden carts and twisting strings through looms, with an intensity that I don’t often see for crafts.

As I exited the park, leaving the cries of the children behind me, I saw a crowd gathered along the side of a main road that was fenced off. A closer look showed two sand tracks on the road, and my suspicions were soon confirmed when a pair of horses with trailing buggies flew past. Horse racing along a main road is also something I haven’t seen before at a festival, but I have to assume that people just do things differently here in Sweden.

The winning horse

The winning horse

The crowds, food and festivities continued as I made my way to the concert area, where I settled down to wait for my partner and friends so join me. The atmosphere of festivity was contagious, and the afternoon quickly passed, bringing friends and then Sofia Jannok. She was wonderful, and though I couldn’t understand much of what she said, she had great passion and an ability to yoik. Our evening ended after another journey around the food stalls at Brunnsparken, losing ourselves among the fudge, crepes, goulash and sausages.

A bridge from a canal

A bridge from a canal

Our final visit was on Saturday, which started with an activity that I had been hoping to try for some time.
Göteborg is criss-crossed with canals, some of which were originally the moat of the old city, and for much of the year a small boat makes it’s way under the bridges and through the canals, showing people the city from a different perspective. I had not yet done this, so decided that a day with so much on display in the city and lively crowds wandering around, would be an ideal time. The tour started well, the guide giving us facts I hadn’t known in both Swedish and English, as we ducked under low bridges and waved at those on the land. Soon we were in the harbour, seeing the old heart of the city whose fate now hangs in the balance.

The old harbour

The old harbour

As we rolled over the waves, we were also confronted with a makeshift boat, planks of wood stuck onto two inflated tubes and covered with comfortable sofas and a table. We were also treated to the sight of mooning from some of those enjoying their day out. Aside from their questionable greetings, I would have quite liked to float along on their boat, nibbling snacks and seeing where the boat drifted.

The tour finished and we spent a while walking around, listening to a trio of sisters from Ireland, then an underground rock band from Iran. Smells and sights surrounded as, and as the night approached we had a bite to eat and then walked down the street to the harbour for the final event of the night.

On a stage and mingling around stalls were people in 17th century outfits, some carrying guns and all trying to look authentic. Crowds were gathered on the steps of the Opera House and along the waterside, peering downriver constantly and impatiently. Finally a ship slid out of the distance, tall and graceful even without it’s sails out. Soon after another ship floated towards us, this one with a Danish flag.

Cannon smoke

Cannon smoke

A sudden boom rang out, accompanied by a flash of light, and then the costumed soldiers on the river side erupted into a barrage of shots across the water, backed up by blank, but still deafening, shots from the cannons on the Swedish ship. The Danish ship soon ‘sank’ and was replaced by another, which was also seen off. This repeated a few times to cheers, booms, crashes and flashes as the sun slowly set and cold began to set in. Finally the Swedes won a decisive victory, and the two Danish ships disappeared down the river, to yet more cheers.

The Danes depart

The Danes depart

The excitement passed, we made out way through the crowds to the centre of town, the boom of cannons and taste of exotic food following us home, ending the first but not last Kultur Kalas that we will enjoy here in our not as new home-city.

The heart of Rome

Apartments in Monti

Apartments in Monti

Saturday dawned bright and sunny for our first full day in Rome.
Or at least I assumed it did, as our rented apartment was at the bottom of the lightwell, with one big window, so to get an idea of the weather we had to go outside and peer up past the many floored apartment buildings to the little square of sky. The positive of this is that, as a historical geek, I felt as though we were staying in an ancient insula, albeit one with very good plumbing. Out on the street the apartment buildings reared up above the cobbled streets, the buildings a mix of warm shades from red to yellow, with those lucky enough to have morning sun opening their shutters to let it in.

The colourful Suburra

The colourful Suburra

On the advice of hotel staff we headed to the local piazza, which turned out to be a neat little square with a fountain in the centre, and a church, and cafes facing on to it. In one corner a mother was playing a game of catch with her three daughters, and all the time locals and occasionally tourists were passing by, many headed to the end of the steet, where the Colosseum loomed. Before we could explore the ancient sights though we had a bit of shopping to do, mostly bits and pieces we hadn’t known to pack. A quick trip up the Via Cavour, peering down in the Suburra and avoiding the multitude of salesmen, and it was sorted, and then we set out for the heart of Rome.

The Forum, with the Curia to the right

The Forum, with the Curia to the right

The Forum sits in the valley between the Capitoline, Esquiline and Palatine hills, and though only remnants remain today (boo, Pope Julius II, boo) it’s possible to see echoes of what it must have been like. We spent a pleasant few hours wandering around the ruins, taking photos and pointing out our favourite monuments. Having more time and more knowledge than when I visited last, I was able to spot things I’d missed and enjoyed more little fragments of the past, such as the game boards carved into the steps of the Basilica Julia and an olive tree, a fig tree and a vine planted where the same had apparently stood during Roman times, mostly dwarfed by the monuments around them.

Olive, fig, vine

Olive, fig, vine

To my excitement the Curia, or Senate house, was open (it had been shut for some reason last time) and I almost ran up the stairs and through the thick curtains in the doorway. Inside I was surprised by how bare it was, and I had thought that it had been stripped while being turned into a church, but apparently it had been more or less the same originally. Aside from the exhibition set up around the sides and friezes standing around, it is mostly unchanged, the three low steps still visible, the original marble floors still intact, and its height dwarfing everyone inside.

What struck me most was how moved I was at being there. Even though it wasn’t the site of all of Cicero’s speeches, Octavian’s coup or the murder of Caesar, due to the somewhat infamous Clodius, it was the site of so much history before and after. So many important decisions were made in that space, and so much of the everyday running of the Republic and then the Empire, and for me the space felt almost sacred, and alive with history.

The Curia, behind cherry blossoms

The Curia, behind cherry blossoms

We eventually left the Curia for the sunshine, and continued our explorations, admiring the temples and unwieldy cobblestones and making our way up to the Palatine. I hadn’t really had much time to explore this area before, so much of what we saw was new, and generally on a massive scale. The word palace comes from this hill, though the ruins and garden that are there now don’t convey the grandeur of the Forum. While we were searching for the ‘huts of Romulus’, the apparent location of the first settlements during the Bronze age which had been partly excavated by Augustus, guards began to blow their whistles and indicate that it was time to leave. We were all herded out, onto the now slightly darkening streets, and wondered what to do next.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux

The Temple of Castor and Pollux

In order to better fit in with the Mediterranean style of life, we decided to have a rest before heading out, and on the way back bought some groceries for a quiet night in. Also local wine, obviously. When we headed out again apertivo hour was in full swing, and we found a little bar that was just right. As we sipped beer and snacked on little pastries, olives, vegetables and tasty delights, it seemed like the Italians were certainly on to something with their whole eating situation. After a dish of pasta and seafood I was in absolutely no doubt.
Very full and very satisfied, we went back to the hotel to rest and prepare for another day in Rome.

Temple of Castor and Pollux hiding the sun

Temple of Castor and Pollux hiding the sun