I think this may be the longest post yet!
Tuesday, June 16th
The trip to Stockholm would be one of the longer train rides by distance, but with a train that could hit 100 mph in the open Swedish countryside, crossing the width of the country and heading an equal distance north only took five hours. We arrived and headed to meet Katerina, who lived with Brock’s family as an exchange student a few years ago. We had the far outside train platform and in trying to make our way to the main part of the train station, we wound up outside instead, and the entrance to the train station was on the other side of the building. Once we got that sorted out, we met up with Katerina and headed straight for another train: a commuter line towards her house in the suburbs. It didn’t take very long to reach the stop in Sollentuna, probably 10 or 15 minutes. The house was then about a five minute walk from the station.
Not wanting to carry around our bags everywhere, we dropped those off… and headed back to the station. It is kind of the hub of the community and has a big, new shopping mall right next to it. Unlike most American malls I know of, this mall also had a grocery store in it. We went through it and gathered items for that night’s dinner. The grocery store was different from the ones back home in a couple of ways. First, there were TVs by the cash register playing nonstop ads. Change could be handed over via a machine, which also dispensed change in case you needed some back from your 100 SK bill. FYI, the conversion rate was something like $1 = 8.2 SK. Much like Kansas, they only allowed weak beer in the grocery stores. Different from Britain, where they were selling Magna Carta themed scotch at the National Library. In Sweden, the only store to buy liquor or beer at was the System Bolaget (pardon the spelling), a government run liquor store. Those stores seemed pretty nice and it looked like they had a very large selection. We were told that they were supposed to be impartial, so I guess it was also a good place to go if you wanted a recommendation for wine or any other type of alcohol. The store’s mission was also to reasonably limit consumption, thus it still had rather high prices. I also noticed people mostly buying beers as single cans so I do not think there were many cases of things available.
With the ingredients for dinner, we headed back to the house. This is what we had:
– Swedish meatballs
– Lingonberry jelly
– Brown sauce for meatballs
– hard bread (think of large sheets of dark crackers)
– small potatoes
– Four types of pickled herring, which is raw fish. All four types were very good. A large portion of the flavoring comes from the sauce. One had dill, another was just mostly vinegar and onions (probably was the least great out of the four), another was caviar and whatever sauce the dill was in, and the last was honey mustard.
I am also probably forgetting a couple of things we had at the meal. I should also mention that it is a tradition to have a shot of schnapps for midsommer, so I also had that.
After dinner was dessert. Since it was about 55-60° in Stockholm, it was the perfect time for ice cream, right? We headed to downtown Stockholm and wound up at this ice cream stand on top of a cliff. It was on the opposite side of the water from their theme park and you could really see a lot of the city from up there.
Wednesday, June 17th
In the morning, we got transit passes sorted out. Much like other cities, Stockholm also used a card for access to its transit system. That allowed us access to any of Stockholm’s forms of transit: tram, bus, train, ferry. One thing most people probably don’t realize is the fact that Stockholm is on a series of islands. There are plenty around town, but the downtown area is focused on three main islands of varying size and a good amount of water in between them, at least a couple hundred yards in a lot of places but far less where the bridges connect them.
We took a train into central station and then walked to one of the area’s smaller islands. It seemed like a big nature preserve. That was a bit of a problem as I was hungry and wanted to find a place to have lunch. We finally came across this bistro-type thing that was serving pizza. The menu was mostly in Swedish, but I recognized the words BBQ, brisket, and pizza, so I ordered a brisket pizza. This place reinforced that the Swedish really like bread, as they had all you could eat soft and hard bread. They also had free water, which was very unusual, as most places charged for any sort of liquid beverage. This restaurant was also the place to go if you were wearing a suit and tie. As it got closer to noon, the place kept on filling up with businesspeople. One of them sat near us and starting speaking the lyrics to “American Pie” after a while, which was pretty funny. He also tried to explain the meaning of the song, which was equally funny.
By the time lunch was over, it was time to head towards the island that had the old town. We were going to meet up with a free walking tour outside of one of the metro stations. We waited for a while and were about to give up, and then I realized we were at the wrong entrance to the station. Many places had two or three entrances to the same station and Stockholm was no exception. The tour was nice but it was a bit hard to understand our tour guide. I think she was Ukrainian and trying to speak English… in Sweden. Old Town was cool, but much like the old town parts of other cities. Lots of cafés and restaurants and randomly placed areas where the cobblestone streets got wider, which the cafes filled with little tables.
There was still a bit of time left in the day after the walking tour, and that was filled with a visit to the Vasamuseum. The Vasa was a ship that the king launched in 1632 or so from Stockholm. The ship made it an entire half a mile before sinking in the harbor. It was a very unstable ship and thus it didn’t take much for it to capsize. They would test ships by running something like 20 men from one side of the deck to the other, but they had to cut the test for the Vasa short because it was so unstable. The ship had something like 200 people on board when it launched but it was so close to the harbor most of them were able to be rescued. The conditions in the harbor allowed the boat to remain in decent shape, albeit underwater, for the next 330 years until some expert salvager rediscovered the location of the wreckage in the 1950s. It took them a couple years to drill out tunnels under the boat to attach cables and another couple years to get it out of the water. From there, I think it took something like 7 years for the boat to try out and then they spent 17 more years spraying the entire boat with some chemical stuff that’s also in nail polish (?) that replaced the water. In total, it took over 30 years to get the boat out of the water and ready for display in the museum after it was rediscovered.
You’ve probably figured out by now that this was a pretty large boat. It was something like a six story museum in order to see all parts of the ship. It was also probably 25-30 feet wide and over 100 feet long. For those who’ve been to the Steamboat Arabia museum in KC, this was a far more impressive museum because the entire boat was on display as one massive piece. They claimed it was 98% original, with the 2% coming from things like new rope riggings and their massive undertaking of replacing all the iron nails with stainless steel ones that won’t rust. I guess they also had to rebuild some areas a bit since some parts damaged by the wreck and water meant reconstruction was like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle. Since it was a boat from the 1600s, there were far fewer artifacts to be found than in something like the Arabia, but they did have some of the recovered remains on display with anthropologists` analysis of the identity of the remains, what injuries they had, and whatever diseases they carried. Only three of the 64 cannons were brought up with everything else in the 1960s because the vast majority were salvaged for their value very soon after the sinking. One of the more interesting displays was about the rear end (keel?) of the boat. It was covered in various carvings. Through recent sampling, they have been able to figure out what materials were used to paint that part of the boat and thus figure out what colors coated the surface. Opposite of the boat’s rear end was a wall with a colored replica of the carvings.
Later on that evening we went to a bar with our hosts. They were meeting us and some others at a subway station. Brock and I joked around about how it’d be funny if some of the other people waiting around the station were waiting for the same people. One of them was! After what seemed like a long walk, probably because it was raining, we finally arrive at the bar. It looks small but you go down a set of stairs and it’s clear that this bar has taken over the basements of most of the block. There were rooms with tables, rooms with shuffleboard, arcade games, and of course the bar. Our group of about 10 or so grabbed a table and played a board game called Ticket to Ride. Brock and I made fun of the poor geography, since the game is played by connecting places in the United States. Kansas City (Kansas) was one of the cities on the map, so it was easy to point to the map and tell everyone where we were from, that misplaced spot in the middle of the map. Since we knew about US geography, we did very well and easily built the most train routes of all the teams playing, accumulating the most points based on route complete. However, we didn’t realize that was only half of the scoring, and that you got points based on how your connections were between cities. We had a bunch of short, efficient connections. About half of the group was Swedish, with a couple of Germans and a Belgian. It was interesting because there were four languages (Swedish, German, English, Dutch) and the only language everyone knew was English!
Thursday, June 18th
Thursday morning was very cloudy with an ominous drizzle that always seemed like it was threatening to turn into a rainstorm. Nonetheless, we made our way into town and towards Skansen. The best way to describe the place is as a combination of a zoo and living museum. As Katerina told us, there was a guy who would go around Sweden collecting all of these old buildings, take them apart, and have them shipped to his park (Skansen) in Stockholm. Many of the buildings were open for touring, complete with a cast of people playing the roles from the time period their building was supposed to represent. It was pretty cool to see all of those things, and it was also nice that they spoke English well!
Seeing as how I haven’t covered it already, I guess I’ll interrupt the post and mention that the Swedes learn English as their second language starting when they are six years old. Around middle school age they can pick up a third language and around high school they can pick up yet another language if they want to, but by learning English from a very young age, it appeared that most Swedes could speak English to a point where native English speakers could easily understand it. Katerina said they used to learn German as their second language so a lot of older people know German, but World War II changed that. Most of the phrases I recall people not knowing were things that are rather uncommon in English anyways. Like flag stick (flag pole). Or wreath, which one girl tried to pronounce as “writh”. The frequency of English also meant that a lot of menus seemed to be English… except for the pizza place I once ordered a lunch from that had every ingredient listed in Swedish.
Anyways, back to Skansen. Highlights of the buildings. First, a fully functioning bakery that smelled as good as a fully functioning bakery should. A couple of homes belonging to wealthy families that had their original painted walls, as they were built long before wallpaper was invented. On the opposite end was the poor peasant family house where the ceilings were probably three feet high. Very cramped quarters. In many of the lower class houses, the beds looked more like couches, as the people would sleep sitting up or reclined slightly. There was not enough room for a full sized bed anyways. In what was probably a normal to upper class house, there were two fairly large rooms, but only one was used for everything. Why? It was the room with the stove to heat the house in it, and it was definitely too expensive to heat two rooms. The second room was only for special occasions, such as a priest visiting or holidays. An old tavern was turned into a restaurant, which was a smart idea because we needed a place to eat lunch. Once again, they had unlimited bread and water, but this place also offered unlimited salad. Not to miss out another traditional Swedish meal, I made sure to get Swedish meatballs once again.
My favorite house wasn’t Swedish at all, but rather a small Finnish hut. It had a very low door, and once you entered, you wouldn’t want to put your head above the level of the top of the door… because it was filled with smoke. In the style of house, they would capture the heat from the fireplace very well, but it also led to the side effect that anything at a level higher than four feet or so was smoke. It was pretty surreal. There was really only one disappointment with all of the buildings, and that was the tall, round, brick tower on top of the hill in the middle of the park. You couldn’t go in it!
I mentioned that it was a zoo, so I guess I should mention that, yes, it did have animals. They had huge enclosures for the animals, a lot larger than I have seen at any other zoo. They had reindeer in the park. Sadly, they did not fly. There were also grizzly bears, who were very playful. At first just two were playing and running around, and it took a while to realize there were actually three of them, one was just watching the zookeeper clean out something in one corner. There were a couple of other exhibits with normal animals, like wolves, but those weren’t too exciting.
Once we left Skansen, the threatening sky finally unleashed the rain for about fifteen minutes, just long enough to get back out to Sollentuna.
Having a home cooked dinner was amazing, once again. It was four courses. Let’s see if I can remember all of them:
Course 1: Shrimp salad served on some bread
Course 2: Cucumber salad (as in a regular salad with lettuce and stuff too)
Course 3: Grilled chicken, grilled blocks of cheese that were different (they were salted and squeaked when you bit into them) and of course bread and potatoes.
Course 4: Dessert. It was good. I think it might have been something lemon flavored.
Such a large meal requires exercise to work some of those calories off, right? With that in mind, we walked around the neighborhood some. Going past the train station for once, we got to see the area where the community would be holding its midsommer celebration the next day, the hospital (and the word “hospital” in Swedish is spelled pretty close to “sick house”), and the bay.
To finish off the night, we watched a movie in Swedish with English subtitles called Ondskan, or Evil in English. Since you have to continually pay attention to movies with subtitles if you want to understand what’s going on, I can provide a pretty thorough summary of the movie. It was a semi-autobiography from a Swedish guy set in something like 1961. He gets expelled from his high school in Stockholm for getting into yet another fight, and the principal makes sure that he can’t get into any other school in Stockholm. His mom sends him away to a boarding school somewhere else in Sweden. As the new kid, he’s at the bottom, but that’s fine because he wants to just get through the school without causing any problems. There’s a small council of upperclassmen that run the school and he won’t give in to their demands to do menial things like cleaning their muddy shoes. This means he winds up with a weekend detention, as he turns down the first two options for punishment. Since these are really nice guys that he is dealing with, his task is simple. Dig a hole… which they make him fill in once he’s dug it. At one point he’s challenged to a fight in the ring, and becomes known as “rat” afterwards because he won’t fight. He’s also subject to things like random room checks. One time they throw a bunch of fish guts on his floor and so he goes back in the middle of the night and tosses them on one of the sleeping council members. At another point they use the four stakes he’d put in the ground for his weekend detention (since he’s now pretty much perpetually in weekend detention) and tie him to them and toss buckets of cold water on him. He’s saved from that by one of the girls who works in the cafeteria and always serves him food after the detention. They aren’t supposed to even talk to each other, let alone have a relationship. Once the council members figure out that they aren’t going to break the main character guy, they start picking on his nerdy roommate. The roommate wants to stand up for himself and eventually winds up getting challenged, then defeated in the ring. He leaves the school pretty soon afterwards, which makes all of the teachers mad because he was one of the brightest students. The main character guy is also good at swimming. Near the beginning of the movie he makes the swim team despite being an underclassman by setting a new school record. That’s how he first begins to stand out at the school. Later on, he wins a championship named for another student’s rich family (who was obviously supposed to win). Anyways, sometime after the championship, his girlfriend gets fired, and his roommate has left, so he’s feeling pretty miserable and alone. At one point he also goes home for winter break, where we find out that he has been getting nightly lashes from his stepfather (which probably explains why he was violent in school before…) while his mother plays piano so she won’t have to hear the noise. Sometime after the roommate leaves, he gets mad enough to challenge a couple of the council members to a duel (since it’s always a 2 vs. 1 fight) and breaks the nose of one and arm of the other in about 10 seconds. The council members finally get what they need to have him expelled when they look through his mail and find a letter from his girlfriend admitting the relationship. They turn the letter over to the headmaster who expels the main character. For Christmas, his roommate had given him a big law textbook, as his dream was to become a lawyer some day. He uses this textbook to find out that the confiscation of the mail was illegal, and brings in the family lawyer in front of the headmaster and a bunch of other people to make a scene. He is allowed to finish the year at the school (with little harassment apparently, as the movie just jumps ahead to graduation) and winds up with great grades, good enough to get into any college. He goes home and puts his stepfather in the hospital, and it’s understood that his stepfather is now his ex-stepfather. The movie then jumps forward to somewhere when he meets up with his old roommate, who’s doing well in college and offers to pay for his college too.
Friday, June 19th
I woke up not feeling to great on Friday morning, so I went back to sleep… and slept all morning. The good news is that once I woke up, I felt pretty good. It was now Midsommer Eve. Combined with the day of the week being Friday, most of the country apparently took off from work. Our host family left for their summer house in the south part of Sweden. The mall was about half open, which was good enough for getting food. I thought it was funny that one of the French themed restaurants had a sign in it for Gare du Nord in Paris, as it was the train station that you arrive at when you come from London. We also went to the mall because we thought there was a post office. That post office was nowhere to be found until Brock found it on an interactive map… as part of the grocery store, of course. I guess Hy-Vee does the same thing at home. We got a box, loaded it full of our junk and successfully sent it to the United States after having a couple hundred Swedish Krona taken off of our hands. I know the box was successfully mailed because it has already arrived back in the states.
From the post office we headed straight for the community’s Midsommer festival… which we didn’t realize involved an entrance fee, as we had gone cashless in the country to that point. A quick ATM stop fixed that and we were soon surrounded by probably a thousand Swedish people and their families. The area was pretty small, probably no more than 10 acres, but it was full of activity in the old barns and courtyard in the middle. There were games and activities for the little ones, like corn hole, face painting, and BB gun shooting (imagine that at a festival in the US). They also had plenty of concessions featuring Swedish traditional pastries and non traditional goods like cotton candy. For about thirty minute intervals, they had dances around the completely decorated Maypole (or whatever they call it for this purpose) with simple songs and a live folk band. The band was notable because a couple of the musicians were playing a keyed violin. It has a name that I don’t remember, but I do remember that it was very easy to find by searching for “Swedish key fiddle” (Sorry, I write a lot of these posts without access to look things up). For the other part of the hour they had games and competitions for the kids to play. One of the different ones was a tug of war, except it was a loop that could fit 3 or so hands and so it was 1 vs 1 vs 1 instead of two teams. It started raining part way through the time we were there (as it had started at noon, or when I woke up) which meant a lot of people cleared out, but there were probably still a couple hundred that stayed through the 10 or 15 minutes worth of light rain. There is one very important part of Midsommer that I am forgetting. The wreaths! Many people young and old created these out of leafy twigs, flowers, etc. and wore them. Some were very simple while others were more elaborate and obviously carefully crafted.
The community celebration took up most of the afternoon and left a bit of time to rest before dinner. We walked through the neighborhood to a house where a couple of people we met at the bar on Wednesday were hosting dinner. They were very hospitable and made sure we were very well hydrated and fed. Before dinner, everyone had made a wreath (yes, including me), so it was quite a sight to see a dozen people in their early 20s sitting around a table with a bunch of flowers and leaves on their heads. I wish I would have taken a picture, it would have been good to put in this post. Once again, the group was half-international and half Swedish. We had a German from a couple days earlier, another German, and a Danish (who’s name was “Yo” and from a Vietnamese background). Most of the group knew each other from the neighborhood or from traveling together through Southeast Asia sometime last year. Once again, we had a multiple course meal complete with everything Swedish, from salad to bread to meatballs to potatoes to herring to two types of delicious, strawberry based desserts.
Sometime after dinner, we made our way across the neighborhood again, this time to a house hosting a party. This is where it became really obvious that the Swedish custom of taking your shoes off when you go in a house was taken seriously, as the entry room was one big collection of shoes that people had taken off, even though all of the floors in the house were covered with heavy duty cardboard. Before I had even made it to the house, there were lots of people to introduce yourself to, and one of these was a guy named Oscar. In the interest of making the explanation easier, here’s how the conversation basically started (O for him, M for me, obviously):
O: “Where are you from?”
M: “The United States, a place called Missouri”
O: “Really? I am going to study in Kansas next year.”
O: “Manhattan, Kansas at the State University”
M: “No way! I just graduated from there!”
Stockholm, Sweden is about 5,000 miles away from campus, and I had just met a guy who was going there in the fall! He is going to be part of the golf team, which made sense, as sports are how many Europeans make their way to a university in the middle of the US. He knew which dorm he was going to be in (the small one for international students that’s the oldest dorm on campus but has the nicest rooms) and had already met his roommate, another golfer, at a tournament somewhere in Europe. He was also already interested in K-State’s football (yes, the American type of football) team and Royals baseball, so I think he’ll have fun.
And that’s how this post will end. There’s not too much more to write about leaving Stockholm the next morning.