Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Summer in April

Summer has come to Sweden. The sun is out and it's hot on the skin. For the past 4 days I have spent every imaginable moment outside. I went to the beach, the park, rode my bike for hours along the coast, paddle-boated around the canal, met up for ice-cream with friends in the square, had a picnic in the park, had a bbq in the park, read my book on my balcony, read my book at the side-walk cafe and every other possible moment I had I was soaking up each sun ray of the long day in some capacity. Yes, the days are long here in Sweden now. The sun rises at 5:30 am and sets at 9 pm. It'll just keep getting longer until mid-Summer when I hear the sun sets at 2:30 in the morning!

It's funny because I can't complain about my winter. It was very tame. But having the sun and heat back makes me feel like I've faced the longest, darkest most cold winter of my life. The sun makes me feel so happy. How is it possible for the summer to distort the reality of my winter?

The crazy Finn went swimming in the water

They are high-fiving because they paddled with the wind and my friend and I had to paddle against it.

Tomorrow is Volborg. It's exactly 6 months since All Saints Day and I believe has some former religious significance. However, now it consists of drinking champagne and eating strawberries for breakfast, listening to choirs perform in the park all day and lighting bonfires all night to welcome spring. Yes, everyone thinks we are just starting spring while I am quite positive this is summer. Then Thursday is May Day which is Sweden's Labor Day. It's a national holiday and everyone hangs out in the park bbqing and soaking up the sun. It seems the Swedes are as enthusiastic as me about being outside enjoying the sun. I think their holiday's were intentionally placed. Bring on the sun!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Easter in Romania

Sweden is a secular country who holds to a few religious traditions for the sake of tradition but not for the sake of any meaning. Easter is Sweden is eating the same "holiday" meal they eat for every holiday with their families, dressing their children as witches who go out collecting candy and money and decorating birch twigs with colorful feathers around the door of your house or business. Swedish folk tradition says Easter witches flew on their brooms to a mountain to party with the devil. I'm very unclear why, but it's the story. So now, children dress as Easter witches with red handkerchiefs and go door to door, like American Halloween. The feathers also have (dare I say strange?) stories about a Norse god of the rabbits who was upset Swedes ate so much rabbit that he sent bad weather (winter). To appease the god Swedes switched to chicken and put the feathers of the chicken on their trees so the god would see they were staying away from the rabbits. It's also said this tradition is about the time in the 1600's when Swedes used to beat each other with twigs on Good Friday to commemorate the suffering of Jesus. Somehow, this seems the most realistic to me considering its suppose to be about Easter.

PĂ„skris (Easter tree) outside a shop
While I was less than impressed with these traditions, it was with little disappointment in missing a Swedish Easter that I took off to experience an Orthodox Easter in Romania with my Romanian friend.

I got to stay with my friend and her family in their Communist constructed apartment building with a double door to keep their neighbors from listening in on them in the beautiful, modernizing capital city Bucharest. Bucharest was once known as "Little Paris" and rivaled Paris with its ornate theaters, beautiful palaces and charming details on each building. However, Romania experienced fifty years of Communism which added its own blocked, drab buildings and tore down some of Bucharest's magnificence. But, since 1989, Romania has been rebuilding itself and I found it entirely wonderful.

Their Arch de Triumph
King Carol I in front of the economics building

A former royal palace now used for the National Museum of Art 

The Anteneu is Romania's concert hall that opened in 1888. World-famous conductors and soloists have graced its presence making it culturally significant for more than 100 years. It is a truly beautiful building with a 75-meter-long fresco running along the concert hall showing the history of Romania. We had the opportunity to attend an oratorio of Moses at Mount Sinai. It was breath-taking.

We toured the Parliament Palace which, with 5100 rooms, is the second largest building it the world just after the Pentagon. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu wiped out a historic section of Bucharest to build this for his luxurious residence. However, when Romania had its revolution the building wasn't finished yet and the people wanted to destroy it with all other Communist thoughts. However, since it took 700 architects and 20,000 laborers and cost more than a fortune to build, they decided to keep it and use it as their parliament building. Its an impressive but very sad building. My Romanian friends say it is a sad reminder of a piece of their destructive history.

It's also where Michael Jackson greeted a crowd saying, "Hello Budapest!" A bit embarrassing.

It wouldn't be a trip to Romania without a visit to Transylvania. This is Romania's biggest region and holds former castles/palaces, the Carpathian Mountains, village life and is known for being the setting of Dracula. We went on a rainy and gray day but I still found it beautiful in both a charming and haunting way.

But of course, some of my favorite parts of this whole trip was the time spent with my friend's family. Her parents don't speak English so they would jabber away in Romanian at me, patting my head and kissing my cheek, forcing 3 and 5 course meals at me with every turn, not letting me lift a finger to help and wrapping bottles of Romanian wine for me to take back to Sweden with me.

We participated in many traditional Romanian Orthodox Easter traditions. Devout Romanians go to church every day during Easter week. We went on Good Friday and Easter morning (literally at midnight!). On Good Friday people go to church and pass under a table 3 times, kiss icons and pray. Passing under the table is to show you enter into death with Christ. On Easter morning, at midnight, we went to church and received the light from Jerusalem, listened to beautiful music, were prayed over, heard a sermon and did a call-and-response. Most of it was lost on me since it was in Romanian, but the beauty, togetherness and spirit of it all was humbling and I was honored to join my friend and her family during this special time.

Of course we got home at 1:30 am and had to eat a 5 course Easter meal! To say I was exhausted is an understatement.
We kept our lights from Jerusalem lit all night/morning until they burned out
I had a wonderful time in Romania. I feel I've only glimpsed the surface of that unique country. I think future trips must be in order.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Living in Southern Sweden, I hear a lot of derision for Stockholm. People complain that Stockholm's culture is too fast and unkind, the weather is colder and the winters are darkest. When I received the opportunity to go to Stockholm with my class to visit the European CDC and the Swedish Public Health Institute, I was interested in seeing the fabled capital city of unpleasantness. Partly to prove my solidarity with my fellow Southern Swedes I was prepared to not like Stockholm. But Stockholm's beauty overwhelmed me and I have become a converted Stockholm appreciator.

I will admit that when I got off the train at the central station and saw the throngs of people practically running in every direction I felt like a country bumpkin fearing the rush. But I quickly got my city legs back and fell into step with the stylish clad folk moving quickly from one important moment of business to the next.

And in between I learned about disease reports and public health measures in Sweden along with the history and beauty of Stockholm.

The ECDC has a much prettier building than the CDC.
After a full day of meetings and learning, my friend Kripitch (he lives in Stockholm) took me and a couple friends around to see the sights by night. Even then it was beautiful.

Then the weekend was spent being a tourist and soaking as much of Stockholm up as possible.

 The Vasa ship was designed poorly and when it set sail from Stockholm only made it 100 meters before sinking. It was buried at the bottom of the harbor for over 300 years. It has now been preserved and made into a museum. Many of the original sails, wood carvings and sculptures were semi-intact and on display. It's amazing how freezing cold water can preserve things for so long.

I didn't make it into the Nordic Museum but I sure thought it had a beautiful outside:

Gamla Stan is the old part of the city where the palace is, cobbled streets and street lights lite with candles. Today, it is full of restaurants and is a great place to people watch. The brightly colored buildings date back to the 1600's.

Fika break
Stockholm is an archipelago and consists of about 14 islands. You are never far from the water.
Ferry's are common modes of transportation and included in your train/bus ticket

Stockholm is full of charming architecture and has an endearing European feel to it.

I saw my very first Dala Horse in Sweden. I think this is another one of those American made Swedish landmarks. The average Swede doesn't seem to have any affiliation or interest in the Dala horse but the tourists eat it up in gift shops in Stockholm.

I went out to the west of Stockholm to visit Drottningholm Palace which is the current residence of the king and queen. It was nice, but I personally like the Danish palaces better.

And because I was with Thai friends, of course I got roped into a karaoke night where we just so happened to run into the Thai ambassador to Sweden. Sometimes, even I am forced to shake my head at the interesting situations I find myself in.

Yes, the words were in Thai
It was a great trip. The train ride was 6 hours. When I originally booked my ticket I noted the 6 hours but didn't think about how long that really is. Then, on the way, I realized I could almost get to New York on a plane in those hours. 6 hours is a long time! But, with a good cup of coffee, landscape that resembles Minnesota, and a sleepy companion, I made it back. Happy to have visited Stockholm. And very happy to be home in my little city where people slowly ride their bikes and rarely carry designer purses.