Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas in Sweden: Christmas Day

Christmas day was also a near perfect experience.  I made brunch for a few neighbors and we lounged around enjoying one another's company.

Pancakes and mimosas!

Also, from my recent travels to Norway, I was invited to a Thai Christmas dinner.  As someone who loves Thai food, I could not pass this up.  My Thai friends did not disappoint.  They made delicious food, were gracious hosts and provided some good entertainment.

The theme was red. And I'm being "Asian" giving the peace sign.

And then the night got even more wholesome.  Ting, got out his guitar and suggested we sing.  As we gathered on the couches he looked over and said, "Amanda will lead us in some singing." Me?! I don't sing!  But soon enough I got over my hesitation and lead my Thai friends in roaring renditions of songs originally sung by the Backstreet Boys, Carly Rae Jepson, and The Cranberries.  We sang for 2 hours! At times I felt like I had to be in a movie.  It was the most different Christmas I have had since laying on a beach in the Indian Ocean.  And I loved every second of it.

Time to sing
At one point I am belting out, "And then a hero comes along, with the strength to carry on..." and doing an interpretive dance to accompany it.  If you search hard enough you may find a youtube video of this embarrassment as I had, at least, 8 cameras poised on me.

Mariah Carey has nothing on us!

If I haven't sold you on the magic of Christmas in Scandinavia here's an article that lists both Malmö and a town in Norway as some of the best places in the world to spend Christmas: And I also, strongly, recommend any mix of international people at your holiday.  They are thrilling.

Christmas in Sweden: Christmas Eve

Scandinavians traditionally celebrate Christmas on December 24th.  Swedes usually eat a Christmas buffet for lunch with sausages, meatballs, potatoes, herring, and salmon.  At 3 pm the whole country turned on the TV and watched "Kalle Anka", Donald Duck.  After Donald Duck is over, Santa comes and brings presents. Then to end the night, they eat rice pudding with an almond in it and the one who gets the almond will get married that year.  Now, there are several problems I see with these traditions.  First of all, Donald Duck has nothing to do with Sweden.  Where on earth did this come from?  Secondly, how would Santa be able to get to every house at exactly the same time when Donald Duck ends?  And thirdly, Swedes don't get married, they cohabitate, so who would ever want to get the almond?

Knowing I would never fully understand Swedish traditions, I decided to host my own international Christmas dinner on the 24th for all those in my program who didn't go home for Christmas.  I got back from Oslo that afternoon and an hour later was busy cooking with friends.  Since I had made new friends on my trip I also invited them to join us.  But in true international fashion, half the guests came over an hour and half after they were told to show up.  So, we started without them and they ate what was left over.

I taught them how to make blueberry and apple pie

It was a wonderful Christmas dinner with great conversations and games after.  We taught each other about our respective countries: Fiji still practiced cannabalism through the 19th century, Mugabe doesn't like the tribe in the South of Zimbabwe, and I taught everyone about my mom's favorite Native American, Chief Joseph.

If I couldn't be tucked in safe with my family in Minnesota, there isn't another place on earth I would have rather spent this Christmas Eve but with these dear friends in Sweden.  I am so thankful for the people I am meeting.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas in Norway

Oslo, Norway
A few months ago, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to go to Norway over our Christmas break.  Someone had found a groupon and a few people were going to take a cruise from Copenhagen to Oslo and back.  The price wasn't one to be passed up ($40 for 3 days including our train tickets to and from Copenhagen!) and in a momentary slip of sanity, I signed up.  You see, I have sworn off boats.  I swore I would never take a boat again after my trip to the Ssese Islands in Uganda, then after island hopping in the Galapagos, and firmly after floating down the Amazon.  I get very sea sick and hate myself when on a boat.  But, somehow, I keep putting myself through the misery and get back on a boat.  This time, in a wish to not be alone for Christmas and a desire to see Norway, I went against my better judgement and took a cruise from Copenhagen to Oslo.

But before I go too much into the boat ride, let's back up to setting the scene more.  When we first began to put this trip together there were 5 of us going.  We were a smattering of international students (USA, Thailand, Taiwan, and Kenya) who come from places too far to go home to over our short break and my Norwegian friend who couldn't find a cheaper deal home.  As the trip got close my Thai friend said a couple of her friends had also signed up and would be going too.  A couple.  This usually implies 2, or so I thought.  Then, the day of, we were in the train station waiting to go to Copenhagen when my friend from Taiwan kept looking expectantly down the track way and said, "oh, here are my friends," as 4 Fijians joined us.  This friend had never even mentioned her friends were coming!  Now, our group was 9 and I was expecting 2 Thai to join us soon.  Would you believe that by the time we boarded the boat we were a group of 20?! Yes, friends just kept coming.  My Norwegian friend had planned on showing us around when we got to Oslo and we started joking that she was going to need to buy a flag stick to lead our tour group now.

I like plans, structure and order.  I don't like surprises.  As I have gotten older and traveled, I have learned to adjust when my plans change but it is still a challenge for me initially.  In my head, I know, sometimes, those changes are the best thing to happen.  But my heart still races with anxiety and disappointment when things are not going the way I expected.  But, as usually happens after I calm down, I came to love every person on this trip and can't imagine the terrible boat ride and exploration of Norway's capital without any of them.

As we boarded the boat we were told of free sea sickness medicine at the front desk and I took note of the vomit bags conveniently hanging from all the stairwells.  Things were not looking good.  The first few hours were ok.  We had brought food and all sat together eating and getting to know each other.  But as the boat moved from the sheltered Øresund area toward the North Sea, the waves began to rock the boat and my stomach with it. Pretty soon, we were all sick and ran to take refugee in our beds.  It was an excruciatingly long night where I often felt like I was going to be pitched out of my bed with the violent waves.  At moments I envisioned Titanic and knew with certainty I was going down in my little cabin with my snoring Taiwanese friend.  My prayer life dramatically increased and, with God's mercy, we made it to Oslo.  The next morning when someone mentioned we should take the bus back home I was more than willing to skip the boat back and take that option.

It was 10 am when we got off the boat and the sun was just rising.  Norway is darker, colder and more expensive.  But I loved it!  The Norwegian capital is full of charm.  It is much more beautiful than my little Swedish town (sorry Malmö) with forests, hills and simple with a mix of classic and modern architecture.
Oslo Opera House - it's public art so you can walk all over it (on the roof)
Me and my Thai friends in front of the Opera House
Opera House
The harbor with the fortress in the distance
Oslo, from the fortress
The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo every year
Royal Palace - flag is up so family is home for Christmas
God Jul from the streets of Oslo!
Accordion player in Sculpture Park - love the woman dancing with her hair:)
It was a whirlwind trip to Oslo but definitely worth it.  I loved Norway and am already planning another trip to the charming country.  I made new friends from around the world who made my Christmas so special.  If anyone needs connections in Taiwan, Thailand, Fiji, Kenya, or Norway, just ask me.

We all did get back on the boat and had even more of a tumultuous ride back to Copenhagen.  We made it.  It took a few days to recover our balance yet the memories of Oslo let the boat feel like just a little nuisance.

But for the record, I am never taking a boat ride again.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Christmas in Denmark

One of my colleagues invited our class to her place in Copenhagen for a chance to eat Danish Christmas treats and to go to Tivoli for their Christmas market last weekend.  Tivoli is the second oldest amusement park in the world and a nice place to people watch, enjoy the impeccable decorations/landscaping, eat good food and chance your life (for those so inclined to go on amusement park rides in a place that dates back to the early/mid 1800's).   Walking around Copenhagen and in Tivoli made me feel so Christmasy.  This is the European Christmas I imagined.  Everyone seemed so happy, the lights gave warmth to every street and Christmas tree ornaments and decorations were sold in little shops that sent off hints of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg.  I love Christmas in Denmark!

The streets are crowded with everyone out Christmas shopping
4 pm - pitch black outside, but we are happy to be in Copenhagen so the smiles abound
Tivoli all lit up
Even the Weeping Willow was strewn with lights
And, to confirm Christmas is lovely in Denmark, the New York Times even wrote a piece: Denmark Where Joy Is Always In Season

Sunday, December 15, 2013

St. Lucia

Lussekatt (Lucia bun!)
When I got to school on December 13th there was a table laden with free lussekatt (Lucia buns), pepparkakor (ginger snaps), glögg and coffee.  It was Lucia Day!  Swedes love Lucia Day but no one really knows why it is celebrated.  St. Lucia is an Italian Catholic saint who was martyred by a jealous husband when she refused to sleep with him because she'd made a vow to God to remain a virgin for life.  Somewhere along the way the Lutherans took her on as a saint. And then, over the years, Lucia become important with bringing the light.  In the Julian calendar it was believed December 13th was the shortest day of the year so Lucia brought the light making the days longer again. That is the tradition modern Swedes ascribe to.

All throughout the day Swedish children had Lucia services.  I wasn't able to attend one of those but did go to the city-wide Lucia celebration in the park.  Earlier this year there was a contest throughout the whole city for the position of Lucia.  The girl who was chosen then rode through the city in a horse drawn carriage and ended in the park near my apartment.  Lucia, her maids and star boys sang the traditional Lucia songs as it gently rained on us.  The music was very beautiful.  The mayor thanked Lucia for bringing the light and gave her a gift from the city.  Traditionally, Lucia should have then passed out lussekatt but, I think, due to the whole city being present this wasn't possible.

I love traditions.  Even the ones that don't really make any sense.  Christmas in Sweden is seeped in tradition and it's fun to take part in them.  Especially when they involve beautiful music and lights.

Many children were dressed as Lucia.
Malmö city Lucia with her maids and star boys.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Svensk Lucia

To watch a beautiful Lucia service click:


December brings many Julfests (Christmas parties). These can be giant affairs with many many people, or small gatherings with close friends.  They include a julbord (Christmas table), glögg, low-lighting and music.

I have already been to several julfests.  They have looked very different but the julbord has been the same.  Leave it to the Swedes to follow convention when it comes to their foods.  I love the candle and Christmas lights that make a room so cozy and intimate.  During these dark, and a little bit cold days/nights, the lights bring warmth to the soul and lighten everyones spirits.  I've never been the biggest fan of Christmas music (think its hokey) but this year, after going to julfests, I've been finding the voices of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bublé and others telling me to rock around the Christmas tree and how wonderful winter wonderlands are playing loudly throughout my apartment.  I am embracing all things Christmas.

They showed It's a Wonderful Life on the screen without sound as we ate under the white Christmas lights.
Swedish meatballs, a scalloped potato dish, Swedish bread, and salad.  I passed on the pickled herring and cold salmon covered in dill.
All dressed up and enjoying Christmas in Sweden. These two friends have never seen snow and are hoping it'll come soon.
Ikea also hosts a Julbord (Christmas table).  The place was PACKED.  It was really fun to go with some people from my program after class and eat a Christmas dinner together.  Being with people and learning new traditions at the most iconic of Swedish places?! How could anyone pass that up?

Even Ikea puts the stars in their windows

So much salmon, and Swedish meatballs
Even the patient library at school threw a Julfest.  It felt so good to take a break from my group work and go to the library to drink glögg and eat pepparkakor (gingersnaps).

And today is Lucia Day.  It used to be believed that the 13th of December was the shortest day of the year.  Lucia brought the light.  I'll write more about this after I experience it.  Until then, here's a dummies guide:

The last time I lived abroad over Christmas never felt like Christmas.  It was the dry and hot season in Uganda so I was constantly sweating and had a deep tan.  I was on the equator so the sun rose and set in 12 hour intervals.  And there wasn't a Christmas culture.  This time, living abroad where Christmas culture really took off, I am enchanted and soaking up the lights (I'm slightly obsessed with the lights), enjoying the glögg and having a blast at all the julfests, big or small.

Happy St. Lucia Day!

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Lights, the Swedish Christmas tradition

You know you are in Europe when the Christmas tree is set up next to a statue (Gustavus Adolphus)
December is here.  And its been busy.  When I should be studying, I am often running around enjoying the Christmas season.  While I may have had very high expectations of Christmas in Europe, I am learning to like the simplicity I see instead.   The Christmas market turned out to be a small craft fair, the window displays are oh-so-Scandinavian-design-sparse, and the Julbord (Christmas table) is full of foods I don't like (pickled herring, cold salmon with dill, etc).  But it's the lights on the trees, the stars in the windows, the enthusiastic "God Jul"'s, and the parties that are bringing the Christmas magic to my days and nights in Sweden this December.

Notice the presents hanging from the tree above!
I don't know this tradition but it makes for a fun tree.
Light is an important component of the Christmas season for Swedes.  All around town trees are strung with lights, the city streets have hanging lights and the windows of people's homes have either a giant star light or a candelabra, or sometimes both.  Light brings warmth, comfort and coziness to these dark days.

The temperatures have begun to fall (we even hit the Celsius 0, once) and I no longer leave the house without a hat on.  Every child I pass on the street is decked out in a full snow suit.  I thought they were for snow but, apparently, they are also used simply for warmth.

I find myself making hot hearty meals to keep my body warm.  Swedes make their Lussekatter (saffron buns), eat pickled herring and drink glögg (mulled wine).

Keeping warm by the fire.
See the little girl in the back with her snowpants on?
And it's only December 12th.  If the beginning of my month is any predictor of what is to come, it's going to be a wonderful Christmas season.

God Jul! (Merry Christmas)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The cases of the Novembers are over...right?

I was at a party last weekend when a Finnish girl showed up and someone asked how she was doing.  She gave a big sigh and said, "I have such a case of the Novembers."  All the Swedes, Finns, Danes and Norwegians nodded their heads and gave sympathetics gestures.  "Wait, what are the Novembers?" I asked.  The Novembers mean you are more sleepy, less wanting to leave your apartment, you have a harder time staying focused on work or school, you eat more breads than normal and are usually battling some form of a cold.  So, it turns out, I had a minor case of the Novembers.  Who knew?

Swedes don't have much fondness for the month of November.  I think it comes after a great month where the trees change their colors and it comes before the merriment of the Christmas season in December.  November is just:

4 pm
Supposedly rainy (hasn't been this year)

And cold (also hasn't been this year) without anything overly exciting happening.

While the darkness has made me more sluggish, my November wasn't entirely bad - I had Thanksgiving to look forward to!  I decided to host an international Thanksgiving (see Thanksgiving Invitation) to celebrate being thankful for my new friends and life in Sweden.  A friend offered her apartment because it's bigger and we invited a few friends.  My Thanksgiving included 2 Scotts, 1 Finn, 1 Swede, 1 Norwegian, 1 Romanian, 1 Thai, 1 Korean, 1 German, and 1 American (me).

It just so happened that we didn't have class on Thursday so I spent the morning teaching friends how to make pumpkin pie, roast a chicken (turkey is too hard to find) and gave history lessons on the holiday.
Making a Graham Cracker crust for the pumpkin pie
My full fridge with Thanksgiving foods
Roasting a chicken
Loaded bikes to transport our food to our friends' for Thanksgiving
It was a really fun Thanksgiving sharing a few traditions with new friends and letting our international perspective influence our Thanksgiving in Sweden (as seen by the foods we consumed).  We ate good food, had stimulating conversations, played games and got to know each other better.  I'd say that is a near perfect Thanksgiving.

Some of our Thanksgiving foods: roasted chicken, Swedish meatballs, Scottish fish soup, Pad Thai,
Korean Salad, German Potato Balls, and, of course, Pumpkin and Apple Pie

Now, today is December 1st.  I woke up at 6:30 to pitch darkness.  By 8 am it was still dark with a faint light about to appear.  As depressing as the darkness is, when I looked out my window I saw all the candles (fake) lit in my neighbors windows bringing light to the darkness and, at the moment, I don't feel too badly about the dark.  Maybe, my Novembers are over?

Some second year students came to my class last week and passed out pamphlets titled, "How to cope with winter in Malmö."  They gave a short presentation stressing we are not alone and these Novembers we are experiencing now, may get worse in January and February.

They claim "daylight" is from noon to 3pm!
Does that mean a "case of the Novembers" lasts longer than the month of November?  Maybe it's just a case of the winters.  But anyway, it's December and my social calendar is looking packed with visits to Christmas markets, Lucia celebrations, Christmas cookie making, a Christmas party in Copenhagen, a traditional Christmas table feast at Ikea and Christmas choral services.  Also, somewhere in there I need to focus on my Biostatistics class.  Hmm,  Well, November, you were ok, not as bad as the Swedes make you out to be.  But December, I see why Swedes love you.  And I'm so excited!  I'll worry about January and February later.  For now, Happy 1st day of Advent!