A few days in a Swiss valley

The second country on our little European jaunt is a neighbour to Germany, and one that people sometimes have trouble distinguishing from Sweden: Switzerland. Rather than check out the big cities and big name places, we were headed for the little town of Boppelsen, with a population just over 1000.

The vineyard next door

The vineyard next door

We were staying there because we were lucky enough to have a family friend who had very enthusiastically welcomed us to his home, which sits on the upper edge of a valley next to a vineyard. From the verandah you have a view over the town, with the village to the left and fields to the right, with forests sweeping up behind the house. It was extremely picturesque, and I never got sick of staring out of the windows at the rolling hills beyond and the glimpses of the alps in the distance.

Boppelsen

The night of our arrival coincided with an annual village party, which we trooped along to, following the sound of the music all across town. Long tables had been set up and a little bar was serving cheap beers and cocktails, so we mingled and smiled, being introduced to locals and taking in the close-knit party goers and the strange feeling of a foreign language that we couldn’t understand. Exhausted from our hours on the trains that day, we called it a night and left our hosts to have fun into the wee hours.

For the next two days, we caught up with friends who had moved to Switzerland or were passing through, having lunch at their houses and walks around a lake as well as a roadtrip to another country. This other country is not the largest or most impressive, but it does have the distinction of being the last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, which is something.

A bit of Lichtenstein

A bit of Lichtenstein

Upon our arrival in Vaduz, the capital of Lichtenstein, we were a little but underwhelmed but charmed. As it was a sunday there was very little open, and even fewer places with food, but before we got too far into our search we went for a walk up a hill. Along the way we saw the legendary Blue Sheep, gave our legs a workout and in the end were treated to a close view of the residence of the Prince of Lichtenstein. Originally a castle, then a tavern and then renovated for the Prince and his family, it’s very nice, and has a lovely view over the town and the rest of the valley.

The residence of the Prince of Lichtenstein

The residence of the Prince of Lichtenstein

From there we went back down the hill and explored with food in mind, eventually settling on a supermarket for snackfood. After a final glance around and mentally ticking it off our lists, we left for a Swiss brewery.
The brewery sadly had no tastings, but it did have an educational video every half an hour about the history of the place. It featured a sickly queen and two dwarves who set out to find her cure, inevitably finding their way to the brewery, and salvation in the form of one of the beers. There was even a joke about Germans. It was ridiculous and I loved it. Then as rain fell we navigated the steep mountain sides and forest paths to our village and had dinner at a mostly vegan restaurant, which was one of the best meals we had during our holiday. Spinach strudel. Strawberries, Pernod and pepper.

After all the time we’d spent on our own adventures and seeing friends, we spent our last full day in Switzerland with our hosts. The day started with a walk in the forest, our host pushing the off-road pram up 45 degree slopes at times, and demonstrating how it is he’s done so many triathlons. The trail swung back and forth up the hill, among trees of all different kinds and the murmurings of birds.

In the forest

In the forest

Once at the top we had a view across the top of the other side of the valley, away to the alps. Using a diagram, I think I was even able to spot Jungfrau among the other points, a mountain that I’d visited during my first visit to Europe in 2008. In the foreground we could see the grey shapes around a lake that was Zurich and here and there villages and towns among the fields and forests. If not for the thick trees, turning around we could have seen Germany.

Zurich and the alps

Zurich and the alps

On the way down, the 3 year old son of our host, who had been very shy around us, raced along a side path, popping in and out of view and testing how far he could go from his dad. Once he’d pushed far enough, he joined us again, a little bit of energy worn away, and we were lucky enough to get to hold his hand as we walked down tricky paths. Even though we couldn’t understand each other, and that he probably thought we were rather stupid, we were able to speak a language of avoiding roots and slippery patches, and playing chasey.

That night we shared a lovely dinner, and the next morning we had a final walk in the forest before we caught a train away from the vineyards, oaks and summer flowers and towards our next destination.

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Keeping an open door

Last week we hosted a couple of friends at our apartment, and had a busy, fun and full-on week. That now seems like a long time ago. The world becomes broader and less understandable the older you get, which seems like the wrong way of going about it. I don’t want to talk about the deaths, war and fear that feels much closer to home than ever before. There’ll be time, when the facts come out and whatever form the aftermath takes, takes form.

Though I’m going to be focusing on our visit from friends in this post, and staying clear of dwelling on recent world events, I can’t help thinking about them in light of the events. We are so lucky, and I’m certain, with more than a touch of shame, that before too long life will continue as before until the next disaster. With that in mind I want to begin by thanking my friends for visiting, all the way over here in chilly Sweden.

Our one day of sunlight

Our one day of sunlight

So what do you do when you have visitors to your home city? You can start by pointing out landmarks, apologising for the weather and prompting them to attempt to pronounce difficult local place names. These are tried and tested methods. Things to avoid include the contamination of the local water supply requiring the boiling of all drinking water for the entirety of their stay. This does not add to the fun atmosphere. Neither does the dryer breaking down and then blowing the fuses. Do not do either of these things.

Little incidents such as these aside, I think we did pretty well, though if we’d had a chance to advise about the dates of the visitor from Australia, we would have suggested more or less any month rather than November. All Summer activities are over, Halloween has just finished and Jul festivities won’t start for another week.

On the other hand, letting guests go grocery shopping and then making you dinner two nights in a row works quite well. Especially if they decide to try local food and make traditional meals and bring along delicious bottles of lavender and strawberry schnaps and ice wine that just needs to be drunk.

Guest-cooked dinner

Guest-cooked dinner

Or keep you up late into the night with laughter, company and stories, and not minding when you have to get up early for the work the next day and drop something in the kitchen. Or give you an excuse to enjoy a rare sunny day in town.

So here is my list of dos and don’ts for when you have visitors:
– Do point out landmarks, and don’t make up lies about them.
– Do get people to try out the local language, but don’t overdo it.
– Don’t allow the water supply to be contaminated. If it is, get lots of water bottles ready and keep bread crumbs away from your big pot.
– Don’t let the dryer break down.
– Do enjoy the sun, as much as possible.
– Do find them local wildlife, and allow them time to photograph them.
– Do let them make dinner, as often as they like.
– Do provide homemade bread and homebrewed beer.
– Do have a good time.
– Do let them sleep in.

Home baked bread

Home baked bread

I think I have also learnt what it’s like to live in a share house, including the bathroom queue. I now know that I could manage in that sort of environment, but there is also something to be said with sharing your space with only one other important person who doesn’t have overlapping shower times.

In conclusion, when someone asks if they can stay, invite them in.

Lessons from the real world

So, sadly again there has been a delay with posts, and I feel that I ought to say that this post will not include travel stories, musings about Swedish culture or the life of an expat. It is instead something of an announcement relating to my life outside of blogging and musing, the stuff that provides the spare change to enjoy this cup of tea steaming away next to my tablet, and incidentally, the tablet itself.

I have my own small business! And … a website!
*cue the standing ovation*

So considering I finally feel as though I’m getting somewhere, I thought it might be a good time to share some of my dicsoveries, in the hopes that someone out there might find it useful. So without further ado,

How to set up your own business

If you are providing a service to at least one person on an on-going basis, you want to continue to do that and perhaps find more people, you have a small business. Even if you don’t call it that or haven’t ventured into the forests of tax related paperwork.

Without knowing it, I’d been running my own small business for months before I realised what it was. What this meant was that by the time I started thinking about business plans and goals, I more or less knew what I wanted to do, because I’d already started my journey. This would not be so easy for someone starting from scratch.

So now that I knew that I had a small business, what was the next step? According to reliable friends, I needed a business plan, and armed with a pad and pencils I soon had the skeleton of one formed before me. I made a list of the steps I would need to take to turn the plan into a functioning reality, including facing up to the unwelcome prospect of paperwork.

Sweden is well known, at least by people who live here, as a nation that has embraced the idea of bureaucracy, like the most pedantic lion tamer who will never run out of hoops for their lions to jump through. My first step came almost by accident, when a potential customer asked if I was registered for tax purposes. Of course, I said, filling out the paperwork. Then I had to set up a business account at the bank, which needed the details for the tax registration, which was soon sorted out. So, F-skatt and bankgiro done. I managed with these for a few months, toying with the idea of going further. I seemed to be bringing in more and more work, through adds on job sites and word of mouth, but was this sustainable? So I got creative.

Out came the pen and paper, and after a few days logos appeared, and multiplied. I winnowed through them, relying on advice and objective opinion, until I reached the last handful, and from these I made my own choice without outside help.
Along with a logo I decided I needed a website which took faaaaar more time planning than actually making. What did I want to stay? How did I want it to look? Which of the thousands of wordpress themes should I use? Should I use that moving across the screen picture thing? (I didn’t) Again with the help of a friend, I got server space and a platform to easily launch into the websire creation. Et voila, I had a website. Which I adore as it’s new and I made it.

So now? Now I continue, building and working and learning. You never stop learning, even when the website’s done and you feel as though you can sit back and wait for the tidal wave of clients to come pouring in. And this is what I have learnt so far:

Ask for help. There will be people you know who know things you don’t, and for the price of company an fika will help you. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice, even if it’s something you feel that you should know.

Make up your own mind. You may have an idea that you like, and after some beta-testing you’ve got positive and negatives comments. In the end you need to follow what you think, because in the end the product is yours and whether it succeeds or fails rests on you alone.

Do the paperwork. It may take half a day and what feels like your will to live, but you’ve got to get it done, so you might as well get it done now.

So, from the little table in the corner of the café, I hope all of you out there are enjoying your little part of the world and whoever of you is thinking of embarking on something new, go for it and good luck! And to all those who helped me get to where I am, in particular my bsuiness plan advising, server providing, super reliable friend – thanks again and again and again!

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.

Perfect moments and deserving them

A couple of weeks ago we were gifted with two splendid weeks of sun and fine weather, which culminated in a perfect day.

It coincided with a visit from a friend from Australia, who I suspect now thinks I exaggerate when I say that Swedish weather is terrible. She was after nature and relaxation, and so we took advantage of the fineness to bask. It was not entirely selfless of us, as we’d thus far missed our annual dip.

It seemed that the entire city of Gothenburg had the same idea, however, as the succession of bus and trams were packed with people with packed lunches, all equally confused about why all these others were spoiling their pleasant day out.

At the harbour we were borne along by the throng to the ferry, ice-cream in hand, and were then off across the sea. If we had wanted to reach the open sea, we would have had to navigate the maze of islands that make up the two archipelagos lying at the mouth of the Göta river. Plus Denmark. The profusion of islands and distance of the truly open ocean is a bit disorienting for someone who grew up on the edge of an ocean that unfolds all the way to Africa.
We disembarked at the first stop, a little island called Asperö. A small village occupies much of the island, hedges not quite concealing cottages, filigreed in wood, traditionally painted or with modern bare planks. Flowers bloomed, branches bent under the weight of wild apples, bees buzzed and cats watched sleepily from under hedges. It felt like walking through a photo of a timeless summer.

Swedish cottage

Swedish cottage

Behind the village a path lead us into a wood, and into what seemed a painting. Birches swayed, wild flowers were spread among the moss and heaths, and ducks floated on a Monet-esque lily pad strewn pond. It was a fairytale wood, which ended when we reached the little beach.

Monet's pond

Monet’s pond

It was sheltered, partly by a rocky outcrop and a jetty that was built out from that. Families were paddling in the dark water and sunbaking on the rocks and grass, the peace broken by the giggling of children and splashing of teens jumping off the diving boards. Into this idyllic setting we settled down, little the bbq and sipped wine as the food cooked. Behind the jetty and the occasional kayakers we could see the mouth of the Göta river and the harbour we had come from. Now and then a huge ferry or other ship would slowly pass through the scattered islands and disappear around the side of our island, to quiet and distant to be anything but a background.

A beach and the Göta

A beach and the Göta

For a few hours we ate, swam, splashed and dozed in the sun. The perfect moments passed by.

Swedish summer days

Swedish summer days

That night we shared dinner with various Swedes and Finns on a row of tables on a balcony, the tables covered in food and drinks. We scoffed Västerbotten pie, vegan sausages, halloumi, salad, bread and grapes, the food and talk going on well into the night, as our eyelids got heavier. At one point a few thousand joggers ran down the street outside and we cheered at they passed, some wearing costumes and most looking very focused indeed. More so than us with our glasses of wine and beer and full stomachs.
Then, as the night drew long and began to get chilly, we set off home and in time slept.

What I wonder now as I write this and read the news is how do we deserve this? Why do we get the beautiful summer days and long summer nights with friends, in peace and scenery worthy of paintings? Maybe no one ever deserves anything. Perhaps there is no scale deciding whose 3 year old boy dies in a dark sea and whose 28 year old daughter gets to doze in soft Swedish sunlight with loved ones around her.
There is no fairness, or luck. But we do have love.

*Photo credits to https://www.flickr.com/photos/jg31/

A celebration of the longest day

There are two very important times of year in Sweden. One is the time of longest dark, and the other is the time of longest light. Both are celebrated with eating, drinking (and drinking), good company and the playing out of traditions that have long outlasted explanations. And, generally, joy.
We’ve been marking the lengthening of days for some time now, noticing that when we’re walking home late/early at night that the sun never properly sets, leaving the sky a hazy blue even down here out of sight of the Arctic circle. As of last week the balance tipped, and from now on the darkness with get darker and longer until we won’t be able to imagine relaxing in the sun on our balcony at 10:30pm.
A sad thought indeed. However before we and the rest of Sweden let ourselves dwell on that we all have a celebration. The day of longest light*, in which we eat, drink, enjoy good company, dance and admire a large somewhat phallic pole.

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

The garlanded Midsummer Pole

Midsummer! Or to be more precise, Midsummer’s Eve. Being the good little Swedish residents that we are, we had a picnic planned at Slottskogen, where we had celebrated the day last year. Loaded up with food, drink and a bbq we met our friends at the park and were soon settling in for an afternoon of merriment. There was cider, the lighting and subsequent going out of the bbq, napping in the sun and eating, which are fairly typical of any picnic. Slightly atypically for us, more or less the whole picnic was also in Swedish, which was the lingua franca between us and our Czech friends.
As we chatted and ate, the sun played hide and seek above us and we joked that the Summer had finally arrived during the warm patches of sunlight, and was replaced by Autumn as the clouds covered the sky. By looking to the north we could even see if we might get another moment of Summer and once past watch as it eventually drifted over the horizon. Though it had been nicer last year, we reminded ourselves in true Göteborsk fashion that it could always be worse.

After a few hours had passed, people began to gather around the garlanded pole set in the middle of the grass. Closer up we could see the two loops hanging from the cross piece, yellow and blue flowers tucked among the green foliage. Our attention was soon taken by the movements of the crowd, who began to spin in circles, some with three people and some with as many as 40. On a stage fiddlers, flutists and singers called out instructions and belted out the traditional songs. Among the crowds people in traditional costumes lead the dances, demonstrating the claps and kicks and leading their circles in twisting snake like lines, all while singing along. Many of those not in costume also seemed to know the words, and I can only assume that part of every Swedish child’s education involves learning the song about the drunk shoemaker, the one about the various pigs that you and I are, how to clean the house before going to church and of course the frog song.

Dancing crowds

Dancing crowds

I asked my mum about this, and her response would have been matched by everyone else on the field, which was that of course we sing songs about animals and drunk shoemakers. It’s Midsummer’s Eve, when we forget about the staidness of everyday life and give ourselves over to dancing, laughing and making fish noises. That is tradition after all; something we do as a group, that defines us and keeps us together, despite whatever silliness anyone else may think about it.

The young folk dancers leading the way

The young folk dancers leading the way

After at least an hour the dancing was over and the professionals took to the field. Most looked to be over 60 but were as spry as anything, and definitely knew what they were doing. They twirled, skipped and clapped to the applause of the crowd, with steps that I hope they’ll pass on to the other, younger costumed folk. There were no songs about animals, but rather folk jigs and reels that got your foot tapping and conjured images of an idyllic and possibly imaginary rural past, all green fields, mooing cows, clean kirtles and neatly ordered hedges.
As we had watched, we found a couple of friends in the crowd and spent the rest of the long patch of sunlight chatting and enjoying icecream as the light began to fade.

Before too long it was time to pack up, but before we went home we paid a visit to the animals on the hill. The first that we saw was an elk, lying down by a fence and not looking all that well. We were amazed as usual by its size and strange combination of elegance and ungainliness. We also saw the deer, ducks, swans, geese, goats and ponies, most of whom seemed to be trying to get some sleep despite the light and visitors.
As 9:30 passed and a sunset bloomed overhead we headed to the tram stop, hugging and waving our friends goodbye before stepping on our own tram and making our way home.

Another Midsummer’s Eve done, half the year has past and the lengthening of days has begun, at least until the next tipping of the balance in the dark of winter.

*Technically the celebrations don’t always take place on the solstice, and the dates are adapted each year to make a long weekend. It’s usually within a week of the solstice though.

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.

A year/ett år

A year ago today I was somewhere over the earth on the last leg of the trip to my new home. Today I am firmly in Europe, sharing a suburban valley with a 700 year old church and forests that overflowed with berries not long ago. 2 years ago today I would have been pinching myself. I still find it odd that I ended up here, even after all the years of planning and hoping to live in Europe. A year ago I stepped out of the airport and breathed in fresh Swedish air for the first time, bags and partner beside me and a taxi-ride to a new home ahead. Tired and jet-lagged? Oh yes, but it’s also fair to say, pretty damn excited.

Reading my first blog entry from a week after we’d landed I can almost hear the shuffling as I tried to find my feet, drifting as I was between gazing at the new world around me and trying to find out where I fit in. At some point a routine set in and life returned to normal and the new city began to feel like home. I’m not sure when it started, but perhaps it was on our first return from an overseas trip, as I stared out the window at the swathes of green below us, and felt that we were going home.

A rainfall in the forest

A rainfall in the forest

Our new home wasn’t exactly as I had thought it would be either. I knew about the language barrier, colder weather, berries in summer and a fondness for interior design. I didn’t know about the increased personal space, widespread use of English or stylishness that made me feel like a bush-pig. I didn’t know about ‘En svensk tiger’, lagom or how much the entire country changes when summer arrives. Or that I would finally understand why summer is actually a good thing. No doubt in a year I’ll know even more, och jag hoppas att jag kommer att vara bara om att flytande i svensk. Kanske.

A Swedish-ish pie

A Swedish-ish pie

So what has happened in the past year?

We’ve flown to 3 different countries, caught buses and trains to 3 others and made many little journeys around Sweden.

We’ve punted down the Cam, stared up at the dome of the Hagia Sofia and sipped hot cocktails late at night in Copenhagen.

We’ve eaten strawberries by Nemi, stood on a 1700 year old top floor apartment and itched to run our hands along the bows of Viking ships.

We’ve walked on a frozen lake, ridden a steamship past an island called Boo and crowded into an Ice Age cave.

We celebrated the new year with city-wide fireworks and champagne, watched flights of black cockatoos and had dinner with family both here and in Australia.

We’ve experienced a full cycle of seasons, from late summer to early autumn, and I have both played in snow and basked in summer days that seemed as though they would never end.

Cycle of the seasons

Cycle of the seasons

I have learnt that when you leave your home country it doesn’t lie dormant while you’re off exploring the world. People move on as they should, their own stories continuing, and while you can put in a guest appearance once a year or so you gave up your starring role when you chose to leave.

Now I’m making guest appearances and perhaps starring roles in other stories, and meeting an amazing cast of people who not long ago I couldn’t have imagined. Before coming here I had hardly ever met anyone from Iran, Turkey, Syria, Bosnia, Serbia, Jordan, Bulgaria, Poland, Spain, Brazil, France, the Czech Republic, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Portugal, Ukraine, Greece or even (of all places) New Zealand, yet now I can count people from all of these countries as friends. Plus of course a few Swedes.

A rainbow in the valley

A rainbow in the valley

What will my story look like by this time next year? Who knows, but no doubt I will blog about it.

The city of islands

Having woken somewhat groggily from a post-Viking feast slumber, we eventually set out on our second day in Stockholm in the late morning. The city by this time was alive with people, gaggles of tourists, locals crossing town for work or play or just wandering about and enjoying the summer. We joined the crowds on Gamla Stan, planning to cross to the mainland to catch a ferry.

Our route took us past the royal palace, where it seemed that something was afoot. The largest crowds we had seen so far were packed and still packing behind rope barricades, apparently watching the palace guards, who in turn seemed to be blankly watching nothing. No one seemed inclined to explain what was going on, so we hung about curiously until an announcement that the changing of the guards was imminent. As neither of us was very interested and it seemed unlikely to involve horses or the royal family we hurried out, passing a marching band and a group of very serious looking guards on their way to take over guarding duty.

Stockholm from a ferry

Stockholm from a ferry

Now that we had escaped the fanfare, we skirted around the palace and found the ferry dock, where we caught one across to Djurgården, an island which seems to house most of the interesting and fun places in Stockholm. As we looked for somewhere to have lunch, we could hear screams from the theme park and see people darting about the tree lined streets, bound for the ABBA Museum (I’m not kidding), the Vasa Museum or Skansen, which was our destination.

So Skansen; how to describe it… Basically it’s a combination zoo, craft village, music venue, playground and outside museum in the middle of an island, in the middle of Stockholm. To understand you really have to visit it.
As we following the paths around for our first visit, we found the wolf enclosure, where we spotted one fellow trying to sleep in the sun and ignore the pointing crowds. I got a thrill spotting him, or her, as I did when I caught a glimpse of a single wolf at Nordens Ark last year. Speaking of which, I do intend to post about that day at some point.

Spot the wolf!

Spot the wolf!

From wolves, we saw a family of lynxes, the kittens pattering about with huge paws and the mother patiently carrying them across streams while the father lazed in the shade of a tree.
Then bears, sleeping in furry, comfortable piles in the sun, also ignoring the excited people leaning over the fences and taking photos.

Sleeping bears

Sleeping bears

One of the animals I found the most interesting was one that I hadn’t seen before, at least not in the flesh. European bison were almost extinct at one point, with a small amount remaining in zoos and none left in the wild. Thanks to breeding programs, there are now a few herds out there and also a number in zoos such as Skansen. They were one of the most represented animals in cave paintings, and seeing them in life I could imagine why they had such an influence on the people who shared the world with them thousands of years ago.

Bisons being shy

Bisons being shy

Finally we found deer, lying next to fences and tolerating the children (and older people) touching their furry summer antlers.

A tolerant reindeer

A tolerant reindeer

Elsewhere in the park we came across a tall and imposing building, that I have just discovered is the Hällestad belfry. At first glance I had no idea of it’s purpose, though it seemed most of all to be somehow foreign and strange, possibly pre-Christian and part of some culture that doesn’t exist any more. It looks as though it’s covered in thousands of wooden scales and smells deeply of resin and pine, as with the smaller belfry near where we live, and also the cabin we stayed at in Norway months ago. Once we were off the island, it is one of the few thing that can be made out between the trees and the towers of the theme park.

Hällestad belfry

Hällestad belfry

Other ancient buildings were scattered around the paths, old farm houses, churches and even a manor house. A fearless squirrel ran out and pestered some children for a little while then disappeared, and ponies and horses appeared intermittently, carrying children or pulling a cart. As we got more hot and tired, we found an icecream van and enjoyed the treats by the old theatre with a lovely view of the city below.

Stockholm from Djurgården

Stockholm from Djurgården

As we tried to find the exit we passed through the craft village, and got dragged by curiosity into the glass making workshop, where someone was in the middle of making a series of stylised reindeer with apparent ease. Outside great loads of glass fragments were strewn across the rocks, like piles of colourful and clear ice.

Once we had made our way outside we caught a tram to the mainland and then walked to the ferry harbour, to wait for another journey. After staring up into the seamlessly blue sky for a short while, our boat arrived and we settled in for a ride through the archipelago.
If you have a look at Stockholm on a map, you will see that between the city and the sea there is a maze of islands of all sizes. On our voyage to Vaxholm, one of the nearest publicly open islands, the scenery changed from built up apartments, cliffs covered in houses, then scattered housing, an oil refinery and finally leafy green shores with expensive houses and tiny harbours poking out between the trees.

Island houses

Island houses

We’d pass uninterrupted stretches of trees, then a 4 story manor would appear, deck chairs set out on the front lawn or a party in full swing on a terrace. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we even passed an island called Boo. If you don’t believe me look it up. It was also right across the water from a place called Bo, apparently.

Sunset on the archipelago

Sunset on the archipelago

Vaxholm is small and neat and lovely, and we didn’t really have enough time to take it all in, or visit the old fortress. We did have time though for dinner on a rooftop terrace with a very nice view of the fortress and the harbour.

Vaxholm fortress

Vaxholm fortress

For our return trip we caught a steamer, much more old fashioned than the modern ferry we’d arrived on. We found benches on the lacquered wooden deck to watch the islands passing by and the sun slowly set, and listened to the steady chugging of the engine as we sipped cider and beer.

Nighttime on a steamer

Nighttime on a steamer

Back in the city, we discovered a festival that was ending, in loud music and bright flickering lights, and walked down the main street guarded by hippy-looking lions. When we returned to Gamla Stan for one last loo before we went back to the hotel, we bumped into an old friend who we hadn’t seen since last year. He was visiting the city with some friends from his hometown, and after exclaiming about coincidences, introductions and chatting, they invited us to follow them along to a bar for a final drink. The bar was in the nice part of town, and inhabited by well dressed folk dancing and drinking well dressedly. We chatted and laughed some more, and I enjoyed another Madde, before eventually their post-kayaking exhaustion and our post-exploring tiredness overtook us.
As we stood and swayed on the tram headed for the hotel, we found out that one of the fellows was the project manager of a planned museum to honour Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA. This is the sort of thing we just take for granted in Sweden.

Stockholm at night

Stockholm at night

The next day, after leaving our luggage at the train station, we headed to the History Museum. Limited slightly by time, we went through the exhibitions quicker than I would have liked, but we managed to take in the huge numbers of Viking artifacts, get drawn into stories of ancient people, marvel at the hoard of gold and silver and even practice archery. Sadly I wasn’t able to find the original Freya pendant that I have a replica of, but I’m sure that wasn’t my last visit to Stockholm.

From there we went to the train station, then the train and then to our seats. On the ride back we were entertained by another pianist, who played some Håkan Hellström to the delight of a chef and his audience, preparing us for our return to Göteborg and home.

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.