Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Stockholm → Hanoi

There are so many things to love about October. Especially the lingonberry pumpkin muffins I just made. Although they didn't come close to the cranberry pumpkin ones they were inspired by. 

love the vines changing color on this house!

But this year, Stockholm's October feels like one grey day followed by another. For that, and many more reasons, I'm shipping out. Goodbye damp, cloudy days, hello - well, I'm not sure what hello is quite yet as my destination is somewhere new to me. I'm headed to Vietnam! Tomorrow! I've got my flights, my visa, my vaccinations, mosquito net, and a few dong to hold me over for the next 3 weeks. 

I'll be living with a family in a tiny village north of Hanoi near the border of China. It's a poor, mountainous region about which I know nearly nothing. I'm going to teach English to children there through this organization. I don't know many specifics and I've never taught before, but I'm excited to give it a go and see what happens. I know I'll learn a lot, and I hope they will too. 

Has anyone ever been to Vietnam? Or to the Ha Giang Province? Tha village perhaps? What did you think? Any tips??

I'll try to post from there, but don't know what kind of internet access I'll have, so if you don't hear from me, you will as soon as I'm back in November :) Wish me luck!

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

What being home a few days has taught me

I finished my job at The Local exactly 1 week ago. It was a bittersweet occasion, and definitely marks a milestone. We had a good run of 17 months, and now it's time to move along. 

That moving along process first involves me being home. Home as in my apartment here in Stockholm (home time the the USA happening soon, too!). It's been a few days, and I have to say I've been keeping myself plenty busy. In the midst of which, I've learned a few things:

  • sleeping in makes one prone to less productive days
  • grocery shopping on weekdays is soooo much easier 
  • the northern Swedish city of Luleå is translated to Dubai by Google translate
  • even the bureacracy of an efficient country is sometimes so inefficient
  • my mind will always find something to think/worry about, even if a job isn't one of them
  • never rent a car without insurance (and say no to Hertz!)
  • my apartment is quite chilly - sometimes more so than it is outside
  • how is it already 5pm?
Exciting adventures are in the works - more to come on that - but now I'm off to make dinner for my hard-working husband. 1950s housewife in the making!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Falling into autumn

I jumped into fall last night, literally. Here I am, taking the plunge:

my jump

Beneath me is the cold darkness Stockholm has become since Sunday afternoon. What happened to our Indian summer? My knuckles are already cracking. Our windows are already shut. It would help if our building would turn on the heat at least.

My literal jump was at an event last night sponsored by the Nike Training Club. We got free t-shirts, worked out, and then each participant had the opportunity to hop off a, say, 30-foot-high platform onto a gigantic cushion of air. It was terrifying and invigorating. 

When jumping from high places - usually into water - I go through a painful Thinking Process, starring out over the edge for, on average, 10 minutes. I've never backed down, but it certainly doesn't get easier the longer I wait. 

Last night, I wasn't nervous as I climbed the 4 shaky ladders of the scaffolding to the top. It was when the man up there said "rumpa först" (butt first) that I started sweating. That doesn't really work for me, I tried to explain, my heart racing. 

Dozens of fitness-crazed girls were waiting their turn to jump behind me, so climbing down wasn't really an option. I almost did anyway until GK saved the day and started counting - One - focus - two - stop thinking! - three - goooooo!

If you zoom in on my face, you'll see pure terror. Also note the half-hearted attempt at rumpa först. It didn't go so well, but fortunately my landing was pain free.

And there's my dose of courage for the week - thanks NTC!

GK's jump

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Once you pop...

I know my last post was about food, but I'm hungry and there's 2 1/2 liters of ice cream in the freezer and I just can't help myself, okay?

So last May, we moved to the north shore of a lovely island called Kungsholmen in central Stockers (not sure if I wrote about that bit of happening, but now you know). Anyways, we happen to live dangerously close to one of the best ice cream stores I've ever been to. I'm talking 12 flavors of fresh, homemade ice cream every day. Fryst it's called (frozen in Swedish). And it takes about 23 seconds to walk there, our door to theirs. 

our first trip to Fryst this summer

With this in mind, you'll probably be surprised to know that it was over 3 months after we moved that we first indulged in Fryst's creamy goodness. But since then, it's been hard to resist. Once you pop...

And so it's come to be that I have one half liter of toffee and another of cardamom rhubarb. The flavors may sound a bit random, but Swedes love their cardamom and rhubarb's in season, so here we are.

While I'm on the subject of toffee, I must let you all in on another discovery I made around my office on Stockholm's Södermalm island last week (see #3 in Vogue's list of the coolest neighborhoods in the world). 

I was wandering around and came upon a tiny, dark shop connected to a glass-front candy laboratory. Walking in was a time-warp to the 1950's - a typewriter on the table, a scalloped sofa in the corner, a Fats Domino tune on the radio, and - tons of toffee. Hard and soft, jarred and wrapped. They even had free samples (a true rarity in Sweden). It was Pärlans Konfektyr, and their product did not disappoint.

I brought home a small paper bag full of different flavored toffees, and miraculously, they lasted until yesterday when we finished them off. I would go back every day if it weren't for the price tag .... or maybe I will anyway... 

Is it dinner time yet?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Spicy tuna and maple apple granola

This week has been about food. Most weeks are I guess, but this one in particular. Food and an Indian summer. Indian summers don't happen often in Stockholm, so we've got to savour it for the short while it's here or ... ooops there it goes....

Let's get back to the food bit. From playing kubb barefoot on the softest grass imaginable in an apple orchard to making maple apple granola in my very own kitchen - it's all about kicking off fall the right way. Just remember to put a timer on the granola. No one likes burnt granola. (Thankfully I was able to salvage most of it.)

While we're on the subject of making things in the kitchen, I also discovered the easiest, healthiest "ice cream" imaginable (thanks MS!). Pop some pieces of frozen banana in a blender for, say, 3 minutes. And viola - you've got banana "ice cream". I don't know how it happens, but you must trust me. My love affair with bananas just reached a whole new level.

With regards to foods outside of my own kitchen, I have 3 words for you: vegetarian buffet and sushi. One of my favourite restaurants in Stockholm must be Herman's. It's situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking where the sea meets the old city, and serves dozens of rotating vegetarian dishes daily. Unfortunately for me, self-control when it comes to buffets (or any food really) is not my strong suit. Let's just say it was a good thing my ride home on Friday night was downhill. 

On Saturday, we indulged at what I can confidently say is Stockholm's best sushi restaurant: Ljunggrens [yoon-grens]. Drinks to start on the rooftop, followed by spicy tuna and edamame below. A match made in heaven.

Tune in later as my culinary adventures continue. And I can also happily report that I'm enjoying the creating part of food more and more, rather than just the eating.

Monday, September 1, 2014

It's that red crustacean-eating, hat-wearing, song-singing time of year again

If you're thinking Maryland blue crabs, you're close. It's Sweden's version of a crab feast: crayfish! They're messy and delicious. Dill instead of Old Bay, snaps instead of beer... or maybe both. And singing, of course! 

Saturday night's tunes ranged from the traditional crayfish party melodies to Pocahontas' Colors of the Wind. Why not? 

snaps drinking in action

If there's one thing that makes the end of a Swedish summer bearable, I'd have to say it's a crayfish party, or kräftskiva in Swedish. The days are still long and there's still time for a cocktail on the terrace before heading inside for the main event.

The main event involves tiny tongs and knives to crack the red shell and dig deep into the crayfish's small crevices. But it's really all about the tail, which has a big chunk of meat waiting to be inhaled. Be prepared to get covered in smelly crayfish juices and maybe get a few cuts on your fingers in the process - a small price for such a delicious delicacy. 

Our evening continued with charades (thanks MMD!) and more wine and later on, me slipping away for a cat nap in the early hours of the morning. 

A wonderful evening to end a gorgeous Swedish summer...

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Öland is Swedish for "island country" and that is exactly what this piece of land is: a skinny, 140 kilometer-long island of Swedish paradise located just off the southeast coast of the mainland. 

They say that at the beginning of time, Lake Vättern in the middle of Sweden was carved out by a giant, who grabbed a chunk of earth and threw it into the Baltic Sea to form what today we call Öland. To me, it makes no difference how this island came to be - I'm just happy to have finally been there after almost 4 years in Sweden. It's truly a magical place. 

We arrived last Friday afternoon, driving north for almost an hour once we crossed the Öland Bridge, headed toward the village of Löttorp. I expected to see the many windmills we passed (a trademark of Öland), but not the dozen camels we drove by. Who decides to start a camel farm in Sweden?

And there was more on the exotic-animal front: our accommodation - a quaint bed and breakfast-type place - was home to a gang of alpacas. A very welcome surprise, although they weren't so receptive to my alpaca calls.

On Saturday, NS and I explored tree-lined country lanes right out of a fairy tale. Stunning views of the Baltic backdropped green fields of cows. We borrowed bicycles from our B&B and discovered the most beautiful beach I've seen in Sweden - Sandby - with fine, white sand and sparkling blue water. 

At 4pm, guests from all over the country - the continent really - gathered in a gorgeous grassy garden for NS' cousin's wedding. It was ever-so-perfect, full of music and love. A pair of eagles flew over our heads before the ceremony and a rainbow appeared on the horizon after - it must mean a match made in heaven.

We ate and we sang and we drank, and late into the night, we danced and then we ate some more and by the end I was happy and tired and full and in love with this place and these people. I can only hope to return to Öland sometime in the not-so-distant future, hopefully for more than 2 nights next time.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When in Berlin...

3 words: beers and stairs. This seems to be the winning concept, at least where NS and I spent most of our time - in the borough of Kreutzberg. Beers are readily available any time of day from almost any kiosk, no matter how small. And it's okay to drink on the streets. It's just a matter of finding somewhere to sit. Of course, beer gardens are another option (as are the wealth of bars everywhere) - but why complicate things?

our view of Mauerpark's karaoke

When in Berlin's Mauerpark on a Sunday (a must-do for any summer visit), there is a slight upgrade from stairs to the stone amphitheater built into the side of a hill. Crowds of several thousand gather there each week to see Joe Hatchiban host Bearpit Karaoke, a pastime since 2009. 

Hatchiban lugs the whole battery-powered set up on his Bullitt bike for showtime around 3pm (or 4 in our case, following some technical difficulties). People of all ages and nationalities volunteer to perform their favorite songs, as long as it's not Alanis Morissette (she's on the forbidden list). Bring a few beers and/or some bubbly (thanks Nils!) for an afternoon of free entertainment.

Berlin is a place of contrasts: the relaxed, tattoo-covered crowds of areas like Mauerpark make it hard to believe the horrors that divided the city until just 25 years ago. The infamous Wall itself is the most obvious evidence of this period in history, and is hard to miss as you wander through the streets. It can be seen at its finest (that is, if one can ever describe a thing of such terrible division as fine) at the East Side Gallery. Today, these graffiti-covered slabs of cement provide a groundwork for the street art that so distinguishes Berlin from its fellow European cities.

When exploring a new city, it is very important to nourish yourself not only with beer, but also with food. And so we ate - well and plenty. We ate Saigon street food at the lovely District Mot; Italian pizzas along the river at Il Casolare; American burgers from an old toilet house under Schlesisches Tor Ubahn station at Burger Meister; and schnitzels bigger than our heads at Austria. Oh, and the Berlin favorites, too: döner kebab and currywurst (both in a rush to the train station on our trip home, so I can't give a fair rating on those).

dinner @ District Mot

Eating and drinking wasn't all we did - there were a couple museums thrown in there: the DDR for a glimpse at life after WWII under Soviet rule and also the museum under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - emotionally tough, but so worthwhile. We did a free Sandman's walking tour - my fourth, they're always really interesting! And spent an evening watching a movie under the stars - or rather, a rain cloud - in a park by our apartment. Gorgeous, despite the rain (and the bad movie).

view from the An der Schilling Bridge

We also walked a lot in Berlin. There's so much to see - so many details to soak up on foot. Bottle caps between bridge bricks, street performers, playgrounds with crocodile swings. Oh, and an amazing trampoline (thank you again, Nils!) hidden away in one playground. Even more fun after a few glasses at the pay-what-you-want wine bar Weinerei, where you can fill your glass as much as you want and pay what you think it was worth when you leave. It's genius!

from Victoria Park

Thank you, Berlin, for giving us a peek into your craziness - we'll be back! 

Friday, August 8, 2014

A day on Hasselö

My vacation days are ticking away - 10 down, 9 to go. They've certainly been well spent so far. 

Last Thursday, we took a day trip to the archipelago outside of Västervik, to an island called Hasselö. It was a glorious day - breezy; a nearly cloudless, blue sky; and about 75 degrees F. We set off from the city on the 10am ferry, Freden, passing several other tree-lined islands on the 1-hour journey. 

Freden turned off a small harbor where waves were blowing against the sandy beach. Small tractors awaited our arrival to shuttle us to the island's only restaurant, Restaurang Sjökanten. But we decided instead to rent bicycles and explore Hasselö and its neighbor island, Slado, to the south. The two islands are linked by a tiny, 3-meter bridge over a cloudy moat.

We cycled along country roads, across fields, and down narrow paths between cottages painted in the classic Swedish red. It was like a ride out of a Pippi Longstocking story - flower boxes nestled in antique wagon wheels; cows bunched together in the shade under a tree, swinging their tails to ward off the flies; boathouses stretched out in clusters over the edges of tiny creeks. 

We cycled and we trekked and then we cycled some more, and eventually ended up at Restaurang Sjökanten where a beautiful lunch buffet awaited us. 

Fish soup, herring, roast beef, pork, tomato salad, pickled radishes, fruit, and cold beer. It was perfect.

We were pretty exhausted by the time the 3pm ferry arrived, and collapsed in our seats with cold beers in hand for the ride home. Thank you KN for such a wonderful adventure! Next stop: Berlin!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Quenching our thirst on a summer night

Stockholm is shining brightly in all it's glory right now. If you're here, you know what I mean. Everything is glittering, sparkling, glowing. Everyone is smiling. Strangers are whistling on park benches. The sun is out and it's not been this hot in a year at least. That's a long wait for a day when it's warm even in the shade. Of course in Sweden, this means that an extreme heat warning is in full effect. I'm certainly not complaining.


And so I made summer smoothie. The ice cream place, Frystnext-door to our apartment (which I know you'll be shocked to find out I haven't been to yet even though we've lived here for 3 months now!), was just closing it's doors for the day by the time we cycled up last night after an evening swim. And so, I decided to use all the fruit I could find in our kitchen and make my own creation thanks to our lovely landlord's juicer.

It consisted of exactly what you see here:

Plus some crushed flax seed and chia seeds. And a spoonful of vanilla kvarg (translates to quark in English - it's yogurt-esque with low fat and high protein).

It was quite tasty - refreshing, cool, and full of nutrients. Which our ice cream would not have been. Still, I'll admit I'd take the ice cream over smoothie any day. 

Monday, July 14, 2014

Shoes - 1, Me - 0

On Sunday morning, I took a lovely, rainy, 8-kilometer walk with my mother-in-law around Maren lake in Västervik. On Monday evening, I did an Interval Body Pump class at my gym. Same shoes. No problem, right? Big problem in Sweden.

Maren lake on a rainy day

Since the start of my gym-going days in Sweden, I've scoffed at the idea of having a separate pair of indoor training shoes. That's ridiculous, I always insisted. Such an expensive, unnecessary luxury. 

Instead of abiding by this nation-wide rule, I would sneak into the gym with my outdoor shoes only. It's all in one's self-assurance, right? No hesitation, no questions.

But today's gym experience was worse than questions. About 10 minutes into my 75-minute class, I looked down to see my entire area covered in pieces of dirt. Big and small, some with clumps of grass - it was not a pretty sight. And only got worse over the next 65 minutes. 

I was ashamed. The other 29 pairs of shoes in the room were flawless - not a spot of dirt to be found across the grey rubber floor (although plenty of drops of sweat). And so I hopped, I squatted, I lifted for the remaining 65 minutes surrounded by the stigma of my carelessness. 

At the end of the class, I tried to discreetly sweep all the dirt up with a wet paper towel. And another. And then another. So much for discretion. 

Will I change my habits? Probably not. I'm not exactly in the position to spend 2,000 sek on another pair of training shoes for the gym. But I will never forget to scrape off my shoes after a muddy walk. And neither will anyone in the class who stood behind me. 

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Sunny dips in Hornsberg

Finally summer has come to Stockholm. It took awhile - a long, chilly June - but July has brought the heat so let's forget about whatever cold summer once was and focus on the now  because it's here and it won't be for long.

NS and I rode our bikes the 3 minutes from our apartment to Hornsberg after dinner tonight where there was a slow hustle in the air. People passing, boats passing, ducks passing by our perch on a grassy knoll - no one in a hurry, just enjoying the evening light and warmth. 

After awhile, we worked up the nerve to take a quick swim, sans wetsuit and sauna close by this time. It felt amazing. Exhilarating. And wasn't even that bad biking home either. 

Please, summer, stick around for awhile now if you don't mind. I think I speak for this city as a whole when I say that we'd be ever so thankful.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

What happens in Bråvalla stays in Bråvalla

Not to say that anything bad would be happening there, of course. It's a festival, what do you expect? It was my first, though, so I wasn't really sure. But what a first festival it was.

Living in a tent in a massive field in the middle of nowhere with over 50,000 other music-lovers really brings some perspective to life. There were moments when I wondered why I was paying to be here at all, and others when I wanted to stay for another week instead of our Wednesday-to-Sunday stretch. 

And then there was the music, which made every discomfort worth it.

Imagine Dragons on our one sunny day

I saw a total of 22 bands over the course of 3 days - many more than the number of live shows I've seen in recent years. There truly is something incredible about seeing live music, whether the sun is shining brightly as it did on our first day, or torrential rainstorms are matched with hurricane-level gusts of wind, like they were on Friday. 

our post-storm, pre-dismantle party tent

Despite heroic efforts (and lightening shocks!), our party tent didn't really survive the storm. But we just piled on more layers (somewhat damp by then) and tramped through the debris-filled mud pits in our wellies.

I won't tell you all the bands I saw, but I will list my top three:

- Imagine Dragons - a surprise, as I thought I was sick of them
- The Kooks - what's not to love?
- and Veronica Maggio - featuring a surprise duet with the legendary Håkan Hellström (like Sweden's Bob Dylan (right, Swedes? or?)) - can't get enough of her (Veronica, that is), whether or not I understand all of her lyrics

Despite such an amazing festival, it was also wonderful coming home. And taking a shower. My first in 5 days. I went down to Bråvalla expecting to at least wash my face every day, but soon realized brushing my teeth was all I was likely to do in terms of hygiene. And that was okay. Everyone's in the same boat of uncleanliness at a festival, especially after making it through a storm like the one we experienced. There was a feeling of camaraderie afterwards; that we'd made it together.

Sometimes we all need to live a little - grab some beers, pitch a tent with good friends, and listen to some incredible tunes.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Celebrating the start of "summer"

This past weekend, we bundled up and celebrated what is meant to be the start of summer. In such high latitudes, the longest day of the year - June 21 - is a big deal. 18 hours and 37 minutes of daylight is certainly worthy of pomp. Bring out the trumpets, let loose all reason. Will there be games? Yes! Should I have a whiskey at noon? Absolutely! Indulge to your heart's content - it's Midsommar!

And so we did - although under the most un-summer-like conditions. Clouds covered the sky for most of the day and the gorgeous island we were welcomed to was a wind haven. But no matter - we (15 of us in all) hunkered down in whatever clothing we could get our hands on and made the best of it, with a roaring fire in one of the three tiny cabins to bring back the feeling to our toes and fingers when we could no longer deny our numb digits.

a roaring start to my lap around the island

That fire was especially critical for me after swimming around the island on Saturday morning. The water was just under 60 degrees F (about 15 degrees C) and the air was a bit cooler, made more so by the rain spattering throughout the day. But I'd lugged my wetsuit all the way from Stockholm - 5 hours by bus, 35 minutes by car, and 10 minutes by boat - and by God it wasn't going to be for nothing. It's only about 500m around the island, but in such temperatures (and with the fear of whatever creatures could be lurking in those treacherous waters), it was a feat.

the sky just a bit before midnight

Thankfully the spots of rain let up in the evenings so we could sit on the north-facing deck and enjoy long dinners with this view. It is truly an incredible place to be in any weather. Now for some summer temps please!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Travel woes in Sweden

Hello, Midsommar in Sweden! Or rather, the eve of Midsommar Eve. Undoubtedly one of Sweden’s biggest days for travel. Which means the usually speedy 2-lane (sometimes 4-lane) roads that cross the country are jam-packed with travelers, eager to celebrate the coming of “summer” (which means rain and 10 degrees C today) with snaps and pickled herring. Isn’t that what we all crave when we think of summer?

But before all that, we sit in a very long line of cars which, for NS and I, has made what is usually a 4-hour drive from Stockholm down to Västervik more like 6 hours. But that’s just speculation – we’re not there yet.  

It feels like half of our journey so far has been at a full stop. And when we’re not motionless, our bus driver is driving in circles trying to find the next pick-up spot. One disgruntled passenger went so far as to yell at our driver from the back of the bus (this never happens in Sweden).

Transportation in Sweden doesn’t get more exciting than this. And it’s not only the start of Midsommar weekend. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Miss Voon swanky town

On Wednesday night, we celebrated NS' birthday. 32!! How did that happen?  I remember planning a big dinner with friends for his 24th in Australia! Where does the time go?

Anyway, I'm always one for surprises - both surprising and being surprised - so I planned an evening out for just the two of us, as has become our birthday tradition. 

We met at one of Stockholm's infamous landmarks, Svampen - the mushroom - in the middle of the main square of the city's posh-est neighborhood (only the best for my älskling). And led him to the Scandic Anglais hotel's roof-top terrace:

Photo from Scandic hotels

Nice, huh? 

We ordered G&T's and sat perched along a high bench overlooking lovely Humlegården - the Bumble Bee Gardens - and Kungliga Biblioteket - the King's Library. 

When we'd finished our drinks, we headed onward to our table at Miss Voon, a trendy new Asian fusion restaurant up the street. Michelin recommended, Miss Voon's food is incredible and is served beneath low-lights and soft electronic tunes. Our set 4-course menu consisted of

  • lobster tacos
  • salmon tartar sushi-type thing (hard to hear the very long description from our waitress)
  • lamb rack with curry sauce
  • rhubarb strawberry compote with almond cake and vanilla yoghurt 

Each course was so fresh and delicious! Although the portions were small, I thought at the time, I was perfectly satisfied by the end - a welcome experience compared with my typical over-eating-followed-by-never-wanting-to-eat-again status quo when eating out. 

As we paid the bill, we received a gift bag with an "inspiration book." I was excited about the possibility of getting a few new recipes to try out at home, but alas, it was just a fancy book of professional photographs of Miss Voon's food and the restaurant itself. Anyone interested in a new coffee table book?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

There's something about zebra cakes

Who knew what joy those amazing little hexagon-shaped bundles of preservative sugar heaven, wrapped in thin white frosting with chocolate frosting stripes could provide? They're every health-nut's worst enemy, and yet - I can't resist them. Seeing them is like a beaming back to the school cafeteria where I ate lunch from the age of 9 to 18, often finishing up the meal with one or two zebra cakes.

Zebra cakes, a product of snack cake manufacturer Little Debbie, come twin-wrapped, 10 packs to a carton.  That's 20 times the joy of biting into this yellow cake and cream filling combination. But I think the key to zebra cakes is their consistency. They've got a firmness that almost crunches when you take the first bite. 

I had the rare opportunity to buy zebra cakes of my very own several months ago here in Sweden. [I can tell you, they're definitely not on the shelves of any grocery store in the country - probably because the preservatives used in them are illegal on this side of the ocean.] 

MP and I at the end of the night - mustaches were clearly made for us

But the American Embassy thankfully filled the gap. The American Women's Club hosted a Mustache Ball there in April, and I was one of a couple hundred attendees, clad in a mustache of course. I can't say that the mustache was any great success - it was relentlessly itchy and kept shedding in my mouth, making any conversation a challenge. 

But the "store" of American goods (aka table lined with Little Debbie items, Doritos, and Cheetos) was a very welcome surprise indeed. 

MP and I chatted with the girl manning the table for at least 20 minutes about our favorite Little Debbie items and how we eat them, at which point I purchased my own package of zebra cakes. However, I (mistakenly) saved them for later only to realize, upon eating them several days later, that zebra cakes should really be enjoyed directly from the box for maximum freshness, err rather... crunch. A smooshed zebra cake is a disappointment.

You just have to try them yourselves. Although I can't guarantee you won't regret it.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Taking on Kungsholmen by Kayak

We had friends in town last week. And what better time than to do the things you always talk about doing in the city where you live? Because for a limited time only, you can do those things together. So we did just that. We biked everywhere, everyday - sometimes in gorgeous sunshine, sometimes beneath heavy, ominous clouds. We picnicked. We visited the Old Town and museums. We ate dinner on cliff tops. We made skagen from scratch.

And we also kayaked around the island we live on, Kungshomen.

that's the cafe up there - who wouldn't want to rent kayaks from this quaint place?

I've been talking about kayaking around Kungsholmen since we moved to the island 3 years ago. But as often these things go, we never got around to doing it - there's always another time, right? 

Last Sunday, though, we made it happen. I booked 4 single kayaks with a lovely fellow named Richard of Kafe Kayak (on Wednesday, mind you - have to be quick with the ever-planning Swedes!). That was my first mistake - 4 single kayaks. But of course I can make it around the island! Not a worry in my mind! 

We arrived right on time, and after adjusting the balancing pedals to our heights on land, we were off! 2 hours and counting! 

A scenic stretch to start along the south side of the island with gorgeous, elaborately lined rooftops marking a soft rainbow of facades. Then around the corner past Stadshuset, the City Hall of Stockholm. And on to calmer waters in the narrow channel separating Kungsholmen from the central station.

obviously we're pro's

Little did I know that this quite narrow channel turns into a wind tunnel - against us, naturally. My arms were pretty tired and we weren't even halfway.

My energy came in spurts. I got inspiration from a fellow kayaker who passed at literally triple my speed, with seemingly no effort at all. Arms straight-ish. Torso upright. Paddle only until your waistline. I don't know if this is correct kayaking, it's just what I interpreted from observing speed-demon-athlete-muscle-man sweep by, nearly creating a wake for us to flounder over.

Back in the open water on the last third of the journey didn't do me much good either. Apparently, I've come to discover, kayaking makes me sea sick. Me, who's been on boats my whole life! How could this be? I'm convinced it's just kayaks... has to be, right?

Anyways, by this point, I needed to get out. But what could I do? Keep on paddling. My sea-sickness was worsening with every stroke, even as I tried to distract myself by watching all the happy people laying on the cliffs, enjoying the summer day. I had so often been one of them, watching kayakers cruise by - and they'd always made it look so easy. Perhaps they don't actually go around the entire island? That must be it. 

We eventually did make it back to the floating dock of safety - miraculously within a few minutes of the 2-hour mark - and I dragged myself onto the wooden planks and collapsed. I made it! 12 kilometers! (Or so we decided, as running around the island is 10.) 

A big check on the to-do-in-Stockholm list. And truly deserving of the entire pizza that followed - that is, one pizza for each of us.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Skåne calling

Each year when Easter rolls around, I'm surprised by how much a 4-day holiday can do to break up a long winter from the start of a struggling spring. This year, spring is still struggling, although I've heard promises of a turnaround from tomorrow(!). One can only hope.

Anyways, a quick glance back at our Easter adventure in the southern Swedish region of Skåne...

Swedes+Easter=feathers everywhere

First of all, let me explain that Easter in Sweden is a little bit like Halloween in the States. Except everyone dresses up as the same thing - an Easter witch. Just imagine the cutest witch you've ever seen knocking on your door: hankerchief tied around the head, freckles and rosy cheeks painted on the face, long skirts with aprons over-top, and a of course a broom in hand for fast get-aways. 

The kids make dozens of little "Happy Easter!" cards to hand out at each household. How sweet is that? In return, they get candy. We had two covens of witches at our door the Thursday before Easter, and sadly, were incredibly unprepared with zero candy - but they just smiled and wished us a Glad Påsk. My heart nearly melted!

Okay, back to our Easter road trip. We headed down to the charming town of Helsingborg on Friday, stopping for lunch in a tiny village called Gränna, home of the infamous Swedish peppermint candy, to break up the 6-hour drive. 

the view from Kärnan - and that's Denmark across the water

Perhaps it was because of the warm, sunny weather, but in the 20 hours we were there, I fell in love with Helsingborg. On the map, it's Sweden's closest point to Denmark in the southwest corner. Between the two countries is a 20-minute ferry ride across the sound of Oresund. With a population of 100,000, it's the perfect size - and so beautiful! 

Our friends J&J showed us the best of Helsingborg on Friday night with a gorgeous, sunset dinner at Sillen & Makrillen (thanks guys!) and drinks at one of the downtown clubs. And on Saturday, NS and I wandered through downtown and climbed to the top of the medieval tower, Kärnan, the highest point in the city.

afternoon tea in the suuuuuuun!

We said goodbye to Helsingborg on Saturday afternoon and headed to Örenäs Slott (castle) for an incredible champagne weekend. Afternoon tea (with champagne); truffles in our room (with champagne); oyster hors d'oeuvres (with champagne); a 7-course dinner; and brunch the next morning - yep, that had champagne, too. 

I've never had so much bubbly - or food - in my life, and in such a beautiful setting. The castle overlooks a grassy ridge over Oresund sound and is surrounded by farmland. It was divine. And a slightly different experience from last time we were there in 2010 ;) Thank you J&M for an amazing wedding gift we will never forget!!

On Easter Sunday, we visited dear friends in the neighboring town of Lund to celebrate baby H's first birthday, and then drove onward to stay with NS' grandmother in Malmö for the night. 

Our trip ended with a stop in Nimis, a place unlike any other I've ever been to. In the summer of 1980, a very eccentric Swedish man named Lars Vilks decided, among other unusual projects, to start building an enormous, castle-like structure out of driftwood - and call it Nimis. He's been nailing away ever since. From my understanding, this castle has actually been declared a country of it's own, proclaimed so by Vilks himself. 

To get to Nimis, we had to drive out to a remote spot along Sweden's west coast. Then hike through a forest, following a series of yellow "N"s painted sporadically along the way. The trail eventually sloped down to the water's edge, and then, all of a sudden became a tunnel of driftwood haphazardly nailed together every which way. The tunnel continues downward - downward - downward - and then starts upward to several shakey towers (which of course we climbed). 

We climbed all over this chaotic structure, and when we'd had enough climbing, we found ourselves "surfing" along the nearly vertical, leaf-covered ground leading down to Nimis (this leaf surfing was not quite intentional, but rather a slightly indirect route out).

Nimis was quite an experience, to say the least, and a very memorable end to our southern escapade through the wild side of Sweden.