......finding a new home for lutefisk lovers.

(ok we don't love it. or even like it. but we're supposed to.)

29 July 2011

Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen

With the exception of a few stories, I'll just share some photos to show you what makes this place special. One of our traveling companions (known as Grown Up Liam) is a frequent visitor to Copenhagen from the UK, and as we explored the city together, he explained the concept of "Hygge." The word has no literal translation but may come from the Norwegian word for well-being. It refers to the little things that bring us comfort and happiness.

A seaside picnic table and a path through a summer garden are very hygglig. So is huddling by a fire on a winter's night. Hygge is why you see simple jars of freshly picked flowers on window sills and restaurant tables. And when the sun starts to set, the flowers are replaced by the comforting glow of candlelight - even if you're just eating a haat dagg.

After returning home to the US, I've been trying to slow down and insert more hygge into our lives. Maybe it's stopping to add capers and fresh dill to my tuna sandwich. Or a slice of lemon to my ice water. Or finding a pretty bowl for the rocks I collect at the beach.

For Danes, hygge is their heritage. For me, it may be a new way of life.

Denmark has the highest number of urban cyclists on the planet. I'm sure bikes outnumber cars. Bikes probably outnumber people. We even found a playground that had every conceivable vehicle on wheels - just out for all to use. Completely free, no security, no waiver, just put it away when you're done. Apparently, theft isn't a big issue because the "bike garage" wasn't even locked. I helped a Danish park dad gather and put away the trikes, scooters, and other forms of rolling stock at the end of the day and he was very grateful. "Tak!" he said. "De nada!" is what I pulled out of my ass in response. Thanks to one semester of Spanish in 7th grade.

We did as the Danes do and rented bikes for an afternoon (that's a picnic in my basket! See photo below! Can you say Danish fantasy?!). We had hoped to get one of these front bucket bikes pictured above. A common sight in Copenhagen, the front bucket bike is the preferred method of travel for all kinds of passengers. Not reserved for children, you'll also see dogs, wives, girlfriends, colleagues and drinking buddies sitting primly in the front bucket.

But the rental shop was out of front buckets so Liam got his own bike. Copenhagen is beyond bike-friendly with wide bike lanes on every street - but it is still quite urban and trafficky. So we were happy to be biking with our friends Liam and Michaela. I liked having a 4 to 1 grown up to child ratio as we biked through the city.

That being said, there was still plenty of shouting and reprimanding as we biked. Like:

"LIAM! Get over to the right!"

"LIAM! Don't cross that white line!!"

"LIAM! No shenanigans! Bike in a straight line!"

And each time we yelled "LIAM!" our grown up friend Liam would obediently move to the right and do as he was told.


Before leaving for our trip, we read the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. At first Liam balked, thinking that princesses and snow queens were not really his thing. So...... I made sure to get the original versions of the stories - completely un-Disney-fied. Because getting one's feet chopped off with an ax because one can't stop dancing makes for a very interesting story to an 8 year old boy (The Red Shoes). So does getting one's tongue cut out with a knife in exchange for human legs (The Little Mermaid). "What kind of knife did she use, Mama?" he wanted to know. So sweet!

Liam's butter diet. (see previous post)

Legos were invented in Denmark
You can make anything with Legos!

Lego Copenhagen!

Lego Place Where We Just Ate Lunch!
Seriously! I think that's Liam eating butter!

Liam is allowed to drink Coke on trains, airplanes and in foreign countries.
So we have lots of pictures of him drinking Coke.
Perhaps not the best parenting strategy.

No, it's not perfect. But it's really close! There's nothing like seeing your name and all its variations on signs and mailboxes and name tags everywhere you look. It feels like being part of a special club - like my people were saying "There you are! We've been looking for you!" In fact, when I checked into our hotel in Denmark, I approached the clerk and spoke English (because she was speaking English to the guests in front of me). She asked for my name - and I answered - truthfully, this time: "Kristin Nilsen," I say.

And she said, "Would you like me to speak Danish?"

Why this makes me so happy, I have no idea. Maybe it's because her question implies that I look like I belong somewhere. Like.....there. Everyone wants to belong, right? (Hmmmm. Making some parallels to my current situation in which I seemingly don't belong. Note to self: call therapist).

Either way, I'm part of a club! Yay!

As we close in on 9 years old, I'm keenly aware of the decline of hand holding. I know hand holding isn't permanent. And when I do find his hand in mine - only occasionally now - I say a quick thank you, knowing that it could slip out at any time.

But.........Liam and I walked hand in hand throughout much of Stockholm and Copenhagen.

He would grab my hand and interlace his fingers loosely with mine, like we were girlfriend and boyfriend. He didn't clutch me or pull me. He wasn't anxious or unsure. He just wanted to keep me near, by his side, a physical reminder of my presence as we traipsed through these strange cities.

And I relished every moment, knowing that this was a special dispensation given to almost 9 year old boys who are traveling far from home.

As we boarded the plane for home, I said goodbye to the hand holding, assuming he didn't need me anymore. The trip was done. And given the proximity of airplane seats, my hand probably wouldn't be necessary for security purposes.

But as he settled in with his blanket and his iPod, he reached over and grabbed my hand for the plane ride home.

28 July 2011

Glad Midsommar!

Our time in Stockholm culminated in a Midsummer celebration......... which is Sweden's biggest holiday behind Christmas. Everybody, and I mean everybody, goes outside or to a park or to an island or to a summer home on the Friday night closest to the summer solstice and sings and dances and eats in celebration of the longest day of the year.

We were lucky enough to be hosted by my great-grandmother's cousin's great-granddaughter (seriously) and her family. And they treated us like their own brothers and sisters.

The celebration begins with a picnic.

After musicians in Swedish folk costumes parade through the park, the celebration surrounds the Maypole.


You sing songs and dance in a circle until there are no more songs to sing and no more dances to dance.

And with the exception of two, I can proudly say I knew each and every song.
Okay, I don't speak Swedish (I can't even say hot dog correctly) but I knew the tunes well enough to fake it by singing "watermelon" over and over and over. I think it sounded exactly the same.

But I didn't know the dances - so I sang "watermelon" and mimicked each move one or two seconds behind everyone else. I felt like I was on a game show.

Women and girls weave wildflowers into crowns and wear them during the celebration. That night, if they put the crown under their pillow, they will dream of the person they will marry.

Which was actually really stressful for our 8 year old friend, Francesca. She did NOT want a crown because she was just not ready to have this information. What if it was a complete stranger???? The whole idea was ookie and scary and she wanted nothing to do with it.

After singing and dancing, our hosts treated us to a traditional Midsummer feast. An amazing feast that I inhaled, using my bare hands to shove the food into my mouth faster. With a ring of lingonberry stain circling my mouth and a meatball in one cheek, I said "Hey. Wait a minute.........this is Christmas dinner. With strawberries." Mike was like "Yeah. It smells like your mom's house. But then we get strawberries." Then we stuffed more meatballs into our cheeks.

Sexual politics are alive and well in Sweden. And so it was that Mike and our friend, Jon, were asked to hull the strawberries.

I was asked to help myself to a gin and tonic.

I am no domestic goddess.
I am no domestic anything.
But I have eaten strawberries.
So I have had the opportunity to hull them. Quite successfully I might add.
Not a single strawberry hulling injury for me, no sir.

And watching Mike and Jon pick up knives and stab at the poor fruit so awkwardly and violently - I was like, "Can I help you with that? Please?"

But I was told to enjoy my gin and tonic and go away.

The Feast: boiled salmon, smoked salmon, one other kind of salmon I can't remember, potatoes in a creamy dill sauce, onion pie, Swedish meatballs (known in Sweden as "meatballs"), bright orange carrots, green salad, and 5 different kinds of herring. And strawberries, of course.

Liam, our picky eater, ate butter and a dozen hard boiled eggs.

Food was a concern before leaving for our trip because Liam's repertoire is annoyingly small. And the chances of him eating herring or reindeer or salmon are zero. But we needn't have worried. Because he ate mostly butter. For ten days he ate butter. Sometimes he would put some bread on it.

Seriously, the butter in both Sweden and Denmark was deeeeee-licious. I don't know why it's different - maybe the grass is yummier or the cows are happier. All I know is that it seemed perfectly reasonable for Liam to pop butter packets into his mouth like tic tacs.

Tune in next time for "Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen!"

(for those of you who weren't exposed to Danny Kaye as children, that's a reference to Hans Christian Andersen, who is pictured above.
It's not actually him. It's just a statue.
He's been dead for a long time. You usually don't get a stature til you're dead)

26 July 2011

Welcome to Stockholm

Stockholm sits on the water............surrounded by the Baltic Sea and thousands of islands known as the archipelago. Boats are an easy way to travel between city sites; in an era in which most public transportation smells like pee, it's an amazingly refreshing way to travel.

The Gamla Stan, or old town.

Gnomes and trolls, known as "tomte," figure prominently in Sweden. We were told that tomte are everywhere and we must take care not to piss them off. For instance, if you are going to dump a pot of boiling water outside (like we all do, every day), you should shout "WATCH OUT!" So the tomten can get out of the way.

We also heard a story about people who are not really people and they might have holes in their backs so you can see right through them and if you buy a cow from them, it's good luck.

So there you go.

Traveling with friends changed our experience dramatically. Years from now, when Liam retrieves memories of this trip, an extra layer of fun will surround them........ more like a hootenanny than a field trip. In addition to the museums and the architecture and the boats and the giant dala horses, he'll remember the bunny ears........

.........and the running...........

............and running.........

..........and running.

For future reference, playing tag is a really great way to get some exercise and do some sightseeing. It's like power sightseeing. Try it on your next trip!

I estimate that Liam put 5 times the mileage on his shoes with all the running ahead, running back to check in, running ahead, running back to check in. Not once did any of them complain that they were tired. Not once did anyone say "Are we there yet?" And at the end of the day, sleep came swiftly and quietly.

The presence of hot dog stands, or "korv kiosks," makes eating a lot easier when traveling with a picky eater. Although ordering a plain hot dog with just ketchup is tricky. It's like a special order and you have to describe it for them very carefully. A couple of times.
Otherwise you may end up with a footlong the color of cherry kool aid and covered in mashed potatoes or shrimp salad.

While waiting for our plain hot dog one day (hold the mashed potatoes and shrimp, please), I see that the menu features the word "Haat Dagg" with a bunch of umlauts and dots that I can't find on my computer keyboard.

"Hey, you guys! Look! This is how you say hot dog in Swedish!"

We quickly form a clump around the menu sign, children and adults alike, and we twist our mouths around in myriad shapes searching for the proper pronunciation of this useful word.

"Hote da-a-ag!"
"No.....it's Hate Day-ag!"
"No......the "g" is silent! It's Hy-at Dye-eee!"

A tall, blonde woman (do I even need to say that?) standing behind us watches the show for a while. She watches with.....what?......bemusement? Annoyance? I don't know.......until she finally says in beautiful, lilting English, "Actually, that's like a joke. It's showing Swedes how to say the American word "hot dog." You pronounce it "hot dog."


Coming soon to a theater near you.......


At Skansen, the outdoor cultural museum, Liam was given an ax - a real ax - and told to whack a block of wood in two. While a woman in a traditional Swedish folk costume held the block of wood. With her hand.

He holds the ax and looks at me like "I don't think this is allowed." I look away. I'm worried the blood will stain her costume.

The stern Swedish woman is nonplussed. "Come on," she says. "You can do it." Not in a kindly, preschool teacher way but in a "what are you waiting for?" kind of way.

Whack. No blood. Dammit. Now he's going to think it's ok to play with axes.

Next, she hands him a knife and a block of wood and shows him how to carve. Again, I look away as he stabs and slices at the wood. But after a while, he gets the hang of it. "Looks like you're good at whittling," says Mike.

"I'm whittling?!"

After that, he begs for a knife as a souvenir so he can whittle on the plane ride home.

When you ask Liam what his favorite part of the trip was, he will say Tivoli and Grona Lund; Tivoli being the most famous amusement park in the world (without mouse ears) and Grona Lund being it's Swedish counterpart. There were several things that set these places apart from our American amusement parks (besides umlauts):

For one, coffee is considered an amusement park treat.
And a necessity. It would be unthinkable to skip your 4pm coffee just because you're at the amusement park with the kids.

Can amusement parks be described as quaint? Or adorable? Because these were definitely quaint and adorable. The premise, the architecture, the lighting, the coffee stands, the lounge chairs for relaxing (who relaxes at Disney World?!) - complete with sheepskin lapthrows for chilly evenings. All of it made our American amusement parks seem garish and plastic.

Like velveeta cheese.

One of Liam's guidebook items was "find a new candy." See how kids view travel through a different lens? He picked out a "Kex" bar and I picked out a "Plopp;" mostly because my friend, Laura Thomas, from first grade, used the word "plopp" for the act of pooping.
As in, "I have to plopp."

In the summer, Swedes congregate outside, preferably by the water.
This spot overlooking a marina seems to sum up the vibe of this city; the perfect place to enjoy your 4pm coffee and a plopp - I mean a "Plopp."

Tune in for the next exciting installment of our Scandinavian Saga where we celebrate Sweden's second biggest holiday!!